Let's talk about words today. More specifically, let's talk about one word: euthanasia. We read a number of media reports late last week about the fact that our shelter planned to euthanize animals for space if people did not come to adopt them. We fully understand that the shelter needs to communicate with the public about placing animals when the shelter is near capacity. In that regard, we encourage Huntsville Animal Services to be completely transparent about what is happening. We find improper use of The E Word related to population reduction to be both offensive and irresponsible.
The dictionary definition of euthanasia is simple: the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.
When we destroy animals who are suffering or are irremediably ill, that is, in fact, euthanasia. Destroying healthy and treatable animals is not euthanasia. It is not merciful, it is not beautiful and it is not necessary. It is not "putting them down" or "putting them to sleep" or preventing "a fate worse than death." We use those phrases - and many use the word euthanasia - to sugar coat the reality of the act. And because we have allowed ourselves to become callous to, or complacent about, killing of shelter animals, we accept that word because it makes us feel better somehow, as if we did a good thing.
When we destroy healthy and treatable animals we are doing just that. We are destroying them and we are killing them. If you have ever made the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize a beloved pet which was genuinely suffering or so ill that any treatment would likely causer more pain or suffering, you know exactly what euthanasia means. To compare the euthanasia of your companion to the destruction of a healthy or treatable animal for space or convenience serves only to devalue both of those lives. And any person who ever lost a beloved pet to an "oops" killing at an animal shelter would not say their dog or cat was euthanized.
In No Kill communities, healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed. Period. They are saved. And words are used for what they mean.
Let's stop calling this anything but what it is. Once we do that, we can have a realistic conversation about what takes place in our shelter and we can take a look at why population control killing is still an option here even though many people believe that Huntsville is already a No Kill Community. It is not. When we met with a city official in early June to ask the city to commit to no longer destroy healthy and treatable animals, the answer we received was, "no. The city will not commit to that." We later wrote a letter to the Mayor and City Council to ask for a commitment. Our letter has gone unanswered.
In late 2014, the City of Huntsville said that it had not destroyed any healthy or treatable dogs since October. We were thrilled and we took that news at face value. As part of our ongoing requests for public records, we began seeking (and still seek) monthly reports regarding the dogs destroyed at the shelter. Our analysis of those records revealed that all was not as it seemed. While we would have expected that the vast majority of dogs destroyed would have been destroyed to alleviate suffering or due to some serious medical conditions, the vast majority of dogs were being destroyed for a variety of issues related to behavior. We were surprised by this. We know that some dogs cannot be saved and genuinely do pose a public safety risk. Ordinarily, however, those dogs are in the low single percentages of overall shelter intake. In our case, approximately 80% of the dogs destroyed each month were being destroyed due to behavior. In October of 2014, 32 dogs were destroyed for behavioral issues. In January of 2015, that number rose to 50 dogs. In August of 2015, 25 dogs were destroyed for behavior.
Even experts regarding the behavior of dogs in a shelter environment will agree that evaluating dogs in shelter is an imperfect process. A report from the National Canine Research Council concludes that, "shelter evaluations may tell us as much or more about the effect of the shelter as they do about the individual dogs. Shelters are noisy, alien environments, filled with strange smells, unfamiliar people, and dogs they may hear, but not see. We should not be surprised that some dogs may. . . behave differently when confined in a shelter, with its barrage of stressors that the dog cannot control, than they will in the safe, secure, predictable environment of a home, cared for by people with whom they are able to form positive attachments."
In March of 2015, we expressed our concerns to the city and recommended that help be sought regarding how to properly and consistently evaluate dogs. We felt something was not right and we had two main concerns: 1) that otherwise good dogs who were just scared or traumatized were not being given a full and fair opportunity to be saved; and 2) that potentially dangerous dogs were making it out of the shelter to rescue groups and into adoptive and foster homes, creating a public safety risk.
Our recommendation to the city was that it seek help from people who could train the staff on how to evaluate dogs. We specifically recommended that the city engage with representatives from Humane Network and with Kelley Bollen from the Animal Welfare Alliances in Massachusetts (and the former Director of Behavior Programs for the Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine).
We are pleased to report that on March 22 and 23, 2016, Humane Network CEO Diane Blankenburg and Kelley Bollen were in Huntsville to provide two solid days of training and guidance to members of the shelter staff, county animal control officials, rescuers and volunteers. Members of our coalition were also invited to attend. We found the training and presentations not only incredibly informative, but were very pleased with the level of enthusiasm expressed by the shelter staff and how engaged they were in the training.
There is a delicate balancing act for any animal shelter when it comes to ensuring public safety while striving to save the lives of healthy and treatable animals. It is our genuine hope that city officials, city employees, rescuers and shelter volunteers feel empowered by the training provided last week. We can all agree that dogs who are genuinely dangerous do not belong out in our community. We think it is likely that in any given month, only a small number of dogs who enter our shelter actually fit that category. We can also likely agree that a lot of dogs who end up in our shelter are just scared, confused or traumatized in some way and they deserve the very best opportunity to be reunited with their families or placed with new families through reliable evaluation methods. If your dog ended up in a shelter, how would he or she react?
We are hopeful more dogs than ever will be saved moving forward using this new training and established procedures which set dogs up for success.
No Kill Huntsville
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image courtesy of Terrah Johnson