There is a lot of talk these days about the phrase "no kill" both locally and nationally. We have been asked many times if Huntsville is a no kill community and the answer is the same as it was when our coalition first formed: no. Incredible changes have been made in how our municipal animal shelter functions and we take every opportunity to applaud city officials for finally taking steps to focus on balancing public safety with animal welfare in order to save lives. In order to help people understand what the phrase means from our perspective and from a national perspective, we feel it is important to explain what this term of art is, and is not. (For a more in-depth look at the phrase, we encourage anyone to read this publication by the No Kill Advocacy Center called "Defining No Kill.")
No kill is a culture in which healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed in animal shelters for space, convenience or following some tradition using our tax dollars or donations. In this culture, the only animals destroyed are those who are suffering, are irremediably ill or dogs who are so genuinely aggressive (as opposed to scared or traumatized) that they are unsafe to have in our communities (and for which no sanctuary placement is available).
No kill is not a definition. It does not mean that no animals ever die. To keep animals alive when they are truly suffering or are so genuinely broken that they present a danger to the public would be unethical and irresponsible.
No kill is a philosophy which says the lives of all companion animals have value and that those animals must be treated as individuals, worthy of our time and attention to keep them alive. In this philosophy, homeless animals are treated as either having been someone's beloved companion or being capable of being that companion. They are essentially given the benefit of the doubt, treated as adoptable and not blamed for the fact that they need our help.
No kill is not about simply keeping animals alive, regardless of the conditions in which they live. It does not allow animals' physical, psychological or emotional well-being to be compromised just so we can say "they are alive and we did not destroy them."
No kill is about programs which function in concert with each other to both reduce shelter intake and to increase shelter output so that animals spend the least amount of time possible in an institutional setting.
When animals are boarded for undefined periods of time, that is not no kill. That is a situation which is simply not sustainable financially. It can also cause animals to become so accustomed to living in a kennel environment that they are ill-prepared for the stimulation of life outside of the kennel.
When animals are collected on rural properties out of the knowledge and view of the public and law enforcement authorities, that is not no kill. That is essentially collecting and more often than not it also involves neglect and abuse.
When animals are kept at a "sanctuary" which does not function within its financial and physical ability to properly care for and then place those animals, that is not no kill. Overwhelmed sanctuaries are little more than animal prisons where the animals and the people caring for them are under incredible amounts of stress, often leading to disaster.
No kill is about values and hope and compassion and about doing our very best for companion animals because we care about them and we want the very best for them.
Getting back to the question we are often asked, "is Huntsville a no kill community?" the answer is no, not yet. While more animals are making out of Huntsville Animal Services alive than at any time in the history of the city, this is not a matter simply of statistics and accepting that better is good enough. This is about making a choice, a decision. Huntsville will be a no kill community when those who govern us, lead us and serve us decide that healthy and treatable animals will not be destroyed in our shelter under any circumstances. It is our position that the progress shown in the last year has proven that the City of Huntsville is ready to make a public declaration of intent to save the lives of animals. Once the city does so, it will be not only a tremendous source of community pride, but a selling point to invite others to live in or work in Huntsville because it is an animal friendly community.
There have been a number of times through the course of the history of our coalition when we have done what is ordinarily called "The Ask" of city officials. We did The Ask again yesterday. If you would like to read our letter to Mayor Battle, the members of the Huntsville City Council, City Administrator John Hamilton and Animal Services Director Sheppard, you will find it here.
Huntsville can be a no kill community. This is a choice.
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