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Is No-Kill Really Such a No-Brainer?

The popular policy prescriptive for solving cities’ stray animal woes is not without its pet-loving critics.

No one likes this part of the job, but what happens next is sometimes worse. Illustration by Addison Eaton.

Most city employees have a lot on their plates. They hold public meetings, fix sidewalks, and maintain parks. They also have to kill cats and dogs.


I grew up watching Lady and the Tramp and All Dogs Go To Heaven, so “the pound” always seemed like a dark, yet inevitable, part of a city. In those films, lost or homeless pets—captured with oversized butterfly nets—were incarcerated in these pet pens, hoping that their owners or a kind family would rescue them from being “put to sleep.” Even as an urban planner, I had never really considered the importance of “the pound” and its employees, or questioned their methods. That is, until I met Deedle.

I came to foster Deedle, a tiny kitten, through the nationwide nonprofit animal welfare society Best Friends, which only takes animals collected by city shelters, thereby freeing up space in these public facilities. Their slogan, “Save Them All,” acts as a summary of their mission statement. Appropriately, Best Friends, partnered with the City of Los Angeles, has an initiative called No-Kill Los Angeles, envisioning a city in which no animals have to die simply because they are abandoned, unwanted, or homeless.

No-kill policies have been championed throughout the United States, and sound pretty straightforward. Why should we kill living creatures just because humans abandon or abuse them? For the most part, domesticated animals rely on human communities for their survival, communities that often decide which animals live or die based on whim, fashion, or convenience—among those dropped off at “the pound” are designer dogs with inbred health issues and former puppies that have grown bigger than their owner anticipated. Since municipal shelters are prohibited from turning away animals but are limited in funding, euthanizing some of the animals housed there was previously widely recognized as a necessary response to scarce shelter resources. No-kill, of course, rejects that premise.

The no-kill philosophy, while noble in title, also has its critics. PETA warns that it can actually lead to lower quality of life for animals who are never adopted and end up permanently “warehoused” in crowded shelters. Some animal rescue groups worry that city employees working for no-kill municipalities with already-crowded shelters may simply “fail” to pick up stray animals while on patrol and responding to citizen calls, leaving the dog or cat to die on the streets rather than negatively affect their shelter’s no-kill goals.

Deedle (right) with the author's husband. Photo courtesy of Jes Howen McBride

I recently spoke with a friend who currently works for a county animal control unit about these issues. Jane* has been devoted to animals since we were in grade school and has worked with public animal services for more than 15 years. While she understands the motives behind no-kill policies, she also agrees that a lifetime in a shelter is not a humane solution. She has seen shelters drastically increase “save rates” through aggressive adoption campaigns, fostering, and increased funding, but there is always a surplus of unwanted animals. She has also seen animals come through shelters that are mortally dangerous to humans and other pets. Offering these hostile animals for adoption would be a public safety hazard.

In certain situations, like those described above, Jane feels that euthanasia (which she assures me is seconds-long and painless to the animal) is currently more humane than the stresses and abuses that many unloved animals face while alive. I think of Deedle. If he was never adopted, would it be better for him to live in a cage with the most basic care and minimal social interactions, just because I feel uncomfortable with killing him humanely? Questions like these make me keenly aware of how human-centric the whole pet concept is. Some pets are treated as royalty, others as literal trash.

Ultimately, no-kill policies should be a goal, a mission statement, but not a means. The fact that we have too many stray animals going uncared for should spur us all on, city employees and community members alike, to find homes for our fellow creatures instead of killing them. Educating humans, choosing to adopt or foster, discouraging puppy mills, spaying and neutering pets, improving shelter conditions, all of these must work in tandem to achieve a 100-percent save rate. The importance of advocating no-kill policies is not that all euthanasia stops immediately, but that the goal is verbalized: “We don’t want to kill cats and dogs. Let’s save them all.”

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