Today, a quick Google search reveals that about 2.4 million "healthy, adoptable" dogs and cats are euthanized each year, and many shelters in unlikely communities are releasing more than 90% of their animals "out the front door," alive and into adoptive homes, rescues, or sanctuaries. These shelters often rightly advertise their save rates, proclaiming that they are no longer euthanizing for lack of space.
Just a few years ago, the number of animals euthanized was closer to 4 million--so we are making enormous progress, and fast. But if you work or volunteer in a shelter, or if you are heavily involved in animal rescue, it is natural to question these numbers.
What does a 90% live release rate really mean?
Does it mean that 90% of adoptable animals are really leaving through the front door?
Or does it just mean that "adoptable" has a new, more narrow definition? Does it mean, by any chance, that a healthy pit bull who loves other dogs and loves people, can be euthanized because he has some separation anxiety, or barks a lot, or is having trouble with housetraining, and is therefore "unadoptable"?
Does it mean that animals whose owners request euthanasia, can be killed without altering the shelter's proclaimed bottom line--even if the request is prompted by behavioral issues that may be relatively simple to address? If the shelter euthanizes those animals without conducting its own evaluation and attempting its own interventions, should the shelter's "live release rate" be unaffected?
And if, once we get answers to these questions, we find that a shelter is in fact euthanizing for lack of space, the next question is why?
Why would a shelter with a number of empty kennels euthanize for lack of space?
Why wouldn't a shelter house compatible animals in pairs or small groups, to dramatically reduce stress and accommodate more?
Why not aggressively promote foster programs, and let existing fosters know when help is needed?
(And incidentally, why in God's name is PGAMD closed on Sundays, which may be the only day working people have available to look for a pet?)
Of course there are lots of possible reasons. Shelters are understaffed, underfunded, they can't afford enough trained staff to do all the behavior modification that would save lives.
Potential adopters want a purebred dog, they want a puppy, they want a goldendoodle.
And of course, some shelters are undoubtedly succeeding despite all that, and have every reason to trumpet their high live release rates because they are real and the result of a lot of hard work.
Some communities of course face far more challenges than others in saving lives, such as densely populated urban areas and areas that suffer from a dearth of pet-friendly housing. Prince George's County is among several that still have pit bull bans on the books, meaning that all pit bull-type dogs that come in the county shelter's doors face euthanasia if they are not rescued by an entity from outside the county. Situations such as this of course pose a monumental challenge to getting the majority of animals out alive.
To raise questions about live release rates and transparency is not to minimize the enormous efforts that many shelters have made to save lives, nor is it to suggest that achieving save rates near 100% is an easy task. It is merely to demand that claims about shelter successes be accompanied by complete, clear definitions of terms used, and articulation of the challenges that remain.
Shelters should not fear being honest with their volunteers, adopters, and even their staff about the grim realities of not being there yet with respect to No Kill. An increasingly educated public will increasingly demand that they do so anyway. Getting out in front of that trend will only encourage loyalty from those who understand both the challenges, and also the ultimate feasibility, of achieving live release rates that blow away all notions of what we once thought was possible.