No KillI walked into the makeshift shelter that overtook the small garage space, and instantly I was overcome with the smell of urine and chemicals. From inside the house, I heard someone shouting, in fact she was yelling at the top of her lungs, her voice echoing and instantly getting lost in the sea of barking dogs.

Crates were stacked upon crates that were stacked upon crates, each rusting with wear and each housing a dog that had attached to it some devastating story of abuse and neglect.

There was a Pit Bull that had been burned as he ran the streets, the neighborhood trying to save themselves from the nuisance. There was a small fox-like dog that was so terrified, he huddled in the rear of his tiny crate, body tense and shaking at each movement and every noise. And there was a Shepherd, who had been kicked so badly he now suffered deformities.

“We need to go No-Kill before I die,” the well kept woman proudly proclaimed on a news segment about her cause. I sipped my coffee as I watched her tuck dogs under her arm, cooing at them in that all too familiar baby talk, paying no mind to the stress that the dog repeatedly exuded in response to her actions.

I shook my head silently. But the war raged loudly in my head.

She continued on, comparing the human rights movements that have seen immense progress in recent years to her No-Kill cause, proclaiming that as a modern society, there is no reason we should be ending these innocent lives…

But they aren’t humans. And comparing them to humans causes an intense amount of damage – ask any dog trainer. If they tell you differently, they are lying.

My shoulders tensed as a volunteer pressed a mixed breed dog to his face, the dog straining to get away as he did.

My thoughts must have been transparent. I’ll admit, I don’t have much of a poker face. And as I glanced over to my friend, who occupied the chaise lounge across the room, her expression told me that my cheeks were flushed with anger.

“It’s an epidemic,” I said under my breath as I took another sip of my coffee. She nodded in response, lowering her head, knowing exactly what I meant with my words and feeling the same remorse that I did.

It can be so easy to get caught up in the sad stories. And the natural response is to want to help. To advocate for those that can’t advocate for themselves. Any dog owner who loves their dog like family, would have a tough time looking in the eyes of a terrified dog, hearing the horror stories of abuse and neglect, and then turning a blind eye as they are injected with that bright pink fluid that stops their heart in just moments. That stops the heart that has never known love. That stops the heart that has only ached.

But for those of us who have seen the dirty side of animal welfare, the No-Kill proponents are inadvertently creating an epidemic. A cycle of more abuse and neglect. But this time it’s in the guise of “rescue”.

I would love nothing more than to function as a healthy, No-Kill society. In fact, I have spent quite a bit of time in the rescue world, working side by side with K9 advocates trying to save the dogs I loved so much. I want nothing more than for every dog in existence to be responsibly bred and for every dog to have a happy home, and a family that loves them. I envision dogs frolicking through the grass, chasing butterflies, and snuggling little kids who hug them tight without fear of a bite to the face or an otherwise horrific end to such a happy and natural scene.

The tragic reality however is that not all dogs that have been rescued, have actually been saved. Instead, many live stacked in crates for years at a time, in the care of people who are overwhelmed, emotionally drained, burnt out, and as a result of their exhausting lifestyle, just plain mean.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 8.06.39 AMAs volunteers are hard to come by, I see dogs relegated to cages and pens, living in complete and utter terror for years on end as they never find comfort in their new environments, but instead sit neglected in their own filth, urine scalds coating their bellies.

I see rescuers, perfectly good people with amazing intentions, becoming volatile, abusing people, taking their frustrations out on them in response to the emotional toll their work has taken on their own lives.

I see advocates and rescuers regularly ripped from their homes, shrouding their faces as the news uncovers the latest sensational headline of the rescuer gone hoarder with crates stacked three high and their homes completely overrun. But no one comments on the fact that the shelters, after feeling the pressure from the no-kill movement, bombarded these rescuers daily with desperate phone calls, begging them to take the “death row dogs” in. The news doesn’t let viewers in on the fact that these people felt tremendous guilt every day, as the lives of the dogs they loved seemed now to rest on their shoulders.

And I see an increase in calls for anti-aggression work. I see dog owner after dog owner adopting dogs who cause serious injury to them, or their loved ones, only to turn around and be blamed for the dog’s inappropriate behavior.

No-Kill is Hurting Dogs…. and People

Compassion Fatigue is a serious problem in animal rescue that needs to be addressed now.
Compassion Fatigue is a serious problem in animal rescue that needs to be addressed now.

I walked through the yard, the gravity of the situation not quite striking me as I did. The home was clean and the kennels out back were well kept. I stepped through the doorway and was instantly overcome by a feeling of inner pain and utter helplessness.

I took a deep breath and pushed through the thick air in the doorway, entering the home where the rescuer had died.

“Should we really be here?” I asked my friend as the weight of the situation finally came down on me.

She gestured for me to step into the living room, and I blindly followed her lead.

The rescuer had taken her own life. Killed herself when the burden of rescue became just too much to bear. Prior to her death, her decision making abilities about the dogs in her care had begun to suffer and, as a result, animal welfare advocates came out in force, attacking her with every move she made, adding stress to an already stressful situation.

She swallowed a bullet to make it all stop.

And in response, as the dozens of people walked through her home just days after her death, sorting through her things at a morbid and sad estate sale, people called her crazy.

My heart broke further when I heard the words, heard people criticize where I only felt pain and remorse on her behalf. Heard people judge when I could spare no other thought than how devastating the entire situation was.

I was disgusted. I felt guilty for being there. Guilty for not speaking up in the defense of the woman I had not really known. Guilty for being part of such a well intended but such a selfish cause. Guilty for being one of the rescuers that likely facilitated some of the horrific pressure this woman felt.

I still feel guilty to this day.

And as people scavenged through the property, and exchanged their merciless opinions, I reflected momentarily on the fact that they themselves advocated that there were “no bad dogs.” And they themselves gave every dog the benefit of the doubt. But they mercilessly deemed this woman crazy. I guess there are no bad dogs, but humans can’t be afforded the same leniency.

It’s an epidemic.

Here’s the thing. I know several animal control and shelter workers. And the story is always the same. The pressure they feel from the “No-Kill Epidemic” is affecting our dogs, and not for the better. What should be an endeavor that focuses on dog welfare and quality of life, has transformed into a numbers game, with shelters regularly raffling off dogs, giving them away for free, or contacting overrun shelters simply to keep their numbers down, an attempt to satiate the advocates that pressure them on a daily basis.

And as the dogs keep coming, workers become exhausted and emotionally drained, their initial love for the cause manifesting itself into a dangerous mix of anger and frustration….

And as the dogs keep coming, and space is scarce, the crates stack up. Adopters aren’t available and dogs are forced to sit in crates and noisy, dirty runs day in and day out for years on end….

And as the dogs keep coming, rescues gloss over behavioral issues in order to move dogs into unsuitable homes, placing both people and dogs at risk.

But which is more humane? That life? Or a humane death?

I’m not saying that all rescues are bad. I work with some amazing rescue organizations that have the process totally dialed, that are legitimately helping and saving dogs, and that are successful in placing them in homes where they fit, and where they thrive. (In fact one of my favorite groups makes sure that all of the dogs in their care get out for routine playtime, hikes, and day trips with their extensive network of volunteers.) But don’t think I’m overstating these dire situations in the least. Everything I speak of, I’ve seen first hand. I’ve witnessed it all in person, and in fact, at one point, I found myself getting sucked into the epidemic after the daily stories of abuse, neglect, and heartache became just too much to bear.

I wish I could tell you that I had a solution. That I had a magic fix that would make everything better. But I don’t. All I can say is, if we truly want to help dogs, we need to be proactive instead of reactive. We need to move our efforts away from stopping humane euthanasia until we have a system in place to support it. And we need to focus our efforts instead on prevention. On keeping the dogs out of the shelters to begin with.

We need to focus on education – I mean honest education about dog ownership, about the breed characteristics of the dogs we love, and about the benefits of spay and neuter. We need to stop attacking reputable breeders because, if the only dogs available came from them, the pet overpopulation problem would be instantly resolved. Responsible breeders screen their homes and stand by their dogs, willing to take them back should a problem arise. They are not the problem, so stop blaming them.

We need to provide support for people who fall on hard times but seek to keep their pets. And we need to stop being so judgmental. We need to help people, not scrutinize them. And most importantly, we need to make animal rescue an unselfish endeavor. Let’s ask ourselves if what we are doing, what we are fighting for and the lives these dogs are destined to live is really better than a humane death. We need to save those we are capable of saving, and we have to make tough decisions when those decisions are in the best interest of the dogs.

We need to get honest about all of this, and we need to do it now. In my very real and blunt opinion, a dog sitting in a crate in a garage for years isn’t better than death. Being sentenced to live a life of stress and worry isn’t fair for both the dog and the human. And a dog that lives in a run, never seeing the light of day isn’t living life. It’s just existing. It isn’t fair to subject them to that kind of fate for the rest of their lives simply to save ourselves from guilt and feel like we are “making a difference”.

What makes a difference is when we get honest, despite the emotional discomfort and sense of failure it might cause us. The truth is, right now we are failing. But subjecting countless dogs to a life of miserable existence is not helping the situation.

As we pursue a No-Kill society, which in and of itself is an incredibly noble cause, it can be easy to miss the intense fallout that our pressure is creating. We don’t see the overrun rescues and the people and dogs that are suffering. But we need to take a very difficult and very unselfish look at the work we are doing. And we need to ask ourselves, is the life we are sentencing these dogs to better than death?

In many cases, I don’t think it is…..

Further Reading

The Fatal Epidemic of Animal Workers that no one is talking about

One Fourth of New Animal Hoarding Cases involved Rescuers

What turns an animal rescuer into a hoarder

Know your limits: Solving the Rescue Hoarding Problem


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    31 replies to "The No-Kill Epidemic: Is our cause really helping?"

    • Sherry Brainard

      Great article and I couldn’t agree more. Being responsible isn’t just about chasing butterflies and giving hugs. It’s the hard choices, the compassionate choices that hit hard and run deep. I wish things were different too…I think education plays a huge part in this, both in what you get with that breed and how much work actually goes into having a dog. Thanks for the great article.

    • Carol Mortimer

      I agree with Meagan. In an ideal world we would home our unwanted and unplacable dogs in comfort and tranquility BUT who is able to do this and fund it all. There are just too many dogs in the world!
      It is a brave trainer on the television that recommends that a dog needs putting down and sees it through instead of putting it in rescue. Rescue centres often just pass the problem on, resulting in boomerang rescues that just keep being returned.
      It is also a brave owner that has a dog put down knowing that the ideal home for it is almost impossible to find. At least the dog dies in the arms of its owner, not understanding why it is being injected..

      • Jackie Phillips

        “unwanted and unplacable dogs”
        There is no such thing as unwanted or unplaceable dogs. There are only human beings who choose to stop trying and turn the other way and choose easy ways to dispose of animals they choose to no longer look at. However, there are the better and compassionate human beings who choose to look at all animals and choose to save them, and those are the groups I adopt from and support.

    • Dena

      As a shelter worker for years now, and we work with reputable rescues. This is an AMAZING story. This is how it is! Bravo!!

    • Marie Dorris

      As a former shelter director , this hits home with me..not all dogs are suitable to be is our responsibility to determine
      What course of action is best, not just for the animal but for the public’s ever easy
      This brought forward all the emotions of that time

      • Jackie Phillips

        I have seen a ton of mistakes that shelters make when determining who lives and who dies. Shelter workers are human beings and shelters are full of bad decisions and mistakes. Having worked in them and having adopted dogs from them, I have seen these mistakes first hand. They misunderstand temperament and want quick decisions to clear out the shelters and make themselves look better. Luckily here in CA, we have a law that overrides the mistakes that shelters make that allows rescues to take dogs when the shelter has given up on them.

    • Julia

      It’s one opinion
      ..there is truth in it….the emotion. ..the drain…but let’s get real….Sweden doesn’t have this problem because they Crack down on bad owners….you screw up with one pet…you aren’t going to get another…you are going to be in trouble with the law and you sure as hell aren’t going to be breeding dogs…

      • Jackie Phillips

        Now, try to find a single city, county or state in the US that would allow that type of law to be passed. You would have every single breeder and handler and person going against it, as they have done in the past. Americans don’t like laws that tell them what they can and can’t do with their property, their animals. They fight all laws of welfare tooth and nail.

        Listen to what AKC is saying about what Barnum and Bailey are doing to stop their circuses. AKC is now calling foul to all animal welfare saying that now all dogs are at risk, which is outrageous, obviously, but that is the belief.

    • Sharon Nelson

      Finally….someone has put into words the feelings I struggle with EVERY day. This is a dynamic article and, unfortunately, reality at its worst. But……I am off to rescue another dog……my hard drive just defaults to that program.

    • Rita

      Thank you for a very truthful article. Dogs with temperment problems should be put down, not adopted out over and over again until they kill someone.
      Thank you also for not blaming responsible breeders. I am a responsible breeder and have bred a total of 8 litters in 35 years. I have a breed that is not for everyone and refuse to breed just to breed. I know where all my dogs are and how they are being taken care of . They will always have a home here.

    • Suzette

      The truth is that there is a name for this problem: it’s called hoarding and can happen with inanimate objects as well as animals. It’s actually a psychological condition and NOT a side effect of being involved in animal welfare as any normally functioning person would not do this. It’s like comparing normal parents to Octo-Mom. I’m pretty sure that the newer editions of the DSM have it listed as a psychological illness. Personally, I believe in both responsible, professional animal breeders as well as no kill shelters but when I do adopt animals I always try to adopt them from kill shelters as they seem to be the most in need of extra space and money. Of course, that’s just my own personal prejudice. Also, instead of donating to animal welfare societies I instead promise to adopt my next animal. That way I am sure that my money goes directly to a shelter.

    • Jackie Phillips

      There is so much wrong with this article, and “dog trainers” are never the proper people to ever decide whether a dog lives or dies. Dog trainers only have their reputation in mind. They want to get more customers by being seen as the advocate, when actually they are saying it is OK to kill.

      The only people to decide who lives or dies are the people who care for the animals and no one else. The people who take on the responsibility of caring for the animals and making the choice that they live.

      And, yes, all animals should be given a chance, first, second or third or more, if necessary, because it was humans who screwed up and then it should be humans who give them another chance.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thanks for your opinion! While we disagree fundamentally (and I’ll caveat that by saying I’ve personally run a rescue organization and nonprofit center for animal welfare and I now work extensively with rescue groups) I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts!

        • Jackie Phillips

          If you were able to write this article, you don’t really want a solution to save animals. You just want to see your words in print and boost your reputation. No person who ever says that an animal would be better off dead than alive is not a person who cares. You only care about your own view and what you feel you are forced to look at.
          You say, this and that should be done and put off saving animals until the ultimate perfect solution is found. Well, sweetie, I have news for you: until a perfect world is found, and you can copyright that invention, no animal should be killed because your goals haven’t been attained and you don’t feel good about yourself. Waiting for a perfect world and the best solution and killing animals in the meantime is the view of person who just doesn’t get the problem and only wants an easy solution.

          • Meagan Karnes

            It’s a lot of assumptions you are making. It’s obvious you are very passionate about your cause. Thank you again for your comments and for taking the time to respond.

            • Jackie Phillips

              No assumptions at all. My comments are based 100% on what you wrote. Take responsibility for what you are saying and stop the patronizing.

            • Meagan Karnes

              Thanks for your comments. Fundamentally, we disagree. It’s clear you are very passionate and you care quite a bit about animal welfare. I’m hopeful that you take your passion and use it to save as many if not more dogs than I have in the course of my career. Keep fighting the good fight.

          • Valerie Delgado

            Ms. Phillips – the writer of this article never said to put off saving animals until this , that, or other goal was obtained… What she basically said was, “animal advocates making “no-kill” the primary focus, was putting the cart before the horse, so to speak”… You are asking for trouble when you assume that a good home can be found for every homeless dog and cat in the present circumstances. Ms. Karnes is basically saying, “Let’s put more effort into reducing the number of homeless animals through preventative measures, rather than decrying open-admission animal control shelter facilities”.
            Your attitude is exactly the problem – you are being sanctimonious and unrealistic. I have been doing animal rescue for 25 years and I currently have 19 cats and 3 dogs in my personal care. All three dogs I kept (along with 3 others that have passed away) because I became exhausted with trying to find them another home. My family members and friends have also taken some of the dogs that I couldn’t place – dogs that they weren’t seeking out (because they already had several), but did not want to see put to death. And during the long periods that I had some of these “hard to place” dogs, I did not feel I could respond to subsequent calls for help regarding the seemingly never-ending stream of homeless dogs in my area (you reach capacity very quickly when you do animal rescue)! Certain breeds (especially pits and hunting hounds – which make up probably 85% of the homeless dogs in my area), older dogs, heartworm positive dogs, etc., are very difficult to place and don’t even get me started talking about cats! When potential adopters have the option of adopting cute fluffy puppies, I can’t seem to get them interested in my old hound with gray hairs, cataracts, bad teeth, and fatty tumors, regardless of my best efforts, and regardless of how “sweet” the dog might be… I work very hard as a volunteer with PETA’s low-cost mobile spay/neuter clinic, and I know that work is probably making more of an overall impact than my personal rescue of 15-20 “hard-luck” cases, but it’s those “hard-luck” cases that always pull the hardest at my heart strings…

      • sarah

        “The only people who decide who lives or dies are the people who care for the animal and no one else”Are you saying the human beings whom this dog has affected has no say in the matter??Or the township who doesn’t want a pet killing dog in the neighborhood?No,I say one chance,then lets make room for another rescue to have his chance.

    • Dawn

      I completely agree with Megan. Some just can’t be saved, and to sit in a dog run or cage for the rest of its life is NOT life. I would have not kept that calm with some comments on here. Seriously if we have such a problem with overpopulation why the hell are we bringing more into the country ? Transferring them from 1 shelter across Statelines to another shelter ? Find homes for the ones you can and humanly put down the nasty or severely injured ones. We don’t need to beg for money to fix a dog with a broken back that will be in pain for the rest of its life. In 1 situation a rescue begged for money to the tune of 8,000 bucks and the dog they were getting money for was DEAD. This is fraud !! Lies, cheats, and people with no morals. It’s all gotta stop, we all need to do the best we can, keep our dogs until they pass, and always own 4 LOL. Plus if we can get vets to not charge us a mortgage payment to spay or neuter our pets that would solve a lot also.

      • Becky

        You’re right on all points, Dawn. One of the reasons I was turned off from “no kill” early on was seeing so much money spent on ONE dog while thousands were left on the streets and being put down at the shelter. Sheer idiocy. Made no sense at all. That, along with other huge red flags, had me running the hell away from “save them all,” “no kill”. Just a huge marketing racket to raise money and make people feel better.

    • Tina Pounds

      M. Thank you for writing this powerful piece. As someone who survived a horrific mauling when saving my grandson from my landlady’s “rescued” dog, I applaud your honesty. I am painfully aware you cannot save every dog nor should you try to save some dogs. Getting ready for my 7th surgery. Don’t listen to those who are judging with emotions and not reality. I wish they each could spend 1 day with me. You, more than anyone, are qualified to judge this epidemic.

      • Meagan Karnes

        I am so sorry for what you went through. I’ll keep you in my thoughts as you approach your surgery.

    • Pamela Gardner

      As I a crossposter I always fear the absolute worst. I never know what to do in many cases as will never know the legitimacy of the rescue… So many shelters now in NC have gone from gassing to heartstick. We worry about Ketamine being diverted and dogs dying from the torture of a needle being jabbed into their heart with no sedation. Below is what we really need to do. Judy Lewin was trained by Cleveland Amory… It just seems that nobody wants to take the time to read the book. Crossposting shelter animals on mass media touches the obsessive compulsive brain wiring in our psyche. This is an excellent article. I am 65 with 9 dogs.. 5 are seniors. I understand the depression all too well. (Julie Lewin’s book is “Get Political For Animals and win the Laws they Need.” Thank you for an excellent and compassionate article.

    • Marian Brown

      Thank you for your excellent writing and thoughtful observations. Agree completely and same applies to cats.

    • Bonny Thomas Lee

      Thank you Ms Karnes..”no kill” is killing too many Americans, harming our neighborhoods, and taking a dreadful
      toll on our domestic pets. I fear the “Bandog” or the “South African Mastiff” will become the new darling for the advocates of Molosser breeds and they too will have literally hundreds of “rescues”.

    • Mary Tompkins

      I too have worked in rescue and agree completely with this article. Interesting to me is that all commenters agree with article here except the one who continues to interject her dissenting opinion. I have witnessed this too, where the do gooders think their opinion is the best just because they are taking the ” high road”. It is very hard to work in or make the hard decisions when you are looked upon as the one making the bad decisions. Some people have a need to feel that they are better than others and their decisions are a need to fulfill this need.

    • CF

      I hate to completely disagree. Purebred breeders support the problem. To fix it, mandate all purebred breeds be spayed and neutered. Mixed breeds are healthier and breed out issues. A dog doesn’t give a crap if it has papers. There is no reason to “protect” a breed. If people adopt from reputable shelters, this can be fixed. Laws to protect animals like children need to be in place. I agree, there are hoarding situations and those are not favoring anyone. But purebreeding should end.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thanks so much for your comment. Although we do fundamentally disagree, I appreciate your perspective.

      • Kelly

        I disagree. It’s a false statement that mixed breeds are healthier.
        1. Most dog issues are across the board, so you are still likely to come up with a problem even in a mixed breed. the reason it looks like mixed breeds are healthier is because NOBODY TRACKS HEALTH PROBLEMS IN MIXED BREED DOGS. It’s easy to look at a database and go… that breed has x wrong with it. Because it’s tracked. There’s no database for beagle lab crosses or coonhound shepherd crosses. So it gives a false feeling of ‘healthier’. I will add having worked in the veterinary field for 20+ years, I see as many mixed breed dogs with health problems as pure bred ones.
        2 Good breeders not only breed for structure, but also do a large array of health testing for both parents AND also breed for good temperaments.
        3 Good breeders are also trying to make sure that their puppies have a strong start in life with good socialization, so that they can fit well into the families they get.

    • Leigh Reyes

      Thank you for this very thoughtful, and accurate, post about the failures of the so-called “no-kill” movement. We all want animals not to suffer, and sometimes that means ending their suffering through the compassionate and self-less act of humane euthanasia

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