I 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.
As 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
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…..