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A black cat sticks a paw between the bars of an animal shelter cage. Photo by Thomas C. Park on Unsplash This photo is the lead image for a blog post titled "Can We Please Stop Calling Them Kill Shelters?"

It’s time to stop casting brutal judgments against shelters that must euthanize for space reasons. Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

Every time I see a social media post where someone refers to a municipal shelter as a “kill shelter,” I want to cry.

Why?

Not because of the phrase “kill shelter” itself, but for the shelters and shelter workers who are stigmatized and isolated by the reputation of being killers and not caring at all about animals.

How is anyone supposed to be able to go to work each day at a job that makes people call them heartless murderers (and not get paid nearly enough to put up with that kind of bullshit from a community that doesn’t know the full truth about what happens at that shelter)?

I don’t claim to know everything that happens at open-admission animal shelters, but I’m 99.999 percent sure it’s not like this: Giants with swastika tattoos on their foreheads grab squirming kittens one by one out of a carrier, then plunge a huge, long needle full of The Pink Stuff deep into each screaming kitten’s heart. They cackle with maniacal glee as the kittens go silent, then throw the carcasses on top of the pile with all the other dead kittens. And then give each other a high five and go out for a smoke and a coffee.

But the way some of us in rescue speak about these shelters and the people who work there, it sounds like they’re as evil as the Nazi doctors of the Holocaust!

How kill shelters work

The first thing you need to know is that these shelters didn’t just decide to make it a policy to kill the animals in their care. Most of these “kill shelters” are municipal shelters. Their budgets are paid by the town or city in which they are located, and as a result, they are required to take in every single animal that comes to their doors.

Every. Single. One.

No matter how full the shelter already is.

And we’re not just talking cats and dogs; they’ve had to take in birds, exotic animals, and even pet alligators.

If they don’t do this, they will be in violation of their contract with the city. Which could have grave consequences.

Under this constant pressure, these “kill shelters” (which I will be referring to from now on as open-admission shelters or municipal shelters), do the very best they can to care for and adopt out the animals who are ready to find new homes. But if they keep too many animals, the overcrowding could lead to disease outbreaks, which would result in mass euthanasia–which could be every single animal in the shelter, depending on the disease. I recommend you read a blog post by Dr. Andy Roark, which paints a picture of life at a municipal shelter in a way that’s easy to understand.

I can’t say strongly enough that the people who work there don’t want to have to euthanize animals as part of their job any more than you want them to! Which brings me to …

This cute little torbie kitten was at the private cat rescue where I volunteer. Photo by JaneA Kelley

This cute little torbie kitten was at the private cat rescue where I volunteer. She found her home the second day she was out on the adoption floor. Photo by JaneA Kelley

Moral injury and municipal shelter workers

According to Syracuse University’s Moral Injury Project, moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct. Research on moral injury began with research on service members and veterans who had done things that violated their beliefs about right and wrong during their service, but since then the term has also been applied to people who work in human and veterinary medicine, and in animal sheltering.

If you love animals enough to work at an animal shelter, being forced to perform euthanasia as part of your daily routine is clearly going to transgress your beliefs, ethics, and values. No matter how much you rationally understand why it has to be done, it’s hard to avoid the shame of having killed a healthy animal because your shelter ran out of space.

We need to have compassion for these people, not judgment! And I’m especially talking to you keyboard warriors out there who are so happy to judge what everyone else is doing but not to step up and actually be part of the solution.

And no, in most places they can’t “just get another job.” Even if they could, that’s still not going to solve the pet overpopulation problem and stop shelter works from having to kill healthy animals to make room for the next wave of intakes.

No-kill shelters are better, though, right?

Well … not better, just different.

Most no-kill shelters are private shelters operated by nonprofit organizations. Most of these shelters, including the rescue where I volunteer, rarely accept owner-surrendered animals. This allows us to keep our animal population at a reasonable level. It also allows us to provide medical attention that open-admission shelters don’t have the space, staff, or money to provide.

At my rescue, for example, we have a whole room for treating cats with ringworm, where we can keep them isolated from the regular shelter population until their fungal infections have cleared. Ringworm takes a long time to treat, and the weekly lime-sulfur dips are really labor-intensive and not enjoyable for the cats or the bathers. Open-admission shelters simply don’t have the time and resources to treat cats with ringworm; thus, it’s a very common reason for euthanasia.

I’m actually one of the volunteers who works with the ringworm kitties at my rescue. After all, fungal kitties need love and care, too!

While my rescue may not adopt out as many cats as the Seattle Animal Shelter, we do have the resources to give cats a second chance–including a huge and devoted foster network! That’s why we can manage all those pregnant cats and neonate kittens!

A clipboard hangs on the bars of an enclosure at a cat rescue. The clipboard contains information about the cats in the enclosure and a dry-erase card for cat care volunteers to track activities.

At the rescue where I volunteer, we regularly receive cats from open-admission shelters throughout the state of Washington, as well as from Los Angeles and other distant locations in partnership with national organizations. Photo by JaneA Kelley

But what does no-kill mean, exactly?

Good question, and the answer is less obvious than it sounds.

If a shelter was fully no-kill, as in, no animals were ever euthanized for any reason, that would lead to immense suffering of animals as they died slowly and painfully from cancer or other illnesses, or from a body overwhelmed with infection, or no longer able to move, and so on.

U.S.-based animal rescue organization Best Friends is counting down to the culmination of its No-Kill 2025 plan. It defines no-kill as a 90 percent or better save rate for animals entering a shelter, calling this “a meaningful and common-sense benchmark for measuring lifesaving progress.”

I’m proud to say that the rescue where I volunteer has been recognized by Best Friends as a no-kill shelter.

“The ultimate goal, however, is to ensure that every shelter has the resources to save every dog and cat who can be saved, whether that percentage is 90% or something else,” Best Friends wrote. “But first, we want to help every shelter in every community reach the 90% no-kill benchmark in 2025.”

Do kill shelters and no-kill shelters work together?

You bet!

The rescue where I volunteer takes in cats from municipal and open-admission shelters throughout the state of Washington. Sometimes in partnership with national humane organizations like Best Friends or the Humane Society of the United States, we also receive cats from other states.

We have flown cats in from Los Angeles. During the Maui wildfires, we and other shelters on the U.S. West Coast took in animals who had been waiting for homes in the island’s city and private shelters before the fires started. That way, there would be safe places for pets belonging to people who had to flee the fires.

This whole idea of “kill shelters” and no-kill shelters working together is a key part of Best Friends’ No-Kill 2025 plan.

“Just a few short years ago, cats and dogs were killed in staggering numbers in this country simply because shelters didn’t have the community support or the resources to save their lives,” Best Friends wrote. “That number is now less than half a million per year, but there’s still work to do to ensure a bright future for every dog and cat in America.”

The key to reaching that no-kill goal is understanding, respecting, and supporting both open-admission and private shelters.

Private shelters can reduce the burden of employee moral injury at open-admission shelters by opening their doors to animals that are running out of time or need more care than municipal shelters can provide. We private rescues are really good at building community, and we can use that skill to ensure we have a good-sized foster and volunteer network.

Municipal shelters have many gifts, too, including staff members who love animals and want to do best by them. I would say more, but unfortunately I don’t have any experience working at municipal shelters and I don’t know what these partnerships look like from that side.

If you work or worked at an open-admission shelter, I’d love to interview you for a blog post so my readers can learn what life at a municipal shelter is really like! If you don’t want me to share your name or where you work(ed), I am more than happy to keep you anonymous! If you’re interested, feel free to drop me an email.

Two white cats inside a Kitty Kasa. The white cat on the left has one blue eye and one yellow eye. Photo by JaneA Kelley

I believe these cats arrived at my rescue on a flight from LA. The one on the left is a “David Bowie cat,” with one blue eye and one golden eye. Photo by JaneA Kelley

The last word

While I was doing the research for this post, I found out I’m not the only pet blogger to talk about why kill shelters deserve more love and support than they get. I’m thrilled about that! The more of us who can make a stand for compassion and understanding, the better off the animals–and people–of open-admission and private shelters will be. Two posts that popped up right away were “Why Kill-Shelters Deserve Your Love and Support” on the Alpha Paw dog blog and “Please Stop Saying ‘Kill Shelter’” on the Whole Dog Journal.

If we’re really going to save the world, or at least the U.S., or at least our part of the U.S., open-admission and private shelters will have to work ever more closely together to ensure that we can reach that 90 percent save rate and turn the U.S. into a no-kill nation. But for that to work, some things are going to have to happen:

  1. We need to ditch the judgey attitudes. Too many of us in animal rescue have become the sort of hard-liners who look judgmentally on people who don’t take care of animals the way we think they should, or we don’t like the local rescue’s new Board chairman, or we get some kind of wild hair up our gluteal crevice and just start being the bluebird of crappiness instead of a helpful and compassionate person. This kind of self-righteousness and badmouthing of open-admission shelters isn’t helping anyone. Stop it.
  2. Support efforts that help open-admission shelters find placement in private shelters for those running out of time. In practice, I think this looks like volunteering at shelters, even for the gross jobs like cleaning litter boxes, and being a foster home for pets that may need some extra love before they get to the adoption floor
  3. Don’t be a keyboard warrior. It’s gross, and it’s a really bad look.
  4. Adopt from and volunteer at open-admission shelters. The stigma of being a “kill shelter” means that open-admission shelters often have difficulty adopting out the animals in their care–I’ve heard “I’ll never adopt from a kill shelter!” way too often. If these shelters get a good complement of reliable volunteers, it will make life much easier for staff members. Volunteers can also help keep the animals more socialized, increasing their adoptability. If you’re a volunteer at an open-admission shelter, you will not be required to euthanize pets!
  5. Be willing to adopt adult, senior, or special-needs cats. Everybody loves kittens, but an adult cat in a shelter generally spends more time there than a kitten. I adopted Thomas when he was 3 years old, and we had 16+ years together. Bella was a 1-year-old diabetic when I first brought her home (she’s in remission and hasn’t needed an insulin poke in 11 years). Tara was “between 3 and 5” when she came into my life. I can tell you 100% that adopting an adult cat is wonderful. Thomas thought so, too, which is why he wrote this piece 10 years ago about why you should adopt an adult cat.

Have you worked at an open-admission shelter? Have you adopted a pet (cat, dog, or other) from an open-admission shelter? Do you work or volunteer with a shelter or organization that participates in a private-public shelter partnership? Let me know in the comments!