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Its the dream in animal rescue that all pets have a good home and no healthy animal be euthanized because there's no space left in the shelters. The question is, is that a realistic goal and can that goal be reached without any animal suffering.? Depending on who you talk to, you'll get different answers.

According to the Michigan State University Animal Legal and Historical Center, the numbers of euthanized animals have been declining since 1970, from about 15 million pets to about 1.5 million animals euthanized in shelters as of 2017. That number remained consistent throughout the 2000's.

While this is a great accomplishment, I think any pet lover would say that's 1.5 million too many. In my heart, I agree, but after 25 years in rescue, I know its just not that simple.

In many counties and states, there are spay/neuter laws that require that all cats and dogs be altered (spayed or neutered) before a certain age. That is one way the reduction of euthanasia has occurred. However, in many other states, particularly in the south, there are no such laws, so pet overpopulation and euthanasia continue to be a problem.

There are basically two types of animal shelters:

  • An "open" municipal shelter that is funded by tax-payer dollars and is required to take any animal surrendered from their city or county.

  • A privately funded or non-profit shelter that can turn away animals when they are full.

A shelter is considered "no kill" when 90% of its animals leave the shelter alive. Typically, its easier to reach that goal when you can pick and choose the animals you take and turn the rest away. That doesn't demean non-profit shelters, but simply makes an obvious point.

Municipal shelters have now been demonized as "kill shelters" which can affect their reputation, reduce their funding and donations, and have potential pet parents drive by as they make their way to the "more humane" no-kill shelter.

For that reason, many municipal shelters are doing their best to become known as "no-kill" shelters. Remember, for any type of shelter to to do that, they need a 90% survival rate. Since they can't reduce the rate they take in, they must release more animals, or keep animals that would otherwise be euthanized, alive. (Those may include ill, elderly, or aggressive animals.) Releasing animals can be accomplished by adopting to new homes, released to other shelters or rescues, and doing what is known as RTF (Return to Field) which is related only to cats.

To understand Return to Field, you must understand the terminology related to cats.

According to the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, the following definitions apply:

  • Community Cats are free roaming feral, stray, abandoned or lost cats living outside with or without an owner or caretaker.

  • Free‐Roaming Cats are not confined to a yard or house, may or may not have an owner, and may be tame or feral. Use of this term is based on the confinement status of the cat rather than ownership status or degree of socialization.

  • Feral Cats are not socialized to and are extremely fearful of contact with people. Typically, their welfare cannot be maintained in captivity.

Return-to-Field (RTF) should not be confused with Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) or Trap-Neuter-Return-Maintain (TNRM). The cats most likely to benefit from TNR or TNRM are feral cats. Once the feral cats are released, they generally have someone to ensure that they are fed and watered.

The same can't always be said for RTF cats.

In 2019, it was reported that from September 2018 - June 2019, Orange County (California) Animal Shelter released 1000 adoptable cats and kittens back into OC neighborhoods. The cats were left to fend for themselves with absolutely no plan to maintain (feed/water) them. Cats that had been properly cared for in the shelter, were suddenly left abandoned. In a random walk-thru of the shelter, they found only 10 adult cats over 2 years old and cages upon cages of kittens. Where were their moms? Were they released-to-field? Who knows?

Since many northern states have spay/neuter laws, and most southern ones do not, southern shelters and rescues have started transporting animals north. Releasing animals in this manner is another way to decrease euthanasia rates There are volunteer and paid transports heading north every weekend. This is actually a very positive and innovative idea, but only if the transporters themselves are humane, the destination is a safe, legitimate rescue, and the animals themselves are healthy. Too often this isn't the case. Heart worm positive dogs, puppies with parvo, kittens with panleukpenia, all transfer disease on their journey and upon arrival. A responsible program with properly vetted rescues and transports, and animals that have been examined and cleared by a veterinarian, can be attainable.

If releasing animals through RTF and transport isn't enough, some shelters simply don't euthanize. Without a good foster program, in which animals live with foster families until they are adopted, these shelters soon become nothing more than hoarders. Several shelter directors and staff have been charged with neglect and outright cruelty, and hundreds upon hundreds of animals seized. Just last month in Arkansas, 240 dogs and 45 cats were found in urine and feces covered cages in the county animal shelter.

Some of the animals not euthanized spend years in the shelter. Wiggles , a large mixed breed spent 11 years in the shelter before being adopted. That's 11 years in a cage, not in a foster home. Isn't that animal cruelty? Why was he not fostered? Are some things worse than death? I think so.

Sometimes, aggressive animals, that would have once been euthanized, are not only allowed to live, but adopted to families. In Madison, Tennessee, in 2015, a new adopted Rottweiller killed his new owner within hours of adoption. While the shelter claimed the dog never showed signs of aggression, they also admitted that it didn't test for aggression.

Within that 90% no-kill goal, animals surrendered by their owners for euthanasia are not counted. In 2019, in an audit of the St Louis County Animal Care and Control found that more animals were euthanized than reported. Volunteers revealed that when owners surrendered their pet, the staff had them check a box marked "ORE" without explaining that "ORE" stood for "Owner Requests Euthanasia". Those animals were killed, but not reported, technically keeping the rate of euthanasia down.

Another concern in the No-Kill Movement is "No intake". Once the shelter is full, they turn away all other animals. What happens to those animals? Many are dumped else where, left to fend for themselves. They are hit-by-cars, poisoned, shot and a few lucky ones may find a home. Meanwhile a cage is taken up by a dog who will live his life in a 6'x3' cage.

The "No-Kill" movement is not evil. It is full of people who mean well and usually do good work, but there are problems. Without nationwide spay/neuter laws and common sense, we cannot reach the no-kill goal without an animal suffering. Locking the doors to shelters and releasing animals irresponsibly, will not solve the problem. It doesn't have a simple answer, but we must find middle ground. I pray for the sake of the animals, we can.


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