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What Is In a Name? No Kill Confusion and When Success is Failure

Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

I received a call from a reporter today who, he said on his message, had been called by a volunteer upset over the euthanasia of a dog at the Humane League of Lancaster County (HLLC) recently and who claimed HLLC was no longer “No Kill”.  I left him a message but while I await his call, I thought I’d take a few minutes to share some details on our intake and save rates, as well as our policies on euthanasia.

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We also help animals by offering free community vet care clinics like this one last weekend in Phoenixville, Chester County, with HLLC super-vet, Dr. Misha Neumann and our phenomenal vet staff. Not on topic, just really, really awesome.

I would normally start with a discussion of way we use the term “Adoption Guarantee” as opposed to “No Kill” but I know when you start with “what the definition of ‘is’ is”, it seems like you are dodging the numbers.  And our numbers are so great, that the last thing I want to do!  So let’s dive into numbers…

Since October 1, 2013, when Joan Brown, HLLC’s former President retired and handed over daily operations to me to begin the process of the merger of HLLC and Humane Society of Berks County (HSBC) to form Humane Pennsylvania, HLLC has taken in 692 dogs and 433 cats.  As an Adoption Guarantee shelter since February 1, 2013, we should expect damn great save rates- and we have them.

Since October 1, 2013 five dogs and seven cats have been euthanized.  This means our live out success rate for dogs is 99.3% and for cats is 98.4%.  You don’t have to know much about animal shelters to guess those are stellar save rates.  But in case you don’t, I’ll sit for a minute while you Google the average save rates in the United States, as well as what most No Kill advocates consider the “No Kill Threshold”…….…OK, spoiler alert, that’s usually over 90%.  Do you know what’s over 90%?  99%.  So our save rates are vastly above the level that most No Kills advocates even strive for.  So, yes, pretty damn great numbers.

But five dogs and seven cats are still twelve living, breathing animals out of 1,125 cats and dogs which we have taken into HLLC’s shelter in the past nine months and two weeks.  Why were those twelve animals euthanized?  Here are the reasons:

Dogs euthanized since October 1, 2013: 5: Three for aggressive bites (not “play bites” or “accidents”) which broke the skin.  Two of those bites occurred in our shelter, including the one the volunteer is upset about, one was post adoption and the dog was returned.  The remaining two were euthanized for severe behavioral issues involving overtly aggressive behavior.  One was adopted prior to displaying this behavior and returned for lunging and snarling at the adopters with no identifiable trigger.  The other dog demonstrated severe cage aggression and resource guarding (this dog was a transfer from a shelter which had already slated it for euthanasia for the same reasons and we unsuccessfully attempted to rehabilitate it).

In all five cases- .07% of the dogs in that period- our staff made the tough decision that euthanasia was the appropriate course of action, and one which was the correct one based on our Asilomar Accord protocols (more on this below).

Cats euthanized since October 1, 2013: 7: One 12 year old stray with uncontrolled diabetes, severe diarrhea, and emaciation; 1 kitten brought in after being hit by a car and diagnosed with a broken back and body wall hernia leading to extreme suffering and poor prognosis for survival; and five kittens under three weeks of age ranging from three to nine ounces (as an example the “average” eight week old kitten is 24 to 32 ounces), who were sick and non-responsive to treatment. These seven cats (1.1% of our cats in that period) were suffering and the veterinary recommendation and the one which we think represented the “reasonable community standard” as defined by Maddie’s Fund, was humane euthanasia.

So which is it?  Is 12 euthanasias out of 1,125 a great number or a terrible number?  It’s both.  Compared to any other measure and benchmark in animal welfare and shelters- open admission or no kill- these numbers are spectacular.  But for those twelve animals, no matter whether they were the “right” choice or the “safety minded” choice or the “reasonable community standard” choice- it was a choice to end their lives.  For them, for the staff who have to make the decision and follow through with the consequences of that decision, and for the volunteers who donate their time and love for all our animals, it’s not one to be happy about.  We failed those 12 animals.  Period.

But not every failure has success as a real alternative.  There are times when the only option is some version of failure.  Let the broken back cat live and you succeed in that but fail in its never ending suffering and ultimate death.  Keep an openly aggressive, biting dog alive and you succeed in that at the expense of it going insane in a kennel for the rest of its life because you also can’t also fail by adopting it- assuming you can find an adopter- who it will maul.  Some equations have no solution, they are unsolvable axioms.  Some situations can’t be reprogrammed to change the rules like the Kobayashi Maru test (if you’ve got your Star Trek nerd hat on).

And that’s why the language we use matters.  That’s why HLLC and Humane Pennsylvania have adopted the standardized language of Maddie’s Fund and the Asilomar Accords.  We didn’t change our policies, rules, or choices, we changed the two words to describe them.  The Maddie’s Fund/Asilomar Accords industry standard name for shelters like HLLC is Adoption Guarantee, and that’s what we are.  That doesn’t mean, as “No Kill” implies to some, that no animal is killed.  It means that no healthy or treatable animal is killed, based on a set of defined national and community standards and transparency.  These national and community standards explicitly recognize that some animals will be euthanized for extreme health reasons or for being a danger to staff, adopters or the community.

Those are the right benchmarks to use.  No animal should suffer torment, just to make some philosophical point or achieve some pyrrhic victory.  No one, no staff member, no community member, no child, should risk bite, mauling or death from an animal we have serious safety concerns about.  Those are the right standards, we employ them in our shelter and we stand by them.  And for 99.3% of dogs and 98.4% of cats these standards work.  Our job- my job- is to work harder to also make them work for that remaining .7% and 1.6%, respectively.

We should also be extremely clear of how nearly all Adoption Guarantee shelters like HLLC achieve those stunning save rates.  We do it by restricting which animals we take in in the first place.  Most adoption Guarantee shelters only accept health and happy animals.  Most don’t take animal control intake.  HLLC has a pretty extensive pre-intake screening protocol and many animals are rejected and sent to other shelters, such as Open Access shelters without an Adoption Guarantee, such as our other Humane Pennsylvania Shelter Partner, HSBC (which, by the way, still maintains an industry leading save rate for open access shelters of 80+% for cats and 90+% for dogs).

In fact, if you took out the animals which did not go through the HLLC screening process, the ones which came in with known health and behavioral problems, which we took from a Good Samaritan or from another shelter who begged us to try to succeed where they had already failed, every cat euthanasia would not be included in the numbers above and three of five of the dog euthanasias would not (three of the five dogs were taken from other shelters with known behavior problems we tried to fix, as we do for dozens of other dogs successfully each year).

While I’ve been typing I had a chance to speak to reporter and share this with him.  If there is any story here, it’s that the staff and volunteers of HLLC are doing a remarkable job.  But the one question, implied or stated, is that the change of the wording from “No Kill” to “Adoption Guarantee” and the change of management from the last President to the current one, me, has resulted in some change or some difference in the amount of euthanasia.  I will be perfectly honest- there has been a change:  The numbers have improved.

From February 1 to September 31, 2013, the period from when HLLC stopped doing animal control intake and changed to “No Kill” and the period immediately preceding the change in management, the euthanasia rate for cats was 7.2%, not 1.6% (an 88% improvement), and for dogs it was 1.1%, not .7% (a 47% improvement).  I hope you’ll forgive us for not apologizing for saving more animals than ever before.

I don’t mean to be flippant and I don’t want to minimize the concerns of a volunteer or the lives of 12 very real animals.  But I do want us to view them in a realistic context as the successes- and failures- they are.  When I started in animal welfare twenty years ago millions more animals died in shelters each years, thousands more right here in Pennsylvania.  90% or 99% save rates were a crack head fantasy then.  Now they are a reality.  That means I have to believe that those last ten, two, one percent goals to reach 100% can be reached.

Twenty years ago in Lancaster 100% would have meant saving thousands.  Since October 1, it meant trying to save just twelve.  Somehow that last twelve feels more galling to me.

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2 Responses

  • Melody says:

    For me, one of life’s biggest letdowns was the day I figured out that critical thinking doesn’t come as standard equipment in human beings and that connect-the-closest-dots is the default setting. I really appreciate and admire your no-hogwash analysis and explanation of these issues. It’s refreshing, especially in Lancaster County.



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