Applying The No-Kill Ethic by Ed Boks

More than a policy and statistical objective, “no-kill” is a principle, an ethic, and once applied the practical consequences begin to fall into place. The principle is that Animal Services should apply the same criteria for deciding an animal’s fate that a loving pet guardian or conscientious veterinarian would apply. That is, healthy and treatable animals are not killed simply because we lack the room or resources to care for them.

Killing animals for lack of space may be the quick, convenient and, at least from afar, the easy thing to do. But I have never, in over 25 years in this field, heard anyone argue that it is the right thing to do. After all, the creatures who fill our shelters can hardly be faulted for bringing trouble upon themselves. People who seek to excuse euthanasia in shelters often say we have to be “realistic.” But ultimately such realism would be better directed at the sources of the problem and, above all, at the element of human responsibility.

There are the heart-breaking cruelty cases that bring so many animals to our doors, and the added wrong of killing animals already victimized by callous or vicious behavior. On top of that, over 30 percent of the 46,000-plus dogs and cats the City takes in each year are actually relinquished – turned in – even after years living with a family, like old furniture donated to charity. And another third of the creatures Animal Services euthanizes each year are orphaned, neonate puppies and kittens. No one bothered to spay or neuter the parents, and so the offspring are born into the world homeless or unwanted. The general attitude is, “Let someone else deal with the problem,” and – thousands of times a year – someone else does with a lethal injection. (In California it’s more than four hundred thousand times a year.)

Along with such failures in personal responsibility is a breakdown in social responsibility in the care of animals. On the budget sheets of government, saving animals can seem to a certain mindset as being a lowly or trivial concern. That’s an easy position to take, just as long as you don’t have to be there when the problem gets “solved” by euthanasia. If the public officials in most locales who brush off animal-welfare as “trivial” had to see the product of their priorities carried out – to witness for themselves how trusting the dogs are even when being led to their death, or how as they drift away they lick the hand or face of the person with the needle – I suspect they would see matters in a very different light, and would enthusiastically vote to support AB 1634, the state mandatory spay/neuter bill currently being fought over in the State Senate.

Here in Los Angeles there are rays of light. Between now and the end of 2007, the City will open several more new animal care centers, a decisive step forward in our commitment to helping lost and homeless animals, and to swearing off euthanasia as a solution to pet overpopulation.

The new Centers will give us four times our current shelter space to accommodate the average of 150 lost, sick, injured, neglected, abused or unwanted animals entrusted to LA Animal Services every day. The Centers will have wide aisles, solar and radiant heating, cooling misters, veterinary and spay/neuter clinics, park benches for visitors, fountains and lush landscaping – a world away from the grim conditions of older shelters, where animals can become so agitated or depressed that they seem ill-tempered and, thus, “unadoptable” by old school animal control reckoning. By transforming our animal shelters into places of hope and life, instead of despair and doom, odds are we can measurably increase adoption rates.

The “no-kill” ethic is a matter of taking responsibility, instead of excusing the problem or hiding its consequences. In LA we are moving steadily in this direction. Over the past six years, our lost and homeless dog euthanasia rate has decreased 67 percent and our cat euthanasia rate has decreased 24 percent. In just the first five months of 2007, we’ve seen another 22 percent decrease in dog and cat euthanasia compared to the same period in 2006. In the past 12 months, 18,108 dogs and cats were euthanized.

That’s the lowest number ever for a one-year period in LA since thorough record-keeping began – and fewer animals than met the same fate in the much smaller city of Bakersfield. But no matter how you do the math, it still comes to over 18,000 creatures who had love and devotion to offer, and never got their chance. And calling the practice euthanasia (as some prefer), instead of killing (as others prefer), doesn’t make it any kinder.

The good news is we are making significant progress, and we have many fine allies in the cause. There are hundreds of groups across greater Los Angeles dedicated to finding homes for needy animals and to helping sterilize those animals who otherwise might contribute to the pet overpopulation problem. These compassionate, idealistic people show us the way forward.

The practice of killing animals for lack of shelter space has never been anyone’s idea of an ideal solution – let alone anyone’s idea of giving “shelter” to creatures in need. And, up close, the willful elimination of healthy animals with good years left is a sight to move the hardest heart. But as LA’s new Animal Care Centers continue to open their doors, Animal Services offers this goal to go with them, and we ask everyone’s help in achieving it: No animal that comes through those doors will be killed out of convenience or a lack of space. For every one of them, there is somewhere a kind and loving person or family, and it is our mission to bring them together.