According to US census data, cats are possibly the most popular pets in the US.1 And while I can’t find reliable estimates of exactly how many cats are killed in US shelters every year (the numbers I see list “cats and dogs” in one number), recent examinations of North Carolina and Virginia shelter numbers suggest that a cat entering an animal shelter in either state is almost twice as likely to die there than a dog.
In fact, even shelters that are doing reasonably well saving dogs often have extremely high cat-killing numbers. For example, the Bladen County, NC, pound was able to get its dog kill rate down to 12% in 2010 (thanks in a huge part to its advocacy group) , but still has a very high 66% kill rate kill rate for cats.
Much of this is because restrictions against trap-neuter-return in many NC counties give feral cats nowhere else to go once they end up at the pound. There also seem to be far fewer foster-based cat rescues than dog rescues (I can’t back that statement up statistically, so if you want to challenge it, I welcome the data!) But one very puzzling reason is that many shelters consider indoor/outdoor cat keepers to be “bad” homes and refuse to adopt to them.
I’ll come clean right off the bat and say that I’m a fan of keeping cats indoors. When I had cats, that’s where mine stayed, quite happily. I think it’s healthier and safer, and generally more considerate of neighbors who don’t want someone else’s cat on their property. I admit to being irked when a local cat frequently pooped inside my fenced yard, because I suspect that snacking on the “cat treats” was where one of my dogs picked up hookworm and coccidia. When a resident of my neighborhood announced plans to ask state wildlife officials to exterminate the local foxes after discovering his cat in a fight with one, I told him he should let the foxes live and take the cat inside if he didn’t want it tangling with wildlife.
But I could never for a minute believe that a shelter cat should be killed rather than adopted to a home that would let it spend time outdoors. Life for an outdoor cat may present a few perils, but it’s still life. If you could ask a cat which he would prefer: the risks of the outdoors or a syringe full of Fatal-Plus in the kill room of a shelter, I think you know very well which he would choose.
I was talking to a political candidate last week (about CAPA!) and she mentioned that the APS of Durham, which holds the contract to run the Durham County pound, would not adopt a cat to her. She lives on a quiet street in a semi-rural subdivision with large lots, and she wanted an indoor-outdoor cat. But the APS, which killed 1,742 cats in 2010, or 74% of the cats that had the misfortune to end up there, told her they do not adopt to anyone who plans to allow the cat outdoors. The APS website says that killing is the hardest part of their jobs and assures us that “A ‘second-hand’ pet in no way means second-rate.” But denying an adoption to an indoor/outdoor home while killing three-quarters of their cats each year sends a very different message to people: killing is actually appallingly easy, and these cats are expendable (that’s why the pound is right next to the landfill).
The candidate went to the Orange County Animal Shelter and got a cat.
To be fair, this is not something that only happens at the APS of Durham; they are following “best practices” set out by the Humane Society of the United States just like hundreds of other pounds. The candidate’s story immediately reminded me of Nathan Winograd’s account of his first day of work at the Tompkins County, NY, shelter. Winograd was stunned when a shelter worker denied a cat adoption to a fantastic and loving home just because the adopters planned to let the cat go outdoors. The employee turned down the adopters because HSUS guidelines said she should. In the HSUS view, it seems animals are better off dead than almost anywhere. Winograd writes:
Over forty years ago, the late Phyllis Wright of HSUS, the matriarch of today’s killing paradigm, wrote in HSUS News,
I’ve put 70,000 dogs and cats to sleep… But I tell you one thing: I don’t worry about one of those animals that were put to sleep… Being dead is not cruelty to animals.
She then described how she does worry about the animals she found homes for. From that disturbing view, HSUS coined a maxim that says we should worry about saving lives but not about ending them and successfully propagated this viewpoint to shelters across the country. For many agencies, the HSUS standard is the gold standard. It is not uncommon for shelters to state they are “run in line with HSUS policies.” Consequently, it’s very easy to surrender an animal to a shelter and very hard to adopt one because of a distrust of the public. And after turning away adopters, these shelters often turn around and kill the same animals.
Hence the weird incongruity of shelters decrying that “there just are not enough homes” for all the animals while denying adoptions to perfectly good homes . Meanwhile the carcasses pile up in the freezers or dumpsters. The horrifying “death is not cruelty” mindset is so pervasive that many shelter employees don’t even question the practice of killing mounds of animals while turning away adopters. Or if doubt creeps in, they can still justify it because the HSUS says it has to be that way.
The result: unregulated, regressive shelters slavishly following the protocols of HSUS based on an idea that no one can be trusted. The employee at Tompkins County’s SPCA embodied this attitude. Such people are not really worried about the remote possibility that the adopted cat would one day get hit by a car and killed; they kill cats every day—obviously, killing is not the concern. Instead, staff at the Tompkins County SPCA at that time—like many shelters—can simply say they are operating “by the book,” even though that meant unnecessarily killing animals every year in the process. In other words, I came face to face with mindless bureaucracy.
It’s time to end the mindless killing bureaucracy. When a pound is killing almost three-quarters of the cats that come in, they should be looking at ways to make it easier and more pleasant to adopt if they honestly want anyone to buy their claim that they have the animals’ best interests at heart. A shelter animal’s best interests are to get out of that place ALIVE. Fortunately, we know how to make that happen.
Future posts will delve more deeply into the issue of feral cats and the fighting over TNR programs, but you can learn more now by visiting Vox Felina and Alley Cat Allies.
1 I say possibly because while there are more cats owned (81.7 million) than dogs (72.1 million), there are more dog-owning households (43.0 million) than cat-owning households (37.5 million). That suggests that more households prefer dogs, but cat households have more cats per household. So which one is more popular? Beats me.
2The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has not released their 2011 numbers yet, and an employee said she has no idea when they will be released except that it won’t be any time soon. (One of my future posts will be about how NC’s statistical tracking and reporting is abysmal, especially compared with our neighbor Virginia, which has a comprehensive and user-friendly system.)