What's in a name?

Animal Humane Society President & CEO Janelle Dixon reflects on reducing euthanasia, rejecting labels, and finding common ground with no-kill advocates.


BY PAUL SORENSON

November 13, 2015

“Are you no-kill?”

That’s a question we hear often – and one few people truly understand. The answer isn’t as simple as yes or no.

Over the past seven years Animal Humane Society has strengthened its efforts to reduce euthanasia and help more animals get the medical and behavioral care they need to find loving homes. Through innovative programs and compassionate care, we placed 91 percent of the 23,072 companion animals that came through our doors last year. By every measure we exceed the criteria of the movement’s leading manifesto, Nathan Winograd’s “No Kill Equation.” Yet we don’t — and won’t — embrace the no-kill language.

For AHS President & CEO Janelle Dixon, it’s a matter of principle.

Janelle spends time with a shelter cat in one of the cat colony rooms

Despite the noble intentions of its advocates, the no-kill movement has divided the animal welfare community. Some activists have used polarizing tactics in an effort to promote no-kill as the only way to save animals. One particularly vocal faction gained prominence by demonizing organizations like AHS.

Dixon, who has spent the past 24 years working to improve the lives of animals, is saddened and frustrated by the conflict.

“Although we share many of the same goals and values, the confrontational and often misleading tactics used by some no-kill activists tend to pit us against each other,” says Dixon. “Instead of focusing on what we have in common and how we can work together, the conversation becomes about who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong. When that happens, our work is undermined, and it’s the animals and the community that lose.”

The language gap

The language associated with the no-kill movement is especially polarizing, perpetuating the conflict.

What does no-kill mean? Although the term has become mainstream, there’s no universally accepted definition. But one fact is certain: No-kill does not equal no euthanasia.

In general, an organization calling itself no-kill ensures that 90 percent of the animals that leave the shelter do so alive, through adoption or some other form of placement. However, many organizations claiming no-kill status are using less rigorous standards. They may say that they place 90 percent of adoptable animals or 90 percent of healthy animals rather than 90 percent of all animals.

“Unfortunately, no-kill doesn’t mean what most people think it means,” says Dixon. “It’s like labeling food products ‘natural’ or ‘gourmet.’ Those terms appeal to the public but without any kind of watchdog or standards they are virtually meaningless. You can’t take them at face value.”

A cat enjoys sitting on a perch in the cat colony room

No-kill terminology can be similarly deceptive. “Despite what people believe, most organizations claiming no-kill status are in fact still euthanizing animals.”

What’s worse, says Dixon, is how no-kill terminology has changed the way people view the rest of the animal welfare world.

“Alarmingly, any organization that doesn’t claim no-kill status is now labeled a kill shelter. A kill shelter. I don’t think people really understand the negative impact that has and how much it demeans and demoralizes people who work in those shelters, people who have dedicated their lives to helping animals.”

No-kill activists contend that the provocative language is warranted. Dixon strongly disagrees.

Labeling shelter workers killers isn’t just inflammatory and offensive, it’s cruel, she argues. “Killing implies malicious intent. There’s no malice involved in what we do.”

“People who work at AHS do so because they love animals and have a connection to the mission. They don’t go to work every day and pick dogs or cats they want to kill. When we make the difficult decision to euthanize an animal it’s about providing the most caring outcome for a cat with advanced cancer or an aggressive dog that can’t be placed in a home. Euthanasia is an act of compassion.”

That’s true throughout the animal welfare community, says Dixon. “Yes, unfortunately, there are still places euthanizing healthy and treatable animals, but they aren’t acting out of malice either.” AHS partners with many such shelters in communities overwhelmed with too many animals and too few adopters. Each year more than 7,000 dogs and cats facing euthanasia in other shelters come to AHS to find homes.

Many people draw conclusions about an organization’s worthiness based on these labels. “People treat it as a litmus test,” says Dixon. But focusing on just one data point — placement rate — distorts the relative impact of organizations in the community and across the country.

“You might have one organization with a 90 percent placement rate that takes in 1,000 animals in a year and another with an 80 percent placement rate that takes in 20,000. The organization that saves 900 animals may be celebrated for its no-kill status while the one that saves 16,000 is disparaged as a kill shelter. But which has a greater positive impact for animals and the community?”

two puppies sleep curled up to eachother

Philosophical differences

More important than the no-kill label, says Dixon, is an organization’s admission philosophy.

“Few organizations are truly no-kill. Commitment to the community is really the defining factor. Do you accept every animal in need or limit your intake to avoid euthanasia? When you limit admission you don’t have to make as many hard choices about life and death.”

“Open admission shelters like AHS never turn any animal away. We are committed to helping people and animals regardless of circumstance. We have a responsibility to our community and need to have the capacity to care for the animals entrusted to us. And we also believe that a shelter is a temporary refuge, not a long-term home. We understand the difficult reality that some animals may not or should not be placed in the community.”

Limited admission organizations restrict intake based on available space or criteria like health, breed, or behavior. Often operating at or above maximum capacity, they don’t have room to take in every animal brought to them. “These organizations can only call themselves no-kill because they have chosen to turn animals away. When that happens, open admission agencies like AHS must step in to fill the gap.”

Many organizations that limit admission and label themselves no-kill are avoiding euthanasia at all costs. But keeping an animal alive no matter what is not always the most humane option.

“It’s not just about living — it’s about thriving. Animals in some no-kill facilities spend months or years wasting away in a cage. The situations they live in are stressful and deplorable. Is that really a compassionate outcome for those animals?”

Finding common ground

Despite these objections, Dixon knows that many no-kill proponents share the same values as AHS. “There’s a collaborative arm of the no-kill movement that works with all kinds of agencies, has good relationships, and does not undermine others. Like us, they are striving to do everything they can to have the greatest positive impact on animals. Their efforts, like ours, are driven by a desire to act responsibly while providing animals with a second chance whenever possible.”

“There’s space in the field of animal welfare for all philosophies,” she adds. “By building relationships, sharing ideas, and supporting each other, we help more and more animals in each of our communities. After all, we’re all working toward a common goal.”

Indeed, many of the tactics embraced by the no-kill movement align with existing AHS priorities. The “No Kill Equation,” for example, outlines programs similar to those championed by AHS: rescue partnerships, volunteers, foster care, trap-neuter-return, pet retention, comprehensive adoption programs, public relations and community involvement, medical and behavioral rehabilitation, high-volume low-cost spay/neuter, proactive returns, and compassionate leadership.

Building those programs requires a sustained commitment, says Dixon. “There’s no easy fix. You can’t make meaningful progress without a long-term, comprehensive approach.”

But diligence and determination pay off. Initiatives like Bound for Home and Doing More for Animals helped AHS increase its placement rate from 59 percent in 2007 to more than 91 percent in 2015, saving thousands of lives each year.

Progress didn’t come overnight. “Step by step, through incremental advances and giant leaps forward, we’ve been able to do more and more for animals. As we reach each new milestone we’re invigorated and inspired to do even more. The change has been transformational.”

Dixon smiles, her voice swelling with emotion as she recounts that journey. “I’m so proud of how far we’ve come. Together, we’re building a legacy for animals and for AHS.”

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