Why I Work at a “Kill” Animal Shelter: The Truth about No-Kill

I was 16 when I volunteered at an animal shelter for the first time. I was attending a college-prep Catholic high school in Springfield, IL. I was in a service-focused religion class that gave us the opportunity to leave school and volunteer at a non-profit organization we were passionate about. I was passionate about helping animals, so I signed up to volunteer at our local humane society.

While attending my volunteer orientation, I heard those two words: “No-Kill.” I felt good. I was volunteering for the “right” organization. I was not adding to the problem by helping those evil people at the “kill” shelters who obviously enjoyed killing animals for fun because they were twisted human beings.

Needless to say, I was naive. I didn’t know what those words meant. 

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As I transitioned from being a teenager to an adult, I had different opportunities to see and volunteer at many different animal rescue organizations. When I was 19, I had the privilege of visiting “Best Friends Animal Society” in Kanab, UT where my life would change forever. This is where I finally started to learn the terminology of the animal rescue world. I learned what no-kill really meant, and I learned about animal issues I didn’t even know existed like breed discrimination, puppy mills, and the importance of spaying and neutering. I also fell in love with a pig and became a vegetarian, and later vegan.. but that’s a different story! 

Between the ages of 19 and 22, I had some pretty significant struggles with mental health. I was in and out of long-term mental health treatment facilities in the midwest until I was eventually sent to Texas to receive treatment at an incredible place that focused on helping young women just like me. I was at that place for a year, and as I came to the end of the program, I was able to volunteer at a local “no-kill” animal shelter. I still had the idea that volunteering my time at a “no-kill” shelter was better than volunteering my time at any local county animal shelters.

Now, if you didn’t already know, more dogs and cats die in Texas animal shelters than any other state. In 2018, about 661,000 dogs and cats entered Texas shelters. About 481,000 dogs and cats were saved, and about 114,000 were killed. That means that Texas was able to save about 72.8% of the dogs and cats that entered the shelters. (Information from Best Friends Animal Society Community Dashboard). 

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Now, before I talk about my experience volunteering at the no-kill shelter, I think it’s important to tell you a little bit about the different types of animal shelters and rescue groups, what they do, and how they work together to make the world a better place for dogs and cats in America.

Municipal Animal Shelters vs. Private Animal Shelters and Rescue Groups 

Not all animal shelters and rescue groups are the same. In fact, they are wildly different. Let me break it down for you: 

Municipal Shelters 

This type of shelter is generally run by the local government, usually a city or a county. They are part of the government just like the police department, the fire department, the public health department, etc. In fact, oftentimes they are run under one of these departments. I commonly see them run under the police department or the public health department. These animal shelters are given a budget by the city or county and are contractually obligated to serve the public. 

Often times that means they are required to take in EVERY SINGLE animal in the area that they serve no matter what. Even if the animal is sick or old and they don’t have the resources to provide that animal medical care. Even if 15 people decide to surrender their animals and only 2 people decide to adopt that day. Even if they literally do not have the kennel space to take in the animal. They are required to take every single animal.  

When a shelter is obligated to take in every animal no matter what, they are considered an “open-intake” or “open-admission” shelter. 

Private Shelters and Rescue Groups 

Private shelters are often non-profit organizations. They are not run by the government. Although there are private shelters that are open-intake, more times than not, they are “limited-intake” or “closed-intake.” This means they do NOT take in every animal that is brought to them. 

This means if they are full, they can say “Sorry, we can’t take any more animals.” This means they can say, “Sorry, we don’t accept dogs over 30lbs,”  or “Sorry, we don’t have the ability to help neonatal kittens.” This means if they don’t have the funding or resources to take on an injured animal, they don’t have to. Some private animal shelters don’t take animals from the public at all. 

Some of these groups don’t even have a physical building. They are completely “foster-based,” meaning that every animal they take into their program goes straight into a kind person’s home who is willing to take care of the animal until they are adopted or transferred to another organization. These groups often can’t take on a new animal until they find a foster willing to care for that animal. 

Because these groups have the ability to limit the number of animals brought into their organization and don’t have to take on more animals than they can handle, they are oftentimes “no-kill.” 

Exceptions to the Rule 

Recently, I have begun to see some municipal shelters become “limited-intake” or “closed-intake.” I think the idea is to stop making the shelter a dumping ground for unwanted animals. It makes it a lot more difficult for a person to just surrender their animal when things get hard. I have even seen some municipal shelters that will refuse to take in stray animals that people find if they can’t help. 

I do see a problem with this model. I understand why it is done. It can be so frustrating to see how easy it is for citizens to just dump their animals at the shelter, but I also think it can make things worse because people just start dumping their animals on the side of the road. 

We have a municipal shelter close to us that has a “limited-intake” model and people will find a stray animal in that city and try to bring it to them only to be turned away. Then, the person (who is now angry) tries to bring the animal to us, but we can’t take animals from outside of our contractual region, so the person is just kind of screwed. They were trying to “do the right thing” by picking up an animal that was running loose, and now they have no place to bring the animal. 

I think there is probably a better way to do things, but that is for a different post! I just wanted to make it clear that there are exceptions to the common open-intake municipal shelter vs. closed-intake private shelter model. 

Is a Municipal Shelter or Private Shelter/Rescue Group better? 

Honestly, they are both necessary. 

Private shelters and rescue groups often pull their animals from municipal shelters. This can REALLY help the municipal shelter, but it can be slightly frustrating. I see a lot of rescue groups “cherry-pick” the highly adoptable pets out of the municipal shelter. For example, they will pull all the small fluffy dogs that the municipal shelter could easily adopt out, and then leave all the large pitbull looking dogs that are more difficult to adopt at the municipal shelter. 

Do I think these groups do it because they are bad groups? Absolutely not. Adopting out small fluffy dogs helps pay the bills. These private shelters and rescue groups generally don’t get any funding, so they rely on donations and adoption fees to save more animals. They can adopt out way more small dogs and do it a lot more quickly than they can adopt out large dogs. 

A good rescue group will usually pull a few highly adoptable pets from a municipal shelter, and then take one or two more difficult cases, such as a large dog or an injured cat or a dog with behavioral issues. Does this always happen? No. I see rescue groups who just pull the highly adoptable pets and nothing else. Do I hate these groups? Still no. When you are a municipal shelter constantly struggling for kennel space, any dog or cat that leaves the shelter with a rescue group is a good thing. 

What I am trying to do is educate you, not shame rescue groups or municipal shelters. It is just important for you to know what is really going on so that you can help and maybe not be so judgemental towards “kill” shelters. 

My Experience Volunteering at a “No-Kill” Shelter 

Getting back to my story, I started volunteering at a “no-kill” animal shelter in Texas when I was 21. I had a great time walking all the dogs and introducing them to potential adopters. I was passionate about the work, but I started to notice that none of the dogs looked like pit bulls. I knew from my time at Best Friends that there were surely plenty of pit bulls in the area that were in need of rescue. 

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Then, I read an article in the local newspaper about the group I was volunteering for being non-transparent about the dogs and cats they were euthanizing. They were euthanizing animals for medical and behavioral problems that were easily treatable, and then not counting those animals in their numbers. To be honest, I was not shocked. I always had this feeling that they weren’t super trustworthy. Later I learned that although they were an “all-breed” rescue, they refused to take in pitbull looking dogs, even though pitbulls make up the highest portion of the American dog population. 

This was when my opinion about “no-kill” shelters started to change. I realized that to some groups the numbers and how they looked to the public meant more than the animals they were rescuing. However, I also believe that part of this is kind of the publics’ fault. Let me explain… 

Public Perception of Animal Shelters and the Keyboard Warriors 

While I LOVE animal advocates and I identify as an animal advocate myself, I think it is important for any animal advocate to be educated in what they are saying and truly understand the impact their words or actions are going to have. 

Private animal rescue groups and shelters are fragile. They are only able to stay open and help more animals through grants, donations from the public, and adoption fees. Municipal animal shelters are also fragile. I guarantee that the funding most municipal animal shelters get from the government is not enough to implement life-saving programs. They also need grants and donations from the public to save more animals. 

When any rescue or shelter is slandered by “animal advocates” or keyboard warriors who don’t have the full story, their whole group or shelter can crash and burn. Most of the time, the animals are the ones who suffer in that situation. Now, don’t get me wrong. It is important to point out liars, animal cruelty, etc. Absolutely take down a group who is harming animals or is doing more bad than good. Sit down with the shelter manager or even your local government officials if you have concerns.  

However, don’t ruin a shelter or rescue group’s image if you don’t have the full story.

Example: 

Karen’s Facebook post in a community group about the local municipal shelter:  “Oh my god, they are a kill shelter! I won’t help or adopt from there. I don’t support animal killers. You shouldn’t either.”      

What is actually going on: 

The community has an animal overpopulation issue. People are dropping off more strays and surrendering more animals than the shelter can handle. The shelter doesn’t have enough funding to hire the staff required to help the animals get out as fast as they are coming in. 

What Karen’s Facebook post just did: 

Joey was going to adopt a dog from the shelter today, but after reading Karen’s post he is not going to anymore. He doesn’t want people to think he supports animal killers. 

The shelter starts to become less transparent about what is going on behind closed doors because they are afraid that more people will stop supporting them, and if that happens more dogs and cats will have to die. 

What Karen could have done that would have actually been helpful:  

Karen could have reached out to the shelter about volunteering. She is really good at taking pictures, and the shelter needs better pictures of the dogs and cats for their website. Most people see the animal they want to adopt online first, so the pictures are really helpful. 

Karen could have helped save 10 dogs that day instead of accidentally stopping 1 from being saved. 

Moral of this story:  

We have a problem. This country, and especially the state of Texas, has an animal overpopulation problem. This is not the municipal animal shelter or the private animal rescue group’s fault. It’s not your fault. But, it is everyone’s problem. The only way it is going to get better is if we work together as a team and if we are transparent about the problem. 

If an animal shelter can’t tell the public they need help without being chased around with pitchforks, most of the time they won’t ask. Again, this hurts the animals more than anything. 

Some shelters will ask anyway, and I am proud of those shelters. They put on their metaphorical bulletproof vest and let the hurtful and painful comments roll off their back because they know it is necessary in order to help the animals. 

Wouldn’t it be cool if they didn’t have to put on any metaphorical armor? 

Conclusion 

I realized after my time volunteering at the non-transparent animal rescue that I could do more good helping out the “kill shelters.” Two years ago I took a job working for one. I have literally helped save the lives of hundreds of animals. I have painfully had to say goodbye to hundreds too. 

There are some days I come home, sit down, and cry. There are some days I come home filled with hope and joy. 

I urge you to be apart of the solution that is anchored in love. Help your local “kill’ shelters. We need you. 

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Best Friends Animal Society made this really cool online community dashboard that gives you the ability to see how well your community is doing in the no-kill movement. Check out your community, and see how you can help. 

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