Saturday, June 8, 2013

Stemming the flood of animals

This past week I was at one of the largest shelters in the United States. At one point, I was standing by a door chatting with some of my co-workers for ten minutes, and during those ten minutes we saw three sets of people coming in to surrender their dogs. This shelter takes in about 100 animals a day, 30,000 animals a year.

My co-workers and I realized that the biggest problem this shelter faced was its massive intake. Nothing else they could do to solve their problems would be more effective than reducing that. In fact, it has been shown again and again that euthanasia in shelters mirrors intake: more intake means more euthanasia, and less intake means less euthanasia. But how do you reduce intake?

When I was catching up on my life this morning with my husband, I told him about managed intake: the shelter only accepts owner-surrendered animals that they have room for. If they don’t have space, they don’t accept the animal. The animal may be put on a waiting list, and ideally the shelter offers support during the wait (food if the owner can’t afford to feed the animal, behavioral advice, help finding animal-friendly housing).

In the case of animals that the shelter knows that they will have great difficulty placing (old, sick, etc.), they will let the owner know that they will immediately euthanize the animal. This sounds cold, but the alternative that many shelters practice is to take the animal in and euthanize it without warning the owner that this is inevitable. (No one likes conflict, least of all institutions run by local government.) This approach shifts the responsibility onto the owner. Although many people who surrender animals to shelters know that the animal may be killed, it is much easier to convince yourself that that could never happen to your animal (which you know is so wonderful) if there is some chance that the animal will survive. This puts the choice of euthanasia onto the shelter, and the blame onto the shelter. But moving the decision back to the owner means that the owner has to deal with the decision, and hopefully find another solution, or at least take the experience into account the next time they acquire an animal or have difficulties with a pet. (Is the experience of surrendering a pet to an unknown fate more difficult than the experience of having a healthy pet euthanized? I have my own guess, and you can make yours.)

My husband (kindly playing the foil in the Socratic dialogues of this blog) asked me about the unintended consequences of such a policy. The shelter is mandated by the county to accept stray dogs. Will the policy result in more people untruthfully representing their surrendered pets as strays? Will it even result in more animals being abandoned on the street?

We don’t know; the research hasn’t been done. Some shelters have experimented with managed intake, and their experience has been that this policy does not actually cause very many people to do reprehensible things. Mostly, people will put their animals on the waiting list (perhaps with some yelling at the shelter employees first), and then some of them will surrender the animal when room is available, and some will find other options (like a friend who wants a dog), and some will decide to keep the animal after all. And some will be lost to follow up, so perhaps those people do put the animal on the street.

But here is what I think about it: abandoning an animal on the street is illegal. So if a shelter institutes managed intake, and as a result some people break the law, whose fault is that? Is it the shelter’s fault? In my book, the shelter is behaving very responsibly by refusing to accept animals that they cannot care for, and by being honest that a new animal which is accepted must be euthanized. Some support for owners who need it is essential, and should be considered a part of managed intake. If an owner responds to this policy by breaking the law, I feel that the blame is with them. Perhaps increased enforcement of animal cruelty laws (which include neglect) is the proper answer to this problem.

More and more shelters are considering managed intake. I think there will be anger in some communities at first, but I am very hopeful that if enough shelters institute this policy, there will eventually be a sea change in our culture’s approach to unwanted animals. Whose problem is an unwanted animal? The owner's.


  1. Although this is related by tangential to your main point of manage intake, have you seen data which tracks the "flood" of animals into shelters over time? From the data I've seen, shelter intakes are dropping in real numbers and have been for decades despite constant growth in both population and animal ownership.

    So aren't the flood waters already going out? The more I look for good data the more I see shelter organizations obfuscating their data, being vague about it and also combining dogs and cats (I imagine because they view dogs as more sympathetic to fund raising dollars and yet cats are both more numerous in the country and a higher percent of the animals abandoned to shelters).

    Have any reliable and good data that is current? I'm interested in seeing it.

  2. Yes, the best data is found at Maddie's Fund. I'd start here:

    I concur, things are improving! But just because it's lots better than it was (and it is LOTS better than it was) doesn't mean it is OK. You can't sit back and say "well, it's improving and that means that eventually it will all work out." Those changes in numbers have been hard won, and continuing changes are still hard won. And there are still plenty of shelters, like the one that inspired this post, at which the live release rate is unacceptably low. This shelter's live release rate has improved from about 50% to about 70%. Huge improvement! But it still means that about 3 out of 10 animals are dying. That's not a place at which I feel comfortable sitting back.