On Kill Shelters

(All photos are of real shelter pets from the Oktibbeha County Humane Society, taken during my year working there. These pets have long been adopted, but there are hundreds more adorable critters just like them looking for homes).

What do you picture when you hear the word “kill shelter?” If you’re like most people, you picture ragged animals in filthy cages, being handled by mechanical employees who go through their day with disinterested eyes.

That’s certainly what I pictured before I became initiated to the world of animal rescue. It’s hard not to. The word kill is evocative of blood on the floor and cruelty.

A scruffy terrier mix being held by a male shelter employee.

But those images do a lot of harm. They cause people to avoid shelters–instead dumping dogs and cats on rural streets where they starve to death. Where they’re forced to watch as the humans they trusted drive away and leave them. It causes people to avoid donating to organizations that really, really deserve the money.

And when it comes to acquiring their next pet–it means that people avoid “kill” shelters. Because to adopt there would be to support them, which would somehow indicate that you’re okay with animals being euthanized.

In reality–if you aren’t okay with animals being euthanized–you should support those shelters with every bone in your body. You should be volunteering, donating and adopting.

The actual name for a kill shelter is an open-intake shelter. What that means is that the shelter (which is usually funded by the county) has to accept every single pet brought to them. They can’t turn animals away when they’re full. They can’t pick and choose from the animals brought to them, so that their walls are filled with only the most adoptable and desirable.

An orange cat looks up at the camera. Its eyes are yellow-gold and its whiskers are alert.

Instead, they welcome every animal that comes to their door (although some open-intake shelters do have geographical restrictions)–no matter how sick or undesirable or scruffy. No matter how full they already are.

This is different from a private rescue organization or limited intake shelter, which only accept a limited number of animals. That means, when they no longer have enough space, they can turn animals away. When you hear the words “no-kill” shelter, it doesn’t mean that they just opt not to kill animals, regardless of how full they get. It means that they turn animals away–to face the harsh realities of the world without their help.

A pitbull looks off to the right of the screen, its lips pulled up into a smile. The dog is brindled--brown and black. Its eyes are kind and soft brown.

It means that they can weigh up an animal’s attributes while deciding whether to take it on–how cute? How healthy? How likely to get adopted quickly? Often, puppies, and well-behaved non-bully breeds get pulled and brought into rescues, while pitties (who face breed stereotypes and apartment restrictions) and sicker or older dogs are left behind.

Meanwhile, the shelter workers are a far cry from the disinterested zombies I’d initially imagined. The people in shelters are there because they love animals. Their own homes are filled with cats and dogs who no one else wanted. They spend their days loving on animals and nights worrying about them. Every single one of the lives in their hands weighs heavily.

A black dog looks hopefully up at a shelter volunteer.

During my year working for an open-intake shelter in Mississippi, I never stopped working. Just as it’d seem like things were under control–the shelter was only half full, we’d had a ton of adoptions, and we’d transported a new load of animals up north to find their homes–a new wave of pets would hit the door.

A pittie who just had puppies. Three orphaned kittens too young to survive on their own who need around the clock bottle feeding. Two dogs whose necks were so scarred from being tied out, their ribs so stark, that it hurt to look at them.

The parade was endless. But the people inside the shelter were always there–waiting to patiently welcome those animals. To pick the ticks off of them, to bandage their wounds, to patiently coax them out of their shells with treats and love–and sometimes, to offer the first kind touch that they’d ever felt in their lives.

When you witness it, it is so clearly a labor of love. Shelter employees may be exhausted, strung out and stressed out. But they’re ever patient. Ever kind. Always looking for a way to get an animal adopted–even if it means paying for medical treatment out of their own pocket, or spending hours coaxing the personality out of a shutdown cat or dog.

Euthanasia–putting an animal to sleep–is used as an absolute last resort, when no more fosters can be induced to take on another critter. When every single cage is full (and often dogs and cats have been moved into the offices and back rooms as well, to try and squeeze in just one more pet). When it is no longer humane to increase the capacity of the shelter by accepting more pets.

It kills everyone to do it. Those are hard days at the shelter. Tears are shed into furry necks. Frantic calls are made to try to get animals out. Adoption prices are lowered to mere dollars in a desperate last attempt to get adopters in.

But so often, no one shows up. No adopters bite on the special. No fosters can be prevailed on to take just one more pet.

Do not vilify open-intake shelters. Do not vilify the people who work at them. The animals who don’t make it out are ached over. They weigh like stones on every employee’s heart.

I still remember my favorites, still think about them and wish that things could have been different–that I could have split myself into two or three or four so that I could’ve brought them home and been their girl and given them the lives that they deserved.

But it isn’t the shelter workers–or the shelter itself who have failed them.

It is the people who fail to spay and neuter their pets. It is the people who dump their dog on a rural road and cross their fingers. It is the people breeding puppies in their backyards with no plan for where they’ll go.

It is all the people who would never donate to an open-intake shelter–even though their donation could be the difference between life and death for an animal.

[An example: $300 pays for heartworm treatment for an average-sized dog. Heartworm disease is prevalent throughout the southeast, and many people will not adopt a heartworm positive dog. By donating, you enable a dog to get treated, which means that dog will be able to go on transport to the northeast (where adoption rates are much higher) or get adopted locally].

It is all the people who opt to get their pet off of Craigslist or from a breeder, instead of adopting at the shelter.

So the next time you hear the term kill-shelter, don’t picture the animals that die there–it simply is not a realistic representation of what an open-intake shelter is.

Instead, picture the hard work–the sweat, the blood, the tears, the millions of sacrifices–that the people who work there put in to take care of animals that the rest of society has abandoned.

And realize that for many of these animals, kill-shelters are their only chance at beginning a new life.

Their success depends on you: volunteer, donate, foster, or adopt from your local shelter.

10 thoughts on “On Kill Shelters

  1. Thank you for this! I had never thought of kill shelters in this way at all and imaged them as horrible, mercenary places.

      1. Thank you!! I foster for a county shelter, including bottle baby kittens and my heart goes with each one of them. Our shelter is often full and our foster coordinator and our rescue coordinator work day and night to make room for that one more baby. This article is spot on!

      2. So glad it resonated! The rescue world is a hard one. I miss it sometimes, but also am glad to have a little bit of distance from the constant cycle of success and loss. Thank you for all that you do for those bottle kittens! They’re the hardest to find spots for!

    1. I didn’t realize I could leave comments thus the msg from Instagram. You do such a justice to kill shelters. I still want to share via FB. But I want to make sure I don’t offend those at the shelter.

      1. I loved your IG message! Thanks so much for reading. Also–I think you’re probably in the clear, a bunch of them shared it too. 🙂

  2. Oh, Sarah, this is wonderful!! Every sentence is true and I wish this could be published for the world to see! We sure miss you at OCHS!!

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