Monday, February 2, 2009
That's how some animal advocates saw the sudden closing of the Pennsylvania SPCA's Monroe County animal shelter Thursday.
Others consider it a tragedy.
The county is brimming with animal advocates. But why, with so many willing to rescue animals from abuse, neglect and homelessness, can't they work together?
Two opposing philosophies exist in the work of animal shelters: kill or no-kill.
Kill shelters believe euthanizing animals is a sad, inevitable reality.
Too many animals and too little space leaves shelter workers to make life-and-death decisions.
"We never looked forward to it. It is a fact of life in a shelter. A good day was when we did not have to put something down," said Ann Barton, a former Stroudsburg shelter worker.
Barton worked at the Stroudsburg shelter for 10 years and was let go in February 2008. She recalled a day when people kept bringing in cats, many more than the shelter could possibly hold. Barton started euthanizing cats in the morning and continued all that relentless day. She killed about 60 cats and kittens and at least one dog.
"It wasn't easy. When you start to do quite a few in one day, you have to emotionally block it outside of your mind. You have to think you are doing a favor for it, even though you tried to adopt it out when it came through the door. You didn't know if they were going to be placed," Barton said.
At the time, shelter workers were told to take every animal that came through the door, she said.
'It's was like, Oh my God. Another one'
When Erik Hendricks was chief executive of the PSPCA, the rule was not to adopt out any pit bull dogs. They were euthanized.
"Before we signed in a friendly pit bull, we'd try to talk people out of leaving them with us," Barton said.
When boxes of very young puppies came in, it was difficult to tell the breed. According to Barton, any puppies that looked like they might be pit bulls were killed.
When Howard Nelson became PSPCA CEO in 2007, he lifted the ban on pit bull adoption and ended the breed-profiling euthanasia practice.
There was no shortage of animals that needed to be dealt with. People brought in animals that were sick, aggressive or ordered to be put down by dog law. Others trapped and brought in feral cats.
"It was like, my God! Another one! What are you going to do? Where are you going to put them," Barton said. Almost daily, someone from the public would come in and ask to have their sick old pet put to sleep. "Those were toughest to do. You knew someone loved them." Euthanization was necessary with the volume of animals that came into the shelter, according to Barton. If she started a shelter today, it would be, regrettably but realistically, a kill shelter.
Critics of the no-kill philosophy say no-kill shelters sometimes become animal hoarding situations as organizers take in animals more quickly than homes are found.
"No-kill is a wonderful goal to have. Maybe down the road it would be possible. Right now there's a long way to go in Monroe," said Jo Valentine of Monroe Animal League.
She says it takes lots of space and money to make a no-kill shelter work.
"They will spend so much money to keep animals alive," Valentine said. That money could go to help multiple animals instead.
The fiscal reality extends to feral cats. Some say wild cats can be domesticated, but Valentine says it takes so much money and time that the cash is better spent on saving more sociable cats.
'It is a big job'
The no-kill movement seeks to minimize killing in shelters. While most will still euthanize a sick, old animal, no-kill shelters try harder to resocialize ornery pets and avoid killing sick animals that can be rehabilitated.
"The ideal of every good-hearted person is no-kill. The problem is finding the leadership to make it happen, because it is a big job," said Nelson Lauver, a no-kill advocate from Stroud Township.
"A lot of people in no-kill argue that there is no overpopulation problem, just poor management. I think it's both. The population today is a monumental problem, but with a good business model, I believe there is a home for every unwanted pet," Lauver said.
Naomi Gauntlett of East Stroudsburg founded a no-kill cat rescue called "Animals Can't Talk" last year. Her vet bills are proof that she nurses sick animals to health instead of killing them. Gauntlett's solution to overcrowding is to turn animals away when she is full. But what if everybody did that?
"If you have a no-kill shelter and can't take in animals, you are not taking care of the problem," said Jo Valentine of Monroe Animal League.
One of the loudest pleas for no-kill solutions in Monroe County comes from Lori Hoffman, a founding member of Friends of Monroe County Homeless Animals. Hoffman became interested in the concept after volunteering as a dog walker at the Stroudsburg PSPCA shelter.
She became attached to a pit bull that was too scared to come out of its cage. When she learned the dog was going to be put down, "I begged them not to. They said 'No, it's too late. His time is up,'" Hoffman said. She went home, called a pit bull rescue and the next morning had a spot for that dog. But the dog was already dead. She researched and learned that shelters are a leading killer of healthy pets in the United States and that there are other options. She started to make noise.
'People think you're a nut'
"I was told 'You can't say they are killing animals at the shelter because it will bring bad publicity.' We can't pretend nothing is wrong. Nothing gets fixed that way," Hoffman said.
She believes feral cats have a right to live their lives in the woods and people who love animals have a right to find them homes.
"I was shocked to learn that if you want to save every animal, people think you're a nut. Yes we can. You don't have to kill animals to make more room for more animals," Hoffman said.
The 44 percent kill rate that was last reported at the Stroudsburg shelter was not a success to Hoffman.
"It angers me," she said.
That 44 percent rate is actually better than counties such as Tioga (51 percent), Susquehanna (45 percent) and Montour (58 percent). PSPCA officials said the reduction in euthanasia rates at the Monroe shelter was due to changes with transfers to rescue groups and foster care along with increased transfers to the main shelter in Philadelphia.
Garrett Elwood is founder and president of Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia, a 400-member watchdog and advocacy group. He came to the no-kill philosophy after considering adopting a dog. Instead of an adoption, he found that more animals would be saved if he opened his home to foster pets.
Instead of saving one dog, Elwood has fostered 28 dogs, two rabbits and one cat — all now placed in permanent homes.
He describes the animal control question as a community issue that needs a community solution. One shelter or rescue group can't do it alone. Elwood suggests a trap-neuter-return program for feral cats and a network of foster homes, rescues and shelters working together.
"It's not about space. No matter what your capacity is, you're going to fill it up. It's about turnover. You have to make as many partnerships as you can. If you are getting close to 90 percent saved, that is considered no-kill. Some animals cannot be rehabilitated," Elwood said.
He would like the whole country to embrace the no-kill philosophy.
"It just seems like the right thing to do. I can't understand why people wouldn't feel strongly about it," he said.