The State of Sheltering

Amid the No-Kill Revolution

| shelter photography by Alex LepeWARNING: This story contains graphic content and may not be suitable for all readers.

Who wouldn’t support a proposal that no animals are ever put to death because they are unloved or unwanted? The answer may surprise you. It is the people who spend their lives trying to save those very animals. Proposals for no-kill statutes are sweeping across the nation, prompted in part by Nathan Winograd and his No-Kill Nation organization. And politicians and just ordinary folk are leaping on board. Who wants to be labeled a killer?

The premise of Winograd’s philosophy appears to offer something for everyone. Everyone wants to save as many animals as possible. His plan is stop euthanizing healthy and adoptable animals and the world will be a happy place. What his plan fails to address is suffering.

What happens to the animals left outside the doors of a full shelter? They have nowhere to go but back to the streets. What happens when dogs or cats are forced to live in a kennel for months, sometimes years? What happens to the shelter staff that has to watch these pets suffer?

The problem of stray and abandoned animals is so great that no-kill sometimes means do-warehouse, in abject and crowded conditions where the eventual result is also death but not a quick one.

Animal shelters face the most daunting of tasks. How to save animal lives through adoptions, how to rescue animals from the most horrific of environments, how to educate the community on ways to prevent the cycle of neglect from continuing, and how to explain to a busy and distracted community why they do what they do, when the numbers of euthanized animals sometimes outnumber the smiling furry faces in newly found homes. It is a job that offers a path to self-destruction for the weak at heart, and it is also a job that offers a reason for stronger souls to return every day.

Sandy Grambort worked in animal welfare and sheltering for more than 25 years, including both main shelters in Fort Worth. In 2013 she left the manager’s position at Irving Animal Services in part because of what she viewed as unrealistic expectations and pressure from that community’s volunteer corps, what she defined as “unrestrained volunteer advocates who advocate for animals but have forgotten that people—good people — drive this industry and have done so for years.” 

The Mansfield resident was honored for her accomplishments in animal welfare as one of Fort Worth, Texas magazine’s Top People for 2010.

“We cannot save every life,” Grambort said then. “We can make every life better, even if the length of that life does not meet our preference. To those who profess the no-kill perspective, I say, ‘Go live in a cage or kennel for three minutes, three days, three months, three years. Deny yourself the comfort of soft, the peace of quiet, the calming feel of touch, the gentleness and immensity of singular love. Then ask yourself again, ‘Is it worth it?’ Is life for life itself a kindness to the animals we profess to want to help?”

We hope to give our readers some insight into the challenges our Fort Worth animal shelters face on a daily basis, particularly with added pressure from special interest groups. We also will learn from people who have experienced first-hand the implications of the no-kill movement, including the emotional toll it takes on shelter staff, the growing problem of hoarding by nonprofit rescue groups, shelter overcrowding, and the impact of long-term sheltering and boarding of pets. 

The implications of the no-kill movement includes an emotional toll on shelter staff, the growing problem of hoarding by nonprofit rescue groups, shelter overcrowding, and the impact of long-term sheltering and boarding of pets. Hoarding photos courtesy of Kristina Bowman Photography.

Is Fort Worth ready to become a “no-kill” city? Fort Worth businessman Bill Boecker says NO. Boecker is on the boards of both Fort Worth shelters—the Humane Society of North Texas and the Fort Worth Animal Shelter. He also is on the board of the Saving Hope Foundation, which reached more than 7,000 animals last year through the Hope Mobile and within area community centers in the high-risk areas of Fort Worth. The Hope Mobile is a mobile animal surgical hospital. This year the foundation hopes to reach over 17,000 animals, both through a partnership with the Spay Neuter Network and also through a new partnership with Texas Coalition for Animal Protection. These animals are spayed/neutered, vaccinated, chipped, and registered with the city. Boecker was instrumental in developing a public-private partnership to open two PetSmart Charities Adoption Centers in Fort Worth.

“My understanding of no-kill as we sit here today, as noble a mission as it is, it’s not practical, as much as we all want it to be,” Boecker says. “The only way we’ll even start to move in that direction is if we do a tremendously different approach to our spay and neuter programs. Otherwise, as much as adoptions are tremendously important, you’re putting your finger in the dike. We just can’t get there without a different approach. And maybe we can’t get there with it, but we can sure make headway. Unless this happens, we’re all on a treadmill, and I don’t think we’re keeping up with the treadmill. I think we’re falling back every day that we don’t do something effective,” he says.

“I believe that at some point in our lives we will be able to save every animal that needs to be saved,” says Bonnie Hill, Spay Neuter Network board member and retired director. “We’re so far now from that point that really all these no-kill groups do is take money away from organizations and groups that are trying to do the right thing. And then they get people to believe a myth that’s not possible at this moment. That’s a scary thing,” Hill continues. “People start talking bad about the city shelters and shelter staff, when they don’t even understand what the goals of the city shelters are. It’s really confusing when you bring in groups like this who say it’s possible, but they don’t have a solution or the ability to do it.”

The Humane Society of North Texas (HSNT) in Fort Worth is a nonprofit animal shelter, and the only “open door” shelter in North Texas. That means they must take in all animals, even chickens and goats, regardless of the shelter’s capacity or resources. On the best of days, this is no easy task. As of July 10, HSNT was at capacity. That’s 300 animals in the main shelter on E. Lancaster and a total of 200 in the additional adoption centers in Keller and Benbrook. The rehabilitation center operates to treat sick dogs and cats. It also is full.

Whitney Hanson has served as the shelter’s director of development and communications since Feb. 2014. Previously, she worked for the Austin Humane Society.

HSNT gets its share of differing public opinions, including those from the no-kill advocates, Hanson says. 

“In Austin, which is a ‘no-kill’ city, we got a lot of criticism for not being able to house more animals and make a bigger impact,” Hanson says. “The reality is problems exist even in Austin, where they are lucky enough to have well-established low-cost spay and neuter services and medical facilities. Their intake is lower, but the capacity still outweighs the rescue group capabilities.”

In fact, Austin has had numerous problems since the city council established the strict “90 percent live outcome” goal in 2010, which is a successor to the city’s previous no-kill policy. According to a recent 13-page city auditor’s report, this isn’t working well. Animal Services did not have “sufficient facilities and resources allocated to meet the city’s live outcome goal and remain in line with state requirements and industry best practices.” 

With the Austin Animal Center exceeding capacity by 32 to 96 dogs a month from Oct. 2013 through Aug. 2014, the auditor’s report found animals being housed in temporary cages over long periods of time. They were not receiving at least 15 minutes of care time per day for feeding and cleaning, which is the minimum time recommended by the National Animal Control Association.

The overcrowding, the report notes, is due to the no-kill policy. A new shelter in Austin opened in 2011. Two years later, the shelter was so overcrowded that it began turning away owners who wanted to surrender pets. This restriction eventually was lifted.

In addition to chronic overcrowding, public safety became a concern. Animal Services failed to respond to 29 percent of citizen calls about aggressive, injured or stray animals until 12 or more hours after the call was made, according to the report. The auditor attributes the delay to officers being “encouraged to spend significant time driving around trying to locate the owners of stray animals,” instead of taking them to an already full shelter.

“Unfortunately, it seems like the no-kill movement has evolved from noble into the no-kill people on one side and the shelters on the other,” says Stacy Smith, vice president of Animal Advocacy, Humane Society of Flower Mound. “It’s a shame considering one was created to help the other. No-kill was out there before Nathan Winograd grabbed onto it, but what no-kill meant was you save the ones you could save. There was a whole plan laid out as to what was considered adoptable. There was logic and reasoning to it, and it was manageable and doable for any shelter to get started on it. I hate what it has become,” Smith continues. “Now it’s accusatory toward the shelters. These are the people who are putting in 60-70 hours a week. A lot of times they’re the only ones working in some of these rural shelters. It breaks their heart when they have to euthanize an animal. Then, you’re going to come along with the no-kill movement and accuse them of being murderers. It’s demoralizing.”

Karen Deeds is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She and her husband, Bob, own Canine Connection in Fort Worth, where they’ve trained dogs collectively for more than 50 years. About 70 percent of her clients are rescued dogs.

“In an overcrowded no-kill situation in a shelter, when you’re feeding five dogs in one kennel, there will be fights,” Deeds says. “The ones that survive the fights are so mentally damaged that it will be difficult to get them adopted and live a normal life. And if somebody can guarantee me that they can fix behavior problems, then they can fix the prison system so that we don’t ever need prisons again. There are some sad decisions, and people have to make decisions for the dogs, because it’s the dogs that suffer,” she continues. “When people outside of the shelter and rescue community start putting pressure on those communities to do the right thing, the right thing is what’s best for the dog, not for their little bleeding hearts, not for their ‘Oh, we can save them all’ mentality. A dog that’s been in kennel and has chewed his own toenails off is not a happy dog. Maybe you can find a happy dog to fill that dog’s place and let that one go.”

At HSNT, overpopulation is a continual problem. HSNT does not compute live outcome numbers.

“There are so many factors involved in those numbers, and people don’t calculate it in the same way,” Hanson explains. “There are organizations where, if a kitten fails to thrive and dies overnight in a foster home, that’s counted against live release rate. In other organizations, it’s not. In a lot of ways, it’s a subjective term. Hanson says that people want to talk about numbers because it makes it easier for them “to wrap their minds around it. From an operational standpoint, numbers don’t really tell us what we need to know.”

Hanson says that putting together the buzz word “no-kill” was an ingenious move because it spread like wildfire. “No one wants to kill animals. And that’s never a shelter goal. We’re all striving to euthanize less often. Our goal is to save as many lives as possible and to do so in a way that we’re comfortable with the care we’re providing each animal while they are in the shelter and after they leave the shelter.”

There is a new movement in some communities that’s separate from the no-kill movement.

It is the goal of local shelters to get as many animals adopted as possible.  The Humane Society of North Texas rehabilitation center operates to treat sick dogs and cats. NOTE: Puppies seen on opposite page were photographed as they were recovering from anesthesia.

“Instead of that magical 90 percent live-release number, they are calculating an effective no-kill-type number for each community,” Hanson says. “So instead of trying to strive to reach no-kill, they are trying to calculate what percentage they can reach to get animals into quality homes instead of hoarding situations. We’ll see if the trend continues and if it comes to Texas.”

The Fort Worth Animal Shelter is a municipal shelter. Code Compliance Director, Brandon Bennett, explains the two sides of the shelter’s purpose: “There’s the public safety side where we go out and respond to bites and dangerous dogs. We pick up stray animals and deal with cruelty issues. Those dogs are taken to the shelter and held for 72 hours,” Bennett explains. “We try to get them adopted as quickly as we can, but if they’re not adopted and there’s no space in the shelter, then we have to look at euthanasia. That’s all funded by taxpayer dollars.”

The shelter also runs its own rescue side. They reach out and seek volunteers for private donations. “We started doing this in 2010,” Bennett says. “Prior to that, our live release rate was 30 percent or less. Since doing that, live release is up to around 74 percent. We’ve come a long way.”

As to the no-kill philosophy, Bennett says Fort Worth does not subscribe to “any one theory on how to save animals. We’re not Fort Worth ASPCA or Fort Worth Humane Society of the United States or Fort Worth No-Kill. We simply work with all of the different groups.”

Dr. Tim Morton, Assistant Director of Code Compliance and Animal Welfare, says the shelter gets the same kind of pressures from anti-no-kill groups as they do from no-kill groups. “Anti-no-kill groups say that unless an animal is outside and never contained in a kennel, it’s somehow abused and would be better off euthanized,” Morton says. “We’re being called murderers on one side and abusers on the other.”

The pressure is even tougher on the staff, Morton adds. “We value their mental health. Everyone who works at the shelter can understand and accept that euthanasia is sometimes necessary. They are less comfortable and it causes more stress if they’re told that we’re mistreating animals when we know we’re working very hard every day to try to give every animal a chance.”

Rescue hoarding is becoming more commonly rescue groups and volunteers trying to save animals from being euthanized. Much of this is a direct result of the no-kill movement. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that there are up to 6,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year, affecting 250,000 animals. An estimated 25 percent of those hoarders are nonprofit rescue groups or shelter operators who are crossing the line and not doing due diligence when they release animals.

Dr. Randall Lockwood, ASPCA Senior Vice President, Forensic Sciences and Anti-cruelty Projects, says on the organization’s website: “Being kept by a hoarder is a slow kind of death for the animal. Actually, it can be a fate worse than death.”

Monica Ailey, president of a Fort Worth-based non-profit Animal Investigation & Response, agrees.

“These rescue groups that become hoarders are being enabled by the pressure put on the shelters to become no-kill,” Ailey says. “The shelter animals they rescue and can’t take care of end up being warehoused, where they suffer a miserable existence.”

Ailey’s photos tell their own horror story: Filthy rusty kennels stacked one on top of the other, terrified and diseased dogs trapped in cages that have fought and killed each other, feces on the floor that’s three inches thick, and garbage piled everywhere.

In many cases, dogs are not let out of the cages to relieve themselves, so they have urine burns on their paws and bellies. Their waste runs through to the kennels and dogs below. Emaciation, flea and tick infestation and mange are common.

“I watched four dogs dying in front of me due to anemia caused by the blood being sucked out of them by an insane amount of fleas,” Ailey says. “They were just lying there, unable to move, only able to blink their eyes. I’ve seen dogs eating the remains of deceased dogs they once shared a pen with because they were only fed a couple of times a week at best, dogs that have frozen to death because there was not enough space for them to get out of the elements, and a four-month-old puppy eating a dead rat because it had nothing else to eat.”

Ailey has witnessed dogs that have died in their dog houses and no one ever noticed, and cats that have died in a dark corner or under a piece of furniture. The only thing left of them was a blob of fur, she says. 

“In all of the cases, these nonprofit rescue groups have failed to provide any medical attention, which has resulted in the suffering and/or death of many animals in their care,” Ailey says.

The Humane Society of North Texas in Fort Worth is a nonprofit animal shelter, and the only “open door” shelter in North Texas. That means they must take in all animals, even chickens, goats and donkeys, regardless of the shelter’s capacity or resources.

Paige Anderson lives in the Dallas area and is involved with the Dallas Animal Services. She has worked with Animal Rescue of Texas for nine years and has served as the organization’s president for the last two years.

Facebook has dramatically changed the way rescue works, Anderson says. “The animals are getting more exposure, but people are going to the shelter and taking animals that may have bitten someone or is very fearful. They have no experience with this, and now they have dogs that they can’t get adopted out with kids or other animals. You have to run your rescue like a business, not by emotion,” Anderson continues. “I’ve been in hoarding situations with dogs that no one has ever touched. They’re scared; they’re terrified. They’ve only known this one life of living in a run with 15 other dogs or a trailer with 25 other dogs. It’s not a life. That’s existing. I would much rather see an animal euthanized. If you get into a mind-set that you can save them all, then that’s when you’ve failed.”

Putting a dog into a boarding facility is not a quality life, especially for a family dog, Anderson says. “That’s warehousing. If you can’t get them out quickly and adopted quickly, you shouldn’t do it.” 

Animal hoarding is a difficult problem to overcome. Some are arrested, get out of jail and start all over again under a new rescue group name. The recidivism rate for hoarding is estimated at 100 percent.

So, what is the shelter protocol for screening rescue groups?

“One of the struggles we have from time-to-time is somebody will say, ‘Hey, I know this lady has too many animals,’ Morton says. “We need to take a look at this, and we want people who know this information to call us right away. We really rely on folks to be our eyes and ears to report this.”

HSNT has a strict rescue protocol.

“All of our rescue groups fill out an application,” Hanson says. “Then, they go through the rescue coordinator for an interview with the rescue group, which typically includes an onsite evaluation of their facilities. At that point, they provide references. If they are approved, our coordinator works with them on a one-on-one basis letting them know when there is a need, when the shelter is full or there is a disaster. They only take as many animals as they can safely handle in their organization,” Hanson emphasizes. “It’s always our goal that our animals are given proper care and treated in a humane way. That includes humane euthanasia if it comes down to it. We want to make sure if the animal is truly suffering, they are put out of their suffering. No one should fear euthanasia.”

As to how many animals one group can pull at any given time, Morton says: “What we do is with groups that pull a higher number of animals, is watch those with greater scrutiny. There’s no statistically significant way to predict whether an animal is going to end up in a hoarding or cruelty situation or the best home known to all mankind based on the number of animals being pulled. What we find as we follow up with the rescue groups is some are pulling animals that they worked together. One group may pull an animal, but it’s for a short period of time and then the animal goes to another group. It’s difficult to make an assessment on that.”

Some groups argue that every animal in the shelter is healthy and adoptable, Bennett says. “They say that the only reason they’re aggressive is they’re stir crazy being in the shelter in a caged environment. The animals come to us this way,” he says. “We’re not the top of the pyramid. The top of the pyramid is irresponsible pet owners. The villain is not your public animal shelter. The villains are people who are not taking responsibility for their pets. The harder we work at getting people to be more responsible, the fewer strays we’ll be bringing into the shelter environment, and the more positive outcome will be for those we do pick up.”

Working in sheltering affects staff morale because they see the worst in people, Hanson says.

“There are so many animals that have been treated in the worst ways imaginable—deplorable conditions, heinous cruelty and extreme neglect. But they also see our volunteers, fosters, adopters and donors that have so much love, generosity and support.”

Without that encouragement, it would not be possible for anyone to do the job, Hanson says.

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