by Merritt Clifton
U.S. animal shelters are now killing fewer cats and dogs than at any time in the past 60 years––nearly 300,000 fewer in the most recent fiscal year than just one year earlier, and just 8.6 per 1,000 Americans, the lowest ratio on record––but is the recent dramatic progress really saving animal lives?
Are fewer animals being born, for whom there are no adoptive homes? Are more homes opening to adopted animals?
Or are shelters simply relegating killing of homeless animals to others, including nuisance wildlife trappers and hoarders operating under the guise of “rescue”?
Can the recent drop in shelter killing be responsibly sustained?
Was it responsibly achieved in the first place?
Answering all of these questions will take time and more data.
What we do know, from the survey data that follows, is that U.S. animal shelter killing is down to about 2.7 million per year, including about 1.4 million cats (53%) and 1.3 million dogs (47%). This represents a 50% drop in shelter killing in 18 years.
The accomplishment warrants celebration, but with judicious restraint until how it occurred and the consequences of achieving it are better understood––especially since the drop of 300,000 may have come more as result of changes in shelter operating policies than through programs that actually prevent cat and dog births, reduce the numbers of cats and dogs at large, protect the health and safety of humans and other animals, and reduce the net amount of animal suffering.
We know that little or none of the recent progress in reducing shelter killing has occurred through increased adoptions, because there has been no sustained net increase in adoptions in 30 years. Adoptions through special programs, including the Home 4 the Holidays program sponsored by the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California, have actually declined lately––but because far fewer cats and dogs are entering shelters than 10, 20, and 30 years ago, many cats and dogs who previously would have had no chance to be rehomed are now receiving the remedial and promotional help they need to be adopted. [See “Why we cannot adopt our way out of shelter killing,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-6G.]
77,250 fewer cats killed––but why?
We know that U.S. animal shelters in the most recent fiscal year appear to have killed about 77,250 fewer cats than in the year before, but we do not know whether fewer homeless cats were actually killed. This is because hard figures do not exist for the numbers of feral cats killed by nuisance wildlife trappers. Most states do not require nuisance wildlife trappers to report the numbers of cats they catch and kill.
What we do know is that the advent of neuter/return feral cat control more than 20 years ago coincided with steep drops in shelter admissions and killing of cats over the next ten years. Then the numbers leveled off for about a decade, before the recent emergence of a trend toward shelters not only encouraging and cooperating with neuter/return programs, but also refusing to accept feral cats and/or participating in “shelter/return” programs. In some instances “shelter/return” programs relocate feral cats to new habitat, usually via intermediary volunteer “cat colony caretakers,” whose activity is often only lightly supervised and documented, if monitored at all.
Nuisance wildlife trappers
The limited available aggregate data on the fast-growing nuisance wildlife control industry indicates that about 6,000 private nuisance wildlife contractors are currently doing more $1.2 billion a year worth of business. Add to that $72 million per year billed by USDA Wildlife Services, which works mainly for other public agencies and also kills feral cats. Altogether, Americans now spend almost as much to kill “nuisance wildlife” as the estimated $2.5 billion spent by animal control agencies and humane societies to control the dog and cat population.
USDA Wildlife Services killed 790 feral cats in 2013. If nuisance wildlife trappers killed as many cats proportionate to revenue, they killed about 131,700. But USDA Wildlife Services works primarily on public lands, much of it far from feral cat habitat. Nuisance wildlife trappers work mostly for private property owners, including the management for condominiums and gated communities.
In all likelihood, nuisance wildlife trappers killed three or four times as many cats as USDA Wildlife Services, perhaps half a million or more.
187,230 fewer pit bulls killed?
U.S. animal shelters killed about 187,230 fewer dogs in the most recently completed fiscal year than the year before––and the entire reduction appears to have been in reduced killing of pit bulls, as the toll among acknowledged pit bulls fell from 910,000 to just 724,000, the lowest number in more than 15 years.
But this apparent gain may be illusory. A recent study done at the Richmond SPCA in Richmond, Virginia, directed by Emily Weiss of the ASPCA, found that shelter workers can accurately identify a pit bull or close pit mix 96% of the time. A second study, published in the March 27, 2014 edition of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science and summarized in the September 10, 2014 edition of Science Daily, found that 41% of shelter workers are willing to lie about pit bull breed identification to try to rehome more pit bulls.
In short, are shelters really killing fewer pit bulls, or just not acknowledging that about 20% of the dogs they kill are pit bulls?
Also evident is that shelter screening of pit bulls and other dangerous dogs for adoption suitability has markedly slipped. There were only two fatalities involving U.S. shelter dogs from 1858 through 1999, both involving wolf hybrids, one in 1988 and one in 1989. There were three fatalities involving shelter dogs from 2000 through 2009, involving a pit bull, a Doberman, and a Presa Canario.
There have been at least 35 fatalities involving shelter dogs from 2010 to present, involving 24 pit bulls, seven bull mastiffs, two Rottweilers, a Lab who may have been part pit bull, and a husky.
Also of note, there were 32 disfiguring maulings by shelter dogs from 1859 through 2009, 19 of them involving pit bulls. From 2010 to present, there have been at least 123 disfiguring mailings by shelter dogs, 81 of them involving pit bulls. In 2014 alone, 34 shelter dogs have killed or disfigured someone; 27 were pit bulls.
For every human killed, hundreds of animals have been–about 6,800 animals killed by shelter dogs in 2013 alone.
The attack data goes a long way toward explaining the mid-2013 discovery by the Best Friends Animal Society that younger people no longer regard shelters as the best places to find a dog.
More “rescue hoarding”
Both feral cats and pit bulls are also disproportionately often involved in “rescue hoarder” situations, including the recent collapses of several dozen “no-kill shelters” with hundreds of animals apiece requiring re-rescue from conditions of extreme negligence. Since 2010, from 2,500 to 6,000 animals per year are known to have been transferred from shelters to people later caught in “rescue hoarding.” Are all such cases coming to light, which seems unlikely, or perhaps only 10%, or fewer? [See “Impoundments for alleged neglect fell in 2013, http://wp.me/p4pKmM-hZ.]
As the numbers of animals killed in shelters drop, the quality of life of the animals “saved” requires much closer attention.
Eight regional tables
The tables below shed further light on shelter killing, region by region. There are eight regional tables in all: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Gulf Coast, Appalachia, Midwest, Rockies/Interior West, and Pacific.
Together, these tables constitute my 22nd annual review of animal shelter killing.
Each year, with the help of many volunteers who submit the data from their communities, I assemble a demographically balanced mosaic of shelter exit data from animal control and open admission shelters.
The exit data is compiled from the annual reports of every major open admission and animal control shelter serving each listed community, using only data from one or more of the three most recently completed fiscal years. The estimated totals for the U.S. as a whole are projected each year from the data from jurisdictions including at least half of the total human population of the U.S.
Trend data is added by conducting additional surveys, including counts of the shelter dog populations at representative shelters of all types around the U.S., and a survey by listed breed of dogs offered for sale or adoption in online classified ads. [See “Pit bulls were 32% of U.S. shelter inventory in June 2014,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-AY, and “Large retrievers still nearly twice as popular as pit bulls,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-BA.]
Historical data included this year
This year the regional tables include, for comparative purposes, the numbers from the first year in which each jurisdiction was included in previous compilations. In almost every instance, the actual peak of shelter killing in the jurisdiction was reached many years and sometimes decades earlier. When each jurisdiction was added to my tables was often just a matter of when someone first sent me the numbers; but all of the first year data listed is from what might be termed the “No Kill Era,” following the first No Kill Conference in 1995, a milestone in establishing no-kill animal control as a national ambition.
From left to right, each table shows first the “Benchmark” historical data, from whatever the year for each jurisdiction, and then the current or most recently available data.
Reading the columns
The “Animals” columns are the combined totals of dogs and cats killed in the shelters serving the jurisdiction. The “Ratio” is the combined number of dogs and cats killed per 1,000 human residents of the jurisdiction.
The “Humans” column is the current human population of the jurisdiction, stated in thousands. Please note that the current human population of any given jurisdiction may vary considerably from what it was when it was first included in my tables. This is because of human population growth, mergers and divisions of cities and counties, and redefinitions of metropolitan areas.
The number of real significance is the “Ratio,” in other words; in instances where the human populations of jurisdictions have significantly changed, comparison of only the actual numbers of animals killed may be misleading.
State totals appear in bold type.
The regional totals appearing in bold at the bottom of each table are not tallies of the data used to produce them, listed in each table, but are rather estimates proportionately weighted to reflect demography.
The percentage figure in parenthesis at the lower left of each table is the percentage of the human population encompassed within the jurisdictions from which the totals were derived.
Gaps in cat/dog ratio data
There are significant gaps in the breakdown of shelter killing data between cats and dogs, especially in the Appalachia and Gulf Coast regions. This reflects the format in which the data became available to me.
In several other jurisdictions, in absence of current cat and dog totals, I have used cat and dog totals from earlier years than those covered by the most recent available sum of killing. Thus the totals of cats and dogs may not match the number in the “Animals” column.
No misleading numbers
Finally, readers familiar with current shelter jargon will note no reference to so-called “live release” or “save” rates. These are simply inversions of ”euthanasia rate,” the oldest and most misleading statistic ever devised to measure animal shelter performance.
If a jurisdiction is doing an effective job of preventing the births of cats and dogs for whom there are no good homes, of keeping pets in homes, and of protecting community health and safety, the cumulative “live release” rate will decline, as ever fewer healthy, adoptable animals enter shelters, and admissions dwindle to mostly just those animals who are so ill, injured, or dangerous that euthanasia is the only humane response.
At that point, the ratio of shelter killing per 1,000 people will usually be below 2.0, a target that many jurisdictions have already reached.
For those jurisdictions, an abnormally high “live release” rate may signify mainly that they still have a long way to go in preventing surplus cat and dog births, abandonments, the growth of feral cat populations, and dog attacks.
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