by Merritt Clifton
At least 25,000 dogs and 15,000 cats found at failed no-kill shelters and rescues from 2005 through 2014 might be politely described as casualties of the “save rate,” also known as the “live release rate.”
The numbers of dogs and cats impounded by law enforcement from failed shelters and rescues dropped sharply in 2013, after a record 6,020 impoundments in 2012, but rebounded by nearly 1,000 in 2014 to 3,381––only 37 animals fewer than were impounded from puppy mills.
At least 20,503 dogs and cats have been impounded from puppy mills since 2010, but 20,326 have been found at failed no-kill shelters and rescues. The difference of 177 is statistically negligible, especially since mass impoundment data is often rounded off or otherwise inexact.
More significantly, most of the dogs impounded from puppy mills are puppies, born on the premises and in their first months of life. Fewer than 20%, on average, are older dogs used for breeding. Many of the animals found at failed no-kill shelters and rescues have suffered there for years.
Thus––and this is certainly no defense of puppy mills––an equal number of impoundments from failed shelters and rescues may mean considerably more animal suffering than has been cumulatively suffered by the victims of puppy mills.
As with puppy mills, the number of failed shelters and rescues that come to light in any given year is likely to be a fraction of the number that exist, but have not yet been discovered by law enforcement.
What does “save rate” have to do with it?
The “save rate” or “live release rate,” is the inverse of the equally misleading “euthanasia rate,” the most widely used animal sheltering statistic of the late 20th century.
In either form, the “save rate” can be boosted and the “euthanasia rate” can be lowered if animal shelters do not do their jobs, refusing to take in dangerous dogs and other animals of low adoption prospects, and/or neglecting birth prevention, since puppies and kittens are relatively easily rehomed.
The projection that more than 40,000 dogs and cats have suffered and died miserably as casualties of the “save rate” or “live release rate” comes from the past decade of my more than 32 years of data collection on animal hoarding cases, as editor of ANIMALS 24-7 since 2014 and previously as editor and news editor of other periodicals serving the humane community. [See table at end of article.]
No-kill is possible––if done right
As keynote speaker at the first No Kill Conference, in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1995, and as one of the first people in the U.S. to conduct a large, closely monitored, ultimately successful trial of neuter/return feral cat control, I warned the leaders of about 60 pioneering no-kill organizations of several perils that could impede, discredit, and ultimately delay accomplishing authentic no-kill animal control throughout the U.S.
I believed then, and continue to believe now, that the U.S. can genuinely become a no-kill nation by preventing the births of the most problematic animals, specifically dangerous dogs and feral cats.
We have the technology to do this, with ever-improving high-volume surgical sterilization capacity and now the advent of several promising contraceptive injections for cats and dogs.
We have the data demonstrating that it can be done, within the scope of existing resources. Indeed, the most promising chemosterilant for male animals, calcium chloride, is simply an appropriately injected dose of pickling salt, making use of one of the most abundant natural substances on Planet Earth, mixed with a bit of alcohol, perhaps the most abundant substance wherever shelter personnel gather to talk.
“Save” or “live release” rate rewards non-performance
But transitioning the U.S. to becoming a no-kill nation cannot be achieved by using the “save rate,” “live release rate,” or “euthanasia rate” as a credible measure of anything at all.
The inherent problem with the “save rate,” by any name, is that it rewards non-performance. Most corrosively, maintaining a high “save rate” or “live release rate” depends entirely on what a shelter does with whatever animals arrive, not upon how well the shelter facilitates birth prevention and keeping animals in homes, so that the number of suitable pets coming to the shelter is kept to a minimum.
The “save rate” or “live release rate” not only presumes but demands that the animals arriving at shelters must always include large numbers of dogs and cats who can be easily and safely rehomed.
If not, dogs and cats who cannot and should not be rehomed must be rehomed anyway, or must be unloaded on someone else who promises to rehome them.
Puppies, kittens, and even well-behaved older dogs and cats have in much of the U.S. all but disappeared from the shelter admission stream, through the success of spay/neuter campaigns and programs to help keep pets in homes through providing food, subsidized veterinary care, and remedial behavioral counseling.
This means that the number of safely and appropriately rehomable animals in shelters is today a fraction of what it was when shelter adoptions reached the present level of about four to 4.5 million dogs and cats per year, circa 30 years ago.
Maintaining that adoption volume has required ever-increasing investment in rehoming the dogs and cats who are hardest to place.
More transfers, no questions asked
Even at that, some dogs and cats cannot be placed. The numbers of pit bulls admitted to shelters, for instance, have increased six-fold in 30 years, to more than a third of all dogs admitted to shelters, even though pit bulls are only about 5% of the total U.S. dog population.
To achieve the 90% “save rate” or “live release rate” championed by no-kill organizations including Maddie’s Fund, the Best Friends Animal Society, and the No Kill Advocacy Center, an open admission shelter must either rehome or transfer about two-thirds of the pit bulls it receives.
Only about one dog purchaser in 20 buys a pit bull, according to classified ad data collected by ANIMALS 24-7 since 2003, but––at result of promotional effort frequently exceeding $1,000 per dog––one shelter dog adopter in six adopts a pit bull.
Even at this rate of placement, however, shelters on average must find four times as many homes for pit bulls as are available from individual adopters to achieve a 90% “save rate.”
That means more transfers, no questions asked.
And that is only one part of how animal shelters contribute to the “rescue hoarding” phenomenon.
Avoiding “slow-kill” & sidetracks
I warned in my 1995 No Kill Conference keynote address of the necessity of no-kill shelters maintaining high animal care standards, so that “no kill” did not degenerate into “slow kill.”
I warned of the risk that the no-kill cause could be sidetracked by making common cause with pit bull advocacy and feral cat feeders.
Dogs bred for centuries for the sole purpose of ripping other sentient beings apart alive should not be adopted out or promoted by the humane community. The appropriate humane solution would be to simply sterilize them out of existence. Most certainly the humane community should not be defending anyone’s claimed right to breed and keep more of them.
I also warned, as a strong advocate of neuter/return feral cat control where the habitat is suitable, that practicing neuter/return successfully means accepting that feral cats are wildlife, not outdoor pets; that cats are acceptable to most of the public either as house pets or as seldom-seen, mostly nocturnal rodent hunters; and that feeding feral cats in a manner causing them to visibly congregate by daylight will inevitably increase their predation on birds and public resistance to their presence.
I warned of the importance of relying on accurate and meaningful statistics, in particular the ratios of shelter admissions and killing to human population.
S/N is 95% of progress since 1970
I stressed the importance of maintaining the emphasis on spay/neuter which as of 1995 had already cut shelter admissions and killing by more than 80% in 25 years. The drop since then, through exponentially increased effort mostly in promoting adoptions, is more than 90% from the high marks of circa 1970.
I encouraged the expansion of the use of adoption transport, pioneered and promoted by the North Shore Animal League, to move healthy, adoptable animals from remote animal control shelters to centrally located adoption boutiques which could give them a better chance to find homes.
I introduced Richard Avanzino, the dinner speaker at that first No Kill Conference, praising his dramatic success in reducing shelter killing as then-director of the San Francisco SPCA, through the combination of high-volume pet sterilization, accounting for about 95% of the reduction, with increased adoption promotion, accounting for 5%. Avanzino has headed Maddie’s Fund since 1998––one of the organizations contributing the most money and influence to the present misplaced emphasis on adoptions and inflating “save” or “live release” rates.
What I never imagined
Unfortunately, in 1995, and for many years subsequently, I never imagined that the no-kill sheltering community and the open admission sheltering community would in effect collude to make facilitating animal hoarding a routine part of the sheltering paradigm.
Neither did I imagine that the “save rate” or “live release rate,” which I pointed out as inherently misleading statistics, would or could ever gain currency sufficient to impel the humane community toward contributing as much or more to animal suffering as puppy mills.
At least 40,000 dogs and cats in the past 10 years have been passed along from open-admission humane societies and animal control agencies to individuals and organizations professing no-kill ideals, who promised to find adoptive homes for the animals, or to provide them with secure and healthy lifetime care, but instead allowed them to suffer and die.
Failure to verify conditions
In each case the persons “pulling” the animals from the open-admission “kill” shelters backed the promise to rehome or care for the animals with at least the superficial appearance of institutional credibility: either actual or claimed IRS 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, a business name, a web site, a Facebook page, a physical address, sometimes celebrity sponsors and spokespersons.
Often the receiving no-kill organizations were known nationwide: Spindletop Refuge, 10th Life Animal Refuge, Olympic Animal Sanctuary, Tiger Ranch, For the Love Of Cats & Kittens, Caboodle Ranch, and Angel’s Gate, among many others.
But no one adequately monitored the animal care conditions. The facilities were usually not open to the public, did not have large numbers of regular volunteers, and most often did not have actively involved boards of directors.
Most significantly, the open-admission shelters turning animals over to the failed no-kill organizations did not inspect or otherwise verify the premises to which the animals were going––frequently several states and hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Typically, by the time the negligent care became known, dozens to hundreds of animals were in misery, hundreds and sometimes even thousands were unaccounted for, and the remains of many were found on the premises.
Sometimes the bodies were neatly stored in boxes and freezers. Sometimes they were buried in shallow graves or burned in steel drums. Often they were eaten by other starving animals.
Sheltering makes stranger bedfellows than politics
Sometimes the operators of the failed no-kill shelters and rescues were prosecuted, after intensive effort over several months or even years by humane investigators working against aggressive political pressure brought to bear by no-kill advocates seldom possessing any actual first-hand knowledge of the situations.
Usually the operators of the failed no-kill shelters and rescues have portrayed themselves, entirely too successfully, as victims of conspiracies by older, better-established open admission shelters––or more successful no-kill adoption agencies––who are merely hell-bent on eliminating competition for donors and adoption market share, killing animals who cannot be profitably adopted, and pocketing the proceeds.
No one ever fired for inflating a “save rate”
Such allegations are belied by the reality that much of the open-admission shelter community no longer relies on killing animals to avoid becoming overcrowded with dogs and cats for whom there are no readily available adoptive homes.
Instead, open-admission shelters increasingly often relieve both overcrowding and no-kill activist pressure to achieve a high “save rate” by shuttling animals out the front door to any takers who present a superficially credible institutional front.
Open-admission shelters watching their “save rates” have become as much part-and-parcel of the phenomenon of failed no-kill shelters and rescues as the often multi-time convicted animal hoarders who found and run many of them.
But while some of the hoarders who hoard in the guise of operating no-kill shelters and rescues have been criminally prosecuted, the ANIMALS 24-7 archives indicate that so far not even one open-admission shelter director or board member has been fired or prosecuted for boosting the shelter “save rate” by transferring animals to self-professed no-kill organizations in a negligent manner.
No-kill hoarding is nothing new
The phenomenon of no-kill shelter and rescue hoarding is nothing new, and has long created image issues that no-kill organizations maintaining high animal care standards have had to battle.
The late Samantha Mullen, 1939-2012, a longtime humane investigator for the New York State Humane Association and director of animal care and sheltering for the Humane Society of the U.S., spent much of her career trying to shut down the Esthersville Animal Shelter in Greenfield, New York, and the Animals Farm Home, at Ellenville.
Founded by Edna Senecal in 1952, the Esthersville Animal Shelter was cited repeatedly for alleged neglect, beginning in 1973. Senecal was in 1991 convicted of 100 counts of cruelty, but continued to direct the shelter until her death in 2007.
The Animals Farm Home was founded circa 1981 by Justin McCarthy, described by Newsweek in 1984 as “St. Francis of the Catskills,” and by Reader’s Digest in 1986 as “a real-life Dr. Doolittle.”
McCarthy, according to New York Times files, had been already been convicted of six armed robberies when he allegedly took in more than 1,000 dogs, 70 cats, and various other animals between 1981 and 1987, most of whom apparently starved to death while McCarthy misused more than half a million dollars donated for their support.
Of approximately 475 living animals whom Mullen and colleagues reportedly discovered amid the remains of perhaps 200 more at the Animals Farm Home in a November 1987 raid, about 175 were euthanized at the scene.
Differences between then & now
Among the differences between then and now are that the McCarthy case in particular was an aberration. Only 156 no-kill shelter or rescue hoarding cases came to light in the entire 1982-1998 time frame.
Cases of similar magnitude are now exposed almost every week.
Another difference is that the unfortunate animals in custody of Senecal and McCarthy were thought to have come mostly from affluent residents of New York City and suburbs, with endowments for their care. These individuals appeared to genuinely believe that there might be wonderful homes on farms for dogs and cats who for whatever reason could not adapt to city living, or whose people had died.
The people transferring animals to Senecal and McCarthy were deluded pet keepers, in short, not would-be rescuers “pulling” them from shelters, and certainly not the operators of bona fide shelters trying to maintain high “save rates” at a time when hardly anyone tracked the data.
Contrast the Senecal and McCarthy cases to that of the Spindletop Refuge, just one of the many high-profile no-kill shelter/rescue episodes recently before the courts.
Reporting on the Spindletop debacle in Willis, Texas for the Houston Post since it broke on July 17, 2012, Craig Malisow was on February 5, 2015 openly furious.
“Opened by Leah Purcell in 1985, Spindletop earned respect from those in the animal rescue community nationwide, especially for Purcell’s work in rehabilitating and placing pit bulls,” Malisow had reported in his first coverage of the case. “Spindletop Refuge was listed as a ‘friend of the court’ in the notorious Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal in 2007. While Purcell wasn’t a part of the proceedings, the court filing stated that she has ‘been qualified as an expert witness on [pit bulls] in several court cases, and courts nationwide have entrusted the care of seized dogs to Spindletop.’”
But on February 4, 2015, Malisow wrote, “Thanks to a plea agreement with Montgomery County prosecutors, Purcell’s lone felony animal cruelty charge was dismissed, and two of her four misdemeanor cruelty charges were also dropped. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail for two remaining cruelty charges, as well as a misdemeanor charge for illegal dumping, but she was given credit for the time she served in Montgomery County Jail following her July 2014 arrest.
“The Texas chapter of the Humane Society of the U.S. led the seizure, painstakingly compiled records on each dog, and handed evidence of neglect and cruelty to investigator Tim Holifield on a silver platter. As far as we can tell, Holifield warmed that platter with his behind for 24 months while the case stagnated,” Malisow charged.
“This is truly an insult,” Malisow continued, “to the dog owners who are still trying to find out what happened to the dogs they placed in Purcell’s care and were not recovered in the seizure. Purcell and Zandra Anderson, Purcell’s civil attorney at the time of the seizure, have never disclosed those dogs’ fates.”
The dogs placed at Spindletop appear to have been mostly transfers from rescuers who had “pulled” them from open admission shelters.
Napier’s Log Cabin Horse & Animal Sanctuary
Also on February 4, 2015, a jury in Manatee County, Florida convicted Napier’s Log Cabin Horse & Animal Sanctuary founder Alan Napier, 52, of eight counts of animal cruelty, unlawful solicitation of funds and scheme to defraud, and convicted his wife and cofounder Sheree Napier, 46, of eight counts of animal cruelty and scheme to defraud.
About 300 animals were removed from the Napier premises in mid-2014. Dead animals were also found.
The Napiers combined hoarding in the name of no-kill with aspects of puppy-milling.
“The jury heard how Alan Napier purchased approximately 50 puppies over the course of time from James Moore, a dog breeder in Georgia,” reported Jessica de Leon of the Bradenton Herald. “Over the years and the course of various transactions, only two dogs were given to Napier at no charge. One was too aggressive around the other dogs and a second kept digging out.”
Added Elizabeth Johnson of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “For several years, Manatee County Animal Services had a transfer partnership with Napier’s Log Cabin Horse & Animal Sanctuary, sending nearly 300 animals to the shelter.”
That could only have happened if officials were looking at their “save rate” or “live release rate” instead of at actually saving the animals.
ANIMALS 24-7 social media and photo editor Beth Clifton, formerly a Florida animal control officer, warned Manatee County Animal Services of the conditions at Napier’s Log Cabin Horse & Animal Sanctuary approximately a year before the case broke. Her complaint, like many others made to Manatee County Animal Services before the Napier operation was belatedly investigated, was dismissed out of hand.
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(See also “Handling hoarders,” http://www.animals24-7.org/2014/04/18/handling-hoarders/; “U.S. Supreme Court recognized right to seize hoarded animals,” http://www.animals24-7.org/2006/01/18/u-s-supreme-court-recognized-right-to-seize-hoarded-animals/; and “Animals in bondage: the hoarding mind,” http://www.animals24-7.org/1999/01/18/animals-in-bondage-the-hoarding-mind/.)