An Honest Conversation and a Way Forward - Little Orange Buddha
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An Honest Conversation and a Way Forward

The animal welfare community is protective of the beings it champions. But most people, whether they are advocates for animals or not, can agree that a humane community involves caring for both people and pets. I would argue that an ethical and humane community also requires a certain standard of care for pets that are rendered homeless, and that such a community must reach a loose consensus as to which pets it will indeed consider worth saving. This is something that our city generally remains ambivalent about. And I believe it is time for the key stakeholders in Chicago — government, elected officials, non-profits, veterinarians, advocates, volunteers, and residents — to get together and have a sincere, earnest, and honest conversation to set a clear path forward.


If the City truly wants to save its healthy and treatable homeless animals (some would argue that this is the definition of a No Kill City), we have to figure out what that is going to mean. And we really need to figure out what kind of resources we as a community are willing to put behind it. We also have to be transparent about the very real challenges of trying to do so.

How a municipal open-admission control and sheltering facility, like Chicago Animal Care and Control operates plays an important role in setting the tone for a particular city’s commitment. How it treats those that come through its doors and how it makes life and death decisions are considered by many a barometer for how well a city is achieving a goal of saving its healthy and treatable animals.

And everything will indeed come through its doors: It is the place where the wild and the tame things go; the healthy, the injured and sick, the badly behaved, the aggressive, the abused, the abandoned, the scared, the dying, even the dead. The animals will come in daily, their anguish on view for anyone at the shelter to see: Off of animal control trucks, rescued by police officers, or by way of city residents that have come across a stray or that must surrender their pet. Such a facility, as much as it is often vilified by those who do not understand its function, is also an essential community resource, especially for those who have nowhere else to bring the pet they can no longer care for or no longer want. Obviously, a shelter must then determine which animals are appropriate for adoption, rescue, or euthanasia. Open admission shelters are sometimes falsely compared with limited admission or select admission shelters, and sometimes erroneously called “kill shelters,” even when they are making every effort to save lives. Notwithstanding, public expectation in recent years is that the open admission shelter should work very hard to save the animals that can be saved.

Both the control and sheltering components of municipal shelters are rooted in public safety and animal welfare considerations. Although some would disagree, animals considered a risk to public safety, i.e., those that are known to engage in unpredictable aggression toward people or uninterruptible aggression toward people and/or pets, should be euthanized. Those that are believed to have treatable conditions, behavior or health, must be looked at more closely to see if there is a way to heal or rehabilitate them, and find them a second chance.

But animals are animals — and no municipal shelter will have animals entering their facility with crystal ball in paw that will enable shelter staff to determine definitively whether the animal should be euthanized, unless it is obvious from the outset or becomes obvious during their stay at the shelter. For example, the animal has seriously harmed someone unprovoked. A shelter should, within its time and resources, assess as best it can from the various information sources available to it (e.g., information from the owner, shelter staff, volunteers and rescues), to make informed, and not arbitrary, life and death decisions.

This is why no municipal shelter, no rescue organization, no organization that deals with the adoption of animals can guarantee for certain the behavior of an animal when it is in their care or when it has left. None can assure that an animal won’t be placed in a situation where it could make a bad decision. To be clear, the vast majority of shelter animals that are given a second chance tend to do very well, and become treasured family members, as those of us who have adopted and fostered can attest. Accordingly, every shelter and rescue organization will have some animals returned for some reason or another, including bites — provoked or unprovoked, and that won’t be avoidable even with the most fervent behavioral evaluation, home check, adoption and follow-up counseling. This is why as well every one of these organizations in their adoption contracts have liability waivers once an animal leaves their care, as none can guarantee with absolute certainty that an animal will not behave in a certain manner or be placed in circumstances that elicit an undesirable behavior.

When there are capacity for care issues at open admission shelters, such as kennel space availability (and insufficient prospects for freeing up space, such as adoption, rescue, or returning animals to their owner) or disease that risks the health of the “herd,” then euthanasia decisions for space and herd health reasons are made as well. These are the most unpopular decisions, the most stressful, and understandably so. They are difficult for all who are involved: staff, volunteers, and the public who want to see the shelter succeed.

Communicating the very real challenges of open-admission sheltering with the community, and putting processes, policies, procedures and programs in place can go a long way to making informed, defensible decisions within an open admission shelter. My next post will document the incredibly long way Chicago Animal Care and Control has come over the past few years, in partnership with the animal welfare community of this City and other invested stakeholders, and its ongoing commitment to saving healthy and treatable animals as far as its resources and capacity for care would permit.

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Susan Russell
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