To kill or not to kill

LIHUE — There are an estimated 14,000 pet shelters and rescue groups in the U.S., taking in nearly 8 million dogs and cats a year.

Last fiscal year, Kauai Humane Society took in 3,698 of them, or about a 10 a day.

The island’s only shelter is open admission, which means it accepts every dog and cat that appears at its doorstep. Perfectly healthy kittens and loving, bug-eyed puppies as well as feral cats, sickly stray dogs and pets that pose a public safety threat.

Can every animal be saved?

Of the 3,698 dogs and cats taken in by KHS last fiscal year, 2,045 of them — 438 dogs and 1,607 cats — were euthanized. When subtracting the 494 strays that were returned to their owners and owner-requested euthanasias, that’s a euthanasia rate of 60 percent. So far in 2015 the shelter has a euthanasia rate of 55 percent.

Perhaps the most divisive issue in the pet industry is no-kill sheltering — the idea that cats and dogs should be euthanized only when they are irremediably suffering or dangerous to people or other animals. Under the no-kill philosophy, treatable illnesses should be treated, correctable temperament issues should be corrected and under no circumstance should a cat or dog be euthanized for want of a home.

Most animal advocates say it’s a laudable goal, though some insist it’s unrealistic.

Two decades ago, San Francisco started a revolution when it became America’s first no-kill municipality, guaranteeing a home for every adoptable pet.

Since then, the no-kill movement has spread, helping reduce the number of dogs and cats euthanized annually across the nation from 20 million to less than 3 million.

All told, 70 percent of American pet owners say animal shelters should care for unwanted dogs indefinitely unless they are too sick to be treated or too aggressive to be adopted.

Nathan Winograd is the director of No Kill Advocacy Center, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit with a singular mission to end what Winograd calls the “systematic killing of animals in shelters.”

Winograd champions the idea that any community can adopt an effective no-kill policy — and he challenges them to it. Even a small, isolated island with a pet overpopulation problem like Kauai, he said, can operate under no-kill guidelines.

“Shelters like to say that until the public is responsible, we will have to continue killing animals,” said Winograd, who adopted a stray black Lab on Kauai while on vacation here 15 years ago. “But that’s not true. There are shelters who take in 23,000 animals a year who have gone no-kill in six months, in a year. What changed wasn’t the public. What changed was the way the shelter operates.”

Winograd points to the website saving90.org, which lists all of the open admission shelters in the U.S. that have successfully implemented a policy of euthanizing animals who are public safety threats or irremediably suffering only. The site touts a “no kill equation,” courtesy of No Kill Advocacy Center, which Winograd said all of those shelters follows.

Not in favor of no kill

Not all animal advocates, however, embrace the no-kill movement.

Inga Gibson, director of the Humane Society of the United States in Honolulu, said the no-kill philosophy is misleading.

While some no-kill shelters refuse to put down any animals, shelters are permitted to euthanize and still keep the no-kill designation so long as their kill rate falls below a generally accepted 10 percent threshold.

Many no-kill shelters limit the animals they accept, refusing to take in those that are old, sick or have difficult temperaments. If they’re near capacity, they will often force owners to find another place to shelter the animal.

“Our greatest concern is quality of life,” Gibson said. “If a shelter calls themselves no-kill, does that mean they have dogs that have been in cages for 10 years that have gone kennel crazy?”

No-kill shelters are great accompaniments to full-service shelters that accept every animal, Gibson said, but unless you want to live on an island where a dog can be turned away from the shelter with nowhere to go, the euthanasias performed by KHS are currently a necessary part of animal control.

“A no-kill community is something that I think we all strive for, but it’s not something that Kauai Humane or any organization can do alone,” Gibson said. “Can shelters do more? Absolutely. But to get to a point where you’re only euthanizing animals that are seriously injured, seriously ill or a threat to the community, it has to be a community effort.

“People think whether or not a shelter gets to that point is purely based on the leadership of the organization and that’s not true. It’s really the responsibility of the whole community, and that includes policy leaders, pet owners — everybody. The whole community needs to be involved if we want to get to a point where we do not euthanize an animal for a lack of a home.”

Looking behind the numbers

Even the seemingly straightforward mission of finding a home for every adoptable animal can be misleading, as the definition of “adoptable” varies from shelter to shelter.

Patti Strand, national director of National Animal Interest Alliance, said the pressure no-kill advocates sometimes place on shelters to improve their numbers, such as the benchmark annual live release rate, can have detrimental effects.

Kauai’s live release rate so far this year is 45 percent, a 6 percent increase from fiscal year 2014. In other words, 45 percent of the animals KHS took in this year left the shelter alive through adoption, return-to-owner or transfer to a Mainland shelter. If KHS were pressured to “have better numbers,” Strand said it would be impossible to do so without ample funding and effort to fix the symptoms. And that’s something she said can’t be done overnight.

“What happens is the value of saving the life of the dog is valued more highly than the value of protecting an adoptive family from a dangerous dog,” Strand said. “It’s this idea that, ‘Gee whiz, I’d like to save this dog and he’s only nipped someone once,’ that can have real consequences.”

One of the best examples comes out of New Mexico, where the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department last year permitted more than 100 dangerous dogs to be adopted by families or returned to them after they failed nationally recognized behavioral tests.

The result was tragic: Dozens of these dogs killed or injured other pets, bit children, attacked their owners or displayed otherwise aggressive behavior.

“All across the country, dangerous dogs that should not be adopted out to the public today and wouldn’t have been adopted out 10 years ago are being adopted out,” Strand said. “The reason is this idea that there are numbers every shelter should be hitting, and it’s not that black and white. Not every community is ready to be no-kill. It’s not a switch that can just be flipped.

“I’m absolutely in favor of the wholesome goal that’s attached to the no-kill label, but you have to look below the surface to see how it’s being applied.”

Why euthanize?

Kauai’s only animal shelter euthanizes animals due to age, health, temperament and physical condition. Last fiscal year, the shelter also euthanized for space: one dog and seven cats.

Euthanizing for space is rare, KHS Executive Director Penny Cistaro said. The shelter routinely has dogs that are available for adoption for six months or more, so long as they remain “happy, healthy and well-adjusted.”

The shelter can comfortably house about 160 dogs and cats. On any given day there are typically 40 to 50 dogs available for adoption plus about 24 adult cats and 30 kittens. On average, about one cat and one dog are adopted out to a family each day.

The other 60 or so animals housed at the shelter are either being held in protective custody, as a stray whose owner might reclaim it or for evaluation to determine whether the animal is dangerous to humans or other animals.

KHS will not place a dog or cat in a home if there’s reason to believe it will bite or otherwise behave aggressively.

For these animals, euthanasia is the answer.

“There’s this thought that shelter workers euthanize because it’s convenient or it’s easy or because we’re callous,” Cistaro said. “But in reality it’s one of the most painful things we have to do.”

In May, Kauai’s euthanasia rate became the crux of a campaign led by some KHS donors and staff to oust Cistaro from the shelter’s top job. Claims that Cistaro is too quick to euthanize animals led to an internal investigation in June by the KHS Board of Directors. In July, two KHS employees at the forefront of that campaign were fired. The board of directors has since unanimously backed Cistaro’s performance in her role managing the shelter’s day-to-day operations.

Successful alternatives

Cistaro said the shelter is working hard to reduce euthanasia by finding more homes for animals, both here on Kauai and on the Mainland. KHS sent 362 pets via Alaska Airlines to its 12 partner shelters on the Mainland last fiscal year.

One of those animals was Slim, a puppy with two fluctuating patellas.

KHS doesn’t have the resources to perform the kind of surgery Slim needed to walk normally again. So he was transferred to the Oregon Humane Society, which was able to perform the surgery Slim needed and adopt him out to a family.

Transferred animals are nearly guaranteed to find a home because the partner shelters only agree to take in pets they are confident they can adopt out to a family.

The transfer program is important on Kauai, where KHS is the only on-island shelter. While there are other animal welfare organizations providing help in the effort to find homes for KHS animals, there is nowhere else for animals without homes to go. KHS does not transfer animals to shelters on other islands because those shelters are struggling with the same pet overpopulation problem.

On the Big Island last year, for example, more than 10,000 animals were euthanized by the Hawaii Island Humane Society. Only 3 percent of those euthanasias fell into the category of adoptable, according to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

A few months ago, KHS started working with a new group called Kauai Animal Welfare Society. The group, according to Cistaro, helps the shelter find foster and adoptive homes, primarily for dogs. KHS also cooperates with Kauai Community Cat Project, which utilizes the shelter’s spay and neuter clinic to help curb the island’s problematic feral cat population. The two organizations teamed up last December for a “Home For The Holidays” pet adoption program.

Cistaro said she would welcome the formation of a private adoption agency on Kauai to help house and find homes for Kauai’s ownerless animals.

“We’re always crowded,” she said. “We don’t have rescue groups on the island to work with. Organizationally we would welcome another group that would help us place animals. We would welcome a no-kill group that would partner with us in finding homes for our animals. But it’s important to understand that any no-kill group is not going to take that 8-year-old dog that has been chained in the back yard its entire life because they’re not going to be able to place it.”

Prospects of a no-kill shelter

Kauai could not realistically function as a true no-kill island because of those animals that are aggressive or suffering and untreatably ill, Cistaro said.

The shelter’s goal, according to Cistaro, is to drastically — and responsibly — reduce the number of animals coming into the shelter so staff can focus on animals that have correctable behavioral problems and treatable illnesses, and ultimately move toward a situation where the only animals being euthanized are untreatably ill or dangerous.

To get to that point, she said, the shelter needs the help of the community.

Pet owners in particular can help curb the island’s pet overpopulation problem by spaying and neutering their animals, equipping them with some form of identification so they can be returned if they are lost, and resolving to take in a pet only with a commitment to care for that animal for the entirety of its life.

“We had people last week come in with nine dogs, and then they came back in with six dogs,” Cistaro said.

Some social and cultural changes could also benefit the island’s animals, Cistaro said. The transient nature of our island community often results in pet abandonment. Some hunting dog owners treat their animals as disposable tools rather than pets. Finding ways to address these issues proactively rather than reactionarily could help save animal lives.

“We’re not out there creating this problem, we’re trying to solve it,” Cistaro said. “We are responding to a problem we didn’t create. If the community doesn’t want us to euthanize, they need to step up and help us solve it.”

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