The executive director of the SPCA of Niagara is under pressure from charges that he’s "presided over the killing of hundreds of animals." As is common with shelter controversies, sorting through the emotion and rhetoric is difficult. At best, running a shelter can be a thankless task, due to the overwhelming number of animals, emotion, lack of understanding by the public (and often personnel) of the relevant issues, financial challenges and often poorly designed facilities. At the same time, bad things do happen in shelters, and it’s critical to put in the time and effort to determine whether things are being done poorly and what needs to be fixed. Here are some of the issues from the Niagara situation.
"From Oct. 1 to Dec. 15, the local SPCA euthanized 473 cats and 100 dogs, a staggering total of killings, according to sources familiar with the situation at the Lockport Road shelter."
- Apart from the problem of relying on information from anonymous sources, it’s hard to put this number into context. You need to know the overall number of animals that come in and the shelter’s capacity. It’s a sad fact that about 50% of cats are euthanized at most shelters internationally because of massive overload. Shelters shouldn’t be cat warehouses. It does no one (including the cats) any good to stockpile huge numbers of cats that never have a chance of adoption, and it creates a perfect environment for disease outbreaks. So, while that number of animals seems high at first glance, it may just reflect the reality of supply and demand, shelter capacity and the health/adoptability status of the animals.
"When he was hired, Faso admitted, “My animal care experience is very minimal.”"
- A shelter director doesn’t need to be an expert in shelters and animal health. In fact, some excellent shelter directors have come into the job with no experience whatsoever. Their job shouldn’t be running animal care. They should be running the shelter, managing personnel, raising funds, liaising with the community and doing a host of other activities. The key is having good veterinary and animal care support, and a willingness to listen to those people. It would be great if every shelter manager was a veterinarian with a shelter medicine residency under his/her belt, along with an MBA and training in communications, but that’s not going to happen. Someone with little animal knowledge but the ability to listen and take advice can be an excellent shelter director.
"McAlee and others tell horror stories of animals brought to the shelter for surrender or picked up on the streets and in need of medical care, who are then left to suffer in their cages. In one case, a cat that appeared to be suffering from a broken jaw was brought in and allowed to stay for a week in a cage without treatment. Finally, a concerned staffer took the cat to an emergency veterinary clinic where it was treated and then returned to the shelter."
- That’s a big problem. If true, and if this was done because of pressure from the director overriding advice from medical staff, then that’s completely inappropriate. Interference with medical decisions and medical care does occur in some shelters and is a major problem.
"When the cat then developed a common respiratory infection, rather than provide further medication for the animal, Faso directed that it be euthanized."
- This is a tougher issue. I hate to see potentially treatable animals euthanized, but euthanasia is an appropriate response in some situations. If they are unable to properly manage an infectious case or are overwhelmed with healthy cats, keeping an infectious cat may pose a huge risk to all of the other cats in the facility. It’s impossible to say much here without more details.
"Other sources tell the Gazette that cats at the shelter have been injuring themselves in out-dated display cases and that a donor offered to fund the replacement of those cages. Faso, reportedly, refused to accept the donation."
- Poor housing is a common problem in shelters. Good cages are expensive. It would be bizarre for a shelter manager to turn down money (that came with no strings attached) and if that was done, it would be another sign that Mr. Faso’s not right for the job.
"..he has reportedly told board members and others that the local SPCA will “never be a no-kill shelter because it’s too expensive."
- That’s an unfortunate fact. No kill shelters just aren’t viable in the grand scheme of things. Individual shelters can be no kill, but that’s often done by cherry picking the adoptable animals.
It comes down to math. If 50% of cats coming into shelters are euthanized every year because of lack of space, to convert to a no-kill approach we’d need to massively increase shelter capacity every year to accommodate the increasing population. Millions of dollars would be required to create cat warehouses where millions of unadoptable cats lived marginal lives in facility confinement until dying of natural causes or from the massive disease outbreaks that would be certain to happen. I know I’ll get reams of emails complaining about this paragraph, but to me it’s a simple fact. If you increase supply by 100% per year by not euthanizing any animals, and demand doesn’t increase, the math quickly shows you the size of the problem that would be created.
The only way to get to the point where no-kill is a viable approach is to have more responsible pet owners and better animal population control. Euthanasia rates are much, much lower in dogs, in part because of much better population control and also because people tend to try harder to recover lost dogs compared to lost cats. Recovery rates of lost dogs that make it to shelters are very high. Cats… not so much.
So, if you want to help out shelters and the animals in them:
- Spay and neuter your pets.
- Donate to good quality shelters to help them provide optimal care.
- Volunteer, if you have the time and interest.
- Hold shelters to a high standard, but make sure it’s a realistic standard.
- Encourage municipalities to properly fund animal shelters and enforcement.
- Consider adopting from a shelter if you are getting a new pet.
- Take the time to learn about the issues, and make assessments based on fact, not just emotion.