Can We Legislate No Kill?
From the No-Kill Advocacy Center: (NoKillSolutions.com)
Subject: Can We Legislate No Kill?
Date: 9/22/2006 10:13:44 A.M. Pacific Standard Time
Can We Legislate No Kill?
Legislation is often thought of as a quick solution to high rates of shelter killing. “If only we had a law,” the argument goes, “all the bad, irresponsible people out there would take care of their pets properly, and shelters wouldn’t have to kill so many animals.”
But if this were true, given the proliferation of these laws, shouldn’t there be many No Kill communities by now? In fact, experience has proven that legislation is far from a cure-all. In reality, it often has the opposite effect. The communities that have passed these laws are far from No Kill.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
In the late 1970s, national animal welfare agencies, public health departments, and veterinarian associations held a series of national symposiums and came up with a national model for addressing what they called “the surplus pet population.” A copy of their findings and recommendations was sent to 7,000 agencies nationwide, virtually every shelter in the United States.
Adopting the viewpoint that the public’s failure to spay/neuter or confine their pets was to blame for the high rates of shelter killing, they focused on efforts to force the public to become “responsible pet owners.” As a result, they recommended a series of legislative initiatives—most of which were promoted and passed in localities nationwide. Among the many laws favored, the most common were those that: required dogs and cats to be confined in homes, required dogs and to a lesser extent cats to be licensed with local authorities; limited the number of animals a family could care for; prohibited the feeding of stray cats; and, provided expanded authority for animal control officers to seize and destroy pets they deemed a “nuisance.” The theory behind all these laws was to severely curtail not only the public’s “bad” behavior, but also the bad behavior of the animals.
Unfortunately, the laws had many unintended consequences. Since the legislation was premised on the assumption that the public was “bad” and had to be “punished” and “coerced” into doing the right thing, it ignored the obvious—even if its proponents were right, the law would nonetheless miss its intended target since responsible people acted responsibly whether there was a law or not, while truly irresponsible people would merely ignore the laws.
More importantly, these laws were interpreted to mean that anyone who fed a stray animal—or left food out for a hungry cat—was considered the animal’s owner. In towns and communities throughout the United States, well-meaning, compassionate people found themselves threatened by animal control authorities for feeding the stray cat who wandered into their backyard in search of food. As an “owner” under these ordinances, they were violating the law for “allowing” the cat outside, a curious twist of facts since these people were not allowing anything, other than allowing the animal to have occasional food. In the end, however, since failure to comply often resulted in the pet’s impoundment and killing, the net effect of the legislation was to exacerbate shelter killing.
In fact, many jurisdictions have seen their impound and death rates increase following passage of such laws which give agencies carte blanche to round up and kill outdoor animals. If a shelter has high rates of shelter killing, it makes no sense to support the passing of laws which give them greater power, and more reasons, to impound—and subsequently kill—even more animals.
The laws also limited the number of animals a family could own to often small numbers, three or four in most cases. One of the effects of this, however, was also to limit the number of animals a responsible family could help and thus prevented adoptions—and discouraged the most compassionate people in the community from coming forward to help the shelter with adoptions, donations, and volunteer support.
Finally, in order to increase the number of animals sterilized—the one thing that would have had dramatic results—national shelter agencies predictably encouraged the passing of even more laws, this time to force pet owners to spay/neuter at their own expense. Many localities took up the banner, passing laws that required pet owners to spay or neuter their dogs and cats on threats of fines, increased licensing costs, and the impoundment and killing of the pet.
Despite studies showing that simply providing a low-cost alternative doubled the number of poor people who spayed or neutered their pets, and that the wealthiest communities voluntarily spayed/neutered their pets at four times the rate of their poor counterparts, localities failed to provide meaningful solutions to obstacles that prevented people from acting the way shelters wanted them to. While laws were passed to force people to spay or neuter their pets, little was done about the high cost of the surgeries charged by many private veterinarians that kept poor people from complying. Even in the poorest communities where the federal government was subsidizing the cost of home heating oil to prevent families from freezing during the winter, in order to appease veterinarians who continued to oppose perceived threats to their profits, no effort was made to provide an alternative to a costly $150 dog spay.
Three Strikes and You’re Out
When Fort Wayne, Indiana; San Mateo, California; and King County, Washington passed their animal control legislation, the laws were hailed as a “national model.” They remain a dismal failure. Historically, Ft. Wayne’s aggressive enforcement of cat licensing has yielded only single digit compliance and a steadily increasing death rate for several years following mandatory cat licensing. In 2005, over two decades later, animal control still killed 76% of all impounded dogs and cats—over three out of four dogs and cats lost their life. The unincorporated county of San Mateo adopted its mandatory licensing programs in the first quarter of 1992 and noted a higher level of killing than the prior four years. The number of cats killed for the unincorporated county of San Mateo increased by 54% following the implementing of cat licensing and 60% in year two. This represented the first increase in cats being impounded and killed in San Mateo County. Not surprisingly, in the City of San Mateo, where the law had not been implemented, the number of cats handled and killed followed their predictable downward trend of 14% fewer cats handled and 14% fewer killed. Following this period, the shelter claimed a decrease in the kill rate for cats of some 24% just one year later, citing the licensing law as the reason. But this obscures the fact that it still represents a 42% increase from the year preceding cat licensing. In fact, adjusting for the fact that cat licensing did not go into effect until the end of the first quarter of 1992, the actual decline was closer to about 5%, significantly lower than the 24% claimed, and low compared to the decline of 29% experienced in the City of San Mateo without cat licensing. But perhaps no legislation has been more heralded, more promoted as a national model than the one passed in King County, Washington. Animal control in that community claims that because of the ordinance, they are now saving the vast majority of “adoptable” animals. But is this true? In fact, it is not.
First of all, despite being billed as a lost pet’s ticket home, redemption rates have either remained flat or declined since King County’s ordinance went into effect. By real numbers, there is a decline in redemptions, so the claim made about cat licensing increasing reclamation rates is not borne out by the data. If anything, most of these are dogs and even with doubling of dog licensing, redemptions are still down. In the end, reclaim rates are consistent with other jurisdictions where these laws are not in place. In some cases, King County’s are even lower. And despite its mandatory nature, there is no evidence that King County has higher rates of spay/neuter than jurisdictions who have made spay/neuter affordable, without diverting animal care dollars to bureaucratic enforcement.
But what of the claim that because of the ordinance, shelter killing rates are declining? For the three years prior to implementation of their ordinance, the county experienced declines in cat killing of 13%, 9% and 15%, so the trend was definitely in that direction, and these declines are more significant than the declines for the six years following enforcement of the law. In fact, the law may have limited the actual decline—or, in other words, led to a higher rate of killing than would have otherwise occurred.
And while killing rates have significantly declined more recently, the reasons why are not hard to figure out. King County, WA went from killing all feral cats to working with feral cat TNR groups, began sterilizing all animals before adoption rather than sending them out unspayed, began adopting out Pit Bulls rather than having a policy of 100% killing, began treating cats and kittens with respiratory infections rather than killing them, started a foster care program, and began working with rescue groups.
Not surprisingly, declines in impounds and killing perfectly track changes in programs—making Pit Bulls available for adoption, treating illnesses, working with TNR groups, and more progressive policies in adoptions. In short, King County began implementing the non-punitive, non-legislative programs and services of the No Kill equation. This is the real reason for the decline in death rates, and it has nothing to do with its failed legislation.
And no better proof for this proposition exists than Long Beach, California, which has had a breeding ban for over thirty years. If legislation is the answer, Long Beach should be a No Kill community by now. But, in fact, it is far from it, as many homeless animals have discovered who have had the misfortune of entering their animal control shelter system. The same is true of Fort Wayne, Indiana, San Mateo, California, and even King County, Washington. By contrast, the three most successful communities in the nation with the highest percentage of animals going home alive only passively enforce dog laws, and have no cat laws.
Legislation promises a quick fix, a reason to celebrate after passage. But it isn’t so. And denying it by pretending it is a magic formula to change the life and death calculus for shelter animals isn’t fair to the homeless creatures whose lives often depend on animal lovers and activists effectively advocating on their behalf.
The No Kill Advocacy Center
The No Kill Advocacy Center is the nation’s first organization dedicated solely to the promotion of a No Kill nation. And it is the only national animal welfare agency that is staffed by people who have actually worked in and created a No Kill community.
But the challenges we face are great. From entrenched bureaucrats who are content with the status quo, to uncaring shelter directors hostile to calls for reform; from agencies mired in the failed philosophies of the past to those who have internalized a culture of defeatism—the roadblocks to No Kill are substantial, but not insurmountable.
We have a choice. We can fully, completely and without reservation embrace No Kill as our future. Or we can continue to legitimize the two-prong strategy of failure: adopt a few and kill the rest. It is a choice which history has thrown upon us. And a challenge that the No Kill Advocacy Center is ready to take on.
Your tax deductible contribution will help us hasten the day when animals find in their shelter a new beginning—instead of the end of the line. Working together, we can build an alternative consensus to traditional sheltering models—one which is oriented toward promoting and preserving life. An alternative which seeks to create a future where every animal will be respected and cherished, and where every individual life will be protected and revered.
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The No-Kill Advocacy Center (NoKillSolutions.com)
P.O. Box 74926 San Clemente CA 92673 (949) 276-6942