Author’s note: While I working on a recent story about a local no-kill animal shelter, some people told me that they disapproved of any shelter that ever euthanized animals calling itself “no-kill.” This story is to inform about what “no-kill shelter” means and where Maine is at with euthanasia.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of the 5 to 7 million cats and dogs in shelters nationwide this year, 60 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats will be euthanized, most due to lack of space.
In Maine, we’re doing much better that that. In 2011, 27 percent of animals in Maine shelters were euthanized. That dropped to 18 percent in 2012 and to 10 percent in 2013. No matter how low it gets, when an animal suffers from a painful, terminal illness, euthanasia may be the best option. And when an animal is so aggressive that rehabilitation doesn’t work, it might be the only option.
“Euthanasia sometimes has to happen,” said Liam Hughes, director of Animal Welfare, a division of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “It’s not because they want to do it; they’re just trying to ease the suffering of these animals.”
So how can a shelter call itself “no-kill” if it euthanizes at all? A “no-kill” designation means that the shelter doesn’t euthanize for matters of space.
Not too many years ago, the Bangor Humane Society euthanized about half of its animals, mostly for space and time. Today it’s a no-kill shelter, but it’s tough to shake the old reputation. According to Stacey Coventry, director of development and relations, the society still gets frequent calls from people who wrongly believe that every animal there has an expiration date.
“Euthanasia here is becoming the exception, and those exceptions are simply health,” Coventry said. “We treat if we can; if it’s untreatable, if we think the animal is suffering, or we think that it’s highly contagious … then we have to make that choice.”
And there is a high bar set for what’s considered “untreatable” these days.
“We have a little paraplegic kitten in foster care right now” that is being rehabilitated, Coventry said. “Years ago, that kitten would have been euthanized.”
BHS is spending more on veterinary care than ever to save animal lives — nearing $150,000 a year out of a budget of $900,000. And very little of that goes to euthanasia. In 2013, of 2,410 cats admitted, only 8 percent were euthanized; of 932 dogs, only 6 percent were euthanized.
“We’re really proud of those numbers, and we seem to be getting better every single year,” Coventry said.
Moreover, the BHS takes in everything — cats, dogs, ferrets, rabbits, hamsters, domestic birds, and more. Pets are never turned away for illness or behavioral problems. Because it doesn’t selectively limit which animals it admits, BHS’ numbers aren’t skewed.
The Animal Orphanage in Old Town also euthanized very few animals. In 2012, it admitted 17 dogs and euthanized none, and admitted 214 cats and euthanized only nine. That’s an overall euthanasia rate of less than 4 percent.
“The reasons that we have to euthanize an animal is that the animal is extremely aggressive or very ill with no chance of living a quality life,” reads TAO’s euthanasia policy. “The Animal Orphanage does not take this decision lightly and makes every effort to avoid euthanizing any animal in our care.”
No-kill shelters would certainly like the public to know that they don’t euthanize for time or space, and some don’t even shelter at all.
Forgotten Felines is a rescue working across Maine to trap stray cats, spay or neuter them, give them medical checkups and shots, and return them to their wild environs — and does for 300 to 400 cats per year.
By using TNR — Trap, Neuter, Return — cats live healthy lives and their numbers naturally drop thanks to so many being fixed. It’s the least we can do, says director Pamela Hansberry.
“Humans created this problem and we as humans have a [duty] to fix it or at least manage it with compassion,” she said. “Stray cats, once outside, will revert to their natural feral ways of survival and do just fine.”
National statistics seem to indicate that the rate of euthanasia is higher in shelters located in rural and poverty-stricken areas.
“Costs of getting pets spayed and neutered are a huge issue for us trying to control the overpopulation of our stray, abandoned, and neglected companion animals,” said Nicky Bowman, director of the Husky N Lab Rescue in Alton.
In 2013, Bowman’s shelter took in 135 animals; only one was euthanized, and for medical reasons.
“[In] most cases we would do our best to find a more suitable outcome for the dog,” she said. “HNL rarely takes dogs with extensive temperament issues due to the fact that we are mainly a foster-based rescue shelter.”
Thanks to things like public awareness, increased spaying and neutering, volunteers willing to foster animals, and behavior assessments, euthanasia for overcrowding is slowly becoming a thing of the past.
“The animals have a very good chance of being able to find a forever home,” Hughes said.
If you’re curious as to how your local shelter rates, ask about its euthanasia policy, and ask for its most recent statistics.