New Shelter Philosophy – Will it Work?

The sign tacked to the wall just inside Manhattan's Center for Animal Care and Control says it all:

"Animals will be held a minimum of 48 hours, as required by law, to allow the original owner to claim their animals. Animals not placed for adoption will be euthanized by a painless and humane injection of barbiturate."

That chilling message doesn't stop a steady stream of pet owners from waiting in line to turn in their animals at the busy East Harlem building. About 65,000 unwanted dogs and cats have been left at New York City's public animal shelter doors each year, and most have been euthanized because no one claimed or adopted them.

Recently, the city has started enforcing a new law requiring that most pets be spayed and neutered, a move aimed at cutting down the bleak kill-rate.

Yet many private animal shelters say they've already found another solution – a "no kill" policy that promises no animal will be put to sleep unless it's so sick it can't be rehabilitated. Operators of "no kill" shelters say they're riding a new, more humanitarian wave by keeping cats and dogs as long as it takes to find them loving homes.

But skeptics charge that many "no kill" shelters are playing a shell game, culling the most desirable pets from local taxpayer-funded shelters and leaving the less desirable animals behind to be destroyed.

"We're starting to see more limited admission shelters popping up around the country, and this often means the killing is left to somebody else, and that often means the city shelter or animal control centers," said Lisa Lange, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "You can't pretty it up, and you also can't point a finger at the shelters that have to kill animals."

PETA doesn't oppose euthanasia because humans have proved so irresponsible that there's little alternative for most abandoned pets, said Lange. The real answer is mandatory spaying and neutering, but until that's universal, animals will be put down.

There's been some progress, though.

The Humane Society estimates that 4.5 million pets were euthanized in the United States last year, compared to 13 million in 1995, a downturn that it attributes to an increased use of breeding-control measures like mandatory spay-neuter programs or higher license fees for owners who don't sterilize their animals.

The Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Mass. advertises itself as "an animal adoption agency which never destroys a pet," but a receptionist answering the phone said the shelter is selective when choosing which animals to take from the public shelter for adoption. "We only take in what we can place," the woman said.

In 1994, San Francisco took a stab at utopia. Spawned by a $7 million grant from the Maddie's Fund, the city declared it would adopt a no-kill policy, finding homes for every stray animal in the city.

The $200 million fund is the brainchild of Silicon Valley mogul David Duffield, who named the charity after his deceased pet dog, and saw it as a potent force in ending most euthanasia. When the San Francisco project was announced, the city's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals declared it had been given "the ability to save the lives of thousands of `treatable' dogs and cats."

The city animal control authorities and the SPCA were to decide what "treatable" means.

By 1997 the "no-kill" city had stopped accepting pit bulls "with unknown histories." Animal officials have also quit boasting about their "no kill" policy, animal rescue sources said.

And the project drew some unintended chuckles when Maddie's Pet Adoption Center opened two years ago. In a specially designed, modernistic building, select cats and dogs lounge on plush sofas and chairs in apartments with polished wood floors, houseplants, and a wall-mounted color TV. Advocates for homeless people said they wished their clients had it so good.

Yet the project's directors believe they're on the road to success. "We consider ourselves a no-kill shelter," SPCA spokeswoman Tracy Pore said. "It's not 100 percent, but that's what we're striving for."

Last year's performance was impressive, with over 72 percent of all shelter animals placed in homes, according to Pore. That's far better than New York City's 26 percent placement rate. Yet Pore admitted the agency culls the best pets from the public animal shelter. "We'll set those aside for the SPCA," she said.

Skeptics aren't convinced. "To those of us in this field, traditional sheltering, there really is no such thing as 'no kill,' because somebody else is doing the killing," said Vicky Crosetti, executive director of the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley, in Louisville. Some shelters don't hand off the responsibility for euthanasia.

Animal Lifeline of Iowa in Carlisle calls itself a "special needs animal shelter," and concentrates solely on taking animals so abused or sickly that they're unlikely to be good candidates for adoption until they recuperate.

The pets are welcome to stay until they get well or get adopted, unless they're suffering can't be relieved, said shelter Director Ava Bothe. "The only animals we would euthanize would be animals so sick or suffering that we couldn't provide some sort of quality to their life," she said.

The small shelter, funded only by donations, can house just 23 dogs and 15 cats now, but it hopes to expand in a new location, Bothe said.

"The more that's wrong with the animal, the more they're a candidate for us," she said.