Socialize the Animal Shelters

America’s animal shelter system is a disaster. We need a well-funded, fully public system that no longer treats animals as expendable commodities — and empowers the workers who staff public shelters.

The best way to protect animals is to invest in public facilities — and the workers who operate them. Photo: Jazmin Smith

Every day in the United States, hundreds of dogs and cats are gassed to death in public animal shelters. While many states have moved toward euthanasia by injection, chambers persist in localities with the fewest resources and the most animals.

The dysfunctional state of the public animal shelter system has inspired entrepreneurial animal lovers across the country to start their own ventures to rescue animals from killer pounds. However, much like charter schools interacting with the public education system, private rescues fail to address the root issues of the pet overpopulation crisis, instead diverting funding from municipal shelters, casting aside less “desirable” animals, and ultimately exacerbating the problems plaguing the public system.

The best way to close the gas chambers is to invest in public facilities — and the workers who operate them.

The Cost of Austerity

“Don’t judge me . . . I know I’m going to Hell,” reads an anonymous Letter from a Gas Chamber Man in rural North Carolina in 2006. He describes his weekly ritual, in which he plays with and names each of the dogs the night before he kills them. He spends $50 buying them fast food and stays out until 5 a.m., breaking the law to release the cats into wealthy neighborhoods where he hopes they will be adopted, or at least die by injection.

Shelter workers don’t kill animals out of malice. Like so many other essential employees, they are asked to do an impossible task with pitiful resources. And if the institutional and operational support weren’t bad enough, they’re also widely disparaged. Many in the animal rescue community deride them as killers. They rarely receive health care, let alone access to counseling, even though they are routinely exposed to the graphic aftermath of animal abuse. They take their own lives at 3.5 times the national average. “I just want to die,” the gas chamber man confesses.

As with rural schools and hospitals, rural animal shelters are a portrait of a vital public service abandoned by the state in pursuit of austerity. And like other abandoned sectors, austerity has created ample conditions for privatization. The number of private rescue organizations (nonprofits without public contracts) has exploded, with revenue increasing by 250 percent between 2002 and 2012. Today, when a person adopts from one of these groups — say, a puppy rescue or a veteran dog placement service — odds are that the dog was pulled from a shelter with a public contract. That shelter would have then lost the revenue that adoption could have made them. Public shelters transfer the dogs willingly, however, because it opens space in their overcrowded facilities for others. By contract, they can’t turn away strays in their jurisdiction. Private rescues can.

This creates a vicious circle of financial loss and euthanasia, as the most expensive-to-treat and difficult-to-place animals wait at the public shelters, and the most lucrative and adoptable ones are snatched up by private operators, who often mark them up for several times what adopters would have paid at the pound. Public shelters must also handle court-ordered cases, which contribute to higher euthanasia rates, hampering public shelters’ ability to raise funding.

Adding to the financial burden, public shelters often foot the bill to make sure pets are fixed, vaccinated, and treated for existing medical conditions. They are subject to regulations that private rescues aren’t and cover a litany of other necessary budget expenditures that private rescues don’t, including education initiatives, animal control issues, property taxes, utilities, and staff.

If a shelter sustains losses for long enough, it goes under. The municipality then posts a bid for the contract, opening the door for private rescues. In 2018, the municipal shelter in Pueblo, Colorado, closed due to bankruptcy. The contract was taken up by a private “no-kill” operator. The results were disastrous. Combining a sharp intake increase with a commitment to stay below a 10 percent euthanasia rate, the facility quickly grew overcrowded. They started overfilling kennels and keeping puppies in laundry bins. They transferred roughly one-third of all admitted animals and cut medical and spay/neuter budgets to compensate for adoption revenue.

After fourteen animals died, a state investigation found injured animals that had gone untreated, urine and hair in surgery rooms, and medications that were expired or designed for horses and cattle being used on dogs and cats. Just four months after the operator took over the contract, it was ordered to close down.

Sometimes it’s not the whole shelter that gets privatized, but a specific service. Transfers are increasingly conducted by third-party nonprofits, driving dogs and cats between shelters and across state lines. In order to avoid spending money to move animals they can’t place, they often arrange adoptions before ever seeing the animals or allowing them to interact with adopters, children, or their pets. This heightens the risk of failed adoptions and incidents of aggression.

Training has also become its own industry, as dogs with behavioral issues are pulled from shelters to prevent their scheduled euthanasia, often raising sums that could fund dozens of adoptions or operations in order to pay for private rehabilitative rescue providers. In a 2017 case, a dog was surrendered in New York after biting a child. He was taken from the public shelter by a private rescue in Pennsylvania, who raised $4,000 to send him to a rehabilitation and training facility in Virginia. After less than three months, he was adopted, quickly surrendered for aggression, and then adopted once more into a home where he killed a senior woman on the same day.

Former staff members at the training facility said the animal received no behavioral training whatsoever. In the private system, oversight measures to ensure the quality or completion of the training program were nonexistent. Unfortunately, such cases are not anomalies.

Not all private rescue dogs come from public shelters. While the public system usually experiences steady intake from strays, transfers, and animal control, private ones often find themselves searching the web to keep animals coming in. It isn’t uncommon for breed-specific and other specialist rescues to make deals with breeders, blurring the line between rescuing and farming.

These kinds of agreements have led to sordid situations like the National Mill Dog Rescue financing puppy mills or meat dog rescues underwriting the multimillion-dollar breeding industry in China, sometimes selling dogs like chihuahuas that no one eats. In one extreme case, Hollywood socialite Marc Ching’s Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation was exposed for sourcing dogs from butchers in Southeast Asia, one of whom alleged that he had paid them to dismember and burn dogs alive for fundraising videos.

A Just Path Forward

A fully public system would come with its own challenges, including the question of how to organize fosters or handle specialized rescues like aggressive dogs and neonatal kittens.

But with adequate revenue and improved standards, an integrated public system could foster better coordination between shelters, facilitate more effective transfers, and prevent adoptions to documented abusers. It could ensure animals aren’t treated as expendable commodities.

Improving worker protection and representation would be an essential part of this system. A unionized, well-compensated workforce would reduce turnover, lengthen careers, and boost morale, while also improving the lives of the animals.

In 2008, unionized shelter workers in Los Angeles forced the resignation of an administrator widely accused of negligence toward animals and sexual harassment toward workers. Similarly, countries like Germany and the Netherlands that mandate employee representation on director boards have some of the highest adoption and lowest stray rates in the world.

The billions of dollars that adopters and donors annually entrust to private entities, such as purebred and puppy rescues, could not only be used to close every gas chamber in the country, but cover living wages, pensions, and mental health care for overworked and undervalued shelter professionals like the anonymous gas chamber man in North Carolina. A well-funded public system could provide universal spay and neuter services, enforce proper regulations and oversight of every shelter facility, and put an end to the breeding of dogs and cats for profit in the United States.

Public shelter workers are not heartless killers, but unsung heroes who make great sacrifices for the animals that society neglects. They show affection, even to those they know cannot be saved. They understand, better than anyone, what needs to be done to save the millions of companion animals in our country without homes. We just have to empower them.