The Prevalence of Kill Shelter Speak in Media

Both national and local media have historically done a poor job reporting on pet related stories.  While sensational stories about animal hoarding, puppy mills and cruelty frequently attract media attention, journalists working for national outlets often rely on soundbites from groups like HSUS, ASPCA, and PETA – all of whom have sketchy records when it comes to actually saving pets’ lives.  In the case of PETA for example, the group saves such a tiny percentage of the pets it records as being taken into its “shelter”, the state of VA reconsidered its shelter license in 2010.  The PETA “shelter” is little more than a pet slaughterhouse and the state of Virginia’s records prove it.  Members of the national media however are quick to ring PETA for comment when reporting on a pet related story, never apparently researching as to whether the group’s record actually reflects “ethical treatment” for pets.

Journalists who don’t do their homework but merely regurgitate the info provided by killing apologists – whether from national groups or local shelters – continually allow those responsible for the killing to frame the conversation.  This is not only irresponsible but this type of reporting misleads the public into believing that shelter pet killing is a necessary evil.  Let’s look at some specific examples.

It’s not uncommon to come across local and national variations of this sentiment in media:  There are X number of pets being killed in shelters every year.  Here’s what you can do to help.  This is typically followed by a to-do list of pleas including such mainstays as neuter your pets, donate, volunteer and “adopt, don’t shop”.

This is kill shelter speak.  It implies that the needless killing of pets in shelters is your fault if:

  • You can’t afford to neuter your pet, lack transportation to get your pet to a spay-neuter clinic or simply do not want to neuter your pet at this time.
  • You don’t want to donate money to a pet killing facility.
  • You don’t want to volunteer at a pet killing facility.
  • You chose to get your pet from someplace other than a shelter.

While promoting spay-neuter, shelter donations and adoptions are all very good things, they are not the reasons why healthy/treatable pets are being needlessly killed in shelters.  The truth is, friendly pets are being killed in shelters because shelter workers are killing them instead of doing their jobs to shelter and protect these pets from harm.

In this sad piece detailing an 88 year old NC man’s forced separation from his 11 year old dog due to housing issues arising from poverty, the paper sought comment from ACO Belinda Harper, who picked up the gentleman’s dog – named Koal:

Shelter policy allows an owner-surrendered dog to be euthanized right away, but Koal stayed at the shelter for more than a week until someone could rescue him, Harper said.

Rather than expressing outrage that a healthy, owner surrendered pet can legally be killed without even being offered for adoption, the paper paints the shelter staff as heroes because they allowed Koal to live for a whole week before a local volunteer stepped up to save him.  Again, this is kill shelter speak.  Making an exception for a dog they could have killed immediately is hardly praiseworthy.  Instead, there should be questions as to why any healthy/treatable pet would be immediately killed without being offered for adoption.  The journalist should be asking, when there are proven lifesaving programs being utilized to save more than 90% of shelter pets in other communities, why is this community still stuck on the old catch and kill model of sheltering?

The Boston Globe offers the Massachusetts SPCA all kinds of outs for their needless killing of thousands of shelter pets each year in this recent article.  Instead of inquiring as to why the MSPCA has a paltry 56% live release rate, the journalist offers to take a sizable chunk of dead animals off the top, explaining them away as “either wild animals or sick animals brought in by their owners to be euthanized”.  No questions are raised as to whether a veterinary consultation confirmed any of these animals were medically hopeless and suffering – and therefore in need of euthanasia – or if alternate options such as treatment and/or foster care were exhausted before killing was considered.

Carter Luke, president of the MSPCA was interviewed for the article:

In the end, not every animal can be helped and some will be euthanized, Luke acknowledged.

“Not every animal can be helped” is kill shelter speak.  It implies that the pound tries to help every animal but some are beyond help.  With a live release rate of only 56%, the MSPCA is clearly not on par with communities like Reno, NV and Austin, TX where they truly are helping – and saving – better than 90% of the animals at their shelters.  The journalist has an obligation to raise these questions in my opinion instead of simply accepting the platitudes offered by the group’s president.  Even the title of the piece, “Pet shelters struggle with glut of cats, dogs” gives readers the impression that shelters are going above and beyond the call of duty when in fact, those such as the MSPCA are failing to perform even the minimum requirements of their jobs.  Their job being of course to shelter and protect pets from harm.

The next time you across a news item about pets in which the journalist doesn’t appear to have performed due diligence, call him out.  It’s not necessary to be mean-spirited about it, just send him a brief note advising him of a question you wish he’d asked (e.g. “Why is this shelter killing 44% of its pets instead of saving 90% like many other shelters?”) and include one helpful link (e.g. a link to this no kill primer).  If we begin to ask the questions, we might prompt members of the media to seek out answers.  After all, they have inquiring minds!

11 thoughts on “The Prevalence of Kill Shelter Speak in Media

  1. Well, we had a dog fighting ring bust and the news promo showed a quick clip of authorities removing the dogs with the voiceover, “What will happen to these rescued dogs now?” I was quite pleasantly surprised that the dogs were in the role of victim, rather than blood thirsty monsters. A definite step in the right direction.

    But yes, killing in shelters is so accepted as “necessary” that no one even questions the language. I knew a woman who used to work at a shelter and she was in charge of selecting who would die the next day by putting orange stickers on cages. She would make her selections, but toss and turn all night, sometimes driving in early in the morning to change her choices around. It was soul-wracking for her. But she “knew” it was “the only way” to control shelter population.

    Stop “knowing”, people. Start questioning. Because it’s not the only way. There are other ways. Better ways.

    1. Yes, it’s good they asked the question about what will happen to the dogs. The idea that “rescued” dogs are not considered actually rescued is similar to the notion that shelter pets are not actually being sheltered.

  2. Yes, the regularly accepted propaganda, which passes for the “norm”, must now be challenged each and every time an article or news item appeared anywhere in the media. If enough people are routinely questioning the media on the false assumptions of what is represented as “normal” in sheltering, the paradigm can shift. Once the local media is introduced to examples of how no-kill sheltering can work (i.e. the new normal), then hopefully the media can begin to see the story from a different angle. “Our heroes the killers” can become, “why do you maintain such a high kill rate when other shelters have become no-kill” and ” why aren’t you implementing programs that some other shelters do to reduce the kill rate?” Etc.
    Thanks for this post!

  3. We must also entice the news reporting media into contacting small rescues and sanctuaries for their take on the subjects as well, and in that way gain a higher profile as people who know as much if not more, than the HSUS and those pirates. It is imperative that we make ourselves as rescuers as much of a presence as possible when the poo flinging begins.

  4. Once again you have provided valuable resourceful info into the workings of “shelters” so many have relied on for help to our most beloved of all animals, cats & dogs. With memberships in the hundreds of thousands, how many really know what they are doing?

    I trust “shelters” with a 90%+ saving rates are doing their best but I have seen another blog that states Reno NV’s “shelter” is beyond capacity. I know it is best to save ALL valuable lives, but this other blog is saying dogs/cats are living throughout their lives in cages as the “shelter” doesn’t have enough adoptive homes. They are also saying there’s a long line every day of folks dropping off their “pets” knowing Reno won’t kill them, but the “shelter” is beyond capacity and many aren’t being adopted.

    So here’s the question: Where do the dogs/cats go when “shelters” are at capacity & everyone in the area who wants a dog/cat has all they can handle? I don’t want ANY healthy dog/cat to be killed or live a lifetime in a cage, but what is really happening at Reno’s shelter?

    I wish everyone knew a house is not a home without at LEAST one.

  5. I completely agree with this post and the comments, especially Morgana’s point about the importance of giving the rescue community a higher profile. I think this all comes about because reporters are enormously time-pressured and lack information; when the clock is ticking, they will go with what they know. (I was a newspaper reporter many years ago. Every day, I had three deadlines and, even if it took time away from a major story, always had to make 100 phone calls.) Reporters know absolutely nothing about the No Kill movement, much less the fact that there are successful shelters in every part of the country with a 90+% live release rate. I’m guessing the vast majority of them have never even heard the term live release rate and wouldn’t know what it means. The information they already have gives them no reason to doubt what they are told by shelters.

    I would also argue that, even if you’ve heard about a new point of view that conflicts with what you THINK you know, espousing it takes research — to make sure this surprising, seemingly counterintuitive point of view is factual — and thus a much greater investment of time than a reporter, especially one on a deadline, can make on any given day. Plus, I believe that adult learning theory tells us that 12 repetitions are needed for something new to really sink in; reinforcement, reporter by reporter, is needed until an informational tipping point is reached.

    Also, any local humane society or SPCA, such as the Massachusetts SPCA, is a sort of stand-in for HSUS, PETA or the ASPCA; the credibility of these local humane groups is to some extent borrowed from the national groups. There is no equivalent nationally recognized authority for the rescue community, which is decentralized (and I’m not suggesting it should be otherwise!), to borrow from to counteract the already established credibility of the shelters. Each local rescue group must establish its own standing in the eyes of reporters.

    That said, I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for rescuers to reach out to reporters and, by providing information, make the No Kill perspective better known to the general public. They can cultivate local reporters and news editors (the people at newspapers and TV/radio stations who make the assignments) with ongoing information about their rescue’s doings, to create enough awareness that the rescue group might be called for comment if something happens. Reporters like a clear point of view and they like effectiveness, and rescuers have both. It can definitely happen — as an example, the local paper in Cumberland, Maryland IMO has provided excellent ongoing coverage of the shelter changes there. (I used to live in Maryland so I’ve followed the Allegany County shelter story with interest.) There have been multiple stories over a period of months, nicely written, all by the same person, who clearly had good sources and solid information provided to him. Someone (or more likely several people) took the time to work with this reporter, and the community has benefited from the resulting coverage.

    Another approach is to go to reporters and news editors with a specific story that relates to a larger issue. I remember that when a Houston-area shelter some months ago chose not to save the dog who was later named Hope, a local TV station did not one, but two or three stories about the shelter and its director, Dawn Blackmar. Blackmar still has her job, but I suspect there’s now a level of awareness about her such that it would be much easier for future stories to be done about her decisions. It was obvious that the rescuer interviewed in the first story about Hope (the woman was a representative of a local purebreed rescue organization) had brought the issue to the TV station herself and framed the story clearly; I’m sure she and her rescue colleagues also provided all the background information needed — such as info on stray-hold requirements and how they are treated, and who the directors were in similar shelters — so the reporter didn’t have to go through a difficult learning curve that would slow things down. Stories like that carry a lot of water for the No Kill movement IMO in that they make it so clear that a shelter is wrong in choosing not to save a life. I still remember the rescuer’s simple, perfect on-camera quote: “If an animal could be saved, why WOULDN’T you call a rescue?” The quoted rescuer even worked in the fact that there had been a suspected retaliation killing after the TV station’s initial request for an interview with Blackmar. The whole lifesaving point of view was right there! I greatly admired what that rescue did — it was textbook media outreach. I think any rescue can do this.

  6. I have contacted the Az Republic numerous times about how they handle the stories about Maricopa County Animal Care and Control. Never a response back. On related topic I found out today that the news channels get mucho bucks from AZ Humane for running their “adoptathons” or whatever they call them. Hmmm you give us money, we never say a bad word. Maybe all these shelters have a work$$ng relationship with the media. Makes sense.

  7. I am that Belinda Harper that saved the dog’s life and many other animals at that shelter. You don’t know until you have to work at a shelter and follow the rules of those who are over you that do not work at the shelter. I questioned a lot of things at the shelter and that is probably why i am not employed there now. I was let go from that position on September 14, 2012, because i stood up for what was right. While there i contacted lots of rescue groups to try to save animals, i helped families to keep there animals by helping them to get to the vets office. I saved baby squirrels, rabbits, opossums,pigs, horses,deer, etc by calling rescue groups. I have bottle fed puppies, kittens, etc. to save their lives. I have charged many people with animal cruelty and taken the animal from the abuser. I have worked many days and had to up many times of the night to work. I worked that job for seven years and was tossed to the side when they wanted me gone. Animal Control Officers don’t want to have to put animals down. They are required to not over run the shelter and you can get fired if you hold animals to long. Animal Control Officers need something that is not given that much that is support. They need this from you and the public to be good owners. I love, love, love animals, because God made them. Every time i had to put one down it hurt me to my heart. If you really want to help, bring a no kill shelter to Rocky Mount, NC. Don’t judge until you know for real what you are talking about.

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