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Workers in "Kill Shelters" Deserve Medals, not Scorn

When our passion for animal rescue turns into judgmental attitudes about certain types of shelters, everybody loses -- including the animals.

 |  Jul 18th 2012  |   70 Contributions


One subject has been on my mind a lot lately. It started as a tiny germ of an idea when I read Jackson Galaxy’s memoir, Cat Daddy. It grew stronger when I interviewed Steven Latham, the director of a documentary called Shelter Me, for our sister site, Dogster. And when I talked to Last Chance Animal Rescue Director Cindy Sharpley for last week’s story about Clark Kent the miraculous Superkitten, I knew I had to speak out.

I want to sing the praises of animal shelter staff -- particularly those who work in what we in the rescue community tend to refer to callously as “kill shelters.”

These people go to work every day knowing that they or one of their colleagues is going to have to administer fatal injections to pets whose only crime was homelessness, yet they continue to take care of their charges as best they can, day after day.

And what do we do in response? Instead of having compassion for these people, too many of us condemn them!

People work at shelters because they love animals. Why else would they want to get involved in a notoriously low-paying job where they’ll be scorned by people who seem to think they’re heartless murderers?

Why would they go to work day after day, knowing that the vast majority of the pets who come into their care won’t leave through the front door, if they didn’t love animals? I can’t even imagine the emotional burden that comes from being overwhelmed by a ceaseless flood of abandoned and unwanted animals coming into the shelter (and cats have it far worse in that department) and feeling there’s little hope for that to change.

In spite of the fact that they know what end most of these animals face, shelter workers still find the time to pet them and play with them … and sometimes in those animals’ last moments, to say “I love you, and I’m sorry.”

It takes tremendous courage to open your heart to an animal that you know is almost certainly going to die.

Cat paw in man's hand by Shutterstock

We should praise these men and women for finding the strength to be caring and compassionate in the face of the brutal truths of their jobs.

I know some of you will point to the horrors of “heart-stick” shelters and gas chambers and say, “How can anybody who’d be able to do that to an animal actually care about animals?”

That attitude is self-righteous and hard-hearted.

The fact of the matter is, “kill shelters” and the people who work there aren't the problem. We are.

Animal shelter sign by Shutterstock

Until we as a society can be responsible about spaying and neutering -- which, by the way, includes not only getting our own pets fixed but helping to fund low-cost spay/neuter services -- shelter workers will have to continue administering those fatal injections.

Until we get over our prejudices about “kill shelters” and our fears about what we might encounter there, those animals aren’t going to find homes.

Until we start visiting our municipal shelters -- which, as Latham told me during our interview, are often difficult to find -- those animals aren’t going to find homes.

Until we start supporting those municipal shelters in whatever way we can, they won't be able to do what they want for the animals in their care. After all, they don’t have the big budgets of the national organizations that rake in donations by spending gazillions of dollars on tear-jerking commercials with famous spokespeople.

Instead of judging “kill shelters” and the people who work there, let’s help them in whatever way we can.

Let’s start by understanding what these shelters really are: They’re open-admission shelters. They don’t turn away any animals who come through their doors. This is the reason some of those animals have to be euthanized -– there’s simply not enough room at the inn. And I argue that an end to a life at one of these shelters is euthanasia, not “killing”: These animals would have lived a brutal life and likely died from disease, starvation, or injury if they were left on the streets. At least at a shelter they’ll get food, a warm bed, and a kind pet or two before their lives end.

Let’s hold the men and women who face this reality every day in our hearts with compassion and kindness. Let’s be part of the solution, whether we work with rescue groups to “pull” cats from these shelters (and maybe give the staff there a glimmer of hope that their work isn't just an effort in futility), volunteer our time, or even stop into an open-admission shelter to find our next cat friend.

If you’re guilty of having a judgmental attitude about “kill shelters” and the people who work there -- and I’ll confess that I used to -- please try to have a change of heart. These people deserve it.

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