Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

In my daily travels, volunteering for  Lost Dogs of Wisconsin,  I am able to spend a lot of time communicating with dog owners.  I get a lot of insight on what the average pet lover thinks about Wisconsin shelters.

Many shelter and rescue folks tend to forget that the majority of pet owners in this country are not in tune with the goings on at animal shelters. In fact, they may not even know where their closest shelter is. So I treasure the conversations I have with average dog owners, because I feel like I get a good snapshot of the pulse of public opinion. Some people may criticize the public's lack of knowledge about their local shelter; but you have to remember -  most people are wrapped up in their work, their children, their lives. They love their pets, but they don't live and breathe animal welfare day in and day out like we do.

It came as a big surprise to me when I realized how many Wisconsin residents believe that their local shelters are no kill. Some people that I've talked to think that the whole state is no kill (in my dreams). They are horrified when I explain the truth. They've been deceived by the smoke and mirrors marketing and correspondence sent out to the public or posted on the websites and Facebook pages.

Most of this deception comes through the twisted use of  the words "healthy" and "adoptable".  Instead of clearly defining what a healthy, treatable or adoptable animal is, by using a matrix like the Life Saving Matrix of the No Kill Advocacy Center, shelter management manipulate the definitions of the words for their own benefit. Very few Wisconsin shelters have any type of statistics available for public viewing. So it is very easy to keep the donors and the public in the dark.

How do shelters kill and get away with it? They may say they save every healthy and adoptable animal. Or they may say they never kill a healthy, adoptable animal for space or time. It's all in the definition of healthy and adoptable.

Shelters will call feral cats "unadoptable" and they usually are. But feral cats should be trapped, neutered, vaccinated and returned. Instead they are killed but because they are considered "unadoptable" the shelter absolves themselves of the guilt of killing them.

Dogs that entered a shelter perfectly healthy with good dispositions, get labelled "unadoptable" if their behavior regresses because of a lack of proper enrichment opportunities or foster homes.

Cats that come into a shelter healthy but develop upper respiratory infections are labelled "unhealthy" and get killed.

Cats that are surrendered with litterbox issues are labelled "unadoptable" and are killed.

The possibilities are endless. Dogs with kennel cough, cats with ringworm;  treatable conditions but classified as unhealthy or unadoptable.

Twisting the words to trick the public into thinking that the shelter is no kill or low kill is common practice.

Elmbrook Humane Society in Brookfield, Wisconsin  is a shelter that does a lot of things right, but they've missed the mark on their new "adoption guarantee" policy.  Transparency isn't their strong point. As a matter of fact, there isn't any statistical data on their website at all.

A few months ago they came out publicly saying they are the only "adoption guarantee" facility in Waukesha County. Well, there are only two shelters in Waukesha County so I guess they are thumbing their nose at HAWS (Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County). Most people understood this statement to mean that Elmbrook was becoming a no kill shelter. I'm sure their donors and supporters were thrilled. But, here's the catch...

Here is their statement from their Facebook page:

"EBHS is the ONLY adoption guarantee facility in Waukesha County. EBHS has no deadline for animals in its care. Animals are placed for adoption as long as they have an adoptable temperament, have reasonable health, and there is room at the shelter."

If it weren't so sad, it would make me laugh. It's like somebody saying they're a vegetarian... except on Friday when they eat fish; and on Sunday they like a nice roast beef dinner; and oh, after 9 p.m. they often eat a hot dog.

You either are or you aren't a vegetarian. You either are or you aren't an adoption guarantee shelter. There isn't all this wiggle room allowed.

So donors and taxpayers:  please be smart and ask the right questions. My next few blogs are going to focus on knowing what questions to ask and what the correct, life-saving response from the shelter management should be.   Don't let the smoke and mirrors fool you.

A half truth is a whole lie. ~Yiddish Proverb


  1. I posted my blog at 10:13 p.m. I'm happy to report that sometime this morning the info on the Elmbrook Humane Society Facebook page (and the website) was changed to this new life-saving statement:

    EBHS is the ONLY adoption guarantee facility in Waukesha County. What that means is that at EBHS - we choose LIFE! We do not only save healthy, young and adoptable animals. We take in sick and injured animals and nurse them back to health - no matter the cost. We work with animals with behavior issues to ensure that they can be safely adopted by the public. We do not euthanize animals for time, or space, age, breed or because of chronic medical conditions such as seizures or diabetes. We have the facilities now to treat animals with highly contagious diseases like ringworm and parvo so we can save more lives. We offer free spay neuter to residents who bring in feral cats in order for them to be returned to the environment they came from. We work with rescue groups and trainers to make sure every single animal has the opportunity for a second chance!
    We know how important it is for donors to know that they are supporting an organization that does everything possible for the animals we care for.

    Thank you EBHS for stepping up to the plate and raising the bar for saving lives in Wisconsin.

  2. Wow - wonderful to know EBHS not only was listening to your input but willing to respond to their public!
    You do wonderful work - keep at it. As my Dad always said (he was from Sparta, WI), "WI is God's country" and She doesn't like anyone being killed for convenience, however well packaged.

  3. They can say anything they want, but is it true? Shelters all over this country say they care for animals, then kill the majority. They skew their definition of what is considered "healthy" to cover up the killing. Do they have a bridge to sell us too?

    I've heard not such "life"saving things about them, including the killing of feral cats. I think before everyone jumps up and down for EBHS,we should all read between the lines there. "We offer free spay neuter to residents who bring in feral cats in order for them to be returned to the environment they came from." - but they also have an animal control contract - so do they kill the ferals that they take in through that channel? Of course if a resident brings in a feral cat and asks it to be fixed (and expects to pick it up in a few hours) they have to give the cat back, or the resident wouldn't hand it over if their intention in bringing the animal to the shelter was TNR.

    And, "We do not euthanize animals for chronic conditions such as seizures or diabetes", but do they kill for FIV? Last I heard they did.

    If they claim "life" so much, where are the statistics to back it up? If it was true, and they chose life in every instance except hopelessly ill or vicious (ie, no kill) then wouldn't they be shouting those numbers from the rooftops? I think the answer is yes.

    As my parents used to tell me when I was young, "don't believe everything you read." The proof is in the numbers.

    Why did they, coincidentally, change their description the morning after this blog appears? Is it because their change in practices happened to coincide with the writing of this blog? C'mon, now. They did it to avoid backlash - and not one person catches it but me?

    The general public tends to believe what they read, and don't question "authority" (isn't that why, only a few years ago with Nathan Winograd leading the charge, have people started to question the "authority" of animal shelters?) so if they write it, it must be true. All the key words and phrases are in there - "we choose life" - except if we pick up ferals or cats with FIV - then we choose those lives aren't worth living. "We have the facilities now to treat animals with highly contagious diseases like ringworm and parvo so we can save more lives" - you have the facilities, but do you actually do it? Or are these lives, "better off dead?" "We work with rescue groups and trainers to make sure every single animal has the opportunity for a second chance!" - and if there is no rescue (many are full, most all the time) - then they "choose" to kill them?

    I'm stunned that all it takes is changing words on a facebook page - which is as easy as changing your shoes - and everyone accepts it as truth! Everyone here and everyone on their facebook page accepted it, and cheered without the slightest hesitation, "coincidental" timing and all. If not one of the aforemention wants to "back up the claim" with some numbers before you all bet the farm, well, I've got some waterfront property I'd love you all to look at along with that bridge.

  4. I totally agree with you Bethanny and believe me I am very skeptical. But I also believe in giving credit where credit is due. And the fact that EBHS has now publicly made statements on some of the conditions they are now promising to treat is a start. We now have it in writing. Now it is up to the donors, the volunteers and the staff to hold the management and board of directors feet to the fire.

  5. Here's the thing, Kathy. They don't speak in the future tense - they speak in the now! We "choose" life. Since when? Since 10:30 when you wrote this blog (or, actually in the morning when they found out their cover was blown and they wanted to avoid the backlash). We know its not true. You're always so no- nonsense - I'm really surprised that you so quickly congratulated them on "raising the bar." I can write on facebook that I won the Nobel Peace Prize, but wouldn't you want some proof before you threw me a party? It's the same with just about every shelter in this country whom, on their website or facebook page, declare they "care about animals" or "every life is precious" then turn around and kill 50% or more - should we go pat them on the back because they wrote it on their facebook page? We have their words in writing too, and as you can see, it takes more than "holding their feet to the fire" - look at NYC ACC - its an all out brawl while Julie Bank smiles and preaches her Christian guidance in sheltering.

    I'm admittedly a little disappointed in your response, Kathy. Your blog has developed quite a following on No Kill Nation and other major No Kill pages and those not so well versed in No Kill have been depending on you to say "what's what" when it comes to who's doing a good job, and who isn't. You claim yourself you're tired of the poor leadership - so all the leadership has to do now to get in your good graces is change their facebook page? Well, congratulate the majority of shelters then, because none are going to advertise their killing and poor practices to the public.

  6. I agree. Kill shelters use words to hide the killing. For instance, the Houston SPCA flat out lies to the public claiming to place "100% of all healthy and behaviorally sound" animals. ( This is while they are killing 65% of all animals entering their shelter. This is while kill all Pit Bulls or anything that employee "thinks" might kind of, sort of, be part Pit Bull (

    Enough with the convenient labels and fuzzy math. We want to see the raw numbers i.e. how many animals are going into the shelter vs. how many animal are leaving alive. Unfortunately the non-profit "shelters" like HSPCA are not required by law to produce their nubmers to the public. They can kill with abandon and lie about it. This is why we need the Companion Animal Protection Act in every state. ( It would require honest and open records in every single shelter.

  7. Would it be wise to donate to a local non-profit that is not willing to share financial information with the public? Even though the non-profit participates in many life saving programs, how would a donor be able to verify what monies get spent and where.

  8. Are you in Wisconsin, Bethanny? Wow, we need you on our team. I like your attitude. What would your reponse have been? I had to acknowledge the change quickly or EBHS could have said that the original statement was never there in the first place. I also have more now than I had before which is a written statement saying what they will treat. That is a start. I'm a big believer in negotiation and fairness. They made a good move, now I will.

  9. One again, excellent article :)

  10. @Anonymous who asked about donating. The biggest help you can be to our cause right now is to get up the courage to ask. Ask for the statistics and the shelter's policies on what is and is not considered adoptable.

    I can ask a hundred times, and I'm only one annoying person that they think will go away (but I won't!). But if the donors, adopters and local citizens start to ask the tough questions - then I believe they will start to sit up and listen. So please ask, then decide if you want to support their programs. You may very well still choose to, and that is fine. But at least you will know how your money is being spent.

  11. Bullcrap. If they deem an animal unadoptable, *****THEY REFER YOU TO HAWS & REFUSE TO ACCEPT THE ANIMAL.***** They've been doing it for YEARS.

    This doesn't make them No Kill, and it NEVER will.

  12. Anonymous, Do you have any evidence or documentation of this? You can email me privately if you like. I don't like to print these allegations without something to substantiate it. But I will leave your comment on in case anybody would like to defend or rebutt. I will remove it in a couple of days if there is no answer

  13. Great article! As a former shelter employee, I know all too well about this situation. Individuals from the public would often ask if our shelter was no kill and I was put in that unfortunate position where I had to inform them that no, we were not. It was hard not to sugar coat it (by saying healthy, happy animals are not euthanized) but it was my responsibility to tell the whole truth. No-kill shelters, however, can and DO turn away animals, they have selective admittance so they pick and choose what animals they take in. They won't take animals that they consider unhealthy or unsuitable for adoption. Those "unadoptable" animals are then brought in to a shelter, where they are unfortunately euthanized. For this reason, No-Kill shelters, to me, are bitter-sweet.

  14. And as horrifying as it may seem, some shelters kill the surrendered mother and her entire litter and count that as "one" death. How is that for deliberate misuse of terms? In Texas I heard about a too-trusting rescuer who changed her mind in the parking lot and walked back inside the high-kill shelter to reclaim the coonhound mother and her puppies, but by the time she got to the head of the line for the second time, they were already dead. The rescuer was not the owner and had declared the litter to be strays deserving of a holding period, but the staff assumed instead that the rescuer was actually the owner and was lying. As an owner-surrender, no stray-hold was required, so the mom and pups were swiftly killed. At that shelter it was counted as one death. God's truth. Doesn't it just suck your breath away?

    Which is why we do what we do, breathing animal welfare as you said, Kathy.

    I do think the use of terms will become somewhat standardized over time as shelters become more professional and accountable. The public will demand it; we can count. One means one.

    The Pet Evaluation Matrix such as those published by the No-Kill Advocacy Center and Maddies Fund, adapted and modified by caring no-kill and low-kill shelters, is a mission-critical tool that reduces ambiguity around those terms "healthy" and "treatable." I especially like the recent matrix created by Iowa State University. Here's the link:

  15. Jellybelly, that is not actually true. Yes, of course there are "no kill" shelters that turn away animals; however, to be No Kill in the true sense of the word means to be open admission AND to not kill any animal who is not irremediably suffering. And there is a growing number of shelters that are doing just that.