As more and more shelters move away from the tradition “unrestricted access” model, it’s becoming more common to find the old “no kill/open admission” arguments cleaving into smaller and smaller slivers.

You may have even noted the snotty, passive aggressive slogans of some shelters which imply that they are more open access than the place down the road.  The place which takes animals every day but Thursday is more “open” than the one which is closed every Wednesday and Thursday.  Meanwhile, the other one up the road which is open a half day on Thursday is trumpeting their greater accessibility.

The reality is shelters do and have always had some barriers to admission based on policy, belief or preference.  No identification?  No surrender.  Pet bit someone in the past ten days?  No surrender.  Husband or wife not with you?  No surrender.  Or maybe it’s just Thursday and the shelter is closed.

Ultimately, the arguments over who makes it easier to accept animals are predicated on a basic belief.  It’s the belief that animals are better off, are safer, in a shelter than they are any place else.  There is just one problem with this premise.  It’s frequently false.

For years sheltering organizations have based this belief on coincidence and adjacency, just as people do with any superstition.  A baseball player wears a pair of socks and wins.  He keeps wearing them and wins.  Then he loses but he keeps wearing them, just in case.  Shelters have been basing a world view on seeing the worst possible outcome for animals without realizing that they have a unique and unrepresentative window on the world.  It would be like a cop assuming everyone on earth was a criminal because that’s who she meets most at work.

We see the likelihood of a terrible outcome because we’re the places where the terrible outcomes arrive.  And when we get evidence to the contrary, like the baseball player, we just choose to ignore it.  We have events where thousands of awesomely happy pet owners show up.  But our adoption policies reflect that we assume the worst because of the comparative handful of horrible pet owners we see.

Until recently it would just be one world view against another.  The optimist against the pessimist.  Who could say which is right?  If only there was some way to tell, perhaps a study…

Well, the studies are starting to come in fast and furious and it turns out that things are not what they seem.  It turns out the most dangerous places animals can be are in America’s animal shelters.  If you are a pit bull in a shelter, you are as likely- or more- to be euthanized.  Stray or surrendered cats?  Way over 50/50 in most places.  Feral cats?  Almost 100%.  If an animal is healthy, it has a good chance of getting sick once in a shelter, and then being euthanized for illness.

But, you may ask, isn’t that where they get adopted?  No.  A recent study showed that shelters are a distant third when it comes to being a source for adoption for cats.  In second place is getting a cat from a friend and first place is adopting a stray directly from the streets.  That’s right, there is an increasing argument a cat has a better chance of being adopted and certainly a lesser chance of facing euthanasia in two, seven, or ten days running around as a stray than being in a shelter!  Some might say, and they do, that these animals might be better off dead than living the life of a feral.  As a friend pointed out to me once, what do you think the cat would choose?

I’m not advocating for shuttering shelters or turning out every animal on the street.  HSBC has a few hoops we make people jump through to surrender but we take what’s given us and we do euthanize some of these animals.  We screen adopters and don’t just hand them out the window like a drive-through.  This means some animals may not get a home.  We deal in tradeoffs like every shelter based on what we think is right and best.

But we also make every effort possible to find ways to keep animals in homes where they will be safer than they will if they enter our shelter.  Need free food?  No problem.  Need vet care?  We’ll try to provide it.  Just need someone to talk to and ask advice?  It’s yours.  Fight a law that leads to needless death and suffering.  Count on it.  And maybe a couple of hoops might just slow you down enough to get the help we have to give, not just to dump your pet off where it may have a worse chance than if you had dumped it on the street.

But I do think it is time for all of us to be very careful of what we take as sheltering dogma and be willing to look at new research and new successes- and failures- and be flexible.  Maybe we should pay attention to studies and real life experiences about old taboos like gift adoptions, free adoptions, black cats at Halloween, all of which have been debunked as real concerns.  And we should be a lot less proud that we strive to take in every animal, any animal, regardless of whether it means it will be more likely face an unnecessary death.  Maybe we should check our pride and enthusiasm for trying to beat up others for not being as willing a repository for unwanted pets, often a final repository.

Someday soon, more and more people are going to stop asking why a shelter isn’t taking everything that walks through their door.  They are going to start asking why some shelters do.

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