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Saturday, September 30, 2023


Animals put second in Houston shelter squabbles


A pit bull mix looks out from her cage. She is one of thousands of dogs waiting for homes. | Henry Sturm/The Cougar

When people hear about an animal being euthanized in a shelter, the typical response is acceptance of this tragic aspect of life. What is not known is that of the innumerable stray animals that cannot escape the specter of euthanasia in shelters. Some are killed because of something as trivial as limited space rather than poor health.

Executive director of Friends For Life Salise Shuttlesworth said shelter killing is the leading cause of death for dogs and cats in the U.S., and Houston has one of the highest per capita shelter kill rates in the nation.

The major shelters in the Houston area are the Houston Humane Society, the City of Houston’s Bureau of Animal Control and Regulation, Citizens for Animal Protection, the Houston SPCA and the Harris County animal control. Out of these shelters, there are few that are no-kill, but Friends For Life is the largest no-kill shelter in Houston.

The hope amongst animal lovers is that all of these possible pets can be saved, but the reality is more grim. Shelters, and those who help operate them are facing overwhelming odds.

“Houston has been neglected for decades in terms of animal control, and so the animal overpopulation problem is out of control,” said Ashtyn Rivet, the marketing and outreach lead for BARC.

However, the problem is not the animals — they are silent bystanders to the decisions and mistakes of humans.

“The No Kill model differentiates between “euthanasia” and killing. Euthanasia is a medical decision made to alleviate untreatable suffering. This category covers an average of 3-5 percent of the animals that come into shelters,” Shuttlesworth said. “We absolutely believe in humane euthanasia. But it is not euthanasia to take the lives of perfectly healthy animals because they are of a certain breed, for example. That is killing.”

Noticing the numbers

Larger shelters, such as BARC and the Houston Humane Society, don’t follow this model. Both of these institutions accept any animal that comes their way. With capacities of 550 and 800, respectively, these shelters have to deal with the problem of not enough space.

Shelters like BARC have a high amount of incoming animals. BARC has received over 25,000 animals in the last year. About 17,000 of these have gone to foster homes, gotten adopted or been transferred to other shelters.

Despite the efforts to get the animals into homes, this still leaves 8,000 animals forgotten in the exchange.

According to BARC’s Asilomar Accords, this past Sept., 76 healthy animals, 201 treatable-rehabilitatable animals and 104 treatable-manageable animals were euthanized. 439 animals that were deemed unhealthy and untreatable were also euthanized.

This puts BARCs euthanasia count for the month at 820 animals.

“Sometimes we are … forced to euthanize animals simply because of space. (The animals) could be perfectly healthy … It’s a sad reality,” Rivet said. “Our euthanasia rates have drastically dropped since 2009 … BARC was not really a very happy place. It was very understaffed, very underfunded and the euthanasia rate was very high.”

The luxury and lacking of No-Kill

Friends For Life

Senior cats (above the age of 7) lounge about in their spacious room at Friends For Life, waiting in comfort for the forever home. | Henry Sturm/The Cougar

The no-kill concept, though pure in idea, is difficult to apply when animals that are not admitted into no-kill shelters end up in kill shelters regardless. According to PETA, no-kill shelters turn animals away to face untimely deaths.

Rivet said that BARC is required by law to take in every single animal that arrives at their door, unlike Friends For Life and other no-kill shelters.

“We simply don’t have the resources … we don’t have the luxury of not taking animals in,” Rivet said. “And so it’s not that we want to euthanize by any means, it’s that we take in so many, we do everything we can to get them out, but as a last resort, euthanasia is the only option.”

Volunteer manager at Friends For Life Ura Nahar said that she believes euthanasia is not the only option, kill shelters are just unwilling to change.

“(The politics) is about them wanting to change and work just a little bit harder. So it’s easy to say ‘I need space for this cat so I’m going to euthanize this other cat,’” Nahar said. “It’s getting them to change in their process right now, because right now it’s really easy just to euthanize … to make room. That’s how it’s always been done, and they’re scared of the change.”

This sort of change cannot come from just one side of the debate, as nothing is just black and white.

No-kill communities

There is too much of humanity pouring over into the world of saving animals. The animals are innocent and unmarred by the plethora of flaws that hinder humankind.

A sense of individualism has arisen in a battle that no one group can win by itself. Monica Schmidt, public relations and events coordinator for the Houston Humane Society, said Houston shelters work together when they can.

“We are all our own entity, at the end of the day,” Schmidt said. “I always tell people we have the best dogs in town.”

Therein lies the main issue amongst shelters. The animals are getting forgotten even by those who love them the most. Competition will only hinder comprehensive animal adoption in Houston.

This means working toward a no-kill model for all of Houston, so the well-being of the animals doesn’t depend on the capacity of a single shelter. Austin is one city that has followed the idea of a no-kill community.

According to austinpetsalive.org, Austin’s city council unanimously passed a plan in 2010 that made the city the largest no-kill city in the country. A no-kill community ultimately saves 90 percent of the animals that enter the shelter.

“A lot of people don’t believe (no-kill is) doable, even if we give them examples of other cities that are doing it,” Nahar said.

Stray Dog

A friendly stray looks up a stairway at Cambridge Oaks Apartments. His current whereabouts are unknown. | Henry Sturm/The Cougar

Working together to fix the problem

The no-kill model has worked across the city, the country and the world. This makes one wonder what it will take to convince activists and laymen alike that such a model is morally right and beneficial to the city.

“Legislation is really important here, to convince them that this is possible and to invest in the No Kill model,” Nahar said. “In Houston, not everyone knows that No Kill exists. I think word of mouth is really powerful here. The city needs to come together and support it.”

However, the no-kill model cannot work on its own. Spaying and neutering needs to be a priority if we are ever to put an end to the unnecessary deaths of countless animals.

The politics and petty squabbles need to be dropped. No more name-calling, no more pointing fingers and no more individualism. A coalition should be formed so that funds and assistance can go wherever they are needed.

Make this about the animals and their precious lives. Come together and do right by millions of innocent animals who are harmed not by their own ignorance of our world, but by the imposition of our flaws upon their world.

Opinion columnist Henry Sturm is a journalism junior and may be reached at [email protected]

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