What Are Animal Shelters For?

Animal Shelters are for the benefit of animals, stupid..what else? I don’t think it is that straight forward.


  • This is not a shelter bashing exercise. It is about cat welfare. I am taking a deliberately tough and provocative stance on this.
  • And there is a general downward trend in animal killing at shelters in the USA since the 1970s (as reported by Amanda Katz) which indicates a success of sorts. Is the trend fast enough and is it continuing? We don’t know. We don’t have the data.
Content rescued cats

Washington Animal Rescue League. Photo by angela n.

There has been an interesting and very helpful debate in comments on the Widening the Caboodle Debate page. My thanks to the commentators. The point I made in the post was that we can’t compare the failures of Caboodle Ranch (CR) with most other animal shelters in the United States. In fact you can probably widen that statement to read, “almost any other shelter anywhere in the world”. I don’t think there is a lot of difference in the UK or continental Europe. I don’t know, because we don’t have the information.

The only reason we have first class information that is out in the public domain on cat welfare in the CR case is because a court had to evaluate it. That is rare. We have a clear picture about what the cats were going through at CR.

Across the USA there is poor regulation of animal shelters from inception to management¹. There is some (but not enough) information which provides an insight into how successful they are in achieving their goal. One reporting process is PetPoint. Amanda Katz told me about this organisation. The product appears to be a type of software which a shelter can voluntarily sign up to. It is an administrative tool that has inbuilt reporting. However, it is a commercial product and only a fraction of shelters use it and the reports are limited. The picture that PetPoint provides on cat and animal welfare is far from clear. It may even be detrimental because you have to ask, “is correct data being input into the software?” Are figures fudged; something that John Doppler Schiff refers to as happening at some shelters. Limited information can be worse than no information as it can present a distorted picture. And PetPoint is a commercial product. Animals shelters are tainted by commerce.

Overall the goal of a shelter is to benefit the welfare of animals. That takes many forms one of which is finding the animal another home, a carer. This saves lives. If you save a life by rehoming an animal but lose a life through the spread of disease you are all square in the life saving game.

About 4 million cats alone are deliberately killed each year at shelters, the vast majority of which are perfectly adoptable. How many die through illness? Or suffer through illness. How many cats come into a shelter without a life threatening disease and end up contracting disease that leads to euthanasia?

Shelters don’t volunteer these figures. They probably don’t record them. I say if they truly had the welfare of cats in mind they would have these figures. It would allow themselves to measure their performance and their progress in the interests of cat welfare.

If people don’t do this you have to conclude that the primary reason for the opening and running of a shelter is for the benefit of the people who run the shelter. It is a worthy occupation that makes people feel good as something is being done to help animals. A lot (all?) of charity work has mixed objectives. Many are simply big businesses that provide work and contentment for those involved in them.

That is a harsh assessment. It could be softened by saying that the purpose of animal shelters is both for the benefit of people and animals. Shelters should be selflessly about the welfare of animals. If so there would be no fudging of figures. Failure would be discussed openly with the purpose of achieving long term success.

There would be an obligation to register a new shelter with the authorities before opening it. There would be accurate reporting to the standard attained through court proceedings in the CR case. And their would be routine inspections. Phew…that is asking too much but it is a goal and it is achievable.

With the Olympics in mid-flow at the date of this post it is appropriate to ask, “would the competitors have got to where they are if they had fudged their performance information?” They can’t. It is all out in the open, which is why there is continual progress in sport. Another aspect of sport that comes to mind that can apply to animal shelters is the sharing of information. One reason for the success of the British team (currently 3rd at 7th Aug 2012) is the sharing of information through competitors working together and mentoring each other.

I don’t think it is asking too much for shelters to keep proper records and for there to be an obligation to report them publicly. This would inevitable lead to improvements in cat welfare. Perhaps the burden is too great to keep proper records. That would point to another problem.

Shelters don’t need to wait for the politicians to make regulations. They could do it voluntarily. Why aren’t they? Are they in competition with each other? Shelters should not be in competition. They should work as a team. Is it because they depend on donations and presenting failure would lead to a drying up of donations? If that is true it supports my argument that shelters are primarily for the benefit of the good and well intentioned people who run them as well as for the benefit of the animals they are responsible for.

Original photo on Flickr.


  1. John Doppler Schiff
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What Are Animal Shelters For? — 3 Comments

  1. It would be nice if we could see where the donations go. On what the money is spent. You are probably right in that the primary objective must be the flow of money coming in. Of course there is always a danger with that, but it would be nice to know when animals die because it’s cheaper to kill them for example. Or how much gets spent on PR and marketing versus other parts of the shelter process/structure. Yes, a national or even international standard of transparency would benefit the animals who pass through the shelter system.

  2. It all comes down to the same old thing, if people took responsibity for their pets for life and had them neutered too, Rescue Shelters would be what they should be, places to care for animals whose caretakers have died or become unable to care for them because of disablement or homelessness.
    Instead they’ve become dumping grounds in the USA and in the case of many cats, a waiting room until they are killed to make room for more unwanted cats and kittens.
    I feel sorry for the genuine cat lovers who volunteer at these Shelters, it must be heartbreaking.
    Education is very badly needed there in that cats are not possessions to be got rid of on any flimsy excuse, they are living feeling creatures who don’t deserve the way many are treated.
    Records should be kept of everything including the number of declawed cats killed without even making the adoption lists.

  3. Michael: “The point I made in the post was that we can’t compare the failures of Caboodle Ranch (CR) with most other animal shelters in the United States.”

    I agree. Caboodle Ranch was more of a hoarding situation than a sanctuary. Its operators were ignorant of the most basic requirements for animal welfare (e.g., wiping the noses of sick cats with toxic Clorox Wipes is not a substitute for proper veterinary care and hygiene). It failed to evaluate its own limits and respect them. And it contributed to the problems it was trying to solve by failing to spay and neuter animals, and allowing them to become infected with serious — and often incurable — diseases.

    It astounds me how many people think they can just acquire some property, start collecting animals, and expect the community (or national animal welfare groups) to do the rest for them.

    Long-term and large-scale animal care is not a hobby. Would you start a hospital without advanced education in how to operate that kind of facility?

    Why should animal care be any different?

    Good intentions are not enough! They must be backed with education, intelligence, careful planning, financial strategy, community support, staffing… It’s not for amateurs, and these operations should be licensed, inspected, and regulated as with any human health care operation.

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