Stress should not be a death sentence for shelter animals. Discuss.

The words of the title come from Nathan Winograd, America’s leading expert on animal shelters and one of the country’s leading animal advocates. He is referring to new legislation for New York State that came into force recently having been signed off by New York Gov Kathy Hotchul. Nathan Winograd argued very cogently against the new law which was labelled, when it was a bill, as S6870B. It is called the Companion Animal Care Standards Act now that it is in force, I believe.

Dog in pound in the US
Dog in pound in the US. Picture source: Nathan Winograd.

NY state good on animal welfare?

I wrote about it little while ago because it concerns me as it would any animal advocate. It isn’t just Nathan Winograd who objects to it. Shelter reform advocates and other advocates urged her to veto it. I find it strange that NY state has enacted this law as they are one of only 2 states that have banned declawing. They have a good reputation for animal welfare.

Other jurisdictions might follow

Winograd says that:

“Killing animals by claiming they are ‘mentally suffering’ now represents one of the most profound threats to animals in US pounds”.

He believes that other jurisdictions i.e. other states or perhaps counties and individual shelters will copy the legislation causing the killing of animals for years to come at shelters across the country.

No clear definition of mental suffering

One big problem with this legislation is that there is no clear definition of “mental suffering” or in Winograd’s words “standards for applying it”.

We don’t know whether animals feel pain and if we sense that they feel pain because of their behaviour we don’t know how bad it is. It is very hard to interpret precisely the emotions of an animal from their behaviour. This is a gray area. It is an area where we are learning about animals. To decide that an animal is suffering mentally opens the door to a huge number of bad assessments in the first place. Secondly, we all know that when an animal is placed in an animal shelter they are going to be stressed. When an animal is stressed, it shows in their behaviour.

It is a short step from an animal feeling emotionally stressed to assessing them as suffering mentally. As it is possible to decide that any animal who is stressed is suffering mentally it would mean that any animal being placed in an animal shelter is vulnerable to being euthanised. That can’t have been the objective of the legislation.

The wording – no definition

Below are the words of clause 9 of the bill which is now an act:


The rather sinister words “appropriately treated” means or can mean euthanasia as I understand it. It looks as though clause 9 could have been left out in its entirety. There is no definition of “mental suffering” in the Act as far as I can tell. There should be but perhaps it’s impossible to define it in relation to animals because we don’t know enough about it.

Badly behaved dogs at shelters are normal

Winograd says that “peer-reviewed studies have confirmed that the vast majority of dogs classified as having ‘behaviour’ issues in pounds are perfectly normal.” He further adds that “any staff member can claim an animal is in ‘psychological pain’ and many healthy and well-behaved animals will be put to death. Why?”

Lack of precision

He also says that even if this new law did include tough criteria for determining ‘mental suffering’ such as medical testing and behavioural evaluation, it would still be dangerous. In my view it would be because it opens the door to miss assessment for the reasons stated above. We don’t know enough about the emotional state of companion animals. We don’t know it decisively. We can’t assess with precision. And the only reason you can decide to euthanise an animal is if you can assess that animal with precision.

Irremediable? No.

And even if an animal is assessed as suffering mentally, they can be fixed. The suffering is not irremediable i.e. it can be resolved with proper care.

Suffering bad psychologically problems should not be a death sentence for an animal. It is likely that the reason is human behaviour so why should bad human behaviour be compounded with further bad human behaviour?

Shelter worker’s voice

One shelter worker said (according to a quote from Nathan Winograd):

“I’ve met countless dogs and cats who had survived unimaginable cruelty: they were used to fight or used as ‘bait’ in fights, starved to shockingly skeletal states, set on fire. When I would visit the animals on my lunch hour, though, I would often see dogs wag their broken, bandaged tails when I walked into the kennel room, malnourished dogs who would look up from their bowls of food to play bow and lick my hand. Of course, dogs are not alone in their capacity for forgiveness. I will never forget the cat I saw who had been set on fire. When I walked into the room, he rubbed his raw skin against the bars of his cage just at the sight of me, a stranger to him, purring and eager to be touched.”

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