The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals
In The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, Professor Katja Guenther claims that dogs are being killed because of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalist exploitation. The premise is not only factually incorrect, it embraces racist stereotypes, ignores proven solutions, and puts dogs at risk. A lack of lifesaving programs — not lack of diversity — explains shelter killing.
Until recently, the Rosenberg, Texas, pound was typical of many American shelters, killing roughly 70% of the animals. The leadership of the shelter never saw it as their responsibility to stop doing so. Instead, staff blamed local residents, calling them “irresponsible” for failure to sterilize and make lifetime commitments to pets.
Opposed to the killing of dogs and cats, however, those residents organized and lobbied for change. In response, the city hired a new director committed to embracing lifesaving alternatives. These alternatives — a series of programs and services collectively known as the No Kill Equation — include, among others, foster care for orphaned puppies and kittens; medical treatment for sick, injured, or traumatized animals; low-cost sterilization for the pets of the poor; and helping people overcome the behavioral challenges that lead them to surrender in the first place.
During her first year of implementing the No Kill Equation, Rosenberg achieved a 97% placement rate for dogs and 90% for cats, eliminating the killing of almost all healthy and treatable animals. That success continued despite a global pandemic. The shelter stayed open as an essential service and for the first time in its history, it found itself empty having adopted out, placed with a rescue group, or found a foster home for every single animal.
Since 2001, when I became director of the animal shelter in Tompkins County, New York, and created the nation’s first No Kill community, there has been a proven solution to shelter killing. And in hundreds of communities since, other shelter directors have replicated that success by embracing the model that made it possible: the No Kill Equation.
The era of directors killing most animals while blaming the public — which defined sheltering since the 19th century — is ending. Millions of Americans now live in communities served by municipal shelters that are finding homes for upwards of 99% of animals, returning the term “euthanasia” to its dictionary definition: an act of mercy for “hopelessly sick or injured individuals.” These communities are large and small, urban and rural, red and blue, affluent and impoverished, homogenous and — like Rosenberg which is 75% Latino, Black, and Asian — diverse. The result has been a 90% drop in pound killing nationwide since the 1970s. Despite a doubling of pets in homes, the number of dogs and cats killed has gone from roughly 16 million a year to less than one million. It’s been called “the single biggest success of the modern animal protection movement.”
This should surprise no one. America is a nation of animal lovers. Collectively, we share our homes with 60 million cats and 80 million dogs. We talk to them, keep their pictures on our cellphones, celebrate their birthdays, travel with them, and greet them upon coming home even before saying hello to our spouse and kids. We include them in holiday festivities and take time off from work to care for them when they are sick. And when it is time to say good-bye, we grieve.
Last year, Americans spent 99 billion dollars on their animal companions, a rate that is growing 50% faster than the overall retail economy. And in a national poll, 96% of Americans said we have a moral duty to protect animals and should have strong laws to do so, while three out of four believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill animals who are not suffering. Despite those things that separate us as Americans, people of all walks of life want to build a better world for them.
Yet a new book by University of California, Riverside, Professor Katja Guenther downplays this, blaming shelter killing on “capitalism, anthroparchy, white supremacy, and patriarchy.” In The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, Guenther further argues that allowing dogs to sleep inside is a privilege reserved for those who are white and wealthy. She argues that policies against chaining them in backyards are intended to oppress people of color by imposing, “Middle-class norms of animal keeping in which companion animals are considered family and treated accordingly.” These “norms,” she writes, ignore that people of color “are themselves trapped in poverty, may have few options for legitimate income generation, and possibly rely on their dogs for… status.”
While it may be tempting to dismiss Guenther’s book given how widely it misses the mark, it is gaining traction. One shelter director said Guenther “gets it right” in concluding that “racism, classism and the caste system are at the heart of the broken animal sheltering institution.” Arguing that complying with laws to prevent mistreatment of dogs is “largely unobtainable for anyone in the US other than white, middle class and upper-class individuals,” University of Denver Institute for Human-Animal Connection Fellows cite the book in their proposal to relax enforcement of animal protection laws — a proposal that threatens to reverse decades of hard-won progress.
Intakes reflect service area demographics, not racism
Guenther writes that, because of racism, the overwhelming majority of the dogs who ended up at the Baldwin Park, California shelter where she worked as a volunteer had belonged to poor people of Asian and Latino heritage and, to a lesser extent, black people. But this simply reflects the demographic make up of Baldwin Park itself. When I ran a shelter in a predominantly white community — a shelter with a higher per capita intake rate than the Los Angeles County pound system of which Baldwin Park is a part — most of those who surrendered animals were white. Indeed, of all the counties in the US with a 90% or better placement rate, the one with the highest per capita intake — over five times that of Los Angeles County — is 90% white, only 3% Latino and less than 0.5% black. In other words, the ethnicity of the people who surrender animals to shelters is largely a function of area demographics, not of race.
Her mistaken conclusion is not just a result of limited experience. Guenther deliberately rejects objective evidence in favor of personal anecdotes. She admits that “it is not possible for me to be impartial”:
I was trained in sociology, a discipline that emphasizes impartiality and the need to systematize observations and analysis in ways that distance the researcher from the researched. I deliberately turn away from these tendencies and instead embrace the messy possibilities of being a researcher with complex ties to the social setting I am analyzing.
At best, the book presents subjectivity, emotional responses, impressions, and even guesses as compelling evidence; at its worst, the book reaches predetermined conclusions despite evidence to the contrary.
Guenther stereotypes and infantilizes people of color
That evidence shows that dogs in American inner cities are neither disproportionately dangerous nor treated poorly. People in inner cities live with dogs for the same reason as wealthy people in suburbs: companionship and social connection. By contrast, Guenther perpetuates prejudicial and unsubstantiated views about people of color and their inability to provide appropriate care. And she denies their individuality with the assumption that all Americans of Latino, Black, and Asian heritage have the exact same views and experiences — referring to them as “the collective Black.”
In Guenther’s book, moreover, white people do things; people of color have things happen to them. For example, people of color who abandon their dogs in empty apartments are not deemed culpable for the potential suffering or death they caused. Instead, they are deemed victims “ensnared in the legal system” who are forced to do so “under the duress of sudden eviction or deportation or arrest.”
Guenther also recounts a Latino man who “dropped [his…] puppy while escaping from mall security officers on a bicycle after stealing a pair of Wrangler jeans.” To Guenther, it was his “status as marginalized” that explains the fate of the puppy, not that he put the puppy in harm’s way while committing a crime. In yet another example, Guenther portrays the actions of a woman who was breeding a dog — a dog who was subsequently impounded and killed — as resulting from her “status as a poorly educated queer woman of color,” even though she was not only selling the puppies to buy drugs, but it was the dog who ended up dead.
Guenther goes so far as to claim that when people of color mistreat a dog, they actually believe that they are doing what is best “within the constraints of their knowledge and resources, both of which are limited by the nexus of their class, status as immigrants, and ethnicity.” She laments that,
Rescuers… critique urban Black and Latinx communities for not seeing companion animals as sufficiently part of the family and instead seeing them as resources, whether protective (as in guarding) or financial (as in breeding or possibly fighting).
Guenther appears to be arguing that if a person of color can turn a profit or build a reputation through animal exploitation, then those outcomes override — or at least excuse — any concerns regarding animal suffering or killing, and that includes even sadistically abused animals such as the dogs tortured by Michael Vick:
From a class perspective, wealthy people are believed to be too ‘civilized’ to engage in barbaric activities like dogfighting, and it’s no coincidence that the only affluent person who has been publicly shamed for dogfighting in the U.S., Michael Vick, is Black, newly wealthy after growing up in poverty…
Dogfighting, however, is not considered barbaric because it violates the norms of wealthy people. After all, affluent people have their own history of engaging in animal cruelty as entertainment, such as fox hunting or pigeon shooting. Nor is dogfighting considered uncivilized because of the skin color of any of its would-be organizers — many of whom are white — but because of what it does to dogs — animals who spend their short, miserable, terror-filled lives being beaten by humans and having their bodies ripped apart.
At Michael Vick’s property, investigators found decomposing dogs, pieces of plywood flooring covered in blood, spent bullet casings, and clothing with blood stains. They found dogs who died by “hanging, drowning, and being slammed to death.” As one of the rescuers wrote,
Everyone we worked with was deeply affected by the case. The details that got to me then and stay with me today involve the swimming pool that was used to kill some of the dogs. Jumper cables were clipped onto the ears of underperforming dogs, then, just like with a car, the cables were connected to the terminals of car batteries before lifting and tossing the shamed dogs into the water. Most of Vick’s dogs were small – 40lbs or so – so tossing them in would’ve been fast and easy work for thick athlete arms. We don’t know how many suffered this premeditated murder, but the damage to the pool walls tells a story. It seems that while they were scrambling to escape, they scratched and clawed at the pool liner and bit at the dented aluminum sides…
I wear some pretty thick skin during our work with dogs, but I can’t shake my minds-eye image of a little black dog splashing frantically in bloody water… screaming in pain and terror… brown eyes saucer wide and tiny black white-toed feet clawing at anything, desperate to get a hold. This death did not come quickly. The rescuer in me keeps trying to think of a way to go back in time and somehow stop this torture and pull the little dog to safety. I think I’ll be looking for ways to pull that dog out for the rest of my life.
That, and not the irrelevance of his skin color, is why Vick was roundly condemned, joining legions of others, including many white people, who have likewise been held accountable for harming animals.
Rescuers perpetuate compassion, not “whiteness”
While Guenther appears to explain away mistreatment if the perpetrator happens to be a person of color, she has plenty of criticism for those trying to save these animals. Day in and day out, rescuers and volunteers show tremendous courage and compassion visiting their local pound. At many high kill shelters, they not only face arbitrary and hostile treatment from staff which makes it difficult for them to save animals, they endure heartbreak at seeing those animals destined instead for lethal injection or gas chambers. And yet they go back, again and again.
Despite acknowledging these traumas, because most volunteers she encountered were white, she accuses them of working to “reinscribe hierarchies of power and status within the shelter” against the non-white workers and thus “maintain existing social inequalities between humans even as they seek to help animals…” When a rescuer lamented the condition of a dog “with sagging belly skin, elongated nipples, and enlarged genitalia” and expressed dismay that the former family “confined their dog outdoors” and “used the pit bull primarily for income generation through breeding,” Guenther dismisses the criticism as “the animal practices of white rescuers,” rather than an expression of genuine concern. Even if classism was motivating the particular volunteer, it wouldn’t make the treatment of the dog any less problematic.
On the one hand, Guenther writes that people of color should not be held responsible if they mistreat animals (“including medical neglect”) because they lead precarious lives. On the other hand, she criticizes rescuers for using “the animals as instruments for reproducing whiteness” by “Taking the dog out of the ghetto” and instead adopting them to “the ‘right’ kind of adopters, namely those who will treat their dog as a family member and have the financial means to care for their dog at a high level for the duration of the dog’s life, for example by providing specialty-brand food, toys and beds, and extensive veterinary care should any illness of injury occur.”
Rescuers and shelters have an obligation to the vulnerable animals they serve to ensure those animals are not placed in harm’s way. This can and should be done using standards that don’t focus on a potential adopter’s skin color or size of their bank account, but on their ability to provide for an animal’s physical and mental health. Glossing over this obvious point, Guenther suggests that rescuers and shelters are obligated to place animals into knowingly unstable situations (which she problematically equates with skin color) or engage in the greater harm: racist behavior. Those tasked with caring for animals are damned either way.
Lack of lifesaving programs explains shelter killing
My criticism of Guenther’s book, however, should not be taken to mean that larger societal factors don’t impact shelter outcomes; they do. Discrimination against companion animals in rental housing increases shelter intakes and is responsible for an estimated loss of over eight million adoptive homes every year; homes that would make the achievement of No Kill communities even easier. And even before the coronavirus pandemic propelled “the poverty rate into double digits,” roughly one in four pet households had difficulty getting needed veterinary care because of its high cost, leading in some cases to shelter relinquishment.
Nor should criticism of her thesis suggest a denial that racism has ever played a role in pound killing. It has, such as in the enactment of pit bull bans. Denver, Colorado’s breed ban, for example, was enacted after the energy industry bust resulted in white flight. When Aurora, CO, enacted a ban, one of the commissioners stated that she did not want “those sorts of people” moving into her community. In other cities, they did not even bother to use coded language. But many of these bans, including Aurora’s and Denver’s, have since been repealed (21 states and hundreds of cities now expressly prohibit them and in 2012, the last remaining statewide ban was repealed), with generational views, not racial ones, dominating attitudes about pit bulls. It has never been easier for shelters to adopt out pit bulls, especially to Millennial and GenZ families.
My criticism, however, does mean that Guenther and I fundamentally disagree on the causes of shelter killing and what needs to be done to prevent it. The evidence does not suggest that “everyday and sustained collisions of capitalism, anthroparchy, white supremacy, and patriarchy” are to blame. It points to more mundane causes and more practical solutions. “Feral” cats impounded into the Los Angeles County pound system are killed because the director opposes non-lethal sterilization programs of the kind embraced by communities that do not kill. Orphaned, neonatal puppies and kittens are killed because of a lack of comprehensive foster care. And other animals are killed because of a failure to implement the kinds of services which have allowed shelters across the nation to achieve high placement rates. Guenther alludes to this, when she disparages the Baldwin Park pound’s failure to capitalize on:
[I]nitiatives includ[ing] mobile and on-site adoption events, networking of animals available for adoption through social media and adoption websites, community access to spay/neuter services, and foster programs for puppies, dogs, kittens, and cats. Volunteers offered a significant pool of time and skills to [the Baldwin Park pound] that would have increased the success of these programs, but [staff] declined most of their help and made it very difficult for volunteers to maintain those programs that [the County] did permit.
Despite the tragic results, these causes offer hope. Compelling one shelter director to implement common sense alternatives to killing that are being practiced by thousands of other shelters is certainly more attainable than fomenting a Marxist revolution which — given the mass killing of animals that occurs in communist countries — would not likely achieve lifesaving success.
Guenther threatens to turn back the clock on animal protection
There are a number of other problems with Guenther’s book, including the suggestion that dogs who are friendly to people are experiencing what marxists call “false consciousness” because they are not resisting their capitalist oppressors; with Guenther referring to friendly dogs in racist terms: “the Uncle Toms of animals because of their apparent willing acquiescence to human demands.” She likewise ridicules women adopters from the suburbs if they are white and wealthy for having, “expensive shoes, designer clothing, long, thin legs, and surgically modified body and/or face.” It’s not only counterproductive to the goal of saving lives to view potential and well-intentioned adopters in this way; it is cruel to criticize a person’s appearance, especially strangers about whose life and experiences she knows nothing.
In addition, Guenther largely ignores cats and when she does offer insights and policy recommendations, they jeopardize the safety of cats and perpetuate harmful misperceptions. For example, she proposes requiring “noisemaking devices” on all community cats to protect birds, even though community cat sterilization humanely reduces the number of cats and their roaming radius, and thus predation. Moreover, every objective study — those independent of bird and nativist advocacy organizations — has concluded that there is little evidence that cats impact bird populations on the American continent. As such, the use of “noisemaking devices” not only offers a solution in search of a problem, it gives legitimacy to the views of nativist organizations that seek to harm cats, and by bringing them to the attention of humans and preventing them from being able to fend for themselves, has the potential to put cats at risk.
Of all the problems with Guenther’s book, however, none is more dangerous than her view that human-animal relations are “a zero-sum political struggle involving identity markers like race,” which threatens to turn back the clock on animal protection. In the early 19th century, cruelty to dogs was not recognized in law because they were considered property. Killing one’s dog was not illegal because a person was deemed to have the right to do what he wanted with his “property.” Likewise, harming a homeless dog was not illegal because there was no property interest impacted. The animal did not matter in either scenario. Guenther is once again suggesting a standard that excuses harm based on the interests of those causing it.
For all her discussion and professed concern regarding hierarchies of privilege, her prescription for human-animal relations could not be more inequitable, uncharitable, and unkind. Were the movement to accept her premise that all animals do not bear the same rights and that all humans do not bear the same responsibilities to those animals, Guenther threatens to erect a new set of defeatist and counterproductive dogmas to replace the old set of defeatist and counterproductive dogmas which held shelters at a stand-still for decades until the current generation of No Kill advocates replaced them with commonsense solutions to killing.
If this gains traction, I fear the current moment in the animal protection movement, in which we have finally addressed the true causes of shelter killing and saved millions of lives as a result, will be remembered as a brief interlude between the ideological intransigence of two generations — both of which have their own flavor of misanthropy, are blind to cause and effect, and subordinate the rights of animals to the interests of those who harm them.