When “Community Sheltering” Means No Sheltering

Seattle Humane, Austin Pets Alive, Best Friends, and the broken promise of No Kill

From 2015 to 2018, Seattle Humane undertook a capital campaign to raise $25 million to build a new animal shelter. To do so, they promised donors that once the new shelter was built, there would be a 60% increase in adoptions. They also promised to pull many of these animals from death row at high kill pounds. Animal lovers provided the money, added an additional $5 million to the total, and a beautiful new shelter was built, but Seattle Humane did not deliver.

In 2019, they only adopted out one more animal than they did in the old facility, despite having raised and spent $30 million and significantly expanded capacity by moving into a new, 57,000-square-foot, three-story building complete with “an adoption lobby with decorative orbs hanging from high ceilings, indoor kennels and adoption rooms, and a veterinary center with surgical suites, sterile recovery rooms and a community clinic.” One!

The next year was even worse. Seattle Humane took in 64% fewer animals, according to a new investigative piece by the Seattle Times.

Why?

Internal documents reviewed by the Times reporters and the “more than 30 current and former staffers and volunteers” they spoke with blame it on pedestrian flaws of human nature: incompetence, uncaring, and favoritism (a lack of merit-based hiring and promotions). The evidence provided in the article is compelling. However, Seattle Humane — hoping to convince upset donors to feel otherwise — posted a response that not only tries to spin failure into success and excuse their failure to live up to their promises, but given how breathtakingly obtuse it is, ends up proving the veracity of the concerns by those interviewed in the Seattle Times piece. Most stunning of all was Seattle Humane's attempt to justify their poor performance by hiding behind policies being promoted by Austin Pets Alive, Best Friends, and the National Animal Control Association, policies that demonstrate just how tone deaf and detached from lifesaving Seattle Humane and each of the organizations it relied on for guidance have become.

Excuse No. 1: We weren’t serious

In explaining why they did not increase adoptions by 60%, Seattle Humane says the goal of significantly more adoptions was only “aspirational,” a claim that might be understandable if they had adopted out, for example, 50% more animals. But that is not what happened. In 2019, they adopted out only one additional animal. And that was a good year, as they then followed up the following year by saving even fewer animals — a whopping 64% less.

Excuse No. 2: We don’t have to do more because we’re already great

Seattle Humane’s second excuse is that despite failing to increase adoptions, it already has one of the highest “save rates” in the country, claiming 99%. But this is misleading, as it is neither a municipal shelter, nor does it have a municipal contract. It stopped taking in animals for most of 2020 and takes in relatively few animals for an organization of its size. As a private shelter that picks and chooses which animals to take in — or whether to take in any at all — comparing itself to a municipal shelter that takes in all animals from its jurisdiction is not honest. For instance, if Seattle Humane decided to take in only one animal and found that animal a home, they could boast of a 100% “save rate.” While a shelter's placement rate is an important indication of how much killing a shelter is doing, it is not a metric for measuring how well a shelter is living up to its potential, or, in the case of the Seattle Humane, how well it is living up to the promises it made to its donors to use their donations to decrease the number of animals being killed elsewhere. Moreover, the claim that they have a 99% “save rate” is itself highly suspect. The Times review of internal records found more animals killed than the agency reported publicly, a discrepancy Seattle Humane blames on a computer glitch: “incorrect coding.”

Excuse No. 3: We no longer want to save more lives

Finally, and most shocking of all, Seattle Humane says it does not want to adopt out more animals. Spit take! Despite promising donors it would, it now claims that maximizing the number of animals taken off death row and finding homes for them — the very definition of saving lives — is passé because “the landscape of animal welfare has changed recently.” 

To make that case, Seattle Humane says they are following advice from Austin Pets Alive, Best Friends, and the National Animal Control Association. And that advice is to abandon the prime directive of every shelter: to provide a safety net of care, and a second chance, to a community's neediest of animals. In the parlance of APA, it is called “Human Animal Support Services.” Best Friends calls it “community sheltering.” In reality, “community sheltering” is often a euphemism for “no sheltering.”

As I described in detail last week in an in-depth Substack article about “The Co-optation of Austin Pets Alive,” APA encouraged shelter directors to reduce and eliminate both stray hold kennels for healthy animals and kennels for adoption. In Austin, this included a proposed vision of “not accepting strays at the shelter,” leading staff to tell finders of lost animals to re-abandon them. 

They are not the only ones.

Across the country, shelters acting in accordance with the bad advice being given by APA and Best Friends are also leaving animals in harm's way. In Seattle, “community sheltering” means that animals do not escape death row while a $30 million adoption center sits empty. In San Francisco, it means residents are told to turn loose the needy animals they find or to leave them on the sidewalk. In upstate New York, it means cat caretakers are told the “feral” cats they are trying to help will not be allowed in the city run low-cost spay/neuter clinic if they complain about the pound releasing friendly, young kittens on the street rather than finding them homes. In Memphis, TN, it means animal lovers are denied the medical records they need (and are entitled to by law) to figure out and rectify why so many animals are dying in their kennels at the pound. In Philadelphia, it means volunteers and rescuers will not be allowed to help save lives if they criticize the fact that pound staff broke a dog’s jaw, illegally killed the dog, and then turned him to ash, leaving his family in tatters. And, in Utah, it means that someone who finds a pregnant, blind cat walking in circles is told to just leave her: “It was just heartbreaking... They told us to release the cat.” 

Instead of promoting the replacement of killing with alternatives, transparency, accountability, and most important of all, expanding programs to end shelter killing and help more animals, these groups are now instructing shelters to engage in what amounts to a classic “bait and switch”: raise money by promising to do more (e.g., increased adoptions, No Kill, Save Them All) and then doing less and even sometimes, nothing. And groups like Seattle Humane are listening, deluding themselves that because a small group of visionless, self-serving, and self-professed “experts” running wealthy organizations have abandoned the cause of No Kill, they could, too, and have the blessing of the donors, residents, volunteers, rescuers, staff, advocates, and everyday animal lovers in their community. 

They can’t because “the landscape of animal welfare” has not changed. Americans still do not want their local shelters to kill animals nor do they want shelters to turn away from helping them. The Seattle Times piece proves this: the editors of the newspaper do not want this. The dozens of volunteers and staff they talked to don't want it. The donors who gave tens of millions of dollars for the exact opposite do not want it. In fact, there is not only great frustration, but heartbreak and anger among residents, that Seattle Humane made promises that they now unabashedly proclaim they do not intend to honor because APA and Best Friends gave them the very bad (and self-evidently so) advice not to. (As for NACA, they have never stood on the side of animals and most of what they have historically offered in the way of recommendations has been garbage; silence would be more compelling.)

This disconnect between what animal welfare “professionals” claim to want and what people who truly love dogs and cats (rescuers, volunteers, shelter reform advocates, good samaritans who find animals, and the average American animal lover) want is nothing new. It is the very reason the No Kill movement was founded in the first place: to disrupt a status quo of complacency with killing and indifference to the needs of animals. That the out-of-touch groups defending the status quo 20 years ago (groups like HSUS, the ASPCA, and NACA) now also include groups that were formed to combat that very complacency doesn't mean that what should be the fundamental goal of the animal welfare movement — to provide a life-affirming second chance to animals — has changed, too. It just means that they have. And with that change comes only one directive: to take back the now corrosive influence they were given when they once championed the very values and goals they now betray. 

Over the last two decades, the No Kill movement has made great strides to ensure the more widespread implementation of the No Kill Equation, in turn saving millions of animals and helping reduce pound killing 90% over its high water mark. Despite a doubling of the number of animal companions, the number of dogs and cats killed has gone from roughly 16 million to as low as 1.5 million today. It has been called “the single biggest success of the modern animal protection movement.” And we did this despite opposition from some of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential “animal protection” groups in America, including those with pedigreed names like the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA. That some groups which once championed No Kill have fallen victim to the same hubris and corruption they once condemned in those wealthy organizations now that they are wealthy, too, may be a terrible tragedy, but it is an obstacle we have overcome before. 

As such, while I grieve for the animals, I do not despair. We “cleaned house” before and we can do it again. And do it again we must.