Until recently, the Rosenberg, Texas pound was typical of many American shelters, killing roughly 70% of its animals. The leaders of the shelter did not see it as their responsibility to change this. Instead, staff blamed local residents for being “irresponsible” in failing to sterilize and make lifetime commitments to their pets.
Residents who opposed the killings lobbied for change. In response, the city hired a new director committed to the lifesaving programs and services collectively known as the no kill equation, which include 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 behavioral training to help people overcome some of the challenges that lead them to surrender their pets 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, ending the killing of almost all healthy and treatable animals. That success has continued despite the pandemic. The shelter has stayed open as an essential service and, for the first time in its history, it found itself empty: having found a home or rescue group for every single animal.
In 2001, I became the director of the animal shelter in Tompkins County, New York and created the nation’s first no kill community. Hundreds of other communities have since embraced the no kill equation.
Millions of municipal shelters are now 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 killings nationwide since the 1970s. Despite the fact that pet ownership has doubled, 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.”
America is a nation of animal lovers. 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 spouses and kids. We include them in holiday festivities and take time off work to care for them when they are sick. And when it is time to say goodbye, we grieve.
Last year, Americans spent $99 billion on their animal companions. Spending on animals is growing 50% faster than the overall retail economy. In a national poll, 96% of Americans said that 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, Americans from all walks of life want to build a better world for animals.
Yet, in her recent book The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, Katja Guenther claims that dogs are being killed because of “capitalism, anthroparchy, white supremacy and patriarchy.” She argues that allowing dogs to sleep inside is a privilege reserved for the white and wealthy and that policies against keeping dogs chained up 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,” which ignore the fact 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.”
Unfortunately Guenther’s misguided book is gaining traction. Shelter director Kristen Hassen opines that 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 laws to prevent mistreatment of dogs discriminate against “anyone in the US other than white, middle class and upper-class individuals,” Sloane Hawes, Tess Hupe and Kevin Morris of the University of Denver Institute for Human-Animal Connection 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 demographics, not of race.
Guenther deliberately rejects objective evidence of this kind, admitting 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 subjective feelings, anecdotes and even guesses as compelling evidence for its conclusions—at worst, it ignores evidence to the contrary.
Guenther Stereotypes and Infantilizes People of Color
Evidence shows that dogs in inner cities are neither disproportionately dangerous nor poorly treated. People in inner cities live with dogs for the same reasons as the suburban wealthy: they want companionship and social connection. Guenther’s book perpetuates unsubstantiated prejudices about the inability of people of color to provide appropriate care for their animals. And she denies their individuality by referring to all Asians, Latinos and black people as “the collective Black.”
In Guenther’s book, moreover, white people do things; people of color have things done to them. For example, people of color who abandon their dogs in empty apartments are victims “ensnared in the legal system,” forced to leave their animals behind “under the duress of sudden eviction or deportation or arrest.” Guenther even claims that such people actually believe that what they are doing is for the best, because of “the constraints of their knowledge and resources, both of which are limited by the nexus of their class, status as immigrants, and ethnicity.”
When a Latino man on a bicycle drops a dog “while escaping from mall security officers … after stealing a pair of Wrangler jeans,” she explains this away as the result of his “status as marginalized.” When a woman leaves her dog to die at the pound after she has finished breeding her and selling her puppies to buy drugs, it is the fault of her “status as a poorly educated queer woman of color.” Guenther 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).”
She appears to be arguing that if a person of color can turn a profit or build a reputation through animal exploitation that excuses animal suffering—even in the case of sadistic animal abuse: “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—who, after all, have historically had their own versions of animal cruelty masquerading as entertainment, such as fox hunting and pigeon shooting. Nor is dogfighting considered uncivilized because of the skin color of the organizers—many of whom are white—but because of what it does to dogs.
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 his skin color—is why Vick was condemned publicly along with many others—many of them white people—who have been held accountable for harming animals.
Rescuers Perpetuate Compassion
While Guenther explains away mistreatment if the perpetrator happens to be a person of color, she has plenty of harsh words for those trying to save animals. Day in and day out, rescuers and volunteers show tremendous courage and compassion when they visit their local pounds. At many high kill shelters, they face hostile treatment from staff and endure heartbreak at seeing animals destined for lethal injection or gas chambers. And yet they go back, again and again.
Despite acknowledging these traumas, because most of the volunteers Guenther 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 laments the condition of a dog “with sagging belly skin, elongated nipples, and enlarged genitalia” and expresses dismay that the former owners “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.”
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, she criticizes rescuers for using “the animals as instruments for reproducing whiteness” when they take “the dog out of the ghetto” and give it 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 or injury occur.”
Rescuers and shelters have an obligation to the vulnerable animals they serve. They can and should focus on a potential adopter’s ability to provide for an animal’s physical and mental health, rather than on income or skin color. Guenther suggests that rescuers and shelters are obligated to place animals in knowingly unstable situations (which she problematically equates with darker skin color) or engage in the greater harm of racist behavior.
Lack of Lifesaving Programs Explains Shelter Killings
Larger societal factors do impact shelter outcomes. Discrimination against companion animals in rental housing increases the number of shelter intakes and is responsible for an estimated loss of over eight million adoptive homes every year. And even before the coronavirus pandemic propelled “the poverty rate into double digits,” roughly one in four pet households had difficulty affording necessary veterinary care, leading some to relinquish their animals to shelters.
Racism has even played a role in pound killings, such as in the enactment of pit bull bans. Denver, Colorado’s breed ban, for example, was enacted after the demise of the local energy industry resulted in white flight. But many of these bans, including Denver’s, have since been repealed (21 states and hundreds of cities now expressly prohibit them) and views on pit bulls are more likely to reflect age than race. It has never been easier for shelters to adopt out pit bulls, especially to millennial and Gen Z families.
But Guenther is wrong about the causes of shelter killing and how 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 by the Los Angeles County pound system are killed because the director of that system opposes non-lethal sterilization. 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 services that allow shelters to achieve high placement rates. Guenther alludes to all this when she laments that “volunteers offered a significant pool of time and skills … 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.”
But there is hope. It is far easier to compel a shelter director to implement common sense alternatives to killing than to foment a social revolution.
Guenther Threatens to Turn Back the Clock on Animal Protection
The most dangerous thing about Guenther’s book, however, is her view that human-animal relations are “a zero-sum political struggle involving identity markers like race.” In the early nineteenth century, cruelty to dogs was not recognized in law because they were considered property. Likewise, harming a homeless dog was not illegal because there was no property interest at stake. The animal did not matter. Guenther is once again suggesting a standard that excuses harm based on the interests of those causing it.
For all her professed concern about hierarchies of privilege, Guenther’s prescription for human-animal relations could not be more inequitable, uncharitable and unkind. Her premise that not all animals should have the same rights and that not all humans bear the same responsibilities to those animals threatens to popularize defeatist and counterproductive dogmas of the kind that kept shelters killing animals for decades until the current generation found common sense alternatives.
If such ideas gain traction, I fear the current moment will be remembered as a brief interlude between the ideological intransigence of two generations—both of which subordinate the rights of animals to the interests of those who harm them.