Can We Stop Saying "No Kill" Already?
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Words matter. And, the ones we choose say as much about ourselves as they do the things to which we attach them. Take, for example, the word "euthanize." It has become society's standard word for describing the ending of a life at an animal shelter, presumably, because it is done in a humane manner. Yet, ponder this: the best "state-of-the-art" method for performing this act is lethal injection. When we perform that procedure on a human, we call it an execution. Why the difference in language to describe the same act on different species? I think I know, and I think it speaks volumes about our culture in general and animal shelters specifically. Before I get into that, however, I would like to point out that shelters have used the word euthanasia to describe the terminal act, even when the methods used have been anything but humane, including decompression chambers to suffocate pets, gas chambers to poison them, and even more horrific ways that I will not describe. The fundamental problem is that the agencies engaged in this behavior are called "shelters," with the word intending to carry a meaning of safety, protection and comfort. It is the complete opposite of killing or executing. The extreme cognitive dissonance associated with the idea of a "shelter" that is routinely "killing" the beings for which they are "caring" prevents the average person from putting those words together. To fit it with "shelter" "killing" needs to become "kind" and "compassionate". It turns into "euthanasia" no matter how, when or why it is done, which brings me to the title of this post... In my years working in the No Kill Movement, there have been some people who have questioned the use of the term "No Kill." Some people have described it as divisive, off-putting or offensive, more than likely because their brains are having trouble reconciling the reality that there are facilities that we call shelters that, in many ways, are not. Humans want internal consistency so that their mental and emotional worlds can remain at peace. The terms "No Kill" and "Shelter", put together, exposes them to the extreme inconsistencies in how our shelters speak vs. how they behave. That causes discomfort. And, that is probably a good thing, because humans tend to try to reduce the discomfort associated with these sorts of internal conflicts. One of the ways to reduce the discomfort is to tell ourselves a myth about why shelters "need to kill," and then insist on words that imply the killing isn't, in fact, killing. The other option, of course, is to work to stop the killing. In other words, the discomfort around the term No Kill is actually a good thing, especially if we do not give into discomfort around semantics. The phrase can cause people to change their behavior, in the end, because being a "killing shelter" makes absolutely no emotional cognitive sense at all. That is why we need to choose our words carefully and why No Kill has become the rallying cry that it is for shelter reform. Next time someone complains to me about the term, I think I will tell them that I believe we can stop using "No Kill Shelter" when all shelters are No Kill. Then, we can simply call them shelters, because they will all be actual shelters. Alternatively, we could coin a new label for facilities that kill pets. "Pet processing center" anyone?