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  • Writer's pictureNo Kill Movement

Pet Overpopulation: An Artificial Construct Used to Excuse Killing in Regressive Shelters

Anyone who has followed the No Kill movement for very long likely understands that people who make excuses for killing in animal shelters frequently drag out the tired excuse that there are too many animals and not enough homes for them (i.e. "pet overpopulation"), therefore animal shelters *have to* kill. No one wants to kill, they say. It is a thankless job, but some one *has to* do it, they say. It is a mental construct that allows them to take responsibility for the killing away from those actually doing the killing and put it on unnamed others who are not doing it.

As a quick refresher, review the attached image that is now several years old and know that since the graphic was first made, the numbers have actually gotten much better. Even still, several years ago when it was made, as the image clearly shows that every year in the USA, nearly 24 million families acquire a new dog or cat. If you subtract from that number, the 4 million that are already being acquired from animal shelters and the 3 million people who are committed to purchasing their pets from breeders or other commercial sources, and if you account for the animals that need to be reunited with their owners or provided other services like TNR, there were only about 3 million additional animals needing to be saved from animal shelters. At the same time, there were 17 million families willing to adopt from shelters and that were getting new pets. In short, we have known for a long time that there are plenty of homes in the USA for all of the healthy or treatable pets that enter animal shelters. The real reason animal shelters continue killing is that they have failed to put in place the programs that will save them. This is not rocket science. It is actually fairly simple math.

Mike Fry from No Kill Learning recently described what shelters experience as "pet overpopulation" as being "shelter overpopulation." He wrote:

"What people think of as "pet overpopulation" is actually "shelter overpopulation" which occurs when animal shelters take in more animals than leave alive. That happens for two primary reasons: They take in animals that do not need "rescue" (like healthy free-roaming cats) and they make getting animals out alive too difficult. They also fail to help people keep their pets in their homes, don't do what they should to return stray animals to their families, and more. By changing those things, any animal shelter can stop killing overnight."

Fry is right, and he is proven right by the number of animal shelters that have stopped killing. There are now, by most reports, hundreds of communities where all of the shelters have stopped killing. They have all done it by implementing these programs, because the problem is not "pet overpopulation" it is "shelter overpopulation" caused by a failure of management and leadership.

The numbers on which these conclusions are drawn are not controversial. They come from research funded and paid for by organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Maddie's Fund, the Ad Council and the Pet Product Manufacturer's Association. Virtually every major animal welfare organization (with the exception of PETA) has come around to embrace them. You would think, therefore, that informed animal advocates would stop using "pet overpopulation" as an excuse for killing. If you thought that, however, you would be wrong. Some not only continue using overpopulation to excuse shelter killing, they also work to counter the research in order to justify doing so.

Francis Battista, one of the founder's of Best Friends Animal Society, for example, wrote on this topic:

"The pet overpopulation myth busters point out that the annual demand for the acquisition of new pets has been running at about 17 million per year, according to the folks who do market research for pet supply manufacturers. About 20-25 percent of those new pets will come via adoption. That leaves about 12 million slots to fill. Upwards of four million shelter pets are killed annually. If every one of those shelter pets found their way into a new home, there would still be an unmet demand for about eight million pets every year, and hence no overpopulation problem."

"The challenge, according to this logic, is better marketing of shelter pets both by the shelters themselves and by rescue groups, which serve as halfway houses for shelter animals. All that is needed to end the killing of dogs and cats is to up our market share of new pet acquisitions."

"OK, fair enough, but the shelter door swings both ways."

In writing this, Battista is suggesting several things that are incorrect. The first is that the model does not account for the supply side of the supply/demand model. But, of course, it does, and has ever since the research was published years ago. It also suggests that people pointing this out are not concerned with reducing intake to animal shelters, which is simply untrue. Several of the programs in the No Kill Equation are specifically for that purpose. Spay/neuter, TNR, proactive redemption and pet retention programs are all part of it and all work to reduce what Battista refers to as "noses in." Battista also got the numbers wrong. 17 million is not the total demand for pets. It is the demand for pets after subtracting those families committed to buying from breeders, or who are already adopting from animal shelters. His writing seems to suggest he does not understand the research about which he is writing.

To his credit Battista says the numbers prove the goal of No Kill is attainable. But, he stops short of saying that pet overpopulation does not exist, or that it is simply a false construct used to excuse killing by shelters who have not implemented the programs needed to save them.

For the USA to become No Kill, we have to stop this rhetoric and excuse-making and put responsibility for the killing where it belongs. To do that, we need to stop talking as though "pet overpopulation" is a real thing. If there is an overpopulation problem of any kind, it is a shelter overpopulation problem caused by poor management and bad policies and practices. We need to call it what it is.

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