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  • Aubrie Kavanaugh

Why We Use the Phrase "No Kill"

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

I recently read an article on the Doobert Blog called, “The Biggest Problem with No Kill, and How You Can Fix It.” The author took issue with the fact that the phrase “No Kill” does not have a universal definition, that the two words put together in a single sentence may be misleading, that the phrase is used for marketing, and that there are a lot of emotions behind use of the words together. The author went on to say that the pet “overpopulation problem is one caused by humans and one that can be resolved by humans through effective spay and neuter and education.” I understand that this is a topic of regular discussion in animal sheltering and animal welfare advocacy circles. I believe it will continue to be discussed as long as our society endures the growing pains that come with ending the archaic practice of destroying companion animals using our tax dollars for no other reason than it has been done for decades, so there “must be no other way.” There is.


The pet “overpopulation” topic and how to end the destruction of animals in our nation’s animal shelters are subjects for another day. Many of us in the No Kill movement believe that animals die in shelters not due to “pet overpopulation,” but instead due to shelter overpopulation which essentially means there are too many animals in the shelter at any given time. We also acknowledge that access to high volume/low cost spay and neuter is one of the programs which can reduce shelter intake and keep more shelter animals alive, but we do not see it as the solution by itself. If all we had to do was focus on spay and neuter, then reforming our nation’s animal shelters would be much easier.


But back to the use of the phrase No Kill and why I, and those in my circles, believe it is important.


Whether the phrase “No Kill” is universally liked, accepted or understood at this point in the history of our society is somewhat of a moot point. The phrase is already on the public radar. It is used by elected officials, by animal shelters, by animal welfare advocates, by the media and by the public. Some who are uncomfortable with the phrase because they feel it personalizes the action to the actor have suggested that we should come up with a better phrase that is less offensive. Some have suggested use of the phrase “Low Kill.” I disagree primarily because I think using that phrase causes even more confusion for a host of reasons. When we focus on the use of the phrase No Kill to describe a culture in animal sheltering, and we do not personalize or weaponize the words, they are incredibly useful not only in changing cultures but in getting public buy-in and support for shelters which choose to break away from the status quo and forge a new path.


Because “No Kill” is on the public radar, we do better to provide a simple explanation we can all understand and which is not complicated. In a nutshell, No Kill means:


we do no[t] kill healthy and treatable animals



It is just that simple. It is not complicated. It is not personalized, and it is not controversial, provided we all agree on the definition of another very important word: euthanasia.

The most overused word related to American animal shelters is euthanasia. No one knows exactly when it was in the history of animal sheltering in America that we first began to use the word euthanasia to describe the killing of healthy and treatable animals for space or convenience in our tax-funded animal shelters. Regardless of when this practice began, it has continued to the present day in earnest, and it does not serve us well as a society. Words and phrases have common meanings that help us all communicate. When we distort those words to excuse our behavior, condone our behavior or make ourselves feel better about a process we know on some level is wrong, we do a disservice to our values and to how we function collectively.


The dictionary definition of euthanasia is easily understood: the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.


When healthy and treatable animals die in animal shelters, whether those shelters are funded by tax dollars or donations or both, the killing is not euthanasia. To compare that process with the heart-wrenching decision that loving animal caregivers and families make every day to prevent suffering is to devalue the lives of all animals in our society. If your beloved dog or cat ended up in an animal shelter through no fault of your own and was destroyed, would you call his death an act of euthanasia? No. You would not.


If a person was ending the lives of healthy and treatable animals outside of an animal shelter environment, we would not call that euthanasia. We would say the animals had been killed. There is absolutely no reason to use different words for what happens inside animal shelters as compared to outside animal shelters. The act is the same, regardless of location. (Having said that, it is never appropriate to describe the people who end the lives of healthy and treatable shelter animals as killers or murderers. To do so is inflammatory and serves no real purpose in terms of seeking an end to that behavior.)


I fully acknowledge that there are some people who use the “No Kill” phrase either improperly or to engage in criminal behavior. Whether we are in the animal shelter industry or we are animal welfare advocates, it us up to all of us to call out those who co-opt the phrase to neglect animals, abuse animals, warehouse animals or make their statistics look better than they are to gain public favor. It is the result of these bad actors that we sometimes have to go beyond the simple definition of No Kill to explain what No Kill is and is not, if not for the public, then for ourselves.


No Kill is a culture in which healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed in our shelters, using our tax dollars or donations, for reasons of space, convenience or following some tradition. In this culture, the only animals destroyed are those who are suffering, irremediably ill or so genuinely aggressive (as opposed to scared or traumatized) that they are unsafe to have in our communities (and for which no sanctuary placement is available) so there are legal issues involved.


No Kill does not mean that animals do not die. To keep animals alive when they are truly suffering or are so genuinely broken because of cognitive issues that they present a danger to the public would be unethical and irresponsible. Ending the lives of those animals is euthanasia because it is done for reasons of mercy and not for expediency.


No Kill is a philosophy that says the lives of all companion animals have value and that those animals must be treated as individuals, worthy of our time and attention to keep them alive. In this philosophy, homeless animals are treated as having been someone's beloved companion or as being capable of being that companion. They are essentially given the benefit of the doubt, treated as adoptable and not blamed for the fact that they need our help.


No Kill is not about simply keeping animals alive, regardless of the conditions in which they live. It does not allow animals’ physical, psychological or emotional well-being to be compromised just so we can say “they are alive” and “we did not destroy them.”


When animals are collected on rural properties out of the knowledge and view of the public and law enforcement authorities, that is not No Kill. That is essentially hoarding, and more often than not, it also involves neglect and abuse (and sometimes mental health issues).


When animals are kept at a “sanctuary” that does not function within its financial and physical ability to properly care for and then place those animals in homes, it is not No Kill. Overwhelmed sanctuaries are little more than animal prisons where the animals and the people caring for them are under incredible amounts of stress, often leading to disaster. It is not uncommon for us to hear stories about so-called sanctuaries that have been subject to law enforcement operations, or for which national animal welfare groups have been called upon to remove large numbers of animals because of inhumane conditions.


No Kill is about values and hope and compassion, and about doing our very best for companion animals because we care about them and we want the very best for them. You do not kill them because it’s easier than saving them. You do not kill them because that is what has historically been done. You do not kill them because you remain ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of programs that have been used to save shelter animals for decades.


Like it or not, the phrase “No Kill” is here to stay. Provided that we all agree on what euthanasia means and we can all agree that we should save shelter animals, there really is no confusion or controversy. Regardless of use of two words, we surely can agree that we should do everything possible to keep shelter animals alive while treating them as individuals worth of our time, attention and care. I see the phrase No Kill as a declaration of values which is tied to a public expectation not only about how tax dollars are spent, but about how we function as a society to: 1) keep healthy and treatable animals alive; 2) euthanize animals who cannot be saved as an act of mercy; and 3) keep our communities safe.


Words are important. But at the end the day it is the actions we must judge so we can decide if animal shelters function the way we expect as a society.


Aubrie Kavanaugh is the founder of No Kill Huntsville

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There are currently hundreds of communities across the USA whose shelters have stopped killing healthy or treatable pets. The shelters in your community can do that, too. If your community is not already No Kill, your shelters need to hear from you and your friends.... please get involved to save lives.

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