Moore County, North Carolina, is located about an hour southwest of Raleigh and is known for its golf courses. Two years ago Moore County did a nationwide search for a new shelter director after problems surfaced with the old management. They hired Brenda Sears, who had a good track record as a shelter official in Asheville. (For those of you who are not familiar with the Asheville shelter, it is a tremendous No Kill success story in North Carolina.) In the two years since Sears was hired she has made progress at the Moore County shelter. According to North Carolina state statistics the save rate for cats went from 19% in 2013 to 44% in 2015 and the save rate for dogs went from 44% to 77%. Those save rates are still bad, but if the rapid upward trend continues Moore County will be at or close to No Kill within a couple of years.
At a meeting last Tuesday the chairman of the board of commissioners for Moore County brought up the subject of personal attacks they and Sears have been experiencing from animal advocates who feel that progress is not being made fast enough. A recent news report described an onslaught of insults and even threats that county employees have been receiving from animal advocates. County officials are frustrated that the substantial progress they have made has not made any difference in the criticism, except possibly to make it worse. The county chairman expressed his frustration in very plain language: “ISIS doesn’t talk about Americans the way some of these people talk about our animal control director,” he said.
This is unfortunately not an unusual situation. A new director comes in and starts making progress, but criticism by advocates continues because they think change is not fast enough. The critics not infrequently wish bodily harm on the shelter director or shelter workers. In general this appears to be social media venting, but it is understandable that officials find it upsetting.
What happened next, though, was unusual. The Moore County chairman asked the county manager to explore getting out of the animal sheltering business entirely. It wasn’t because they were unhappy with Sears’ work – they believe she has been doing a fine job. It was because of the criticism. As the chairman said: “If we can’t solve the problem, let’s give the problem to them. Make sure we find a place for the employees, who do a good job, other employment, and get out of the animal sheltering business and let the private sector handle it.”
The county would save $800,000 per year by doing only the things that are required by state law, which (as described to the council by an expert) are rabies control and management of dangerous dogs. As for everything else, which would presumably include accepting owner surrenders and housing and rehoming unclaimed strays, as well as veterinary care and behavior rehabilitation, the chairman said: “Maybe this is something the private sector needs to do and let them take care of it. Then if they make a mistake, they can talk with themselves.” The commissioners are studying the issue and will decide this fall whether to retrench shelter operations and possibly even shut down the shelter.
Moore County unfortunately appears to have every right to get out of animal sheltering and do only minimal animal control as required by state law. Animal control, defined as protecting people from dangerous or nuisance animals, has been recognized as a core function of state governments since the 1800s. States generally delegate that function to the cities and counties, and that is why communities have animal control officers who have police powers. Once animals are off the street and not threatening or annoying humans, it is not a core function of state or local governments to make sure that those animals find new homes.
Some states have passed laws requiring local governments to maintain some shelter functions. In Virginia, for example, each city or county is required to maintain a shelter for confinement of dogs running at large without tags. States may have other rules, such as requiring humane methods of euthanasia, or requiring veterinary care for sick animals within a certain time frame. State legislatures can strengthen or weaken such requirements as they choose, but there is no state in the country where the law provides that animals have an inherent right to life. Every state has provisions making animal cruelty a crime, and enforcement of animal cruelty laws is often delegated to animal control officers, but anti-cruelty laws do not provide animals with a right to life.
Animals are property under the law. The duties of government run to persons, not property. This is why anti-cruelty laws have often been justified not on the ground of averting harm to animals, but on the ground that people harm themselves when they engage in animal cruelty. It’s easy for a state to justify laws about traffic safety, restaurant sanitation, licensing of doctors, etc., because those laws are all designed to benefit people. It’s difficult for legislators to justify laws requiring preservation of the lives of homeless, unclaimed shelter animals, because there is no obvious benefit to the public in spending tax dollars to maintain the existence of property owned by the state that has negligible monetary value.
Some No Kill proponents compare advocacy for shelter reform to social justice movements such as the historic fights for racial and gender equality. However, such comparisons are false in the eyes of the law. Social justice movements are about achieving equal treatment of various categories of human beings, who are universally recognized in our legal system as having fundamental rights of personhood. Animals, since they are not “persons,” have no fundamental rights. In order to make the analogy to civil rights movements meaningful, we would first have to change our law to recognize a legal personhood for animals.
Perhaps some day in the future our legal system may make a seismic shift and confer fundamental rights on animals equivalent to the legal status of personhood. But don’t hold your breath. If fundamental rights were conferred on animals there would be no more bacon and eggs, no leather shoes, no horseback riding, no zoos, and no more testing of medical therapies on animals. Many No Kill advocates (myself included) are animal-rights supporters and vegans, and we would like nothing better than to see an amendment to the federal constitution conferring the fundamental rights of personhood on animals. But if we took a vote on it right now in the United States probably 99% of people would vote against extending fundamental rights to animals.
The lesson from what has happened in Moore County is that advocacy efforts that focus solely on forcing local governments to change the way they operate public shelters can backfire. And that is because the primary duty of local governments is to protect people from animals, not to find live outcomes for unclaimed shelter animals.
The fact that government’s core duty is animal control and not animal sheltering is the reason why public-private partnerships are so common in animal shelter operations. There is great synergy in having private shelters work with government animal-control operations. In those partnerships the local government operates (or funds) at least the core functions of animal control and return-to-owner. The private organizations do all the lifesaving functions that local government does not do. The very first animal shelter in the United States was founded by a women’s SPCA in Philadelphia in 1870 for the purpose of replacing a cruel city animal control system. The women took over both animal control and sheltering and were reimbursed by the city for the animal control costs. One of their first tasks was to fight and defeat the medical establishment of the city, which wanted the right to take unclaimed dogs for medical experiments.
Today we see variations on the Philadelphia model (minus the fight with vivisectionists) in many of the large cities that have achieved and sustained No Kill. A private organization may contract with a county to do animal sheltering while the county does animal control, as in DeKalb County, Georgia. Or a private organization may do both animal control and sheltering and be reimbursed by the local government for part of the costs, as in Fulton County, Georgia. Another very successful public-private model is for a city-run shelter to do both animal control and sheltering, but to arrange with a large non-profit rescue partner to pull at-risk animals. This is possibly the most common model we see today in large cities that are sustaining very high rates of shelter lifesaving, such as Austin and Jacksonville. It is also the model used in the first major No Kill community, San Francisco. In this model the city agrees to go beyond its core functions and fund part of the lifesaving operation by having its own adoption facility and doing at least some veterinary care and rehabilitation. Public-private partnerships exist in small towns and rural counties as well as big cities, but the partnership is usually more informal and consists of rescues pulling at-risk animals.
Quite often we see people complaining that their local public shelter is increasing its live release rate by increasing the number of animals it transfers to rescues rather than increasing its adoptions. This complaint has been made about New York City, San Antonio, and many other city shelters. The critics argue that the shelter should be doing its own adoptions rather than “dumping” animals on rescues, and that government shelters that rely on rescues for lifesaving are not doing their job. These critics fail to realize the limited scope of a local government’s duties to homeless animals. They also fail to understand that if the private sector assumes some or all of the responsibility of rehoming, that can free the local government to do a better job on its core functions of animal control and return-to-owner.
There are cases where a public shelter is treating the animals in its care with negligence or cruelty. And sometimes local governments arbitrarily refuse offers of help from volunteers and rescues. Those situations usually seem to occur in rural, less progressive, low-income areas where the local government is not functioning very well at anything. Such situations do not appear to be common, but there are thousands of public shelters in the United States. If even one out of fifty of those shelters is abusive or refuses outside help, that adds up to a lot of shelters. A fast way to improve such shelters would be for the private sector to step in and take animals as soon as the hold period is up, and offer veterinary help for animals who need it during the hold period. The problem is that in resource-poor communities the private sector is typically just as impoverished and lacking in skills as the local government. Often what we see in such cases is a few volunteers who have tried to help the shelter but who do not have the resources to offer a true partnership.
No Kill advocates tend to see shelter reform as a difficult struggle, and it is. But No Kill is in a much better position to make progress than other animal-rights endeavors such as the effort to improve conditions for farm animals. We are not in the position of factory-farm opponents who have to fight the power of a gigantic, wealthy, politically connected industry. There is no industry that has a financial stake in shelter animals dying rather than going to good homes. All we have to do to achieve No Kill is to reform shelters, and offers from the private sector to pay for and carry out shelter lifesaving are generally met with little resistance. We are very fortunate that the power to help shelter animals is in our own hands. We may not have the power to force local governments to do the work of shelter lifesaving, but we can do it ourselves and very often local governments will help us.