What is a “Kill Shelter?”


When I was eight years old my parents, brother and I moved from Israel to America. We had two dogs who were not allowed to come with us. With a broken heart, my dad drove them to the pound.

As soon as he arrived he promptly turned around. He couldn’t do it. So, he drove to a family-friend’s house and pleaded with them to take our dogs in. After quite literally picking my begging father off of the ground, they agreed. My dad feared that Mookie (a mutt we rescued from our neighbor who was beating him) and Pushkin (a toy poodle who followed my brother home from the park and never left) did not have a good chance of making it out of the pound alive. He knew he might never know their actual fate; the mere possibility  of their  untimely demise was too much for him to handle.

Looking back, over twenty years later, I now realize that the “pound” in our town was a dead end for most dogs. “Pound” sounds like a pretty innocent word, but it is short for “impoundment”: placing private property into the hands of the state for them to do with as they will. Today, the terminology has changed: we tend to refer to these places as Kill Shelters or Open Admission Shelters. But the idea is still the same: the “property” is taken in and the state does with”it” as they see fit.

In the US, if a dog (or cat, bird, rabbit, what have you) is found as a stray, or is relinquished by an owner, or is abandoned due to death or any other reason, there are a few types of organization that he can be taken to. The two most common options: Open-Admission Shelters (AKA Kill Shelters) and Limited-Admission Shelters (AKA No-Kill Shelters).

Here are the big differences between these organizations.

1. Open-Admission/Kill Shelters

When I first got involved in animal rescue and I heard the term “Kill Shelter” I was utterly confused. Why would there be a shelter if you’re just going to kill the animal? I imagined a dark and dirty warehouse full of caged cats and dogs who were not taken care of; I imagined apathetic employees. Later, when I became better educated on the matter, I understood that there is a necessity for such shelters, and I grew to admire the people who work there.

The reason Open Admission Shelters are so commonly referred to as Kill Shelters is because, unfortunately, animals at these facilities are euthanized at a much higher rate than those in Limited-Admission (No Kill) Shelters.

Open Admission Shelters are just that. They are open to every animal that is brought in. Usually each city has an Open Admission Shelter in order to have a place to take abandoned animals, regardless of their health or temperament and regardless of the space or funding provided. These shelters are critical to keeping the members of the community (two- and four-legged alike) safe. If we, as people, didn’t have a place to bring homeless animals, there’d be an increase of frightened animals roaming the streets. They would essentially be in survival mode, which would create an unsafe community for the people living there–it’s a lose-lose situation.

These face malnutrition and disease; they reproduce, populating an already overcrowded community. Having a central place to tend to stray or unwanted animals is in the best interest of all involved, even if it might mean that they don’t all make it into happy forever homes. It’s unfortunate, but its true. The best we can do is make sure the Open Admission Shelters are as well-funded and well-kept as possible.

According to NYC’s Animal Care and Control’s website, out of the 34,768 cats and dogs that were taken in in 2010 9,373 were euthanized. Both of those numbers are staggeringly high, and everyone agrees these numbers have to change. But with no other choice, Open Admission Shelters are sometimes the only place to turn.

Another reason Open Admission shelters are given a bad wrap is because funding is so limited, or is non-existent. In New York, for example, the NYC ACC falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health, which is much more concerned about spending its money on dealing with the health millions of New Yorkers than it is with maintaining a few tens of thousands of cats or dogs. And putting down the unwanted might indeed be the cheapest and fastest way to protect the health of the humans that the DOH has to deal with. Space is often the biggest issue: Animals with curable ailments and zero behavior problems are often euthanized simply because there just isn’t enough room, and sacrifices have to be made so that the next batch of animals has a place to sleep that night.

You’ll find similar situations in many different cities, and this means a chronic case of shelters being understaffed. Those who are there are overworked, underpaid and usually have few qualifications to be dealing with animal behavior or health. These shelters are also very sad places to be in which makes volunteers almost as scarce as funding. It’s a vicious cycle, with many kinks, but until we get the animal population under control (do the Bob Barker! Spay and neuter!) we should do what we can to support our Open Admission Shelters. They should also be one of the first places you call or visit when you decide to get a pet. Even if you don’t take one of the “death row” animals on the euthanasia shortlist, the dog or cat you pull is creating an empty spot that may then be occupied by an animal who otherwise wouldn’t have lived to see the next day.

2. Limited Admission/No-Kill Shelter

At some shelters, animals must be accepted by the In-Take department which usually means the animal is temperment tested to make sure he is “adoptable.” Once the animal is accepted into the shelter he is guaranteed to live there for as long as it takes to find him a home.

Just as before, there are pros and cons to this shelter model. The pros are obvious – the animal is given time to find his new forever home. If you have to give up a loved pet, this is your better option. As discussed before, in an Open Admission Shelter, a dog is given a handful of days during which he may be adopted or found by his old owners, and then is euthanized, when that time is up. There are too many cases of dogs who just needed a few more days for the right family to come through the shelter. With Limited Admission Shelters every dog is given those extra days.

Though giving a dog all the time in the world to find his new forever home is a pro, it can turn into a con rather quickly. Dogs usually deteriorate mentally, physically and emotionally in a shelter environment. Depending on the dog’s personality it can take weeks or sometimes just days for the shelter environment to wear on a dog. Keeping a dog like this in a shelter for “as long as it takes” may be a fate worse than death. While some of these dogs do just fine and/or recover nicely once placed in a home, others are just not up for task. This controversial question always comes into play when discussing these two shelter models: Which is the humane solution? Allow a dog to live and be given as many changes as it takes, or make a dog live through hell with no happy ending in sight? I don’t know the answer. I am an eternal optimist in every area of my life. I used to believe that every dog deserved as much time as it took to find his Forever Home. However, now that I’ve immersed myself in the field of dog behavior and care, I am not sure that statement is true. I think, like everything in life, there is no one standard answer that can apply to every single situation.

Perhaps one dog will do fine for weeks in the shelter while the other will fall apart and turn into a completely different dog. I think we have to look at each individual dog and assess carefully.

If you are considering adding a dog to your family please visit your local shelter. The Open Admission/Kill Shelter in NYC is Animal Care and Control. Limited Admission/No Kill Shelters in the are include Bideawee, North Shore Animal League, Animal Haven, and Dog Habitat.



10 Responses

  1. Heather M. Camp

    November 26, 2012 8:52 am

    Great post – Too many people who aren’t in rescue are overly critical of the kill shelter model. Unfortunately without funding, space, and staffing, most county/city shelter facilities have to be kill shelters. I spay/neuter every dog or cat I can get my hands on – either on my own dime or through the Stokes County Humane Society, the advocacy and education organization for which I volunteer. I do some rescue & fostering with SCHS – thanks to a partnership with North Shore Animal League we’ve been able to rescue over 100 puppies & young dogs from our high-kill county shelter since January 2012 – that’s not counting the animals we intercepted on the way to the shelter. We’ve got a few mamas who don’t look like they’re going anywhere; they’re taking up space in our foster program that other dogs could use… but that’s not something we’re thinking about – the mamas are safe, the puppies went to North Shore, and that’s all we can do. We can’t let ourselves think about the dogs in the shelter that we CAN’T pull as long as we have these mamas… even though we DO think about them, and cry over them, every day. God knows the general public thinks about them, and the general public tends to be highly critical of us when we pull puppies without the mamas… they just don’t understand, and aren’t willing to open their homes to foster for us or open their wallets to help us with expenses. We do cherish our volunteers & donors. We also cherish our AC staff – they’re no happier about the kill shelter model than we are, and they’re willing to bend over backward to help us whenever they can. That’s an important relationship to build. I also do a little independent rescue; lately since I’ve lost my “real job” I’ve had to rely heavily on SCHS to help me feed my independent fosters as well as my own dogs. That’s the other thing Stokes County Humane Society does – we help people feed, vaccinate, and vet their animals – at low or, when we have the funding, no cost. We understand that everyone can fall on hard times. Our goal is to keep family pets OUT of the shelter, and food assistance is a huge factor in enabling a family to keep their pet at home. The point of this whole rambling bit is THANK YOU for blogging about the unfortunate necessity of the high kill shelter model. Do we like it? No, of course not. Is it necessary? Indeed it is. Until everyone is willing to “do the Bob Barker,” there will always be a need for the high-kill shelter model.

  2. sine nomine

    March 8, 2013 3:22 am

    very enlightening article, wise and empathetic. also moved by that story about your father and his dogs, i doff my hat to him.

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  4. Suzie

    December 22, 2013 7:49 am


    I enjoyed reading your post so much. My husband and I had a dog for 11 years, we had to put him down a week ago. We adopted him from a kill shelter. Your story about your dad is beautiful. You learned to love dogs from him.
    I am Arab and my family and Arab friends made fun of me for keeping a dog. I don’t know what it is about my Arab culture. It’s not the dogs are haraam thing in Islam b/c I am a secular Christian. My family are Christians but they never offered to watch him when we traveled.

  5. dan

    January 21, 2014 10:12 am

    one thing i learned for sure you do not have to get a puppy you should get a senior dog they are more adapt to living the way you want . My wife and I ADOPTED two dogs that were over 7 years old now they are 14 years old . SO if ever you decide to get a dog think about the seniors they deserve a chance and make great additions to the family

  6. Lazaro Marino

    March 12, 2014 10:49 am

    Just read your great story and yes, Your Dad deserves a medal! I am very disturbed today about a beautiful dog that was just euthanized yesterday at our Miami Dade kill shelter, I tried but blame myself for not being able to drive down to the shelter in time.
    His fate was sealed because he was overlooked, I do thank you for this article, no more will I procrastinate, It really is a matter of life and death.


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