4 Shelter Workers
Euthanasia did make my day go a little bit easier. My shelter ran very smoothly and efficiently. And then, after the fact just to resolve the cognitive dissonance in your head, you would say, well, it's infinitely better to kill them then to have them confined in cages for months. But if you do this you are needlessly killing animals that could be rehomed. That doesn't feel right to me. We didn't go into this business to be cruel. A shelter worker is not a killer.
—Former “euthanasia technician”
HOW DOES ONE BECOME an authentic person? “We would all like to know,” the sociologist Edwin Schur wrote in 1976. “Getting in touch” with one's “true” or “inner” self preoccupied many people in the 1970s era of personal growth and the awareness movement. The standard litany assumed that a real self or true identity exists and can be discovered if only we “take charge of ourselves” and “learn to be real.” Pursuing one's inner self offered people excitement and hope of personal change and renewal, leading to a cultlike enthusiasm for authenticity. Yet according to Schur (1976), this hope was illusory because no true self existed; in the end we are but a collection of social roles.
Whether illusory or not, the notion of authenticity survived this age of analysis and became more than simply a cult word. In recent decades, many groups experienced authenticity controversies, believing that their behaviors betrayed how they wanted to see themselves. Racial and ethnic groups have sought to express their “true” selves, aiming to cast off unwanted identities attributed by more powerful groups to those with less power. Nor have questions of authenticity been limited to ethnicity and race. Those asking what it means to be a man, a Christian, or a disabled person also have challenged traditional views of who they are supposed to be. All of these challenges reflect the construction, reconstruction, and deconstruction of identity and community, and the search for “false faces” that preoccupies postmodern society (Nagel 2000).
Throughout much of the twentieth century, a nagging sense of inauthenticity has plagued workers in animal shelters and produced a caring-killing paradox (Arluke 1994b). On one hand, they have a core professional identity of being humane, good-hearted “animal people” who want the very best for their charges. Most have histories of owning multiple pets and of being supernurturers, caring for stray and injured animals while feeling a strong attachment to animals in general (Arluke 2001). Not surprisingly, many choose shelter work to be in the presence of animals, whose companionship they highly value, while pursuing with passion their personal and professional mission to improve the welfare of animals. On the other hand, people in animal shelters destroy millions of animals each year for lack of space or because of ill health. Workers have always detested this work because it seems wrong to euthanize so many animals that could be kept alive if only adopters were found and because the act itself is so antithetical to their “nature.” Killing animals, unless they are suffering egregiously, is deeply disturbing and counter-instinctive to shelter workers.
Never actually referred to as inauthenticity, scholars have spoken about the “moral stress” of those who euthanize animals (Rollin 1988) and researchers have documented this tension (Owens, Davis, and Smith 1981; White and Shawhan 1996). First-person reports of this stress are common in magazine articles about shelter workers—sometimes called “euthanasia technicians”—who lament the killing of animals and feel that this act is contrary to their nature as animal lovers. Nonetheless, they learn to live with this unpleasant task as an inevitable feature of their jobs by relying on various institutional coping devices that reduce the stress and normalize killing (Arluke 1994b). Typically, shelter workers see themselves as compassionate people who put animals out of misery in a humane way while blaming the general public for causing the killing (Frommer and Arluke 1999). Most shelter workers deny that their killing or “euthanasia” is cruel and do not see it in the same light as harm rendered to animals in laboratories or farms, even when they euthanize animals that might be adoptable, let alone those that are young, attractive, and healthy. They just see no other option for handling the enormous numbers of animals brought to shelters. Workers are thus able to maintain their humane, animal-person identity, despite their euthanizing animals or even because they do, and thus distinguish themselves from other institutional workers whose humane identities are either suspect or nonexistent.
Until the past decade, shelter workers could sustain their humane image because little if any organized criticism claimed that euthanizing was cruel. When criticism occurred it tended to be case-specific, focusing on which animals were euthanized and how the euthanizing was done. Individuals in the community who were distressed by euthanasia informally communicated their concern to shelter workers. Negative comments came mainly from passing remarks made by friends or strangers who lamented the killing of animals and lauded the “nice” shelters that did not euthanize. Even apparently positive remarks intended to be empathetic, such as “I could never do your job,” were often taken as slams against the humaneness of shelter workers. In this context, the dominant paradigm in the shelter community defined euthanasia as a necessary evil because animals were considered unadoptable or there was insufficient space to house them. Although a few shelters offered an alternative to this paradigm by restricting admission of unadoptable animals and billing themselves as “no-kill” shelters, they did not represent a serious threat to the continuation of “open-admission” thinking about euthanasia where virtually all animals were taken but some were euthanized because the shelter lacked sufficient cage space or considered them to be unadoptable.
A change began in 1994 when the Duffield Family Foundation created the Maddie's Fund, which, through the lure of financial support, sought to revolutionize the status and well-being of companion animals by championing the “no-kill” movement. Some shelters have embraced the “no-kill” philosophy and have become the vanguard of this movement, designating entire cities (most notably, San Francisco and Ithaca, New York) or entire states (such as Utah) as “no-kill.” No longer possible to ignore or discount as an outrageous idea, this movement has spurred debate at the national level about the proper role of euthanasia in shelter practice.
Criticism of euthanasia has steadily mounted in frequency and fervor from within certain segments of the sheltering community, challenging the idea that euthanasia is humane and raising the suspicion that those doing it might be cruel to animals and themselves. Indeed, more than mere suspicion, 2003 saw the first court case involving a shelter worker charged with cruelty because she euthanized seven cats as part of her job that might have otherwise been adopted. The accused, nicknamed “Killer Kelly” by some of her co-workers, was thought to have been too quick to euthanize these animals, ignoring posted notes by her peers to “not kill the kittens!” In her defense, Kelly said that although overcrowding often left her no choice but to euthanize animals, the decisions were heart-wrenching and made only after supervisors approved them (Murray 2003).
While both open-admission and no-kill advocates abhor euthanasia, their views on killing are different because they rest on different conceptions of the fundamental “problem.” Open-admission shelter workers see the problem as an animal problem—one of managing pet over-population, and argue that the no-kill approach does not solve this problem but instead shifts the responsibility for euthanasia to another shelter or agency. So the problem still stands. No-kill advocates see the fundamental problem as a person problem—one of changing shelter work so that workers can have a professional identity uncontaminated by the contradictions posed from conducting frequent euthanasia, especially if they are animals seen as potentially adoptable. Evidence of this changing emphasis from animals to people can be seen in the public justifications of shelters that have abandoned their prior open-admission/euthanasia policies for no-kill approaches. When the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) did so, the New York Times headline proclaimed: “A.S.P.C.A. Plans to Give Up Job Killing New York Strays.” The text elaborated: “Killing stray dogs and cats has obscured its mission—and its image. . . . The society has backed away from killing, which it calls animal control. ‘Philosophically, it's a nightmare to kill 30,000 to 40,000 animals a year . . . [and] that's not our mission’ [a spokesman for the ASPCA was quoted as saying]. . . . Being perceived as an animal killer has . . . saddled it with an image far different from the one it wants—that of an animal care and adoption agency” (Hicks 1993, B14).
The result is that tension has mounted within the shelter community between two apparent camps advocating either open-admission or no-kill. To be clear, these tensions are not new to the humane community. They always have existed, lurking in the cultural background of shelters and animal control offices everywhere. The difference now is that because of the no-kill movement, these doubts, concerns, and questions have been brought to center stage to be challenged and reconsidered by some, defended and explained by others. To wit, one article about this polarization entitled “Killing Ourselves Over the Euthanasia Debate” catalogues “hurtful criticisms” lobbed by each side “accusing the other of not caring for animals in the ‘right’ way” (Dowling and Stitely 1997, 4). Although some argue that virtually everyone in this debate is passionately concerned about the welfare of animals, the rift dividing the shelter community over this issue seems to widen daily.
This controversy defies a quick fix because it touches on the defining issue of what it means to be a shelter worker. Identities turn on core themes about how people regard themselves. For shelter workers that core theme is about the importance of being “humane.” Nothing defines these workers more powerfully than their interest in and concern for the welfare of animals. Nothing strikes these workers as more contrary to their identities than the accusation that they might be inhumane or cruel to animals.
No-kill followers see themselves as forging or “rediscovering” their humane identity in contrast to open-admission workers who they feel “have forgotten our mission and are lost in the overwhelming job of . . . euthanasia.” They talk about coming to the realization that the work of open-admission shelters “is not the work of a ‘humane’ society’” (Best Friends Magazine 2001, 17). Carrying out euthanasia is thought to be an “endlessly demoralizing activity” that stops workers from focusing on their “core purpose: bringing an end to the killing of these animals” (Best Friends Magazine 2001, 16). Open-admission shelters, it is argued, need to rethink their mission and identity so they can become no-kill themselves and “get out of the killing business.”
No-killers forge this identity by leaving behind euthanasia and suggesting that open-admissionists are cruel for continuing to euthanize. These challenges have strained the ability of conventional shelters and humane organizations to protect workers psychologically from the charge that euthanasia is a form of cruelty. Instead of preventing cruelty, which their mission maintains, they are now seen as causing it. How do no-killers use the implication of cruelty as a way to reclaim emotions long gone and the kind of identity these feelings create? Although the charge that euthanasia is cruel is foremost an animal issue, at another level the charge is about what shelter workers should or should not feel. It is about caring for animals the way animal people ought to in the eyes of no-kill proponents. They are tired of feeling guilty because they kill animals, tired of having so little hope for animals, and tired of holding back their attachments to animals for fear of being hurt. In short, no-killers deny that they are “animal killers” and strive to get back in touch with feelings they consider to be “natural” for anyone who cares about animals and wants desperately to rescue those in need. This chapter focuses on how the accusation of cruelty becomes a stepping stone for no-killers to find and experience their authentic self, and the feelings that go with it.
For much of the twentieth century shelter workers felt blamed by the public for euthanizing animals. To reduce their own guilt and uneasiness, workers turned around and blamed society for euthanasia because it created the pet overpopulation problem (Frommer and Arluke 1999). Workers complained that they had to “clean up” after irresponsible pet owners who “surrendered” their animals without good reason, over-burdening and overcrowding shelters that were then forced to euthanize animals for reasons of space or economy. In the words of one frustrated staff member: “Society teaches the public that they can throw their animals away. Shelters perform the incredibly difficult and draining task of cleaning up after a society that holds life in low esteem.”
No-killers, however, by seeing euthanasia as a form of cruelty, have shifted blame away from themselves to their open-admission peers. They have accomplished this shift by creating oppositional identities that allow them to cling to the implication or assertion that they are not cruel, while open-admissionists are. No-killers fashion oppositional identities out of what for many years was an ambiguous and confused image of shelter workers. One worker's recognition that “open-admission shelters make it possible for limited admission shelters to exist” acknowledges the identity-conferring power of creating an antithetical self. Open-admissionists are what no-killers are not. One kind of shelter worker is cruel, the other humane. One is to be blamed, the other not. To admit otherwise would be to blur distinctions between themselves and open-admissionists, endangering their quest for authenticity.
One way for no-killers to create oppositional identities is to accuse open-admissionists of cruelty. At one level, the charge is indirect. No-kill workers portray open-admissionists as complicit because they make it “easy” for the public to handle their animals like unwanted consumer goods that can be disposed of without forethought. As one no-kill worker points out: “They [open-admission shelters] are teaching the public they can throw away their animals at the shelter and the shelter will euthanize their problem for them and they aren't to blame because they took the pet to the shelter.” This charge insinuates that open-admissionists are cruel because they help to end the lives of animals that should or could be adopted into loving homes.
At another level, the charge is more direct. Certain methods of euthanasia, it is argued, are deemed cruel because they cause animals to suffer. For example, critics of a shelter that uses carbon monoxide to kill animals consider this form of euthanasia to be morally “wrong” and “cruel” because “the animal is crying out in pain or fear,” and it sees other animals dying (Gilyard 2001, 6–7). Also branded as cruel is death by lethal injection, the contemporary standard for “humane” euthanasia. Although critics point to instances when animals suffer because of improper injection technique or psychological distress from sensing their own or other animals’ deaths, more generally, euthanasia by definition is considered cruel because most animals, it is thought, should and could be kept alive and adopted with proper care.
These accusations, according to open-admissionists, have tainted their identity. As one worker explained, who was feeling morally tainted because she and her co-workers “kill” animals: “We have been devoting years to helping animals, so why am I and my organization now an enemy? Why do we have to defend ourselves now? It used to be the humane societies versus the pounds, who were the baddies. Now we are the baddies.” As the “baddies,” open-admission workers feel that they have been “looked down upon” (Milani 1997), “discredited” (Bogue 1998b), or “guilty” because they have been labeled as “murderers . . . sadists, or monsters” (R. Caras, personal communications, July 9, August 21, 1997). Moreover, some claim that with the growing popularity of the no-kill concept, the public has joined the bandwagon to castigate them as bad people for euthanizing animals. One open-admission defender had an experience that illustrates this worsening public sentiment. He reported that while marching in a local community's parade, he was shocked when an angry onlooker yelled at him, “You killed my cat!” merely because his sweatshirt bore the name of a well-known “kill” shelter.
No-killers reinforce their accusations by manipulating language to suggest that they are humane and that open-admissionists are cruel. “No-kill” is a weighty symbol for what it suggests about shelter workers who “kill.” Use of this term can make open admissionists feel “put-down” as killers (Bogue 1998a). Indeed, those who question no-kill are concerned that the terminology itself positions open admissionists as “pro-kill” (P. Paris, New York ASPCA interoffice memo, September 24, 1997), making them uncomfortable if not angry. “Open admission shelters are not ‘kill’ shelters anymore than ‘pro-choicers’ are ‘pro-abortion,’” one open-admission advocate explained. Unsurprisingly, the open-admission shelters have called for an end to the term “no-kill” by substituting terms such as “low kill” and “limited admission” (Arnold n.d.) or, less seriously, “rarely-kill” (J. Morris and L. Saavedra, personal communication, September 16, 1997) and “you-kill” (Miller n.d.).
No-killers also draw careful linguistic distinctions between euthanasia and killing. One no-kill spokesperson argues that open-admission organizations “kill healthy animals” (Foro 1997, 16) and that in doing so they misrepresent the real meaning of euthanasia. Elaborating, she writes that use of the term euthanasia for “the destruction of healthy animals softens the reality and lessens its impact on the public. Sadly, to mislabel killing as euthanasia for controlling animal overpopulation does not allow society to deal with the tragedy or to accept responsibility for making this happen” (Foro 1997, 17). On one hand, no-killers also claim that euthanasia, if not for population control, is the wrong term for owner-requested “killing.” On the other hand, “true,” “authentic” or “dictionary-defined” (Foro 1997, 17) euthanasia, as opposed to killing, is mandated for extreme, untreatable, chronic suffering in the lives of animals. Open-admission advocates reject this distinction, claiming that it is mere “semantics.”
Language also is used in no-kill rhetoric to blame open-admission shelters for killing animals in ways that evoke “Nazi” cruelties to humans. One such accusation labels the open-admission approach to the pet overpopulation problem as the “final solution,” a term fraught with Nazi and holocaust associations. Similarly, highly provocative references to the Nazi era were used during several panel discussions at a national no-kill conference. Stirring the audience's emotions, one presenter spoke about the “holocaust of family members [i.e., shelter animals] being put to death” (No-kill Conference 2001). In another instance, a shelter manager that euthanized animals with carbon monoxide chambers, a method not prohibited in his state, was attacked by no-kill critics who were “outraged” with this “gassing” and called for the “dismantling [of] his little chamber of horrors. . . . Just what kind of people are running this ‘humane society?’” (Hindi 2001, 6). To remind this shelter director that he was causing animals to “suffer,” some activists rigged a small truck with a video monitor, parked it outside the home of the director and other shelter officials, and played videotapes of animals being fatally gassed. The shelter director said of his critics, “I don't appreciate being called Hitler” (Gilyard 2001). Nor was this particular shelter director alone when it came to such accusations. Another director similarly said, “I've been called a butcher, Hitler, a concentration-camp runner” (Foster 2000). And one shelter was referred to as “Auschwitz” because critics claimed it excessively euthanized potentially adoptable animals (Yaffe 2004).
Drawing on Social Movements
No-killers rely on cultural resources besides language to maintain their humane image and to imply that open admissionists are cruel. To construct an identity that could be both absolute and exceptional in its stance toward killing, no-killers piggyback on two, somewhat opposing, social movements dealing with human issues—one based on an absolutist stance to not “kill” and the other based on the exceptionalist position that some killing is “humane.” Large and successful social movements provide an assembly of symbols and ideological trappings—a cultural resource—for groups to fashion their own thinking and model their own actions or to draw emotional power and symbolic coherency.
The absolutism of the no-kill identity resonates with that of the pro-life movement. Although there is no evidence that no-killers subscribe to pro-life beliefs in a greater proportion than does the general population, there are many parallels between the ideologies of these two groups that empower the no-kill movement and emotionally charge the identity of its followers. Like the pro-life movement's campaign to save the “helpless unborn” that should not be “killed,” the no-kill movement questions the moral, not just the practical, basis for killing unwanted or undesirable shelter animals. “To me it's criminal if a dog with poor manners or who is a little bit standoffish should be euthanized for behavior reasons,” one no-kill advocate noted. There are accusations that open admissionists are conducting “mass slaughter of animals” or are “executing” them. For example, when no-killers disavow any notion that their own euthanizing is as a form of killing, they distance themselves from it in their language. One no killer said, referring to a dog kept in a shelter for sixteen months that was highly aggressive, having bitten two staff members and requiring muzzling for walks, “I could not in good conscience execute this dog before every treatment avenue has been explored.” This explanation suggests that if open-admission workers euthanized this difficult-to-adopt, potentially dangerous dog, they would be wrong, if not cruel, for doing so. In the same spirit, no-killers claim that their shelters do not have “killing rooms” (Foro 1997) or “execution chambers.” This “killing” of shelter animals signals a moral assault on the fabric of human-animal relationships that is unimaginable to no-killers, much as abortion is to pro-lifers (Ginsburg 1986; Kaufmann 1999). Many no-kill proponents see the open-admissionists’ version of “euthanasia” as an act of murder committed by selfish owners and unresourceful shelter workers willing to accept the status quo; in this way they are like pro-life advocates who define abortion as a type of crime approved by a legal system that protects murderers and leaves victims unprotected (Doyle 1982). Like killing a viable fetus, it is killing a viable adoptable, loveable animal.
The exceptionalism of the no-kill identity resonates with the right-to-die movement. Here, social movement piggybacking is necessary to justify euthanasia when it is performed. No-killers often speak of euthanasia as a humane option by comparing the plight of some shelter animals with that of humans in dire straights, where suffering merits death. One worker criticized “sanctuaries” that keep animals alive to the point where they suffer on the grounds that humans do not let that happen to each other. In her words: “If you are not being humane, and the animal is in physical distress, that may be considered a ‘sanctuary’ (living out their lives until they end naturally). Technically we don't even do that for humans anymore. If someone is in pain, they usually are put on a morphine drip with the dosage slowly increased to reduce their discomfort. The reality is morphine suppresses the respiration.” Another proponent argued for euthanasia when animals suffer emotionally: “What happens when you confine humans? What happens when you put humans in mental institutions? You can make it acceptable for some time for some dogs. Some can handle kenneling. Others need the bond . . . something or someone, and sitting in that kennel is not the same for them. They just can't hack it.”
These approaches to creating oppositional identities are not completely effective. No-killers become uneasy if they sense that their new-found identity is being blurred. For example, conciliatory gestures by no-kill shelters, when seen as “selling out” to the open-admission perspective, reflect this uneasiness. One such gesture involves modifying language. Aware that the no-kill language hurts or angers others, some in the movement sympathize with this concern and curtail use of such terms. In one instance, the director of a major no-kill shelter publicly acknowledged that use of the term no-kill can be upsetting to others and consciously tried to refrain from its use in such contexts. However, these appeasing gestures, combined with reports that this shelter increased its euthanasia rate, made some question whether no-kill has lost its footing. In another case, the head of the national no-kill conference decided to change the name of this annual meeting to include rather than exclude people and organizations from the open-admission shelter perspective, renaming it in 2002 the “Conference on Homeless Animal Management and Policy.” This move distresses some no-killers, who wonder what this change means for the fate of their movement and identity. Although such moves puzzle or even threaten no-killers, they still fiercely cling to what they regard as their authentic selves. Other feelings, crucial to forming their oppositional identity, are there to validate the kind of shelter worker they imagine for themselves.
RESCUING THE “INSTINCT” TO SAVE
Fashioning identity is a complicated social process. For no-killers, establishing what they regard as an authentic identity entails more than dealing with blame and guilt. To escape even the hint that they might be cruel, no-killers identify and own what they regard as positive and “natural” feelings for animals. They want to be hopeful that they can find a loving home for almost every animal that comes to their shelters.
When they talk about what drew them to shelter work, those who first worked in open-admission shelters often say that their passion for helping animals was stifled, that they were unable to act on their “urge” to save shelter animals because there were too many animals to euthanize, too few resources to rehabilitate the impaired, and too little support for thinking and feeling more positively for shelter animals. Hopefulness is something they lost along the way. Yet the theme of losing hopefulness, only to regain it by working in no-kill shelters, is commonly articulated. At a recent San Francisco conference for teaching open-admission shelter staff how to convert to no-kill, the keynote speaker reached out to the audience in his opening remarks by reminding them that they were different from others because they had a strong rescue “instinct” to save lives thwarted in open-admission shelters. As heads nodded enthusiastically, he went on to describe how rescue workers in India went in after an earthquake to find people suffering but alive in the rubble. They found a boy who was so badly trapped they had to cut off his leg to get him out. He compared the actions of these rescue workers, who did not give up trying to save people, to those at the conference who also had this “calling” to save.
Fighting for Animals
No-kill is a way to discover or return to this “instinct,” an identity that can shield no-killers from implications of cruelty. In building their new identity, it is important for no-killers to feel they are championing individual animals or, as one advocate pointed out: “We dare to think that every individual life does matter—that that individual's life actually matters.” This means they will “fight the good fight” for every animal that comes their way, expending as much time, labor, and money as necessary to ensure that the animal—likely euthanized in open-admission shelter—is cared for, loved, and, hopefully, adopted.
No-killers fight for individual animals by trying to find homes for all animals taken into their shelters. One worker compared this desire to rescue animals to the attitude of emergency room personnel who are trying to save human lives: “That's like giving up on a patient that you know you can save. It's like triage. You are working in an ER and a patient comes in, if he came in ten minutes earlier you would have gotten him. That's how I have to look at what I do. It's very ER-ish. You have to want to save the next one. And that's why we are here and not in an animal care and control facility. We pour everything into an animal. We invest it all.” However, it becomes progressively more difficult for no-killers to fight the good fight when they try to rescue animals with increasingly adverse medical and psychological conditions. Yet they remain hopeful. As one worker said, her facility's goal is to try to make ever sicker animals into adoptable ones: “We are raising the bar for what we can handle medically or behaviorally. We've got animals with chronic health conditions. We've got aggressive dogs. We are trying to rehabilitate them so they can be made adoptable.”
Workers who violate this rescue ethos are often isolated from their peers, teased, or seriously ridiculed. They are seen as too “rigid” with intake selections, turning away animals that would then be killed, or too “eager” to call for and endorse the euthanasia of shelter animals. In one no-kill shelter, a kennel manager was referred to as “Dr. Kevorkian” by staff members because she “put down” (euthanized) a ten-year-old dog that tried to bite but was regarded as very adoptable by most workers. In a different no-kill shelter, there is strong internal pressure on intake workers to accept as many dogs as possible from the nearby animal control office, regardless of their bad or “spooky” behavior or poor condition; otherwise they likely will be euthanized. For example, after an intake worker refused an aggressive, six-month-old dog offered to her shelter, several coworkers chided her and called her a “murderer”; more politely, some peers criticized her in general for being the “most conservative” temperament tester in the shelter. “I am the bad guy,” she noted sadly.
The implication of fighting for individual animals is that shelter workers who do not take this approach are cruel. Open-admissionists, understandably, find this implication to be provocative and make countercharges of cruelty. Open-admissionists think it is wrong to fight for individual animals because doing so misuses limited resources. They argue that if no-killers “rescue” with their hearts, they neglect the “bigger picture.” To open-admissionists, it is more important to attack the overpopulation problem by euthanizing unadoptable animals than to indulge one's need to feel hopeful. Attacking overpopulation through euthanasia means taking in all animals brought to shelters, fearing what might happen to those not surrendered. Open-admissionists say that no-killers’ rescue ethos causes animals to be turned down because their shelters have insufficient resources to keep taking more animals. To open-admissionists, the no-kill approach is a failure in management—a combination of poor resource allocation and bad judgment that allow workers to be self-indulgent. Such shortsighted policies are thought to benefit workers, offering them emotional gratification at the expense of animal welfare. They say that relating to shelter animals with one's heart makes it harder for no-killers to acknowledge “suffering” in their animals because doing so raises the possibility of euthanasia. Having such a narrow definition of suffering delays what open-admissionists see as necessary euthanasia, in turn causing more suffering.
Open-admissionists also argue that no-killers are cruel because they “warehouse” animals past the point where they should be “humanely euthanized,” keeping them in shelters for long periods, sometimes with inadequate care, socialization, and housing. Referring to the “confinement” of shelter animals in “pet warehouses,” an open-admissionist said, “The Humane Society of the United States has files of cases on ‘no-kill’ shelters from which they've had to rescue neurotic, sick animals that were kept in desperate conditions.” Another open-admissionist claims that some no-kill shelters keep animals so long they develop “that nervous thing, like dogs spinning, or some of the barking sounds like suffering to me. They are just unhappy or crying.” And another critic of warehousing points out after visiting a no-kill shelter: “It was spotless. They had air conditioning, climbing trees, toys and good food. But when you walked in, they were all over you. I had cats attached to my legs and arms, on my shoulders and my head. I had scratch marks for a week after that but not from aggression. These cats were starved for human contact. That's what breaks my heart about these places” (Donald 1991, 4).
Strengthening their allegation of cruelty, open-admissionists hold that warehousing can cause physical harm to shelter animals. This critique is echoed in a popular magazine article that reports the reactions of a 4-H group leader after visiting one no-kill shelter: “Dogs limping around with mange and open sores. Others gasping for air or dragging broken legs, struggling to fight off vicious packs in the large communal pen. I might as well have taken them to a horror show” (Foster 2000). The reporter who wrote this article refers to the “atrocious conditions” at some no-kill facilities and the “luckless inmates” that are “condemned” to “filth” and “suffer” from long-term caging. Indeed, one open-admissionist claimed that the “quality of care of animals is horrific. They [no-killers] need to do it right and have some standard of care.” To illustrate, he pointed to a no-kill facility that asked his shelter to take 110 animals to reduce overcrowding. A visit to this no-kill facility alarmed him because he discovered that it was very cold, a mere “semblance” of a building, with dead animals strewn throughout.
Such charges, especially if unanswered, challenge the ability of no-killers to maintain their hope for animals, and without hope, their claim to an authentic identity, free from cruelty, becomes precarious. Charges of warehousing are extremely threatening to the no-kill quest for authenticity because they raise the specter of cruelty. That they continue to be heartened reflects their ability not only to reject but to transform these charges into further hope.
Most no-killers vehemently deny warehousing animals. One advocate spoke of her frustration with people who misconstrue the meaning of no-kill as a preference for keeping animals alive in unpleasant or unhealthy circumstances: “I don't know if there is any sane person who would agree with a warehouse-kind-of-life, like an animal collector, is better than death. I don't think anybody is arguing that except for an extremely small subset of people who are not in the mainstream of the no-kill movement.” No-killers say that if adverse “warehousing” exists, it is very rare and at a facility other than their own. Indeed, it is common to point to a few very well-funded no-kills where “lavish” surroundings include “luxury suites for animals, replete with toys, TVs, and playrooms” that are not excessive but “important for the animals” to reduce their stress and make them healthier and happier. “So the toys and playrooms are not frivolous. They're just what the doctor ordered.”
Through their language, no-killers redefine these extended stays as hopeful and humane, although “less than ideal” (L. Foro, personal communication, 2001). There is, for example, a lot of talk about maintaining the “quality of life” of animals. As one worker claimed: “[It] is as good if not better than the placements at many open admission shelters. I know a good many dogs in suburbia who don't get walked, have minimal veterinary care, don't get socialized, they don't get patted as much by their owners, they're in the yard.” No-killers also find hope in the language used to describe physical and mental problems in animals housed for long periods in shelters. For example, in one such facility, animals with behavior problems, sufficient to justify euthanasia in open-admission shelters, were described as only having “issues.” “Issues” conjures up psychological problems in humans that can be lived with and managed, as opposed to more troubling behavior that is difficult to tolerate and control. In one case, a shelter dog had a history of snapping at children was spoken about as “having an issue with children.” The solution was to work on ridding the dog of that “issue,” while also seeking childless adopters who could keep the dog away from children.
Seeing Viable Pets
To remain true to their mission, no-killers must be able to see all of their charges as viable pets that can be kept and loved in homes, each animal having the potential for a good life for itself and its guardians. The identity forsaken by no-killers is one that turns its back on animals that are less than “perfect,” euthanizing many that could be placed in homes if given behavioral or medical attention, as well as time and careful placement. One no-kill worker elaborated this view: “Where do you draw the line? Does everything have to be pristine and perfect, and you kill everything else? We want to give animals a chance that we think ought to be given a chance. I mean, the Blackies and the Willies out there, they would be killed because they are not perfect, and I see this wonderful pet that would make a great companion for someone and I think they are worth investing the resources into.” Another no-killer explained: “There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts who will tell you that this or that dog is unadoptable, don't even bother trying. And we don't accept that. You can get terrifically good outcomes. It's a question of when can you and when can't you. The jury is out on our animals until we have exhausted all reasonable attempts.”
No-kill trainers believe they can rehabilitate most problem animals, including those exhibiting aggressiveness. One trainer compared this challenge to working with criminals, concluding that both can be rehabilitated if people try hard enough: “If you've gotten people who've committed certain levels of crime, can they be rehabilitated? If you gave them the right counseling, can you turn them around or is it always in them? I would submit that the right kind of effort hasn't been tried.” Indeed, the belief that any shelter animal is a viable pet extends deep into no-kill culture. In one shelter, the desire to see animals as viable pets even extends to avoiding certain common words, such as “adoptable,” that suggest some might not measure up and make it into a home. A worker explained: “We don't use the word adoptable. We refuse to have that word in any of our literature. A kitten with two legs who is four weeks old is adoptable to a person who wants to adopt her. Adoptability is only about who wants this animal. It is not about you judging, to sit back and say, ‘This darling animal is adoptable.’ No. Adoptability is only judged by the adopter. We had a dog who was thirteen years old. This one had no front legs. She gets around. She kisses everyone. And she was placed.”
Seeing all their charges as viable pets, however, can be difficult in no-kill shelters because some animals are far from the well-behaved, healthy, and attractive pet desired by most adopters. In fact, critics charge that no-kill shelters downplay or conceal problems in animals to get them adopted. “They [counselors and trainers] are soft-peddling the issue. . . . They are couching it in a less scary way for the client,” according to one worker. For example, “excuses” are made for the bad behavior of animals, as in the case of a dog whose “guarding behavior” around food was “explained away” by pointing to how little it had been given to eat. Making excuses for bad behavior sometimes is combined with failing to disclose information to adopters about the dangerousness of aggressive animals. Another worker spoke about “the betrayal the public would feel if they were aware that the shelter they trusted has made them the subject of an experiment in placing rehabilitated biting dogs, an experiment with so many failures.” Uncomfortable with her own shelter's policy, she reported “incredible feelings of guilt” making it “hard to sleep at night” because she felt “complicity” in adopting out unsafe animals to clients from whom information about these problems was hidden. Upset by this problem, another worker described a shelter that was being sued for adopting out a Rottweiler that was known to have already killed one dog, only to have it subsequently knock down its new owner and kill her pet dog. The same worker also claimed that this shelter did not tell potential adopters that another dog had bitten seven volunteers. In response to such shelter actions, the worker said: “That is the main reason I had to resign from volunteering with the rescue group I was working with. They adopted out any and all dogs, no matter their history and worst of all, did not tell adopting families if the dog had bitten previously.”
Finding Perfect Adopters
No-killers believe there is a suitable adopter for every rescued animal. However, the drive to save difficult-to-adopt animals severely reduces the pool of potential adopters, since it takes a very special person to be the right match for an animal with behavioral or veterinary problems, let alone one that is old or unattractive. No-kill workers convince themselves that a perfect adopter exists for virtually every one of their charges. Having this view justifies keeping animals for a long time as adoption staff search for the right person for each animal.
This search can be particularly trying when dogs are highly aggressive, needing to be muzzled and constantly monitored. When a no-kill worker was asked who would be an appropriate adopter for such challenging animals, she said a dog trainer would eventually come to the shelter and take home one of these dogs, adding: “How many dog trainers come through our doors looking for a dog? That's the problem. We can see that. It's not that there is no owner in the world who can do it, it's that there is no owner who wants them or can take them right now. In the right hands they would be okay.” She acknowledged, without apparent irony, that no such adopter had visited her shelter since she arrived there three years earlier.
Rescue narratives circulate among workers about shelter animals that make it into good homes and “live happily ever after” because they have been saved, despite many medical or psychological problems. Hopefulness pervades these stories because shelter workers correct the animal's problem and find the right kind of owner. The rescue tale is especially prevalent in no-kills because it speaks to that culture's wish for happy endings and denial of euthanasia. The latter's subtext is that it is wrong to euthanize an animal because, if given a chance, it can find a loving home. Less commonly relayed, but serving to support their hopefulness, are tales about failed or missed rescues, typically at open-admission shelters. These stories describe animals declined at intake because of ill health, bad behavior, or unattractiveness that could have been rehabilitated and adopted if they had been in a no-kill facility.
This culture also helps workers cope with and explain adoptions that apparently fail because animals are returned to the shelter. When this happens, it can be a problem to maintain the belief that animals end up with the right owners and “live happily ever after.” These apparent failures, if not addressed, can disillusion workers and question their no-kill identity. In these hope-threatening instances, workers learn to blame adopters for whatever problems they were having with the animals. One adoption counselor bemoaned the use of this strategy, feeling that animals rather than adopters account for these failures: “When animals are returned for the very problems they had, the attitude of the people in the dog division is always anger at the client—they did something stupid, they blame the client. And I often deal with clients who come back here in tears because they wanted to love and bring this animal into their homes. Sometimes they have been with the dog for a month hoping the thing [bad behavior] will improve, but it has gotten worse and worse and worse. Sometimes it's just a day and the dog has bitten somebody in the household. They are very unhappy and they have often been traumatized by the experience. It's amazing that they are not angry. They feel guilty about bringing the dog back. They're apologizing to me. And I gave them a dog that was almost guaranteed to do something like this. But when the dog is brought back and I walk over there [to the training department] and say, ‘Gee, Fluffy was returned.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well, he bit the aunt who came over to visit.’ ‘Well, she must have done something. She must have startled him. Boy, what a jerk.’ That's the attitude.” In one such case, two dog trainers listened to a visibly shaken adopter who, as she cried, spoke about how she tried to cope with her adopted dog's wide-ranging destruction of furniture, rugs, bedding, and other items as well as its biting when she tried to control its unruly behavior. Distraught, the adopter walked away, talking about how she felt like a failure. After she left, the dog trainers shook their heads, reaffirmed their belief that the dog was a fine and manageable pet, and mused that the adopter was probably unfit to have any dog.
Despite the occasional failed adoption, no-kill shelters claim to have extremely high adoption rates. Open-admissionists challenge the claim that no-kill shelters have a 100 percent adoption rate, calling it a “smart marketing strategy.” Instead, they argue that no-killers create high rates by taking only very adoptable animals in the first place, leaving the “burden” of euthanizing rejected animals to open-admission shelters. Critics allege that no-kill shelters “take in the ‘movie star’ dogs and cats, the pretty ones they know they can place in new homes, and turn away the rest” (Caras 1997, 17). “They are strays, ‘too old,’ unsocialized, injured, or diseased. They are considered unadoptable by no-kill shelters so they are brought to us” (Bogue 1998b). One person compared this self-serving policy to a private high school that always has impressive SAT scores because it accepts only bright students in the first place. Some no-kill shelters are “pickier,” even rejecting animals with extremely minor problems. As one open-admissionist contended: “If an animal has the tiniest patch of flea allergy, dermatitis, which is curable, they say no if they want to. Bad teeth, they say no if they want to. Any animal they can say no to, they are going to say no. They don't take many that need treatment.” All of these manipulations, some charged, enable the “no-kill propagandists” through “deception” to produce very high rates of adoption and low rates of euthanizing.
Even after taking an animal, critics charge that no-killers can reclassify its status to maintain a high adoption rate. They claim that no-kill shelters use a “changeable” classification of animals, such that a placeable animal could be reclassified as unplaceable if the animal were not adopted. This strategy enables the no-kill shelter to say that no adoptable animals are killed and to assert that a “huge” percentage of their “placeable” animals are adopted (Stark 1993). Some feel that this classification “game” is so incredibly capricious as to make the very notion of no-kill “a joke.” One worker said that even “color” could be used as a reason to classify an animal as “unadoptable” if there are too many similar-looking animals together in a shelter, such as tiger-stripped kittens. “I could make distinctions any way I want . . . their rates are meaningless.”
Challenging back, some no-kill shelters contend that their save rates would be higher if they did not have so many difficult and unadoptable animals. Denying that they are “picky,” no-killers claim to take many animals that are not the “cream of the crop.” As one worker said: “One of the things that gets hurled at us, I mean I become so defensive even if there is no attack, is the charge that we set the bar so high medically or behaviorally, therefore almost anybody can label themselves no-kill.” Another no-kill worker concurred: “We get only the worst here, everybody thinks we take only the best dogs here . . . [but] we get the worst of the worst. If you are looking for a behavior case, we are probably the shelter to go to. It's harder for me to find a family dog in our shelter than it is in most because we are taking the ones no one else takes.”
No-kill culture makes it possible for workers to feel hopeful. It does so even though some of their very steps to rescue and save animals come perilously close to the antithesis of their identity—cruelty. Despite criticisms that could easily threaten their hope, most no-killers cling tenaciously to the belief that almost every shelter animal, regardless of disability, age, or unattractiveness, can be successfully placed if given sufficient time. The focus on the welfare and fate of individual animals, combined with the knowledge that euthanasia is very unlikely, allows no-killers to indulge their desire to have emotionally deep and complex relationships with shelter animals, even though permanent guardians will probably adopt them. Feelings engendered by these relationships are an essential component of the cruelty-free, humane identity no-killers seek. They experience these sentiments by constructing them as they carry out their everyday shelter jobs.
FREEING “NORMAL” EMOTIONS
No-kill workers want to be attached to animals, without fear of getting hurt, and to grieve their loss without scorn from colleagues. Safe attachment to animals and the expression of grief are thought to be natural for people who love animals, and they should be expected in settings like shelters, according to no-killers, where they are not cruel to animals. Their culture offers them an opportunity to experience these feelings of attachment and grief; indeed they are strongly encouraged to pursue them and are punished for failing to do so. Alternatively, denying these feelings is seen as a violation of their animal-loving nature. No-killers understand, though, that such control of emotions is a necessary coping device for those who carry out euthanasias that they believe are often preventable and unnecessary; or in other words, that are cruel.
Killing as a Job
Because open-admission culture is thought to promote the bottling up feelings and denial of grief, it provides no-killers with a foil or model of inauthenticity. They know or learn about their alter identity—the one linked to cruelty—from working in open-admission shelters or hearing about them through small talk about what work is like in other facilities where the rules surrounding euthanasia and death seem harsh.
While open-admission workers lament having to euthanize animals, they handle it differently than do their no-kill peers. Rather than expressing their emotions about preventing euthanasia or grieving when it occurs, these workers block their emotions. In one typical facility, workers bemoaned that euthanasia had to be done but felt that it was the right thing to do because of the large number of surrendered animals and the limited space and resources available. To make it easier on themselves, they did not form deep and complex relationships with shelter animals. And when it came time to euthanize animals, workers still distanced themselves. For example, there was no “spoiling period” for animals slated to die—an informal practice at many no-kill facilities where special consideration is given to animals after the decision is made to euthanize them. To open-admissionists, these periods are more for the psychological benefit of workers than the animals and place a “huge emotional burden” on the staff members doing the spoiling. With emotion under wrap and attachment minimized, the staff routinely and unceremoniously euthanized animals. As one worker recalled: “I was like a killing machine, a certified euthanasia tech that euthanized sixty to one hundred-plus animals every single day. Some days that's all I did—clean and kill. And go home. You put your feelings on the shelf. You just do your job. You have to deal with that sometime down the line.”
To be clear, open-admissionists are not unfeeling when it comes to the death of shelter animals. Their work carries an emotional burden, especially when they euthanize “rejects” that could have been adopted were there more time to keep these animals or money to pay for veterinary help. Workers at open-admission shelters feel drained and distressed when killing animals. This feeling applied not only to dogs and cats thought to be adoptable but also to species ignored by many no-kill programs. For example, one animal control employee lamented killing the various animals sent to her facility by a no-kill shelter because of the “waste” of “wonderful” animals and its emotional effect on her. “It is so frustrating,” she explained. “I hated putting down that dog because it is a dog who could have gotten adopted so easily if we had a little more time, which we didn't. The [nearby no-kill shelter] wouldn't take the dog—wonderful dog, but it had pit bull in it, but wonderful temperament. It was a lap dog, but because of that pit-bull quality they wouldn't take him. I was practically in tears putting him down because it was so wasteful, so useless. It would be one thing if he were sick or something. We are killing animals who could have homes if they could have a tiny bit of work—a minor surgery—not to mention the birds, the guinea pigs, the hamsters, the rats—I love them.” Despite their emotion management strategies, most open-admissionists only reduce their psychological discomfort rather than eliminate it entirely. Uneasy feelings still slip through the cracks between justifications and excuses (Arluke 1994b). What feels “wrong” to them, no-killers argue, is that they are working closely with animals with whom they cannot bond when alive or mourn when dead and, even worse, they are taking lives without sufficient reason; in short, they are tainting what it really means to be a shelter worker because of the implication of cruelty.
Being with Friends
Many no-kill workers are acutely aware of the psychological benefits of working in an environment where animals are rarely killed. “People are drawn to work here,” one said, “because it is less scary.” The “scariness” spoken about refers to the loss, guilt, and grief workers experience if they kill animals with which they have established some relationship. A worker explained: “I don't have to worry that I am going to bond with an animal and then have to put him down, which is my perception of what happens in kill shelters—you really like an animal but you already have a number of them at home. You can't take it home but nobody has come in to adopt it and its time is up. So I feel lucky that those are the kinds of emotions I don't have to deal with.” When animals are killed, the killing is done for egregious clinical or behavioral problems. Workers can tell themselves that it is the most humane thing to do because it alleviates animal suffering. Knowing that euthanasia will be done only in extreme cases makes it easier for no-killers to feel safely attached to their charges. One worker elaborated this point: “When I started the volunteering thing I was told that no animal would be put down unless it was a very severe medical or behavioral issue—a definite quality of life issue for the animal—and under those conditions I felt I would be able to work. It would be a lot safer [than an open-admission shelter] because if they are going to put a dog down I probably would feel okay about it because I could agree with them or at least see their point and feel very sad. There would be a strong inclination that they would be right anyway, and that would be best for the animal. I thought with that in mind, I would be able to handle it.”
The deep attachments fostered in no-kill shelters were dramatized by an incident involving a dog trainer who visits shelters to teach how to evaluate the temperament of dogs for potential adoption or euthanasia. Once when she visited a dog-training school for a demonstration on temperament testing, workers from a nearby no-kill shelter took one of their dogs there hoping she could help them make a decision they had been unable to make about whether to euthanize the dog. The trainer declared, “This is not an adoptable dog” and recommended euthanasia. The no-killers were upset; they found her comments cold, calculated, unsympathetic, and unfair because the dog should not have been tested at a training school where fifty people in a large and unfamiliar room might make the dog behave poorly. In other words, the setting was loaded against the dog's behaving normally and in a way that would show him to be fit for adoption. Some cried when the dog was euthanized; because they did not kill animals, the very act of euthanasia was extremely disturbing to witness or know about, especially when it involved a dog with whom they were so close. Some cried because they came to observe this trainer's demonstration hoping that she would see some redeeming qualities in this dog, only to be disappointed. Others cried because they felt that they could have taken the dog to their own home and worked with him to the point where he would be adoptable. They saw the euthanasia as a “tragedy” and felt that the trainer was “too hard on the dog” and that they would have “gone the extra mile” for him.
In no-kill shelters, euthanizing an animal is rare and involves a weighty decision. One facility has formal guidelines for deciding on all euthanasias (except for emergencies). Signatures approving this act are required from the president, vice president, and initiating department head, and the names of the animals are clearly posted so the staff can note their deaths and no one will be shocked by inadvertently discovering that a “friend” had been euthanized.
Once the decision is made, workers are allowed to show their feelings for animals scheduled to die. At one no-kill shelter, cats slated to be euthanized are given special foods or treats, soft, comfortable, secure bedding, and adequate scratching posts and visits from the staff, while dogs are given similar bedding, a rawhide bone during the day and a beef bone at night, special food and “extra special goodies,” a cloth toy, and staff member visits for “quality time” with the animal, including long walks, outdoor play “with their special buddies,” or “quiet time.” These last days are difficult for workers, as one explained: “I find it very hard to look at a dog carrying on its normal life and knowing that soon it will all be over. I think it helps us to know that our dog's last day or so was really special. It seems to bring peace to the people around the dog who are suffering knowing that the dog is going to get euthanized. It is always such a big deal. I just cannot get used to it.”
No-killers can distance themselves from the killing of animals by transforming euthanasia into a clinical, veterinary act performed elsewhere by technicians in animal control agencies or by their own in-house veterinarian and veterinary technicians. Thus, euthanasia is not merely a rare event, it is a task that workers do not have to carry out, allowing them to feel untainted by the killing of animals. By removing themselves at least one step from euthanasia, no-killers can adopt the role of mourner rather than killer of animals being “put down.” Euthanasia becomes an infrequent, highly ritualized and emotionally upsetting loss of a “good friend” performed by an in-house veterinarian. As mourners, they can feel comfortable expressing their unhappiness, even on the job, about this loss, whereas most traditional shelters discourage such displays because they “make everyone uncomfortable.” To properly mourn their loss, no-killers frame these rare deaths as hopeless situations where there is no ambiguity about the wisdom of the euthanasia. To see these euthanasias otherwise would complicate their grief with guilt that they could have done more to save the animals. These steps make workers comfortable and secure while on the job. They come to see their particular organizational way of life as the best one for animals and themselves.
Their quest to feel like authentic shelter workers, however with no specter of killing cruelly, is challenged when animals—with whom workers have bonded strongly—are to be euthanized for reasons that seem dubious to some. When this happens, workers no longer feel safe and take steps to repair the scene and reduce risk of emotional harm. For example, at one facility, management decided to euthanize several overly aggressive dogs that had been in the shelter for many months. They had become a danger to the staff and to potential adopters and were a liability risk to the shelter. Management held special meetings with different groups of workers and volunteers to deliver this news, calm those upset or in “shock,” and raise the organization's “bar” for rehabilitating difficult dogs. During the meetings, senior staff largely blamed external forces (e.g., “our hand has been forced by elements in society”) for the need to euthanize these dogs, given unreasonable expectations for the behavior of animals and for being too litigious. Trying to ease distraught and confused listeners, senior staff claimed they “did not have choices” and they “couldn't” do anything else with these dogs.
Lacking the detachment of their open-admission peers, most staff members found it emotionally wrenching to face the euthanasia of these problematic animals and to make rational decisions regarding their fate. They strongly opposed the decision, believing that the dogs’ quality of life was satisfactory and their risky behavior was modifiable. A few workers and volunteers demanded meetings with shelter officials to protest the decision, and rumors circulated about leaks to the press and a volunteer protest strike. Real fear existed among workers about how these euthanasias, if carried out, would adversely affect their identities. One employee, for example, was uneasy about what she saw as a slippery slope created by these few euthanasias: “We are in a position now of either becoming like every other shelter and we save only perfect dogs who need nothing or what?” Because of the workers’ considerable and continued pressure several dogs were taken off the list and sent to sanctuaries—places where animals can live and be protected for the rest of their lives.
A few dogs were euthanized, despite protests. The most unsettling euthanasia involved Josh, a dog having a history of aggression but with whom several workers, referred to as the animal's “fan club,” had intensely bonded. Josh created a “tug of war” between the behavior-and-training group and other departments at the shelter. An opponent of Josh's euthanasia was optimistic that his difficult behavior could be modified enough to make him a good companion, despite his history of biting several people. She commented: “Some people are really pushing to have him euthanized, but we have kept him here a year and we ought to at least try drugs. We haven't even gone down that route. If we keep them here a year, we owe it to them to try everything.” The fact that his euthanasia was for behavioral rather than medical reasons made it especially difficult for workers to say that Josh's “suffering” justified his death. Their resistance to euthanasia drew on the need to feel hopeful about the fate of even the most challenging shelter animals. And their anger was fed by the feeling that management had betrayed them; they had been given a green light to get this close; they applauded that permission and now insisted that the existence of such attachments not be taken lightly.
When Josh was euthanized, only his “fan club,” the inner circle of caretakers and admirers, was permitted to be present. Lights were strongly dimmed in the dog's quarters, and the mood was extremely solemn if not despondent. Many workers were very distressed by his death; a few chose not to attend the euthanasia because it was too upsetting, one staff member was hospitalized because the event so disturbed her, and several others took “sick days” because of their grief. The shelter closed early that day to avoid interaction with the public at such an extremely delicate and private time. During the hours preceding the euthanasia, as well as the days following it, workers could be seen embracing each other, offering words of comfort, and shedding tears. “People are walking around like zombies,” one worker commented sadly about her peers. A wake held the evening of the euthanasia again excluded those outside the inner circle of mourners; a poem in honor of Josh was available, stories were swapped about the animal along with photographs of him, and flowers and wine were there for the occasion. The sentiment was “we love you guys, you did good work but this one just didn't work.” Contrary to shelter policy, one worker requested the dog's ashes, though a few staff members thought this was going “overboard.”
Ultimately, Josh was one of only a few dogs from the initial euthanasia list that was killed. Workers pressured management to spare most animals on the list, further validating their rescue ethos and securing an emotionally safe setting that would not be cruel to humans. The no-kill shelter's safe organizational context for expressing emotions about animals allowed some workers to position themselves as kind and gentle, despite criticism by open-admissionists or protests from fellow no-killers. Seeking to prevent cruelty to humans was the vehicle these no-killers used to accomplish this positioning.
DIVIDING THE COMMUNITY
Cruelty is a pivotal concept no-killers use to define and assert a new identity. However, the quest for authenticity divides as much as unifies people, creating tension between the no-kill and open-admission camps as well as within the former group. Although Durkheim (1912) and others who followed him (e.g., Heeren 1983) argue that social groups create unity through sharing emotions in group rituals and practices, emotions play an equally important role in separating people from one another. For example, victims of disasters develop a strong unity with fellow victims (Fritz 1961), but experience conflict with outsiders. Boundaries go along with any shared feeling. Pride can lead to an increase in social cohesion (Retzinger 1991), but a more cohesive group may be more likely to be in conflict with outsiders. Similarly, anger also can unify victims who share that anger, but that emotion may lead to dissociation with others.
By disavowing their own cruelty and seeing it in others, no-killers manage emotions in ways that divide the shelter community; the cost of their pursuit of authenticity is the solidarity of the larger group. One way they pursue authenticity is to transform open-admissionists into dirty workers. No-killers portray the job of open-admissionists as distasteful, if not discrediting, casting a moral pall around those who do this work (Hughes 1964). Those doing it are seen as “less” of a person, morally and emotionally, making them a modern form of untouchables—a caste of people symbolically contaminated and best avoided or pitied because they are associated with unpopular, unpleasant, or unclean tasks. Predictably, open-admissionists resent doing the dirty work. By being forced to euthanize so many animals, they shoulder all the moral, emotional, and aesthetic heartaches that are part of euthanasia. The harm of a no-kill facility, according to an editorial by an open-admissionist (Caras 1997, 17), is that “it punishes shelters that are doing their very best but are stuck with the dirty work. It is demoralizing and disheartening for humane workers who would do almost anything to stop that heartbreaking selection process. Humane workers who are brave enough to accept that dirty work deserve better than that.” Open-admission workers deplore dirty-work delegation by no-kill shelters and call for “sharing the burden.” As one worker said: “As long as there is euthanasia to be done, our resentment is that we shouldn't be doing it all. We should all be doing the good stuff and the bad stuff.” Despite these protests the distinction remains, and open-admissionists are shamed by the stigma that no-killers attach to them.
A second way that no-killers divide the shelter community is to portray open-admissionists as powerful people who defend the status quo and muffle dissent from the powerless who challenge tradition. In their quest for a humane identity, free of any trappings of cruelty, no-killers create a heightened sense of embattlement or even persecution that further cements boundaries between them and open-admissionists. This identity is empowering because it has an outlaw quality that makes it an attractive label for no-kill workers who feel alienated from, and excluded by, the mainstream humane community. In particular, poorly endowed, small no-kill shelters cling to the outlaw image because it symbolically represents their powerlessness and domination by a few large and powerful national organizations. Believing that they are disempowered frames their camp as “anti-establishment,” relative to open-admissionists (Foro n.d.). In this tense environment, the latter are sometimes accused by no-killers of ignoring, misunderstanding, or criticizing them. They feel ignored, misunderstood, and criticized at national conferences sponsored by open-admissionists. Angry at the reaction she received at a national conference sponsored by open-admissionists, a no-killer explained: “I don't like being dissed and demonized. So many people there were very resentful of us. We were like getting slammed, shielding ourselves from the rotten vegetables being thrown at us. That feeling was very pervasive [at national meeting].” When it comes to planning and running their own conferences, no-killers feel thwarted in their attempts to get open-admission support and participation. One spokesperson claimed that open-admissionists did not even return her telephone messages inviting them to take part or asking for conference advice.
There also is tension within the no-kill ranks because institutional guile is used to pursue authenticity. Like all workers, no-killers are normatively constrained to display “appropriate” feelings for specific contexts. In shelters, they are guided to feel guiltless, hopeful, and safely attached to animals. Some resist these collective sentiments, however, because they “feel wrong” to them. Instead they value emotions prohibited by their organizational culture (Hochschild 1983; Whittier 2001), and in turn, these sequestered feelings make them question the no-kill identity expected of them; they do not always blame open-admissionists, feel hopeful about their charges’ prospects, or enter into deep and complex relationships with them.
Rather than blaming others, at times some no-killers resist the oppositional identities of no-kill versus open-admission. Some no-killers interviewed for this study lowered their political and rhetorical guards enough to admit to more overlap in their identities than they would concede in a public forum. They revealed that they knew the emotional party line about what they were supposed to feel, but it did not resonate with them. With their guard down, they talked about shelter workers in general in ways that were less polarized and more sympathetic than one might expect because of the public rhetoric over the nature of their “real” occupational identities. Clearly, such rhetoric is for public posturing and is not an accurate reflection of the feelings and actions of everyday workers. If they are permitted to air their thoughts, stark and inflammatory distinctions blur or fade. Workers “see through” the collective search for authentic shelter identity by identifying with open-admissionists or feeling as though they are fellow travelers, more alike than not in core values relating to the care of animals. At these times, no-killers acknowledge that they feel like open-admissionists, expressing common rather than conflicting sentiments about basic issues and concerns faced by everyone in the shelter world. Other movements, particularly those whose mission and effectiveness call for crafting just the right emotions for followers, also experience this kind of resistance, as in the case of pro-life and pro-choice supporters; when they are confronted one-on-one, their differences are less pronounced than is their public rhetoric (Dworkin 1993; Kaufman 1999).
To illustrate, some no-killers express solidarity with open-admissionists. These no-kill resistors have sympathy and pity for those who have to euthanize animals, or even work in shelters that do this, because the emotional toll of killing causes staff to “suffer.” Furthermore, they identify with open-admissionists who are assumed to have the same compassion as they do for animals but simply work in the wrong place. One no-killer speculated that open-admissionists resent those who work in well-endowed no-kill shelters: “It's a horrible thing to have to euthanize animals every day. I feel fortunate that I am working in an organization where we don't have to do that. They [open admissionists] have the same amount of compassion that we have, but because they have fewer resources, they can't do what we do. I can understand why they are resentful. And that is where this [tension] is coming from.”
In addition to not blaming open-admissionists, no-kill resistors are less likely to embrace the rescue ethos expected of them. They oppose fighting for each animal admitted to the shelter and dispute that just the right adopter exists for every shelter animal. Resistors consider even the “best” shelters to be unhealthy if not destructive environments for animals and express feelings for shelter animals that are far from the hope and optimism central to no-killers authentic identity and its feeling rules. In an ideal world, they agree that shelters would not exist or, if they do, serve only as temporary way stations to rehabilitate and home needy animals. In the words of one no-kill worker, even her own “nice” shelter is “still” a shelter: “Don't get me wrong, I don't want to come across as gloom and doom about no-kill. I am pleased that we go the extra mile for older animals or animals with more involved medical needs, like this diabetic cat we just adopted out. But in other cases, I really wonder about their quality of life. I think five hundred days is our longest-term animal right now. They get walked and handled by staff, but I wonder about their quality of life. Granted, we are a nice shelter, but we are still a shelter.” Another no-kill worker concurred with this sentiment: “We've had dogs here for a year or two and you look at when they came in versus when they went out or were put to sleep, and they get worse not better. Shelters aren't always great places for dogs. And the longer they are here, the more likely we are to make them worse.” And yet another no-kill worker expressed similar misgivings about virtually any shelter confinement, even in the best facilities: “I don't care how wonderful we make it for them, they are still institutionalized. Caretakers are there for thirty minutes to an hour and then you are alone—not able to do any of the innate things that you as a dog are supposed to be doing. None of those needs are being fulfilled.” No-kill resistors also stop themselves from forming deep relationships with shelter animals. Like open-admission workers, they refuse to become closely attached to shelter animals and do not openly grieve the loss of individual animals that are euthanized. To these resistors, no-kill has less to do with getting in touch with one's true identity and more to do with indulging certain feelings at the expense of proper animal care.
This resistance creates conflict among workers. Sometimes other workers marginalize dissenters by dismissing their objections and labeling them “problem children,” “difficult employees,” not “team members,” or the like. They are expected to adjust to the job (i.e., accept and play by the rules for expressing no-kill emotions and identity), become silent, or leave, but these expectations may fail. In larger facilities, there are cliques devoted to such dissent. Alienated from their own shelter's feeling rules, resistors outwardly challenge them. Within some no-kill shelters, cliques lead to debates about the appropriateness of their own facility's stance on euthanasia when that issue is raised for certain animals, but this dissent is usually contained to specific cases rather than generalized to broader shelter practice. Nevertheless, some degree of tension permeates these shelters as workers question the propriety of their facility's feeling rules and debate what constitutes cruelty.
Whether the ambiguously provocative notion of cruelty creates tension within the no-kill world or between it and the open-admission camp, the tension is a struggle over the right way to feel about doing shelter work and the proper way to think about one's identity. At a certain level, this struggle goes beyond tensions within individual shelters. The no-killer's pursuit of an authentic identity, and the feelings that go with it, present a crisis to the shelter world akin to the impact of natural disasters on communities (e.g., Erikson 1976). While there is no destruction of physical property, within the shelter community there is destruction of an idea: the long-accepted method of disposing of unwanted animals is now seen as a cruel practice. The no-kill perspective has damaged the community that long existed among shelter workers, changing how they think and feel about each other. The vast majority of shelter workers suddenly are thought of as cruel; five million deaths each year are seen as avoidable rather than inevitable, as previously thought. The no-kill idea created culpability within the shelter world; open-admissionists became the guilty party. When cruelty became an issue for workers—escaping it or being accused of it—their sense of solidarity was dealt a serious blow. Now challenged by two camps, each vying for what constitutes a “true” shelter worker, the unified community that once existed is no more.
Although emotions surrounding cruelty divide the sheltering community, I next examine the power of emotions to unify groups and create social cohesion. Cruelty can heal fractured groups as well as cause their fracturing. As Durkheim (1912) observes, groups shattered by tragedy reintegrate themselves by celebrating shared feelings.