Updated: Jul 28, 2020
In the 1860s Henry Bergh (1813-1888) created the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The ASPCA began with a very noble vision and were able to intervene in many cruelty cases in New York City, such as making sure horses had water, limiting the amount of weight they could pull, and taking action against deliberate cruelty. Henry Bergh, the founding visionary of the ASPCA, was a champion of animals, and would go up to someone who has beating a horse and stop him! He was not afraid to intervene. This video below tells about the origin of the ASPCA.
Unfortunately, when the great Henry Bergh died, as he was afraid would happen, the organization took a different turn. According to the Activist Facts website, they report that, "Starting in the 1890s, the ASPCA entered into a century-long contract with New York City to run an animal control and sheltering program."
As part of this program stray dogs were rounded up, jammed into a large cage, while still alive and howling, the cage was then lowered into the Hudson River until the dogs drowned. This and other practices as part of animal control continued for just over a hundred years. Although the ASPCA has ended this practice, according to Activist Facts, the ASPCA does not have a good record. They report:
"The ASPCA decided not to renew its contract (for animal control), and this function ended in 1994. At the time, the ASPCA had a kill rate that exceeded 50%. According to Harold Guither, an expert on the animal rights movement, in 1993 the ASPCA took in 60,000 animals into its two shelters...and killed nearly 35,000 of them."
According to some sources, the current ASPCA does good work, "The ASPCA provides national and local leadership in animal-assisted therapy, animal behavior, an animal poison control center, anti-cruelty, humane education, legislative services, and shelter outreach. The ASPCA, New York City headquarters, houses a full-service, accredited animal hospital, adoption center, and mobile clinic outreach program. The humane law enforcement department enforces the New York State animal cruelty laws."
While all of those activities are admirable, they have a poor rating in terms of how little of their large funds are actually dedicated to animal welfare. According to the independent watchdog, CharityWatch who reports:
"CharityWatch finds that ASPCA spends up to 35 percent of its budget on overhead, and 38 cents to raise every dollar, giving the organization a middling “C+” rating. Charity Navigator calculates that ASPCA spent a whopping $52 million on fundraising in 2012. CEO Edwin Sayres was getting nearly $600,000 in compensation annually when he left in 2013...." And "Despite having $115 million in contributions in 2013, the ASPCA only found homes for 3,400 dogs and cats, according to its annual report. That’s a cost of $34,000 per animal adopted."
The moral of the story is, no matter how compelling marketing is, you must do your due diligence to find out if the claims an animal charity makes are accurate. Are they spending a significant amount of their money on helping animals?
There are many reputable animal charities, rescue organizations, and shelters who do excellent work. Local Society for Prevention of Cruelty and Humane Society organizations are different from the ASPCA, so it is up to you to do your research before you write the check or spend your time volunteering.
Nathan Winograd, an attorney who champions the “No-Kill Shelter” movement, quotes Bergh as saying, “I hate to think what will befall this Society when I am gone.” Bergh had sensed that something bad was coming for his heroic organization. Unfortunately, after Bergh’s death, the ASPCA became the city animal pound and starting killing animals in mass executions.
It has been a long and hard history for U.S. animal welfare. There are currently approximately 3,500 animal shelters in the U.S. According to the Alley Cat Allies website, an all volunteer organization that promotes TNR (Trap, Neuter, and Release of feral cats), “100% of feral cats taken to animal shelters are euthanized. And sadly, 70% of healthy, adoptable cats are also euthanized in shelters.”
How Many Animals Are Killed in Shelters Each Day?
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary estimates 4,100 animals are killed each day in U.S. shelters.
According to AmericanHumane.org: "National euthanasia statistics are difficult to pinpoint because animal care and control agencies are not uniformly required to keep statistics on the number of animals taken in, adopted, euthanized or reclaimed. While many shelters know the value of keeping statistics, no national reporting structure exists to make compiling national statistics on these figures possible."
Winograd states, “Shelter killing is the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the United States.” While the ASPCA states that 3.7 million animals are euthanized each year, the number is likely to be much higher than that, as Nathan Winograd believes, since reporting these numbers is optional.
Without a central data reporting system, or requirements for shelters to report, it is not possible to get accuracy, and when one tries using various published statistics, it never adds up. The numbers reported on the United States Humane Society website, says that 6-8 million pets enter shelters each year, and 3-4 million are adopted.
The good news is that the number of dogs and cats euthanized each year in shelters has decreased. About twenty years ago it was 12–20 million a year. The U.S. Humane Society estimates that 84 million American households have at least one pet. However, one estimate states that only about 30-40% percent of pets in homes come from shelters or rescues.
Winograd argues for a No-Kill Shelter philosophy for healthy animals. He states that some shelters routinely kill healthy animals simply because they have been there for seven days. Whether or not they have available space they euthanize simply because it is Wednesday.
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, is committed to their mission of "Save Them All" not only just for their rescue, but they work with existing shelters to help move them in this direction. Their goal is to have this be a nationwide standard by the year 2025.
Rescue organizations run purely on donations, attempt to save animals from being killed in shelters. It is not known how many animal rescue organizations exist since they are usually non-profits, run by volunteers, but PetFinders.org lists 14,000 rescue groups in the U.S. Some of these are breed-specific, but others will work with shelters, trying to prevent the euthanizing of millions of healthy animals each year.
Some of the shelters in big cities may receive up to a hundred or more animals a day.
Aside from strays, many animals are surrendered to shelters by owners for a variety of reasons; they are moving, challenges with children, allergies, but the number one reason pets are relinquished by owners is behavioral problems, many caused by events in early puppyhood, sometimes before the owner adopted the puppy.
Behavioral Problems and Death Sentences for Dogs
The CIAS (Center for Interaction of Animals and Society) a research center within the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, says on their website:
"Behavioral problems are the largest single cause of canine abandonment, relinquishment to shelters, and premature euthanasia in the USA. The CIAS is investigating the development of canine behavior problems in pet dogs, focusing particularly on the effects of early experience. This study is following up the results of previous work that demonstrated a relationship between certain distressing events and experiences in early development (6-16 weeks), such as routine veterinary procedures, and the prevalence of adult dog behavior problems.
Many behavioral problems could be resolved with proper training of both the dog and the owner. But if a dog being surrendered is aggressive, or has bitten someone, and is turned into a shelter, in most cases they will be put down without any effort at re-training. Many dogs who are frightened will act aggressively, especially to strangers who are trying to control them. Being turned into a shelter, separated from everything and everyone they know, might provoke behavior that appears to the untrained eye to be aggressive. Many shelters will do a brief evaluation for aggression when an animal is turned in. The people doing the evaluations are not always sufficiently qualified to determine if an animal is frightened or truly aggressive. And since the animal may be growling, lunging, showing teeth, or barking in this new environment, an overworked intake person might simply label the dog aggressive, which is a death sentence, even in the better shelters.
The CIAS has developed the C-BARQ, which is a thorough canine temperament evaluation system, but there is not enough time for shelter personnel to do this with each dog. The CIAS recognizes the consequences of this situation, which involves, in some cases, animals being deliberately challenged or provoked to see if they will have an aggressive response. The CIAS website states that they are working on creating a simpler system that could be used in shelters:
"Currently, too many shelters assess canine behavior on intake by using observation-based behavioral tests performed by shelter personnel as a means of evaluating dogs’ suitability for adoption. However, this practice raises serious doubts concerning how ‘typical’ a dog’s test responses are likely to be in the highly stressful circumstances surrounding relinquishment."
The one bright light in animal sheltering is the handful of shelters in the U.S. that have successfully adopted a 90% “No Kill” policy for healthy animals. The greatest opponents to this movement come from long-established humane societies, agencies, and shelters that kill animals at high rates. It is hoped that with greater education of the public, and spiritual enlightenment as to the fact that animals deserve better treatment, and the potential of animals as healers and companions, the movement towards greater adoption and less killing in shelters will gain momentum in the years to come.
Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation, which was first published in 1975, and is still considered by many people the "bible" of ethical issues relating to animals, speaks of the need for a view of equality between how we treat people and animals. Here is a brief video in which he explains this viewpoint.
Volunteering in Animal Welfare Organizations and Shelters
I encourage everyone to do your research and discover which organizations are doing the best work. Research their history, their record, and their current contribution to the well-being of animals. Find an organization whose vision for animals matches yours. They can all use your financial support. If possible, volunteer for the animal welfare organization of your choice. There is so much that can be learned by volunteering at a shelter or rescue organization.
For example at rescue organizations or shelters, walking, or brushing, or visiting an socializing with animals in a shelter can give them a sense of well-being and hope which makes them more likely to be adopted. Even brief visits can lift the spirits of forlorn animals. Petting and working at the animal's pace and desire for contact can reduce their level of stress and fear. Socializing with them can help make the difference between animals cowering in their cages, who are thus overlooked by potential adopters, to dogs who greet them, make eye contact and seek connection.
As difficult as the situation is in American animal shelters, the plight of free-roaming, unowned animals in war-torn countries, or in places where dogs are not valued, means that animals suffer in devastating conditions, such as the Moon Bears kept in captivity in small cages for their entire life in countries such Vietnam. Most result in terrible deaths such as from gunshot wounds, poisoning, car accidents, and starvation or bile mining. Not all cultures value dogs, and in some places they are considered a source of food.
It is this author’s hope that as a society, we will move toward the “no-kill” goal for all shelters. As Gandhi famously said, “You can judge a culture by the way it treats its animals.” It is hoped that as a planet we can move toward a more enlightened understanding that animals have consciousness and need to be treated with great respect and compassion.
Genie Joseph, PhD
The Human-Animal Connection