One set of words = A whole script in people’s heads

There is no doubt that the confusion behind the words “no kill” is mostly an animal-welfare debate.  To the average person on the street, they would probably understand the difference between “kill” and “euthanasia” more easily and fully than any person who has been systematically brainwashed the last decade by working in the world of companion animal rescue and sheltering.  This is why so many animal-welfare advocates make such arguments as No Kill advocates are using the wrong words or should use more appropriate terms.  One advocate I work with always tells me he uses the words “low kill” instead.

I find most advocates that use language improperly have not taken the time to read anything out of Nathan Winograd nor the No Kill Advocacy Center, etc.  The idea that killing is the most humane thing that can be done and little choice exists for most animals entering shelters is so engrained in people they can’t see past that.  When you challenge these notions, they come back with the typical arguments and interchange the words “kill” and “euthanasia” for times when shelters kill for population control or because not enough resources are being allocated by municipalities or programs/services do not exist in their shelters that would provide other options.

Even more disturbing than these endless debates around the words kill and euthanasia is how the animal-welfare world is brainwashed to such an extent that one word or set of words plays into a whole script in their heads.  When talking to people, I can hear the words about to come out of their mouths before they even speak.

A good example of this is when I argue against our shelter’s bad customer service, poor adoption counseling, and that they require every person to fill out a full adoption application before they can even see an animal.  We’re talking about a shelter with a kill rate of more than 70%!  This practice is intended to pre-screen adopters and turn them away if they write one wrong word or circle one wrong answer.  The staff tells you that’s why they do this.  If you ask the management, though, the official reason is because animals are stolen, and they want to be able to deduce who the thief is (how, I am not sure). 

Statistically speaking, of more than 1,000 animals that generally come through the doors any given month, recent numbers show that about 1-8 are stolen each month while more than 700 are killed.  Some of these can be attibuted to clerical errors. too.  Overall, I was sickenend when I heard the director say they only want to show animals to “serious” adopters and didn’t want any “looky-loos” in our shelter.  The volunteer coordinator was recently heard saying, “This isn’t a petting zoo.”

Whenever I bring this up and say that adoptions should be based on good matches and not by these punitive ways to reject people, the backlash I usually get from animal lovers and shelter staff alike is that what I am suggesting is akin to them handing out puppies and kittens at the door to whomever walks in and that I don’t think any screening should be taking place.  They are appalled that I think people should be welcomed to the shelter to come look and pet the animals and just visit with them, even if the people are not going to adopt that day.

Language is not only powerful one one word at a time, in other words.  In the ways a whole culture of defeatism and public blame have permiated the whole system of animal sheltering, it is hard to fathom how to overcome these multitude of attitudes that are the building blocks to the road to more killing.  The first hurdle will be cleared the day all animal-welfare adovcates correctly use the words “kill” and “euthanasia” in referece to the context of what they are talking about; I live for that day.  But, these entire scripts and what I call shelter urban legends/myths are also very powerful and hard to overcome as well.  It’s the language, the assumptions, the prejudices that have built up for too long and over time.

At my first Las Cruces No Kill Study Group meeting, I struggled to get people off the topic of what to do about all the “bad” people they see every day in their neighborhoods and how they treat their dogs so badly or let them run loose, etc.  The focus is always on what can be done to punish the bad instead of how to work toward networking with the good in order to help the homeless.  I repeat to them and myself every day that in the big scheme of things, there are more good pet guardians than bad ones, and that’s who we need to concentrate on instead. 

Written by contributor Michel Meunier

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3 Responses to “One set of words = A whole script in people’s heads”

  1. I have heard those scripts, too. “We can’t adopt our way out of overpopulation.” “We can’t save them all.” “We’re better than [that shelter/sanctuary over there] that [warehouses, adopts out dangerous animals].”

    I have observed that a dangerously authoritarian culture exists in some shelters; many of them consistently hire people who aren’t the type to dissent from their bosses. I can remember having a hideous conversation about whether a vet could refuse to kill a dog. Shelter managers insisted that “as her employer” they could “make her” do it. That little principle of conflict of interest eluded them.

    Sadly, I’ve met a few human service workers who held the same kinds of attitudes, including a teacher who said she helps “these kids” only “so one of ‘em won’t shoot my kid!”

    With friends like these, who needs enemies.

  2. sue_cosby says:

    Gotta love a shelter environment that discourages the community from walking through the doors!

    Any time you get a group of animal welfare people together you are sure to start a gripe session about how horrific people are or how horrific the situation for animals is (or both!), guaranteed. This focusing on the negative by repeating these scripts as mantras takes away our ability to recognize and embrace progressive ideas. If you can’t trust people you will have few donors, few adopters, few volunteers, few partner rescues, and ultimately a paltry number of live exits for animals.

  3. I saw something today that fits under the unfortunate script category. A press release from a local shelter sounded an alarm against an anticipated upsurge in people buying Chihuahuas following the release of the film Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

    Now they have a point; however, here’s the propogandistic nuance: The shelter claims that its “concern” comes from the observation that the “Chihuahua fad” has already led to a large number of these dogs ending up in the shelter. It says that 15% of the dogs it placed in the past year were of that breed. This very shelter bypasses some large dogs deemed adoptable by the local animal control facility while seeking out “small dogs” from out-of-county shelters!

    These scripts are insidious. Again, the finger of blame points to impulsive, irresponsible members of the public while the data about “upsurge” can be attributed, at least in part, to the policies of the shelter itself.

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