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Vickroy: No-Kill? Bill would make shelters more transparent

Kennel attendant groomer LisBovi washes stray GrePyrenees thhad fleas also had been skunked Animal Welfare League Chicago Ridge Illinois Friday

Kennel attendant and groomer Lisa Bovi washes a stray Great Pyrenees that had fleas and also had been skunked, at the Animal Welfare League in Chicago Ridge, Illinois, Friday, March 22, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 25, 2013 6:06AM



Several times a year, I get emails or phone calls from animal lovers who have just realized that the definition of “no-kill” is open to interpretation.

Understandably, people are upset to learn that the animal shelters they donate to, volunteer at or have adopted from do indeed euthanize animals. Even shelters that claim to be no-kill often put animals down. And, in Illinois, they are not breaking any laws.

Under current law, shelters can define “no-kill” however they want. In addition, shelters are not required to publish animal intake and outgo numbers, although some do.

Jeff Squibb, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which oversees the licensing of shelters in Illinois, said the department does not make a distinction between kill and no-kill. Shelter operators can claim to be no-kill even if they put animals down.

But if a group of Illinois legislators has its way, that may soon change. House Bill 2924, introduced by several representatives, including Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island), would define the constraints of a no-kill designation and would require all Illinois shelters to report annually the number of animals they take in, adopt out, transfer and put down. Violators could be fined by the Department of Agriculture.

“It’s important to bring some transparency to the shelter world,” Rita said. “This measure would give consumers the information they need to make the kind of choices that meet their beliefs.”

In addition to requiring full disclosure in terms of population numbers, the new bill, if passed, would amend the current Animal Welfare Act to define exactly what “no-kill” means. It also would require shelters to contact an animal’s former owner if the facility cannot adopt out the animal or if it plans to euthanize it, thus allowing that owner the chance to redeem the dog or cat.

It’s not news that shelters are in a rough spot. Many are filled to capacity and underfunded. Most rely on volunteers to keep the animals cared for and to make ends meet.

If you ask shelter workers why they euthanize, they will tell you that putting an animal down is never an easy thing, but sometimes it is a necessity. And because there is very little oversight, it is hard to know if the reasons for euthanasia are legitimate. The public must trust that the places that take in unwanted animals will do right by them.

Linda Estrada, director of the Animal Welfare League in Chicago Ridge, which is perpetually filled to capacity with 1,400 animals waiting for permanent homes, said, “Society created this problem, not us. We are doing our best to deal with the negligence of society. Pet owners who refuse to spay or neuter their animals, people who abandon their pets or who shop at puppy mills add to the problem.”

Animals that are terminally ill, in chronic pain or that are deemed vicious cannot be adopted out, Estrada said. Rather than have such animals live out their days miserably or locked in a cage, often those animals are put to sleep. And the sad reality of it is that as soon as that animal is gone, there is another to take its place.

Animal Welfare League and South Suburban Humane Society in Chicago Heights are among the shelters in Illinois that voluntarily post population intake and outgo numbers on their websites.

Last year, the Animal Welfare League took in more than 15,000 dogs and cats and put down more than 6,000. In 2011, South Suburban Humane Society’s intake was almost 4,000, while the number euthanized was almost 2,000.

While that may seem like a lot, Estrada said it’s not when you consider the circumstances that often compel someone to give up an animal.

“We get animals from 53 communities, and we don’t turn anyone away,” she said. “That means we take in strays, give-ups, abused dogs and lots of animals that have been diagnosed with cancer but whose owners don’t want to deal with either the treatment or having to put the animal down.

“When an animal is refused by its owners or by another shelter,” Estrada said, “it has to go somewhere. And that place is often here.”

She said the Animal Welfare League does its best to save all animals.

“We have three huge hospital rooms. We’ve treated animals with cancer, with missing eyes and missing limbs. We do whatever we can to save every animal. But sometimes the most humane thing is to put the animal down,” she said.

Instead of putting more constraints on shelters, Estrada said, “There needs to be more rules and regulations for animal owners.”

Emily Klehm, CEO for South Suburban Humane Society, said the shelter has practiced transparency in reporting for years.

Most of the animals put down in 2011 were either sick or had behavior issues, the SSHS report shows. Many of the animals the shelter takes in come from abusive or neglectful situations.

“The community needs to understand the scope and magnitude of the issues facing the homeless pet population. For several years now, SSHS has published an annual report on our website with our numbers,” she said.

In addition, she said, the shelter posts weekly adoption, return-to-owner, and transfer-out numbers on a dry-erase board in its lobby.

“The catch to this bill will be that public education must occur,” Klehm said. “Most, if not all, open access and government shelters are underfunded. Community members outraged at high euthanasia numbers must channel that outrage into increased support for open access-shelters and, most importantly, for increased spay/neuter and community education.”

Peoples Animal Welfare Society in Tinley Park is among the shelters that currently do not publish their intake/outgo statistics.

“We do keep breakdowns of such numbers. We have a record of every animal that has been euthanized,” PAWS board member Terry Buckley said. “It wouldn’t be a problem to make that information public. We’re hiding nothing.”

Buckley said PAWS workers only choose euthanasia for two reasons: illness or aggression. She said each candidate for euthanasia is put through a process that includes getting the advice of a veterinarian.

“If we do have to put an animal down, I go to the vet’s office and hold it while it’s being done,” Buckley said, “because we care about animals.”

Still, Buckley said, the new bill would clear up a lot of confusion. In a perfect world, she said, all dogs and cats would live full, happy lives.

With forever families.



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