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No Kill Bill

Denver animal shelters want to let sleeping dogs lie.

There's nothing like a good catfight.

For the past two decades, animal shelters across the country have been describing themselves as "no-kill," giving people the impression that if they have to part with their pets, at least Rover and Fluffy will end up with another family rather than in animal heaven.

Yet the "no-kill" designation has become a sore point in the animal-welfare community. "'No' doesn't really mean no," says Bob Rohde, president of the Dumb Friends League.

"It's confusing to the public why some shelters are called 'no-kill,'" he continues. "No one can say they'll never euthanize an adoptable animal without limiting the number of animals they take in."

To clear up the confusion, 22 metro animal-welfare organizations have banded together to form the Denver Shelter Alliance. The alliance aims to replace "no-kill" with two more accurate terms: "open admission," for shelters that accept animals "regardless of health, temperament or space" -- but do euthanize when an animal gets sick or the shelter runs out of space -- and "limited admission," for those that don't euthanize but will turn animals away when the shelter's out of space.

But two Denver animal shelters -- MaxFund and the Animal Rescue and Adoption Society -- have refused to drop the "no-kill" designation. According to Bill Suro, co-founder and medical director of MaxFund, the new terminology is also misleading. "If you bring your dead mom's cat in and they say they're 'open admission,' it sounds great," he says. "But if that cat gets a disease, they'll kill it, and you as a member of the public don't get to know that. We don't put an animal to sleep if it's too old, has just one eye or three legs. There is only one justification for euthanasia, and that's if it's in the humane interest of the animal."

Suro believes the alliance was formed for one simple reason: money. In the dog-eat-dog world of fundraising, semantics can be critical. Although animal shelters derive much of their income from adoption fees, they still rely on contributions from individuals and foundations, which are often inclined to donate to shelters that don't euthanize -- or that claim not to do so. Suro says there are two types of no-kill shelters: true no-kill shelters, like his, that don't sort animals based on adoptability (although his shelter does euthanize when an animal is suffering); and quasi no-kill shelters, which only promise not to euthanize "adoptable" pets.

Perhaps the biggest source of money for the latter is Maddie's Fund, a San Francisco-based foundation that doles out grants only to coalitions of animal-welfare agencies that meet its definition of "no-kill," which, according to its Web site, "means saving both adoptable (healthy) and treatable dogs and cats, with euthanasia reserved only for non-rehabilitable animals."

The State of California passed legislation in 1998 that laid out three categories of pets: healthy (and therefore adoptable), treatable and non-rehabilitable. "When we reach the point where the nation's healthy, adoptable animals can be guaranteed a home, Maddie's Fund will then focus its resources on funding programs to rehabilitate the sick, injured and poorly behaved, knowing that when these animals are whole again, there will be a loving home waiting for them," the foundation's Web site states.

Currently, no shelters in Colorado receive Maddie's Fund money -- and it would seem that by abandoning the "no-kill" term, those in the Denver Shelter Alliance wouldn't qualify for the grants -- but the aim of building a "no-kill nation" is not so different from the goal of the local group. "The terminology doesn't work for us, because we think it's dishonest," explains David Gies, executive director of the Colorado-based Animal Assistance Foundation. "But we embrace the same goal, which is to end euthanasia."

Although Alliance members insist that Maddie's Fund had nothing to do with the group's formation -- and they're still not sure if they'd even qualify for such grants -- Suro suspects otherwise. Like California, the Denver Shelter Alliance came up with definitions for three kinds of pets: adoptable, potentially adoptable and unadoptable. While these terms differ slightly from the ones used in California and endorsed by Maddie's Fund, the meanings are essentially the same.

The idea to form an alliance came three years ago, when people from Utah's Best Friends Animal Sanctuary came to Denver and said that local shelters needed to work together to end euthanasia. (While shelters in other cities tend to fight like cats and dogs, the ones in Denver have a long history of collaboration.) To demonstrate their solidarity, the shelters decided to create the new group.

The Alliance's biggest task so far has been to change the "no-kill" terminology, which its members say is both divisive and misleading. The hope is that by using the same terms, shelters will get a better handle on the problem of unwanted pets -- something that Rohde emphasizes is a community problem, not a shelter problem. Although the community has made great gains in reducing the number of animals euthanized annually -- more than 70,000 pets in Colorado were put down fifteen years ago, compared with 38,551 last year -- the effort has reached a plateau in recent years. To get past that and save even more animals, Martha Smith, president of both All Breed Rescue Network and the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies, says, "We need to look at the problem in a more sophisticated way. If the big problem is overpopulation, let's spay and neuter them, but if the real problem is that people don't know how to treat and train animals so they can keep them, we need to work on that."

Before that sophisticated discussion can even take place, Smith says, shelters have to come up with more reliable numbers. Right now, different shelters calculate the number of saved adoptable pets differently. "Some shelters change the definition of Œadoptable' depending on the resources they have on a given day. For example, if a five-year-old spayed black Lab with a good temperament has been up for adoption for a week, and then a dozen one- or two-year-old dogs with good temperaments come in, the black Lab may not be adoptable anymore, even though she's the same dog she was the week before. That's why the system doesn't work," Smith explains. "What we in the Alliance agreed on is that if the animal was adoptable at one time and you have to euthanize it, it's still considered adoptable, so now you can't include that animal in your unadoptable numbers."

The very notion of labeling animals as adoptable or not is part of the problem, according to Meghan Hughes, who sits on the board of the Animal Rescue and Adoption Society. "The term 'limited admission' says we pick and choose which animals we take," Hughes says, explaining that ARAS, which is a cat-only shelter, doesn't discriminate based on an animal's age, health or disposition. "It really doesn't represent our mission. It only benefits those that euthanize. People have a right to know what happens to the animal they relinquish. If we take the animal, you can be sure it won't be euthanized unless it's suffering and a vet recommends it."

Although Alliance members haven't received the cooperation of ARAS and MaxFund, they're going ahead with the changes and are training their staffs about what the new terms mean.

The question now is, will pet owners be even more confused than ever?

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