Open vs Closed Admission Shelters – What Gives?





In order to understand the fundamental divide in animal welfare, we need to appreciate that the key difference between animal shelters is not High Kill vs Pro Life, but Open vs Closed Admission. In general open admission shelters tend to euthanize at a higher rate, but this is not necessarily the case. Although an animal welfare org’s position on euthanasia might seem to be more fundamental philosophically, in practical terms the decision on whether or not to be an open admission shelter will often heavily influence or even dictate the org’s approach to euthanasia.
So when we interrogate the quality of work being done by an AW org, once we find out whether they are open or closed admission, the next question to ask is “What gives?” Both in the sense of what is going on behind closed doors? And in the sense of what has to give way in order to allow them to do what they do? In this post I will suggest metrics or KPIs (key performance indicators) that should be applied to each type of shelter, as well as debunk the propaganda each often uses in an attempt to discredit the other. I will then make a case for how both can “pull together” to increase our capacity in AW and create better outcomes for animals in need.
Closed Admission:
A closed admission shelter only accepts certain animals into their system. The criteria may be breed, available space, behavior, cost or whatever they decide it should be. A closed admission shelter is not necessarily Pro-Life but it is far easier for them to be should they wish to adopt this philosophy. In general a well-run closed admission shelter will have a higher percentage of live releases for their animals and a lower euthanasia rate. There is one important reason for this: closed admission shelters typically prioritize the needs and interests of the animals already in the system ahead of those of any new animal seeking admission. Because their mandate allows them to turn animals away there is no need for them to get into a situation where they are forced to contemplate euthanasia of healthy, adoptable animals in order to make space for new intakes. In my opinion this is a perfectly legitimate and responsible position for an animal welfare org to take. The capacity of any organization is finite, and if a closed admission shelter says that they are going to help say, 500 animals a year, and ensure that all the healthy, adoptable ones get homes, that is a completely fair and valuable contribution to animal welfare. What the org should NOT get to do is claim the moral high ground in terms of being Pro-Life on the basis of their high adoption and low euthanasia rate. First we have to ask, “What Gives?”
If the hazard of an open admission shelter is a high euthanasia rate, the hazard of a closed admission shelter (especially a Pro-Life one) is “warehousing” – keeping the animal in an unnatural and unsuitable environment for an excessive period of time. The two most important issues facing animals in such a system are time and space. The most important KPI for a closed admission shelter is “average length of stay”: how long does the animal remain in the shelter before moving on to a more suitable environment? This may include a permanent home, a foster home or a sanctuary, depending on how the organization operates.
The second is the question of space – does the animal have sufficient space to practice natural behaviors and socialize with those of it’s own kind without experiencing conflict over resources? These 2 KPIs need to be understood in relation to each other – the longer the animal is expected to stay the greater will be its spacial and environmental needs.
A well-run closed admission shelter should also be able to answer the question of capacity. They should know exactly how many animals they can accept into the system at any time, describe their admission criteria and their approach in the event that they have to turn an animal away.
Finally the org should have a policy statement on euthanasia. Typically this will not include putting down healthy animals in order to make space, but how far will they go to treat sick and injured animals? Will they euthanize animals that present a danger to themselves and others? What do they do about animals who have been in the system for a long time, for whom an adequate placement cannot be found? Animal Welfare is full of hard questions and tough trade-offs, and being closed admission and/or Pro-Life doesn’t let you off the hook!
Open Admission:
An open admission shelter accepts any animal that is brought to them. They will not turn the animal away because they are full, because it is the wrong breed, has serious behaviour problems or a medical condition that is too expensive to treat. As a result, while it is not impossible for an open admission shelter to be Pro-Life, it is far, far more difficult and requires excellent population control and pet retention in the local community as a pre-condition. The primary reason why open admission shelters usually have a higher euthanasia rate is that: they prioritize the needs of new animals seeking admission above those already in the system. Because their mandate does not allow them to turn any animal away, if new animals arrive when their kennels are full, they have to euthanize to create space. This is a more difficult position to take, both emotionally and morally. However, it allows the open admission shelter to provide a more credible answer to the question “where are all the other animals supposed to go?”. It also allows them to take a stronger position on quality of life and preventing cruelty, both by taking any animal they are able to reach out of cruel and neglectful situations, and by ensuring that animals in the system do not suffer quality of life issues by being kenneled for an excessive period of time. As in the case of closed admission shelters, this too is a legitimate and valuable contribution to animal welfare. However, open admission shelters do NOT get to claim the moral high ground on the basis that they are accepting all animals and preventing cruelty if in practice that means that most animals are killed. And they don’t get to write “killed” in inverted commas either. The euthanized animals are in fact dead, not sleeping and expected to make a full recovery! The “fate worse than death. . .” notion also needs to be interrogated closely. Yes, there is such a thing, but the “. . .” doesn’t equal anything you need it to be to justify the death of the animal. The “fate worse than death” consideration should be used advisedly for very specifically and closely defined situations in order for the death of the animal to qualify as true euthanasia.
The most important KPI for an open admission shelter is “live release rate.” With closed admission shelters we want to be sure they are not taking the easy way out by warehousing animals. With open admission shelters we want to make sure that killing animals for space doesn’t become an acceptable and unquestioned “solution.” There should be constant pressure on an open admission shelter to come up with ways to ensure that more animals make it out alive. Performance targets should be set and a long term plan should be in place to increase the live release rate year on year.
The next most important KPI is collaboration. If a closed admission shelter does not have many partnerships and is largely “going it alone” this is a red flag that they are using euthanasia as an easy way out, rather than a last resort. If they are actively seeking to grow their network, volunteer base and working relationship with other credible AW orgs, it is a positive sign that a good faith effort is being made to ensure a high live release rate.
A well-run open admission shelter should also have to answer questions about their euthanasia decision-making process. Who decides, and on what basis? Can they provide a breakdown of euthanasia reasons and in the case of animals “killed for space” can they describe what other options were tried prior to taking this step?
Finally, the open admission shelter should have a policy statement on “preservation of life.” Although euthanasia is and always will be an important and necessary tool in animal welfare, a healthy respect for the value of life is an extremely important counter-balance to quality of life concerns. Just as a closed admission shelter doesn’t get to avoid the tough questions regarding quality of life by claiming to be Pro-Life, so too an open admission shelter doesn’t get a free pass on euthanasia in the name of preventing cruelty! It is interesting to note that most open admission shelters ask whether the prospective adopter has euthanized a pet before and if so what the reason was? If the adopter were to answer: “I put my last pet down to make space for this new one I want to adopt” the application would most certainly be declined. So why the double standard then? Killing animals for space is never okay, whether done by an individual pet owner or an organization. This doesn’t mean that we will be able to stop killing healthy animals for space overnight, but if there is no strategic plan in place to reduce our need to do so, there is a very serious problem with our approach!
Open and closed admission shelters: Towards mutual co-operation
Once open and closed admission shelters realize the unique challenges and contributions of the other, and stop using what they are good at as something to beat the other over the head with, a much needed, highly productive collaboration becomes possible. There are 2 main areas that should be the foci of this collaboration 1) Reducing inputs through addressing root causes, and 2) increasing output through rescue partnerships.
Whether the shelter is open or closed admission we can all agree that the best shelter is an empty one, and the goal of anyone in animal welfare should be to work themselves out of a job! In terms of educating the public and reducing the number of unwanted animals, there is no conflict of interest. Welfare orgs should find it easy and natural to work together to run mass sterilization campaigns, lobby for tougher animal welfare legislation and restrictions on breeders and public education aimed at raising the consciousness of pet owners about the needs of their pets, and ensuring that they are better equipped to provide a lifelong home.
Secondly both open and closed admission shelters need to stop the “religious” debates over euthanasia, climb down off their moral high horses and appreciate and respect what the other has to offer. It is very important for any professional to understand both their skills and qualifications and their limitations. Good professionals know when to refer a patient, client or customer when they reach the limits of their mandate and abilities. For some reason many AW professionals somehow think this does not apply to them. A GP will refer a patient to a specialist when needed, a psychologist will refer a client when they are not qualified to counsel with a specific situation. In the same way an open admission shelter should be willing to refer someone surrendering an animal to a breed specific rescue group where appropriate, or move a dog not coping in kennels to a foster program. A closed admission shelter should refer cruelty cases to professionals with the legal mandate to take action, and refer people surrendering animals to open admission shelters once their capacity has been reached.
It is unprofessional and grossly irresponsible for open and closed admission shelters to attack and break each other down. Each needs the other in order to address the animal welfare crisis in an ethical and competent manner. Share if you agree 🙂
Araw Leak