No-kill shelters, unadoptable dogs, and a 'dirty little secret'

Jacqui Canter got Annie from the Voorhees shelter.
Jacqui Canter got Annie from the Voorhees shelter. (LUKE RAFFERTY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 01, 2013

Hitch came to the Animal Orphanage in Voorhees like so many other dogs: as a stray in need of a home.

A young, energetic border-collie mix, "he could run and jump like nobody's business," said Bruce Compton, former president of the shelter's board of directors.

He didn't adjust well to confinement.

In February, Hitch lashed out and bit the shelter's kennel manager, breaking her thumb and puncturing her hand and breasts. It wasn't the first incident of aggression - Hitch had lunged at other shelter workers, Compton said - and the board decided he needed to be put down, along with a pit bull that had bitten three staffers.

But the shelter director - the kennel manager's boss - refused to euthanize the dogs and kept them up for adoption, according to Compton and former board members.

So the board fired the director, drawing a protest from volunteers and a backlash that spurred all but one board member to resign in March, citing concerns over safety and a growing number of unadoptable dogs at the shelter.

The fired director was reinstated under a new board, which has addressed past problems and is moving the shelter forward with new procedures, according to its president.

Hitch, meanwhile, was transferred to a New York rescue group and released to a woman who was told of his history but who wanted to foster and adopt him.

The arrangement, however, was short-lived. Hitch was put down after another biting incident, said Loren Cauley, co-founder of the group that arranged his rescue, Rebound Hounds.

"He could not be safely adopted," she said.

Such decisions are regularly made by animal shelters - including those billed as "no-kill."

Euthanasia is "the shelter world's dirty little secret," Compton said. "People don't want to talk about it." Compton, who started as a volunteer in the Animal Orphanage's cat room and became board president in late 2010, said the shelter used to over-euthanize, putting down 55 to 60 dogs a year under a previous director.

Last year, Compton said, seven dogs were euthanized for behavioral or medical issues - a situation that didn't cause an outcry.

"We always had that policy," said Jacqueline Canter, who resigned from the shelter board after the dispute about Hitch. "People come to the shelter because it's a no-kill shelter. But our policy has always been what it is."

Shelter directors say euthanasia can be the only option for dealing with dogs that are unadoptable because they have a history of biting or behavioral issues that are too severe for the shelter to address.

"Unfortunately, every shelter does have to euthanize at some point," said Nancy Welsh, director of the Almost Home Animal Shelter in Pennsauken.

Almost Home, which has room for about 50 dogs, doesn't put down dogs based on length of stay or lack of space, but "we do occasionally euthanize if [a dog] is unadoptable," Welsh said. The shelter euthanizes 20 to 30 dogs a year on average, she said.

"With behavioral cases . . . it's very difficult to adopt those out," Welsh said. "It's such a big liability. You don't want anybody's children to get hurt."

At the Camden County Animal Shelter, an open-admission shelter that takes animals from 16 municipalities, dogs may be euthanized if they bite during a behavioral assessment, shelter director Lisa Ross said.

But the assessment - which tests how dogs react to being hugged and having their tails gently pulled, among other actions - "can't always predict behavior," Ross said.

"If we have the space in the shelter and time to work with that dog, we'll try to do so," she said.

More shelters are taking creative approaches with dogs once considered unadoptable, said Inga Fricke, director of shelter rescue group services for the Humane Society of the United States, in Washington. Dogs that have separation anxiety and can't be left alone, for example, are being placed in nursing homes, she said.

"There are no clear black or white answers any more in our movement," Fricke said. "Some people would say there is a home out there for every single animal. Some would disagree." Organizations have to make decisions based on their resources and limitations, she said.

The nonprofit Animal Orphanage in Voorhees, which has 70 dog runs, gets no money from the county, state, or federal governments. It receives private donations and relies in part on municipal contracts, which require it to accept stray dogs from certain communities.

That has proved a challenge: Winslow Township, which has a contract with the shelter, is known for dogfighting, said Karen Talbot, Animal Orphanage board president.

"Just because a dog comes in per our contract doesn't mean they fit in" behaviorially, Talbot said.

To determine which dogs at the shelter are not adoptable, the board recently hired a professional dog behavioralist to perform evaluations, Talbot said. In addition to providing an expert opinion, the move was meant to quell doubt and remove responsibility for euthanasia decisions from the shelter director. "You can't argue with credentials," she said.

Since the new board took over in the spring, Talbot said, two dogs have been euthanized.

"We're not dwelling on the past. Mistakes were made," she said. But "those issues have been addressed." Even professionals struggle to determine when a dog can be saved. Rebound Hounds took Hitch from the Animal Orphanage after an evaluation "by a trainer we know and respect," Cauley said.

The woman who wanted to adopt him "definitely was on board with helping him, so we figured, you know what? We'll give him a chance," Cauley said.

But Hitch's biting became a problem again, said Cauley, and the woman who adopted him "came to feel he was unpredictable." He was evaluated again, then put down this month.

Euthanasia "opens us up to a lot of criticism, which is not fair," said the Rebound Hounds director. "What do you do with a dog that really can't be rehabilitated?"

Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232,, or follow on Twitter @maddiehanna.

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