The Laws that Bind

When we talk about the No-Kill movement, we often find ourselves fighting against the status quo. We’re fighting against the people who say this is how we’ve always done it, and even though it’s not working and never has, if we stay the course, it will work.

But it doesn’t.

What we don’t spend a lot of time talking about is how many of our laws work against us in our quest to achieve No-Kill. These are laws that often have been pushed by animal welfare people as a solution to our “problems” such as dangerous dogs or pet “overpopulation”. These are laws that are not only barriers to our life-saving cause but actually increase the killing in our shelters. To say they make building a No-Kill community more difficult is an understatement.

Building a No-Kill community relies on a lot of moving parts. It relies on aggressively adopting animals out of shelters. It relies on a large network of foster homes to keep animals safe until they are able to find homes. It means keeping as many animals in their current homes as possible so we don’t have to spend time re-homing them. Many of the laws that are common in our communities make this not only more difficult, but often impossible. Here’s a look at a few of the laws that work counter to the No-Kill mission.

Pet Limits

Many cities have very harsh pet limit laws, limiting homes to no more than usually four pets per household – some as low as two. The laws are supposedly put in place to prevent neighbors from having to deal with odors or loud barking – even though there are nuisance ordinances that deal with these problem situations. Animal welfare activists support these laws because they say that they prevent hoarders or people from getting more animals than they can properly care for. However, there are already animal cruelty laws that deal with those who don’t properly care for their pets.. And hoarding is a sickness that laws won’t fix. Does anyone honestly think someone with six healthy cats is a hoarder? And if the animals are properly cared for, and are not creating noise or odors in the neighborhood, then what difference does it make if someone owns two pets or six pets?

The reality is that pet limit laws do nothing to increase the welfare of animals in our communities and make No-Kill more difficult – even impossible. Pet limit laws take away potential homes from animals that need them. They make fostering impossible for many willing families if they wish to stay within the legal limit of pets. They also prevent many homes that care for more animals than the law will allow to not license animals – costing city animal departments and shelters money that could be used for life-saving work. All because someone has created an arbitrary number of how many animals they feel like someone should own.

What is worse is that a violation of the pet limit law means death. Families caught in violation have to re-home the pet and if they can’t find a new home animal control will seize the pet, and more than likely, the animal they had to dispose of to make room for it is killed. In areas like the Kansas City metro, that already kills about 20,000 animals a year, finding a new home for this pet is unlikely. Death IS the outcome.

Does anyone really think that in most cases the extra pet is better off dead?

Feral Cat Laws

Nearly 70% of all cats that enter the most shelters across the country end up euthanized. While some of these animals are lost pets that were not adopted quickly enough, a large percentage of these cats are feral cats that cannot be adopted into homes. Because most cities don’t have any type of Trap/Neuter/Return (TNR) program in place, these feral cats are almost immediately sentenced to death.

Many city ordinances work against the idea of maintaining feral cat communities. Some cities just make it illegal for people to care for colonies of feral cats. Even if the colony care-taker is feeding, watering, and fixing all of the cats in the colony, it is against the law.

Some communities take a less direct approach. In my own community, they have made it illegal to feed feral cats by declaring that if you feed an animal for three consecutive days then you have de facto ownership of that animal. At that point, colony care-takers become in violation of the overly-strict pet limit laws that allow for no more than four pets.

Other laws such as mandatory cat licensing and cat-leash laws also work against responsible animal lovers who are responsibly maintaining feral cat colonies.

TNR programs have been proven effective in many areas as a way to slowly and humanely dwindle feral cat populations. These programs control the population of feral cats without causing massive killing within city shelters – costing shelters tens of thousands of dollars.

Repealing laws that prevent people from caring for colonies of feral cats would provide a better life for feral cats, decrease shelter killings and control the population of feral cats in communities everywhere.

Does anyone believe the little old lady up the street feeding the stray cats is a criminal? That she should be fined? That is the reality of these laws.

For more information on how to create a community-based TNR program, read here.

Mandatory Spay/Neuter Laws

Voluntary spay/neuter programs have been wildly successful and should be implemented in every city across the nation. Unfortunately, many want to take it one step further, mandating that pets must be altered. Mandatory sterilization laws (mandatory spay/neuter or MSN) are often proposed and supported by animal welfare and animal rights activists. While most of the proponents of these laws have the right end goal in mind, the unintended consequences of punitive legislation makes them counter-productive to the No-Kill movement.

According to the national Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, the top 10 reasons why dogs are relinquished to shelters are:

Landlord issues
Cost of pet maintenance
No time for pet
Inadequate facilities
Too many pets in home
Pet illness
Personal Problems
No homes for littermates

MSN, at best, only addresses one, maybe two of these reasons for pet relinquishment. Changes in people’s personal lives, lack of time, lack of commitment to the animal and inability to properly train and care for the dog is the cause of the majority of animal being relinquished to the shelter. And ironically, MSN doesn’t address the number one reason people don’t alter their pet, the high cost.

MSN laws do not end up solving the reasons most dogs end up in the shelter, and usually serve a reason for animal control officers to seize pets from otherwise decent homes. When animal control officers seize pets from homes, it puts more animals in the shelter…effectively working against the No-Kill model.

In 2006, Kansas City passed MSN of all ‘pit bull’ type dogs. Since the ordinance was passed, Kansas City has seen an 80% increase in the number of pit bulls euthanized in their city shelter. Many of these dogs are getting confiscated from otherwise decent homes because they were not in compliance with the spay/neuter ordinance. Young puppies are being killed because they look too ‘pit bull’ and are not altered by the time they reach eight weeks of age. They’re killed only because they have not been spayed or neutered.

Many other cities have seen similar results with their mandatory spay/neuter ordinances – of both ‘pit bulls’ and of all types of dogs. Los Angeles passed their mandatory spay/neuter in February of 2008, and has seen their euthanasia numbers go up 31% this year, after more than five years of steady decline in shelter killings.*

*Although the city has not technically begun enforcing the ordinance, the killings have already begun to go up. Kansas City saw a similar increase following the passing of their ordinance before they began enforcing it. I have no explanation for this but it appears to be consistent.

Similarly, other cities have struggled with their mandatory spay/neuter ordinances. Problems range from decreased licensing (which hurts revenues and return to owner), significant increases in animal control costs, and an increase in shelter killing rates due to the ordinances. Simply put, mandatory spay/neuter ordinances have never led to the building of a no-kill community anywhere, ever.

Breed Specific Legislation

Laws that ban certain breeds or types of dogs are often brought up in different parts of the country. Typically, a dog of a certain type will bite someone and a media circus will ensue, quickly followed by demands the city “do something” about the perceived problem. Often, the rescue and shelter communities have left fighting these laws to the enthusiasts of these breeds, letting the “pit bull people” and “Rottweiler people” deal with the city councils. However, laws that prohibit certain types of dogs from living in cities affect everyone who believes that killing animals in our shelters is preventable.

As an animal welfare community, we’ve completely failed the American Pit Bull Terrier. However, banning breeds not only takes animals from people’s homes (often, it is people who don’t even suspect their dog could be mistaken for a pit bull); it also makes it virtually impossible for shelters and rescues to adopt out these breeds of dogs within that community. The end result is never increased public safety, it is only more killin…not only of the breeds in question, but anything that looks like them and the dogs they have to kill to make room when they are impounded. When the cages are full, first dog in is the first dog out regardless of breed.

It is impossible for a community to consider itself No-Kill if their laws prevent any dog owner from moving there based on its breed. It is impossible for a shelter to be No-Kill, by definition, if they are not open admission. And they are not open admission if they don’t accept certain breeds. Or if they do, they cannot adopt them out. If a city is taking animals from owners and killing them, or preventing them from finding safe homes, a community cannot be considered No-Kill.

We don’t often spend time talking about the laws involved in the No-Kill equation. Increasingly it is the laws that are often supported by the animal welfare community that make achieving No-Kill even more of a challenge. Laws such as pet limits, mandatory spay/neuter ordinances, and breed bans are not someone else’s responsibility to take care of. Fighting irresponsible legislation that makes achieving No-Kill impossible is the responsibility of every person who believes in saving the lives of all healthy dogs and cats.

We can, and must, demand better.

If you would like more information about fighting laws that increase the killing of animals in your community, contact

Author Brent Toellner can be found writing at the KC Dog Blog


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