RALEIGH, N.C. — Three times a week, Kay Redding and a colleague walked through the Moore County animal shelter to play God.
Who was obedient? Untrained? Over the hill? Too big or just the right size? Cute, so ugly they're cute or just unattractive?
Which animals might find homes--and which must die?
Redding didn't have to do this nasty work. But when she signed on as a board member of the Humane Society of Moore County, she wanted to know exactly what happened there each day.
Every time she hears shelters boast that they do not kill animals, "I get a knife in my stomach," Redding said.
"We have the unhappy duty of providing a painless euthanasia and a happy last few days for these animals," she said. "We don't have to bear the burden of guilt that the people who run no-kill shelters would want us to take on."
A rift has grown among animal lovers. On the one side are traditional shelters--those that euthanize to make space for more animals. On the other are those that call themselves "no kill." They represent a range of shelters: those that won't euthanize any animal on their property; those that will euthanize animals for medical or behavioral reasons; lifetime care facilities; and some disreputable shelters that keep taking animals long after they no longer have space.
Workers at traditional shelters say someone must do the dirty work of killing unwanted animals. Rescue and no-kill groups counter that they provide a popular service and that traditional shelters won't work with them.
No-kill shelters are gaining in popularity in the United States; Lynda Foro, a spokeswoman for the movement, says she knows of more than 600, and she expects that is just a fraction.
Their popularity has put pressure on other shelters to become no-kill, but that is not realistic, said Brian Kilcommons, director of animal behavior and training for New York City's Center for Animal Care and Control.
"Then the question becomes, who kills? Because somebody has to," said Kilcommons, co-author of the book "Mutts America's Dogs" and a faculty member at the veterinary school of Tufts University.
In 1996, about 5.1 million animals--1.5 million dogs, 3.5 million cats and some raccoons, skunks, ferrets, gerbils and other species--were euthanized in shelters, said Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, a 15,000-circulation newspaper based in Clinton, Wash. That's down dramatically from the 17.8 million that were destroyed in 1987, the peak of recorded shelter euthanasia, he said.
So the prospects for survival in shelters have improved and can be even greater, said Richard Avanzino, president of the SPCA in San Francisco, which is moving toward becoming a "no-kill" city.
"It depends on whether we have the public will and personal dedication to change a wrong and make a right. To me, that means finding it unacceptable to kill mass numbers of animals who have done no wrong other than to be born into a society [that] has not correctly prioritized the importance of their chance for life," Avanzino said.
Nonsense, says Roger Caras, president of the ASPCA in New York City. Shelters that promise to find a home for any animal, regardless of its condition, are selling a false dream to owners giving up a dog or cat, Caras said. Some merely send unplaceable pets to shelters that do kill.
"They're not saying the animal's not going to die; they're just saying, 'We're not going to kill it,' " Caras said.
In addition, no-kill shelters or rescue groups have strict rules that limit the animals they will take. Traditional shelters have more open admission policies, which means they are more likely to take in animals that are candidates for euthanasia.
Foro, head of Doing Things for Animals in Sun City, Ariz., defends the screening process at no-kill shelters.
If a no-kill shelter wants to keep 10 animals when 20,000 need help, that's its choice, she said, adding, "I'm just glad the 10 more are being helped."
But, she said, no-kill shelters should not try to make money at the expense of other shelters by portraying themselves as holding a higher moral ground.
Too many of them do just that, said Bill Smith, who heads a support group for euthanasia technicians in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
"They say, 'We're the good guys. We wear the white hats. If you take them to animal control or a humane shelter that kills, they won't try as hard. We're the true believers.' That's why there's such a rift between no-kills and shelters involved in euthanasia."
That rift could be healed if animal protection groups would work together, said Carl Friedman, director of animal control in San Francisco.
"Everybody is trying to do the right thing, but they're not working together in a coordinated way to reach their goal," he said.
Until they do, he added, "it's the animals who suffer."