114 North Alfred Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314


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Most people understand that describing shelters as “no kill” or “high kill” is counterproductive and divisive. Less obvious is the fact that the terms “open admission” shelter and “limited access” shelter suffer the same plight. Just like “no kill” organizations pounded their chests while wagging their fingers at “high kill” shelters, “open admission” shelters can fall into the trap of pounding their chests while wagging their fingers at “limited access” shelters. This is just as counterproductive and divisive, and misses the point.

In Virginia, there are two clearly delineated types of animal shelters – public shelters and private shelters. The delineation comes from the distinct purposes of each. Every jurisdiction must have a public shelter, which is charged with many purposes, from housing stray dogs until reclaimed by their owners, to sheltering animals seized due to cruelty or neglect. Private shelters exist to support public shelters, with the explicit purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes for animals in their care. Because of this clear legal delineation, I choose to use the terms “public” shelter and “private” shelter when describing shelters.

On this note, it is worth examining one bill that is making its way quickly through the Virginia General Assembly. Virginia law already has progressive annual reporting requirements for intake and disposition of animals. HB476 would add to these reporting requirements to require all animal control officers, humane investigators, and releasing agencies to include their intake policy with their annual report to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS).

However, an organization’s intake policy has no direct correlation to the organization’s success. The factors that do impact success have to do with the amount of resources a community dedicates to animal welfare and how progressive and dedicated the organization’s leadership is. Nonetheless, if HB476 passes, it will give Virginia public shelters, private shelters, and rescues the opportunity to educate legislators and policy makers about what actually makes their organizations successful.

Any argument that all shelters should be “open admission,” or that “open admission” shelters are somehow superior to “limited access” shelters, is shortsighted on many levels.

First, it conflates the many purposes of a public shelter with the single purpose of a private shelter – finding permanent adoptive homes. Progressive releasing agencies and others in the animal welfare community understand this point, and that collaboration among all organizations is key. The National Animal Care and Control Association (NACA) has addressed this point specifically, by adopting a 2014 guideline recognizing that “limited access shelters/rescue groups can serve a valuable purpose within a community by providing long-term adoption prospects for a limited number of animals…. In an effort to find homes for as many animals as possible and reduce euthanasia rates, all organizations that shelter animals must work together to provide the greatest opportunity for adoption without prejudice towards organizations that euthanize animals.” There should likewise be no prejudice towards organizations that are not “open admission.”

Second, there are many reasons why a private shelter may not take in certain animals, such as strays. With the new VDACS regulations, there will be a financial burden with ensuring compliance to house strays. Additionally, it often makes sense to house strays at the public shelter, to allow owners to go to one central facility to reclaim their animal.

Third, progressive releasing agencies – including many of our fantastic public shelters here in Virginia – go well beyond an “open admission” policy to actively collaborate with underserved communities, taking in animals who might not otherwise have a sufficient number of adopters in that community. Here in Northern Virginia, the public shelters, private shelters, and rescues work seamlessly to examine the needs of each individual animal, and the available resources for that animal. If there is an animal in the public shelter who cannot handle the noise and stress of a kennel, a private shelter or rescue may take that animal – and swap an animal who is stable and highly adoptable, but just hasn’t moved out of a foster home for several months. This is a win-win, and typically results in quicker adoptions for both animals.

Fourth, pet retention strategies upon intake are crucial to ensure that as many animals as possible can stay with their owners, saving time, space, and resources for those animals who truly have nowhere else to go. As one example, the New York Times just released an article describing how New York shelters have allowed 1,700 owners to keep their pets rather than surrender them by providing medical grants, low-cost boarding, and behavioral advice.

The American Veterinary Medical Association agrees with the idea of pet retention policies rather than blind “open admission” intake, citing Dr. Amy Marder, who uses actual data and statistics to bust myths about shelter animals. In 2015, AVMA put out an article named “Unmasking the Shelter Dog”, which among other myths, dispelled assumptions about pet relinquishment and encouraged pet retention policies prior to intake.

Whether or not HB476 passes, all shelters should review their intake policy, to ensure that the policy is accurate and that it reflects the hard work and progressive and life-saving ideas that the organization implements. And all of us should take care to use terminology that avoids chest-pounding and finger wagging – opting instead for collaboration and mutual respect.

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