Socially Conscious Sheltering

HB 21-1160: NK + SCS

This bill was recently passed in the Colorado House, known as the “Colorado Socially Conscious Sheltering Act.” These issues are complex, so pardon the length of this post.

Happy Cats Haven identifies as a No-Kill (NK) organization. The main reason for this is that most of our adopters know this term and having that phrase on our website allows them to find us. It’s a simple search engine optimization (SEO) issue to give us the most visibility to get our cats adopted.

The goal of No-Kill (NK) is to save every animal who is treatable for any medical or behavioral reason. As Best Friends Animal Society put it, every individual animal is a life worth saving. NK does NOT mean keeping an animal alive at all costs. These are our beliefs too.

The NK benchmark is a 90% rate for live releases. As an example, our live release rate (LRR) is 97-98%. Around 2014, many conventional shelters stopped emphasizing LRR.

We obviously consider quality of life when euthanizing any cat. We will not hesitate when the cat’s suffering outweighs keeping him or her alive. We are transparent with our euthanasia numbers, which almost always are kittens and seniors whom we are unable to save.

You can tap here to see the 2020 shelter data for any shelter in Colorado, via PACFA, our regulating agency.

To date, we have never euthanized a cat for behavioral issues. That day may come, but until then, we remain committed to helping those cats overcome their issues, financially and with patience and love.

When we started Happy Cats a decade ago, only 1 in 3 cats made it out alive in shelters. Best Friends reports that cats are still euthanized at double the rate of dogs.

You can see how the goal of 90% is working nationwide in this map from Best Friends. The non-green areas are still stuck in the same horrible LRR as when we started.

This benchmark is important, as clear goals and monitoring data help show where improvement needs to happen. The national database Shelter Animals Count was born of data reporting started by Best Friends.

There are many examples nationwide of shelters large and small shifting their policies and resources toward the goal of saving more shelter animals. The improvement just in the last 5 years has been remarkable.

“Socially Conscious Sheltering” (SCS) was born in 2017 as a response to the No-Kill movement, which the originators consider a “crisis.”

The stated goals of SCS are very similar to NK: to “place every healthy and safe animal,” to “thoughtfully address” the “medical and behavioral needs of homeless animals,” to “make appropriate euthanasia decisions” and to “foster a culture of transparency…”

HB 21-1160
Along with directing that “healthy and safe” animals should be adopted out, returned to owners or transferred, it has the noble goal of addressing the “mental and emotional well-being” of shelter animals.

It directs that no animal be “housed or kept in a manner that fosters obsessive-compulsive or self-mutilating behavior.” It defines a “safe” animal as one that “has not exhibited behavior that is likely to result in bodily injury or death to another animal or human being.” It also carefully excludes a cat “that was not socialized to people during its behavioral development and therefore does not allow itself to be handled.”

The fact is that obsessive-compulsive or self-mutilating behavior is fairly rare in cats. It’s much more likely cats appear shut down, quiet, freeze or show litterbox issues in response to stress. Where is the language that says no cat should be housed or treated in a manner that fosters “obsessive-compulsive, self-mutilating, hiding or litterbox avoidance behavior”?

What defines “bodily injury?” Is a cat scratch a “bodily injury?” What about a bite that doesn’t break skin…or one that does? How are these behaviors being used to define what is “safe” in order to label a cat unadoptable?

We often quote the research that proves even most experts can’t tell any difference in the behavior of pet cats vs feral ones in the first few days of landing in a shelter. But the average time given a cat for recovery in most conventional shelters is 3-5 days before they are euthanized.

We have witnessed–and recovered–thousands of cats who “do not allow [themselves] to be handled” go on to be perfectly social and adoptable once they have time to get over the terror of being abandoned.

We support any movement toward saving more shelter cats, no matter the ideology. We put our resources where our mouths are to address the behavioral needs of all homeless cats.

Our wonderful Onsite Behavior Team led by behaviorist Carole Galloway has done amazing work training and rehabilitating our scared and shy kitties into quicker adoptability while also supporting them post-adoption. This comes with a whale of a lot of planning and documenting and dedicated engagement by our volunteers.

We donate time and resources to do this because we are committed to not only adopting out cats but keeping them in their homes.

It’s not a save until they stay.

While some larger shelters may offer unpublished in-house programs for cats with identified behavior issues, we don’t see many shelters offering public cat classes, either free or fee. We aren’t aware of any with volunteer training specifically for lowering feline stress.

Where is the legislation and statewide public commitment to training and handling that would back up “thoughtfully” addressing the issues of quietly terrified cats with actual policies and action?

As one of its own sponsors puts it, HB 21-1160 sets “a floor, not a ceiling.” Without definitions for “thoughtful” or “appropriate” in addressing behavioral needs, with no benchmark to reach for in adoption numbers–especially for our feline friends, so often overlooked and underfunded–HB 21-1160 rings hollow.

The NK goal of 90% Live Release Rate is a very achievable “ceiling.” However, the biggest shelter funder in the state, Animal Assistance Foundation, will not give grants to any organization that uses the phrase “no-kill.”

They also influence the Colorado Pet Overpopulation Fund that offers the paw print license plate. They disqualify NK-sympathetic organizations from that as well. We have been barred from receiving funding from both organizations for years because of this.

We are already transparent and committed to addressing the medical and behavioral needs of ALL our cats. This needn’t be an either/or situation. We agree with the ideals of BOTH movements, but believe accountability should be the foundation…especially in legislation.

Our response is the same as it’s been for years: Happy Cats Haven meets the definition of No-Kill AND exceeds that of Socially Conscious sheltering.

We will always keep reaching for the ceiling by putting our resources and love into meeting the medical and behavioral needs of every homeless cat so they become as adoptable as possible, regardless of labels involved.