I was 19 when I walked into a local pet supply store and saw dozens of cats from a local rescue group lined up in cages in the store’s adoption center. I was a vegan and an animal defender, and I knew instantly that I wanted to start using my free time to help animals. I decided to volunteer.

When I looked at the name of the group on the cage tags, I found something immediately comforting to me: the words “no-kill.”

Of course, because I cared about animals, I didn’t want any of them killed, and to be honest, I didn’t ever want to be burdened with the sadness of having to put a sweet, lovable animal to sleep. I loved the idea of spending time snuggling with kittens and eventually handing them over to perfect, loving, “forever” homes. It seemed like a pretty sweet deal. I mean, these animals were adorable—how hard could it be to find them homes?

Cat in shelter

Shelters and rescues are full of cute animals. I thought it would be easy to find them homes.

One of my first tasks with the rescue group was to check its voicemail messages. On my days, I would check for messages several times for emergencies. Most calls were not emergencies—many were people looking to give up cats who “shed too much” or their dogs because they jumped on the furniture or their neighbor’s “accidental” litter or a stray pit bull.

Puppies stacked in cages from puppy mill seizure.

Many people called us about unwanted litters, even though they are easily preventable.

I forwarded these messages to the other volunteers—and found that many times, we would have to tell some people, “Sorry—we have no fosters available” or “We can’t take any more cats,” and refer them to other rescues or the local open-admission shelter (a shelter that doesn’t turn away any animal, and euthanizes).

That was my first red flag that “no-kill” really wasn’t the savior it made itself out to be.

It didn’t yet dawn on me that with over 6 million animals abandoned every year, there just simply weren’t enough homes for all of them. Still, I thought, at least we’re helping some animals. And selfishly, deep down, I probably was thankful that I wasn’t the one having to deal with putting animals to sleep.

Slowly, I started realizing that we were only making a tiny dent in the homeless-animal crisis. With each sick kitten, unsocialized dog, or aggressive cat we couldn’t take in and with each unsuccessful adoption event, I became more and more uneasy.

Was it really ethical to leave a cat who hissed at everyone to suffer for years in a cage while looking for that perfect, loving, “forever” home? Was it the best thing to do? If we thought it was—why did we think that? Because it made us feel better? Because we could sleep better at night?

I heard that sentiment expressed many times: “I’m so glad we don’t euthanize. If we did, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.” I started to realize that the people around me, while well intentioned, were often only considering their own feelings—what was best for them—instead of what was best for these animals, who had already suffered so much. Could ignoring their suffering by sentencing them to cages for years on end in order to spare our own feelings really be considered “rescuing” them? Were there really enough homes for all of these animals? The answer was no.

cat animal shelter

Sabinka | Sir_Iwan | CC by 2.0 

Despite all our love for animals, we were sometimes ignoring the ones who needed our help the most. We were picking and choosing who would get help and then using our status as a “no-kill” group to promote the idea that we were above the real problem. But instead we were actually turning our back on the real problem, all while looking down on shelters that were forced to euthanize. All of a sudden, I couldn’t sleep at night.

The last straw was when our group “rescued” animals from a different “no-kill” that had forced them to live in horrid freezing-cold conditions in a rural part of the state. The terrified animals had been living on concrete floors their entire lives and were scared to walk on grass. Some of them had tumors, and all of them had broken hearts—you could see it in their eyes. These animals were petrified, mentally scarred, and unlikely ever to be able to trust a human or have a peaceful existence. I couldn’t stand the thought of moving them from one cage to another. They deserved mercy and a peaceful, painless, compassionate release from a world that had wronged them. Deep down, I knew the most humane thing to do would be to euthanize them, not leave them to wait for foster homes in freezing temperatures. I resigned.  

A few years later, when I came to PETA, I immediately started volunteering with our fieldworkers. I went out with them as much as I could, and I won’t lie—it’s absolutely heartbreaking. I had no idea how cruelly people treated the animals we call our “best friends.”

I had once been the person asking, “How could PETA euthanize animals?!” But once I was out there, tending to dogs knee-deep in feces or picking up starving puppies with mothers whose ribs you could count, I saw why. Because PETA isn’t here to make us feel good about ourselves; we’re here to prevent and end suffering.

We’re here to make the hard, soul-crushing decisions that no one else is willing to make. The ones I tried so hard to avoid by being a part of the “no-kill” movement.

Opening up more shelters won’t solve the problem of overpopulation and homelessness, and “no-kill” shelters definitely won’t, because as lovely as they sound, they are a fantasy.

There simply aren’t enough loving homes for the millions of animals who need them. “No-kill” policies overlook the bigger problem of overpopulation, fail animals in need by turning them away, and often sentence them to a miserable life in a cage.

I have picked up animals who’ve been surrendered to PETA, and I have been with them as they took their very last breath. I have also, because of the inadequate cruelty-to-animals laws in North Carolina, had to leave many animals behind because the abuse and neglect that they were experiencing was technically “legal.”

If you ask me what keeps me up at night, it’s not the animals who’ve met a peaceful, dignified end in a PETA caseworker’s hands—it’s the animals who are still out there, chained and forgotten in people’s backyards. It’s the animals whose suffering I wasn’t able to alleviate. It’s the animals I could never truly rescue. Like Shag, whose owners kept him chained 24/7 to a filthy doghouse yards away from their home.

Rachelle delivering straw with PETA's Community Animal Project


And like Bear, a dog I first met in 2011, who is still chained behind someone’s house—even in freezing weather.

Bear, a dog visited by PETA's Community Animal Project


If I could say something to the dogs, cats, and other animals who have been humanely euthanized by PETA, I would tell them that they have not been forgotten. Every day, I get up and fight for them and millions of others like them, to avenge the suffering inflicted on them by a world that simply didn’t care. 

If euthanasia upsets you, that’s good, because it should. Animals shouldn’t be dying because of people’s selfishness and irresponsibility. But the only way we will ever get to a truly “no-kill” nation is if we become a no-birth nation, meaning that everyone spays and neuters their animals and only adopts from shelters.

You Can Help Stop Euthanasia

Always spay and neuter your cats and dogs, and NEVER purchase animals—be they dogs, cats, iguanas, or fish—from a pet store or a breeder. For every animal purchased, another animal in a shelter loses the chance at finding a home. Get your friends and family to adopt from shelters instead and always spay and neuter the animals they adopt. That is how, together, we can end animal homelessness.

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