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Shelter life vs. euthanasia: Debate rages among animal lovers

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John Taggart/Reuters

(Read caption) A woman plays with a cat at The Cat's Meow, a so-called cat cafe, in New York. Customers of the cafe can pay $5 to play with the cats for half an hour and adopt the cats for $100. Americans are more inclined to adopt rather than kill animals now than than 40 years ago.

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A North Carolina woman has been arrested and charged with 14 felony counts for animal cruelty after police say she left a suitcase full of dead cats near a dumpster. The woman, described as a cat lover, said she poisoned the animals after unexpected kitten litters overwhelmed her and she failed to relocate the burgeoning feline population to a no-kill shelter, TWC News Charlotte reported. 

Her arrest has reignited a debate that has long divided animal lovers: When pets don't have homes, what kind of odds do they face in a shelter? Might it be kinder to euthanize them then to leave them to an uncertain fate in a shelter?

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Several of the woman's neighbors expressed shock and were quick to condemn her actions. "The fact that somebody has 14 cats would imply they love cats, and then to all of a sudden one day decide to kill them," a neighbor, Mike Johansen, told TWC News Charlotte. "Sounds like she went off the deep end." 

But the founder of PETA, among the world's most recognizable animal advocacy organizations, has raised controversy with her own views on euthanasia. Before founding PETA, Ingrid Newkirk would arrive at her job in an animal shelter early some mornings to euthanize animals she felt would be less traumatized by her doing so. PETA's animal shelter operations continue the practice, Ms. Newkirk wrote:

I always wonder how anyone cannot recognize that there is a world of difference between painlessly euthanizing animals out of compassion – aged, injured, sick, and dying animals whose guardians can’t afford euthanasia, for instance – as PETA does, and causing them to suffer terror, pain, and a prolonged death while struggling to survive on the streets, at the hands of untrained and uncaring “technicians,” or animal abusers.

A large part of PETA's work focuses on neutering and spaying animals, Ms. Newkirk writes, while euthanasia is "not a solution to overpopulation but rather a tragic necessity given the present crisis." Her policy on this issue raises controversy and accusations of hypocrisy among other animal advocates.

Describing PETA's record as a "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad history of killing animals," the Atlantic wrote that PETA should not just continue working on sterilization but also place more emphasis on adoption. PETA's shelter in Virginia found homes for just 2.5 percent of 760 dogs they took in and 0.4 percent of 1,211 cats in 2011, according to the Virginia Animal Reporting Administration. (PETA's facility is a shelter of "last resort," meaning many of the animals that come there may be judged beyond hope.)

Overall, however, euthanasia of homeless pets has declined dramatically in the US. Some 20 million animals were euthanized in 1970, but the number dropped to 3 million by 2011 as the number of pets in America's homes doubled, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Successful sterilization of the animals is part of the reason, but Americans have developed more compassionate views of animals in general, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

"In the past, it was acceptable to throw an animal away, the way you would an old television set," Cindi Shapiro, who founded one of the largest no-kill shelters in New England, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2012. But now, she says, "Very slowly, people have begun to understand that the lives of cats and dogs have value and that owning a pet is a privilege, not a right."

The trend in shelters nationally now leans in favor of life, which might explain the shock expressed by the neighbors confronted with the suitcase of dead cats. Today, US shelters have better resources, even as domestic animals are having fewer unwanted babies and Americans have become more interested in adopting animals from shelters, rather than buying them from breeders or pet stores.

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What it all adds up to is that in the US today significantly fewer animals are described as "unwanted" than was the case 40 years ago and many more are able to enjoy long lives in private homes.