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Our Obsession with "No Kill" Shelters Might Be Harming Animals

A shelter isn't a pound; it's a place where animals can stay forever, right? A recent lawsuit in Maryland is the latest event bucking the trend by painting a picture of a shelter manager's no-kill obsession that led to alleged acts of unthinkable...

image via Flickr User T3I Eric

There's an ugly schism happening in the animal shelter business over whether or not we should kill animals when a shelter gets too crowded. The reality used to be that the animals in the pound were all on death row, and adoption rescued them. The recent trend toward no-kill shelters created a much more comforting mental image if taken at face value: a shelter isn't a pound; it's a place where animals can stay forever, right?


Even PeTA has taken a somewhat pro-euthanasia stance, and it has resulted in counterintuitive news stories where the noted anti-cruelty crusaders are suddenly showing up as the puppy slaughtering bad guys. As if on schedule, a new story presents the other side of that coin: Maybe PeTA is exhibiting forward-thinking pragmatism instead of just being headline-grubbing trolls.

A recent lawsuit in Maryland is the latest event bucking the trend by painting a picture of a shelter manager's no-kill obsession that led to alleged acts of unthinkable cruelty to animals. Former employees of the Humane Society of Washington County in Hagerstown, Maryland, are coming forward with accusations, as well as a lawsuit. The plaintiff in the suit, Amanda Surber is publicly naming names, and telling horror stories that, if false, would easily get her slapped with a defamation suit.

Over at the Humane Society, non-disclosure agreements come pretty standard with employment. I admit that my evidence for this is anecdotal; acqaintences of mine who have worked there won't tell me what it was like. However, in Surber's case, one of the litany of complaints against her employer is that retaliation after she refused to sign her NDA was part of the reason she was fired. The complaints in her 20-page suit include everything under the sun, from not paying overtime to seemingly wholesale disregard for animal welfare.


Surber calls out her former boss, Michael Lausen, as the primary villain. She says Lausen was determined to win the label "No-Kill" for the shelter, at any cost, including crowding cats together like sardines. She and another former employee, Andrea Carroll, are going full whistleblower, with photo printouts, and testimony about horrible animal abuse being carried out in the name of not killing. She told ABC News, "Forty cats would be coming in every day. We had nowhere to put them. They’re sick, diseases were spreading that we can’t treat.”

Amanda Surber. Screencap via

Lausen had previously been on a high-profile crusade to get pets out of shelters and into homes in Washington County. Last year shortly after transferring from El Paso, Texas, and shaking things up in his new place of employment, he told the Herald-Mail, “We’re not the housing police. We’re not checking the income,” and that the previous adoption process at the shelter had been “extremely tedious, to be polite.”

But on the other hand, Surber claims Lausen also ordered the slaughter of animals en masse for unclear reasons in pursuit of his "no-kill" aspirations. Perhaps he needed a clean slate in order to achieve a no-kill 2014? But slaughter animals he did, she alleges, and the specifics will turn your hair white.

You may want to prepare a browser tab with some cute pictures before reading this next part.

  • She says in July of last year, someone wanted their dead dog cremated, but that there was a grim switcheroo, and the dog's ashes were mixed into a pet ash salad. So Lausen euthanized a similar dog, and gave the customer the ashes in order to cover his mistake.
  • She also says a bunch of cats were given a slapdash mass execution, and that they "had violent seizures instead of a peaceful death.” She told ABC that she "had to go room to room to put these animals down. You can’t kill 130 animals in an hour and expect it to be humane."
  • Finally, one of her 86 complaints is that sick animals were housed with healthy ones. I assume this was just carelessness, not an attempt to weed out animals with illness instead of euthanizing them, but it's still pretty horrible.


Text of the legal filing. Screencap via

I don't claim to know what Michael Lausen was really up to. I can picture a head-cracking take-no-prisoners manager fomenting bad blood in his former employees, but I can also envision one of those seemingly normal people on This American Life who turn out to be dangerous psychopaths.

If "no-kill" is bad for animals, and "yes-kill" is also bad for animals, what do we do? Let all the strays run wild and free? No. Turns out that's even worse for animals, because, left to their own devices, many of the animals we love turn into killing machines. As Jonathan Franzen is fond of pointing out, every year outdoor cats kill about 2 billion birds  and somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 billion mammals, meaning for sheer number of organisms killed, they're out-killing humans. Far from being just a part of nature, cats are invasive, and are driving species like the piping plover, the Florida scrub-jay, and the California least tern to the brink of extinction.

At any rate, the whole thing is about to play out in court, and if cases like these are widespread, it might give way to more whistleblowers. One way or another it's going to have a very real impact on the lives of a lot of animals.