Socially Conscious Sheltering Might Not Be So Socially Conscious After All

A special and personal post by our Executive Director, Stacey Coleman

There is a new faction in animal welfare that calls itself “socially conscious sheltering.” On paper, it looks pretty good. The website says all the right things and they have a growing list of partnering shelters.* Socially conscious sheltering is the brainchild of the most powerful animal advocate in Denver, Colorado, Dr. Apryl Steele. Steele is the current director at Denver Dumb Friends League.

Denver, Colorado is home to the most deadly breed-specific legislation (BSL); legislation that remains on the books today. That’s right, socially conscious sheltering is the idea of somebody who appears to believe that it is socially acceptable for the government to go into the homes of dog owners and take their pet dog away to be killed simply because of what the dog looks like.

The founder of socially conscious sheltering is bound by law to kill the “pit bull” dogs in her shelter.

In Denver, it is illegal to have a dog that Animal Protection: Denver Public Health and Environment says is a “pit bull.” Denver Animal Protection is also a founding member of the socially conscious sheltering faction.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is that Denver Dumb Friends League is bound by law to destroy any “pit bull” dogs in their possession or to turn them over to Denver Animal Protection to be destroyed.

Denver municipal code Sec. 8-67. – Pit bulls prohibited states:

“Any humane society operating an animal shelter which is registered and licensed by the city may temporarily hold any pit bull that it has received or otherwise recovered, but only for so long as it takes to contact Denver Animal Protection and either turn the pit bull over to Denver Animal Protection employees or receive permission to destroy or have destroyed the pit bull pursuant to the provisions of subsection (d)”

That law is deeply tragic and socially unconscionable.

Socially conscious sheltering originated as an overt opposition to No Kill. There was a highly publicized and tragic case in Pueblo, CO, where a self-described no kill shelter failed the animals in its care resulting in unspeakable cruelty. It was terrible. But it wasn’t a platitude that caused the cruelty, it was human failure.

Whether the socially conscious sheltering folks like it or not, the No Kill movement challenged what was once the deadly status quo of sheltering. We used to have workshops at conferences about how to more efficiently euthanize shelter animals. And it was not that long ago when it was the norm in shelters for dogs to be summarily categorized and killed, citing a label, like it still is in Denver. Fortunately for the dogs, Denver shelters are now the exception and not the rule. When deadly shelter practices were dragged out into the light of day, the public demanded we start doing better by our shelter pets. Shelters finally had to be accountable.

Animal sheltering is an industry where it is not unusual for individuals or factions to attempt to claim the moral high ground, wearing platitudes like a badge of honor. But we cannot blame platitudes for the bad behavior of some shelter managers. To be sure, what happened at the shelter in Pueblo, CO, was nothing short of horrific but for the city of Denver, Denver Animal Services and Denver Dumb Friends League to use the tragedy as an opportunity to seize the moral high ground is sheer hypocrisy considering they all are bound by law to kill dogs based on appearance, not behavior. It is not the same cruelty that occurred in Pueblo, but it is cruelty nonetheless.

According to journalist and author, Bronwen Dickey, in her book Pit Bull: Battle Over an American Icon:

“Between 1992 and 2009, Denver impounded almost 5,300 ‘pit bulls’ and killed an estimated 3,497 of them.”

These were not dogs nobody wanted. In fact, the City of Denver was sued by several dog owners who received their pets back in a body bag. We know this for sure because Animal Farm Foundation was one of the co-funders of the lawsuit brought by dog owners.

I was so perplexed by the hypocrisy of socially conscious sheltering spawning from a city that has arguably been the most deadly for both owned and shelter dogs labeled “pit bull,” that I felt like I had to call the founder, Dr. Apryl Steele, to attempt to find clarity.

As I said to Dr. Steele, killing dogs because of what they look like has certainly fallen out of favor for animal shelters all across the country. Breed-specific legislation is being repealed and rejected in communities overwhelmingly more often than it is being considered, let alone passed.

While our conversation was cordial, the explanations I got were weak. When asked how taking people’s pets away to be killed at the shelter fits with being “socially conscious,” Steele’s only response was, “well, we don’t really enforce the law anymore.” When I pressed her, pointing out that is of little comfort to pet owners who live in constant fear of losing their pets, apparently at the whim of whoever is currently tapped with enforcement, she repeated that the law is not currently being enforced. When asked why, if the law is not being enforced, it has not been repealed, she was silent.**

I don’t want to think that the socially conscious sheltering faction condones or endorses BSL but by following a leader who has the power to change the deadly law in Denver and chooses not to, I am scared for dogs labeled “pit bull” whether they are in a home or in a shelter. And until socially conscious sheltering makes a statement condemning breed-specific legislation, I think we all should be scared for the dogs.

*It is worth noting that the Denver shelters are not the only socially conscious shelters with outdated legislation that perpetuates cruelty. L.A. County Animal Care and Control is bound by law to destroy any dogs seized from dogfighting cases, including puppies, regardless of behavior.
**I happen to already know why the law has not been repealed. The Denver mayor is afraid of dogs labeled “pit bull” because he said he had a bad experience with one. Well, I had a bad experience with a mayor, the former mayor of Indianapolis, Bart Peterson, when he announced in 2006 that he was going to round up and kill all the “pit bull” dogs. We Indianapolis dog owners got organized and beat the pants off of the proposed legislation but it was a terrifying time in my life, fighting for my right to keep my dog while simultaneously preparing to sell my house, quit my job and move away should we lose our battle. My terrible experience with a mayor in Indianapolis does not now cause me to support banning mayors. To do so would be an irrational response, as if one mayor’s bad behavior is a predictor for how all mayors will behave! Just as it is irrational for the mayor of Denver to hold on to an outdated and thoroughly debunked mindset because he was once scared by a dog.

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