In 1997, the year we founded PAWS Chicago, 42,561 cats and dogs were euthanized in the city.
The majority were healthy, friendly, and what we would consider highly adoptable pets. And the euthanasia was done in secret.
I found out because my teenage daughter Alexis was volunteering at a local Humane Society, coming home in tears every night. After bringing home the third cat, I started asking questions.
We met with several local shelters and Chicago Animal Care & Control, the city’s impoundment facility, and found that Chicago had the unfortunate distinction of being one of America’s highest euthanasia cities. . More than 93% of pets that entered the city pound left in body bags.
We learned that San Francisco was at the forefront of a new way to shelter, and we flew in to meet the founder of the no-kill movement, Richard Avanzino. Twenty-five years ago, this encounter inspired my daughter and I, with the help of a core group of friends and volunteers, to bring the no-kill mission to Chicago.
The result is that PAWS Chicago has grown into a movement tens of thousands strong – and today that movement has reduced the number of homeless animal murders entering Chicago shelters by 91%.
The no-kill model made this possible, ushering in a whole new approach to solving the homeless pet crisis on all fronts, from reducing oversupply to increasing adoption demand.
On the demand side, in the late 1990s, adopting a rescue animal was something many animal lovers didn’t even think about. Today, shelters are often the first place future pet families turn to. In Chicago, two things have shaped the landscape forever.
The first major change: our no-kill model transformed housing at its core, replacing the “cage and kill” status quo where a herd management approach meant that sick animals, as well as those in cages around them, were immediately euthanized to keep the population healthy. Instead, with a commitment to the life of every animal, non-killing means that every animal receives individualized medical care, enrichment and training – done on a massive scale, saving thousands of lives every year.
We make a lifetime commitment to every animal that enters our adoption program: once a PAWS pet, always a PAWS pet. This means that if an adopter can no longer care for an animal, regardless of the circumstances, we will take them back and provide any necessary medical or behavioral care until the animal is adopted again.
The second seismic shift happened in 2008 when Oprah Winfrey paid us a surprise visit on her show and proceeded to adopt her next three PAWS pets. His voice inspired a generation of people to save animals and save lives. She also drew attention to the importance of no-kill.
The result? Adopting rescued animals is now a source of pride for animal lovers. And more than 75,000 PAWS pets have found loving homes.
But as critical as it is, adoption only solves part of the problem because pets reproduce exponentially. The real key to ending euthanasia is to directly reduce the oversupply of homeless pets by providing free and inexpensive sterilization procedures to people who otherwise could not access surgery.
Our first major initiative was to open the city’s first high-volume sterilization clinic serving underprivileged communities. We did a detailed data analysis to see where the most stray calls were coming from and opened the Lurie Clinic in Little Village in 2000, a short drive from Animal Care & Control. To date, we have performed over 290,000 sterilization procedures, all free or low cost.
Due to our focus on a robust spay/neuter program, Chicago is no longer overrun with stray and unwanted pets. A multitude of animals that should have faced certain death were never born. And we know that two-thirds of the reduction in euthanasia is due to fewer animals entering shelters.
Today, as we reach our 25th anniversary milestone and reflect on the resulting tidal wave of change for homeless pets, we have seen firsthand that neutering is the way to end the killing. But we also know that if we stop at any time, overpopulation and the resulting slaughter of cats and dogs will return.
For 25 years, thousands of Chicagoans have been the source of our progress, adopting, volunteering, fostering, advocating and donating, and we thank each and every one of you.
Paula Fasseas is the founder and executive president of PAWS Chicago, the largest comprehensive no-kill animal welfare organization in the Midwest.
Submit a letter of no more than 400 words to the editor here or email [email protected].