The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals
Katja M. Guenther



Monster’s World

THE MUSCULAR GRAY DOG named Monster raised his square head, regarded me dispassionately with his amber eyes, and sank his head back down onto his enormous paws as if he knew that whether he got up to greet me or not made no difference whatsoever. His fate was already sealed. I knew the same as I knelt down and looked at him through the bent and rusted bars of the cage where he had been housed since arriving a few days earlier at the Pacific Animal Welfare Center (PAW), a high-intake public animal shelter in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The next morning, he would join the seven or eight other dogs and fifteen or more cats put down each day at PAW. He would also become part of a much larger statistic as one of the three million companion animals who are put to sleep in animal shelters in the United States each year.1

Monster’s death was the consequence of multiple social processes that I unpack in this book. He died because he lived in a community of lower-income people of color in which human residents face challenges that threaten their ability to maintain continuous, geographically proximal relationships with anyone, human or animal; this placed him at particular risk for entering an animal shelter. As a pit bull, Monster was also part of the group of dogs most likely to end up in a shelter and the least likely to leave alive because of breed discrimination that is itself grounded in racism and classism. Of course, his life would never have been at risk had he not lived in a society in which humans believe in their right to dominate and control what we see as the natural world, including nonhuman animals. This ideology—anthroparchy—is embedded in state-run shelters like the one where Monster found himself, giving shelters such as PAW license to kill animals whom they deem surplus or unadoptable.2 Monster died because of who he was, who the humans he was attached to were, and how our society naturalizes and accepts the killing of animals.

• • •

The great hypocrisy of human’s relationships with companion animals is that even as American society claims to cherish companion animals, we also embrace legal definitions of companion animals as property and widely accept the practice of killing them as a solution to what we construct as a market surplus. American’s purported love for our companion animals also does not extend to other animals: the annual per capita consumption of nonmarine animal flesh is 220 pounds, making the US one of the top three highest per capita consumers of meat in the world.3 Even as we endorse the brutality of intensive animal farming through our consumer choices, we howl over any instance of companion animal abuse. This hypocrisy informs what happens at PAW and how it happens, as the individual and institutional conflicts from competing beliefs pull PAW and its staff, volunteers, and public in different directions.

Animals’ status as legal property is both a clear marker of their objectification in an anthroparchal state and a primary determinant of their life chances. In a society in which animals are owned by humans for purposes of consumption or companionship, the types of human communities to which they belong largely define animals’ experiences. A chicken born to a so-called urban homesteader—or a typically white, educated, middle- or upper-middle-class household with members who want to reduce their reliance on agribusiness—leads a very different life than a chicken born in a chick-hatching facility that is part of the Tyson corporation, the largest producer of chicken flesh in the United States. One will likely enjoy ample sunshine and fresh air, a great deal of personalized attention from a human, veterinary care as needed, and appreciation from her human and chicken companions while she lives out her natural life and is then buried; the other will live a life of extreme confinement, neglect, physical pain, abuse, and an early, painful, and unnatural death, after which her body will be dismembered and sold as meat.4

The situation for companion animals in the United States is usually a less dramatic contrast, but the stratification becomes more apparent once an animal comes into a shelter. Those companion animals who live in affluent, predominantly white communities are likely to experience animal shelters that provide veterinary care and enrichment and where staff and management are deeply committed to reunification or adoption.5 In contrast, companion animals who live in low-income and/or nonwhite communities are likely to enter shelters that have few resources for veterinary care or enrichment and where reunification or adoption is a much less likely outcome. Had Monster ended up in the privately managed shelter some twenty miles away from PAW in an affluent, predominantly white and Asian American area, his chances of survival would have been 95 percent, and, even if he had been among the unlucky 5 percent to die there, he would have enjoyed walks several times a day with volunteers, the stimulation of a training program, high-quality veterinary care, and likely months or even years at the shelter during efforts to find him a home.

At animal shelters, tensions between different approaches to animal keeping become visible, as do dynamics of power between institutions, volunteers, and clients. As living with companion animals has become a central activity for many Americans, middle-class norms of what constitutes proper care of such animals have given rise to a discourse of irresponsible owners, or people who lack the moral fitness to provide appropriate care to companion animals and who, at PAW, come from the shelter’s predominantly nonwhite and low-income service area. Public animal shelters are the site for a wide range of functions related to companion animals, such as securing animal licenses, investigating noise complaints, classifying dogs as vicious and cats as feral, caring for stray animals, offering vaccination and spay/neuter services, and providing companion animal adoption and rescue, so people with disparate interests in animals come to shelters, where they interact with each other, with staff, and with impounded animals. At the shelter, humans with different animal practices, or expectations for human-animal relationships that guide human-animal interaction and that reflect group identity and history, come into close and routine contact.6 The shelter’s institutional practice of caging, for example, is an animal practice grounded in the shelter’s belief that confinement without human contact is an acceptable strategy for housing companion animals. Shelter volunteers, however, reject this animal practice and manipulate, bend, break, and struggle against PAW’s rules to take impounded dogs out into social areas so they can have a break from strict confinement, play, and receive individual attention. These kinds of conflicts over animal practices have the cumulative effect of solidifying group identities, maintaining existing inequalities, and sometimes shifting individual and institutional animal practices.

PAW offers limited freedoms to animals impounded there and exercises tight bureaucratic control over staff and volunteers. Such an atmosphere makes it a site for contestation over the meanings and practices of animal welfare and rights, responsible animal guardianship, risk and danger, and fairness and equity. As I unpack throughout this book, those meanings and practices themselves reflect socially rooted ideas and beliefs about race, class, gender, species, and breed.

PAW attempts to assert power over the lives of both human and nonhuman animals. Power, however, is never absolute or immutable and always coexists with resistance.7 How do human and nonhuman animals resist the control of an institution that seems to have such complete control over them? Can animals—who are so often depicted as voiceless and powerless—be involved in resisting institutional control over their lives?

In this book, I engage with these questions to expose regimes of domination that try to manage and control the lives of animals and people, and to uncover how animals and people resist these efforts. I classify as resistance all attempts, irrespective of outcome, to challenge directives, actions, or discourses articulated by the shelter—whether directly stated by staff or conveyed through policies issued by unspecified managers.8 Volunteers, rescuers, clients/subjects, and animals all engage in acts of everyday resistance, or routine acts that seek to undermine power.9 Because resistance and power interact, they respond to each other: both power and resistance may be refined, reinvented, expanded, and/or repealed as an outcome of these interactions.

Within the shelter, animals become part of struggles around power. They are implicated in debates about humane animal care and are central to conflicts between staff and volunteers. Animals are also caught up in struggles between the shelter and the public, who may seek to adopt animals shelter staff think are unsuitable for adoption or who try to reclaim their companions when the shelter has deemed either the home or the animal unsuitable for reunification.

• • •

In this book, I analyze the social worlds of shelter animals—especially dogs—at PAW to make sense of what happened to Monster and what continues to happen to too many companion animals across the United States each day. I read Monster’s story, and the stories of thousands of other animals I met, and hundreds who became my intimates, as a reflection of the junctures between social structures far larger than any animal shelter. The existence and reproduction of social inequalities; the use of state power to enforce behavioral norms on lower-income and nonwhite citizens; competing discourses and ideologies about animal sheltering, animal welfare, and what constitutes “humane” treatment; government policies and practices; and the growing move toward the privatization of public shelters all shape which animals end up in shelters and what they will experience once they get there. What happens at PAW—including human struggles over how animals at PAW live and if they die—is the outcome of everyday and sustained collisions of capitalism, anthroparchy, white supremacy, and patriarchy. These collisions reduce companion animals to expendable commodities; lace our views about which shelter animals deserve saving with ideas about race, class, gender, and ability; and ultimately allow the shelter to shift responsibility for the deaths of shelter animals onto the low-income minority community it purports to serve and onto the animals themselves.

I spent over three years conducting ethnography as a volunteer at PAW, watching, observing, and participating in the routine operations of the shelter and interacting with staff, other volunteers, and the many people who came to the shelter either in search of services or because PAW summoned them there to address some issue, such as an unlicensed animal. My analysis is guided by a desire to understand how and why an animal shelter like PAW asserts control over human and animal populations, how those humans and animals respond to and resist such control, and what the consequences of these dynamics of power and resistance are for companion animals impounded at PAW, and for all animals. I trace how these responses and strategies of resistance reflect the different social locations of the actors who interact at the shelter, including staff members, volunteers, animal rescuers, and clients/subjects (e.g., those seeking services like adoption or surrender of an animal, as well as the broader community subject to animal control regulations). Rather than viewing PAW as an isolated microcosm, I connect what happens at PAW to broader social structures and shifts, including inequalities of race, class, gender, species, and breed that shape shelter interactions and the likelihood of animal survival, as well as the broader backdrop of the politics of animal sheltering.

Analyzing PAW uncovers a swirl of discourses and practices around class, race, and gender. But these discourses and practices play out in myriad and often competing ways. Sometimes they work to undermine anthroparchal thinking, but they rarely engage with how the work of the shelter and of the volunteers and rescuers who try to get companion animals into homes they consider suitable reinforces capitalist logics of companion animals as commodities, white supremacist beliefs in the inferiority of racial-ethnic minorities as animal guardians and in the animality of Black bodies, patriarchal ideas that caring for companion animals is women’s labor, and anthroparchal commitments to maintaining human domination over animals. In this book, I untangle these discourses and practices to understand better how social inequalities between human animals and between nonhuman animals are co-constituted in ways that significantly shape how animals live and when and how they die. I explore how these processes unfold and what they mean for dogs like Monster, who find themselves caught up in shelters that are increasingly in the crosshairs of debates about what shelters can do to reduce the risk of shelter death to companion animals.


Monster’s experience at PAW reflects the history of animal sheltering in the United States, which has its roots in a public safety discourse that remains central to the animal practices at PAW. Claims about safety are regularly used to justify how the shelter treats impounded animals and why it kills so many of them. Importantly, animal sheltering in the United States is still undergoing a transformation from sovereign power to biopower, or techniques of power focused on subjugating bodies and controlling populations.10 At PAW, threats to the sovereign—today most often couched in a discourse that emphasizes public safety—have resulted in sheltered animals being summarily killed. Gradually, there has been a shift toward a discourse in which governance of animals is described as being in the interest of animals themselves.11 Animals cannot, under this new biopolitical logic, live safe and fulfilled lives if they are living on the street, nor can they do so if they are “warehoused” at the shelter (a favorite justification of shelter managers at PAW for why animals should stay at the shelter for only a limited amount of time before being killed). Likewise, vaccinating, spaying and neutering, and microchipping animals is largely done in the name of their own interests.

This is a marked change that has taken place in shelters across the nation starting in the late 1990s. The earliest animal control agencies in the United States had two primary goals: first, to protect the public from rabid or aggressive animals, and, second, to manage ownership disputes involving animals, particularly livestock. The fear of zoonotic contamination, especially of rabies, was a powerful motivator to capture and destroy unclaimed companion animals. The stray cats and dogs who found themselves picked up by animal control typically did not survive the encounter; until the end of the 1800s, close to 100 percent of animals picked up by animal control agencies were killed, often using brutal means, such as clubbing or mass drowning.12 In mid-nineteenth-century New York City, dogcatchers were paid by the dog and placed up to several hundred stray dogs each day in large cages to drown them in the East River. Animal control was about taking animal life.

The idea that free-roaming animals are the mark of an uncivilized society remains dominant in the United States today, where it is widely believed that free-roaming dogs are an indicator of economic underdevelopment and are a nuisance and even a threat to public safety. Across the US, animal welfare agencies have zero tolerance for stray dogs and will seek to trap and impound such dogs. The Hollywood caricature of the dogcatcher as a burly, mean-looking man who jails dogs with the intent to kill them reasonably accurately captures the work of most dogcatchers through at least the 1980s. Across the United States, killing groups of stray animals in gas chambers was widely practiced through the 1980s.13

While America’s early animal control agencies sought to protect public safety and prevent what they defined as nuisance animals, the birth of the animal welfare movement shifted the focus to providing compassionate care for animals and ensuring their protection from abuse. Animal sheltering as we know it today emerged out of the efforts of mostly white, upper-class activists in the late 1800s who sought to protect animals from painful human experimentation and mistreatment. Henry Bergh, the wealthy heir to a shipbuilding fortune, founded the American Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the first such organization in the US, in New York City in 1866. His observation of animal exploitation while working as a diplomat in Europe and his interactions with members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in Britain, the world’s first known anticruelty organization, founded in 1824, inspired Bergh to push for anticruelty statutes in the US. Activists within the RSPCA included clergymen, parliamentarians, and wealthy elites who used a combination of moral and religious arguments to promote kindness toward animals. Bergh and activists involved in establishing local societies to prevent cruelty to animals in US cities following the founding of the ASPCA similarly drew heavily on moral arguments about compassion and decency. Bergh and his associates enjoyed near-immediate legislative victories that established new parameters for policing cruelty to animals and penalizing offenders. A master of attracting publicity, Bergh routinely engaged in high-profile rescues of working horses and fighting dogs, which often functioned to highlight ethnic and class differences in animal practices; in his efforts to reduce cruel animal practices among elites, he appealed to their status as a basis for stopping the activity, arguing that “the greater the offender, the greater the offence.”14 Bergh also enjoyed wearing a uniform with a badge and asserting his authority as a legally empowered animal control officer.

Beginning in 1894—a few years after Bergh’s death and fully twenty-four years after Caroline Earle White, another wealthy philanthropist, founded the Women’s Pennsylvania SPCA, the first private animal shelter in the US—the ASPCA began operating animal shelters in New York City. The primary goal of the ASPCA shelter work in New York—as for SPCAs in other communities—was to preserve public safety by catching stray dogs and providing them with a humane death, rather than clubbing them or drowning them, as had been the previous practice.15 The ASPCA also investigated cases of animal cruelty and provided evidence to the relevant state authorities, with mixed outcomes: one of Henry Bergh’s personal frustrations was that a judge ruled against using cruelty statutes to prosecute participants in the sport of pigeon shooting.16

In its first full year of operation in 1895, 95 percent of the 21,741 dogs and 24,140 cats who entered the ASPCA in New York were killed there.17 Only after the Second World War did the percentage of animals put to death in shelters begin to decline as the issue of companion animal homelessness came to be seen as a social problem and shelter death as an undesirable outcome. The animal welfare movement was an active, entrenched part of US culture as early as the late nineteenth century, and, like Henry Bergh, animal welfare activists effectively deployed religious teachings about stewardship and American beliefs around morality to establish mercy toward animals as a core American value.18 While much of the work of the animal welfare movement focused specifically on working animals such as horses, their efforts contributed to changing practices vis-à-vis all animals. Already by the 1920s, advocates for animal protection had started to change public views about blood sports (e.g., dogfighting, cockfighting, pigeon shooting, foxhunting), animal slaughter, and stray animals.

Norms of dog keeping especially shifted as the residents of the burgeoning post–Second World War American suburbia increasingly viewed their pets as their charges and family members. Allowing dogs to run loose and to reproduce repeatedly became less acceptable in the new suburbia and a marker of the lower classes. As standards of care rose for animals in homes, they also slowly started to rise for animals in shelters, which now had to provide at least basic veterinary care, appropriate caging, and an opportunity for reunification with a guardian or adoption to a new guardian. Legally, politically, and socially, the United States also began to recognize animal sentience, and this shift created pressures and conflicts within animal shelters to improve the standard of care and to increase the rate of live release, or the live exit of animals because of adoption, rescue, or return to their owner(s).

The practices of animal control agencies—public or private entities that contract with local governments—also began shifting in an effort to reduce the rate of incoming animals. Most importantly, animal shelters began sterilizing and vaccinating animals prior to release; beginning around 2006, animal control agencies also began routinely implanting microchips, which can help reunite lost animals and their guardians, in all released animals. As more people adopted animals from shelters, this meant that more companion animals were sterilized. Further, these services became more available to people who acquired animals outside shelters. While there have been ebbs and flows in the growth of spay/neuter access, the general trend in the US has been a steady increase in the availability of affordable sterilization services and the widespread acceptance that sterilization is the best option for cats and dogs.19 The number of animals killed in US shelters began to decrease sharply after the 1970s, largely thanks to reductions in intake.20

The expectations for standards of care in shelters have risen substantially over the last thirty years: animal shelters are no longer places to warehouse street dogs and feral cats until they are put down and are instead expected to be friendly, comfortable environments that promote adoption. Maddie’s Adoption Center in San Francisco, funded by technology billionaires David and Cheryl Duffield, became the nation’s first cage-free, no-kill animal shelter in 1998.21 Rather than being confined to kennels, animals at Maddie’s Adoption Center live in home-style units complete with furniture and televisions. While even today some shelters in the United States continue to use gas chambers to end the lives of companion animals who are deemed unwanted or surplus, general standards in the late twentieth century held that chemical euthanasia (also called euthanasia by injection, or EBI) was the most humane method to kill unwanted companion animals, offering allegedly better deaths to those animals who did end up killed at shelters.

No-kill advocates, who have become a vocal presence in the animalsheltering community since the early 1990s, hold that animal shelters should not put down any adoptable animals. The City of San Francisco was the pioneer for its embrace of a no-kill approach: in 1994, the city adopted a no-kill ordinance, and the then-director of its SPCA, Rich Avanzino, is largely viewed as the catalyst for no-kill sheltering in the US. In 2011, Austin, Texas, became the largest US city to adopt a no-kill practice. The City of Los Angeles is currently attempting to become no-kill; it reduced its rate of shelter death from 42 percent in 2011 to about 15 percent in 2014, and as of 2017, it declared itself no-kill for dogs but not for cats.

Even though no-kill sheltering originated in San Francisco, it has taken decades for other parts of California, including the Los Angeles area, to start to catch up. A number of factors help explain this lag, including a larger and more diverse human and animal population, Los Angeles’s sprawling geography, local shelter systems known for their complex bureaucratic structures and traditional views on animal sheltering (San Francisco Animal Care and Control, for instance, had one municipal shelter at the time San Francisco began moving toward no-kill, compared to the City of Los Angeles’s five shelters, plus literally dozens more in adjacent communities like Hollywood, Santa Monica, Los Angeles County, Orange County, Riverside County, Ventura County, and beyond), and the absence of a major donor of the likes of the Duffields. The large numbers of shelter killings across California made the state the highest per capita and overall contributor to shelter killing nationally through 2018, when Texas may have eclipsed California by a few thousand animals.22

The spokespeople for the no-kill movement include white men advocates like Nathan Winograd, author and founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center, and Francis Battista and Gregory West, both leaders within Best Friends Animal Society, one of the nation’s largest animal charities. Although nokill advocates sometimes disagree with each other on how to define the approach, they share a focus on moving away from the practice of shelter killing and a commitment to ending shelter killing as a widespread “solution” to homelessness among companion animals. Per the No Kill Advocacy Center, the shift to no-kill requires multiple programmatic changes within shelters, including high-volume sterilization of both shelter and community animals, progressive redemption policies so it is easy for guardians to reclaim companion animals who have ended up in a shelter, close relationships with nonprofit animal rescue organizations, foster programs for vulnerable animals such as unweaned kittens and puppies, and proactive behavior and medical intervention programs that benefit both animals in the shelter and animals in the community.23


1. This figure is an estimate because there is no centralized system for tracking shelter intakes or outcomes nationally. The Humane Society of the United States has a research branch that I believe provides the most accurate estimate; for 2013, the Humane Society estimated that 3.4 million companion animals died in US shelters. Humane Society of the United States, “Our Policies” and “Pets by the Numbers.”

2. Calvo (now Cudworth), “‘Most Farmers Prefer Blondes,’” discusses anthroparchy as a system. See also Probyn-Rapsey, “Anthropocentrism,” 51–52, for a discussion of the politics of the terminology used to describe human relationships with animals.

3. Jones, Haley, and Melton, “Per Capita Red Meat.”

4. For more on the lives of chickens in factory farms, see Garcés, Grilled; Striffler, Chicken.

5. Irvine, If You Tame Me, includes an ethnography of a nonprofit humane society serving a predominantly white, middle-class community that serves as an excellent contrast to PAW.

6. Wolch, Brownlow, and Lassiter, “Constructing the Animal Worlds”; Jerolmack, “Primary Groups”; Jerolmack, “Animal Practices, Ethnicity.”

7. Foucault, History of Sexuality.

8. Guenther, “Volunteers’ Power and Resistance.”

9. Scott, Weapons of the Weak; Vinthagen and Johansson, “‘Everyday Resistance.’

10. Foucault, History of Sexuality.

11. Srinivasan, “Biopolitics of Animal Being.”

12. Irvine, “Animal Sheltering,” provides a solid review of the history and practice of animal sheltering in the United States.

13. The use of gas chambers has been largely rendered obsolete in the US, with twenty-two states banning their use and nineteen states having no ban but also no known use of gas chambers as of the end of 2016. Gas chambers are still in use, particularly in the US South. See Jaskot, “Closing the Door.”

14. Bergh, “Henry Bergh’s Views,” 2.

15. Zawistowski et al., “Population Dynamics.”

16. Bergh, “Henry Bergh’s Views.”

17. Zawistowski et al., “Population Dynamics,” 202.

18. Davis, Gospel of Kindness. Reflecting the widespread emphasis of early animal welfarists on reducing animal suffering rather than on changing humans’ exploitation of animals altogether, Henry Bergh patented the knocking bolt, a device slaughterhouses use to this day to kill or render unconscious four-legged animals for slaughter so that they hopefully experience less pain when subsequently having their throats slit and their blood drained. For a detailed review of the device in use, see Pachirat, Every Twelve Seconds, especially chap. 6.

19. Rowan and Kartal, “Dog Population.” I discuss the politics of sterilization in greater depth in chapter 2.

20. Rowan and Kartal, “Dog Population”; Parlapiano, “Spaying, Neutering,” provides a journalistic overview of trends.

21. This is not an open-admission shelter but rather takes select animals from the City of San Francisco’s open-admission shelter. Maddie’s does not itself pick up or take in stray animals.

22. Best Friends Animal Society, “No Kill.”

23. No Kill Advocacy Center, “No Kill Equation”; foster programs place animals in private homes. At many shelters, such programs utilize foster homes only for unweaned animals and those with medical needs and typically return the animal to the shelter once of age or recovered. Private rescue organizations with foster programs typically keep animals in foster homes until adoption.