This year the Colorado General Assembly passed a bill, HB21-1160, which aimed to introduce a shelter approach known as Socially Conscious Sheltering into state law. The initial draft of the bill contained many provisions and ideas that would have been dangerous to cats.

Alley Cat Allies responded by mobilizing our network of supporters and connecting with people and groups carrying out lifesaving programs to resist this bill. Our push changed the course of a bad bill. By the time the legislature passed the bill and Gov. Jared Polis signed it into law, the deadliest language had been removed.

Still, the danger to cats will only spread if more governments consider this approach, so Socially Conscious Sheltering requires a closer look.

Advocates for Socially Conscious Sheltering openly acknowledge that their structure is subjective. Disturbingly, despite being aware of its shortcomings, these supporters still tried to make it the law of the land in Colorado. The title may sound attractive, but Socially Conscious Sheltering falls far short of the lofty ideals the term calls to mind.

Because the philosophy is so dangerous for cats, Alley Cat Allies and many other organizations testified against the Colorado bill to state legislators. We urged grassroots supporters in Colorado to reach out to their lawmakers and coordinated strategy with leaders in the field who understood the implications of these bad ideas.

“Socially Conscious Sheltering is not what it sounds like,” said Davyd Smith, president of No Kill Colorado. “It is a premise that ignores the most important freedom we should be striving toward for animals – the Freedom to Live. Instead, it simply offers political cover for shelters to exercise the Freedom to Kill, for any reason, at any time.”

Danger for Cats

The eight tenets of Socially Conscious Sheltering include headlines that appear admirable on the surface. But these headlines cannot overshadow the troubling flaws that make support impossible.

One tenet is to “Place every healthy and safe animal,” and like many aspects of Socially Conscious Sheltering, this language was repeated almost verbatim in the first version of the Colorado bill. Yet in a training video, advocates acknowledge that, “healthy and safe are subjective terms, and we recognize that.” For anyone who strives for humane, effective management of cat populations, this should be an alarming admission.

In fact, “healthy” and “safe” are not just subjective—they are extremely dangerous terms to use in assessing community cats, because they are incredibly vague and easy to abuse. If included in legislation, they could allow untold numbers of cats to be killed in shelters and rescues.

As Alley Cat Allies explained in a letter to the Colorado Senate, Socially Conscious Sheltering does not acknowledge how significant a cat’s condition, illness or injury must be before the decision is made for the cat to be killed. If cats, including community cats, enter shelters with minor sniffles and scratches such imprecise language would allow shelters and rescues to arbitrarily decide to kill these animals.

Socially Conscious Sheltering also calls for an assessment of behavior to determine if a cat is “safe,” defining that word as “not exhibiting behavior that is likely to result in bodily injury or death to another animal or person.” This is far from objective criteria and could easily lead to misinterpretation.

All cats, not just feral or community cats, can become extraordinarily stressed when entering shelters or rescues, exhibiting behavior that is often misunderstood. For example, a companion cat who has always been in an indoor home could become agitated upon entering a shelter environment – primarily because it is a strange setting that frightens her.

Cats are individuals and display a wide range of socialization to people. Shelter and rescue workers frequently lack the training to make an accurate determination of a cat’s level of socialization, especially within minutes and hours of entering a shelter where they are very stressed. They should not be given the authority to determine which cats will be subject to the arbitrary and deadly decisions called for by Socially Conscious Sheltering.

Without objective measurements on what is “healthy” or “safe,” Socially Conscious Sheltering is not only irresponsible, but deadly for cats.

Opening the Door to Killing Cats

Another troubling tenet of Socially Conscious Sheltering is one of “Alleviating suffering and making appropriate euthanasia decisions.” In the same training video referenced above, advocates confess, “We very much understand that ‘suffering’ and ‘appropriate’ are pretty subjective words when it comes to this topic.” As Davyd Smith of No Kill Colorado said above, the decision to kill cats in shelters should not be encouraged with such morally flexible rationale.

In fact, a viewpoint like this that opens the door to animals being killed in shelters is in complete opposition to the will of today’s compassionate society. In fact, in a 2017 poll by Harris Interactive, 84 percent of Americans said they prefer their community use tax dollars to adopt sterilization as its cat control policy instead of bringing cats found outdoors into shelters to be killed.

Developing objective, scientifically-based best practices aimed at humane, lifesaving care should be the top priority for today’s shelters. This is why effective, cutting-edge programs including Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) have now become mainstream practices. TNR is proven to be the best for cats and for the people who live near them. TNR reduces calls to animal control, reduces the number of cats entering shelters, and reduces taxpayer expense, all while meeting the demands of the public for humane care that is truly lifesaving.

Socially Conscious Sheltering may sound ideal, but in practice it poses a major threat to the wellbeing of cats, both pets and those who live their lives outdoors. Until its parameters are defined in a manner that would save cats’ lives rather than open countless avenues to kill them, this ideology has no place in animal shelter protocol or legislation.