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The Killing of Animals at the NYC Pound Violates Animal Rights

From Deborah Tanzer, Ph.D.
May 2024

NYC Animal 'Care' Centers the perfect playing field for pathological power drives, conscious and unconscious, as the shelter officials create death lists, coldly decreeing who shall live and who shall die.

Puppy and Kitten

I am a psychologist, and I am deeply involved in advocating for animals and their rights. Part of what I do is to circulate desperate last-minute appeals to save the lives of the legions of animals facing death in the city pound, the “Animal Care Centers” of New York City, where I live. I look at the pictures of these animals, I see their faces and pleading eyes, I sense their fright and terror, and my heart breaks. Facing a grim fate just ahead, they are bewildered and confused about why they are there, suddenly trapped in a cage under frightening conditions in the “shelter.” Innocent beings torn from familiar surroundings, heartlessly abandoned, or roaming the streets cold and hungry, they do not understand, and as they look at me from the pictures, sensing death and fear all l around them, they are very scared.

And now, most likely, they will die. They will be injected with a lethal liquid to kill them, and they will leave the “shelter” in garbage bags, often within a few days or even hours of arrival. The numbers of dogs and cats killed at the NYC pound are horrifying. Every year thousands of healthy adoptable animals are killed at NYC ACC’s so-called “shelters.” This is what is officially called animal “Care” in the greatest city in the world.

So yes, my heart breaks, but when I look at those faces, I also become very angry. I become angry because I believe that when we kill these animals, we are doing something not only heartbreaking, but something completely unethical. Something we have absolutely no moral right to do. No right whatsoever. Sadly, we have the power to kill them, and as in countless situations where humans deal with animals, we wield and impose our power violently and mercilessly when we kill them. But however we rationalize the killing, the fact remains that although we have the power to kill the animals, to end their lives, we do not have the moral right to do so, and I challenge anyone to show me that we do. This is where the issue of Animal Rights comes in.

The bedrock principle of Animal Rights philosophy, its fundamental premise, is that every animal, like every human, has the right to his or her life. Every animal is the “subject of a life,” and humans have no right to take that life away, to violate the basic right of animals to live. Springing from the same natural rights philosophy that gave rise to the concept of human rights, it holds that for animals too, the right to one's life is inherent, inviolable, inalienable. Therefore, when we kill animals in pounds and “shelters,” we are committing a moral crime. The killing of animals in the New York City pound, as in all pounds and “shelters” is a direct violation of the animals’ inalienable right to live.

The current situation for animals in the NYC pound is horrendous, with ACC failing abysmally to save the animals in its care, killing thousands of animals each year while blaming the public. Despite intake numbers far below pre-pandemic levels, killing has risen sharply. Despite its claims, ACC routinely kills healthy adoptable animals. ACC’s official placement rate reports have been challenged by experts as statistically spurious. The Bronx and Queens “shelters” mandated by the City Council years ago remain unfinished, while hours in the other three are inadequate, phone calls are unreturned and adoption vans and events are virtually nonexistent. Despite a 34-year, billion-dollar contract with NYC, ACC cries poverty, and despite its wealth, ASPCA’s funds for animals in “hopeless” situations are not given to the doomed ACC animals a few blocks away.

As a result, thousands of animals continue to be killed each year at the NYC Animal “Care” Centers. Thousands of healthy adoptable animals die. And every single one of these killings is an immoral action, violating the animal’s inviolable right to live. Because this right is inalienable, each and every killing is per se an immoral act. Every single one.

But we blind ourselves and run away from this truth, creating excuses and falsehoods to try to justify the killing, this violation of the animals’ bedrock right to live. The current rhetoric, the reigning paradigm at pounds and shelters is that we “have to” kill the animals, we “must” kill them, allegedly because there is no space for them, and therefore killing them becomes “necessary.” Killing the animals, the shelter establishment says, is “the only thing we can do.” “We have no other choice but to kill them,” they say.

This ideology is not only a direct ethical violation of the animals’ fundamental right to live, but it also gets things completely backward, and guarantees that killing as a “final solution” will go on forever. For it is not until we rule out killing at the very beginning, that we take it off the table as an option at the outset, that other solutions can be implemented. We do not kill children in orphanages, or homeless people in shelters, or the elderly in nursing homes, or prisoners in prisons because they are crowded, and we would not kill them, because we believe it is wrong. We do not kill them because it is morally unacceptable. Because we believe it violates their right to life. We create other solutions. We do not kill them.

So too for animals. It is not a “shame” that we kill them. We cannot kill them. We may not kill them. It is morally unacceptable, and as with humans, we must find other solutions. Period. End of story.

We do not have to wait very long or look very far for solutions. The policies and programs of the “No Kill Equation” provide these solutions. Truly consonant with the principle of an animal’s inherent right to live, it demonstrates that the “No Kill” approach is not only the only morally acceptable position, but it is also eminently practical and doable. It is not pie-in-the-sky. It has been successfully implemented in many United States cities and municipalities, some with even higher animal intake rates than New York City and lowered the killing rates drastically.

But in New York City, the entrenched bureaucratic shelter establishment — the Animal “Care” Centers and its parent NYC Department of Health — remains mired in an outmoded immoral paradigm of killing, and resists this proven life-saving method, continuing the killing of thousands of animals there. Killed immorally, robbed of their right to live, their lives blatantly and ruthlessly snuffed out by a horrific and violent wielding of power.

I am a psychologist, and I know about power—it's used to help, and it's pathologically used to subdue and conquer, to hurt and maim, to torture, to destroy and kill. Human history has been contoured by such pathological wielding of power, as societies and institutions create hierarchies that decree some beings inferior and consign them to positions where they may be exploited and abused. Where warfare, holocaust, and genocide are rationalized and justified. For individuals, too, the lure of power is great, as insecurities and anxieties and in life, countless victimizations, the vagaries of Nature, and the specters of illness, death, and mortality seek redress in pursuing power over others.

Animals have been central to all of this throughout history. Denying that humans are animals too, we have designated animals as lesser beings, and used them to play out our pathological drives for superiority and power. Animals—in laboratories, on factory farms, in the wild and in all situations where humans impose power over them—have been a playing field for these drives. And the ultimate act that lets us do this is to kill them. By killing animals, we become all-powerful, and we get to play God. We seize the power over life and death. We decide who will live and who shall die. Killing animals, we reassure ourselves that they die, and we do not. We cling to this power as we wield it, sometimes thrilling to it as it shores up our own sense of self.

Killing animals at the NYC Animal “Care” Centers is all of this. It is the perfect playing field for these pathological power drives, conscious and unconscious, as the shelter officials create death lists, coldly decreeing who shall live and who shall die. As shelter staffers walk innocent animals on the “walk of no return” down the hall to the killing room. As others inject them with “Fatal Plus” and they die.

But who are we to play God? Who are we to arrogate to ourselves this power over life and death, usurping and mocking Nature as we obliterate the animals’ lives? As we mock and undermine the foundational moral value we profess to hold, that the killing of innocents is wrong. As NYC ACC in its arrogance chooses to ignore proven life-saving solutions, and methodically and mercilessly destroys the animals imprisoned in a situation of unequal power. Killing them with impunity, robbing them of their right to life. In a chilling commentary on human alienation there, killing them with not even an official word of sorrow, pain, or heartbreak.

Posted on May 13, 2024
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