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Life and Death Questions Hang Over Animals, Too

Nothing – not politics, not religion, nothing – seems to get Americans as riled up as issues involving animals, especially pets. Stories about unusual, missing, or heroic dogs and cats – or about animals that are abused – produce broad smiles, copious tears, or intense debate.

An example is the kill rate – or conversely, the save rate – at the nation's animal shelters: how many rescued strays or donated animals find homes, and how many are euthanized because they're too sick, too dangerous, too old, too wild, or weren't quite cute enough to get adopted.

A handful of shelters profess to employ a no-kill policy. Even feral cats are neutered and returned to the wild. That makes for good public relations; people like to donate to shelters with high save rates. And they like to volunteer there, too.

But saving a high percentage of animals is not always easy. Some shelters don't have room or cannot afford, to keep large numbers of critters around. Rural shelters take in lots of wildlife that can't be placed in homes; shelters in some poor areas must put down vicious dogs that have been trained to fight.

In 2004, the Humane Society of the United States and other animal-welfare groups agreed on uniform standards for describing the condition of sheltered animals – such as treatable, unhealthy, and untreatable – as well how to report the save-kill rate. But lots of shelters don't subscribe to these guidelines. And some refuse to make their euthanasia rates public.

This is serious business in a field in which statistics take on the real and adorable face of a playful kitten, a cuddly puppy, a sassy bird, or a sad-eyed older animal.