06/14/2011 12:32 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011

What It Really Means to Rescue and Shelter Homeless Dogs and Cats

This past week, the ASPCA's forensic team collected and documented evidence of animal cruelty at the Haven Acres Cat Sanctuary in Alachua County, Florida, a so-called 'sanctuary' where 700 cats were rescued following an investigation by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Alachua County Animal Services.

The cats at Haven Acres were found living in deplorable and inhumane conditions. Stacked in filthy, wire cages, many were malnourished and suffered from severe upper respiratory infections and parasites. Fortunately, the critically injured cats received emergency veterinary treatment from University of Florida veterinarians including Dr. Julie Levy, and every attempt is being made to save as many of them as possible and to eventually find them appropriate, loving homes.

Rescues and sanctuaries play an essential role in saving animals, and communities that achieve high rates of adoptions often maintain cooperative relationships with rescues, fosters and other humane organizations. The ASPCA has worked with and invested both financial and human resources in dozens of communities around the country to help them develop long-term best practices. In the past four years, the ASPCA has established 10 community partnerships around the country with local humane organizations, rescue groups and low-cost, high-volume spay/neuter providers to increase live release rates (the number of animals that leave the shelter system alive) in those communities. The model of cooperation and transparency of data in these communities has proven to be working: In 2010, our community partners placed more than 61,000 dogs and cats in homes by way of adoption, return-to-owner, or transfer to rescues and facilities where adoption is guaranteed. This success would not have been possible without those amazing rescue groups.

However, cases such as Haven Acres are a visceral reminder that sometimes the best of intentions devolve into acts of cruelty and neglect. In 2010, the ASPCA was involved in rescuing dogs, cats and horses from horrid, life-threatening conditions at rescues and sanctuaries in New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Arkansas. We also removed about 400 dogs (79 of which were already dead) from a rescue in Ohio and helped place some 80 dogs surrendered from a New York canine rescue.

In the passionate ongoing debates around achieving "no-kill" in communities around the country, it is often too tempting to fall into oversimplified logic of "shelters versus rescues." In reality, both shelters and rescues are capable of both saving lives and inhumanely threatening or ending them. Some have flat-out denied that rescues and sanctuaries can turn into nightmarish hoarding conditions that threaten the lives of the very animals they vow to protect. Unfortunately, such a position is not only naïve, but it overlooks the opportunity to address the issue and create a humane country where shelters and rescues work together with the best interests of animals at heart.

The ASPCA continues to work hard to establish relationships across the U.S. between shelters, rescuers, and the public to increase the number of dogs and cats that leave shelters alive and go into loving homes. For us, "no-kill" means maximizing lifesaving without jeopardizing the lives, health and well-being of the animals we are committed to protecting. To this end, the ASPCA will support initiatives that encourage cooperation between shelters and rescues while ensuring that all parties involved meet basic but essential standards of care. We will also continue to learn from our experiences in our partner communities so we can develop a foundation of lifesaving cooperation that other regions, towns and cities can model. To me, that is the very definition of "rescue."