Sabine Heinlein's essay, The Cruelty of Kindness, poses the question of whether no-kill animal shelters have gone too far in saving every life. It comes down to the question of whether any kind of life, no matter how painful, is better than death.
Maybe I'm all alone in this opinion, but I don't think death is always worse than staying alive. There are many conditions that make life a questionable advantage over being dead. This is at the core of discussions of euthanasia (choosing death because the quality of life has sunk to a certain point). I think as people get older and the prospect of living in extreme pain looks more like a possibility, they tend to support the idea of euthanasia. They want the freedom to choose whether nor not to keep in living in a state they find intolerable.
Animals under the care of humans don't have this choice. We choose for them. We can't know what shelter animals think about their situation or if they would consider death a more humane option than a dog living for years (and years) in a place where it doesn't have the human companionship it was bred for. Sure, dogs are physically capable of surviving the most miserable, inhumane circumstances indefinitely, but should they?
When I've discussed this with friends, they've insisted that the best option is for a dog to find a forever home, and they remind me that shelters hold that hope. Yes, shelters do provide the possibility that a dog could find an owner at any time. But is that hazy prospect enough to keep a dog indefinitely in a structure with inadequate heat/cooling capacity, minimal nutrition, no medical attention, almost no contact with humans, in a constantly soiled and cramped space? Most shelters keep their animals in either a cage just big enough for the animal to pace in or in a room filled to capacity. Many of these shelters can't keep up with standards of health and cleanliness. No-kill shelters run on shoestring budgets and they can't all maintain a decent quality of life for their occupants. Why not let the worst of those shelters put their dogs down peacefully?
Once again, I know the mission of no-kill shelters is help dogs find owners. I know the reason to keep dogs alive is to give them a chance to find a new life. Yes, of course, that's the best case scenario. But take off your rose-colored glasses. Imagine living for years in a lonely cage with the constant smell of shit, surrounded by miserable creatures, and you'd have no loved ones or anyone who even knows you exist and no hope of escape (dogs can't plot their exit or appeal for parole). I'm sure you can't even imagine living like that. Being a shelter dog isn't like being in prison. It's worse. Those dogs probably didn't do anything to deserve that fate, often don't get treatment for medical conditions, can't relieve themselves when they need to, have no way to comprehend why they're there, and are unable to get anything close to the level of companionship we've bred them to need. Many are constantly hungry or in pain. I wouldn't want anyone -- human or animal -- to live a single day in that situation. Again, I know that experience includes the possibility of being rescued any day, but still: doesn't the peacefulness of death sound better than years of that, especially since dogs can't conceptualize hope?