Dealing with Bird Conservationists

The last few years have been a very exciting time for cat advocates because the new community cat paradigms are revolutionizing how shelters deal with cats. Problems can arise in fully implementing community cat programs, though, including ordinances that restrict trap-neuter-return (TNR) or return-to-field (RTF). Just recently we have had a threat to the TNR program in Washington, DC and a scare as to the TNR and RTF programs in Jacksonville, Florida. We never know when or where the bird conservationists are going to pop up and propose a restrictive ordinance to stop TNR and RTF, or try to persuade government officials to adopt a trap-and-kill program.

Community cat advocates are fortunate to have great sources of help and information such as Alley Cat Allies and the Million Cat Challenge. Peter Wolf’s blog Vox Felina has many articles deconstructing the research that bird conservationists cite as support for their trap-and-kill agenda. In addition to those great resources, I thought it might be handy to have a short guide to the true state of knowledge about feral and community cats today. Here are some facts that sometimes get buried in the rhetoric about free-roaming cats .

  • We have no idea how many free-roaming cats there are in the United States. In 2013, a meta-analysis of cat predation on wildlife that came to be known as the Smithsonian study was published by three conservationists.* The paper received a great deal of attention and has been frequently cited by bird conservationists in arguing for trap-and-kill programs. The authors admitted, however, that the number of free-roaming cats in the United States is not known. In their words: “No empirically-derived estimate of un-owned cat abundance exists for the contiguous U.S.” What this means in plain English is that no one has ever done an evidence-based study on the number of outdoor cats in the United States. The authors then went on to acknowledge that the guesses people have made as to the number of feral cats range from 20 million to 120 million. So if you are ever at a city council hearing and a bird conservationist says that “there are 60 million feral cats in the United States,” feel free to correct them by citing their own flagship study. The fact is that whenever anyone claims there are “x” number of feral or free-roaming cats in the United States, they are purely guessing.
  • Cats are a commensal species.** That means that they live primarily in and near human habitations, much like squirrels, raccoons, and opposums. Commensal species are dependent on humans for food and shelter. There is no evidence whatsoever that significant numbers of feral cats live in wilderness areas.
  • There is no evidence whatsoever that the number of unowned cats in the United States as a whole is increasing. In fact, the evidence we have indicates that the number of free-roaming cats is decreasing. Bird conservationists often argue that cats are an “invasive” species. It is true that the domestic cat is not native to the Americas, but there is no evidence that cats are an “invasive” species in the sense of rapidly multiplying and taking over habitats. Cats were introduced to the United States before the Pilgrims arrived, and if they were a classic invasive species the country would be chock-a-block with cats by now. Instead of increasing, cat populations in cities, measured by shelter intake and anecdotal evidence of the number of cats on the street, appear to have been declining for the last 75 years. And since cats, as commensal animals, live mostly in cities, then if cat numbers are declining in cities they are probably declining overall.
  • There is no evidence that cat predation harms bird species at the population level, or that cat predation has ever affected the survival of an endangered bird species in the continental United States. The authors of the Smithsonian study attached a supplemental table where they listed bird mortality by species as found in various studies. As Peter Wolf pointed out in a blog post on Vox Felina, of the 58 species cited, 57 are plentiful. One, the Northern Bobwhite, is listed as “near threatened,” but its status is attributed to habitat destruction and sport hunting.
  • No one knows how many birds a typical outdoor cat kills. Studies that have been done in the United States have found everything from 1.64 birds per cat per year to 186.47 birds per cat per year (see Supplementary Table S1 in the Smithsonian study). With such a gigantic variation in study results, the only reasonable conclusion we can come to is that scientists have not yet discovered how to set proper parameters for effectively measuring cat predation on birds in the field.
  • Owned cats kill fewer birds than unowned cats. Although the studies cited in Supplementary Table S1 of the Smithsonian paper are extremely inconsistent as to the number of birds killed by individual cats, the studies are very consistent in concluding that owned cats kill far fewer birds than unowned cats. Owned cats are fed, so it is not surprising that they hunt less. Feral cats who have a colony caregiver are also fed. Therefore, the Smithsonian study provides strong support for the argument that TNR, with ongoing colony care, will lead to less predation on birds.
  • The trap-and-kill methods pushed by bird conservationists have never been shown to work. In order for trap-and-kill to work, the generally accepted view is that at least 70% of the target population has to be killed, and this has to be repeated every two years. Because cats live mostly in urban and suburban areas, especially in alleys and vacant houses and outbuildings where they can find shelter, extermination programs would have to trap cats in people’s neighborhoods. I am not aware of any city that has ever tried a mass trap-and-kill program, and I cannot imagine how such a program would succeed. First, it would be very expensive because it would require the purchase of a large number of traps and the employment of a large number of people to set and monitor the traps and kill the cats. Second, catching feral cats is not easy, and the people who know how to do it would not be assisting the city. Third, the traps would catch more pet cats and small dogs than feral cats, and it would be very expensive to house those animals for return to their owners. Fourth, there would be many highly publicized horror stories of pet cats who were caught and killed by the trappers. Fifth, people who sympathized with the cats would sabotage the traps. Sixth, the bird conservationists are not offering to fund or carry out these extermination programs themselves, and instead urge the cities to pay for it and to take the heat. Advocates should make sure that city officials see the contrast between TNR/RTF programs, which are paid for with donations and carried out by volunteers, and trap-and-kill programs which would have to be carried out by hired help and funded by the taxpayers. And we should use every opportunity to point out that bird conservationists who argue against TNR and RTF are trying to destroy existing programs without having any practical solution to put in their place.
  • Our message is not “just leave the cute kitties alone.” Bird conservationists often try to paint cat advocates as irrational and sentimental people, and they sometimes invoke or hint at the “cat lady” stereotype. They try to portray cat advocates as supporters of an untenable status quo. We need to make sure that government officials know that TNR and RTF are programs that are designed to change the status quo. In fact, the purpose of TNR and RTF is to do exactly what bird conservationists say they want, which is to reduce the number of free-roaming cats. Government officials love to find a middle ground on contentious issues, and TNR and RTF provide such a middle ground.


* “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” Scott R. Loss, Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra, Nature Communications 4, January 29, 2013, doi:10.1038/ncomms2380.

** Terry O’Connor, Animals as Neighbors: The Past and Present of Commensal Animals (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2013).

No Kill in the City

Here is my latest article for the Huffington Post blog. I’ve included all the big cities that have made it to No Kill or are almost there. Let’s get the word out about the good news on No Kill!

In just the last few years we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of major cities and metro areas in the United States whose animal shelters have either reached “No Kill” status or are getting close. People define “No Kill” in different ways, but the most common definition of a No Kill community is one where all the shelters in the community, taken together, save 90% or more of the community’s homeless pets.

Six years ago there were no large cities that were No Kill by that definition. The first one was Austin, in 2011. Back then it was thought that large cities would probably be the last places where No Kill was achieved, because city shelters take in lots of animals and budgets are often tight. Yet today, just five years after Austin achieved No Kill, big cities are leading the way.

One common way big cities get to No Kill has been by cooperative public-private efforts. Austin, for example, has a large non-profit, Austin Pets Alive!, that takes a substantial number of animals from the city shelter and finds adoptive homes for them. Austin also has another large non-profit, the Austin Humane Society, that does trap-neuter-return (TNR) for feral cats. Jacksonville, Florida, similarly has three organizations that are working closely together to make the city No Kill. The Jacksonville city shelter works with First Coast No More Homeless Pets, which does TNR and mega-adoption events, and the Jacksonville Humane Society, which pulls animals from the city shelter. Both Austin and Jacksonville had extremely high community save rates last year, in the mid-90% range.

The non-profits in Austin and Jacksonville also work with surrounding communities to help them improve their save rates. The leadership of Austin Pets Alive! has been very instrumental in the success of San Antonio, whose city shelter just achieved a 90% save rate last December. And First Coast No More Homeless Pets has helped neighboring counties increase their shelter lifesaving.

Some metro areas have large coalitions of shelters spanning several jurisdictions that work together. In the Portland, Oregon, metro area, shelters from four counties serving over two million people have achieved shelter save rates over 90%. The Denver metro area also has a large coalition that has reported save rates over 90% (although Denver’s success is marred by a long-standing pit-bull ban). Colorado’s shelters are saving about 90% of intake across the state. That includes thousands of dogs from other states that Colorado shelters take in each year.

Another way that No Kill can happen is when advocates start a non-profit that bids on and wins the contract to run the city shelter. Then they reform it. This can be difficult in cases where the non-profit has to go it alone, but it has the virtue of putting advocates in complete control of the shelter. A good example of this method is Atlanta. Ten years ago probably few people in the United States would have believed that Atlanta would be No Kill in 2016, yet that is the goal of LifeLine Animal Project, the non-profit that in 2013 won the contracts to run both of the city’s shelters. LifeLine does not have a partner comparable to what we see in Austin or Jacksonville, yet it has already increased the save rate at both of its shelters to about 85%.

In Kansas City, Missouri, as in Atlanta, a non-profit formed by No Kill advocates won the city contract. The Kansas City Pet Project was formed only just in time to make the bid. They managed to make the city No Kill in record time, within six months of their start date. They showed that it was not going to be business as usual when they held their grand opening on New Years Day, the first day of their contract in 2012.

These cities are not flukes. There are similar stories in Baltimore, Washington DC, Seattle, Miami, the Salt Lake City metro area, the Richmond metro area, and San Francisco. There are large metro counties like Fairfax (outside of Washington DC) and San Diego that are on board. And many medium-sized cities and metro areas such as Asheville, Williamson County (just north of Austin), and Washoe County (home to Reno) have outstanding programs.

Perhaps the most surprising transformation has been happening in New York City. The city shelter system in New York serves all five boroughs and takes in some 30,000 animals every year. The system has struggled with a lack of resources since the city took over animal control and sheltering from the ASPCA in 1994. In 2003, a non-profit named the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, headed by Jane Hoffman, began to build a unique system for helping the city shelter. The Mayor’s Alliance is a large consortium of shelters and rescues, currently numbering well over 150 organizations, that pulls animals from the city shelter. The Mayor’s Alliance has evolved to the point that it now provides an interface for the complicated task of coordinating so many organizations in the placement of many thousands of animals. It’s a big, messy system that seems chaotic sometimes, but in 2015 the New York City shelter system had an 86% live release rate.

There is no reason why every city in the country cannot do what these cities have done. With high-intake cities like San Antonio, Austin, Kansas City, and Atlanta going No Kill, there is no longer any room for excuses. The deciding factor is not how wealthy or progressive the city is, but whether local humane advocates are willing to step in and make No Kill happen. LifeLine Animal Project, Kansas City Pet Project, First Coast No More Homeless Pets, the Jacksonville Humane Society, the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland, and the Mayor’s Alliance are examples of how it gets done.

The State of No Kill: Western U.S.

West Coast – Washington, Oregon, California
Upper Rockies – Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
Middle Rockies – Nevada, Utah, Colorado
Lower Southwest – Arizona, New Mexico
Non-Contiguous – Hawaii, Alaska

The western United States, like most other regions of the country, has a mixture of very good and very bad shelter systems, with a lot in between. Some parts of the western United States are as good at No Kill as you can find anywhere in the country, but at least two states in the region are among the worst for No Kill.

The West Coast area has several cities that are models for No Kill. Seattle and its metro area, including Kitsap County, do not provide consolidated statistics, but the area certainly appears to be No Kill. The Portland metro area, consisting of four counties that have formed a coalition, is saving more than 90% in its population area of over 2 million people. Oregon is also home to the city of Eugene, which is No Kill.

In Northern California, the city of San Francisco has had a consolidated live release rate of over 90% since 2013. The San Francisco SPCA partners with the city of Stockton to help them increase their save rate. Sacramento, which has faced a lot of challenges, had a 78% save rate in 2015 with intake of almost 11,000. Sacramento apparently includes died/lost in their live release rate calculation, so with the standard calculation they might be over 80%. Chico, California, is notable for the stunning success it has had with the new community cats paradigms. Its shelter reduced cat intake from 2,839 to 442 and cat euthanasia from 1273 to 88 after it implemented a community cat program. This success story was featured in the March/April 2015 issue of the HSUS Animal Sheltering magazine.

Southern California is rapidly improving. Best Friends is helping with a massive effort in Los Angeles that is paying off in substantially increased lifesaving. The San Diego coalition reported that it has reached 90%. Ventura County has also reported reaching No Kill.

The Upper Rockies have a lot in common with the Western Midwest – both are areas where we do not have much information about how No Kill is doing. My impression is that these states are making progress, though. There is a correlation between mountainous terrain and cold weather and No Kill. And these states are becoming more progressive and have many resort areas, both of which also correlate with No Kill. There are several small No Kill communities in Montana and Wyoming. I have heard reports of shelters that are doing well in Idaho, although I have not researched those shelters.

The Middle Rockies states are amazing. Colorado is a No Kill state, as measured by the state’s shelter reporting system. Best Friends has had a project to make Utah a No Kill state ongoing for several years now, and they have been very successful, with the Salt Late City metro area and a double-digit number of smaller cities and counties with live release rates of 90% or more. The giant Humane Society of Utah, which is open admission for owner surrenders and pulls lots of animals from public shelters, recently announced that it had a 90%+ live release rate in 2015.

Nevada is home to Washoe County, where the shelter system has been No Kill for years. The Nevada Humane Society, which has been a crucial partner to Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks, is now working on making Carson City No Kill. Las Vegas has a serious No Kill effort underway in which a large local No Kill group, No Kill Las Vegas, is participating. It is great to see a terrific No Kill group like NKLV assisting the local shelter to succeed.

Unfortunately, there is less good news in the remaining regions of the west. The Lower Southwest has some areas where reported stray numbers are high and kill rates are high. This part of the country, like Houston, Dallas, and Detroit, seems stuck back in the 1970s, with a large number of homeless animals roaming the streets. There have been sporadic efforts to improve save rates, as with Albuquerque’s cat project. Pima County, Arizona, has been making an effort. One bright spot is the Yavapai Humane Society, which has contracts in the Prescott, Arizona, area, and has reported 90%+ save rates for several years now. In general, though, Arizona and New Mexico do not seem like good places to be a homeless pet. It may be that a major intervention in low-cost spay neuter is needed in the area to get the stray problem under control.

Animals in the Non-Continguous states of Hawaii and Alaska were in the news in 2015, and not in a good way. The Kauai Humane Society received heavy criticism of its practices and kill rate. In Alaska there are persistent reports of mistreatment of sled dogs. Working sled dogs get a lot of exercise, which can be a good thing, but it appears that they typically spend most of their non-working time chained outdoors or in small kennels. The Iditarod race is the focus of concern about cruelty to sled dogs, but the Iditarod happens only once per year and the year-round treatment of sled dogs deserves attention too.


Both the Middle Rockies and the West Coast get a B+. They are doing splendidly well, closing in on New England (and a lot more transparent than New England). I’m going to give the Upper Rockies a C, but it is possible that if we had more data it would reveal them to rank a little higher. The Lower Southwest unfortunately gets a D-, the lowest grade of any region in the United States. The Non-Continguous states get a D.

The State of No Kill: Central U.S.

This post looks at how No Kill did in the central part of the United States in 2015. We can break the area down into four regions:

Upper Midwest – Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota
Lower Midwest – Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa
Western Midwest – North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas
South Central – Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana

The Upper Midwest, consisting of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, has been doing very well at No Kill. All three of these states are destination states for dog transports. We have numerous No Kill communities in this region, many of them with very high save rates. No Kill success seems to correlate with cold temperatures, and we certainly have that in these states. In Minnesota we have Duluth and St. Paul as stand-outs. In Wisconsin, the communities of Brown County, Brookfield, and Dane County are noteworthy.

Michigan has over a dozen public shelters serving over 20 communities that have a 90% or better live release rate. Michigan is also one of the small number of states that has a requirement that shelters report their statistics to the state. The state has all the statistics posted online, going back several years. There seems to be a correlation between states collecting shelter statistics and posting them online and how well the states rank at lifesaving. It may be that when shelters know they have to report and that anyone can read their reports at the click of a mouse, they do better. Detroit remains a problem, though.

The Lower Midwest states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Iowa have historically had high kill rates, but we are seeing signs of progress. Kansas City Pet Project (KCPP) in Kansas City, Missouri, is proof that communities in this region can do a very good job of saving shelter pets. KCPP is a good example of an increasingly common trend, which is ordinary citizens forming a non-profit to bid on and take over animal control and sheltering. Terre Haute (Indiana), and Ames (Iowa), are additional bright spots in this region. No Kill efforts in Chicago have been ongoing for a long time and the city shelter has been making slow progress. Their main problem at the present time seems to be a high kill rate for pit-bull-type dogs.

Ohio has an interesting scheme that could potentially be turned to good advantage for No Kill. State law provides that each county must have an appointed dog warden, who is responsible for dog licensing and control. The potential for this system is that in Ohio we know who is responsible for dog control, so efforts to make each dog warden’s operation No Kill would be easy to coordinate and standardize. The historical distinction in Ohio between dog sheltering and cat sheltering should also make it easier to set up return-to-field programs for community cats.

The western area of the Midwest, consisting of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, is kind of a black hole for No Kill, in the sense that we just do not have much data on these states. I would expect the Dakotas to have relatively small stray populations due to their brutal weather. The region is sparsely populated, with all four states together having a human population of only about 6.5 million.

The South Central region of the United States, consisting of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, is a very mixed bag. There is little data available on Oklahoma. In Arkansas, the progressive city of Fayetteville would seem to be a likely venue for No Kill, but the city shelter is not a model. A quick check of their Facebook page showed that they were closed on the MLK holiday, for example. Baton Rouge in Louisiana has been working on No Kill for several years, but is running at only about a 65% save rate.

Texas is where the No Kill action is in the South Central region, but Texas, of all the states in the union, probably has the highest highs and the lowest lows. Austin, the progressive capital of the state, has had high save rates for five years now. Austin has a cooperative model for No Kill that is often cited as an example for other cities. Just north of Austin is Williamson County, which has also been No Kill for five years. San Antonio, about an hour’s drive southwest of Austin, has struggled up into the 80% range. Waco has made an impressive turnaround.

But the dark side of things in Texas is very dark. There are consistent reports of high numbers of stray dogs in Houston and Dallas. Shelter intake numbers in Houston are mind-boggling, and the Dallas shelter is under intense pressure to make sweeps to take in (and kill) more stray dogs. As far as I can tell, no national organization has rallied to help the Dallas shelter in this crisis by transporting dogs out of the state. In most parts of the United States spay-neuter efforts that started back in the 1970s have resulted in the vast majority of owned pets being sterilized today. Houston and Dallas apparently never got that memo. They need intervention, and they need it badly.


The Upper Midwest gets a solid B. Without Detroit it would be a B+. The Lower Midwest gets a C. If there were more information about the Lower Midwest it might get a C+. There is not enough information available about the Western Midwest to even guess at a grade. The South Central region gets a D. The few bright spots in Texas, bright as they are, do not outweigh the serious problems in the rest of the region. If it were not for Austin, Williamson County, and San Antonio the South Central region would get an F.

The State of No Kill: Southeast

This post looks at how No Kill did in the Southeast in 2015. We can break the area down into two regions:

Upper Southeast – Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina
Deep South – South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi

The surprising thing about the southeast in 2015 was that the most inspiring stories came from the Deep South – an area that we have traditionally thought of as terrible for shelter animals. For many years the only real hope for homeless dogs in the Deep South was to be transported to northern shelters, and the only real hope for cats was to avoid being caught by animal control at all. Today, we have communities in the Deep South, including some large cities, that are on the cutting edge of new No Kill techniques.

I had the privilege of visiting LifeLine Animal Project’s two open admission county shelters serving the city of Atlanta this past year. LifeLine took over the shelters in 2013, and both are now running at about an 85% live release rate. That’s up very sharply since they took over – a true reversal of what went before. They have all the problems of big-city shelters, including a high intake of pit bulls, and they have very little outside help. LifeLine is an example of what No Kill can do even with few resources.

Jacksonville, Florida, is another phenomenal story. They have a great coalition of three partners working together in harmony – the city shelter, the Jacksonville Humane Society, and First Coast No More Homeless Pets. That’s very nice to see because there are so many other cities where egos get in the way of cooperation and people go around with a chip on their shoulder.

Scott Trebatoski, who managed the city shelter in Jacksonville before being lured away to Hillsborough County, Florida (where the city of Tampa is located), has been making great strides in a place that was previously a death knell to No Kill attempts. The shelter there has been running at a save rate of over 80%. Another big story of 2015 was Miami, which is now reporting that it was over 90% for the year. Miami is getting a new shelter this year, which should help with even better lifesaving for the almost 30,000 dogs and cats they take in annually.

There are success stories in smaller cities in the Deep South too. Gainesville, Florida, has been making steady progress. I don’t think Gainesville is quite to No Kill yet, but one bright spot is the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where Dr. Julie Levy has been doing great research on TNR and RTF. Huntsville, Alabama (yes, Alabama!) has been running at over 90% lately. Southern Pines Animal Shelter in Mississippi is over 90% (they need donations to shore up their shelter building against a landslide emergency). Columbia, South Carolina, has already cut its kill rate by half, and wants to go the rest of the way to No Kill. A committee has proposed a promising plan, with the exception of mandatory spay-neuter for pit bulls. Hopefully that idea will not make it into the final plan.

The upper Southeast did not have the kind of big headline No Kill stories last year that the Deep South had, but progress is being made. Virginia has more and more communities that are No Kill. Three of its communities are examples of the best in No Kill – Richmond, Lynchburg, and Charlottesville. Lynchburg is one of my favorite No Kill stories. The city’s median household income is below average for Virginia and for the United States as a whole, and yet the Lynchburg Humane Society has not only been No Kill for years now, it also opened a state-of-the-art new shelter in 2015.

The city of Asheville, in North Carolina, seems to be ramping up to become a No Kill powerhouse. The Foothills Humane Society in Polk County, North Carolina, has reportedly been No Kill for some time now. West Virginia has made it onto the board with the Charleston shelter. Tennessee has a few towns that are doing well, as does Kentucky. But North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky have few bright spots.

It’s interesting to speculate on why the Deep South has all these cities that are making such fast progress toward No Kill. Whatever the reasons behind the groundswell of progress in the region, though, it’s a great thing to see. One possible problem for the future is that northern shelters may lose their supply of dogs transported from the south. That’s a good problem to have, because it means that northern shelters will be able to start reaching out to more dogs in need, perhaps from overseas.


I would give the Upper Southeast a D, with the Deep South getting a C-. I would love to give the deep South a higher grade to recognize the rapid progress that is being made, but the majority of shelters there have not joined the bandwagon – yet.

The State of No Kill: Northeast

This is the first in a series of posts on the regions of the United States and how each one is doing at No Kill as we begin 2016. These posts are impressionistic to some extent, because we do not have very much hard data on shelter statistics. And there is lots of variation within each region. Even so, there are some things we can say about the different regions of the country.

Today’s post is on the Northeast. For analyzing No Kill success, we can break the Northeast down into two regions:

  • New England – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island
  • Mid-Atlantic – New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia

New England

New England overall is probably the most successful region of the country at No Kill. If the entire United States was like New England we would be very close to being a No Kill nation. New Hampshire is No Kill and has been for a while. The word is that Maine is No Kill and that seems likely to be true, although data for the state is not available. New England, as well as the northeast in general, is a destination region for transports. I don’t know how many animals are transported into the Northeast each year, but my guess would be 20,000 or more.

If I were going to find a fault with New England (and, to some extent, with the entire Northeast region), it would be that many of the organizations there could do even better if they were more willing to be creative and transparent. I think this is, in large part, because of the way animal sheltering developed in the Northeast. In the years from 1866 to the end of the Progressive Era around 1920, the United States saw the first wave of formation of humane societies and SPCAs. Since the northeast part of the country was the most settled at that time, a lot of the animal-welfare organizations in that region today trace their roots back into the 1800s and early 1900s.

Many of these organizations seemed to be shaped and constrained by the weight of their own history. The mere knowledge that they have been in existence for 100 years or more makes them conservative and unwilling to risk their legacies by breaking with tradition. And one tradition is not being transparent with the public. In a sense you cannot blame them, because there is much downside and not a lot of upside in posting statistics. Another reason they may not be very concerned with posting statistics is that they feel like they are doing quite well and there is no reason for the public to be concerned. There is a whiff of paternalism about some of these legacy organizations.

But again, New England is doing extremely well, and if the only problem we have there is a little ossification in the legacy humane societies, we are in good shape. Why does New England do so well? The director of one humane society told me she thinks it is because people in New England have been pushing spay-neuter and owner responsibility for 40 years now, longer than other areas of the country, and they are reaping the rewards of all that work that went before. I think that analysis is probably correct, but I would add that in general people in New England tend to have more education than average and higher household income, which means they are less likely to have to give up a pet. They are also less likely to put up with cruel or incompetent shelter management. The climate and terrain may also play a part, since high shelter save rates seem to correlate with cold weather, snow, and rocky terrain.


The Mid-Atlantic region is a really mixed bag for No Kill, with many successful cities and counties and many that are not doing so well. Over all I would rate these states as better than average, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Some rural areas of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and some parts of New Jersey, present big problems.

New York City, the District of Columbia, and Baltimore have all reported 80% or better live release rates, although Baltimore’s rate had not been sustained for a year as of the end of 2014. It is worth asking the question why these cities seem to be able to achieve 80%+ but then have trouble getting to 90% or above (although I would not be surprised if DC hit 90% in 2015). One possibility might be that in a large city you get a different population of shelter animals than you have in a small town. Another might be that in a city you will have a wide spectrum of household income and education levels, whereas many of the communities with 90%+ live release rates have a concentration of wealthy and educated residents. Another possibility is simply that with very large intake numbers it may be inefficient for one organization to have to do it all. Two large cities that are excellent examples of sustained live release rates over 90% — Jacksonville and Austin — both have large non-profit partners that pull a substantial percentage of the city shelter’s intake. And they both have organizations that do TNR/RTF for feral cats.

One Mid-Atlantic state to watch in 2016 is Delaware. The state took over animal control as of the first of the year, and contracted out animal sheltering to a private organization, the Chester County SPCA. The Chester County SPCA seems to be thoroughly committed to No Kill, and I think it is very possible that the entire state of Delaware may finish 2016 with a live release rate of 90% or better.


Overall, I would give the Northeast region a B, with New England getting an A- and the Mid-Atlantic getting a C+. The region deserves a great deal of credit for the large numbers of animals it transports in.

Attack on No Kill

UPDATE Jan. 6, 2016: The city council meeting set for January 12, 2016 to discuss the ABC letter has been cancelled. At this time the mayor and city council do not appear to have any further action scheduled on the ABC letter.

The Feral Freedom program in Jacksonville, Florida, is one of the exceptional success stories of No Kill. Feral Freedom is an initiative of First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) in collaboration with the city shelter and with the support of Best Friends. It was an indispensable component in Jacksonville reaching No Kill two years ago. Feral Freedom developed a revolutionary approach to saving community cats that has done as much as any other initiative to reduce shelter killing of cats, not just in Jacksonville but as an inspiration to communities across the nation.

Feral Freedom is not the only great thing about Jacksonville. I’ve been blogging about No Kill communities for five years now, and if I had to pick out one community to serve as an example of what is right with No Kill, it might very well be Jacksonville. Jacksonville is a large southern city, which is about the toughest venue for No Kill. It is not a progressive city like Austin or Charlottesville. It overcomes all its challenges by the organizations in the city, including the Animal Care & Protective Services Division (ACPSD), the Jacksonville Humane Society (JHS), and FCNMHP working together with terrific harmony. In Jacksonville, they can truthfully say “yes we can all just get along.” As Denise Deisler told me: “In Jacksonville among the partners, we have few boundaries . . . we are flying in formation towards the same goal.”

The combined statistics for ACPSD and JHS for the year ending in September 2015 showed a live release rate, by the standard calculation, of 96%. That’s one of the highest live release rates that I’m aware of for any major city, ever. For a rate like that to be achieved in a non-progressive southern city is little short of a miracle. And the Jacksonville organizations do not just work in the city – they also reach out to help their neighboring jurisdictions get to No Kill too.

But today this great success story is under imminent threat from outside. There is a strong effort being made to shut down the Feral Freedom program. This would not only cripple No Kill in Jacksonville, it is a threat to No Kill in every other city in the United States. I wrote a few days ago about the stunning success of the Million Cat Challenge, which has saved almost 400,000 shelter cats in the last two years. One of the core initiatives of the Million Cat Challenge is return-to-field, which was pioneered by Feral Freedom. The attack on Feral Freedom, if it succeeds, might set a precedent that would endanger the success of the Million Cat Challenge and the 300+ shelters enrolled in its program. It could also potentially endanger independent TNR programs throughout the United States.

So what is this threat? It is a campaign by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) to get the Jacksonville city council to end the city’s relationship with Feral Freedom. In a December 3, 2015, letter to the mayor and the council, the ABC argues that TNR does not control the number of feral cats, that feral cat colonies are a threat to public health, and that feral cats are an invasive species that “impose severe ecological damage” on wildlife. The ABC letter, which is four pages long including footnotes, has only one sentence on the issue of what it thinks should replace Feral Freedom. That sentence says: “The City would be better served by treating cats like dogs, actively and effectively removing these feral animals, and/or completely enclosing every feral cat colony.”

The suggestion to enclose feral cat colonies is not a serious proposal, and is probably included only to make ABC’s preferred solution seem not quite so harsh. What ABC is really recommending is that: (1) the city should force all cat owners to keep their cats indoors or under control at all times under penalty of law, and (2) all feral cats should be captured and killed. This is the program that ABC is putting forward as better than Feral Freedom.

Let’s take a moment to think about what would happen if the Jacksonville city council adopted the ABC proposal. First of all, they would probably be voted out of office at the next election, but in addition to that, the ABC program would be ineffective. As to trying to force people to keep cats indoors, we should know by now that draconian anti-pet provisions never work. Good policy today is to work with people as they are, not to try to force them to do things they don’t want to do. Instead of mandatory spay-neuter we offer low-cost and free spay-neuter and targeted outreach. Instead of breed bans, we look at the behavior of individual dogs. We have learned that criminalizing people’s pets just results in people going underground, and tuning out the official message.

As to catching and killing all the feral cats in the city, I cannot understand why anyone would think that this is a better approach than Feral Freedom. Not only is it cruel, and not only would it sweep up lots of people’s pets, it wouldn’t even work. The great majority of the real estate in any city is private property, and the great majority of feral cat colonies are located on private property. The city has no right to come onto private property willy nilly and take people’s cats. Even if we were to assume that the city was able to enact some kind of draconian ordinance that allowed them to legally come onto private property and take cats, that would simply mean that people would hide the cats. In order for a catch-and-kill program to work, the city would have to catch at least 70% of the free-roaming cats in the city and then they would have to repeat this vast catch-and-kill program every couple of years. Good luck with that. And in the meantime, with TNR shut down, there would be no way to slow down cat reproduction.

TNR has gained such wide acceptance not because it is a perfect method, but because it is the best of the methods that are actually possible to implement. We live in a complicated world, and simplistic solutions like “catch and kill all the cats” won’t work. The ABC is failing to consider the following factors: (1) the citizens will not support what ABC wants to do, (2) feral cat caregivers and humane advocates will work as hard as they can to thwart any mass killing plan that the city might adopt, (3) you can’t force people to keep their cats indoors if they don’t want to, unless you plan to hire a lot more police officers, and (4) a catch-and-kill program, unlike TNR, would not be staffed by volunteers or funded by donations – the burden would fall on the taxpayers, and it would be expensive.

This is getting to be a long blog post and I have not even touched on the issue of whether the ABC’s arguments that cats are bad have any validity. There is an awful lot that could be said on that issue too, because the peer-reviewed literature on feral cats has so many yawning gaps that you cannot draw many conclusions from those studies one way or the other. For example, the “Smithsonian” study, which many bird conservationists cite as definitive proof of harm to wildlife from feral cats, admitted that no studies had been done on feral cat populations in the United States. The authors of the study then proceeded to guess what they thought the feral cat population might be. I can understand why someone might make a guess in the absence of data – but to recommend killing millions of animals, including people’s pets, on the basis of your guess – that’s chutzpah.

I’d like to end this post by presenting some actual data – the statistics for what the Feral Freedom program has done in Jacksonville since it was founded. Unlike the ABC with its guesses and assumptions, the fall in cat intake at the city shelter is a fact. According to statistics going back to 2003, cat intake at the city shelter reached a high of around 13,000 per year in the years before Feral Freedom was founded in 2008. In fiscal year 2009-2010, the numbers began to fall. By fiscal year 2014-2015, cat intake at the city shelter was half what it was at its peak. During this time FCNMHP was taking in anywhere from 2000+ to 5000+ cats per year from the city shelter. Those cats were sterilized, which is why cat intake at the shelter fell. Community cat programs do work.

Jacksonville mayor and city council – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The State of No Kill: 2016

Today, on the first day of the new year, it’s time to take a look at how No Kill is doing nationally. I can’t tell the story of every successful program in 2015 because there were far too many of them. There is one national campaign that stood out, though, because in sheer numbers it is on pace to rival some of the greatest No Kill accomplishments ever. Like Mike Arms’ Home 4 the Holidays event, which has racked up over 1.2 million adoptions since it started in 1999. And Petfinder, established by Betsy Banks Saul and Jared Saul in 1996, which is currently instrumental in some 1.5 million adoptions every year. The campaign that is rivalling those great accomplishments is the Million Cat Challenge.*

The Million Cat Challenge was launched on December 10, 2014 by two well-known shelter veterinarians, Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Julie Levy. Both have been very involved in the development of the underlying programs that became part of the Challenge. When Kate and Julie presented their ideas for cat management at a plenary session at the 2013 HSUS Expo, the groundswell of positive reaction was so great that they were inspired to start the Challenge to capture that momentum. The Challenge is set to run for five years, from the beginning of 2014 to the end of 2018, and the goal is to save 1,000,000 cats who otherwise would be killed in shelters.

The animal shelter organizations that have signed on to the Million Cat Challenge have been responsible for saving almost 400,000 lives in the program’s first two years.** The Challenge had a very good year in 2015, with over 265,000 lives saved by its member organizations and 180 new shelters enrolled. And the program is growing fast, so we can expect the next three years to be even bigger – perhaps exponentially bigger. That rate of lifesaving compares well with the early years of Home 4 the Holidays and the early days of Petfinder, and it puts the Million Cat Challenge in the ballpark with the most exceptional No Kill efforts thus far.

The Million Cat Challenge has five key initiatives, but it is perhaps best known for its return-to-field (RTF) program for community cats. RTF was a key concept in Rick DuCharme’s Feral Freedom program in Jacksonville, where it first gained national attention. It has also been a part of Dr. Levy’s Operation Catnip at the University of Florida for many years and was used by other programs as well. RTF is often thought of as similar to trap-neuter-return (TNR) for feral cats, but it is a broader concept. The typical situation for TNR is where a feral cat caregiver traps some or all of the members of a feral cat colony and takes them to a clinic where they are given a health check, vaccinated, sterilized, and then returned to their colony. RTF, by contrast, can apply to cats who are brought to a shelter by animal control, or by an individual for any reason. The question is not whether a cat is feral or tame, but whether, after vaccinations and sterilization, it can safely be returned to where it was found.

cat on beachThe beauty of this is that experience has shown us that many tame cats are only loosely attached to their homes, or they may have a circuit of homes they visit. They have homes, but if they are impounded the people who live in the homes they frequent are extremely unlikely to come looking for them in the shelter. Such an informal “owner” probably won’t even miss the cat until after the hold period has expired. Keeping cats like these in the shelter and putting them up for adoption actually prevents them from ever returning to their homes.

The RTF concept recognizes the unique nature of cats and how they live in communities. RTF gives the shelter an additional way of saving the lives of cats, to go along with TNR for feral cats and traditional adoption/transfer for tame cats.

The Million Cat Challenge has other very important programs too, including managed admission, alternatives to admission, managing capacity, and removing barriers to adoption. One of the advantages of the Challenge is that the participants are free to adopt as few or as many of the key initiatives as they want. And the initiatives themselves are things that do not require a lot of skills or money.

The way the Challenge works is that a shelter signs up and agrees to report its statistics in the first quarter of each year. The report has two parts. One part is actual statistics from the previous year. The second part of the report, the “challenge,” asks shelters to pledge the number of additional lives that will be saved in the current year. The calculation of the lives saved by the Challenge for any given year is the comparison of lives saved to the baseline year of 2012. The ticker of lives saved that is on the Challenge website shows the confirmed increases from previous years as well as the estimated numbers of additional, program-based saves for the current year.

The breakout, paradigm-changing success of the Million Cat Challenge helped make 2015 a very good year for No Kill. Getting huge numbers of cats safely out of shelters is good for dogs, bunnies, and other homeless pets too, because it means that shelters have more time and space to work on getting their remaining animals adopted. And four of the Challenge’s five key initiatives can have application to all animals in the shelter, not just cats. With programs like the Challenge doing so well, we can confidently say that the state of No Kill as we start 2016 is good.

*The Million Cat Challenge is a joint program of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida.
**As of January 1, 2015 there were 143 shelters enrolled in the Challenge, with pledges to save 118,020 cats. As of December 28, 2015, there were 323 shelters enrolled, with actual saves for 2014 and pledged saves for 2015 totaling 384,784 cats.

The Year That Was

During the last two weeks of the year I’m going to re-run my three-part series on the coming shelter dog shortage and the future of animal shelters. Those posts were by far the most popular this year, with many thousands of readers each. Rather than re-run them on the blog I will post them on Facebook. Please visit the blog’s Facebook page at:

Tazewell County’s No Kill Effort – Part II

117 and countingA couple of weeks ago I posted a blog about the efforts of rescuer Rhonda Kay to make Tazewell County, Virginia, No Kill. I went through the multitude of factors that make No Kill tough in Tazewell County, including the fact that average income in the county is very low, educational attainment is low, shelter intake is very high, and there are a lot of homeless animals in the environment who are not picked up by animal control. I had not expected to do a follow up on Rhonda’s efforts so soon, but there has been an explosion of activity and offers of help in the last two weeks and there are some exciting possibilities on the horizon.

One key to the new possibilities is Maggie Asbury, who was elected to the county Board of Supervisors recently. She is animal-friendly and is serious about helping the shelter to change. There are other people on the Board who may be interested as well, but cost is a limiting factor. One commissioner told Rhonda that he would like to see positive changes at the shelter, but he cannot support any increase in funding. The county is currently losing population and its economic situation is not good.

On the one hand, the lack of any additional money from the county is a big handicap because the shelter is in an old, dysfunctional building and the current funding for the shelter was reported to Rhonda as being under $200,000 per year. That is an exceedingly small amount of money to operate a shelter that takes in over 2,000 animals per year. On the other hand, No Kill people are used to working around government funding restrictions by raising money in the private sector, so Rhonda is going to concentrate on showing the commissioners some ideas that can be implemented at no cost to the county.

One of the most exciting developments in the last two weeks is that a No Kill consultant has offered to help. The consultant is going to make a presentation to county officials and find out if there is enough common ground for their team to be able to work with the county and make a difference. This would be a huge plus for Tazewell County if it proves to be feasible. Rhonda hopes to have her list of free resources available at the meeting as well. The meeting is being planned for later this month or early next month.

Particularly important, and one thing that will be a high priority, is having low-cost spay-neuter programs as a centerpiece of efforts in Tazewell County. A few people have contacted Rhonda with some interesting ideas about how this could be done. She has also e-mailed with Matthew Gray of HSUS, the Virginia state representative, about the Pets For Life program, but is still trying to set up a time to speak to him.

Another very exciting development is that local shelters in Virginia are making offers of help to pull animals from the county shelter. Rhonda has been contacted by the Richmond SPCA and by Debra Griggs of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies. This would be huge, because one of Rhonda’s biggest problems in facilitating transports out of state are the associated costs. Transporting animals in state, to shelters that are well equipped to do their own quarantine, would be much cheaper as well as easier on the animals. Tazewell County has a large number of puppies that Rhonda has had difficulty in helping because of the expenses associated with puppies. Help from shelters within Virginia could save many of these puppies as well as the older dogs.

A wild card in all this is that management at the shelter is in flux since the former shelter director retired. Rhonda is hopeful that new shelter management will embrace outside help and be enthusiastic about increasing the live release rate.

Several other things have happened. One No Kill leader suggested to Rhonda that it would be worthwhile for her to start attending the HSUS Expo or Best Friends national conferences. She would love to attend both, but will have to see if finances will allow. In the meantime she will be able to attend the Virginia Federation conference next spring in Charlottesville.  She is continuing to work to place dogs that her rescue group, Tazewell ARC, has in their shelter. She also recently had a breakthrough in getting local teenagers interested in volunteering for the rescue. She sees young people as the key to changing attitudes about animals in the community.

One thing that is becoming clear to Rhonda is that there is far more help available, at both the state and national level, to a public shelter than to a rescue. This is not surprising, since the organizations and grant agencies that support No Kill naturally see the public shelter as the most important piece of the puzzle in lifesaving. Rhonda is trying to maintain a balance between her focus on the shelter and her work with Tazewell ARC rescue. The photo above is a montage of over 100 dogs that Tazewell ARC has helped so far this year, and Rhonda hopes there will be many more in the future.