What Happened in Moore County

Moore County, North Carolina, is located about an hour southwest of Raleigh and is known for its golf courses. Two years ago Moore County did a nationwide search for a new shelter director after problems surfaced with the old management. They hired Brenda Sears, who had a good track record as a shelter official in Asheville. (For those of you who are not familiar with the Asheville shelter, it is a tremendous No Kill success story in North Carolina.) In the two years since Sears was hired she has made progress at the Moore County shelter. According to North Carolina state statistics the save rate for cats went from 19% in 2013 to 44% in 2015 and the save rate for dogs went from 44% to 77%. Those save rates are still bad, but if the rapid upward trend continues Moore County will be at or close to No Kill within a couple of years.

At a meeting last Tuesday the chairman of the board of commissioners for Moore County brought up the subject of personal attacks they and Sears have been experiencing from animal advocates who feel that progress is not being made fast enough. A recent news report described an onslaught of insults and even threats that county employees have been receiving from animal advocates. County officials are frustrated that the substantial progress they have made has not made any difference in the criticism, except possibly to make it worse. The county chairman expressed his frustration in very plain language:  “ISIS doesn’t talk about Americans the way some of these people talk about our animal control director,” he said.

This is unfortunately not an unusual situation. A new director comes in and starts making progress, but criticism by advocates continues because they think change is not fast enough. The critics not infrequently wish bodily harm on the shelter director or shelter workers. In general this appears to be social media venting, but it is understandable that officials find it upsetting.

What happened next, though, was unusual. The Moore County chairman asked the county manager to explore getting out of the animal sheltering business entirely. It wasn’t because they were unhappy with Sears’ work – they believe she has been doing a fine job. It was because of the criticism. As the chairman said: “If we can’t solve the problem, let’s give the problem to them. Make sure we find a place for the employees, who do a good job, other employment, and get out of the animal sheltering business and let the private sector handle it.”

The county would save $800,000 per year by doing only the things that are required by state law, which (as described to the council by an expert) are rabies control and management of dangerous dogs. As for everything else, which would presumably include accepting owner surrenders and housing and rehoming unclaimed strays, as well as veterinary care and behavior rehabilitation, the chairman said: “Maybe this is something the private sector needs to do and let them take care of it. Then if they make a mistake, they can talk with themselves.” The commissioners are studying the issue and will decide this fall whether to retrench shelter operations and possibly even shut down the shelter.

Moore County unfortunately appears to have every right to get out of animal sheltering and do only minimal animal control as required by state law. Animal control, defined as protecting people from dangerous or nuisance animals, has been recognized as a core function of state governments since the 1800s. States generally delegate that function to the cities and counties, and that is why communities have animal control officers who have police powers. Once animals are off the street and not threatening or annoying humans, it is not a core function of state or local governments to make sure that those animals find new homes.

Some states have passed laws requiring local governments to maintain some shelter functions. In Virginia, for example, each city or county is required to maintain a shelter for confinement of dogs running at large without tags. States may have other rules, such as requiring humane methods of euthanasia, or requiring veterinary care for sick animals within a certain time frame. State legislatures can strengthen or weaken such requirements as they choose, but there is no state in the country where the law provides that animals have an inherent right to life. Every state has provisions making animal cruelty a crime, and enforcement of animal cruelty laws is often delegated to animal control officers, but anti-cruelty laws do not provide animals with a right to life.

Animals are property under the law. The duties of government run to persons, not property. This is why anti-cruelty laws have often been justified not on the ground of averting harm to animals, but on the ground that people harm themselves when they engage in animal cruelty. It’s easy for a state to justify laws about traffic safety, restaurant sanitation, licensing of doctors, etc., because those laws are all designed to benefit people. It’s difficult for legislators to justify laws requiring preservation of the lives of homeless, unclaimed shelter animals, because there is no obvious benefit to the public in spending tax dollars to maintain the existence of property owned by the state that has negligible monetary value.

Some No Kill proponents compare advocacy for shelter reform to social justice movements such as the historic fights for racial and gender equality. However, such comparisons are false in the eyes of the law. Social justice movements are about achieving equal treatment of various categories of human beings, who are universally recognized in our legal system as having fundamental rights of personhood. Animals, since they are not “persons,” have no fundamental rights. In order to make the analogy to civil rights movements meaningful, we would first have to change our law to recognize a legal personhood for animals.

Perhaps some day in the future our legal system may make a seismic shift and confer fundamental rights on animals equivalent to the legal status of personhood. But don’t hold your breath. If fundamental rights were conferred on animals there would be no more bacon and eggs, no leather shoes, no horseback riding, no zoos, and no more testing of medical therapies on animals. Many No Kill advocates (myself included) are animal-rights supporters and vegans, and we would like nothing better than to see an amendment to the federal constitution conferring the fundamental rights of personhood on animals. But if we took a vote on it right now in the United States probably 99% of people would vote against extending fundamental rights to animals.

The lesson from what has happened in Moore County is that advocacy efforts that focus solely on forcing local governments to change the way they operate public shelters can backfire. And that is because the primary duty of local governments is to protect people from animals, not to find live outcomes for unclaimed shelter animals.

The fact that government’s core duty is animal control and not animal sheltering is the reason why public-private partnerships are so common in animal shelter operations. There is great synergy in having private shelters work with government animal-control operations. In those partnerships the local government operates (or funds) at least the core functions of animal control and return-to-owner. The private organizations do all the lifesaving functions that local government does not do. The very first animal shelter in the United States was founded by a women’s SPCA in Philadelphia in 1870 for the purpose of replacing a cruel city animal control system. The women took over both animal control and sheltering and were reimbursed by the city for the animal control costs. One of their first tasks was to fight and defeat the medical establishment of the city, which wanted the right to take unclaimed dogs for medical experiments.

Today we see variations on the Philadelphia model (minus the fight with vivisectionists) in many of the large cities that have achieved and sustained No Kill. A private organization may contract with a county to do animal sheltering while the county does animal control, as in DeKalb County, Georgia. Or a private organization may do both animal control and sheltering and be reimbursed by the local government for part of the costs, as in Fulton County, Georgia. Another very successful public-private model is for a city-run shelter to do both animal control and sheltering, but to arrange with a large non-profit rescue partner to pull at-risk animals. This is possibly the most common model we see today in large cities that are sustaining very high rates of shelter lifesaving, such as Austin and Jacksonville. It is also the model used in the first major No Kill community, San Francisco. In this model the city agrees to go beyond its core functions and fund part of the lifesaving operation by having its own adoption facility and doing at least some veterinary care and rehabilitation. Public-private partnerships exist in small towns and rural counties as well as big cities, but the partnership is usually more informal and consists of rescues pulling at-risk animals.

Quite often we see people complaining that their local public shelter is increasing its live release rate by increasing the number of animals it transfers to rescues rather than increasing its adoptions. This complaint has been made about New York City, San Antonio, and many other city shelters. The critics argue that the shelter should be doing its own adoptions rather than “dumping” animals on rescues, and that government shelters that rely on rescues for lifesaving are not doing their job. These critics fail to realize the limited scope of a local government’s duties to homeless animals. They also fail to understand that if the private sector assumes some or all of the responsibility of rehoming, that can free the local government to do a better job on its core functions of animal control and return-to-owner.

There are cases where a public shelter is treating the animals in its care with negligence or cruelty. And sometimes local governments arbitrarily refuse offers of help from volunteers and rescues. Those situations usually seem to occur in rural, less progressive, low-income areas where the local government is not functioning very well at anything. Such situations do not appear to be common, but there are thousands of public shelters in the United States. If even one out of fifty of those shelters is abusive or refuses outside help, that adds up to a lot of shelters. A fast way to improve such shelters would be for the private sector to step in and take animals as soon as the hold period is up, and offer veterinary help for animals who need it during the hold period. The problem is that in resource-poor communities the private sector is typically just as impoverished and lacking in skills as the local government. Often what we see in such cases is a few volunteers who have tried to help the shelter but who do not have the resources to offer a true partnership.

No Kill advocates tend to see shelter reform as a difficult struggle, and it is. But No Kill is in a much better position to make progress than other animal-rights endeavors such as the effort to improve conditions for farm animals. We are not in the position of factory-farm opponents who have to fight the power of a gigantic, wealthy, politically connected industry. There is no industry that has a financial stake in shelter animals dying rather than going to good homes. All we have to do to achieve No Kill is to reform shelters, and offers from the private sector to pay for and carry out shelter lifesaving are generally met with little resistance. We are very fortunate that the power to help shelter animals is in our own hands. We may not have the power to force local governments to do the work of shelter lifesaving, but we can do it ourselves and very often local governments will help us.

No Kill: Are We Running As Fast As We Can?

We all want the United States to get to No Kill as fast as possible, but institutions take time to change. Given the inherent lag time that seems to be built into every human endeavor, are we making No Kill change happen as fast as we can? I think there’s a good argument that the answer to that question is “yes.”

No Kill has two aspects, operational and philosophical. The operational aspect of No Kill was primarily developed from 1976 to 1989 by Richard Avanzino at the San Francisco SPCA. The philosophical aspect was developed by Ed Duvin in the late 1980s. The 1990s were a time of further innovation in No Kill, growth of a movement, and tremendous progress in reducing shelter intake through sterilization programs. By the year 2000 all systems were go for No Kill.

Municipal shelters in several small, progressive communities reported live release rates of 90% or more in 2000, including Otsego County in Michigan and several towns in Colorado. The success of these small communities was important for the morale of No Kill advocates, but it was still unknown whether No Kill could work outside of the context of small communities with lots of resources.

There were a number of big cities where No Kill efforts started in the years just before and after the millennium, including Austin and Richmond in 1997, Jacksonville in 2001, and New York City and Atlanta in 2002. The timeline for No Kill success in large cities proved to be very different from the quick success in the progressive small communities. In Austin it took 14 years to get to No Kill, and in Jacksonville it was 12 years. Richmond was No Kill on and off throughout the 2000s, and New York City and Atlanta are very close today but not quite there yet.

Why did it take so much longer to get to No Kill in big cities? Large cities are always a heterogeneous mix, meaning that the shelter population will include more animals who need intensive help. In some wealthy small communities in Colorado, for example, upwards of 90% of stray dogs are reclaimed, whereas that percentage might be more like 30% in a heterogeneous big city. A typical big-city shelter might get 50% of intake needing medical care or rehabilitation, while the wealthy, progressive small town can turn around 80% of its intake immediately.

Today we know that a highly successful model for No Kill in a big city is to have one or more large, private non-profit organizations in the city dedicated to taking at-risk animals from the city shelter. Non-profits can raise money more easily than a municipal shelter for medical and behavioral cases. They are not bound by union and social media rules that can hamper the efficiency of a city shelter. And having a partner can help the city shelter cope with massive influxes of animals in times of natural disaster,

Recognition of the synergy of the public-private partnership has greatly sped up the timeframe for No Kill transitions in big cities. San Antonio, a city in the deep south with high shelter intake and a large stray population, is one example. San Antonio’s city government adopted a plan in 2011 that included the city recruiting and subsidizing high-volume rescue partners. The results have been stunning, and San Antonio has recently been running at nearly a 90% save rate for its shelter animals. No Kill transitions in other cities that do not have the level of challenges that San Antonio faced should happen even faster if the public-private model is embraced from the beginning.

Today, of the twenty largest United States cities, ten have either achieved No Kill or are getting close. Several of the remaining ten have No Kill efforts underway. We are on track to have the great majority of our large cities either at No Kill or with a serious effort underway by 2020. This is excellent progress considering that No Kill did not really become feasible in most communities until around the year 2000. A twenty year period is not bad at all for reform of an institution that was as neglected and backward as the twentieth-century animal shelter. We can always do better, but we are running toward No Kill at a pretty good pace.

Open Adoption

Open Adoption – it’s a topic that’s sure to start a lively discussion among shelter people. But what, exactly, is it? One misconception about Open Adoption is that it is primarily a No Kill program. Although the Open Adoption concept has strong ties to No Kill, the program also has strong ties to the traditional shelter industry.

The North Shore Animal League in New York, in addition to being the first major shelter to use the term “No Kill,” was also the first to re-think traditional adoption criteria. The people at North Shore in the 1970s, including Alex and Babette Lewyt and Mike Arms, were on a mission to push puppy mills out of business. They transported puppies on the kill list of southern shelters to North Shore and then adopted them out, luring people away from pet stores. North Shore pioneered using advertising to promote adoptions, and they were not afraid to adopt out pets on holidays. Mike Arms used to tell his staff that if someone flew in on a broom on Halloween, they could not have a black cat. Otherwise, all systems were go for holiday adoptions. By the 1990s North Shore had also worked out a method of having adoption counselors talk to people to try to find a good fit for each animal, instead of relying on a lengthy and intrusive written application as most shelters did at the time.

The North Shore model was very successful at increasing adoptions, but it was not imitated by other shelters because it was seen as too heavily weighted toward marketing. One of North Shore’s marketing techniques back in the 1970s was to give away a free watch to adopters. That technique was designed to draw people in to the shelter and it did not mean that everyone who walked in would be allowed to adopt. It was nevertheless viewed with horror by the animal sheltering community, who saw it as the equivalent of handing puppies and kittens out on the street corner.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) published guidelines in the 1990s recommending strict adoption criteria. The guidelines recommended that the adoption application ask for two personal references, a veterinarian reference, and information about previous pets, with the goal of learning “as much as possible about the potential adopter’s lifestyle and knowledge of responsible pet ownership.” Shelters were advised to verify an adopter’s identity and check for a criminal record, bar adoption of dogs to homes that lacked a fenced yard unless the adopter could prove that the dog would get adequate exercise, and prohibit adoption of puppies and kittens to homes with children under six years of age. All renters had to provide proof that their landlord would allow pets, and people who were temporary residents in the community were barred from adopting. Adopting a cat to someone who wanted a barn cat or mouser was prohibited. If you wanted to adopt a pet as a gift for someone, you were out of luck – it was prohibited.

The application was just the first hurdle to adoption. HSUS also recommended an interview to “objectively and carefully screen[] potential adopters,” and a home visit with all family members present in cases where there was “any question about the suitability of the new home.” The guidelines recommended that the adoption contract include a requirement that the animal must be returned to the shelter if the adopter ever had to give it up, and a requirement that the animal wear a collar and identification. The contract also included a clause allowing the shelter to inspect the owner’s premises and repossess the animal at any time if the care, handling, or housing of the animal was found to be inadequate.

Why did the traditional shelter industry have such restrictive adoption criteria? Throughout most of the 1900s the United States had a severe pet overpopulation problem. In 1970, for example, it is estimated that shelters had some five times the intake per person that shelters today have. Traditional shelters developed the idea as early as the 1950s that since there were so few homes relative to the number of homeless animals, only the healthiest and best-behaved animals should be put up for adoption. And only the most responsible people should be allowed to adopt. Most shelters could not afford to spay and neuter every animal, and shelter staff feared that if irresponsible people could adopt pets then the endless litters of puppies and kittens would continue.

But conditions began to change. Sterilization techniques were perfected and began to be widely recommended by veterinarians in the 1970s, and in the 1990s effective mass low-cost spay-neuter programs became widespread. Pediatric spay-neuter became available. In the 1970s and again in the 1990s shelter intake plunged as spay-neuter rates soared.

By the late 1990s shelter intake in several areas had declined to levels where the situation no longer seemed hopeless. Richard Avanzino’s success with the Adoption Pact in San Francisco led some people within the traditional shelter industry to start re-thinking adoption criteria. A few studies on various facets of shelter operations were conducted in the 1990s, so that hard data was available for the first time on issues like pet relinquishment.

All these factors led to increased interest in reforming the adoption process. This interest culminated in the American Humane Association (AHA) holding a forum on Open Adoption in 1999. The goal of the forum was to determine if Open Adoption could increase the number of adoptions without increasing the number of relinquishments. The forum’s report noted that in most shelters adoption policies had not changed in 30 years. After making a list of common adoption criteria, several forum participants realized that they themselves would be barred from adopting at many shelters, notwithstanding the fact that they were prominent leaders in the animal welfare profession.

Forum participants wound up questioning most of the common adoption restrictions, finding that there was little consistency in requirements from one shelter to another and little evidence that the criteria increased the likelihood of success of an adoption. In addition to questioning restrictive criteria, they developed ideas for increasing adoptions. One idea was that perhaps a conversation with an adopter could be more effective than a written application or a formal interview. A second AHA forum in 2003 built on the first forum and went beyond looking at adoption criteria to look at programs as a whole.

Today, Open Adoption is one of the increasing number of issues where No Kill and the traditional shelter industry are in agreement. HSUS and the ASPCA are both now promoting Open Adoption. The Open Adoption process is considered key to establishing a trusting relationship between the adopter and the shelter, so that the adopter will be likely to ask the shelter for help if any problems arise. The acceptance of Open Adoption by the leadership of both No Kill and the traditional shelter industry is another hopeful sign that before long the last remnants of the old divisions between the two may be stamped out.

Meet the Directors: Bonney Brown and Diane Blankenburg of Humane Network

Today I have a guest post written in conjunction with Bonney Brown and Diane Blankenburg about their consulting organization, Humane Network. Brown and Blankenburg are well known in the animal shelter world for their work in leading Nevada Humane Society (NHS) for several years in its transition to achieving and sustaining a community-wide live release rate of 94%. NHS had (and still has) a partnership with Washoe County Regional Animal Services (WCRAS) in providing animal control and sheltering for Washoe County, Nevada, which contains the cities of Reno and Sparks.

Their success in Washoe County was an especially important milestone in shelter lifesaving because it was not a progressive or wealthy community. Almost all successes in community-wide lifesaving before Washoe County were in resort or college towns, or progressive places like San Francisco and New Hampshire. Reno was a more typical city, with economic challenges and a very high rate of shelter intake. So when Washoe County achieved a live release rate of over 90% it was proof that high save rates could be achieved anywhere.

Bonney BrownIn 2013 Brown and Blankenburg decided to take the next step in their journey by becoming shelter consultants, and they left NHS to launch Humane Network. In addition to their own expertise, they have a team of experts they can call on. Mitch Schneider, who has a long career in animal services and headed WCRAS while Brown and Blankenburg were leading NHS, is on the Humane Network team. So are Lisa Lane, formerly of the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, and Kelley Bollen, a certified animal behavior consultant.Diane Blankenburg

As Brown says, when a community is trying to increase their live release rate “the devil is in the details.” The basic best practices for lifesaving shelter operations were developed back in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the last few years some important new programs have been added. The issue for shelters that want to increase their live release rate is not so much deciding what programs need to be put in place to increase lifesaving – that is pretty well standardized today – but how to implement the programs. There are a myriad of large and small “how to” issues in getting from here to there, and that’s where Humane Network can help.

For example, everyone knows that having a foster program is important for lifesaving. What isn’t so obvious is how to set up a foster program, how to recruit the foster caregivers, how to recruit the right person to run the program, what training the foster parents need, what level of support they should have, and what documentation is needed. What about liability? What about the foster contract? What does a foster do if an animal gets sick in the middle of the night? Who pays for routine expenses like food? What procedures should be in place to protect animals in foster? What will the program cost and how will funds be raised to pay for it? Is it sustainable?

In addition to helping shelters with the myriad details that come up in the implementation of lifesaving programs, Brown and Blankenburg have found that one of the most important keys to success is follow-up. Even when shelter staff are given a detailed road map to institute a best-practice program, follow-up is important to provide moral support, make sure that the roadmap is understood, and answer the additional questions that so often arise.

In some cases shelters have already achieved a high live release rate at the time Humane Network is called in, but they are not doing it in a sustainable way. They are burning themselves out by working long hours, or spending the organization’s endowment, or relying on frequent emergency pleas to the community. In those cases a consultation can help the organization get to a point where it can maintain its success long-term. The Humane Network team can also help organizations with applying for grants, including, in some cases, grants to pay for the consultation process itself.

Helping communities get lifesaving programs up and running is only one part of what has been keeping Humane Network busy for the last three years. Another service they provide is helping organizations recruit the right leadership. Leadership is one of the most critical needs for any animal shelter because so many different talents, including business and people skills, are required. But recruiting executives to run animal welfare organizations can be challenging because the pay is often not competitive with other fields and the level of public scrutiny can be daunting. Brown and Blankenburg help organizations sort through what qualities are critical for success, and then help them find suitable candidates.

People who work in the private sector in business management, marketing, human resources, and related areas generally receive training in various aspects of management and leadership, but that type of training is unusual in the animal shelter industry. Brown points out that animal shelter administrators often promote people on the basis of how well they have done at the operations level rather than looking at whether they possess the necessary management skills. When this lack of experience in management is combined with a lack of training in leadership skills, the new shelter manager does not have the tools to succeed. He or she may not know how to give feedback, resolve conflicts, or delegate, and may not realize that part of delegation is following up to make sure that things get done. The Humane Network team can advise on what gaps in knowledge or experience are fixable with mentoring and should not be disqualifying.

The challenge that shelters and animal welfare organizations face in recruiting and training good leadership is one reason that Brown and Blankenburg started a certificate course in Lifesaving-Centered Animal Shelter Management at the University of the Pacific. They believe that the certificate program can help people from outside the shelter industry get hired, and can help people who have risen through the ranks within the industry to fill gaps in management skills and leadership training. Enrollment in the certificate program has grown to the point that courses will now be offered year-round.

Another issue with reforming a shelter is that it has to be done on the fly. Shelters are not like a manufacturing business that can just shut down for two weeks to retool. Reforming a shelter is more like replacing an escalator while it is in use, or operating on a beating heart. The animals will not stop coming in the door, and part of reform has to be keeping the shelter functioning as changes are being made. This difficulty can sometimes make directors leery about taking the initial leap to start reforms. In cases like this Humane Network can break the logjam by providing a strategy for getting it done. It helps for a consultant to have a track record of actually running a shelter and creating a sustainable lifesaving program, because the consultant has probably experienced many of the same problems faced by the shelter director.

In addition to consulting with community-based shelters and animal welfare organizations, Humane Network has been working with some of the large national organizations on program development. Humane Network has done projects with Maddie’s Fund, Best Friends Animal Society, Petco Foundation, and Alley Cat Allies. With Alley Cat Allies, for example, they have developed a series of “toolkit” guides. One of them is a 90-page workbook on how to set up a foster program for cats and kittens (“Saving Cats and Kittens with a Foster Care Program”). The length of this brochure, 90 pages on 8″ by 11″ paper, illustrates how important it is to show shelters each step in the process rather than just telling them to “start a foster program.” In addition to working with the large national organizations, Humane Network sometimes works with other consultants. For example, they worked with the shelter medicine program at UC Davis on a project they did for the Animal Foundation in Las Vegas.

The demand for their consulting services has been high, and Brown and Blankenburg have been going non-stop since they launched Humane Network. In the future they hope to have time to do more work on the big-picture question of the next steps for our movement. Stay tuned.

Criticism: Constructive and Otherwise

There has been a lot of discussion on this blog’s Facebook page over the last month or two about the role of public criticism of local shelters in getting communities to No Kill. Pretty much everyone agrees that criticism has a role. The difference of opinion is on the issue of when criticism is helpful and when it is counterproductive and hurts No Kill progress.

This is not a simple question because it gets into the whole issue of how to bring about change in local government. The answer to the question is going to be different depending on the circumstances. In a small town, all it may take to reform the shelter is an offer to foster kittens and hold adoption events. In New York City, however, you have a local government that has been doing animal control since 1807 and has a whole bureaucracy built up. Getting a city government like that to change can be a major undertaking and requires a lot of political skill.

Another consideration with the use of criticism is that once you start making attacks on the local shelter director you have burned that bridge forever. If you make attacks in the name of “No Kill” you have just created a shelter director who hates the very sound of “No Kill.” So before launching attacks on the shelter director, local advocates should consider whether a sincere and determined effort to help the shelter improve has been made and has failed.

Making an effort to help the shelter before criticizing it is a no-lose proposition. If the effort succeeds then all is well. If it fails, that failure will turbocharge a reform effort made up of volunteers who have been prevented from helping the animals. When you have 10 or 20 volunteers who have been forced to stand by while animals are needlessly killed, you have the nucleus of a group that will have both knowledge and determination.

Once a decision to publicly criticize a failing and recalcitrant shelter has been made, what type of criticism is helpful? That depends on the audience. Criticism of a shelter based on its statistics and practices may be very effective when directed at a city council or county commissioners, but it must be accompanied by constructive and specific recommendations for change. A shelter director from a nearby No Kill community, or a No Kill consultant, may have more of an effect on community leaders than local advocates could have.

If the audience is the general public, criticisms based on statistics and best practices may convince a few people but most people will not pay attention. And a shelter director can deflect that type of criticism by saying that the critics do not understand the unique circumstances of the shelter, that the shelter’s intake is different from other shelters, etc. Most people will buy those excuses.

No Kill advocates can take a lesson here from the fight against factory farming. Several years ago the Pew Research Center put out a report that was a blistering indictment of the factory farming industry on every front – harm to the environment, harm to public health, cruelty to animals, putting small farmers out of business, and negative health effects on workers. That report was chock full of facts and statistics, but it had nowhere near the effect on the public that the clandestine videos taken by organizations like Mercy for Animals had around that same time. A video of a calf being beaten, or a baby chick being thrown alive into a grinder, has more effect with the public than all the statistics in the world.

It’s the same with the local shelter. Arguing that a 50% live release rate is below the industry standard may not  get you very far with the public. A photograph of a mother dog and her litter of puppies killed by mistake while a rescuer was on the way, or a pet killed because its microchip was not scanned, will get headlines and make a deep impression on the public. You can’t get that kind of documentation, though, unless you are involved with the shelter.

What I’ve said so far applies to a failing shelter that will not change voluntarily. Once a city or county government or shelter director decides to make a sincere effort to get to No Kill, then criticism becomes a whole new ballgame and different considerations apply. When a credible No Kill effort is underway, criticism becomes a balancing act. Every word of public criticism against a shelter while it is trying to get to No Kill will hurt the effort, because it will have a tendency to decrease the number of volunteers, the amount of money donated, and the goodwill of the community. The more effective and on point the criticism is, the more it will hurt the effort. So the advocate has to make a decision whether the criticism will do more harm than good, and has to think about how to phrase the criticism so that the constructive aspect is emphasized and the destructive aspect is minimized.

The advocate in this circumstance must be sure that he or she knows the shelter system thoroughly and is competent to balance the harm the criticism will cause against the benefits. A good example of constructive criticism of an ongoing No Kill effort is this blog by John Sibley on the subject of New York City’s nightly kill list. Sibley has dealt with the NYC shelter system for a long time and is thoroughly familiar with it. The criticism acknowledges all the progress that has been made, and it discusses the reason why the kill list was started and the fact that it has been effective. Then it discusses the downside of the list and argues that today, the harm outweighs the good.

An example of unproductive criticism of an ongoing No Kill effort would be an analysis made by someone who has never been to the shelter in question and never talked to the director, where the analysis was made based only on statistics and current practices and only skims the surface. This type of criticism can hurt the shelter but not help it. Very typical of such criticisms are statements like: “The shelter should be open longer hours,” or “they need to institute a TNR program,” or “they should be having off-site, free adoption events each weekend.”

A shelter director who is making a sincere No Kill effort is likely to be thoroughly familiar with the advantages of longer hours, TNR, and off-site and reduced-cost adoption events. And if by some chance the director doesn’t know about those things, a private communication would be sufficient. But No Kill programs often have barriers that are not obvious to a bystander. An advocate who did some research might find out, for example, that a local ordinance forbids TNR and the city council doesn’t want to overturn the ordinance because they are concerned about bird kills. With that knowledge, the advocate could write something constructive that used facts to help persuade city leaders that TNR is good for cats and birds.

Why do we have such a problem with unhelpful criticism by No Kill advocates, i.e. pointless criticism of shelters that are in the process of transitioning to No Kill or have achieved No Kill? A good deal of it is no doubt because killing animals, even when it is true euthanasia, is a very emotional subject and people tend to write about it reactively rather than strategically. Another reason may be the effect that some No Kill leaders have on their audiences. Most No Kill leaders today are convinced that cooperation works and that divisiveness is counterproductive. There are some leaders, however, who seem to encourage advocates to look at all but a handful of shelter directors as enemies who cannot be trusted. We should not be surprised when the followers of those leaders conclude that shelter personnel are routinely faking statistics and just waiting for chances to kill animals. If we have No Kill leaders who mock cooperation and say that fighting is the only way forward, or who say that a shelter director who is not saving 98% just doesn’t care enough, then we can expect No Kill advocates to conclude that no-holds-barred criticism is a good thing regardless of the context.

The idea that No Kill advocacy always requires confrontation and that cooperation is useless traces back to the mindset of the 1990s. There was a time some 15-20 years ago when many elements of the traditional shelter industry fought against No Kill, and the fights were often bitter. I can understand how No Kill advocates who were active back then find it hard to forget. But that was then and this is now. Today it is not an exaggeration to say that No Kill practices are generally recognized as industry best practices. We still have people in the shelter industry who dislike the term “No Kill,” but that is usually because of the divisiveness associated with No Kill, not because of No Kill’s ideas about the best way to run a shelter.

Criticism based on that old “white hat, black hat” divisiveness is destructive because that world no longer exists. That doesn’t mean we all have to love each other and sing Kumbaya. It does mean we need to focus on what is happening today, not what happened in 1996, or 2006. In fact, No Kill progress has been moving so fast that events of even five years ago are ancient history. People who cannot keep up with this change would do us all a favor by retiring from the movement.

Tazewell County Hits 90%

Tazewell County, Virginia, is in the Appalachian mountains in the far southwestern part of the state. Its median household income is very low at less than $31,000. In 2015 the Tazewell County animal shelter had an approximately 50% live release rate, with an intake of about 2000 animals. Now, in the first three months of 2016, the live release rate has been over 90%.

How did this transformation happen? A big part of it was a new shelter director. The current director of the Tazewell County shelter, Ginny Dawson, started in November of 2015. She is largely self-educated about shelter management. Before taking over as director she had been a county employee for several years. She studied new methods of sheltering and talked to lots of people for ideas. She remembers reading about managed admission on the ASPCA site, for example. Whenever she thought an idea made sense she would try to find out more about it.

The staff who worked with the previous shelter manager decided for various reasons to leave the shelter when he left in 2015, so Dawson and her supervisor were able to hire a new staff of three people. They looked for people with experience working with animals, but compassion for animals was “absolutely” a requirement. Dawson noted that you can teach best practices, but not compassion.

Soon after Dawson started as director they made Saturday an adoption-only day so that they could concentrate on adoptions and not intake. They take animals who are ready for adoption to an offsite location where they will get more exposure.

Another major initiative was managed admission. People who want to surrender animals are asked if there is anything the shelter can do to help them keep their pets. If not, shelter staff help them explore whether there are other possibilities for rehoming instead of surrender. They explain to people that the county shelter is open admission, with a limited amount of space. They have found that most people are very willing to delay surrender for a few days if the shelter is full, and some people are able to find a new home for their animal themselves.

Shelter staff have increased their use of social media for adoption promotion and for finding owners of lost pets. They started posting dogs and cats to Facebook immediately, without waiting for the stray-hold period to expire, to try to reunite animals with owners as quickly as possible.

They began to work more with rescues, which Dawson describes as crucial for their success. The Humane Society of Tazewell County works closely with the shelter and helps it in many ways, including transports. They have regular transports that go to the Pennsylvania SPCA, with funding from ASPCA, and the Richmond SPCA has also welcomed transfers from the shelter. Another group in the county, Tazewell ARC, has done transports as well as outreach to county officials.

A consulting organization, Target Zero, did a presentation to interested stakeholders in January, and Dawson and the other attendees are very interested in their program. Dawson put some of their ideas into practice immediately, including use of an owner surrender form to gather more information about intakes. A simple thing, but one that had not been done previously. Target Zero did a full assessment of the shelter earlier this month, and the county is considering whether to apply for a fellowship with them.

Another suggestion Target Zero made was for the shelter to sign up with the Million Cat Challenge and start implementing their community cat initiatives, including return-to-field. Dawson had heard of the Million Cat Challenge before Target Zero’s involvement, but the suggestion gave them the push they needed to sign up. Implementing the Challenge initiatives will be done in several steps, including coordinating spay-neuter efforts with local clinics and a strengthened managed admissions program.

Dawson’s goals for the future are to sustain the progress they have made and continue to improve. The county is renovating a building for a new shelter, which should help them in many ways, including disease control. High live release rates are harder to maintain during the spring and summer “kitten season” months, but Dawson hopes to weather the season with the new programs they have in place.

In just the last few years many new and effective programs have been added to the shelter operations toolbox, including managed admission, return-to-field, and transports. Today several organizations have extensive information online at no charge. Maddie’s Fund has webinars on demand that cover many aspects of shelter management. Best Friends Animal Society has presentations from its most recent conference, including “how we did it” playbooks from several successful communities. Consultants can help shelters with every aspect of a transition, including figuring out how to apply programs to their particular circumstances and how to finance changes. Tazewell County consulted with Target Zero, but there are other organizations, such as Humane Network, that also offer consultations.

The Tazewell County shelter is still facing some hurdles, but the odds for them to have a 90% or higher live release rate in 2016 look good. Dawson has made use of new ideas and the help that is available, including support from the community, and has turned her shelter around quickly.

Getting to Know Target Zero

Several organizations have started doing No Kill counseling and shelter assessments in the last few years. One such group is Target Zero, or TZ. TZ was originally a program of First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP), which is one of the organizations that created No Kill in Jacksonville, Florida. The founders of TZ were Rick DuCharme, the head of FCNMHP; Peter Marsh, who spearheaded a state-funded targeted spay-neuter program in New Hampshire in the 1990s; Tracey Durning, a “social entrepreneur and philanthropic advisor” to non-profits; and an anonymous donor. Once TZ was underway DuCharme moved back to giving his full attention to FCNMHP and Marsh moved to advisor status.

Shelter assessments are done primarily by two members of the TZ staff. One is Dr. Sara Pizano, a veterinarian who was director of the Miami-Dade shelter for six years and was also a panel member for the Association of Shelter Veterinarians while that organization was seeking recognition of shelter medicine as a specialty. The other is Cameron Moore, former program director for FCNMHP.

TZ receives referrals from communities that are interested in receiving a shelter assessment. One of the initial steps is a Go To presentation, which Pizano and Moore do remotely. All stakeholders in the community, including government officials, shelter staff, and representatives of other humane organizations, are encouraged to view the presentation. The TZ philosophy includes the concept that cooperation is key to No Kill, and cooperation is built into the program from the beginning.

After the Go To presentation, if there is interest and TZ staff members believe there is sufficient evidence that the various stakeholders can work together, a full, in-person shelter assessment is scheduled. Pizano and Moore do the assessments, although they sometimes bring additional experts with them. An example was their recent assessment for the Tazewell County shelter in Virginia. Pizano and Moore were accompanied on this assessment by Dr. Tiva Hoshizaki, who is currently doing a residency in shelter medicine at Cornell veterinary school.

Pizano told me that shelter assessments are often most effective once a community has decided to make changes and the process of change is just getting underway. In those cases the commitment is there and the assessment can help guide the change. In Tazewell County, for example, the county was planning to renovate a building to replace the current shelter but had not received any input from shelter design experts. Hoshizaki has a special interest in shelter design and she and the TZ team were able to offer suggestions for the renovation. The timing was right, and the new shelter will reflect some of the latest advances in shelter technology.

TZ promotes the concept that healthy community cats are better off in a return-to-field program rather than being taken into a shelter only to be killed. When a shelter stops impounding healthy community cats it frees up staff to work on pet retention, adoptions, and other lifesaving programs. TZ supports the Million Cat Challenge, which has a detailed program to help shelters create humane and effective community cat initiatives. Million Cat Challenge founders Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Julie Levy are TZ consultants. TZ urges shelters to join the Challenge and also the Best Friends network.

In addition to a sterilization program for community cats, TZ often recommends that shelters implement targeted spay-neuter for owned pets, a program that was key to Jacksonville becoming No Kill. Another intake-reduction program that TZ recommends is managed admissions. This includes asking people who want to surrender animals if they can work with the shelter when the shelter is full. Owners might be willing to hold their animal for a couple of weeks until the shelter has room, or might even be willing to rehome the animal themselves using social media. Managed admission programs can mesh with pet retention efforts to cut owner surrenders substantially and smooth out peaks and valleys in intake.

I asked Pizano if each of the shelters they assess are different, requiring an individualized approach. She said that while there are many differences in starting points, programs like the Million Cat Challenge and best-practice strategies for dogs are effective everywhere. TZ frequently finds that communities have local ordinances or rules that have to be changed or worked around. In Tazewell County, for example, the shelter is not allowed to accept donations directly from the public. One possibility in such circumstances is for a private non-profit to collect donations and help the shelter fund programs. TZ is not a grant-giving organization, but they can help shelters and community organizations apply for grants.

TZ does not just offer an assessment and then leave. Instead, they continue to work with shelters through their Fellowship program. Fellowships last three years, after which the community “graduates,” hopefully with a high live release rate. TZ also offers a Partner status to cities that do not currently qualify for the Fellowship program but show good potential to qualify in the future.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about TZ is that it can offer consultations and Fellowships at no charge due to support from its anonymous donor. Another characteristic of the organization is that it seeks out shelters that are performing poorly, because those shelters offer the greatest possibilities for saving lives. (Tazewell County was something of an exception since it was already doing very well at the time TZ became involved.) Reading the list of Fellow and Partner cities, it is obvious that they present challenges – cities like El Paso, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Brevard County, Florida. Progress so far is encouraging – two of TZ’s Fellowship cities, Waco, Texas, and Huntsville, Alabama, have achieved a 90% live release rate and have graduated from the program.

Consultants are an increasingly important means of helping communities get to No Kill. Today we have an enormous amount of information online about how to improve lifesaving, but there is nothing like having an expert take a look at a particular shelter and a particular community, identify the issues, set out priorities, and give shelter leadership the confidence that they can do it. This is especially true for shelters that are doing poorly, as many times the leaders of such shelters are in a deep hole and have no idea how to begin to climb out. A consultant can be the key to helping those directors realize that other people just like them have succeeded, and that there is hope.

Can We Go Too Far With Spaying And Neutering?

We have achieved very high spay-neuter rates for owned cats and dogs (83% for owned dogs and 91% for owned cats*). If people are to have dogs and cats, the dogs and cats must come from somewhere. Hence the title – are we in danger of cutting the number of dogs and cats available for adoption to the point that we see negative consequences in the form of shelter shortages? Will spay-neuter programs that are too successful wind up driving potential adopters into the arms of puppy millers?

For cats, the answer to the question of whether we are going too far with spaying and neutering is a resounding “no,” at least for now. Owned cats are perhaps no more than half of the total number of cats, and feral and community cats will continue to supply kittens to meet the demand for the foreseeable future.

For dogs, the answer is “maybe.” The dog supply differs from the cat supply in two important ways. First, unlike with cats where we have perhaps as many as tens of millions of feral and community cats, feral dogs have almost disappeared in the United States. There are persistent reports that a few areas (Detroit, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and parts of the southwest are often mentioned) have a feral dog problem. We don’t know for sure because there have been no studies to find out one way or the other, but if there are places with feral dog problems they are rare.

The second way in which the dog supply differs from the cat supply is that breeding on a large commercial scale is common with dogs and almost unheard-of with cats. The reason why large-scale commercial breeding of cats is almost unheard-of is that there is much less diversity in the cat population than the dog population. Although there are cat breeds, in most cases the differences from one breed to another are relatively minor – differences in coat characteristics and color and slight differences in size and build. Brachycephalia (a harmful genetic mutation) is unfortunately present in a few cat breeds, but overall you do not see anywhere near the size, conformation, and temperament variations in cats that you do in dogs. Because cats are mostly of one type there is less reason for people to want “purebred” cats than purebred dogs and less incentive to breed cats in large numbers for commercial gain. Lucky cats!

In the last 40 to 50 years the percentage of people who buy their dogs from a commercial breeder as opposed to adopting from a shelter or rescue has decreased. There are many reasons for this. Knock-off breed registries have been created to undermine the near-monopoly that the American Kennel Club (AKC) used to have on purebred-dog registration. Commercial breeders embraced these new registries because they were less expensive than AKC registration. The existence of a multitude of registries may have cheapened the overall worth of the “purebred” concept in the public’s eye, since the new registries have exposed the fact that a pedigree is just a piece of paper with little intrinsic value.

Another reason that people have become disenchanted with purebred dogs, in my opinion, is because show breeders have pursued ever more extreme “type” in their dogs, and as a result the health and soundness of purebred dogs has declined. A recent survey by the Kennel Club in England indicated that the lifespan of purebreds has dropped. No surprise to anyone who looks objectively at what is being rewarded as the ideal breed type at dog shows.

Yet another reason why mixed breeds have become more popular in recent decades is that the advent of the computer made it much easier to adopt a dog. Petfinder, which started up in the mid-1990s, evened the playing field between commercial breeders and shelters, giving shelters a way to publicize their animals. Petfinder and the increasing number of pet stores that feature homeless animals also seem to have led to a big increase in the number of rescues that take in owner surrenders and pull mixed-breeds from shelters. They too now have ways to compete with the commercial breeders.

And there has been a change in the attitude of the public toward shelter animals. That is partly because of all the efforts that shelter workers have made to make visiting a shelter a better experience. It also may be because people today more and more view their own pets as family members, and that increases their empathy for homeless animals. All these changes mean that today we have more demand than ever from the public to adopt shelter dogs, at the same time that we have less supply of dogs.

Today, spay-neuter programs for dogs are concentrating less on the overall number of dogs and more on an imbalance in the demand for dogs. Shelters in most places consistently report that they have too many large dogs, especially of the so-called “pit bull” type, and too few cute, fluffy, small dogs. People will stand in line at the shelter to adopt a 20-pound poodle mix, but a healthy, friendly, well-mannered 60-pound pit mix may have to wait months before an adopter comes along.

So the answer seems to be that we still need to go full speed ahead, all hands on deck for feral and community cat sterilization, but for dogs we need a more targeted approach. The difference between today and the situation we faced 25 years ago, when the big spay-neuter effort of the 1990s started, is that today we need to work smarter, not harder. We need to start integrating our spay-neuter efforts with the current state of the market for shelter cats and dogs. Ideally we can adjust spay-neuter efforts so that we have enough supply to meet the demand from people who want to adopt, but not so much supply that shelters have to scramble to find homes for them all.

As for the future, any systemic shortages of dogs in the United States could be addressed by importing homeless dogs from overseas. There is a lot of fear-mongering by commercial breeders about dog importations, though, so it remains to be seen whether a significant number of imported homeless dogs will be allowed. There is also some “friendly fire” from No Kill advocates who oppose transportation and importing of dogs because they would like to see shelters go out of business entirely. This is a viewpoint I don’t understand. If shelters close down due to a lack of pets available for adoption, commercial breeders will bounce back and we will be stuck with all the horrors of commercial dog breeding forever. We have the puppy millers on the ropes — let’s keep them there.

* American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey 2013-2014 (Greenwich, CT: American Pet Products Association, 2014), 16.

No Kill: Getting Started

I usually report about No Kill efforts that already have a track record of success. But not infrequently I get questions or comments from people who say that there is nothing going on in their city or town – no type of No Kill effort at all – and they wonder what to do, how to get started. Based on the stories of successful No Kill leaders I’ve interviewed, there does not seem to be any one path to accomplishment. However, in this post I list some themes that have turned up over and over in my talks with successful leaders. Please note – I am not a consultant and have never worked for pay in a shelter. The following is based on what I have learned from interviews with lots of people in both No Kill and the traditional shelter industry in my five years of reporting on No Kill. So take it for what it’s worth.

Seek out inspiration.

A common theme with successful No Kill leaders I’ve interviewed is that they actively sought out inspiration. Robin Starr went to San Francisco in the 1990s to see in person what Rich Avanzino was accomplishing at the San Francisco SPCA. Rick DuCharme went to Lynda Foro’s 1997 No Kill conference in Massachusetts and met Peter Marsh, who told him about the impressive results of New Hampshire’s approach to No Kill. Rebecca Guinn attended the 2002 Best Friends conference and received encouragement to start a non-profit. All three of these people went on to have a major part in making their cities No Kill.

If you are a new No Kill advocate wondering what to do, you cannot do better, in my opinion, than attending the Best Friends conference. There are other great conferences, including American Pets Alive! and HSUS Expo, but I think Best Friends is particularly helpful because they present workshops by people who have been key in getting their cities to No Kill. It would be nice if Best Friends would stagger the schedule of these workshops so an individual can attend all or most of them. But in addition to the workshops themselves the Best Friends conferences offer a great opportunity to network with those successful leaders.

If I were a new advocate I would ask the successful people what were the very first things they did on the way to No Kill. Makena Yarbrough raised a lot of money and built a fabulous shelter for the Lynchburg Humane Society, but that was not the first thing she did. Rick DuCharme’s organization works with other organizations to put on gigantic mega-adoption events in Jacksonville, but he did not start out doing that. Find one thing that you think will put you on the path to No Kill, something that’s doable starting out. It may be transports. It may be a TNR program. It could be starting a volunteer program for the shelter, or a foster program, or a help desk. It might be building a grass roots organization to work at creating a city council that is more friendly to animal issues. It isn’t a bad thing to start small, and learning how other people have succeeded can inspire you to realize that small efforts can grow into big organizations.

Ask for help.

Once you decide what you want to do, ask for help. There is lots of help out there, but if you want people to help you, you really need to have a plan. People are much more likely to want to help you if you have done your homework, know what you are talking about, have made contacts within No Kill, and above all are practical about what you can accomplish. You must be able to articulate specifically what help you want and why you think your plan will make a difference.

Some of the best places to look for help are:

(1) No Kill shelters near you. I have yet to meet a successful No Kill director who does not want to help neighboring communities go No Kill. A No Kill shelter in your area can do several things for you, such as alert you to local resources, help you build a grass roots group, and maybe even stage regional events. And when you are trying to convince city leaders that No Kill is possible in your city, they will be far more impressed by what a neighboring shelter has accomplished than a shelter hundreds of miles away.

(2) State federations. These are really an overlooked resource. Some state federations, like the one in Virginia, are fabulous and very committed to No Kill. Even some of the more traditional federations may have people who are successfully raising live release rates, but who do not advertise that fact or call it “no kill.” The state federation is definitely worth checking out.

(3) Consultants. The most productive way to use a consultant is if you can have the consultant meet the shelter director and make an inspection of the entire animal control and sheltering system in the jurisdiction. That’s not always possible, but if it is, a consultant can be incredibly helpful. Today there are shelter veterinarians who offer consultations, and they may be a little less intimidating to a traditional shelter director than a No Kill consultant.

Lots of people seem to start out by focusing on getting donations or grants. Donations and grants are critically important, but it seems like people are much more successful at getting them once they have at least a little bit of a track record or institutional backing. Asking for donations or grants for a brand-new enterprise that hasn’t done anything yet is a tough sell. Not impossible, but not easy.

Build bridges.

I’ve seen some people who advise new No Kill advocates to view themselves as superheroes who are coming in to destroy the old system and raise a new system in its place. That does not appear to be a very effective method. Virtually all the successful No Kill efforts I’ve reported on involve people who built bridges to city leadership and to other organizations in the city.

Building bridges does not mean you all get together and sing kumbaya. It means that you conduct yourself in a businesslike, professional way. Perhaps the most important part of building bridges is to prove that you are willing to work. No one likes an armchair quarterback, and any advocate who just stands back and tells people what to do, even if they frame their message politely, is not going to be very effective.

The beauty of building bridges is that you may find help where you were not expecting it. Even if you don’t, you have left open the possibility of a future coalition. And by having an open dialogue with the other players in the city you will learn a lot more about the situation than if you wall yourself off in a silo. Building bridges may help the work you are doing, and it certainly will not hurt. Burning bridges, on the other hand, can permanently make your job harder.

There has been an unfortunate tendency among some No Kill advocates to demonize people who work in traditional shelters. The psychology of traditional shelter workers and the interface between the traditional shelter industry and No Kill has deep historical roots, and a thorough discussion of it is beyond the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say that there are all kinds of people who work in traditional shelters. Just don’t pre-judge them, take each one as an individual, and you will do fine.

Analyze the situation.

One might think that “analyzing the situation” should be done earlier in the process. As a practical matter you will be analyzing the situation all the time, right from the start. But it is difficult to analyze a situation accurately until you are pretty familiar with it. And getting too wrapped up in an analysis can slow you down if the analysis turns out to be wrong or incomplete. So by all means analyze the situation, but don’t get too invested in the analysis until you are sure of your ground. Many of the successful No Kill leaders today started out in one direction and then either changed directions or added additional initiatives as they went along.

That said, you do need to know the basic facts about your community. What is your shelter’s policy toward cat intake? Does the shelter make traps available to people? Does animal control actively seek out free-roaming cats to impound? Do they only accept cats over the counter? Is there a TNR program? What is intake per 1,000 people? What is the breakdown between strays and owner surrenders? Between dogs and cats? How long is kitten season in your location? How much money does the shelter receive? How old is the shelter building? How convenient is it for adopters? What are the state and local laws, regulations, and ordinances that affect the shelter? Who on the city council or among the county commissioners is friendly to animal issues? Are there a lot of free-roaming animals in the city? What organizations and rescues pull animals from the shelter? What is the shelter’s social media outreach? How many non-euthanasia deaths are there each year? What categories of animals are dying of disease? What percentage of dogs and cats are killed for behavior? Does the shelter do owner-requested euthanasia, and if so how many and what are the requirements? Does the shelter vaccinate on intake? Does it require an appointment for owner surrenders?

Knowing the answers to these questions and a lot more like them can help you decide what needs to be done and how to focus your energies. In starting out you want to pick a goal that will have an impact and is big enough to attract other people to your effort, but not so big that it becomes unfocused or overwhelming.

Don’t get discouraged

It is possible that you will struggle for months or maybe even years and feel that you are not accomplishing very much, but in fact you really are. Maybe your effort to persuade the shelter director to meet with a consultant failed, but if you have been polite, constructive, and professional, and have done a good job explaining the advantages of a consultation, you will have made an impression on the shelter director. And you will have learned something about that director. Maybe you set a goal to do 1,000 free spay-neuters in the city’s poorest neighborhood in your first year and you only did 500, but 500 is far better than nothing. And you will have established contacts that can allow you to do better next year. Just talking to people about No Kill and making the effort is important. If your projects fail, they will still help pave the way for people after you to succeed.

Regardless of what you might hear, No Kill is almost never easy. In a tiny town where the shelter receives a few hundred animals a year, you might be able to achieve No Kill overnight, but not in Memphis. Or Dallas, or Houston, or Detroit, or any of a lot of mid-sized cities and counties. Be realistic, not ideological. Above all, make your own way.

Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Movement

From the Out the Front Door HuffPo Blog:

We used to have a terrible pet overpopulation problem in the United States. Intake at the Los Angeles city shelter in 1970 was 144,000 animals. Today it’s less than 18,000 per year. In New York City, the number of animals taken in by the city shelter fell from 136,035 cats and dogs in 1974 to about 30,000 today. Similar falls in shelter intake happened all over the country starting in the 1970s.

There were also lots of animals in the environment in the 1970s who never came to the shelter. It was very common in those days to encounter homeless or stray animals in the street, or to hear from friends and neighbors that they had found a stray animal or that they had a litter of puppies or kittens they needed to place. Today in most cities it is rare to see strays living in the street, and the number of puppies brought to shelters is small. “Kitten season” still occurs, but at a lower volume in many places.

The reason most commonly cited for the drop in the number of homeless pets is that around 1970 private veterinarians began to recommend spaying and neutering for their clients’ pets as a routine part of veterinary care. The first low-cost spay-neuter clinics started opening up in the 1970s, and that may have spurred the veterinary profession to take action to avoid losing that business. Another factor may have been that it was not until the 1970s that spay and neuter surgeries were safe enough for private veterinarians to feel comfortable recommending them. In any event, the spay-neuter rate for owned pets went from perhaps 10% in 1970 to 85% or more today.

There might have been other factors that contributed to the drop in shelter intake. Attitudes toward pets were evolving in the 1970s, and people began to view their pets as family members. And in the 1970s and 1980s many communities passed leash laws, which helped reduce the number of free-roaming dogs.

It seems doubtful that today’s No Kill communities could have evolved without the huge drop in shelter intake since 1970. Comprehensive nationwide statistics on shelter intake are not available, but from the data we have on individual shelters and from various surveys that were made, it appears as though shelter intake per person was about five times higher in 1970 than it is today. It is hard to imagine today’s No Kill communities being able to maintain 90% and above live release rates if their intake was five times as high.

People often think that the reason animal shelters killed some 90% of their intake in the 1970s was because shelters in those days were run by workers who did not care about animal lives. That’s a misperception. Given the overwhelming number of homeless animals, shelter workers back then were faced with the reality that there were not enough homes. Adoptions were like a game of musical chairs. An adoption from a shelter simply meant one less home for a stray living in the street or for a puppy or kitten from someone’s “oops” litter. That did not make the killing acceptable, but shelters were in a situation with no good choices.

Starting in the 1990s there were several innovations that were critical to No Kill. The fall in shelter intake was boosted by trap-neuter-return (TNR) and return-to-field (RTF) programs, which have been game-changing for cats. TNR was largely unknown until the 1990s and RTF is a recent practice. Petfinder, which started up in the mid-1990s, was very important in boosting shelter adoption rates and encouraging the formation of all-breed rescues. Also in the mid-1990s Richard Avanzino started to attend national conferences to publicize the techniques for increasing live releases that he had perfected at the San Francisco SPCA from 1976 to 1989. And the first course in shelter medicine was taught in 1999.

By the year 2000, the basics for No Kill to succeed were in place and it was a matter of spreading the word, continuing to develop techniques, and building the infrastructure. The traditional shelter industry was slow to catch on because it was collectively suffering from a type of learned helplessness due to its decades of dealing with overwhelming shelter intake. It needed to be pushed by the No Kill movement to realize that times had changed and it was possible to save more and more shelter animals.

Today there are still quite a few regressive shelters, but the shelter industry as a whole has gotten the message and is solidly behind No Kill. Things are rapidly improving, and at this rate we could very well have a majority of No Kill communities in the country by 2020.