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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

“How Can I Reform the Shelter in My City?”

I get this question frequently on social media, and there is no short answer, so I decided to write a blog on the topic.

As a preliminary note – this blog sets out a process for starting from scratch and creating a No Kill community. if you read all this and are discouraged at the complexity and the amount of work it takes to create a No Kill community, don’t despair. If you can’t do everything, it is still helpful to do something. In fact, there are many communities where a full No Kill initiative eventually developed starting with one program. If I lived in a high-kill community and had a demanding full-time job but still wanted to do something to increase lifesaving, I’d start a transport program. Transports can be coordinated during lunch hours and evenings, and can be run on weekends, and they can make an enormous difference in a community. Another great program that can be stand-alone is the Help Desk, which can be run with recruited volunteers and donated supplies and services. Help Desks often have a 30% or more success rate in heading off owner surrender. One person could make a difference by working with the shelter director on a marketing program, including low-fee adoption events. It may be tremendously helpful to work on getting anti-cat ordinances changed, if they are impeding TNR or RTF. So there is no need to despair if a full No Kill initiative seems too much for you to tackle all at once.

I’ve set this out as a series of steps, but the first two steps can be done at the same time. The last two steps may overlap some too, depending on circumstances. Even if you must limit your activities to one program, the first three steps may be valuable to complete.


Do you know what the adoption rate per thousand people is in your city’s shelter? Do you know what the cat ordinance says? What the dog ordinance says? What the required holding period is? Do you know your shelter’s intake? How is animal control structured? Does animal control actively pick up cats, or do they accept them only over the counter or as emergencies, or not at all? Do you have full statistics (at least as much information as is contained in the Basic Matrix used by Shelter Animals Count) for your shelter for the last 10 years? Do you know how to interpret those statistics? What is the shelter’s yearly budget? How many full-time and part-time employees does it have? Are you familiar with the activities of all the rescues and humane organizations that work in your community? Do any of them partner with the shelter, formally or informally? Do you know where animals who are transferred out of the community are going? What is the capacity of your shelter? When was it built? Does it have a good air-exchange system? Is it in a good location for foot and vehicle traffic? What are its hours? Does your shelter do RTF, have a kitten bottle-baby program, have a foster program? Does the shelter have managed admission, a Help Desk, a program for pit bulls, or an exercise yard for dogs? How many volunteer hours does the shelter have each month, and what do the volunteers do? Does your city have a low-cost spay-neuter program, either public or private? If so, how many animals per year are sterilized? Is there a TNR program? A transport program? How does the shelter evaluate temperament? Does the shelter have a veterinary staff? Where do people in your community go when they want to acquire a pet?

You can learn the answers to these and similar questions by doing basic research on the shelter, talking to people associated with the shelter, making a FOIA request for statistics if the shelter doesn’t make them available, and volunteering at the shelter or with organizations that work with the shelter. Once you have gained a basic familiarity with the shelter, talk to the director. Explain that you would like to help the shelter and ask what he or she sees as the biggest needs and biggest problem areas. If this is the first time you’ve met the director, don’t expect him or her to welcome you with open arms. Shelter directors get a lot of criticism, and all kinds of people approach them with all kinds of agendas. If you go in with an attitude of wanting to learn and help, the director is more likely to be candid with you. But at the least, you will get an idea of how effective the director is as a leader and how open he or she is to change.

Talk to the people in your community who are active in helping the shelter and ask for their ideas about resources that can be leveraged. Also talk to the heads of local non-profits that help humans or make grants for people-oriented projects – this may give you ideas for creative networking possibilities. If there are any city or county officials who are sympathetic to your efforts, get their ideas, especially as to finances and shelter location.


Just as you had to learn the facts about your own shelter for the first step, for this step you have to learn about successful No Kill shelters. Go to the Best Friends maps at and, and find out how your region is doing at No Kill and where the closest No Kill communities are located. Contact them, tell them what you’re trying to do, and ask if you can tour their facilities and speak to someone (preferably the director) about how they got to No Kill. The reason for going local is twofold – first, local communities are likely to be similar to yours in climate and terrain, and if they are in the same state they are probably functioning in a similar legal and regulatory climate. Second, this will give you a start in future networking, because No Kill shelters often help other communities.

One important thing to realize is that there is no “one size fits all” approach to getting to No Kill. As Richard Avanzino put it, there are many routes to the top of the mountain. Successful No Kill transitions build on what the community already has, and its own particular strengths and resources. That said, there are some programs that have been successful in a wide variety of communities. While you are visiting nearby No Kill communities, educate yourself about core programs like managed admission, Return-to-Field, and transport. Learn about Help Desks, bottle-baby-kitten foster programs, social-marketing programs, and Dogs Playing for Life.

Just as important as programs are institutional arrangements. Find out who runs the No Kill shelters you visit. Is it the city or county? Is it a local humane society or SPCA or rescue that contracts with the city? If the city or county runs the shelter, are there any formal or informal partnerships with non-profits that take a significant number of animals from the shelter? Do the shelters you visit have rescue coordinators? Foster, volunteer, or transport coordinators? If you are visiting a shelter run by a city or county, find out if the director had to overcome chain-of-command issues such as restrictions on social-media use or fundraising.

In recent years shelter medicine has become an enormously important part of No Kill. Learn about shelter medicine and what it can do for shelters in areas like capacity for care, infection control, and quality of life for animals. Learn about No Kill shelter buildings and how location plays a crucial role in adoption promotion and community engagement. If possible, visit a city or county that has a new shelter building designed specifically for No Kill, and talk to the director about the difference it’s made. Familiarize yourself with the Million Cat Challenge and the High-Quality High-Volume Spay-Neuter (HQHVSN) model for clinics taught by Humane Alliance. Attend a TNR clinic. The University of the Pacific offers an online certificate course in lifesaving-centered shelter management. This course is taught by people with a proven track record in lifesaving shelter management, and could be a great way to boost your education about No Kill.


If you’ve done all your research, you’ve probably formed a lot of opinions and already have some goals. Now you need to take the next step and decide how you’re going to reach those goals. Many people ignore this aspect of the process and go directly from the learning phase to the doing phase. They think that strategic planning is a waste of time. On the contrary, a good strategic plan can be the difference between success and failure. Think of the strategic plan as your road map to No Kill. Forming a strategic plan also forces you to think in detail about how to do each step. It’s easy to say “have a bottle-baby program for kittens” or “put on low-cost adoption events,” but it’s much harder to figure out all the details and hoops to jump through to make these programs work.

One of the best ways to make a No Kill plan is to call in a consultant like Humane Network or Target Zero. If that is not possible, there are many other resources to help. One is the yearly conference held by American Pets Alive! in Austin: The whole purpose of this conference is to provide practical help for people who are making No Kill transitions, and it’s an excellent first step in making a comprehensive No Kill transition plan. The Best Friends National Conference has presentations on how to get to No Kill, and it’s a great place to network. HSUS EXPO also provides tremendous networking opportunities.

One of the most important parts of the strategic plan is the operational model for the shelter. There are many operational models for shelters, and which one is best for your community will depend on the circumstances. For shelters that are run by the city or county government, a common and highly successful model is a public-private partnership. This model was originally developed by Avanzino in San Francisco, and it is used today in Austin, Jacksonville (FL), San Antonio, Washoe County (NV), Asheville (NC), and many other places. If the shelter director in your city is open to transferring animals to a partner organization, then this may be the best way for you to go. Keep in mind that shelter directors may not immediately embrace a new organization. If you choose to go this route you might need to start small and prove that you can responsibly handle the animals you take from the shelter, both in terms of public safety and good placements for the animals. Remember that animal sheltering has an animal control component, and any city or county is going to be very concerned with public safety and abating nuisances caused by animals.

Another important part of the strategic plan is to analyze all the data you gathered and use it to map out your shelter’s current strengths and weaknesses. You will need to set out what types of savable animals are being killed and why. For example, if your shelter is saving 85% of dogs but is having trouble placing large, active dogs, you may want to include programs in your strategic plan like transport, Dogs Playing for Life, micro-targeted free spay-neuter for the zip codes most associated with large-dog intake, regular adoption specials for large dogs, and intensive marketing. If the cat live release rate is, say, 50%, then you will need to plan for implementation of a community cat program and a bottle-baby program. You may need to modify local ordinances to allow RTF and TNR. If the shelter has a high died/lost rate, then the strategic plan must identify the causes and suggest solutions.

You will almost certainly need an organization to carry out your strategic plan. You may already be working with an animal-welfare non-profit that you can re-purpose for a No Kill effort. Or you may have to start from scratch and form your own non-profit. Hopefully you have met people in the course of doing your research who want to help, and you can bring them on board.


At this point you have a comprehensive strategic plan, an organization, and a group of people to implement the plan. In one sense you’ve come a long way. But really, the work you’ve done so far is preliminary, and now you’re at the starting line.

Implementing your strategic plan will probably require building a working relationship with the current shelter director. This may take some patience. What I see with many No Kill efforts is that shelter directors are willing to try out help that is targeted toward their problem areas. Once the lifesaving effort starts, it gains popularity and momentum. As the director sees the progress and gains trust in the No Kill effort, he or she becomes more open to change, as do city or county elected officials. I like the analogy of a snowball rolling down a hill and getting bigger and bigger. If you’re doing a good job and being sensitive to the concerns of other people, then before long the shelter director may be your biggest fan. Even if you never develop a great personal relationship with the director, you can have a great working relationship if everyone focuses on the goal of getting animals out the door alive.

But what if you can’t work with the current director? It’s understandable for a shelter director to be a little wary of a brand-new organization and ask it to prove itself, but what if the director is adamantly opposed to doing things differently and refuses your help? An ambitious and scary but potentially highly effective approach to this problem is to take over the shelter and run it yourself. This is obviously a heavy lift, but it has been done with great success in Kansas City (MO) and Atlanta. The process is for a private organization, generally a non-profit, to win a bid on a contract to provide animal sheltering (with or without animal control) for the city or county. How do you get the city or county to put a contract up for bid? One way is for the private organization to make a credible showing that it can do a better job of running the shelter, at a lower cost. Private organizations often have an advantage over a city or county government in running a shelter because a private organization can fundraise directly from the public and may have more flexibility in personnel decisions.

You can try political action to force the hiring of a new director when the existing director is uncooperative. If this method is used, it may be advantageous to have one organization running the political effort while another organization works on building No Kill infrastructure. This approach worked extremely well in Austin, with a two-pronged effort led by Fix Austin, which handled the lobbying aspect, and Austin Pets Alive!, which partnered with the shelter to pull at-risk animals. Without a simultaneous infrastructure-building effort, a political effort runs the risk of a city or county hiring a new director and having that director fail too.

Another way to deal with the problem of an intransigent shelter director is to modify your strategic plan to do all you can outside the shelter. Instead of partnering with the shelter to take at-risk animals, for example, you could start taking in owner surrenders directly and get them before they ever go to the shelter. This could save half or more of the community’s at-risk pets without ever involving the shelter director. If you have a Help Desk, or a transport program for dogs, or a neonatal kitten foster program in your strategic plan you can do all those things outside the shelter. With the kitten foster program, for example, you can ask people to bring litters of underage kittens to you rather than to the shelter where they would be killed. You can start pushing a community cat program, including any necessary ordinance changes. After running successful programs like this for two or three years, you may find that local officials appreciate what you are doing and are willing to give you a seat at the table in making decisions about animal sheltering. And if local officials do decide to appoint a new shelter director, that director will be much more likely to succeed with your programs already in place.

Whatever method you use, keep in mind that strategic plans sometimes fail. In San Antonio, for example, the city’s first strategic plan to get to No Kill failed. They took the lessons learned from that experience and created a new strategic plan, and it has had far better success. Creating No Kill is hard work and there are no guarantees, but it has been done now in hundreds of communities. I have seen enough No Kill transitions by this point that I fully believe it can be done in any community in the United States.


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