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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Is No Kill Still An Outsider Movement?

I started my first blog keeping track of high-performing public shelters back in July of 2011. At that time most people thought there were about 2 dozen or so No Kill shelters, and they were almost all small towns. No Kill at that time certainly seemed to qualify as an outsider movement.

Fast forward to today, and here’s a list of big cities/metro areas that are at or above a 90% save rate and have sustained it for at least a year: Seattle metro area, Portland metro area, Fairfax County VA, Austin, Denver, and the entire state of New Hampshire. Here’s a list of big cities/metro areas that recently hit 90% or have 80%+ live release rates: New York City, Washington DC, Richmond VA, San Francisco, Jacksonville, and the entire state of Colorado. This is just off the top of my head and I may have left some out. In addition, we have very active programs in San Antonio and Los Angeles (a Best Friends effort) that are making great progress.

Here’s the funny thing, though. All these big cities did not just wake up in the last three years and say “hey, let’s go No Kill.” Instead they have all been working for many years, and in some cases decades, to get where they are today. In some cases they were directly influenced by the No Kill program that was developed in San Francisco by Rich Avanzino and his staff back in the 1980s and 1990s. Robin Starr, for example, flew to San Francisco from Richmond in the late 1990s to consult with Avanzino about how to bring the program to Richmond. And the movement in New York City was patterned after Avanzino’s program, although they have altered it to fit the circumstances of New York.

In other places on the list above, the people who instituted shelter reform seem to have been affected only indirectly, if at all, by the San Francisco program. New Hampshire developed its own program back in the 1990s, which included at least one shelter director independently coming up with some of the programs being used in San Francisco. The doyen of one of the biggest cities on the 90% list dislikes the term “no kill” because he believes it unfairly labels shelter workers as killers. He has used a cooperative approach to help form a coalition that, working over decades, has brought his city to a live release rate of over 90%.

Over the years since the San Francisco Adoption Pact was signed in 1994, there has been a lot of progress made in how to save lives. One of the most exciting developments has been the new directions in community cat management. Based on work that has been done by Alley Cat Allies since its founding in 1990, and also carried on by Dr. Kate Hurley, Dr. Julie Levy, and Maddie’s Fund, we are on the verge of being able to end shelter killing of cats. The new programs for cats were included in a draft California whitepaper issued last year that was signed by both the ASPCA and HSUS. This whitepaper also endorsed managed admission techniques.

There are additional exciting developments going on at the national level. I was told by one HSUS director that they are pleased with their new program of highly targeted spay-neuter, in which people go door to door in city neighborhoods where a lot of backyard breeding is occurring. ASPCA is trying to improve transports, using knowledge from transport businesses to develop more efficient ways to move animals around the country.

All this is great news, and it illustrates the fact that No Kill has quickly become a big, heterogeneous movement. Its success certainly seems to indicate that No Kill has either already moved from outsider to insider status, or will soon. It may be time for the leaders of the movement to think about whether and how this development should change the tactics of the movement and how the movement presents itself. The biggest question may be whether it is time to move from confrontation to cooperation. That’s an oversimplification of course, because in some cities and towns it may be that confrontation is still the only policy that will succeed (yes Memphis and Tallahassee, I’m thinking of you).

But there are many situations in which the No Kill movement could perhaps move forward faster by thinking of how it can work with people rather than confronting them. For example, many traditional shelter workers strongly object to the idea that there is no pet overpopulation problem. To those people, accepting that there is no pet overpopulation problem will inevitably mean that spay-neuter programs will be given up or de-emphasized. I can understand how people who have been doing humane work for decades would find this to be a frightening prospect. This seems to me like one area where the No Kill movement could forgo some terminology and instead reinforce the fact that it still strongly believes in the importance of spay-neuter, especially in areas of high intake.

Another thing that really offends traditional shelter workers is when No Kill advocates say that No Kill can happen overnight, and all you have to do to get to No Kill is stop the killing. In fact, No Kill can happen overnight, but maybe not everywhere. It can happen overnight in a small community that has favorable demographics and where the shelter is already at a live release rate of 75% or so. But if the shelter takes in 30,000 animals per year and is in a city with low median income and has a live release rate of 25% or so, then it’s hard to imagine how the shelter could transition to 90% overnight. And as far as saying that all you have to do is stop the killing, that’s not a helpful statement. Getting to No Kill is a lot of work, because people aren’t going to appear out of thin air to adopt, foster, etc., just because a shelter has announced it’s going No Kill. I think we could easily re-work the terminology we use to be more accurate and less inflammatory — for example, we could say that a No Kill transition can happen quickly in most places, and that what we need to do is take killing off the table as a solution. It may seem like a subtle distinction in wording, but it changes the meaning from an accusatory demand to putting the emphasis on the process.

There is a substantial list of additional complaints that traditional shelter officials and workers have against No Kill, including their opinions that managed intake leads to animals being abandoned, that lowering adoption prices leads to hoarding and abuse, that TNR and SNR are inhumane, etc. A national program of data collection and analysis could help lay these fears to rest. Even if traditional shelter workers refused to accept the results of such data collection, the collection and presentation of the data would show that No Kill is willing to take criticism seriously. And who knows, we might find some things we need to fix.

Another issue that No Kill needs to address is the lack of a national steering organization. At the current time we have various organizations, but they are either single-person efforts, or local, or they have a limited purpose. These small organizations have contributed a great deal to No Kill. In order to be taken seriously as an insider movement, though, No Kill should have a national organization that brings its leaders together. There are many people to choose from for a potential board for such a guiding body, including Rich Avanzino, Becky Robinson, Bonney Brown, Nathan Winograd, Jane Hoffman, Dr. Hurley, Dr. Ellen Jefferson, and Brent Toellner. At some point, such an organization might develop certification standards for No Kill shelters.

Perhaps the transition to insider status is best represented by what happened in Kansas City, Missouri, where local activists formed their own non-profit, Kansas City Pet Project (KCPP) and bid on the contract to run the city shelter. They won the contract and started work on January 1, 2012. KCPP’s shelter is fully open admission, and it’s big — they had an intake of 8179 animals in 2013. They hit 90% within 6 months of their starting date, and have stayed at or above 90% since then. It’s a struggle for them, because intake has gone up now that they are no kill, but they are making it work.

Now that No Kill has proven itself, it will be possible in more and more cities for No Kill advocates to form non-profits and bid on contracts. It’s not a crazy idea anymore, and No Kill advocates can use examples from many places to show city leaders that contracting out animal shelters makes sense on many levels. As insiders, we have to show that we can produce the results we promised. One way to do that is to move from picketing and protesting to taking the reins and running successful public shelters.



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