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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

January 1, 2018

This blog takes a look at the big trends in No Kill in 2017, but first I want to say a word about sheltering in 2018.

We’ve made tremendous progress since the No Kill movement started in 1989. The progress, however, has generally been a local phenomenon. Each community has fought for and attained No Kill in its own way. This has worked well because each community is different, but the result has been that sheltering has never developed a national organization that can set goals, establish best practices, and issue guidelines.

Many people reject the idea of a national organization because they think it would impede creativity. That is unlikely. Legal control of animal sheltering is at the state level, and a national steering organization could never be anything more than advisory. It would not be a credentialing body.

Why do we need such an organization? One reason is that a substantial percentage of rescuers, and a not-inconsiderable number of shelter workers and directors, are completely unfamiliar with the broad trends in sheltering that have happened in the last 50 years. They are very familiar with the situation in their locality, but they generalize that to the U.S. as a whole and find it hard to believe that conditions may be different elsewhere.

As a result, we get books and articles and news reports claiming that dog and cat populations in our country are “at crisis levels,” or “out of control,” or “exploding.” In fact, the statistics we have (imperfect as they are) indicate a very strong trend of falling shelter intake dating back to 1970. Indeed, shelter intake hasn’t just “fallen,” it’s gone off a cliff. Today, the best estimates are that we have only one-fifth or less shelter intake per thousand people as we had in 1970. The fall in intake may have leveled off in the last 15 years, but shelter intake is not “out of control” or “exploding.” With the fall in shelter intake and the increase in the human population and the number of owned pets, and the new ways of looking at cats, there is no reason why any dog or cat has to be killed today for lack of a home.

The massive fall in shelter intake has huge implications for sheltering, today and in the future. I’ve written about some of those implications — most recently here. But instead of dealing with the facts and what is likely to happen based on those facts, many people are stuck in a doom-and-gloom mode that hinders their ability to make progress in the present, let alone the future. Doom-and-gloom is not a good message. If we want to attract people to our cause we must emphasize the positive, not chase people away with messaging about “overpopulation” that just leads to despair. Especially when that messaging is not just self-defeating but factually wrong.

The No Kill movement has done great things, but one thing we have not succeeded in doing is getting the message across about the current very hopeful state of sheltering in the U.S. and the trends that got us here. We need a national umbrella organization or steering committee that can speak with one voice to educate people about the recent history of sheltering and then identify policy choices that must be made. When we speak with many voices, it’s easy for the facts to get lost.

I would love to see this happen in 2018. So far, though, nothing seems to be on the horizon.


Now on to the big trends in sheltering in 2017. It was a year of exceptional progress in many areas, but two trends stood out to me.

  1. Statewide No Kill efforts.

These efforts are designed to help every jurisdiction in an entire state get to No Kill. The reason that statewide efforts are so important is that there are many resource-poor communities in the U.S. that are having great difficulty making any progress toward No Kill on their own. With statewide efforts, the stronger shelters in the state help the weaker ones. This makes so much sense, because the helping shelters are already familiar with the climate, terrain, and political and legal environment of the weaker shelters, and are geographically close enough to make help feasible. The “hub” model used by many of the current regional and statewide efforts is specifically built on this idea of the stronger helping the weaker.

In addition to the practical reasons for statewide No Kill efforts, they make sense politically. In the United States it’s state legislatures that governs animal-control issues. Much of this state authority has been delegated to local communities, which enact ordinances, but there are many state laws that strongly influence sheltering. State-level control of animal shelters has resulted in institutions such as state federations becoming very powerful in sheltering. These state structures can help with communication and recruitment for No Kill efforts.

Here are some of the statewide No Kill efforts that are currently underway:

  1. New Hampshire

  2. Delaware

  3. Utah

  4. South Carolina

  5. Virginia

New Hampshire shelters have averaged over a 90% save rate since the 2000s due to a statewide low-cost spay-neuter program, efforts by individual shelters, and the influence of the state federation. The Delaware effort, which combines animal control done by a state office with animal sheltering done by the Brandywine Valley SPCA, is saving over 90%. The Utah, South Carolina, and Virginia efforts are all headed by private organizations, and are well on their way to their goals.

In addition to these five, we have several additional initiatives. In Washington, a non-profit is using networking and direct grants to leverage help for areas that have insufficient resources. An interesting aspect of this effort is its emphasis on regions that have little or no animal-sheltering infrastructure. In Michigan, a non-profit is publicizing state statistics and using yearly awards to help motivate shelters to improve. Colorado is another state with mandatory reporting of shelter statistics, making it easy for advocates to know what shelters need help. Colorado as a whole appears to be at or above the 90% goal.

Statewide efforts can grow out of regional initiatives, of which there are many. A regional effort can be a great way for a strong shelter to take the first steps toward a statewide effort.

Statewide No Kill efforts may give us our best chance to quickly improve rural shelters in areas with low average incomes. Local government in such areas may be minimal, and there are a surprising number of U.S. counties that have no formal animal control or sheltering agencies. If we wait on the local population to build the necessary institutions in those areas, recruit volunteers, get sustainable funding, etc., we may be waiting for a long time. An outside organization that can come in and start a transport program for dogs, an RTF program for cats, and an HQHVSN clinic can jump-start an effort that can eventually be taken over by local people.

Statewide No Kill efforts may be the fastest way to get to our goal of a No Kill United States. They can leverage networks that are already in place, making huge gains in areas where No Kill might have seemed unlikely. It will be exciting in the coming year to see how the current efforts play out and how many new ones get started.

  1. We’re all on the same page

The second big trend of 2017 was the coming together of the traditional shelter industry and No Kill. When the No Kill movement first developed a national presence in the mid-1990s, the traditional shelter industry reacted with considerable outrage. The leaders of the traditional shelter industry in the 1970s and 1980s had to deal with a crushing pet overpopulation problem, and they were slow to realize that spaying and neutering of pets, which took off in the 1970s, had made a big difference in decreasing shelter intake by the 1990s. Traditional shelter leaders and workers in the 1990s were also hurt and offended by the term “No Kill,” which they thought was a back-handed way of calling them killers.

Today we have a new generation of leaders and workers in the traditional shelter industry who do not remember the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s and were not invested in the battles of the 1990s and 2000s. The result is that “traditional” shelters of today are often just as interested in raising their live release rates as No Kill shelters. We still have lots of poorly performing shelters, and we even have one major national organization that still has an old-fashioned view of animal sheltering, but we’ve turned the corner.

This obviously has major implications for how the No Kill movement operates, and that was on display in 2017. Cooperation has broken out all over. When you think about it, there is really no entrenched opposition to No Kill. There is no powerful constituency of people who want to kill cats and dogs. Shelter reform is not like farm-animal reform, or laboratory-animal reform, where huge businesses with lots of political power oppose animal welfare. The opposition to No Kill was always more emotional than real, and it is rapidly melting away.


If there is one big takeaway from our experience in 2017, it’s that knowledge is power. In the past we’ve concentrated on the nuts and bolts of shelter reform. Now we can reap some big gains by broadening our vision and using our knowledge of past trends to steer the best course in the future.

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