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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

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.

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