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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

No Kill — Can Cities Get There Without Help?

This is Part II in a three-part series on how the unique legal status of domestic pets affects the infrastructure of No Kill. Here is a link to Part I:

The very first animal shelter in the United States, way back in 1870, was created by a private SPCA that contracted with the city of Philadelphia. Ever since that time, the private sector has been heavily involved in animal control and sheltering. When a historian, Jessica Wang, wrote about public-private partnerships for a prominent academic journal in 2012, animal control and sheltering was the model she chose to use.*

Today the list of cities and counties that have gotten to No Kill (or gotten close) by contracting or partnering with the private sector is long: Austin, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Richmond, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Fairfax County, San Diego County, Washington DC, Baltimore, New York City, Williamson County, Washoe County, Kansas City (MO), Seattle, Portland, and San Antonio come to mind. And there are a slew of smaller communities that have gotten to No Kill by means of partnerships as well. I cannot think of any sizable jurisdiction that has gotten to No Kill by the efforts of a city-run or county-run shelter alone, although Hillsborough County in Florida (home of Tampa) is close, as are a few others.

Why is this? What is the power of the private sector that makes the difference in whether a city gets to No Kill or not? The answer lies in the fact that animal control and sheltering are two very distinct missions, and cities are responsible for only one of those missions – animal control. Animal control, to put it simply, involves protecting people from animals. Animal sheltering, again putting it simply, involves protecting and helping the animals themselves.

Cities in the United States began doing dog control in the early 1800s to protect people from the threat of rabies. There was no rabies vaccine until the last years of the 1800s, either for people or dogs, and people were terrified of catching rabies from stray dogs. Stray dogs also posed a danger to people in horse-drawn carriages, as they could spook the horses and cause runaways that often ended in death or serious injury. People in the 1800s saw dog control as a matter of life and death, and cities reacted accordingly by rounding up and killing stray dogs – usually by brutal means.

The Philadelphia-based SPCA that took over the city’s dog control department in 1870 was made up of private citizens who were outraged at the cruelty of the city dog catchers. Private groups in several other cities took over some or all animal control functions in the late 1800s, including in Boston and New York City. By the early 1900s a rabies vaccine was widely available in the United States and fear of the disease gradually abated. The early 1900s saw a greatly increased concern with other animal-related public health issues, however, and animal control continued to be an important city function. As the years went by, private non-profit humane societies and SPCAs continued to be involved in animal control and sheltering.

Under our federal governing system, the responsibility to manage municipal functions is assigned to the states. The states delegate most of those functions to city and county government, with state oversight through laws and regulations. Local governments are charged with the responsibility for the health and safety of citizens, and so they are responsible for policing, fire-fighting, and many aspects of public health. It is no accident that animal control units are often part of the police or health departments, because animal control (as distinct from animal sheltering) is considered to be a public safety function.

Because animals are property, municipal governments generally do not have the authority to protect an animal based solely on its interest in its life. Even cruelty laws are ultimately justified on the ground that cruelty harms the moral fiber of the humans who engage in it. Finding new homes for homeless animals for their own sake is not part of a city or county’s core obligations. It is difficult for local governments to justify spending tax dollars to save the lives of homeless animals whose lives have no legal status, especially when the money could be used for things like schools, infrastructure, etc. that are clearly within the duties of government.

The private sector does not have that constraint, and private organizations are free to spend their funds on trying to find unclaimed animals new homes. Thus, animal sheltering for the purpose of saving animals’ lives came to be a private function provided largely by non-profits. The non-profits might have an informal relationship with the city shelter or serve as the city shelter themselves either by contract or voluntarily.

Public-private partnerships have the disadvantage that you lose the efficiency of having just one organizational chain. That lesser efficiency is outweighed, though, by having more creativity, more people involved, and more resources. The beauty of a private organization contracting with a city to provide animal control and sheltering is that the private organization can supplement the contract payment from the city with private donations. Another important advantage of public-private partnerships for animal sheltering is that private organizations usually have more flexibility in hiring decisions.

In Part I of this series I wrote about several large cities that have gotten to No Kill. In each case, cooperation between the public and private sector was key. It is possible in very small towns for one person to make the difference in how a shelter operates, but in a jurisdiction that is too large for one person to handle single-handedly, cooperation is by far the most common route to success.

What conclusions can we draw from all of this? One conclusion is that since partnerships are so important to No Kill, people have to be able to work together cooperatively for No Kill to happen. We need private agencies to be able to work with each other, with the shelter, and with the city. And that means that divisiveness is the enemy of No Kill. People often joke that back-biting and internecine warfare are more common among rescues than with just about any other type of institution. That has to stop. No matter how hard it may be for people who hate each other to work together, it has to be done. The goal is too important for individual enmities to be allowed to matter.

There are arguments that can be made that animal sheltering, and not just animal control, should be a local government function. Pets are very important to people, and citizens in some jurisdictions have voted for extra taxes for No Kill animal sheltering. No Kill may attract people to a city, and pay for itself in that way. It seems unlikely that city and county governments will be willing to take on a duty to save all savable animals, though, because this is an era when most local governments seem to be trying to shed duties rather than take on new ones. And having cities and counties take over sole responsibility for animal control and sheltering would mean losing the flexibility and creativity that public-private partnerships have shown.

We have a system in public-private partnerships that works extremely well for No Kill. Now we just need to make sure that every city and county has such a system.

* Jessica Wang, “Dogs and the Making of the American State: Voluntary Association, State Power, and the Politics of Animal Control in New York City, 1850–1920,” Journal of American History 98 (March 2012): 1005-1006. doi: 10.1093/jahist/jar566.


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