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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

No Kill Heroes

Did you know that there was a whole group of people back in the 1980s and 1990s who were the creators of No Kill? These were the people who developed No Kill, proved that it could work, knitted it into a movement, and delivered it to the world. And they did all this without any thought of credit or personal glory.

The best known of the group of people who were active in the 1980s and 1990s is Richard Avanzino. He took over as shelter director at the San Francisco SPCA in the 1970s and kept that position until the end of 1998 (when he was succeeded by Ed Sayres). Avanzino was a creative leader, and on his watch the San Francisco SPCA developed the programs and philosophy of No Kill. Today, of course, he is the head of Maddie’s Fund and still going strong. Rich Avanzino is often called the founder of No Kill. He himself would say that it is the American people who deserve the credit for No Kill, because they are the ones who have opened their hearts to shelter animals.

Avanzino collected extraordinary people around him at San Francisco. Two of the most creative were Lynn Spivak and Pam Rockwell, both of whom are now retired. Spivak was the marketing and public outreach genius at the San Francisco SPCA. She helped to create an atmosphere where everyone, including the volunteers, came up with ideas for lifesaving, and the attitude was “let’s give it a try.” Her department was where the famous San Francisco programs were developed. Due to her efforts there was always something fun happening at the SPCA, and in consequence the shelter was always in the paper and on people’s minds. Rockwell was head of the Ethical Studies division. She was an Ivy League attorney and she redefined what a shelter’s job was in the community, not just for cats and dogs but for all animals. She put the ethical beliefs of the San Francisco crew on a sound legal and philosophical basis and helped work out the proper response for each new complex issue that came up.

Lynda Foro is another person who could be called the founder of No Kill. Before she started her activism, there was no No Kill movement. Starting in the mid-1990s, she held the first No Kill conferences and she issued No Kill directories. She created a network of people where none had existed before. People who wanted to stop shelter killing and who had been working in isolation suddenly discovered that there were other people just like them. Foro is retired, and has never sought any credit for her work. She’s another person who was all about the animals.

Ed Duvin has often been called the founder of the No Kill movement. His 1989 article “In The Name of Mercy” created a firestorm in the animal sheltering world. Duvin analyzed the current state of animal sheltering in light of the animal rights movement that had been underway since 1975. His critique of the animal shelter industry was devastating. He pointed out that we did not even know how many shelters there were in the United States at that time (we still don’t) much less how many animals they were killing (still true), and that sheltering had no effective national guiding body (still true). He tore down the excuse that killing was necessary to prevent suffering, arguing that shelters that did not even use the most basic management techniques had no ground on which to make that claim. He made several practical observations about how shelters could do better. Reading this document today it seems like a blueprint for the No Kill movement. And yet Duvin did not demonize shelter workers — instead, he said “[w]e reach out to our friends in the shelter community with respect . . . .”

All of these people and more were crucial to the origin of No Kill in the 1990s. No Kill is a product of many great leaders, but ultimately, as Rich Avanzino says, No Kill is the work of the American people. Today we have a new generation of younger activists who are carrying on the work. I hope that they will always be as smart, effective, and modest as their progenitors.


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