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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

No Kill: Programs and Models

We hear a lot about No Kill programs, and very little about No Kill models. That’s too bad, because the programs are only one aspect of getting to No Kill. What are the programs, and what are the models?

A No Kill program is any particular initiative or technique that a shelter uses to increase lifesaving. Many of the most important No Kill programs were developed by Richard Avanzino in the years from 1976 (when he was hired as president of the San Francisco SPCA) to 1989. The San Francisco SPCA during those years had a contract to do animal control and sheltering for the city. The programs Avanzino developed included a foster network,  integrating volunteers into most shelter operations, offsite adoptions, pet retention, behavior training, creative marketing, engaging the public, etc.

Avanzino did not develop all of the programs that we think of today as part of No Kill operations. Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) for feral cats was developed back in the 1950s in England and the 1970s in the United States, independent of the shelters. The concept of open adoptions was pioneered by people in the traditional shelter industry in the 1990s. The low-cost spay-neuter movement started in the early 1970s. And in just the last three years we’ve had a revolution in cat sheltering with the new community cat paradigms.

Many of the programs are common sense, and people in the 1980s and 1990s like Bob Rohde in Denver and Bert Troughton in New Hampshire independently developed foster, volunteer, and other programs for their progressive shelters. But even though

Avanzino did not develop all of the programs himself, and even though others worked on similar initiatives, Avanzino was the one who first advocated at the national level for shelters everywhere to put a comprehensive group of lifesaving programs into practice.

So that is a short history of No Kill programs. What about No Kill models? Avanzino realized early on when he started work at the San Francisco SPCA that full implementation of lifesaving programs was being hampered by the SPCA’s contract with the city. The SPCA was responsible under the contract for both animal control and sheltering, but the amount of money the city paid was not enough to do the job correctly. Every year the SPCA had to make up the difference out of funds donated by the private sector. Finally, in 1989, the SPCA ended its contract with the city over the funding issue. In the years from 1989 to 1994 Avanzino built a new model for No Kill – a public-private model that charged the city with carrying out its responsibilities of animal control and the private sector with serving as back-up for shelter lifesaving.

The model that emerged in San Francisco consisted of two agencies, the San Francisco SPCA and a new city shelter. The new city-run shelter was responsible for animal control and return-to-owner, and also did many adoptions. The San Francisco SPCA pulled at-risk animals from the city shelter, did medical care and behavior training as needed, and adopted them out. This arrangement was formalized in 1994 in the famous Adoption Pact, in which the SPCA guaranteed to take any healthy animal that the city shelter could not place through its adoption program. The SPCA also worked toward taking all treatable animals, although it did not reach that goal in the 1990s. The public-private model freed the SPCA to spend more resources on spay-neuter, TNR, and other lifesaving initiatives while the city concentrated on the core functions of animal control and basic sheltering.

The model worked extremely well, and by the time Avanzino left the San Francisco SPCA at the end of 1998 to head Maddie’s Fund, San Francisco as a community was saving roughly 70% of its shelter animals. That is not a great percentage by today’s standards, but it was extraordinary in 1998. The average live release rate for the nation as a whole in the year 2000 was on the order of 25-35%. Shelter medicine, which is so critical to high rates of lifesaving, barely existed in the 1990s. In fact, the first class in shelter medicine was not held until 1999. Under the conditions of the time, the San Francisco SPCA’s live release rate in 1998 was a stunning success.

Not every community requires a complicated model to succeed. No Kill programs by themselves, put in place at a city or county shelter, have worked in some communities, particularly small communities with adequate resources. But on the whole shelters seem to be able to get to No Kill faster and to sustain higher rates of lifesaving if they are part of a public-private network of some type. Lots of cities have successfully used the San Francisco model, and we can think of that as the classic approach – the city shelter that works with a large private organization that is dedicated, first and foremost, to pulling at-risk animals from the shelter. This classic model, combined with a third large agency that deals primarily with feral and community cats, has produced extremely high live release rates in Jacksonville and Austin and, importantly, has proven to be sustainable.

The classic San Francisco model is not the only one that works. There are other approaches, such as coalitions across jurisdictional lines (the Portland and Denver metro areas are examples), and New York City’s model of a rescue consortium that works with the city shelter through a non-profit umbrella agency. We also have examples (Atlanta, Kansas City MO) of cities where private organizations have bid on the contract to run the city shelter and are making it work with little or no help from other large, non-profit animal organizations. It is my impression that when larger cities use a contract model where the contractor has little outside help they struggle more than cities that are using the San Francisco or coalition models. Smaller cities, however, can do extremely well with the model of a local non-profit doing animal sheltering by contract with just rescue support – Charlottesville and Lynchburg, both in Virginia, come to mind.

One thing that seems to be common to the most successful public-private models in large cities is that the public shelter, instead of trying to work with 50 or 100 or 200 individual rescues, is working primarily with one or a small number of partners. In Austin, it’s Austin Pets Alive. In Jacksonville, it’s the Jacksonville Humane Society and First Coast No More Homeless Pets. City shelters have limited time to devote to networking, and it greatly helps their efficiency and their willingness to work with the private sector when they have one or two large, well-organized non-profits to deal with rather than a myriad of individual groups.

The bottom line from all this is that experience shows that for a large jurisdiction to succeed at getting to No Kill and sustaining it we need to think about both programs and models. A large city is not likely to achieve No Kill simply from implementing programs. The idea that all you have to do to get to No Kill is to hire a good director for the city shelter and implement a few programs is greatly oversimplified. The frequent failure of this approach when it has been tried without any consideration for the model being used has resulted in a lot of confusion, discouragement, and angst on the part of advocates when their “proven” programs fail to produce the desired result. The answer to this problem would appear to be that advocates should, from the beginning, think about how they are going to supply the public side of the partnership. If no suitable private organization exists, will they need to build one in order to succeed?

When I have proposed this idea to advocates in the past I’ve gotten a lot of pushback. It’s much more complicated for advocates to think about forming a non-profit and building it into a large organization than it is to just complain to city leaders about the shelter. Complaining can be done from the comfort of home, while building an organization takes a lot of work and requires shouldering some risk of failure. The great majority of No Kill leaders today realize that the public-private model is a key to success, as you can see from simply looking at where the large national organizations are putting their money and on-the-ground support. But are they articulating this realization in a way that is getting to advocates? Are they making an effective counterargument to the people who maintain that all you need is a new director and a few programs for No Kill to happen overnight anywhere?

For advocates who are not willing to do the work of building large non-profits from scratch, there is another possible route to take in some cities. Many cities have large humane societies or SPCAs that have been around for decades – in some cases since the 1800s. These organizations are often not doing much to help the city shelter. Instead of pressuring the city shelter to reform (which, without the necessary resources, can be like telling a person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps) advocates could work with the legacy humane societies to encourage them to start pulling at-risk animals from the city shelter. Too often I see advocates who are all over the city shelter but are ignoring the large legacy humane organization that might be just a couple of blocks away.

The need for more attention to No Kill models is why I was glad to see Brent Toellner’s recent blog post (link is here) that provides a thoughtful look at various models. Toellner makes the very important point that the public-private model is not an end in itself. Instead, it is a way to make sure that the shelter has the resources it needs to do its job. In San Francisco, the resources available for shelter lifesaving essentially doubled when the city set up its own shelter operation and the San Francisco SPCA took the role of backup. Getting to a 90%+ live release rate requires having the resources for medical treatment and behavior rehabilitation. Resources can also allow a city to have a modern shelter in a good location rather than an animal warehouse next to the city dump. And resources can greatly help with recruiting talented people.

There are many things to think of in making an effort to get a city to No Kill. This blog post, long as it is, covers only a fraction of the relevant considerations. A great place for advocates to start is talking to people who have made No Kill happen in a city of relatively the same size, with similar conditions. Mentoring may be as important as programs and models, but that will have to be the subject of another post.


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