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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

On the Same Page

In the last few years, the idea that traditional shelters are fundamentally at odds with No Kill shelters has been evaporating. Traditional and No Kill shelters are quickly coming together around a new set of operating procedures that are based on data. This is a big deal because it means that most people in sheltering are on the same page now, and we can move forward together toward the goal of saving all healthy and treatable animals. Today’s blog looks at three new concepts that are creating common ground between traditional shelters and No Kill.

Professionalization of Intake Procedures

Perhaps the greatest point of contention between traditional and No Kill shelters historically was intake procedures. In the late 1990s, some in the traditional shelter industry began to use the concept of “open admission” versus “limited admission” to criticize No Kill. The traditionalists argued that open-admission public shelters were necessary because private, limited-admission No Kill shelters were not able to deal with all the homeless pets who needed help. According to traditionalists, No Kill shelters warehoused animals and caused an increase in pet abandonment by turning animals away. And No Kill shelters fundraised on the basis of not killing animals, which demonized open-admission shelters that had the responsibility for animal control and accepting owner surrenders. We still see those arguments made today, although much less frequently.

One reason that criticism of No Kill on the ground of “limited admission” has died down is that it is now abundantly clear that “open admission” public shelters can be No Kill. You can find entire No Kill jurisdictions dating back to the late 1990s. Otsego County, Michigan, went No Kill in 1999, and several small towns, including Ithaca and Aspen, were No Kill in the early 2000s. Reno, Nevada, a typical mid-sized American city, became No Kill in the mid-2000s, and Austin, one of our larger cities, became No Kill in 2011. Today, with hundreds of cities and counties saving 90% or more of their shelter animals, anyone who presumes that all No Kill shelters must be limited admission is just denying reality.

But the main reason that the old open-versus-limited-admission debate is losing steam may be that today we have a new operating procedure, managed admission, that is rapidly superseding the old intake procedures. “Managed admission,” which was discussed in Part I of this series, means simply that a shelter asks people to make an appointment to surrender a pet unless it’s an emergency situation.

Managed admission may seem like a small change, but it has enormous consequences. In fact, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that an entire new paradigm of sheltering has developed around it. Managed admission affects pet retention, staffing, use of space, disease control, capacity for care, and risk management. It leads to better community relations because it encourages responsible pet care, minimizes mistakes, and helps create a more homelike atmosphere at the shelter. The benefits of managed admission are so great that it appeals to both traditional and No Kill shelter directors. It has been an effective “wedge” program to get traditional shelters started in the direction of No Kill. Shelter admission policies have gone from being the signature difference between No Kill and traditionalists 20 years ago to being one of the most notable areas of common ground today.

Innovative Adoption Screening

A concept called Open Adoption is another example of a data-driven approach that has been widely accepted in recent years by both No Kill and traditional shelters. Like managed admission, Open Adoption has its critics, most of whom argue that Open Adoption programs hand pets out to anyone. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Open Adoption process. Open Adoption thoroughly screens potential adopters, it just does it in a different way. Instead of the traditional process of adopters filling out forms and having to meet fixed requirements, Open Adoption is centered on trained counselors talking to potential adopters, having a conversation about their homes and lifestyles, and observing how they interact with animals.

Open Adoption was pioneered by a few No Kill shelters in the 1970s and 1980s (although not called Open Adoption at that time), but beginning in the late 1990s the idea was fleshed out in conferences that included both traditional and No Kill leaders. The concept has subsequently been embraced by large numbers of traditional and No Kill public shelters. It has been slower to spread to rescues and private shelters. Even today, many rescues continue to have a long list of rigid requirements for adoption, such as a fenced yard, a minimum income, no young children in the house, a promise to keep cats indoors, home visits, references, retaining ownership rights, etc. Studies have shown that adoption success rates are no better when a laundry list of requirements is used, and the downside is that many people are excluded from adopting who would make great pet owners.

A phenomenon that has accompanied the Open Adoption concept is the mass adoption event. Mass adoption events have been around since the 1990s, but in the last few years they have become very common with both traditional and No Kill shelters. Such events are usually held in a large venue that has good public access. The animals may come from one jurisdiction, or a host jurisdiction may invite shelters from an entire region to participate. Some of these events have racked up staggering numbers of adoptions, as many as 1,000 or more in a weekend. In just the last couple of years the Clear the Shelters event has created a new kind of mass adoption event, with turnkey promotion allowing individual shelters to set new records for the number of adoptions in one day. These mass adoption events generally use Open Adoption concepts and rely heavily on trained volunteers to do “meet and greets.” The sheer number of animals adopted in these events would overwhelm any old-fashioned system that relied on extensive paperwork, background checks, and home visits.

The old way of doing adoptions emphasized excluding “bad” adopters, whereas Open Adoption takes a positive approach to starting people off right with their new pet. This positive approach makes Open Adoption a gateway to No Kill, because it carries forward the idea of the shelter as a welcoming community center.

Recognizing the True Nature of Cats

In traditional shelters, feral cats were killed. Tame cats who were freaked out by the shelter environment and did not present themselves well for adoption were also killed. Shelter workers and management believed that cats who were not social with people were like fish out of water, and that they were better off dead than “abandoned” outdoors.

Trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs that started in the United States back in the 1970s gradually began to show a different picture. Cats who lived outdoors and were brought into TNR clinics were mostly of good weight and basically healthy. The lives of outdoor cats, including feral cats, were not “nasty, brutish, and short” at all. There was a high mortality rate for feral kittens, but outdoor cats who reached adulthood had an excellent chance for many years of healthy life.

Cats have many different lifestyles, and they may transition from one to another. The unifying theme in cat lifestyles is that cats are a commensal species, meaning that they prefer to live in or around human habitations. They may be commensal wild animals (like raccoons, squirrels, and rats), or they may live as pets, or they may be something in between. The critical things for cat survival are food and shelter. The old idea that every cat must have an owner and a home in order to live a good life is wrong. Some cats are very adapted to living in a home and would not be happy outside, but those cats may represent a minority of the cats that come to public shelters.

The knowledge that outdoor cats, including feral cats, can live good lives slowly seeped into the sheltering world, and in the last few years it has created a revolution in how shelters handle cats. A central component of this revolution is Return to Field (RTF), which was discussed in the first post in this series. In an RTF program, healthy cats found outdoors are sterilized and returned to where they were found. The popularity of RTF with both traditional and No Kill shelters has grown out of our new, shared understanding of the nature of cats.

As with Open Adoption, criticisms of RTF tend to come from people who are not running shelters. People who are running shelters often embrace RTF with joy, because it allows them to stop killing healthy cats, even in shelters that receive large numbers of cats. That, in turn, allows shelters to spend more time and resources on neonatal kittens, sick and injured cats, and owner-surrendered cats. When an outdoor cat is healthy and well fed, as the majority of them are, the cat is obviously getting its needs supplied in its environment. If a cat found outdoors comes into the shelter thin or sick, or is too young to take care of itself, then it is not doing well in its environment and is a candidate for veterinary care and adoption, not RTF.

Most jurisdictions in the United States have a large number of outdoor cats, too many for shelters to successfully place them if all the cats were captured, and it makes no sense to take them into a shelter only to kill them. RTF is another program that strongly appeals to traditional shelter directors, and allows them to start on the road to No Kill.

Other Factors

The three revolutionary new lifesaving concepts discussed above have great appeal to traditional shelter directors, and they can set the stage for traditional shelters to take further steps toward saving all healthy and treatable animals. In addition to the availability of these new gateway programs, there are several other reasons for the recent rapprochement between No Kill and the traditional shelter industry. I will list some of them briefly.

— An important underlying factor in all discussions about sheltering has to be the tremendous fall in shelter intake since 1970. This fall in intake appears to have been brought about by the massive spay-neuter movement that started in the early 1970s, along with an increased trend for people to confine their pets to their home or yard. This fall in intake greatly reduced the number of animals that public shelters are dealing with, allowing them some breathing room to try new things.

— Many shelter workers and directors who lived through the 1970s and 1980s, when pet overpopulation was a real and severe problem, killed lots of animals for time or space. They had to rationalize what they were doing, and it caused many of them to have lasting emotional scars. By the year 2000, the balance between homeless animals and people who were willing to adopt shelter animals was far different from what it had been in 1970, but many people in that older generation of shelter workers did not recognize the extent of the change and continued to believe in 1970s-style operating procedures that were driven by pet overpopulation. Today, most of that generation of shelter workers has retired, and has been replaced by people who do not have those preconceptions.

— Training for shelter directors has improved, and this has led to a realization by both traditional and No Kill shelter directors that working together on regional and national efforts helps everyone. Animal sheltering is a very emotional profession. People who work in animal control see a lot of cruelty, and everyone in the profession deals with homeless animals, some of whom are sick and not treatable or have difficult behavior issues. Today’s most effective shelter leaders keep their emotions in check, and can work with just about anyone if it will help animals. When they must oppose another person or group – for example, in lobbying for a change to an ordinance or state law – they do it on the merits of the issue, without resorting to name calling or righteous indignation. This allows them to build coalitions that can create strong safety nets for pets.

— No Kill advocates are increasingly taking over traditional shelters. In some cases No Kill advocates win a bid for a contract to run the shelter, and in other cases they partner with the shelter to take animals that the shelter can’t place by itself. City and county leaders have seen the success of this public-private model and have increasingly embraced it. When private organizations get involved with public animal shelters, private donations can often be leveraged to increase services at no extra cost to taxpayers.

— Finally, in looking at reasons why we’ve recently seen great progress in reconciling No Kill and the traditional shelter establishment, there is one factor that is hard to quantify but seems very powerful. In the last five years, No Kill’s messaging has changed from predominantly negative to predominantly happy. Today’s most effective No Kill organizations and leaders are upbeat, and project confidence in their mission and their success. This positive outlook encourages volunteers and donors to sign up. It persuades city and county leaders to help. And it sells the public on the idea of shelter adoption as both a good deed and a fun experience.


This blog is the fourth in my series exploring the effects of the recent trend of professionalization in the animal sheltering industry. The fifth and final blog in this series will look at where we’re headed in the future.


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