• Susan Houser

Purist or Pragmatist?

There are two types of No Kill activists. Those of you who have been around for a while know exactly what I mean. For people who don’t, here’s a summary:

Purist No Kill Advocate:

  1. Believes that shelters should find live dispositions for all savable animals.

  2. Sees No Kill in moral terms and makes statements like “I have no problem holding my local shelter to high standards because animals continue to die.”

  3. Does not work or volunteer inside a kill shelter, believing that would be too painful or would help enable killing; instead, works or volunteers for a No Kill shelter or rescue, or carries out activism on social media or by writing or lobbying.

  4. Believes that all shelter directors could stop killing quickly if they chose to, and when they don’t it’s because of laziness or ineptitude or because they like killing.

  5. Believes that governments have a duty to save the lives of shelter animals and that political pressure must be used to force governments to hire No Kill shelter management and to enact laws forbidding shelter killing.

  6. Uses the term “No Kill” a lot.

  7. Believes that every animal, or almost every animal, can be saved.

Pragmatist No Kill Advocate:

  1. Believes that shelters should find live dispositions for all savable animals.

  2. Sees No Kill in utilitarian terms and makes statements like “we should all work together toward the No Kill goal.”

  3. Works in and with kill shelters to help them reform, including volunteering in a traditional shelter, forming a non-profit to work closely with the shelter, or winning a contract to run the shelter.

  4. Believes that getting to No Kill is a complicated and sometimes lengthy endeavor that requires marshaling resources and building cooperative networks and infrastructure.

  5. Does not spend much time trying to lobby local government or pass laws, is willing to assume responsibility for creating no kill without waiting for government to do it.

  6. May use the term “No Kill” rarely or not at all because it alienates the traditional shelter officials the pragmatist is working with.

  7. Thinks that the proportion of animals who can be saved depends on the available resources and the mix of intake that a particular shelter gets.

As you can see, the first bullet point in each description is the same. Both purists and pragmatists believe that shelters should find live dispositions for all savable animals. This is very important, because it shows that both groups are starting from the same place with the same goal. Where they differ is in how to get there. In general, pragmatists are willing to engage with the traditional shelter system directly and take personal responsibility for change. Purists believe that the traditional shelter system must be smashed and rebuilt and that it is the job of government to do the rebuilding.


There are far more purists than pragmatists. This is not surprising, since being a pragmatic advocate requires a lot of work inside traditional shelters and a lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears. In spite of the much larger number of purist advocates, what I see in city after city where a successful transition to No Kill has taken place is that pragmatists have been central to the change. It is rare for No Kill change to happen without considerable boots-on-the-ground intervention by pragmatists. That makes sense because at some point the actual work has to be done, and who is better able to do the work of No Kill change than No Kill advocates.


Although pragmatists are essential for No Kill change, purists also have an important role to play. Every movement benefits by having a lot of debate and a lot of discussion of ideas. The purists provide this, and it may serve a function in keeping the pragmatists from getting too pragmatic. Another reason that purists may be essential to No Kill is that the moral clarity and black-and-white presentation of issues by the purists is good for drawing people in, and some of those people, as they get more involved in No Kill and come to understand the complexities, will become effective pragmatists.


No Kill as a movement has a serious problem in the relationship between purists and pragmatists. Some purists regard the pragmatists as kill enablers, because the pragmatists are willing to work with people whom the purists see as the enemy. In some cases purists have deliberately tried to silence or discredit pragmatists by trying to shut them out of the debate or bullying them. And some purists have undercut the work of the pragmatists by demonizing and threatening the traditional shelter officials that the pragmatists are trying to work with. This is why many pragmatists have stopped identifying themselves as No Kill advocates. Few people within the purist faction have spoken up to condemn the behavior of the bullies.


The pragmatists, for their part, have not done a good job of communicating with the purists. The purist group contains many new advocates who do not have a deep understanding of how shelters work or the complexity of reforming shelters. Pragmatists often see the purists as a distraction rather than as people they need to engage and educate. And pragmatists, who tend to be cooperative by nature and do not want to criticize others in the movement, have failed to push back against those purists who are bullies.


One way in which the pragmatists have failed to communicate with the purists is by failing to make the case for private action in shelter reform rather than government action. Many purists have mistaken beliefs such as that shelter animals have a right to life, or that government has an inherent obligation to provide live outcomes for shelter animals. Purists may overestimate the number of voters who are willing to make their electoral choices solely on the issue of change at the shelter. These mistaken beliefs encourage purists to spend their time hectoring public officials instead of creating change themselves. Demonstrating by case histories and statistics that No Kill change in most cities has occurred with the participation of the private sector would go a long way toward helping purist activists understand the advantages of pragmatism.


The traditional shelter industry is starting to build its own internal momentum for lifesaving change, and that will go on regardless of what No Kill advocates do. But the process of shelter reform will go a lot faster and a lot smoother if the No Kill movement can begin to coalesce around approaches that have the best track records.


Cory Booker, U.S. senator from New Jersey, is an animal advocate who has done as much for animals as any legislator in the country. In his speech last night to the Democratic convention, he said words that could apply to the No Kill movement – when we work as a team “we will rise.” Let’s get out of our silos, have respect for each other, make the effort to understand each other, and rise together.

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