• Susan Houser

The Devil Is In The Details

It has been more than 20 years now since the concept of a No Kill community was created by Rich Avanzino in San Francisco. Today many cities and counties are No Kill. We know how to do No Kill – that is, we know what processes and models we need to use – but in most communities the implementation of those processes and models confronts us with problems. As with most great endeavors, the devil is in the details.


For example, we know that return-to-owner rates can be increased if animal control officers are provided with the time and equipment needed to try to find a stray animal’s home in the field at the time the animal is picked up. It is a much better outcome for everyone if the officer can take the animal home rather than to the shelter. But in many cases there are barriers in the way. The local jurisdiction may have non-waivable fees for allowing an animal to run loose, or for allowing an animal to be at large without proof of identification or rabies vaccination. If the city or county runs animal control they may be reluctant to accept the extra expense of providing animal control officers with the gear needed for effectively returning animals in the field, or the time to do so. Shelter procedures may need to be re-written and approved by city officials.


There are many other types of state and local laws and ordinances that can make No Kill difficult. Pit bull bans are more often abrogated than created these days, but they still exist, as do landlord and insurance rules that discriminate against certain breeds. Mandatory spay-neuter rules tied to pet licensing can result in people not licensing their pets. Many communities have rules or policies that make trap-neuter-return and return-to-field programs for cats difficult or impossible. Getting to No Kill in a particular place may be substantially impeded by such rules and practices.


A related issue is whether the shelter director has the flexibility needed to create No Kill. Does the director have the power to make decisions on policy and operations for animal control and sheltering? For example, many times a No Kill transition means that some workers will not be able to adapt to the new regime and will have to be replaced. Or the shelter, since its goal is to save a higher percentage of animals, may need to develop a more nuanced approach to temperament evaluation. If the shelter is run under contract by a non-profit, the director probably will have considerable leeway. If the director is a city or county employee, then personnel decisions, budgetary choices, and setting policy may happen at a higher level of city government, where the ultimate decision-maker is not solely focused on No Kill.  If personnel and policy decisions are controlled by the government hierarchy, above the level of the shelter director, it can greatly hinder getting to No Kill.


Talent is a huge issue for No Kill. One of the reasons why we have seen such a spate of large cities going No Kill in recent years is that large cities tend to be where the talent is. Great marketers, fundraisers, and managers are less likely to be found in a remote rural county than in cities like New York, Austin, or Atlanta. A rural county may be hard-pressed to find a really competent person to run the shelter. It may be even harder to find people who are competent to develop operational, budget, fundraising, and marketing plans.


Implementing effective volunteer and foster programs, and getting the best performance from shelter employees, requires many different skills. It’s easy to say “start a volunteer program.” It’s a lot harder to actually do it. The director has to figure out how to recruit and train the volunteers, how to motivate them to keep coming back, what they will and won’t be allowed to do, how to keep them safe from bites and zoonoses, what the considerations are for legal liability, what tracking of volunteers will be done, how to evaluate volunteers to make sure they are being used most effectively and prevented from doing any harm, what accommodations can be set aside for them in the shelter, and so on.


Shelter intake is another issue that can stand in the way of No Kill. In most cases, the lower a shelter’s intake is in relation to the number of people in the community, the easier it is to get to No Kill. This is partly because more people equals more potential homes, but intake per capita is also a measure of how much capacity the community has to care for its pets. Wealthier, more educated communities tend to have a better track record of looking after their pets. People in those communities have fenced yards for their pets, and if they have to move they can find another home where they can keep their pets. In Boulder, Colorado, which is a wealthy, progressive, city, some 90% of stray dogs are reclaimed by their owners. There is a world of difference between that and the 10% to 20% return-to-owner rate that is more typical. When you see high shelter intake relative to the human population and a low reclaim rate, you are probably in a place where the residents don’t have the resources to keep their pets off the street and safely at home, or the resources to look for them when they disappear.


Money is tremendously important to every facet of No Kill. We tend to think of money as most needed in paying veterinary costs to treat the treatables, but money is also crucial for pet retention programs and for hiring employees to run volunteer, foster, social media, and rescue-placement programs. Money can also make the difference in whether a shelter can afford an offsite adoption center or a low-cost spay-neuter clinic. Governments rarely pay the full cost of No Kill, which means that the private sector must make up the difference. In order for private fundraising to be effective, people in the community must have money to donate. If a high percentage of the local population is struggling to make the rent payment each month or buy food, the No Kill effort will probably struggle too.


The shelter building is another thing that makes No Kill harder or easier. If the shelter is one of the old-style, ugly, concrete-block buildings located near the landfill or the railroad tracks, in a bad part of town, with no thought given to disease control, then it will be harder to attract adopters and volunteers and harder to keep the animals healthy.


Finally, one of the most important factors in implementing No Kill is whether there are other humane organizations in town that have the shelter’s back. Is there a large humane society that pulls lots of animals from the shelter, including the toughest cases, or is the shelter going it alone? In some places the local humane society actually makes things harder for the public shelter by vacuuming up donation money, taking in all the small, cute, healthy owner surrenders, and bringing in lots of highly adoptable dogs and cats from other areas without at the same time committing to making sure that all the healthy and treatable dogs and cats in the city are safe.


Setting out a list of programs that will help a community get to No Kill is easy. Actually getting there, though, is hard work in most places. In quite a few places it is very hard work. We need to educate people who are new to No Kill and who want to help make it happen about what it really requires. Sometimes people new to No Kill have an over-simplified idea of what it entails. I know I did at one time. If people understand what is required they will be much better prepared to help the effort.


As we go forward we need to have training resources for shelter directors that get down to a very granular level of detail of implementation. The good news is that more and more such resources are becoming available through conferences and professional consulting services. The HSUS and Best Friends conferences both offer great opportunities for aspiring No Kill shelter directors to learn from the presenters and to network with each other. The American Pets Alive! conference is devoted to providing nuts-and-bolts instruction on getting to No Kill. We have several excellent people who offer No Kill consulting services. With all these resources, even shelter directors who are not superstars can be effective and can lead their organizations to No Kill.

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