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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The Glass is Two-Thirds Full

If you follow some of the most popular No Kill social media sites, you might get the idea that things for shelter animals are terrible. Those sites feature an onslaught of negative news – cruel acts by shelter workers, mistakes by ACOs, indifference by city leaders. Today I want to give everyone a “good news” break by taking a look at the bigger picture, which is amazing.

Shelter save rates have been climbing steadily for the last 20 years. As of the year 2000, live release rates were about 25% nationwide, up from 10% in earlier years. From 2000 to 2010, the nationwide live release rate doubled, going from about 25% to 50%. In the last 5 years that progress has continued, with the rate going up to 65% or even 70%. That’s huge. The glass is now 2/3 full.

It’s interesting to note that the progress in shelter save rates parallels the progress of the internet. In the 20 years that Petfinder has been in existence, the estimated live release rate nationwide has gone from perhaps 10% to 70%. Petfinder was the first website that allowed shelters to market their animals directly to adopters. For shelters that had no advertising budgets in the 1990s and few employees with marketing skills, Petfinder was a game-changer. It was an entirely new way of communicating with adopters that went beyond anything that had been available previously.

The ability to market pets through Petfinder was also a major stimulus for the formation of rescues, which had suffered from the same marketing problems as shelters. The number of rescues in the period from 1995 to today has probably increased even faster than the live release rate.

The progress in shelter save rates also correlates with the increase in the spay-neuter rates for owned pets, starting in the early 1970s and including the advent of pediatric sterilization in the 1990s. In 1970 there were five times as many pets per thousand people in shelters as there are today, far more than any community could adopt out. From 1970 to 2000, humane advocates engaged in a massive spay-neuter campaign that caused shelter intakes to drop some 80% in relative terms. Without this, No Kill would not have been possible. The strongest advocates for the historic spay-neuter campaign from 1970 to 2000 were people in the traditional shelter industry. So you could say that it was the traditional shelter industry that paved the way for the advent of No Kill starting in the mid-1990s.

Within the last 5 years many communities have topped out their live release rates, hitting 90% or more. Today we have Seattle, Portsmouth, San Francisco, Washington DC, Atlanta, Richmond, Denver, Austin, Salt Lake City, Jacksonville, New York City, Tampa, and Fairfax County, Virginia, at 80% or above. Many of those metro areas are over 90%. In most of these big cities people have been working diligently since the 1990s or early 2000s and have been slowly and steadily bringing up their live release rates. Today more than 35 million people in the United States live in a jurisdiction that is known to be saving 80% or more of shelter animals. If we add in all the jurisdictions that are at 80% but don’t publish their statistics, that number is probably 40 million or more.

No Kill status has been recognized as an important attribute for a well-managed city. The number of people who want to adopt shelter dogs is approaching the number of shelter dogs needing homes. Transports have been professionalized and now run like well-oiled machines. The new cat paradigms offer a humane and sensible way for shelters to save every savable cat. Virtually all of the important stakeholders on the national scene are in agreement on the new cat paradigms. Some grass-roots No Kill advocates are critical of transports and the new cat paradigms. I hope they will give these programs a chance – after all, one of the big criticisms that No Kill advocates make of the traditional shelter industry is that it’s too quick to reject new ideas. No Kill advocates should not fall victim to that same mistake themselves.

Amazing things are being done in shelter medicine. Back in the 1990s it was almost unheard-of for shelters to vaccinate on intake, something that is now becoming routine. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians was founded in 2001, and its growth has been phenomenal. Today, No Kill shelters can save a high percentage of parvo puppies and neonatal kittens. It used to be that heartworm and ringworm were death sentences, but today they are treated. Shelter veterinarians have gone beyond the traditional role of treating the sick and have become involved in shelter design, behavior interventions, and consulting.

So don’t let the bad acts or indifference of some shelter workers and ACOs weigh you down. The No Kill communities movement that started in the mid-1990s is approaching its goal. With so much of the country already doing very well, the cities with the worst shelters and the rural counties and little towns that have not been paying much attention to their shelters will get the help they need to improve. As the problem areas dwindle in number we will be able to concentrate more resources on them and fix them faster. Things are getting better at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to keep up with all the good news.



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