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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The State of No Kill

To borrow a phrase from the last few State of the Union speeches, the state of No Kill — is strong. In fact, it’s great. But the movement is now at a place where it behooves us to take stock and think about where we are and where we’re going. So here is my two cents on the State of No Kill.

No Kill has matured enough as a movement that it has divided into two wings. We have a moderate, practical group that is made up of people who are doing the boots-on-the-ground work and direct support of boots-on-the-ground. These people include the directors of No Kill shelters, the active consultants, the donor organizations, the people in large national organizations who are working on individual community No Kill efforts, and shelter medicine specialists. The moderate wing has been enormously successful, as can be seen by the rapid growth of No Kill communities.

The second faction is what I call the radical wing. It is made up of advocates who speak directly to the public and try to get them to take action to reform their local shelters through grassroots political and social pressure. The radical wing is led by Nathan Winograd, and it has also been very successful at what it does. In my work I frequently see cases where grassroots pressure from local people has caused city or county leaders to pay attention to their animal shelter. Pressure by itself does not create No Kill, and it seems to me that these communities do not actually succeed in getting to No Kill without people from the moderate middle coming in and taking the practical steps to effect the transition, but the radical wing can wake people up and give the moderate middle a chance to work.

The State of No Kill is not perfect, though. The biggest issue I see right now is that No Kill moderates have not developed a leadership class to speak for them as a whole. Right now No Kill has been proven to work anywhere, under any circumstances, although some communities (San Antonio, for example) face far greater challenges than others. But there is no leadership structure in the moderate group to carry this message. This appears to be because the moderate middle is large and diverse, consisting as it does of several big organizations and hundreds of individuals who are actively managing No Kill shelters and programs.

The radical wing has tried to fill this gap to some extent by talking about No Kill successes, but the radical wing lacks credibility with the traditional shelter establishment because the radical wing’s leaders are, by and large, engaged in advocacy rather than in the day-to-day work of running No Kill shelters. The radical wing, in my opinion, is more effective at its core mission, which is to get the No Kill message out to the masses and to urge existing No Kill communities to become even better. The reason that most effective movements have more than one wing is precisely because there is more than one message that needs to be conveyed. The radical wing of advocates has enough to do carrying its message of the faults with the system. It should not be expected to also carry the positive message of the moderate group of boots-on-the-ground creators of No Kill communities.

No Kill moderates are ideally positioned at this time to move the traditional shelter establishment rapidly in the direction of No Kill. The debate about the effectiveness of No Kill is over. There is a need now for the traditional shelter establishment to hear from a moderate No Kill faction that is speaking with a clear voice. A moderate middle that is not interested in criticizing the traditional shelter establishment or in setting standards that the traditional establishment thinks are unattainable. Instead, the message of the moderates should be “we are people who are currently working in open-admission No Kill shelters and we understand what your problems are and we are here to help you.”

There are signs that No Kill’s moderates are coalescing. A recent example is the Million Cat Challenge, which has a long list of signatories from the moderate middle. The Challenge got off to an impressive start and I can’t help but think that the support of the signatories had a lot to do with it. And in recent years the Best Friends No More Homeless Pets Conference has become a kind of de facto meeting place for No Kill moderates.

The natural next step is for No Kill’s moderates to formalize in some fashion a leadership structure to guide its outreach to the traditional shelter establishment. It would be helpful if that leadership started off by setting some standards — i.e., what does “No Kill” mean, what is an “open admission” shelter, how should shelters calculate their statistics, what is required for shelter transparency, what are best practices, etc. This would be a big, much-needed, and worthwhile task all by itself. An even greater need, however, is for the moderates to be able to speak with a unified voice to the traditional shelter establishment, to let that establishment know that No Kill is now mainstream and that we will welcome them in joining us.



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