• Susan Houser

The State of No Kill: 2016

Today, on the first day of the new year, it’s time to take a look at how No Kill is doing nationally. I can’t tell the story of every successful program in 2015 because there were far too many of them. There is one national campaign that stood out, though, because in sheer numbers it is on pace to rival some of the greatest No Kill accomplishments ever. Like Mike Arms’ Home 4 the Holidays event, which has racked up over 1.2 million adoptions since it started in 1999. And Petfinder, established by Betsy Banks Saul and Jared Saul in 1996, which is currently instrumental in some 1.5 million adoptions every year. The campaign that is rivalling those great accomplishments is the Million Cat Challenge.*


The Million Cat Challenge was launched on December 10, 2014 by two well-known shelter veterinarians, Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Julie Levy. Both have been very involved in the development of the underlying programs that became part of the Challenge. When Kate and Julie presented their ideas for cat management at a plenary session at the 2013 HSUS Expo, the groundswell of positive reaction was so great that they were inspired to start the Challenge to capture that momentum. The Challenge is set to run for five years, from the beginning of 2014 to the end of 2018, and the goal is to save 1,000,000 cats who otherwise would be killed in shelters.


The animal shelter organizations that have signed on to the Million Cat Challenge have been responsible for saving almost 400,000 lives in the program’s first two years.** The Challenge had a very good year in 2015, with over 265,000 lives saved by its member organizations and 180 new shelters enrolled. And the program is growing fast, so we can expect the next three years to be even bigger – perhaps exponentially bigger. That rate of lifesaving compares well with the early years of Home 4 the Holidays and the early days of Petfinder, and it puts the Million Cat Challenge in the ballpark with the most exceptional No Kill efforts thus far.


The Million Cat Challenge has five key initiatives, but it is perhaps best known for its return-to-field (RTF) program for community cats. RTF was a key concept in Rick DuCharme’s Feral Freedom program in Jacksonville, where it first gained national attention. It has also been a part of Dr. Levy’s Operation Catnip at the University of Florida for many years and was used by other programs as well. RTF is often thought of as similar to trap-neuter-return (TNR) for feral cats, but it is a broader concept. The typical situation for TNR is where a feral cat caregiver traps some or all of the members of a feral cat colony and takes them to a clinic where they are given a health check, vaccinated, sterilized, and then returned to their colony. RTF, by contrast, can apply to cats who are brought to a shelter by animal control, or by an individual for any reason. The question is not whether a cat is feral or tame, but whether, after vaccinations and sterilization, it can safely be returned to where it was found.

cat on beach

The RTF concept recognizes the unique nature of cats and how they live in communities. RTF gives the shelter an additional way of saving the lives of cats, to go along with TNR for feral cats and traditional adoption/transfer for tame cats.


The Million Cat Challenge has other very important programs too, including managed admission, alternatives to admission, managing capacity, and removing barriers to adoption. One of the advantages of the Challenge is that the participants are free to adopt as few or as many of the key initiatives as they want. And the initiatives themselves are things that do not require a lot of skills or money.


The way the Challenge works is that a shelter signs up and agrees to report its statistics in the first quarter of each year. The report has two parts. One part is actual statistics from the previous year. The second part of the report, the “challenge,” asks shelters to pledge the number of additional lives that will be saved in the current year. The calculation of the lives saved by the Challenge for any given year is the comparison of lives saved to the baseline year of 2012. The ticker of lives saved that is on the Challenge website shows the confirmed increases from previous years as well as the estimated numbers of additional, program-based saves for the current year.


The breakout, paradigm-changing success of the Million Cat Challenge helped make 2015 a very good year for No Kill. Getting huge numbers of cats safely out of shelters is good for dogs, bunnies, and other homeless pets too, because it means that shelters have more time and space to work on getting their remaining animals adopted. And four of the Challenge’s five key initiatives can have application to all animals in the shelter, not just cats. With programs like the Challenge doing so well, we can confidently say that the state of No Kill as we start 2016 is good.


*The Million Cat Challenge is a joint program of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida.

**As of January 1, 2015 there were 143 shelters enrolled in the Challenge, with pledges to save 118,020 cats. As of December 28, 2015, there were 323 shelters enrolled, with actual saves for 2014 and pledged saves for 2015 totaling 384,784 cats.

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