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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Three Waves of No Kill

This is a very exciting time for No Kill advocates because we are entering on a third, and final, stage of No Kill progress.* In just a few years, if things continue on their current path, the great majority of shelters in the United States should be at No Kill or within shouting distance of it. No Kill will be the accepted standard procedure for shelters, whether public or private.

Today, shelters are achieving No Kill (defined as saving all healthy and treatable animals, which typically results in a live release rate of 90% or more) at a pace almost too fast to monitor. We don’t have solid data on the number of shelters in the United States or their live release rates, but my best guess is that there are approximately 3,500 public shelters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if as many as half of those shelters were at an 80% or above live release rate. That’s up from just a few hundred such shelters as recently as five years ago, and only a handful of such shelters 20 years ago.

What are the three waves of No Kill and why should we be aware of them? In order to reform the remaining shelters that have not yet begun the No Kill journey, it’s helpful to know what types of shelters have already made the transition and what types have not. Then we can select tactics to assist the remaining shelters based on their characteristics.

The shelters that still need to change are in a different situation than shelters in the first two waves of No Kill. To understand this, we need to go back and look at how the first and second waves of No Kill communities developed, starting in the late 1990s. In the mid-1990s we had hundreds of individual, private No Kill shelters (they were labeled “limited admission”), but the idea of an entire community being No Kill, including all of its public and private shelters, was very new. It was being promoted mainly by Richard Avanzino, president of the San Francisco SPCA, and a group of advocates led by people like Lynda Foro, Ed Duvin, and Bonney Brown.

The first wave of No Kill was what we might call low-hanging fruit. Many of the first communities to get to a 90% or better live release rate, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, were resort and college towns. Several of these early No Kill towns had advantages such as a highly educated population or a progressive city government.

These early No Kill towns were almost all in parts of the United States where cold winters may have helped keep down the number of free-roaming cats and dogs. Florida, for example, appears to have far more outdoor cats than Maine does, although we do not have actual population counts. Examples of No Kill communities from this period are Otsego County (MI), Tompkins County (NY), and several small resort towns in Colorado. It seems likely that some towns in New England met the No Kill definition by the late 1990s and early 2000s, although I have not seen specific documentation of that.

The state federation of shelters in New Hampshire reported a combined 80% live release rate around the year 2000, and it seems very likely that some counties and towns within the state were at a 90% or higher rate at that time.

These small first-wave towns may have had populations of animals who tended to be healthier and better socialized than the animals coming into more typical shelters. The fact that these towns tended to be progressive meant that city leaders and citizens were more likely to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, and more supportive of the goal of saving animals. The small size of these communities also made a founder effect possible, where one organization, or even one person, could have a dramatic impact. In Otsego County, for example, which went No Kill in 1999, a “friends of the shelter” group was critical to the shelter’s save rate rapidly shooting up to well over 90% of intake.

The second wave of No Kill began when larger cities, including some very large cities, started No Kill efforts. Large cities took longer to get to No Kill, and there are several possible reasons for that. A large city usually has an animal control system that has been in existence for a long time and has a formal chain of command. This may make change from outside extremely difficult to achieve, and change from inside faces more hurdles. A large city is likely to have a detailed animal ordinance, which may have provisions that hinder some No Kill programs. Shelter intake in a large city may be in the tens of thousands, which makes it difficult for a single person or organization to have an immediate impact. No Kill in a big city may require years of institution-building. The animals coming into a big-city shelter may include many who have been neglected or poorly socialized. There may be higher percentages of dogs raised for guarding homes or fighting, and more confiscation cases.

Whatever the exact reasons, the second wave of No Kill proceeded at a much slower pace than the first wave. Both the first and second waves started in the late 1990s, but the pioneering second-wave cities typically took a decade or more to reach No Kill. No Kill movements started in Austin, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and New York between 1997 and 2003, but it was not until 2011 that the first one (Austin) got to the goal of a 90% live release rate. One mid-sized county – Washoe County (NV), home of Reno – got to No Kill in the mid-2000s, a notable accomplishment and an important step in convincing people that No Kill was possible anywhere.

There were two large cities that started working on increasing live release rates even earlier than the late 1990s, and actually created the model for shelter reform. Those cities were San Francisco and Denver (the metro area, including Boulder). Both cities reported live release rates around 70% in the late 1990s. This was an outstanding achievement at a time when other large cities and metro areas were saving only 25% to 35% of intake on average. The Denver metro coalition was a leader in the use of a cooperative model, and Boulder pioneered the critically important open-adoption concept. Shelter leaders in Denver tended to abjure the “No Kill” term because they felt it insulted workers at traditional shelters, but they were pioneers in using programs that we think of today as No Kill (the hideous pit bull bans in the city of Denver and some adjoining areas are a tragic exception). San Francisco was the most influential of the two cities in promoting No Kill specifically. Richard Avanzino, the president of the San Francisco SPCA, wrote and spoke extensively about the city’s No Kill model in the 1990s and even invited other shelter leaders to the SPCA for workshops.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Avanzino’s work on No Kill at the San Francisco SPCA. In fact, many people date the start of the No Kill movement to 1989, the year Avanzino cancelled the San Francisco SPCA’s contract to do animal control and sheltering for the city. That led to a partnership between the city and the SPCA, which ultimately produced the historic 1994 Adoption Pact. Another 1989 event that is also credited with starting the No Kill movement was the publication of an enormously influential essay called In the Name of Mercy by an animal-rights activist and non-profit consultant named Ed Duvin, in which he argued that the animal sheltering industry was failing to face the ethical implications of killing millions of animals each year.

Today about half of our largest 20 cities are at No Kill or closing in on a 90% live release rate. Most of the rest have active No Kill movements that are making progress. A majority of our progressive small towns and counties are at No Kill. There are entire swathes of the United States where shelters, including public shelters, have a shortage of adoptable dogs. These shelters are saving tens of thousands of pets from other parts of the country each year through transports.

Now that the first two waves of No Kill have crested, and most large cities and progressive small towns are at No Kill or at some stage in the No Kill reform process, what’s left for the third wave? The communities that are not yet on the road to No Kill tend to be small, rural communities that have challenges such as low average income, low average education levels, or a lack of progressive leadership. Some large cities have similar challenges — think of cities like Houston and El Paso, for example. But even large cities that have challenges generally have enough resourceful people and enough donors to get to No Kill.  El Paso has institutions and talented people who are able to push for No Kill change. They have something to build on, and they are making progress, even though it’s slow and difficult. Houston has a group that is moving thousands of dogs out of the city on transport, enough to make a real difference in the save rate of the shelter it’s helping.

It’s different in the third-wave communities. You’ve heard the expression “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” That’s really the situation of the third-wave communities. They tend to have fewer animal-welfare institutions, and may have fewer people who are able to build or lead such institutions. They often have governments that are not progressive and in some cases are not even professional. The type of animals taken in by the local shelter may include many permanent strays, who will be undersocialized and possibly in poor health. Shelter intake may be high relative to the human population due to a lack of high-volume spay-neuter capability. These communities have many needs, and improving the local animal shelter may not rank high on their list. First-wave towns tend to be homogeneously privileged. Second-wave cities are heterogeneous, but have people and resources sufficient to build No Kill. Third wave towns and counties tend to be homogeneously handicapped in resources and human capital.

If we wait for third-wave communities to get to No Kill on their own, it will probably be a long wait. But there is an effective way to help such communities, and that’s for other communities that have already made the No Kill transition to assist them. Towns and large cities in the first two waves of No Kill generally drew on their own talent pools and resources to create No Kill. The third wave of No Kill, by contrast, will feature existing No Kill communities directly helping their resource-poor neighbors get to No Kill. In just the last couple of years we have seen several regional and statewide No Kill efforts start up. Most of these statewide efforts are using a hub-and-spokes approach, where shelters that have already achieved No Kill are mentoring and assisting their neighbors. Examples are Virginia and South Carolina.

The statewide approach in general and the hub-and-spokes approach in particular have several advantages. Shelter directors and government officials may be more likely to accept help and advice from neighbors, because neighbors know what they are facing in terms of climate, terrain, and type of shelter intake. Animal control laws are made at the state level and local ordinances must be consistent with state law, so a neighbor in the same state is already familiar with the legal and regulatory climate. Boots-on-the ground help from a shelter that is geographically close is more feasible due to shorter travel distance — the No Kill South Carolina effort, for example, wants to create a system where no animal will be more than an hour from help. Transport will be a big part of helping third-wave shelters, and transport is easier on people and animals if it is intra-state rather than inter-state.

Animal sheltering has long been a profession where people tend to stay in their own silos. One advantage of statewide and regional animal-shelter collaboration is that it can help break down the silo walls. In Virginia, the state federation of animal shelters has been a big part of No Kill progress, and is one of the leading agencies in the current statewide No Kill effort. Perhaps state federations of animal shelters can take a leading role in other states too. The first two waves of No Kill were primarily about individual communities, but the third wave will be about networking. This will ultimately benefit the stronger communities as well, because a robust network of shelters will be better able to handle big challenges like natural disasters, large confiscation cases, and lobbying for pet-friendly laws.

How long will it take for the third and final wave of No Kill to complete its work? Major organizations and donors, including Best Friends, Maddie’s Fund, and Petco Foundation, are providing a great deal of support for regional and statewide cooperative efforts. The community cat program popularized by the Million Cat Challenge, which will hit its goal very soon, is a dramatically effective way for a No Kill shelter to mentor its neighbors. Transport networks for dogs have greatly expanded in the last few years, and one of the fastest ways to improve live release rates for dogs is to just get them out of the shelter and on transport. Given this momentum, the 2025 goal set by Best Friends may be a reasonable target for achieving a No Kill country. The task seems difficult because the communities that still have high-kill shelters are so lacking in infrastructure and resources. We have a blueprint for solving that problem, though, and an army of dedicated people who are working to get it done as fast as possible.

*NOTE: The “waves” of No Kill progress that I’ve described in this blog do not apply to every single shelter. There are exceptions, and the waves are meant to describe trends, not hard and fast rules. For example, the community that appears to have been the very first in the United States to save all healthy and treatable animals was a small, isolated, non-progressive, non-wealthy county in Utah, the kind of place we would expect to see in the third wave rather than preceding the first wave. It happened in the mid-1980s when Best Friends took over animal care and control for Kane County in Utah, and its town of Kanab, and made them No Kill.


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