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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Virginia’s No Kill Effort: Innovation and Inspiration

Debra Griggs with her dog Fred


Last year I wrote about a new statewide No Kill campaign in Virginia.  The campaign was developed by Makena Yarbrough, president of the Lynchburg Humane Society (LHS), and Debra Griggs, president of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies (VFHS). The goal is an average shelter save rate of 90% for the entire state by 2020, followed by continued improvement. Yarbrough is leaving LHS to become a regional director for Best Friends Animal Society, but the work in Virginia will go on. The 2017 save rate for Virginia, based on mandatory reporting of shelter statistics, was 86%, and Griggs thinks the rate will top 90% by 2020. I recently spoke with Griggs to catch up on progress in the last year, and she told me that transport, of both cats and dogs, has become a linchpin of the Virginia effort.


Virginia is representative in many ways of the nation as a whole. It is a mixture of North and South, wealth and poverty, urban and rural. The Virginia counties that lie just to the south of the District of Columbia (collectively known as Northern Virginia, or NOVA), are some of the wealthiest in the nation, while the rural counties in the southwest part of the state are in the heart of Appalachia. The eastern edge of Virginia is on the coast, with rolling hills in the middle of the state and a mountain range in the west.

VFHS has a yearly conference where shelter officials can network and learn about the No Kill effort. In this photo, Butter helps out at the registration table. The animal-shelter situation in the state is also something of a microcosm of the nation as a whole. Some shelters in the state have all the resources they need, whereas others struggle to provide even the basics for their animals. The I-95 freeway, one of the busiest rescue transport corridors in the nation, runs through the state, and every week hundreds of animals travel from southern states to the northeast. One thing about Virginia that few other states have is mandatory reporting of shelter statistics — the state requires animal shelters and rescues to report statistics each year to the Department of Agriculture. This data has helped advocates of shelter change gauge successes and failures.

Makena Yarbrough and friend.

The Lynchburg shelter, under Yarbrough’s direction, reached out to nearby communities and made them No Kill.

Griggs dates the start of No Kill progress in Virginia to the year 2001, when Robin Starr of the Richmond SPCA spearheaded an agreement with the city of Richmond for a public-private partnership to make the city No Kill. In the mid-2000s, Susanne Kogut gained national attention for her work in making the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA a No Kill organization. Yarbrough created a similar success story in Lynchburg, and not only made LHS into a demonstration project but reached out to neighboring areas to make them No Kill too.

Griggs believes that No Kill advocates in Virginia are “at the end of the marathon” of the shelter-improvement journey, but as the endgame approaches it becomes harder to gain and sustain momentum. As she sees it, the beginning stage of any movement is difficult, the middle is easier because progress is fast and rewarding, and the final push is difficult because the problems that remain are the hardest ones. The problem that the Virginia No Kill movement has dealt with this past year has been how to bring the struggling shelters up to the level of the successful shelters.

The Analysis

Many of our most effective No Kill innovators are from the worlds of business management, non-profit development, and marketing, where analyzing problems is a crucial precursor to program development. Yarbrough had a background in marketing before she went into shelter work, and Starr and Kogut were successful lawyers. Griggs is no exception. She was president of the local Junior League in Norfolk, Virginia, and on its national board, where she concentrated on organizational development. She has been a Realtor for many years and manages a real estate office. One thing she learned was that it is much more efficient to expand what works in an existing system rather than try to rebuild the system from scratch. Therefore, she looked for ways to build on the state’s existing strengths to help the shelters that were struggling.

The VFHS board realized that transport could be a key to getting Virginia to No Kill.

Griggs has been analyzing the state’s shelter statistics for many years, and she felt that Virginia was at a point where there was enough adoption capacity within the state to balance shelter intake. The problem was that some parts of Virginia had too many animals for adoption demand while other areas had too few. The VFHS board realized that transport could be a big factor in solving this problem, and started to think about how VFHS could make transport more effective. That required looking at how the various players – sending shelters, rescues, volunteers, and receiving shelters – worked together.

Receiving shelters in Virginia are concentrated in the north and central areas of the state, whereas sending shelters are primarily in the south and southwest areas. In many cases, receiving shelters in northern Virginia were taking in animals from Georgia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and other states, while rural shelters in south and southwest Virginia were sending animals to northeast states like Massachusetts and Connecticut. So one issue to be addressed was the inefficiency of transport routes.

Another issue was resource choke points. Transports in Virginia are typically arranged by volunteers who work with sending shelters. Sending shelters are often understaffed and underfunded, which means that the volunteers must do the lion’s share of the work. Volunteers have to communicate with sending shelters to identify the most at-risk animals, find receiving shelters or rescues to take them, pull the animals, get them vetted, and coordinate the transport. Coordinating a transport may require recruiting and scheduling drivers for “legs” that are usually 1-2 hours each. It’s a time-consuming process, and it can be expensive when the volunteer coordinators have to pay for veterinary treatment, short-term boarding, van rental, or gasoline.

Time is also a critical problem for volunteers, most of whom have jobs and families. Under the existing system, sending shelters were using e-mail and social media to distribute urgent pleas to volunteers and rescues about animals who had to get out of the shelter very soon or be euthanized. Volunteers got lots of such messages daily, and with only a short time frame to react it was difficult to sort through the messages and then make the connections needed to save lives.

High Five Virginia

Sue Bell and friend

Sue Bell, a VFHS board member, took the lead in devising a transport model adapted to Virginia’s situation. Her plan was designed to (1) make transport routes more efficient by keeping them within the state, (2) supply funding in cases where money was a limiting factor, and (3) develop a system that would allow sending shelters, rescues, and volunteers to communicate more efficiently. The Board approved the model and named the plan High Five Virginia.

At the time I first wrote about Virginia’s No Kill effort last year, the High Five Virginia program was not yet a big factor. VFHS started the program in 2016, but few animals were transported during its first year. That changed after volunteer manager Alice O’Connor came on board in May 2017, and by the end of the year the program had transported 148 animals. With this proof of concept, VFHS board members Bell and Yarbrough had a meeting last March with Virginia receiving shelters and asked them to focus on transport from shelters within the state. The board members stressed that they were not asking the receiving shelters to ignore animals from other states, but to help perfect a more efficient model for transport that could then be implemented by other states.

Alice O’Connor, volunteer manager for High Five Virginia, has been crucial to the success of the program. She’s pictured with a porcine friend who lives at the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation

VFHS also offered direct grants to the volunteers who were pulling animals from Virginia sending shelters. The initial grants, funded by VFHS, were very small by most standards. They were huge to the volunteers, though, because they allowed the volunteers to concentrate on moving animals rather than having to raise funds. In early 2018, Best Friends gave VFHS a grant of $5000 for the High Five program. VFHS committed to transport 600 animals with the grant, but by August 15th when the grant ran out they had moved 1449 animals. This demonstrates what a choke point money can be for transports, and how volunteers can greatly increase the number of animals saved if they have adequate funds.

Implementation of the first two aspects of High Five Virginia went smoothly, but VFHS initially ran into some issues with the third part of the plan, which was to make communication more efficient. This part of the plan, which gave the program its name, was implemented by means of a website where each sending shelter could list their 5 most urgent cats and dogs. They could update their list every 5 minutes. The idea was that receiving shelters and rescues could easily view these animals and confirm which ones they could take, thus easing the burden of communication for everyone.

One issue with this system was that the demand for posting animals was far greater than 5 per shelter. The solution VFHS came up with was to keep the limit of 5 animals on the website, but add a Facebook page where an unlimited number of animals can be posted. Another issue was that the original High Five website was not very user-friendly. With the support of Best Friends and, VFHS has been working to revamp the platform. The new site will be very user friendly and interface directly with Facebook.

Cats make up about one out of three animals transported with High Five Virginia assistance

When transports first got rolling in the U.S. some 20 years ago, they were almost entirely for dogs, but in just the last few years the number of cats being transported has boomed. The High Five Virginia transports have been 65% dogs and 35% cats so far.

Additional Efforts

Transport is not the only initiative that VFHS is working on to improve shelter lifesaving in Virginia. Griggs stressed that VFHS supports and promotes community cat programs as well. The state has a law that hinders public shelters from running community cat “return to field” programs. Public shelters can trap cats and sterilize them, but cannot return them to where they were found. Working around this problem requires the help of the private sector, and VFHS is active in promoting this cooperation.

Another initiative is taking place in the Hampton Roads area on the east coast of Virginia. Hampton Roads is a high-resource area with many rescues and support organizations. Griggs noted in our interview that Hampton Roads has eight public shelters, twelve private shelters, five low-cost spay-neuter clinics, four low-cost veterinary clinics, private veterinarians who offer discounts to rescue groups, and several home-based rescue groups. Yet the region’s percentage of animals euthanized is substantially higher than its percentage of intake when compared to all reporting shelters in Virginia.

One of the cities in the Hampton Roads area is Norfolk. Yarbrough recently made a presentation to the Norfolk city council and the council seemed enthusiastic, so Griggs is hopeful that this may lead to a real shift in shelter save rates that could inspire the whole region. Griggs pointed out that if Hampton Roads had the same adoption rate as the city of Lynchburg, Hampton Roads could be No Kill.

Griggs mentioned that the Virginia save-rate maps made available by Petco Foundation (link to map) and Best Friends (link to map) are very helpful when dealing with local governments. These maps have great credibility because they are from two leading national organizations. When the maps are shown to civic leaders in cities and counties where shelter save rates are lagging, the leaders pay attention.


There are several important takeaways from the Virginia effort this past year that people across the U.S. can use to improve lifesaving:

  1. We can’t just pull programs off the shelf and expect them to work. We have to examine the situation in each region and each state and use organizational management techniques to develop programs that are tailored to the particular situation.

  2. State-based transport coordination is a winning idea. It has the potential to get rid of choke points and make the transportation process much more efficient.

  3. Data is very helpful in getting remaining low-performing shelters to improve. City and county leaders who may not care about prioritizing shelter improvement do care about keeping up with their neighbors. Virginia has a state-run data system that allows advocates to show hard numbers for shelter performance to city and county leaders. Every state needs this. Petco Foundation is pushing for every state to collect shelter statistics, and this is something we need to work toward.

  4. Cooperation among public shelters, private shelters, rescues, and volunteers is going to be crucial in getting from our current national save rate of an estimated 70% up to 90% and higher. Coalition-building is a key to success.



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