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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Who Speaks For No Kill?

One of the first things that new students learn about in law school is the famous 1803 Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison, which was decided when our country was still new. That was an exciting time, because the fundamentals of how our country was going to operate were being created and put into place. Marbury v. Madison was important because it held that it was the duty of the courts to “say what the law is.”

From that day forward, the courts have been the final word in interpreting the law.

Who has the final word in saying what No Kill is? Who speaks for No Kill? No Kill is very different from the law. While the law is a set of rules, No Kill is a process. While the law must treat each citizen equally, No Kill must be applied in a wide variety of different circumstances. And while the law is designed to provide a stable framework that gives society a certain consistency and predictability, No Kill is constantly changing as new techniques evolve and progress is made.

Although the concept of a lawgiver from on high does not fit very well with the ethos of No Kill, there is another great American institution that fits No Kill perfectly – the public square. The public square in the early days of the United States was a literal place in the center of town where people would gather to debate the issues affecting them and decide what to do about those issues. It was quintessential democracy, and it had all the strong points and the discomforts of pure democracy. There were lots of different viewpoints, lots of creativity, and lots of conflict. It was not a particularly comfortable process, but out of it arose the wisdom of the people.

The miracle of democracy is that you can take a bunch of average people, put them together, give them a problem to solve or an issue to decide, and more times than not they will come up with a pretty good solution. The process of the public square is not perfect, because it can be demagogued or highjacked. Over the years our constitution has been amended and interpreted to include protections for small, disfavored groups, so that we can be sure that everyone has a voice in the public square. Today the “public square” is more often metaphorical than real, as we carry on our debates in print, on television, and by social media.

Richard Avanzino, the person who created the idea of No Kill communities at the San Francisco SPCA in the years from 1979 to 1994, would, I think, agree with the idea of the American people as the voice of No Kill. Avanzino believes that each person’s contribution, whether it be fostering an occasional pet or starting a rescue or running a No Kill city or running an advocacy organization, is an important part of No Kill. He told me that he does not believe that No Kill is a cookbook, and that he would never presume to tell a community how they should go about No Kill or what would work for them. He is a fan of bottom-up thinking, not top-down.

In fact, what we think of today as the core components of the San Francisco approach to No Kill morphed over time, developing organically from the experience and creativity of volunteers and staff. The offsite adoption program, which dates back to 1980, started when volunteers decided to take shelter pets downtown to their work places at lunch hour so their fellow workers could see them. That worked well and the initiative grew. Eventually the SPCA made offsite adoptions a formal part of operations, and the program developed to the point of having several sites around town with dedicated vans for setting up in the morning, delivering more animals during the day, and breaking down the sites at night. It all started with the ideas of volunteers.

Today I frequently see people make statements about what “No Kill” means, or how a shelter or community should get to No Kill – or an accusation that some shelter or community is not really No Kill. I see people proposing that new No Kill advocates should be instructed in a certain way – told that they have to use a cookbook, or that the traditional shelter establishment is full of uncaring people and it is always a waste of time to work with them. I see people issuing edicts about the “right” way to calculate live release rates. Anyone who has a different idea on any of these points is called an enemy of No Kill, or worse.

We need to counter these attempts to shut down dialogue. We need to make a conscious effort to ensure that No Kill sticks with its roots as a democratic creation – a bottom up process based on creativity, open-mindedness, and a belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity. No one individual or group has the right to define No Kill or to speak for No Kill. Instead, we should all have the right to be heard and speak our minds without fear of being insulted or ridiculed. Out of that process will emerge a consensus that shows the way forward in each time and place. That has historically been the strength of the No Kill movement. We got where we are today by creativity and inclusiveness, not by following rules or shutting people out. We must keep our public square open and free, and resist those who want their voices to be the only ones heard.



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