Print|Text Size: ||
No Kill Nation
How close are we to achieving this "impossible dream"?


For decades, the dream of a no-kill nation was considered exactly that: a dream. Yet today, communities across the country are closing in on the promise of saving all their healthy and treatable dogs and cats. Almost all organizations in - volved in tracking shelter data, including the Humane Society of the United States and Maddie’s Fund, estimate that the number of animals killed annually in shelters has plummeted from more than 25 million in the 1970s to around four million today.The United States has never been closer to becoming a no-kill nation than it is at this moment. But will we ever get there?

At the Best Friends’ October 2009 No More Homeless Pets conference in Las Vegas, Gregory Castle spoke about “this phenomenal moment” in history. Castle is one of the co-founders of Best Friends Animal Society, a national advocacy group for ending pet homelessness, which also operates an animal sanctuary and adoption center on roughly 33,000 acres in Kanab, Utah. Castle has been involved in the animal welfare movement for more than three decades.

“In my years working in this field, I’ve seen a building momentum behind the no-kill movement,” Castle says. “Of course, we’re consumed by the tragedy of the four million animals that are still being killed each year, and that’s taking all our attention. But the reality is, progress has been very fast.”

That progress was hard to imagine 15 years ago, when Richard Avanzino, thenpresident of the San Francisco SPCA, announced that the city and county would no longer kill healthy animals in either its private or animal control shelters. Not only was it the first time a community had attempted such a thing, it was the first time anyone had suggested it was even possible.

In the years that followed, it didn’t seem that it was. The story of how Avanzino took San Francisco to the brink of becoming the world’s first no-kill community is as much a cautionary tale as a cause to rejoice. Because, while Avanzino’s “experiment in compassion” certainly saved the lives of tens of thousands of animals, it ultimately fell short of its goal. Worse, it marked the beginning of the most divisive period in the history of the animal welfare movement.

The differences were both logistical and philosophical. Defenders of traditional sheltering and animal control believed there were no alternatives to killing a certain number of the dogs and cats who came through their doors; there were too many to re-home. “We can’t adopt our way out of pet overpopulation” was their cry. If Avanzino and others in what had come to be called the “no-kill movement” claimed they could do that, it was either some kind of smoke-and-mirrors deception or San Francisco was unique, with resources and a demographic that no other community could reproduce.

No-kill advocates believed that the combination of programs developed or championed in San Francisco could be exported to all kinds of communities and would result in shelter intakes going down and adoptions going up. From their point of view, shelter directors who failed to espouse programs like trap/neuter /return of feral cats, lowcost or free spay/neuter services, and comprehensive foster home and rescue group networks were guilty of senselessly killing the very animals they were supposed to be helping.

In short, what might have been nothing more than two different sheltering models competing for market share turned into a contentious debate. Not only did ending the killing of the nation’s homeless pets seem like an impossible goal, so, too, did getting its animal welfare leaders to stop fighting about it.

In 2004, representatives of a number of animal welfare organizations, animal control agencies and shelters—including HSUS, Maddie’s Fund, the American Humane Association and the ASPCA— got together in Pacific Grove, Calif., and drafted a series of guiding principles called the Asilomar Accords. It was an attempt to find enough common ground for everyone to stand on. One of the first tasks tackled was to define the group of animals the no-kill movement wanted to see saved, those who were “healthy and treatable.”



Christie Keith has covered canine health and welfare issues since 1991, is the lead science reporter for Pet Connection and writes the "Your Whole Pet" column.

Illustration by Eric Hanson