No Kill Nation

How close are we to achieving this "impossible dream"?
By Christie Keith, March 2010, Updated November 2017

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.”

The Asilomar Accords define “healthy animals” as those dogs and cats eight weeks or older with no medical or behavioral problems that would cause a health or safety risk or make them unsuitable for placement as a pet. “Treatable” dogs and cats were simply those who could fit the definition of a healthy animal given “medical, foster, behavioral or other care equivalent to the care typically provided to pets by reasonable and caring pet owners/guardians in the community.”

Unfortunately, the accords, drafted by committee and full of compromise on all sides, failed to heal the great divide. Nokill proponents continued to maintain that the more traditional animal control and shelter groups killed animals because they couldn’t (some said wouldn’t) do what it took to save them. In response, these groups—who felt no-kill was an admirable but unrealistic goal—said that the no-kill movement “cherry picked” adoptable animals for its own shelters, leaving the rest to be euthanized by other organizations and agencies.

A Movement Defines Itself
If “no-kill,” by those definitions, meant saving all healthy and treatable animals, what about animals less than eight weeks who were being saved in several communities by dedicated foster programs?What about animals who were healthy or treatable when they entered a shelter, but due to bad management practices, became untreatable while they were there? 

The gap created by these questions was filled by a new, more empirical definition that gained rapid acceptance in no-kill circles: A community needed to be saving more than 90 percent of its homeless animals to be considered no-kill.

The word “community” also became a central part of how the movement defined itself. No-kill was not about the policies and programs of an organization in isolation, but about region-wide animal control policies involving municipal facilities and animal control agencies along with private shelters and rescue groups. After all, nothing particularly earthshaking happened when the SF/SPCA gave up its animal control contract and became a no-kill shelter. There had always been no-kill shelters and rescue groups, and adding one more to the roster wasn’t game-changing.

Something entirely new happened, however, on the day the SF/SPCA reached across the street to the city’s newly constructed Animal Care and Control shelter and promised to take all the healthy animals it was currently killing, and as many of the treatable as possible. Even more revolutionary was that the SPCA then went to the county government to make it official. Known as the “Adoption Pact,” San Francisco’s community-wide collaboration between private shelters, rescue groups, animal control and local government became the model for a movement to radically reform how every city and county in the United States manages its homeless pets.

Getting It Done
While the war of words raged on, a quiet revolution was taking place across the country. A handful of towns and counties tried the programs advocated by the no-kill movement, bringing animal control, private shelters and rescue groups together to save the lives of the community’s homeless animals.

Tompkins County, N.Y., was the first community in the nation to reach the goal of killing zero healthy or treatable dogs and cats in 2001, an achievement it’s sustained to the present day. In California, Berkeley Animal Care Services, the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society and Home at Last Animal Rescue joined together in the Berkeley Alliance for Homeless Animals Coalition and reached the goal of saving more than 90 percent of all healthy and treatable animals in the city of Berkeley in 2002; they, too, have been able to maintain this achievement. In 2006, the City of Charlottesville and County of Albemarle, Va., also saved more than 90 percent of their community’s homeless animals. The Nevada Humane Society and Washoe County Regional Animal Services are saving 90.5 percent of dogs and 88 percent of cats as of late 2009, in a region spectacularly hard-hit by the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis.

All of these communities accomplished their goals in the same way—by working the hell out of the programs that grew out of the laboratory of the SF/SPCA all those years ago.

“A growing number of cities are saving record numbers of animals,” says Nevada Humane Society director and former Best Friends COO Bonney Brown. “And there is no mystery to how you do it, either. Any organization that puts their very best effort into increasing pet adoptions, trap/neuter/return [TNR] for feral cats and other lifesaving programs is going to see a dramatic increase in the number of animals they are saving.”

Those “lifesaving programs” include accessible, low-cost or free spay/neuter services; TNR for feral cats; comprehensive foster networks to increase the community’s carrying capacity for homeless animals; and good relationships with the animal lovers in the community who might volunteer for and donate to animal shelters and rescue groups—and ultimately adopt animals.

Other lifesaving actions might incorporate strategies from the business world such as excellent customer service, convenient hours and locations, and aggressive marketing of available pets through advertising, media outreach and anything else that works to get dogs and cats out of shelters and into good homes.

Kate Hurley, DVM, MPVM, and director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis, would like to see the shelter world, including its veterinarians, use more of the language and strategies of the business world. After all, she says, “If we keep animals from getting ill in a shelter, but then they die because there’s no home for them, we really haven’t succeeded.”

Hurley has taken heat for that view. “I’ve been criticized for using the language of merchandising in describing strategies for homeless animal management,” she says. “I want to be clear that I place a far higher value on homeless animals than I do on groceries, and I want us to use all the tools we have to serve them to the very best of our ability. We’ve spent a lot of energy in this society studying how to move merchandise effectively. We need to pay that kind of attention to finding options for homeless animals. Applying that intelligence and that analysis and that discipline to managing animal populations is really more compassionate than refusing to bring some rationality to it.”

Hurley’s prescription for no-kill success is a now-familiar list of programs used in San Francisco, Washoe County and elsewhere. But moving animals safely and rapidly through the shelter system isn’t her only goal. Hurley wants to see communities work toward options that keep homeless pets out of the shelter system entirely, like home-based rescue groups and foster homes. “No one could believe in no-kill more than I do,” she says. “But a very expensive and relatively unsuccessful part of this equation is putting animals in shelters and then trying to get them out healthy, sane and alive. When you’re talking about no-kill, by the time you’re deciding whether or not to kill the animal who is in your shelter, you’ve already lost nine-tenths of the battle—and it was the nine-tenths that was easiest to win.”

It’s a lesson not lost on successful nokill communities. The Nevada Humane Society operates a pet help desk that gives training and behavior advice as well as support to people struggling with foreclosure and job loss to help them keep their family pets. They even have programs that help with pet food and veterinary costs. It could be considered one of the secrets to their success, except, of course, it’s no secret; Bonney Brown brought it with her from her days at Best Friends, which still maintains a national pet help desk of its own.

Impossible or Inevitable?
Nathan Winograd is a former prosecuting attorney who served as director of operations for the SF/SPCA under Avanzino. He went on to serve as director of the Tompkins County SPCA, the region’s open-admission animal control facility, during its transition to nokill. He’s also the author of Redemption: The Myth of Pet Over-Population and the No-Kill Revolution in America, a book that galvanized the no-kill movement when it was released in 2007, and the recently published Irreconcilable Differences.

“The path to no-kill is the same everywhere,” he says. “It is the programs and services born out of the vision Rich Avanzino had in San Francisco. That model has achieved no-kill in Tompkins County, in Charlottesville, in Reno, and in all parts of the country. If every community comprehensively implemented all those programs and services, we would be a no-kill nation today.”

We’re not a no-kill nation today, but there has been a shift in the conventional wisdom on the subject that’s impossible to ignore. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the nation’s largest and wealthiest animal welfare organization, the Humane Society of the United States, is adamant that the country will soon end the killing of healthy and treatable dogs and cats. In fact, he says, not only has his organization gotten on board the no-kill train, it brought friends.

“There’s been a real sea change in attitude,” he says. “It used to be very polarized, but in addition to HSUS embracing the goal of no-kill with great enthusiasm, so has the National Federation of Humane Societies, which has established a no-kill goal in their ‘2020 Vision’ program, even though they’re made up of shelters and animal control agencies that are considered more traditional. So I think that the divide is really illusory. It doesn’t exist.” During a recent San Francisco town hall meeting, Pacelle told the audience he expects the United States to reach a no-kill goal by 2015.

Kate Hurley has said, “Saving all the healthy and treatable animals in this country is absolutely inevitable,” and Pacelle, Avanzino, Winograd, Brown and Castle agree. It’s a group of people not always, or even often, in accord, and this marks a singular “kumbaya” moment for the animal welfare movement.

It’s one Avanzino welcomes. “We should all be trying to work together,” he says. “We should overcome our past differences and talk about what we can do together, not spend our resources on needless fighting. We’re here to start a new path, to accomplish what has never been achieved before.”

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.