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No Kill Nation

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.

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

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