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No Kill Nation

“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.

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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