The End of Shelter Killing of Cats is in Sight

A little more than a year ago an event happened that promised to be a turning point for efforts to reduce shelter killing of cats. That event was the release of a draft whitepaper in California. The stakeholders who drafted the whitepaper included HSUS, the ASPCA, Maddie’s Fund, and Dr. Kate Hurley, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis. The whitepaper made lots of recommendations, but some of the most revolutionary ones applied to cats. For details on the recommendations, see this post from September 2013. Since the whitepaper was issued, the concept of shelter-neuter-return has become a particularly important part of the mix. Dr. Julie Levy, professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida Maddie’s shelter medicine program, has been an effective spokesperson for shelter-neuter-return.

In the short time since the whitepaper came out, the situation for cats has changed from dire to hopeful. Communities are adopting the new ideas for cats so fast that I can’t keep up with reporting them. Just a few days ago, the Columbus, Ohio, city shelter reported that its new cat program, which has been in effect for less than two months, has reduced the killing of admitted cats by 58%. Columbus is the 15th largest city in the United States and the metro area has over 2.3 million people, so this is a big deal.

The proposals made for cats in the whitepaper and with shelter-neuter-return are radical, and represent a major break from the way things have always been done. So why have those proposals met with such wide interest in the traditional shelter world and been implemented in so many places? Those of us in the No Kill movement have seen so much resistance to change in the past from the traditional shelter establishment that it’s surprising to see this rapid adoption of radical new techniques.

I think there are several reasons that this change has happened so fast and is working so well. One reason is that the big national organizations like HSUS, the ASPCA, and Maddie’s Fund signed on to the new ideas. The traditional shelter establishment has been accustomed to look to these organizations for leadership. The ASPCA was founded in the 1800s, and HSUS has been counseling shelters for decades. Maddie’s Fund is a more recent organization and is specifically dedicated to No Kill, but it has earned the respect of the traditional shelter establishment with its emphasis on practical solutions. The traditional shelter establishment is willing to accept recommendations from these organizations that they trust where they might not from other sources.

A second reason that these new proposals have been adopted so quickly is that the recommendations for cats were brilliant, brand-new ideas that were presented in detail and backed up with data. The efforts of many people went into this, but certainly Dr. Kate Hurley, Dr. Julie Levy, and Jennifer Fearing have had a lot to do with it. Dr. Hurley has been promoting these new ideas in an extremely effective way, with compelling presentations showing why the old ways of handling cats are futile and why the new ways can change those outcomes. Dr. Levy’s presentations cite communities that have implemented the new procedures and describe how they have worked. Jennifer Fearing was very instrumental in pulling everything together and getting buy-in. The new cat recommendations are not vague exhortations such as “have a foster program” or “increase adoptions” or “take killing off the table.” Dr. Hurley’s presentations are full of data, which gives them tremendous credibility and impact. Dr. Levy’s presentations show exactly how particular communities got from point A to point B.

A third reason that the new proposals have been so popular is that there is no pressure to adopt all of them at one time. Shelters are free to experiment and do what they think their community will accept and what will work in their individual circumstances. The Columbus shelter, for example, implemented the part having to do with not accepting owner-surrendered cats unless the shelter has room. Other shelters might choose to start with shelter-neuter-return of strays. The new programs are additive, so shelters do not have to feel that they would have the burden of changing everything at once.

A fourth reason that the new cat proposals have been spreading so fast is that they have been shown to work in large, demographically challenged communities. A criticism that No Kill has faced in the past is the accusation that it can work only in limited circumstances such as small communities, or communities with better than average financial support or education levels. I have not done a formal analysis of the effect of education levels, wealth, and political values on No Kill success, but I have an impression from my researches that No Kill is more common in (although by no means restricted to) communities that are wealthy, educated, liberal, and perhaps have a higher proportion of young people and conservation-minded people. What some people call “crunchy granola” communities, like Portland, Seattle, Charlottesville, Austin, etc. The new cat programs, by contrast, do not seem to suffer from that limitation. One of Dr. Levy’s examples is Jacksonville, which is a big city in the deep south that does not fit the traditional picture of a No Kill community.

Another promising thing about the new cat proposals has been that people from the No Kill movement and the traditional shelter establishment have for the most part had a civil discussion about the problematic elements of the proposals. Francis Battista recently wrote an excellent, thoughtful blog about this process, in which he discussed some of the potential issues with the new proposals and how those problems can be addressed. Unfortunately, not everyone in the No Kill movement has been so pragmatic about it, but on the whole the discussion has been goal-oriented rather than inflammatory.

What can we learn from the success of the new cat proposals? One conclusion may be that the time has arrived for cooperation between No Kill and the large national organizations like HSUS and the ASPCA. The whitepaper and shelter-neuter-return proposals represent a highly effective collaboration between the more progressive elements of No Kill and the younger and more progressive elements of the traditional shelter establishment. The positive and rapid reaction to the cat proposals shows how powerful that coalition can be. Another thing that the cat proposals make clear is that No Kill is not a static set of programs, but instead is a dynamic process that will grow and change as we learn. Shelter-neuter-return is a brand new approach. Managed admissions is a recent breakthrough. “No Kill” has become an umbrella term that refers to a large group of many different people who are working in a variety of different ways toward the goal of saving shelter animals. The more people we have on board and the more freedom they have to think creatively and put forward new ideas, the better off we will be.

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