The Cost of No Kill

I periodically get questions about how much it costs a city to transition to No Kill. Based on what I’ve seen in individual cities and counties over the last 4 years of researching No Kill shelters, I do not think there is any one-size-fits-all answer. Here are a few thoughts on the issue, though. Your mileage may vary.

The reason there is no one-size-fits-all answer is that the cost depends on many things, including whether the entity running the shelter is public or private, how much the city or county is currently spending on animal control and sheltering, the amount of support in the community that already exists or can be harnessed (including donations and volunteers), the condition and location of the shelter, and the type and number of homeless animals in the community. An easy way to think of it is that communities want to end up at the same place (No Kill) but they are starting from very different places.

One way to start the analysis is to compare the cost of particular, individual No Kill initiatives to what the shelter is currently doing. For example, if the amount that the shelter currently spends per cat is more than what the shelter would spend per cat on a shelter-neuter-return program, then SNR will save money. And pet-retention initiatives that reduce intake have built-in cost savings. Help desks and managed admissions are especially attractive in that regard because they cost little to implement and can often be done with volunteer help, and the reduction in intake can be substantial. This approach has the added advantage that it can be easier to get city officials to agree to a piecemeal transition than doing everything at once.

One of the myths about No Kill is that it leads to shelter warehousing. Making it clear to city and county officials that reducing length-of-stay is a priority for No Kill can go a long way toward alleviating that concern. A foster program is one important way for No Kill shelters to reduce length-of-stay in the shelter. City officials should understand that it is far easier to have community engagement in the form of volunteer help and fosters when a shelter is No Kill. Few people would want to foster a litter of orphan kittens, for example, if they thought the shelter might kill the kittens later on.

A cost that may be higher with No Kill is veterinary services. After all, one of the primary things that separates No Kill shelters from ordinary shelters is that No Kill treats the treatables. Sometimes treatment is simple, but sometimes it is costly. Much or all of this expense can be offset with donations, though. There are lots of people willing to help save a parvo puppy or get a wheelchair for a paraplegic animal if the shelter lets them know of the need. Public-private partnerships where the private entity pulls sick animals from the shelter and fundraises to treat them is one effective way to deal with veterinary costs.

If a city or county has been underspending on animal sheltering, sometimes everyone involved will just have to face that fact. If the shelter building is in a bad location, or is old, poorly designed, or too small, then plans will need to be made to build a new shelter. Non-profits that have a contract to operate a municipal shelter seem to have an easier time with such projects. I have not run figures on this, but my impression is that non-profits that are actively working in the community are far better at fundraising than non-profits that are set up specifically to raise money for a municipal shelter.

In some places, voters have approved special millages or other permanent funding for shelters. Most households these days have pets, and anyone who has a pet is happy to know that there is a caring, safe system in place in case their animal ever gets lost or if for some reason they cannot care for it any longer. They are willing to contribute for that. It is something of a false equivalency to compare a No Kill shelter to a traditional, high-kill shelter solely in terms of cost, because the No Kill shelter provides more value to the community.

Even though a head-to-head comparison on costs does not give a true picture of the value of a No Kill shelter, No Kill can often win such a cost comparison. Greater efficiencies from No Kill programs, donations, volunteer work, fostering, and even voter-approved taxes can entirely offset any increased costs due to a transition to No Kill. And just because a shelter spends $500,000 more per year, say, after a transition to No Kill does not mean that the extra money is coming out of existing city funds. If the shelter receives $1,000,000 more in cash or in-kind support, then the jurisdiction will actually have a net savings from the switch to No Kill.

In fact, No Kill is something of a marker for smart city government that is able to leverage the private sector to provide an important amenity to its citizens. As a recent Mayors Leadership Survey demonstrated, 5 out of 10 of the most admired cities in the United States are No Kill, and the other 5 have shelter systems that are much better than average or are transitioning to No Kill. No Kill is a sign of good governance as much as it is a sign of good sheltering.

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