No Kill — What Does It Mean?

“No Kill” is a loaded term. Some people love it, some people hate it, and a lot of people are just confused by it. How did this happen, and should we try to do anything about it?

The first organization to popularize the term “No Kill” in a big way was North Shore, back in the 1970s. North Shore was a limited-admission private shelter that used very innovative marketing techniques to place dogs and cats that it pulled from open-admission public shelters. Some people were upset over the term “No Kill” because they thought the implication was that open-admission shelters were “kill” shelters. So the term “No Kill” was controversial right from the start. It did not help that the term is made up of two negative words, “no” and “kill.”

As the years went by more and more private, limited-admission organizations began calling themselves No Kill. By 1990, “No Kill” was synonymous with “limited admission.” The general belief was that only organizations that could limit the number of animals they took in could avoid killing for time or space.

Meanwhile, shelter intake nationwide had been falling sharply since the 1970s, and by the 1990s shelter intake was down in some places to the point where the idea of a No Kill community could take shape. In 1994, the San Francisco SPCA and the city of San Francisco signed the historic Adoption Pact that guaranteed a home to all healthy animals who went into the city’s shelter system. Rich Avanzino, the head of the San Francisco SPCA, began to use the term “No Kill” in a new way to refer to an entire community, including the open-admission shelter for the city. Avanzino wanted to expand the Adoption Pact to include treatable animals, and he defined the term “No Kill” to mean that all healthy and treatable animals in the community would be saved. When the Adoption Pact was signed he hoped that San Francisco would be No Kill very shortly.

At the first No Kill conferences held by Lynda Foro in the mid-1990s one of the questions that came up was whether “No Kill meant no kill.” In other words, did “No Kill” mean never killing an animal? The answer was that the term “No Kill” was meant to distinguish between killing and true euthanasia. Putting to death an animal who was terminally ill and suffering, or vicious, was true euthanasia, but killing a healthy or treatable animal was simply killing. The idea that workers in traditional shelters were morally culpable for “killing” animals had always been an implication of the No Kill term, but now the implication was verging on an open declaration.

At the time that Avanzino was pursuing the goal of saving all the healthy and treatable animals in San Francisco, people in other parts of the country were working toward the same goal for their communities. Communities in the states of Colorado and New Hampshire were examples. Both of those states, like San Francisco, had populations with progressive, socially responsible views. By the year 2000 San Francisco, New Hampshire, and Colorado were all saving about 75% of their shelter animals. This was a great achievement at a time when the specialty of shelter medicine was in its infancy and most shelters did not have the capacity to prevent infectious diseases, care for orphan neonatal kittens, or routinely treat conditions like ringworm or heartworm.

Many of the most progressive communities, like the ones represented by the state federation in New Hampshire and many of the communities in Denver, refused to use the term “No Kill.” Those communities used a model of cooperation and coalition building, including working with traditional public shelters. They felt that, however much they might agree with the goal of saving shelter animals, the term “No Kill” was divisive and would hurt their efforts to work together.

In the 2000s shelters continued to get better at lifesaving, aided by the growth of the internet, the development of the specialty of shelter medicine, and the use of marketing and community-engagement techniques. In 2007 Nathan Winograd, in his book Redemption  (page xi of the 2nd edition), proposed the idea that about 90% of shelter animals were healthy or treatable. This idea was popular and many people found it easier to think in terms of “90%” rather than “healthy-treatable.”

So now we had three ways to define No Kill: (1) as limited admission shelters taking in only animals that can be placed in homes, (2) as communities saving all healthy and treatable shelter animals and euthanizing the unhealthy and untreatable ones, and (3) as communities saving 90% or more of shelter animals and euthanizing 10% or less. None of these definitions addressed the problem that many of the shelters and communities that qualified as “No Kill” rejected the term.

In recent years a fourth definition of No Kill, that No Kill should literally mean that no animal is ever killed, has been put forward by some people. In the view of these people, vicious animals should be given sanctuary care and terminally ill animals should have hospice care to make them comfortable until they die naturally. In other words, these people reject the premise of early No Kill advocates that No Kill did not mean no euthanasia. At the same time, some proponents of the idea of No Kill as a percentage have argued that the percentage of healthy-treatable animals is really 95% to 100%, not 90%. Other people have argued that shelter populations in different communities have different characteristics, and that 90% is too high to be realistic for some communities.

With the increasing use of social media in recent years by some No Kill advocates to reach members of the public who are unfamiliar with how animal shelters work, the rhetoric has sometimes taken on an overtly hostile tone. It is not unheard-of to see people on social media referring to people who do shelter euthanasia as “murderers.” Social media lends itself to hyperbole and much of this is just letting off steam, but it’s easy to understand why many people who are trying to build and maintain community coalitions have continued to distance themselves from the “No Kill” term.

And therein lies the fundamental problem with the “No Kill” term. Regardless of exactly how we define shelter success – as saving all healthy-treatables, as saving 90%, or in some other way, the “No Kill” term does not capture the universe of shelters or communities meeting that standard. Let’s say that we manage to agree on a definition of No Kill as referring to communities that save 90% or more of their animals. Our definition will fail at its purpose of defining those communities because a great many of them will refuse to identify themselves as “No Kill.” Is it any wonder that the public is confused when so many community shelters that meet the definition of No Kill deny that they are No Kill?

So what should we do about this? The ongoing controversy and confusion over “No Kill” that has now lasted for some 40 years is part of the growing pains of the shelter reform movement. Early No Kill advocates failed to recognize the fact that massive pet overpopulation in the 1970s and 1980s put open admission shelters in a no-win position. Conversely, when shelter intake fell by the 1990s to a point where high save rates became possible in many communities, the traditional shelter establishment was slow to realize that the world had changed. Leaders in many local communities were able to get past the misunderstandings and work together, but unfortunately we did not have any leadership at the national level that was able to realize what had happened and bring the two sides together. Instead, we had further polarization.

Fortunately, that is now changing. In the last year or two we have had some encouraging signs that the leaders of virtually all of the important national organizations that are interested in animal sheltering are moving forward with an emphasis on coalition building that (1) includes all stakeholders and (2) promotes new ideas that work. Look, for example, at the supporting organizations of the Million Cat Challenge. Perhaps it’s time to ditch not only the “No Kill” term, but the concept that the shelter world is divided into the savers and the killers.

6 Comments

    • I’d say that name for that is a Shelter That Needs Your Help. Anyone can point fingers angrily at how someone else is trying to work in animal rescue. If you see a place that can benefit from exposure to your policies, procedures, and philosophy, then go forth and volunteer or work there. Talk to the staff who work there. Hear the numbers and facts about the shelter. Or go to school and get a degree in an animal care field. Or start your own official non-profit group and raise money to create your own shelter.

      • Jackie – We have a 501 that assists shelters – actually have been working at it for 12 years. We offer technical assistance, prepare plans, write grants – all for free, conduct statewide conferences and workshops and offer grants to rescues that pull animals from shelters that would otherwise be killed. I’d like to think that our organization is at least partly responsible for the reduction of animals put to death in the state from 118,369 in 2007 to 44,675 in 2013.

        Unfortunately there are still too many shelters that do not collaborate, refuse to embrace reform and put to death a large percentage of their intake and reject any offer of help. I agree with you that they are shelters that need our help. I’m not sure it is time just yet to ditch “savers and killers” as that would imply that everyone is actually “trying” to save lives and that simply is not the case – wish it were!

        • There are unquestionably shelters that are behind the times and reluctant to change. What is the fastest, most effective way to reform those shelters? The point of my blog post is that perhaps we can start being more sensitive to terminology. It won’t hurt us, and it may help them to move forward. There has been a failure on the part of both sides to understand each other in the past. Today, with the new willingness of the national organizations to unite and work for common goals, we now have an opportunity to get past that. What good does it do to continue to label them as killers and ourselves as heroes and saviors? Even if the ultimate solution has to be replacement of shelter management, we can approach that goal in a respectful and professional way.

          • SO what is a term that is non polarizing and also understood by the vast majority then?
            No Kill is definitely a term that feeds some negative fires. So what is a way to label “trying to save as many adoptable pets as possible.” I know the term adoptable also opens up a can of worms, but I think that for the purpose of trying to make an improvement and not expecting a miracle in my county, that a 90% save rate would be a great start!!!!
            So what is the “term” for this?? I could really, really use a good one!
            Thanks!

  1. At BrightSide Animal Center in Redmond, Oregon – 5 years ago we changed the name from “Humane Society” and coined the term “high-save” (vs. “no kill”) to characterize the high-save nature of programs working with the animals, and families in the community. It’s a term that has been readily embraced across the region at large.

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