The Devil Is In The Details

It has been more than 20 years now since the concept of a No Kill community was created by Rich Avanzino in San Francisco. Today many cities and counties are No Kill. We know how to do No Kill – that is, we know what processes and models we need to use – but in most communities the implementation of those processes and models confronts us with problems. As with most great endeavors, the devil is in the details.

For example, we know that return-to-owner rates can be increased if animal control officers are provided with the time and equipment needed to try to find a stray animal’s home in the field at the time the animal is picked up. It is a much better outcome for everyone if the officer can take the animal home rather than to the shelter. But in many cases there are barriers in the way. The local jurisdiction may have non-waivable fees for allowing an animal to run loose, or for allowing an animal to be at large without proof of identification or rabies vaccination. If the city or county runs animal control they may be reluctant to accept the extra expense of providing animal control officers with the gear needed for effectively returning animals in the field, or the time to do so. Shelter procedures may need to be re-written and approved by city officials.

There are many other types of state and local laws and ordinances that can make No Kill difficult. Pit bull bans are more often abrogated than created these days, but they still exist, as do landlord and insurance rules that discriminate against certain breeds. Mandatory spay-neuter rules tied to pet licensing can result in people not licensing their pets. Many communities have rules or policies that make trap-neuter-return and return-to-field programs for cats difficult or impossible. Getting to No Kill in a particular place may be substantially impeded by such rules and practices.

A related issue is whether the shelter director has the flexibility needed to create No Kill. Does the director have the power to make decisions on policy and operations for animal control and sheltering? For example, many times a No Kill transition means that some workers will not be able to adapt to the new regime and will have to be replaced. Or the shelter, since its goal is to save a higher percentage of animals, may need to develop a more nuanced approach to temperament evaluation. If the shelter is run under contract by a non-profit, the director probably will have considerable leeway. If the director is a city or county employee, then personnel decisions, budgetary choices, and setting policy may happen at a higher level of city government, where the ultimate decision-maker is not solely focused on No Kill.  If personnel and policy decisions are controlled by the government hierarchy, above the level of the shelter director, it can greatly hinder getting to No Kill.

Talent is a huge issue for No Kill. One of the reasons why we have seen such a spate of large cities going No Kill in recent years is that large cities tend to be where the talent is. Great marketers, fundraisers, and managers are less likely to be found in a remote rural county than in cities like New York, Austin, or Atlanta. A rural county may be hard-pressed to find a really competent person to run the shelter. It may be even harder to find people who are competent to develop operational, budget, fundraising, and marketing plans.

Implementing effective volunteer and foster programs, and getting the best performance from shelter employees, requires many different skills. It’s easy to say “start a volunteer program.” It’s a lot harder to actually do it. The director has to figure out how to recruit and train the volunteers, how to motivate them to keep coming back, what they will and won’t be allowed to do, how to keep them safe from bites and zoonoses, what the considerations are for legal liability, what tracking of volunteers will be done, how to evaluate volunteers to make sure they are being used most effectively and prevented from doing any harm, what accommodations can be set aside for them in the shelter, and so on.

Shelter intake is another issue that can stand in the way of No Kill. In most cases, the lower a shelter’s intake is in relation to the number of people in the community, the easier it is to get to No Kill. This is partly because more people equals more potential homes, but intake per capita is also a measure of how much capacity the community has to care for its pets. Wealthier, more educated communities tend to have a better track record of looking after their pets. People in those communities have fenced yards for their pets, and if they have to move they can find another home where they can keep their pets. In Boulder, Colorado, which is a wealthy, progressive, city, some 90% of stray dogs are reclaimed by their owners. There is a world of difference between that and the 10% to 20% return-to-owner rate that is more typical. When you see high shelter intake relative to the human population and a low reclaim rate, you are probably in a place where the residents don’t have the resources to keep their pets off the street and safely at home, or the resources to look for them when they disappear.

Money is tremendously important to every facet of No Kill. We tend to think of money as most needed in paying veterinary costs to treat the treatables, but money is also crucial for pet retention programs and for hiring employees to run volunteer, foster, social media, and rescue-placement programs. Money can also make the difference in whether a shelter can afford an offsite adoption center or a low-cost spay-neuter clinic. Governments rarely pay the full cost of No Kill, which means that the private sector must make up the difference. In order for private fundraising to be effective, people in the community must have money to donate. If a high percentage of the local population is struggling to make the rent payment each month or buy food, the No Kill effort will probably struggle too.

The shelter building is another thing that makes No Kill harder or easier. If the shelter is one of the old-style, ugly, concrete-block buildings located near the landfill or the railroad tracks, in a bad part of town, with no thought given to disease control, then it will be harder to attract adopters and volunteers and harder to keep the animals healthy.

Finally, one of the most important factors in implementing No Kill is whether there are other humane organizations in town that have the shelter’s back. Is there a large humane society that pulls lots of animals from the shelter, including the toughest cases, or is the shelter going it alone? In some places the local humane society actually makes things harder for the public shelter by vacuuming up donation money, taking in all the small, cute, healthy owner surrenders, and bringing in lots of highly adoptable dogs and cats from other areas without at the same time committing to making sure that all the healthy and treatable dogs and cats in the city are safe.

Setting out a list of programs that will help a community get to No Kill is easy. Actually getting there, though, is hard work in most places. In quite a few places it is very hard work. We need to educate people who are new to No Kill and who want to help make it happen about what it really requires. Sometimes people new to No Kill have an over-simplified idea of what it entails. I know I did at one time. If people understand what is required they will be much better prepared to help the effort.

As we go forward we need to have training resources for shelter directors that get down to a very granular level of detail of implementation. The good news is that more and more such resources are becoming available through conferences and professional consulting services. The HSUS and Best Friends conferences both offer great opportunities for aspiring No Kill shelter directors to learn from the presenters and to network with each other. The American Pets Alive! conference is devoted to providing nuts-and-bolts instruction on getting to No Kill. We have several excellent people who offer No Kill consulting services. With all these resources, even shelter directors who are not superstars can be effective and can lead their organizations to No Kill.

8 Comments

  1. “Finally, one of the most important factors in implementing No Kill is whether there are other humane organizations in town that have the shelter’s back. Is there a large humane society that pulls lots of animals from the shelter, including the toughest cases, or is the shelter going it alone? In some places the local humane society actually makes things harder for the public shelter by vacuuming up donation money, taking in all the small, cute, healthy owner surrenders, and bringing in lots of highly adoptable dogs and cats from other areas without at the same time committing to making sure that all the healthy and treatable dogs and cats in the city are safe.”

    I don’t always agree 100% with this blog, but I agree with 120% with this post, and I think the quoted excerpt above may be the single most important point that has been made in the sheltering and rescue community for a long, long time.

    One of the issues seen more and more lately that may hinder No-Kill success is the fading support for traditional rescue groups that are foster-based without a brick and mortar facility, Many grant-making systems and relocation programs automatically exclude these types of groups, yet community rescue organizations have been the backbone of no-kill efforts far longer than the fancy “humane organizations” who hog the donations and get all the publicity. Community rescue groups are on the front lines daily, in the ditches, the highways and the byways, and they often are the groups who pull the undesirables. . .and then get stuck with them.

    Donations flow by the hundreds of millions to high profile, shelterless humane organizations, leaving grass roots rescuers to fight over crumbs. . Most “Northern” rescue organizations who participate in relocation programs “cherry-pick” the cute, fluffy animals, and the front-line rescuers (usually Southern) end up stuck with the pitbulls and the hounds and the three-legged and lame, the fear-biters and the dog reactives—and then get accused of hoarding. I’ve seen this happen more than once. This is a huge impediment to No-Kill.

    Perhaps it really is time for the No-Kill movement to remember the local groups who do all the heavy lifting. Maybe animal welfare advocates really should evaluate whether or not our “big program” generals have overlooked the foot soldiers who spend every day in the trenches. If local humane organizations are expected to play such a fundamental role in No-Kill success, then we need to stop starving them out. Stop excluding them from grant programs. Stop treating foster-based rescue groups like the red-headed stepchildren of the animal welfare industry. Most private 501c3 rescue groups would love nothing more than to play a fundamental role in their community’s No-Kill effort. But very few of them can.

  2. Well said Diane Ryan. I am experiencing this ever developing syndrome right here in one of the most if not the most progressive no kill community. I know that other grass root organizations are feeling the same shut out situation even though we have been the boots on th e ground for years. I have all the praise in the world for first coast no more Homeless pets, animal care and protective services, and the Jacksonville humane society . Target zero consultant Cameron moore is a longtime friend and huge asset to the no kill cause. However each. Point you make applies to our rescue organization, Rollies Angels Inc, Jacksonville Florida. Not only are we lacking funding so graciously handed out to the big guns, we are being starved out for volunteers and foster homes . Doners want us to work for their monetary gifts, grant givers make it almost impossible to apply for even a small grant. Large animal welfare groups who award grants give to other large groups. traditional foster based groups with no brick and mortar location are truly suffering these days. Another trend is the excruciating numbers game played by at least one large retail pet supply store that offers 7 day adoption centers. There has always existed that problem but not to the levels it has risen to. My group of volunteers have been together for almost nine years representing two other very reputable rescue groups. In April 2015 three of us co-founded our own organization. Our group saved all the adult cats ,a lot of kittens, and some dogs from the highest of high kill rural animal control facility’s in Florida, as well as many in Jacksonville Florida. We have a very aggressive t n r effort and save many of these that are adoptable. Over two thousand Adoptions and placements of dogs and cats were accomplished in an eight year period, hundreds were returned to colonies or caregivers. Yet, as you said, we are often times treated as red headed stepchildren. Moreover we have witnessed McRescues getting better treatment. But, hey I have always said someone doing something is better than someone doing nothing. Thank you for your recognition of these problems and your comment Diane Ryan.

  3. First off, thank you for your work, you provide our community with an important archive of information and for that I am appreciative.

    However, in this particular blog post I found myself upset by some of the words about rural communities:

    “Talent is a huge issue for No Kill. One of the reasons why we have seen such a spate of large cities going No Kill in recent years is that large cities tend to be where the talent is. Great marketers, fundraisers, and managers are less likely to be found in a remote rural county than in cities like New York, Austin, or Atlanta. A rural county may be hard-pressed to find a really competent person to run the shelter. It may be even harder to find people who are competent to develop operational, budget, fundraising, and marketing plans.”

    So often, we idealize metropolitan areas, saying that there, and only there, will we find safe, smart, forward-thinking communities and individuals. This is absolutely not true. As a transgender, anti-racist, queer, white activist (who received a college degree in rural Ohio) I find this statement upsetting on many levels.

    Saying that there is a lack of talent in rural communities is a damaging way to talk about the people who live there. Rural communities are often made up of people of color and poor white people. These types of statements, ‘hard pressed to find a really competent person,’ rely on an over simplification about the resources made available in rural communities as well as prejudices about their skills and abilities.

    The problem is not a lack of ‘talent’ in rural communities. Some of the most talented people in our movement are from small rural towns and have moved only to fulfill the open jobs that have been offered to them in metropolitan, resourced parts of the country. Other people stay in their communities and run some of the most lifesaving shelters, despite being resource-challenged and often lacking the adopter base large cities enjoy.

    As a movement, we need to begin to engage communities that are outside of the white, sub/urban, owning classes that most of us inhabit. We have to stop looking from the outside-in and push further than simply providing ‘services’ to these communities.

    We have to figure out ways to empower and engage the leaders who live and work outside of a few, resourced urban centers. We have to push back against our prejudices and invite new people in to these conversations. We need to stop talking about people as ‘other’ and engage them to build a bigger, stronger movement.

    • Perhaps I should have used the word “training” instead of talent. As you yourself acknowledge, though. talented people often leave disadvantaged rural areas because the opportunities are in the big cities. But whatever words we use, we are just kidding ourselves if we say that No Kill is as easily achieved in, say, Danville VA (average household income $32,000) as in Charlottesville VA (average household income $47,000 and with a giant university). It’s not a reflection on the worth of the people in either city, it’s an acknowledgement that resources are typically lacking in poor and rural communities.

    • Oh, please let me weigh in here.

      Rory, IN NO WAY am I contradicting any point you make. I want to make sure that is crystal clear before I type another word. The information I can add does not negate what you’ve said. It adds a different dimension to this very complex and difficult set of circumstances that make up the landscape of rural sheltering and rescue.

      Working with a 501c3 rescue in community with fewer than 45,000 residents, I definitely find that lack of available talent factors in our success. But that isn’t because people are “dumber.” The population base simply doesn’t exist to produce the help we need.

      I have never seen a study on this and I’m not sure if one has ever been conducted, but I strongly suspect that within every community exists a ratio of “active volunteers” to the “wish you well” crowd (people who like your cause but don’t have the time/energy/whatever to get involved,) to the happily indifferent, to the “I hope you all fall in a river and drown” folks. This applies to every cause, not just animal welfare. If that ratio looked something like 5/45/45/5, in a large metropolitan area you might easily have 7,500 people willing to work as volunteers across all different platforms and all different causes. In an area like mine, that would be 2,250. Somebody may want to check my math because I have difficulty adding two and two, but at least I hope you get my meaning.

      It becomes a numbers game. What exacerbates this beyond all measure of rational comprehension is the fact that in rural areas like mine, resources are fewer, yet intake rates and animal population itself is double or triple that in some metropolitan areas. I go back to my original premise in my own comment, and that is the assertion that rural areas need focused help from outside sources getting this problem under control. Relying on existing municipal structures as the backbone of such efforts is not always going to work. Get back to the grass roots rescuers, the boots on the ground, individual volunteer who is sacrificing everything they have to save a few. Shore them up with support and funding, and see what happens.

      • I’m glad people are weighing in on this issue, because creating No Kill in poor rural communities and small towns that have few resources is the next big challenge for No Kill. We have to figure out how to do this. I think we are going to need help from other, successful communities as a primary resource — similar to what South Carolina is now doing.

        • I’m not really familiar with what South Carolina is doing, but if they are receiving outside assistance, then I would like to observe that model and see what happens. Because I think that will be a key component in achieving No Kill in poor rural communities, although it is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. It’s important to remember that things that work in larger, more progressive areas may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. There will have to be a different type of programmatic engineering in regions like mine, with different points of focus and a different timeline. Individual responsibility needs to be taught and then stressed, so that dependence isn’t created on whatever outside sources of help might be available.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *