The No Kill Movement’s Place in History — And Why It Matters

We do not have any good method of collecting data on animal shelters, either today or historically. Understandably this has led to a great deal of confusion about what has happened in sheltering over the years. We don’t know where we were 50 years ago, or where we are today, much less how we got from there to here.

We do have enough information to identify trends, though, and there is one trend in animal sheltering that overshadows everything else. That is the trend of decreased shelter intake that started around 1970. The reason we can have confidence that this trend happened is because the plunge in intake was so great and so consistent that it is obvious even from the fragmentary data we have.

Dr. Andrew Rowan is perhaps the most prominent expert today on shelter statistics, and he believes that shelter killing nationwide fell from over 60 pets per thousand people in the early 1970s to less than 10 pets per thousand people today. About 70% of the nationwide fall in shelter killing took place from 1970 to 2000. Other people have come up with estimates that show an even higher intake total in 1970 than implied by Dr. Rowan’s numbers, with an even steeper fall. Rowan believes that the decade of the 1970s was the time of the most rapid decline in intake. At the same time, surveys of free-roaming dogs and cats in Baltimore and New York provided some evidence that their numbers were rapidly declining from 1970 to 2000.

The huge decline in shelter intake in the time period from 1970 to 2000 had little or nothing to do with No Kill. No Kill as a movement was just getting underway in the 1990s. Lynda Foro, who deserves perhaps more credit than anyone else for organizing the grassroots No Kill movement in the 1990s, had 75 attendees at her first No Kill conference in 1995. By the time she held the last of her No Kill conferences in 2001, attendance was up to 1,000 people, and No Kill was on the map.

So if the No Kill movement was not responsible for the fall in shelter intake from 1970 to 2000, what did cause it? It appears to have been mainly a combination of two things. One was that spaying and neutering techniques, particularly anesthesia, finally became safe enough for private-practice veterinarians to make sterilization a recommended part of health care for pets. The other thing was that animal-protection advocates who were upset about the number of homeless animals in the environment and about shelter killing started large spay-neuter campaigns. These campaigns, which were very active throughout the period from 1970 to 2000, offered subsidies for spay-neuter and publicized the importance of owners getting pets sterilized. These combined factors sharply increased the percentage of pets who were sterilized.

As shelter intake plunged, shelter killing plunged in lockstep with it. In New York City the number of animals killed dropped from about 15 per thousand people in 1970 to about 5 per thousand people by the year 2000. In San Mateo County, California, shelter killing went from about 70 per thousand people in 1970 to less than 10 per thousand people in the year 2000. These enormous drops in killing dwarf what has happened in shelters since the year 2000. The fact is that the great majority of the decline in shelter killing that has occurred in the last 50 years — perhaps as much as 90% of it nationwide — was due to the spay-neuter movement supported by the traditional shelter industry, not due to the No Kill movement.

Does that mean that No Kill is not important? Far from it. Getting shelter intake under control and reducing the number of homeless animals in the environment was a necessary first step in making communities safe for pets, but it was only a first step. We still have some 7 million animals who enter shelters each year, and with the number of pet owners increasing, we have more and more animals who are in need of help to stay in their homes.

The No Kill movement really got rolling in the late 1990s. City government and shelter boards in Austin, Otsego County (MI), Tompkins County (NY), and several other places all adopted No Kill resolutions in the late 1990s and started improving their live release rates. Robin Starr and Jane Hoffman both met Richard Avanzino, were impressed with the No Kill program he had created in San Francisco, and put his ideas into practice in their home cities of Richmond (VA) and New York City. A Mayor’s Task Force in Jacksonville in 2001 set the ball rolling for No Kill in that city. No Kill was breaking out all over.

The effect of all this was that for the first time we started to see the absolute number of shelter live releases per thousand people increasing. The simple way to visualize what happened is that the spay-neuter movement of the period from 1970 to 2000 decreased the number of animals killed in shelters by decreasing the number of animals who came in the door in the first place. The No Kill movement decreased the number of animals killed by getting more animals out the door alive. The spay-neuter movement worked by decreasing “noses in.” The No Kill movement worked by increasing live “noses out.”

The year 2000 was where we first began to see this trend of more live “noses out,” but it was not at all like a light bulb going on and the switch being made overnight. Spay-neuter has continued to be a highly important factor in further reducing shelter intake, especially in cities and counties that did not get the memo in the period from 1970 to 2000. There are still some cities today, like Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and perhaps Detroit, that have large numbers of free-roaming animals, and those cities desperately need large-scale spay-neuter programs to help them catch up to where most cities are today.

How did No Kill work to increase the number of live “noses out”? Traditional shelters were set up to kill the great majority of animals who came in the door. No Kill advocates of today often assume that traditional shelter workers in the high-kill era were unfeeling and just didn’t try to save more animals, but the fact is that they were in a situation that had no good solutions. In 1970 there were very few shelters that had the capability to spay and neuter animals before adoption — remember that sterilization surgeries were just becoming safe and practical by 1970. Also, shelters had many times the number of animals coming in as we have today, and there were far more animals in the environment. A shelter adoption under those circumstances just took a home from another animal. And there was enormous public pressure in the early 1970s to increase animal control enforcement, because the large number of free-roaming animals was viewed as a nuisance. It would not have been an option to just shut shelters down.

Once this crushing pet overpopulation problem was brought under control, people began to use No Kill techniques to re-focus shelters on live releases rather than catch-and-kill. There are choke points that occur in a traditional shelter in trying to get more animals out the door alive. Even the most basic No Kill techniques require a lot of changes to implement. Getting an animal adopted requires that the shelter have people who can handle adoption introductions, and a space for meet-and-greets. There must be a protocol for medical care such as vaccinations, worming, and sterilization before the animal goes home. Staff has to be trained, a tracking system created, and protocols developed.

All this began to happen around the year 2000. In both Colorado and Michigan, for example, the number of shelter adoptions per thousand people has increased since the year 2000, even as intake per thousand people has continued to decline. Much of this was due to No Kill, but some of it was due to the traditional shelter industry reforming itself. The highly influential “Open Adoption” initiative that started in the late 1990s, for example, was a combined effort that included many people from traditional shelters.

The practical lesson that I draw from all this is that it is a mistake for No Kill advocates to see the traditional shelter industry as the enemy, and it is an inaccurate view of history to see No Kill advocates as white knights who had to fight and defeat an industry full of lazy, incompetent people who liked to kill animals. The true picture is of a terrible situation in 1970 that was made better through determined spay-neuter efforts by people associated with the traditional shelter industry before No Kill even developed. No Kill, when it happened, was the frosting on the cake. No Kill has transformed sheltering and raised the status of companion animals, but it did that by “standing on the shoulders of giants,” not by slaying the giants. The historical picture is not of two competing ideologies for running animal shelters, where one must be defeated by the other. Rather, it is a picture of different techniques that made sense at different times, based on changing circumstances.

There is a saying that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. By knowing animal shelter history, we can start out with two important guidelines for how to approach shelter advocacy. First, in starting a program to decrease shelter killing in any given city we need to know where that city is in terms of pet sterilization. If large numbers of unsterilized animals are roaming the streets, then one of the first priorities has to be a massive spay-neuter effort, preferably along the lines of the Pets for Life program, to get that problem under control. A large population of strays in the environment is not compatible with No Kill. Strays who have been “living rough” for a while will require more time and rehabilitation to be made adoptable than owner surrenders. And strays in the environment try the patience of citizens and lead them to support and even demand punitive animal-control measures.

Second, by knowing shelter history, we can make effective decisions as to the fastest way to No Kill in any given city. That usually will involve a variety of things, but one thing to be wary of is hard-line advocacy. Put yourself in the shoes of a typical city council member who is more worried about educating children and bringing jobs into the city than raising live releases at the animal shelter. A group of No Kill “advocates” who come in with accusations and demands and shouts of “stop the killing” and “fire the murderers” may just be ignored. A group that comes in with statistics, proof of what works, and an individualized blueprint of how to improve the shelter —  without blowing it up and disrespecting its employees — may have a much better chance of being successful. A great way for local advocacy groups to sort through this is to bring in a shelter consultant. Most of the consultants working today seem to have a good grasp of shelter history and are very competent to lead effective reform efforts.


  1. Most no kill shelters would not exist without volunteers donating thousands of hours thus allowing the shelters to meet their financial obligations. While bringing in a shelter consultant may be a great idea, shelter consultants do not come cheap and most shelters do not have the funds to make this viable .

    • There’s at least one shelter-consultant group, Target Zero, that works entirely for free. They are supported by a private donor or donors. There are other consultants who are sometimes able to suggest possibilities for grant funding. And there’s always the option of contacting a successful No Kill shelter director nearby. Most No Kill directors are happy to mentor their neighbors for free, and they have the added advantage of being familiar with the area’s climate, terrain, and state laws, if they are in the same state. As you mention, people are often happy to donate to support No Kill, so private donations from local people are also a possibility. This is how Dallas got the BCG report, for example.

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