Fostering: A Keystone Program — Interview with Kristen Auerbach

I recently had the opportunity to interview Kristen Auerbach, head of the Pima Animal Care Center (PACC) in Tucson, Arizona. Before taking the helm at PACC, Auerbach was an executive at two other shelters in large urban areas – the Austin Animal Center in Austin, Texas, and Fairfax County Animal Services in northern Virginia. In this blog I want to discuss her ideas on fostering. Auerbach believes that “fostering is about engaging the community in a profound way that no other program can do.” What I found most striking about her approach to fostering is how she integrates it with other programs, gaining some tremendous synergistic effects.

Kristen Auerbach with her dog Otter.

PACC is the only public shelter serving Pima County and it is high volume, taking in some 16,000 to 18,000 animals per year. Auerbach started as director at PACC on July 10, 2017. It was already a good shelter before she was hired, with a live release rate in 2016 near 90%. A reorganization in 2017 made PACC a stand-alone department, and Auerbach was hired as the first director under this new system. She has set up the new department and staffed it, and shepherded a new shelter building toward its completion date in 2018.

Auerbach’s focus now is to bring PACC to the next level in lifesaving, and she’s done a lot toward that goal in the past year. In addition to the foster program, she oversaw the expansion of PACC’s Pet Support Center (funded by PetSmart Charities and the ASPCA), which works to keep pets in their homes. In 9 months the Pet Support Center has responded to over 33,000 calls. Auerbach is also working with the Jackson Galaxy Project on a Cat Pawsitive program. And volunteers worked almost 78,000 hours in 2017. Auerbach is a big fan of the HSUS Pets for Life program, and she recruited Bennett Simonsen, who previously worked as the Pets for Life coordinator for the Humane Society of Charlotte, North Carolina, as PACC’s Animal Protection Supervisor.

That’s a lot of change, but Auerbach’s renovated foster program may be the biggest change of all. Auerbach is a recognized national leader in fostering based on her revolutionary work with big-dog fostering. She feels that the problem is not large dogs per se. People love large dogs just as they love all dogs, and there would be sufficient demand for large dogs if there were no obstacles in the way of adopting them. The most prevalent obstacles are landlord and HOA restrictions that prohibit people from keeping large dogs. Because of these obstacles, shelters must put extra effort into getting large dogs adopted.

As a high-volume shelter, PACC takes in many large dogs.

Fostering is important for big dogs because it is not just a temporary lifesaver but a strong contributor to finding a permanent home. A recently published study of dog adoptions by Gary Patronek and Abbi Crowe of Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy was carried out at PACC, and concluded that dogs who went into foster had a higher live release rate (99%) than all dogs (88%).

Auerbach’s approach to fostering integrates the dog foster program into the adoption program. Every adult dog available for adoption has a notice on its kennel saying “available for foster.” Shelter staff have a target of mentioning “foster” in 30% of their social-media posts. Adoption counselors are encouraged to talk to potential adopters about fostering, and every adoption counselor can process fosters. In the eight months that this approach has been in place they’ve had many more inquiries about fostering. People who are interested in fostering but unsure about it are encouraged to foster a senior dog, which often turns into an adoption. Day trips and short-term foster opportunities can encourage people new to fostering to take the plunge, and the time out of the shelter is great for the animals.

Historically, the return rate for adoptions has been one of the factors used to judge shelter performance – a low return rate was considered good and a high return rate was bad. The Patronek-Crowe study found, however, that dogs who were adopted and then returned had higher subsequent adoption rates than the general population of dogs. Auerbach believes that adoption returns should not be viewed as failures. She and her staff encourage people to feel that they can bring a dog back to the shelter if an adoption does not work out, and pick out another dog.

Auerbach believes there is nothing wrong with a prospective adopter feeling unsure about whether a rowdy, 18-month-old chewing monster is a good fit. Why not encourage the potential adopter to take the dog home on a temporary basis as a foster, and see how things work out? If things go well, the animal has a new permanent home. At worst, it has had some time out of the shelter. This is one example of how integrating fostering with the adoption program can turn a negative – adoption returns – into a positive, by using fostering to make sure that dogs are a good fit for their adoptive families.

Some people object to large-scale dog-foster programs on the ground that such programs may be placing dogs who have behavior issues with fosters who are not capable of managing them. Temperament testing has become a hot-button issue lately, as more and more evidence has piled up that the traditional temperament tests don’t work in a shelter environment.

The Patronek-Crowe study found that fewer than 4% of shelter dogs had identifiable behavior concerns at intake. Auerbach sees the shelter environment itself as the cause of much of the fearful or aggressive behavior that is often seen in shelter dogs. She believes that the high placement success for fostered dogs that Patronek and Crowe observed is due to the fact that fostered dogs are not experiencing the stress of the shelter, so they behave like the normal dogs they are. That’s why she believes it is so important to get large dogs out of the shelter right away and into foster homes.

Auerbach feels that it is much safer for everyone concerned to have dogs out of the shelter and in a normal home environment than to house them in a shelter where their behavior will deteriorate. As she puts it: “the most dangerous thing we’re doing in sheltering is to house dogs with anxiety, young dogs, energetic dogs in tiny little boxes for 23 and a half hours per day, day in and day out, and then expect that they will act like teddy bears when we get them out.”

The shelter follows the same protocol for fosters as it does for adoptions and rescue placements. Since observing temperament in the shelter does not give an accurate picture of a dog’s real temperament, shelter staff rely mainly on the individual dog’s history. People who are taking a dog, whether as a foster, adoption, or rescue, get all the known information about a dog verbally and in writing, so that they can make an informed decision about the dog.

PACC does not have the resources to provide sanctuary care or extensive rehabilitation for every dog with severe behavior issues, so each week Auerbach has to make decisions about dogs in the shelter who are candidates for euthanasia because they have bitten or attacked a person or another animal. As busy as she is, she spends at least 10% of her time making a thorough investigation into each one of these cases. Her investigations include interviewing bite victims, if possible. Often she finds that the original report that labeled the dog as dangerous was inaccurate – the dog was misidentified, or the victim gives her a very different account of the incident from what is in the report. She believes it is important not to lump all bites together – there is a big difference between a minor bite and a moderate-to-severe bite. Auerbach sees making decisions to euthanize a dog for behavior as the most profound part of her job, and believes that shelters have a duty to provide careful consideration before taking a dog’s life for past behavior.

Currently, many of the adult dogs that PACC places in foster homes are large dogs who are experiencing behavioral decline in the shelter – dogs who showed no behavior issues when they came into the shelter but after 6 weeks or so start showing signs like reactivity and leash biting. Recently, however, PACC received a 3-year grant from Maddie’s Fund to hire three people who will be entirely dedicated to foster coordination – one for adult dogs, one for adult cats, and one for marketing and placement. The goal is to build a demonstration foster program, the largest foster program in the world, and get as many animals as possible out of the shelter and into foster before behavior problems set in.  And for dogs in the shelter, a Dogs Playing for Life program can help achieve some of the same effects as fostering. One of PACC’s 2018 projects is a large-scale Dogs Playing for Life program.

Participant in the Maddie’s apprenticeship program.

The PACC foster program is the centerpiece of another of Auerbach’s interests – training shelter staff from across the country in lifesaving techniques. PACC is part of the Maddie’s Fund national apprenticeship program for shelter staff who want to improve their community shelters but need help in getting started. Maddie’s awards grants that allow recipients to travel to communities like Tucson that have shelters with cutting-edge programs, where they receive hands-on training to learn how to implement those programs at their own shelters.

Auerbach believes that hands-on training programs are crucial because the sheltering profession has high turnover and new people coming into the profession are not likely to be familiar with the latest lifesaving techniques. Even if they have heard about new techniques, they don’t have experience in implementing them. And rapid turnover of leadership means there is little institutional memory at many shelters, so shelter staff need continuing exposure to basics such as Open Adoption as well as the new techniques. Auerbach believes that messaging on some shelter basics, like not discriminating against “pit bull” dogs, has fallen off in recent years and we have regressed in some of those areas.

The most recent apprenticeship training at PACC, a 4-day Maddie’s Medium and Large Adult Dog Foster Apprenticeship program, was held from April 9-12. Staff from shelters across the U.S. participated in workshops led by Auerbach and Kelly Duer of Maddie’s Fund. Although the focus at PACC apprenticeships is on adult-dog fostering, foster is so interrelated with other programs at PACC that the apprentices wind up receiving a broad exposure to many issues and programs. For example, a foster program requires staffing, so each apprentice is asked to bring an organizational chart. The chart might show that animal control is over-staffed, and that people could be reassigned to coordinate fostering and perhaps volunteers and rescue outreach as well. Another example is that since fostering at PACC is integrated with adoption, apprentices get direct experience with the PACC adoption program as well. The next apprenticeship program will be held May 22-25.

In Auerbach’s experience, the great majority of shelters still have no formal protocol in place for training new workers. She believes that the type of hands-on training provided by the apprenticeships is a good way to break into the cycle experienced by many people in sheltering, where they come into the field with little knowledge and then are immediately forced into a reactive mode just to get through each day. This leaves them without time to think and plan, much less keep up with today’s rapid pace of change in shelter lifesaving techniques. The apprenticeships offer several days where each participant can analyze their shelter’s situation, experience how a model program works, and have time to reflect.

The apprenticeships are not just for providing information about PACC’s existing programs, they are also about encouraging participants to apply their own creativity to come up with innovative variations for their own communities. For example, a PACC apprentice from the 2017 class started Paws on Patrol in Louisville, where police officers take shelter dogs along with them on patrol. The program has received a lot of publicity, and it helps both the police and the shelter in their mutual goal of engaging the community.

The PACC bottle-baby kitten program is another non-traditional way of engaging and benefiting the community.

Fostering is also important for cats, particularly bottle-baby kittens, for whom it can be the difference between life and death. PACC’s bottle-baby kitten program is another example of a fostering program that serves the twin goals of helping people in the community and increasing the shelter’s lifesaving rate. Petco Foundation has funded the innovative approach of placing bottle-baby kittens in memory-care facilities, where round-the-clock kitten care is shared by residents and staff. The residents of the facilities often become very engaged in caring for the kittens, and for the kittens it’s a lifesaver. As Auerbach says, “with fostering, you’re sending out a piece of your shelter that goes all over the community.”

My interview with Auerbach touched on many issues that she cares about that we did not have time to discuss in depth, including the effect on shelter workers of carrying out euthanasia decisions, the need to attract and retain leaders in sheltering, and the importance of expanding the focus of sheltering to include animals outside the shelter. Although this is a long blog, it would have to be much longer to even begin to encompass all her ideas and insights. Fortunately, Auerbach frequently writes and speaks about shelter issues.

What is happening at PACC is exciting for the future of shelter lifesaving. Auerbach and her staff, with support from grant-making organizations, are making the shelter a demonstration project on many issues. With fostering as a keystone program, shelter lifesaving promises to reach new heights.

The Culture of Adoption

Many communities in the United States have a high intake of animals at the local shelter. The consulting service Humane Network recently published a comprehensive 10-step guide explaining how communities can establish a “culture of adoption” that drastically increases the number of shelter adoptions. With this technique, we are no longer solely reliant on reducing intake to save lives — we can quickly increase the number of adoptions to match whatever intake level we have. In this blog I want to provide a little background on the concept of the culture of adoption; what it is, how to measure its progress in a community, and why it is so important. (Note: I love the Humane Network guide so much that I link to it each time it’s mentioned — don’t want you to miss it!)

The adoption experience should be welcoming and fun.

A culture of adoption means that when people think of acquiring a pet, they don’t think about going to a pet store or checking Craigslist, they think about going to the shelter. In a community that has a culture of adoption, the default place to get a pet is the community shelter.

The way to achieve a culture of adoption is to use marketing to “brand” the animal shelter as a fun and trendy place to visit, and to brand shelter animals – both mixed-breed and purebred – as great pets. This branding cannot be achieved by a one-time messaging effort — it is something that must be achieved by constant repetition. It also must reflect reality – branding depends a lot on word-of-mouth and personal recommendations, so the shelter must actually be the fun and welcoming place that its marketing presents.

Games are a fun way to engage people.

In recent years we have come to understand how important it is for shelters to reach out and engage the community. Today we see new shelter buildings being located in parks and shopping malls – places where people congregate. We see shelters holding events like Yoga with Cats, or First Nights, that seek to attract people who would not ordinarily come to a shelter. And most of all we see creative ways to get people to adopt, not shop.

As a result, shelter adoption is becoming a popular and cool way to acquire a pet. The statistics we have for pet acquisition in the 1970s and 1980s are not very comprehensive, but it appears that in those days only about 10% of people acquired their pet from a shelter. At that time there were few if any all-breed rescues. Today, the estimated percentage of pets acquired either at a shelter or through a rescue is 35%. In cities with a culture of adoption, that percentage can go even higher. There is no reason why shelters and rescues could not supply 70% or more of pet acquisitions.

When a community has a very high adoption rate, it runs out of shelter pets. This is one of the explanations for the phenomenon we are seeing more and more in the United States, where city and county shelters must import animals from other communities, and even from other states, to keep up with demand.

Bonney Brown

An example of a community that has established a culture of adoption is Washoe County in Nevada, home of the city of Reno. In 2007, the Nevada Humane Society (NHS), which is located in Reno, kicked off a No Kill effort in partnership with the county’s animal control service. NHS hired Bonney Brown as executive director to lead the effort. The problem with getting to No Kill in Washoe County was that the shelter system had an unusually high intake, and Brown had to find a way to deal with that issue.

Brown had a background in shelter lifesaving extending back to the early 1990s, and before that she had worked in retail. She credits Michael Mountain and Steven Hirano at Best Friends Animal Society for mentoring her in techniques for engaging the public in shelter lifesaving. When she started work at NHS, she immediately began a campaign to brand NHS as the place to get a pet. Her work at NHS was the first example I’m aware of where marketing was successfully applied in a high-intake community to raise shelter adoption rates to a level where the shelter literally ran out of animals, even after pulling all the savable animals (including medical cases) from the local animal-control facility. Brown eventually left NHS to start Humane Network, but NHS directors have continued to maintain the culture of adoption. NHS is now running the Carson City shelter in addition to its work in Washoe County, and also pulls at-risk animals from other shelters, including the one in Las Vegas.

Diane Blankenburg

Humane Network can train people in how to create a culture of adoption, but for communities that cannot hire Humane Network, Brown and Diane Blankenburg, who is also a former executive with NHS, have created the free 10-step guide I referred to in the first paragraph of this blog post. The guide is posted on their website at this link.

A common mistake that people make with marketing is to try one or two special events, and then get discouraged if those events don’t result in a big increase in people coming to the shelter. Brown and Blankenburg emphasize that marketing to create a culture of adoption is an ongoing effort – a campaign. Brown tells people that it requires “relentless promotion” over time to make a shelter “THE go-to place to adopt a pet.”

I’m not going to talk about all the the nuts and bolts of how to create a culture of adoption in this blog, because that topic is covered so well and in such depth in Humane Network’s free online brochure. I do want to go into some depth on how to measure adoption rates, though, and what a culture of adoption means in the big picture for No Kill nationally.

To measure progress toward a culture of adoption, you will need to track two easily calculated numbers. The first number is shelter intake related to the number of people who live in the community. This is helpful because it is people in the community who provide homes for shelter animals, and the more people there are, the more potential homes are available. Average shelter intake in the United States is estimated to be around 22 dogs and cats per thousand people, although it varies widely from one location to another.

To calculate “Intake per Thousand People” (IPTP) for an individual community, simply take the shelter’s intake number per year and divide that number by 1/1000th of the human population of the shelter’s service area. For example, a city of 600,000 people served by a shelter that has intake of 10,000 cats and dogs per year has an IPTP for cats and dogs of 10000/600 = 17. If there is more than one intake shelter in a community, total intake of all the shelters should be used to calculate IPTP.

The second number we need is “Adoptions Per Thousand People” (APTP). This measures how many people in the community choose to acquire a pet by adopting from the shelter. It is calculated the same way as IPTP, except that the number of shelter adoptions per year is used instead of the intake number. In a city of 600,000 people, if city residents adopted 3500 cats and dogs per year (either directly from the shelter or from rescues that pulled the animals from the shelter), the APTP would be 3500/600 = 6. In traditional shelters, an APTP in single digits is common.

So let’s think about this. If the community shelter has 17 dogs and cats coming in the door for every 1000 people in the community, but only 6 per 1000 going out the door as adoptions, the shelter has a big problem. It is not finding homes locally for all its pets. A culture of adoption can fix this problem.

How high must we raise the APTP to find homes for all the shelter pets in a community? Not all animals who come into a shelter need adoptive homes. Some animals are reclaimed by their owners, and some are healthy community cats who can be returned to their community homes. The percentage of animals who need adoption in a shelter varies a lot from one community to another, but generally will not exceed 70%-80%. If we have an APTP number high enough to represent 80% of IPTP, we will have enough adoptive homes for every healthy and treatable animal who comes into the shelter, in pretty much any community in the country. In our shelter with IPTP of 17, for example, we would need at most an APTP of 17 x 0.8, or 14.

A high APTP is an achievable goal.

Getting back to our average shelter intake of 22 IPTP, and multiplying that by 80%, we would need a maximum of 18 APTP to find homes for all of our healthy and treatable animals in an average community in the U.S. The good news is that a successful culture of adoption can easily result in APTP of 18. In fact, in the shelter system of Washoe County, which has a higher-than-usual IPTP of over 32, APTP runs about 23 per year. Washoe County also has a strong return-to-owner program, and at 23 APTP, the Washoe County shelters have so much adoption demand that they do not have enough homeless animals from within the county to meet it.

A culture of adoption helps create a community where pets are valued.

A culture of adoption can create high enough APTP to provide homes for shelter animals even in communities with very high IPTP. An IPTP of 35, for example, is near the top of the scale of what we usually see today. At that level of intake we would need an APTP of 28 to provide homes for 80% of shelter animals. This level of APTP has been achieved by some communities – Portland, Oregon, is one example. Portland’s culture of adoption allows it, like Washoe County, to take in and place many animals from shelters in other communities.

The fact that a culture of adoption can increase APTP to a number that is higher than the average intake for shelters in the United States has exciting implications. It means that right now, if every shelter in the country was able to establish a culture of adoption, we would have homes available for all our healthy and treatable animals. That means that there is no pet overpopulation in the United States – the market is there for shelter pets, and we just have to mobilize it.

In places that have a strong culture of adoption we sometimes see high intake that is a result of the high number of transported animals that the community is able to take in. We see this in the average shelter intake for the state of Colorado, which is a well-known destination for transports from overcrowded shelters in other states. In the past, high shelter intake in a community was almost always a sign of a lack of sufficient low-cost spay-neuter services. Today, high intake may be a sign of a compassionate community that has a culture of adoption.

To sum up, it’s tremendously important for shelters to establish a culture of adoption in their communities, and that requires, as Brown says, “relentless promotion” to make a shelter “THE go-to place to adopt a pet.” Creating a culture of adoption is a campaign – a way of engaging the community long term. I urge you to read the brochure to learn how to make it happen in your community.

Nevada’s New Statewide Pet Lifesaving Campaign

This month, Maddie’s Fund is commencing a three-year effort to make Nevada a state where all healthy and treatable animals are saved. The effort is called Maddie’s Pet Project in Nevada (MPP-NV), and it is jointly funded by Maddie’s Fund and the Dave and Cheryl Duffield Foundation. MPP-NV will be officially kicked off by Nevada governor Brian Sandoval on April 26th at an event in Reno. The kickoff will be followed by a statewide Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days event on April 27 and 28. Every incorporated animal-welfare group in the state is invited to participate in the adoption event.

When Maddie’s decided to do the MPP-NV campaign, they called in the Humane Network consulting service. The Humane Network team for MPP-NV is led by Bonney Brown, Diane Blankenburg, and Mark Robison. I recently interviewed Brown about MPP-NV – its goals, the challenges it faces, and the plans for creating a statewide safety net for pets.

Humane Network did an in-depth feasibility study for MPP-NV which looked at shelters in the state but also went beyond the shelter walls to look at how pets are doing in communities that don’t have shelters. The study used interviews, surveys, and other data-gathering methods. We rarely get this type of demographic data on pets in individual communities, let alone entire states.

A survey that was part of the feasibility study showed that Nevadans have strongly positive attitudes about pets. 93% of Nevadans have owned a pet, 88% feel it is appropriate to grieve the death of a pet, and 86% think the well-being of dogs and cats is important. Similar percentages of Nevadans have positive attitudes toward homeless pets — 91% reported that the fate of dogs and cats in shelters mattered to them, 90% would help a stray animal, 76% indicated that they would be interested in volunteering to help cats and dogs in their community, and 66% said that they would obtain a new pet from a shelter or rescue group. There were no significant differences in attitudes between urban and rural residents or between average and low-income people.

The Humane Network feasibility study included a map of Nevada’s human population density. This map illustrates the huge geographic distances between communities in the state – a problem that is common in western states. The average Nevada county is over 6,400 square miles, and most of the land area is sparsely populated (click map for larger version):

Humane Network identified three main issues based on its feasibility study:

  • A lack of communication among shelters in the state, which leads to missed opportunities for shelters to help each other. One example is that some shelters have built up more demand for adoption than they have animals, while animals are dying in other shelters due to time or space limitations. Some shelters have so few resources that they struggle just to complete basic tasks, and are not able to focus on networking or developing programs.
  • In almost every community, large mixed-breed dogs, Chihuahuas, and community cats need help. Kittens and puppies who are too young for adoption are also at risk. These groups make up a disproportionate percentage of animals who die in shelters or are left on their own in areas that do not have animal services.
  • Rural areas, Native American reservations, and low-income urban areas often lack low-cost veterinary services. Animals are dying of easily preventable and treatable illnesses. These areas tend to have few or no veterinary clinics, and residents often have transportation difficulties and lack money to pay for veterinary care. Nevada has few low-income spay-neuter services, and spay-neuter and vaccination services are unavailable in many rural areas.

A data analysis of Nevada shelter save rates found that in most shelters the save rate for dogs is substantially higher than the save rate for cats. This data analysis allowed Humane Network to identify counties that have high numbers of animals dying in shelters and propose ways to bring down those numbers.

The Nevada Humane Society (NHS) in Washoe County is a linchpin of the MPP-NV plan. Washoe County, located along the western border of the state, is home to the cities of Reno and Sparks. It has a very high shelter save rate resulting from the partnership of NHS and Washoe County Regional Animal Services (WCRAS). As with many such partnerships, the private shelter (NHS) pulls unclaimed animals from the public shelter (WCRAS) once their hold periods are up and finds homes for them. The partnership between NHS and WCRAS dates back to 2006. In recent years NHS has partnered with nearby Carson City, which is now saving a very high percentage of its shelter animals. Reno is also the home of the SPCA of Northern Nevada, which has grown into an important organization.

Humane Network has a close connection with NHS, since Brown is a former executive director of NHS and led its successful community lifesaving campaign. A high priority for Brown when she became director of NHS in 2007 was to make adoption from a shelter the first thing people thought of when they wanted to acquire a pet. Brown and Blankenburg, who was also an executive at NHS at the time, used marketing to achieve this goal, and subsequent NHS leaders have kept up the marketing effort. The “culture of adoption” in Washoe County can be seen when comparing its high rate of adoption to other counties in Nevada. This phenomenon is so important that I’m going to talk about it in detail in a follow-up blog. One of the results of the high adoption rate in Washoe County is that NHS has a shortage of animals for adoption, and can help other shelters in the state by taking in some of their at-risk animals.

The Reno area has a substantial population, but the Las Vegas area, which is in the far southern tip of the state, is far bigger. Clark County, home of Las Vegas, has 75% of the state’s population. A shelter reform effort has been underway in Las Vegas in the last few years, and the shelter system has been making good progress. MPP-NV wants to help that effort reach its 90%+ save-rate goal. One method of helping is to transport animals from Clark County to Washoe County. MPP-NV funded its first transport of 49 cats and 6 rabbits from the Animal Foundation in Las Vegas to NHS in Reno on April 10-12. These were animals with medical or behavior issues that made them difficult to place in Clark County.

The MPP-NV feasibility study showed that veterinary clinics, shelters, and nonprofit animal organizations are heavily concentrated in and around Reno, Carson City, and Las Vegas. A handful of animal organizations are also located in small communities that have grown up along the I-80 corridor, which runs from Reno across the north-central part of Nevada. MPP-NV will start out its lifesaving efforts by strengthening the safety nets for pets in two areas of the state – Clark County and the I-80 corridor from Washoe County to Elko County on the eastern border of Nevada. These areas contain a high percentage of Nevada’s human population.

Humane Network is conducting listening tours in the areas they have identified as starting points for MPP-NV. In Washoe County they met with county officials, veterinarians, and tribal governments and asked for their views on how lifesaving could be improved. They visited all the major shelters and spay-neuter clinics in Clark County. The most recent listening tour was conducted on the I-80 corridor. The photo shows the Humane Network team with staff from the Elko Animal Shelter.

By starting its work in the parts of the state that have existing infrastructure for lifesaving, MPP-NV will be able to first strengthen that existing infrastructure and then reach out into the underserved rural areas. In 2015, two of the 17 counties in Nevada had no animal shelter and several had no private veterinary clinic and no identifiable rescues. Only Clark and Washoe counties and Carson City have non-profit veterinary clinics. The state has few TNR clinics. The remote rural areas in the state are not only lacking in infrastructure for saving homeless pets, they also have few services for owned pets. Everything must be built from the ground up.

Because creating an entire lifesaving infrastructure from scratch is a new type of endeavor, Brown does not have a roadmap for it. She believes, however, that grassroots organizing will be one key to developing a safety net for pets in sparsely populated areas. She has experience with that kind of organizing going back to her work on TNR in Massachusetts in the early 1990s, when she founded a humane society that spearheaded TNR efforts in several towns. She found that grassroots organizing helps local people form their own sustainable institutions.

Grassroots organizing in rural communities could begin with the development of foster networks and the use of marketing to develop a culture of adoption. Transport of animals to Washoe County could be used to jump-start lifesaving, but creating a culture of adoption will allow communities to place their animals locally, which is the ultimate goal.

Many of the remote rural communities in Nevada cannot economically support a private-practice veterinary clinic. In those cases, a mix of for-profit and non-profit organizations may need to work together to create solutions. NHS and the SPCA of Northern Nevada have mobile vans for transport and spay-neuter. It might be possible to work out arrangements for private veterinarians to use those vehicles and donate their time.

A creative idea for expanding pet services is to piggyback on existing services for people. An example of this approach is MPP-NV’s outreach to an organization called Immunize Nevada, which helps people get vaccinations. MPP-NV also participated recently in the Family Connect – Family Resource & Health Fair event in Las Vegas. All of these approaches to creating infrastructure from scratch are promising, but as Brown said about this new type of effort, “exactly what it looks like? We don’t know yet.”

Given the need for creating infrastructure, MPP-NV is developing a strong leadership-building component. That component will help recognize and develop grassroots leaders, but also train leaders who are already in the field. In conjunction with that effort, MPP-NV has provided 18 scholarships to attend HSUS EXPO.

An exciting component of the leadership effort is that Maddie’s will be hosting two conferences each year, one in Reno and one in Las Vegas. The conferences are called Saving Nevada’s Pets and are free for leaders and managers of Nevada humane organizations. The Las Vegas conference will be held on June 5, and the Reno conference is scheduled for October 25. The hope is that the conferences will help not only with training, but also with networking. Brown feels that networking opportunities are important because rescuers and shelter staff are often so busy with the work they face every day that networking can fall by the wayside.

The Nevada effort will be data-driven, and the plan is to repeat the surveys and data collection at the end of the three-year program to measure progress. The project’s founders envision that, by developing sustainable grassroots organizations and networks, the good effects of the project will carry on in Nevada long after it ends. MPP-NV may also have an exemplary effect outside Nevada, especially in western states that have many communities that are lacking in lifesaving infrastructure.

“How Can I Reform the Shelter in My City?”

I get this question frequently on social media, and there is no short answer, so I decided to write a blog on the topic.

As a preliminary note – this blog sets out a process for starting from scratch and creating a No Kill community. if you read all this and are discouraged at the complexity and the amount of work it takes to create a No Kill community, don’t despair. If you can’t do everything, it is still helpful to do something. In fact, there are many communities where a full No Kill initiative eventually developed starting with one program. If I lived in a high-kill community and had a demanding full-time job but still wanted to do something to increase lifesaving, I’d start a transport program. Transports can be coordinated during lunch hours and evenings, and can be run on weekends, and they can make an enormous difference in a community. Another great program that can be stand-alone is the Help Desk, which can be run with recruited volunteers and donated supplies and services. Help Desks often have a 30% or more success rate in heading off owner surrender. One person could make a difference by working with the shelter director on a marketing program, including low-fee adoption events. It may be tremendously helpful to work on getting anti-cat ordinances changed, if they are impeding TNR or RTF. So there is no need to despair if a full No Kill initiative seems too much for you to tackle all at once.

I’ve set this out as a series of steps, but the first two steps can be done at the same time. The last two steps may overlap some too, depending on circumstances. Even if you must limit your activities to one program, the first three steps may be valuable to complete.


Do you know what the adoption rate per thousand people is in your city’s shelter? Do you know what the cat ordinance says? What the dog ordinance says? What the required holding period is? Do you know your shelter’s intake? How is animal control structured? Does animal control actively pick up cats, or do they accept them only over the counter or as emergencies, or not at all? Do you have full statistics (at least as much information as is contained in the Basic Matrix used by Shelter Animals Count) for your shelter for the last 10 years? Do you know how to interpret those statistics? What is the shelter’s yearly budget? How many full-time and part-time employees does it have? Are you familiar with the activities of all the rescues and humane organizations that work in your community? Do any of them partner with the shelter, formally or informally? Do you know where animals who are transferred out of the community are going? What is the capacity of your shelter? When was it built? Does it have a good air-exchange system? Is it in a good location for foot and vehicle traffic? What are its hours? Does your shelter do RTF, have a kitten bottle-baby program, have a foster program? Does the shelter have managed admission, a Help Desk, a program for pit bulls, or an exercise yard for dogs? How many volunteer hours does the shelter have each month, and what do the volunteers do? Does your city have a low-cost spay-neuter program, either public or private? If so, how many animals per year are sterilized? Is there a TNR program? A transport program? How does the shelter evaluate temperament? Does the shelter have a veterinary staff? Where do people in your community go when they want to acquire a pet?

You can learn the answers to these and similar questions by doing basic research on the shelter, talking to people associated with the shelter, making a FOIA request for statistics if the shelter doesn’t make them available, and volunteering at the shelter or with organizations that work with the shelter. Once you have gained a basic familiarity with the shelter, talk to the director. Explain that you would like to help the shelter and ask what he or she sees as the biggest needs and biggest problem areas. If this is the first time you’ve met the director, don’t expect him or her to welcome you with open arms. Shelter directors get a lot of criticism, and all kinds of people approach them with all kinds of agendas. If you go in with an attitude of wanting to learn and help, the director is more likely to be candid with you. But at the least, you will get an idea of how effective the director is as a leader and how open he or she is to change.

Talk to the people in your community who are active in helping the shelter and ask for their ideas about resources that can be leveraged. Also talk to the heads of local non-profits that help humans or make grants for people-oriented projects – this may give you ideas for creative networking possibilities. If there are any city or county officials who are sympathetic to your efforts, get their ideas, especially as to finances and shelter location.


Just as you had to learn the facts about your own shelter for the first step, for this step you have to learn about successful No Kill shelters. Go to the Best Friends maps at and, and find out how your region is doing at No Kill and where the closest No Kill communities are located. Contact them, tell them what you’re trying to do, and ask if you can tour their facilities and speak to someone (preferably the director) about how they got to No Kill. The reason for going local is twofold – first, local communities are likely to be similar to yours in climate and terrain, and if they are in the same state they are probably functioning in a similar legal and regulatory climate. Second, this will give you a start in future networking, because No Kill shelters often help other communities.

One important thing to realize is that there is no “one size fits all” approach to getting to No Kill. As Richard Avanzino put it, there are many routes to the top of the mountain. Successful No Kill transitions build on what the community already has, and its own particular strengths and resources. That said, there are some programs that have been successful in a wide variety of communities. While you are visiting nearby No Kill communities, educate yourself about core programs like managed admission, Return-to-Field, and transport. Learn about Help Desks, bottle-baby-kitten foster programs, social-marketing programs, and Dogs Playing for Life.

Just as important as programs are institutional arrangements. Find out who runs the No Kill shelters you visit. Is it the city or county? Is it a local humane society or SPCA or rescue that contracts with the city? If the city or county runs the shelter, are there any formal or informal partnerships with non-profits that take a significant number of animals from the shelter? Do the shelters you visit have rescue coordinators? Foster, volunteer, or transport coordinators? If you are visiting a shelter run by a city or county, find out if the director had to overcome chain-of-command issues such as restrictions on social-media use or fundraising.

In recent years shelter medicine has become an enormously important part of No Kill. Learn about shelter medicine and what it can do for shelters in areas like capacity for care, infection control, and quality of life for animals. Learn about No Kill shelter buildings and how location plays a crucial role in adoption promotion and community engagement. If possible, visit a city or county that has a new shelter building designed specifically for No Kill, and talk to the director about the difference it’s made. Familiarize yourself with the Million Cat Challenge and the High-Quality High-Volume Spay-Neuter (HQHVSN) model for clinics taught by Humane Alliance. Attend a TNR clinic. The University of the Pacific offers an online certificate course in lifesaving-centered shelter management. This course is taught by people with a proven track record in lifesaving shelter management, and could be a great way to boost your education about No Kill.


If you’ve done all your research, you’ve probably formed a lot of opinions and already have some goals. Now you need to take the next step and decide how you’re going to reach those goals. Many people ignore this aspect of the process and go directly from the learning phase to the doing phase. They think that strategic planning is a waste of time. On the contrary, a good strategic plan can be the difference between success and failure. Think of the strategic plan as your road map to No Kill. Forming a strategic plan also forces you to think in detail about how to do each step. It’s easy to say “have a bottle-baby program for kittens” or “put on low-cost adoption events,” but it’s much harder to figure out all the details and hoops to jump through to make these programs work.

One of the best ways to make a No Kill plan is to call in a consultant like Humane Network or Target Zero. If that is not possible, there are many other resources to help. One is the yearly conference held by American Pets Alive! in Austin: The whole purpose of this conference is to provide practical help for people who are making No Kill transitions, and it’s an excellent first step in making a comprehensive No Kill transition plan. The Best Friends National Conference has presentations on how to get to No Kill, and it’s a great place to network. HSUS EXPO also provides tremendous networking opportunities.

One of the most important parts of the strategic plan is the operational model for the shelter. There are many operational models for shelters, and which one is best for your community will depend on the circumstances. For shelters that are run by the city or county government, a common and highly successful model is a public-private partnership. This model was originally developed by Avanzino in San Francisco, and it is used today in Austin, Jacksonville (FL), San Antonio, Washoe County (NV), Asheville (NC), and many other places. If the shelter director in your city is open to transferring animals to a partner organization, then this may be the best way for you to go. Keep in mind that shelter directors may not immediately embrace a new organization. If you choose to go this route you might need to start small and prove that you can responsibly handle the animals you take from the shelter, both in terms of public safety and good placements for the animals. Remember that animal sheltering has an animal control component, and any city or county is going to be very concerned with public safety and abating nuisances caused by animals.

Another important part of the strategic plan is to analyze all the data you gathered and use it to map out your shelter’s current strengths and weaknesses. You will need to set out what types of savable animals are being killed and why. For example, if your shelter is saving 85% of dogs but is having trouble placing large, active dogs, you may want to include programs in your strategic plan like transport, Dogs Playing for Life, micro-targeted free spay-neuter for the zip codes most associated with large-dog intake, regular adoption specials for large dogs, and intensive marketing. If the cat live release rate is, say, 50%, then you will need to plan for implementation of a community cat program and a bottle-baby program. You may need to modify local ordinances to allow RTF and TNR. If the shelter has a high died/lost rate, then the strategic plan must identify the causes and suggest solutions.

You will almost certainly need an organization to carry out your strategic plan. You may already be working with an animal-welfare non-profit that you can re-purpose for a No Kill effort. Or you may have to start from scratch and form your own non-profit. Hopefully you have met people in the course of doing your research who want to help, and you can bring them on board.


At this point you have a comprehensive strategic plan, an organization, and a group of people to implement the plan. In one sense you’ve come a long way. But really, the work you’ve done so far is preliminary, and now you’re at the starting line.

Implementing your strategic plan will probably require building a working relationship with the current shelter director. This may take some patience. What I see with many No Kill efforts is that shelter directors are willing to try out help that is targeted toward their problem areas. Once the lifesaving effort starts, it gains popularity and momentum. As the director sees the progress and gains trust in the No Kill effort, he or she becomes more open to change, as do city or county elected officials. I like the analogy of a snowball rolling down a hill and getting bigger and bigger. If you’re doing a good job and being sensitive to the concerns of other people, then before long the shelter director may be your biggest fan. Even if you never develop a great personal relationship with the director, you can have a great working relationship if everyone focuses on the goal of getting animals out the door alive.

But what if you can’t work with the current director? It’s understandable for a shelter director to be a little wary of a brand-new organization and ask it to prove itself, but what if the director is adamantly opposed to doing things differently and refuses your help? An ambitious and scary but potentially highly effective approach to this problem is to take over the shelter and run it yourself. This is obviously a heavy lift, but it has been done with great success in Kansas City (MO) and Atlanta. The process is for a private organization, generally a non-profit, to win a bid on a contract to provide animal sheltering (with or without animal control) for the city or county. How do you get the city or county to put a contract up for bid? One way is for the private organization to make a credible showing that it can do a better job of running the shelter, at a lower cost. Private organizations often have an advantage over a city or county government in running a shelter because a private organization can fundraise directly from the public and may have more flexibility in personnel decisions.

You can try political action to force the hiring of a new director when the existing director is uncooperative. If this method is used, it may be advantageous to have one organization running the political effort while another organization works on building No Kill infrastructure. This approach worked extremely well in Austin, with a two-pronged effort led by Fix Austin, which handled the lobbying aspect, and Austin Pets Alive!, which partnered with the shelter to pull at-risk animals. Without a simultaneous infrastructure-building effort, a political effort runs the risk of a city or county hiring a new director and having that director fail too.

Another way to deal with the problem of an intransigent shelter director is to modify your strategic plan to do all you can outside the shelter. Instead of partnering with the shelter to take at-risk animals, for example, you could start taking in owner surrenders directly and get them before they ever go to the shelter. This could save half or more of the community’s at-risk pets without ever involving the shelter director. If you have a Help Desk, or a transport program for dogs, or a neonatal kitten foster program in your strategic plan you can do all those things outside the shelter. With the kitten foster program, for example, you can ask people to bring litters of underage kittens to you rather than to the shelter where they would be killed. You can start pushing a community cat program, including any necessary ordinance changes. After running successful programs like this for two or three years, you may find that local officials appreciate what you are doing and are willing to give you a seat at the table in making decisions about animal sheltering. And if local officials do decide to appoint a new shelter director, that director will be much more likely to succeed with your programs already in place.

Whatever method you use, keep in mind that strategic plans sometimes fail. In San Antonio, for example, the city’s first strategic plan to get to No Kill failed. They took the lessons learned from that experience and created a new strategic plan, and it has had far better success. Creating No Kill is hard work and there are no guarantees, but it has been done now in hundreds of communities. I have seen enough No Kill transitions by this point that I fully believe it can be done in any community in the United States.

Rescue Buying of Puppy Mill Breeding Stock – Good or Bad?

There’s considerable controversy over whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing for rescues to buy puppy mill breeding stock at auctions. The typical scenarios for these rescue purchases are large auctions in the Midwest, where hundreds of purebred breeder dogs are on sale.

The argument that rescue buying of breeding stock is a good thing is that it saves the animals purchased at auction from a dismal or even torturous life in a puppy mill. The argument that it’s a bad thing is that it funnels the money of animal-welfare donors into the puppy mill industry, because the dogs are being sold by puppy mill operators.

Obviously, anything that helps the puppy mill industry is something we want to avoid. This blog looks at the question of whether rescue purchase of puppy mill breeding stock at auction helps the puppy mill industry or not.

The first thing we need to do is make a distinction between baby puppies (generally 6-8 weeks old) that puppy mills sell to brokers, and the breeding stock used to produce those puppies. The puppies are the “product” of the puppy mill industry, and the profit from sale of puppies is what keeps the industry going. Breeding stock is the means of production for puppy mills. As such, breeding stock, far from representing profit, represents a cost of doing business. This is a crucial distinction. When the market price of baby puppies goes up, puppy mills benefit because they get more money for their product. When the market price of breeding stock goes up, puppy mills lose money because their cost of doing business is higher.

Let’s take the example of a sale of one puppy by a puppy mill operator to a broker for $1000. The puppy mill’s profit on that puppy is $1000 minus the amount that the operator spent to produce the puppy. Part of the cost of producing the puppy is the acquisition cost of the puppy’s parents. If that cost (pro-rated for this individual puppy) represents $30 of the cost to produce the puppy, the puppy mill will have more profit than if the pro-rated cost to acquire the parents was $35.

So when puppy mills have to pay more money for breeding stock, it directly reduces their profits. Lower profit hurts the puppy mill industry because it reduces the incentive for people to become puppy mill operators and encourages current puppy mill operators to get out of the business.

That’s pretty much economics 101, and is non-controversial. Now we need to look at the effect that rescue buying of puppy mill breeding stock at auction has on the average price of breeding stock. If it drives the average price of breeding stock up, then it is hurting the puppy mill industry. If it drives the average price down, it is helping the puppy mill industry. If it has no effect on the average price of breeding stock, then it is neither helping nor hurting the industry.

Rescues compete with puppy mill operators to buy breeding stock at auction. Thus, there is no way that rescue buying of breeding stock at auction can help the puppy mill industry. Rescue buyers are competing with puppy mill operators for the means of production, and that puts upward pressure on puppy mill costs of doing business. Under basic principles of economics – econ 101 again – rescue buying of breeding stock at auction is bad for the puppy mill industry.

If you doubt this, imagine that you are a puppy mill operator and you are at an auction to buy breeding stock. You obviously would prefer not to have to bid against rescuers, because you know they are going to bid up the prices.

Some people argue that the money paid by rescue buyers of breeding stock is going into the pockets of puppy mill operators who are selling dogs at auction, and therefore that money is helping the puppy mill industry. It is true that rescue buying of breeding stock at auction puts money in the pockets of puppy mill operators, but that’s not the same thing as helping the puppy mill industry. Let’s look at how the puppy mill operator can spend that money. First, it might be that the puppy mill operator is going out of business. That’s quite a common reason for selling breeding stock at auction, because business operators do not normally sell their means of production if they plan to continue in business. If that’s the case, the money that goes to the retiring puppy mill operator will not benefit the puppy mill industry at all.

Another way the puppy mill operator might spend the money from the sale of breeding stock is to buy more breeding stock. Maybe the operator sold off less-popular breeds to fund the purchase of breeding stock of more-popular breeds. Here again, rescue purchases of breeding stock are not going to help the industry. The puppy mill operator may make a premium on the dogs he or she sold to rescues at auction – let’s say the operator gets a 10% higher price on the dogs sold, due to rescues bidding up the price. But the puppy mill operator will have to pay 10% more for the new stock that he or she purchases, due to the competitive bidding of rescues. This type of transaction just represents “churn” in the means of production, and again there is no net benefit to the puppy mill industry.

Some critics of rescue buying of breeding stock at auction argue that the entire practice of selling breeding stock to rescues is a fraud, because puppy mills can just hold some puppies back when they want more breeding stock, so they have no need to buy breeder dogs at auction. This argument shows a lack of knowledge about how puppy mill operations work. A typical commercial puppy mill has breeding stock of many different breeds. For example, it might have 35 breeds, with an average of maybe 2 stud dogs and 10 breeder females for each breed — the number of stud dogs is small because not many are needed. Puppy mill operators favor outcrossing, because that produces the largest, healthiest litters. A puppy mill operator is not likely to hold back a dog as a future breeding animal, because that would result in inbreeding that would reduce the number and viability of puppies produced.

A related argument I’ve heard is that some puppy mill operators are breeding dogs specifically to sell to rescues at auction. This is nonsense, because it is not an economically viable model for a business. If a puppy mill operator can sell a registered, purebred, 6-8 week old puppy for $1000 to a broker, why would that operator spend money to house, feed, and provide veterinary care for that animal for 1 or 2 years (the usual minimum age for breeding stock) just to sell it at auction for less than $1000? The people who make this argument have simply not thought through the economics of the issue.

To sum up, rescue buying of breeding stock at auction puts downward pressure on the profits of the puppy mill industry by putting upward pressure on the cost of production. We do not have enough information to know the extent of the effect of this downward pressure on industry profits – it may be minuscule, or it may be substantial. But we do know, just from looking at the issue as one of basic economics, that rescue buying of breeding stock at auction does not help the puppy mill industry.

The Game Changer: How San Antonio Pets Alive! Turned the Tide in San Antonio’s Goal to Save Lives

With the terrific progress of No Kill in San Antonio, I thought my readers might be interested in a report from San Antonio Pets Alive about their part in helping the city get where it is today, and how other cities can use these same techniques. Thanks to Christine Bentsen for this article.

— Susan Houser


Guest post by Christine Bentsen

San Antonio, Texas, has made substantial progress toward its No Kill goal. But it has been a long road. In 2006, backlash against ingrained city practices and the self-reported save rate of just 11% prompted a publicly announced initiative to achieve No Kill status by 2012[1]. But even so, the city was unable to achieve above a 34% live release rate through 2011.[2] With failure looming, the City reached out to Austin Pets Alive! to dramatically change the trajectory and achieve their goal.

San Antonio Pets Alive! was born from this effort, and its inception marks the first implementation of the techniques, programs, and practices created by Austin Pets Alive! in another community. There were lessons learned — first and foremost —  that even with setbacks, APA! techniques work, they are transferable, and great things can be achieved in a short amount of time.

Now, San Antonio has a live release rate of 90%, and SAPA! programs are key to that success.

APA! was consulted in 2011 when the City of San Antonio needed new approaches to achieve No Kill status. San Antonio Pets Alive! was founded, and helped the city achieve their goal in the stated time frame. SAPA!/APA!’s influence on the save rate is seen starting in 2011.[3]

APA! Techniques Work, Even When Challenged in New Ways

Things at SAPA! have been challenging. Because SAPA! was the first iteration of Austin Pets Alive! techniques in a new city, many of the factors that keep APA! successful simply did not yet exist in San Antonio. These included high-level volunteer teams solely devoted to marketing and fundraising, community support around changing shelter practices (the organization was prohibited from sharing information about city shelter practices), grassroots fundraising (SAPA! was heavily reliant on grants), and long-term commitment from the city to support change in partnership, practices, and culture.

SAPA! was heavily focused on saving lives, and through this time of triage, they began to experience financial difficulties because their budget was based on Austin’s budget, which was heavily reliant on volunteers rather than paid staff. And despite the incredible transformation in San Antonio, SAPA! lost the support it did have from the city as city shelter leadership changes occurred, and ultimately the wonderful, centrally located city adoption center that SAPA! used as a primary lifesaving tool was handed over to another group. SAPA’s own leadership turnovers, organizational woes, and a substantial amount of bad press later, Maureen O’Nell joined SAPA! as Executive Director to help “right the ship.”

“When I came in, the city had given us 30 days to vacate their shelter, and our funded contract to save 5,400 ‘on the list’ animals went down to 3,100,” Maureen explained. “We had nowhere to go, nowhere to operate from. But we were going to figure it out. We had so many challenges, but the core people, we still had their support. The first thing we did was sit down with our employees and do a SWOT.” These documents, common in business scenarios, ask organizations to frankly detail their Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

“The outcome is that we firmly acknowledged that as an organization, we are scrappy, determined, and we save lives. Killing is not a solution, and it is our obligation to find ways to save lives. These guiding principles made everyone feel like it was OK not to have all the answers, and to know that we were going to figure it out.“

Where to Start: Be Creative, Build Relationships, and Persevere

Maureen’s first orders of business: find a working “adoption center,” rebuild community trust, and enhance the SAPA! brand.

Item #1 was helped by PetSmart Charities who offered one of their Everyday Adoption Centers – and SAPA! moved in.

SAPA! also found a grant for a mobile adoption center, inexpensively rebranding it with a fun, positive wrap designed to catch the eye and build positive associations with the group.

Billboards around town (also grant funded) helped rebrand and build positive awareness.

The organization then took a hard look at their population of animals, which like Austin’s population, is comprised of the pets that inevitably face euthanasia at the city shelter. They worked together to formulate creative solutions. These included:

  1. Increasing the transport program. SAPA! formed strong relationships with carefully screened adoption partners in communities that are not experiencing the same sorts of overpopulation issues. Through the transport program, easily adoptable animals, who are still on the euthanasia list at San Antonio Animal Care Services, are sent to these communities to find their forever homes. Currently, the transport program places about 100, mostly large adult dogs, which is quite unique for transport programs, per month.
  2. Increase foster homes. The growth of the transport program also created a novel way to recruit new fosters (now at 1700 from an already robust 600 in 2016). When animals are awaiting transfer, all kennels are full. If temporary placement could be found for them while they await their trip to a new community – all of those kennels could be open to in-community placement pets. SAPA! ran a “short-term foster” campaign, which generated substantial interest, and not only solved the short-term foster problem but had a substantial impact on overall foster numbers as well. Careful nurture of the foster program also allowed more placements of special needs animals such as moms with babies, ringworm cats, and bottle baby kittens. With growth and time, organizations like APA! are able to have many of these programs onsite but for SAPA! foster saves lives now.
  3. Find creative solutions to existing health profile issues. San Antonio often needs orthopedic veterinary expertise, most often due to car incidents. Through a professional connection, SAPA! is able to get increased access to these expensive, very necessary services.

Through these programs and innovative solutions, SAPA! has been able to increase the number of lives saved, year over year, every year since inception. The organization consistently exceeded the pull rate contract from the shelter. Maureen says, “They know that if they call us, we’ll be there.”

Data shown for 2016. Parvo and orphan numbers are saves since SAPA! Inception.

Using Data to Fine Tune

“Bottom line, the most important metric we track is lives saved,” says Maureen. Now that the organization can focus on more than day to day survival, they are implementing a comprehensive analytics program. This includes reporting on a number of key metrics on a monthly basis. These center around Volunteers, Fosters, Operations, and Development. New programs, innovations, and investments within existing programs are sure to come from these insights.

“We are a data rich community, and we know the things we need to report on, but sometimes that information isn’t easily accessible,” explains Maureen. For example, in the current system, tracking whether an animal has heartworms isn’t a sortable checkbox, but rather something that requires combing through the pet’s medical records. “We know heartworm is a significant barrier to adoption, so we track it, and we’re looking for a long-term solution to eliminate that barrier to adoption.”

Development has shifted from being primarily focused on grant support to a more best practice, sustainable ratio of grant and donation support. This has called for an increase in donor and community alignment, which pays off not only in individual support, but also in awareness and branding.

Relationships with veterinary clinics offer deeply discounted triage services and help support SAPA!’s only clinic. And, a new Barn Cat program will provide an alternative for poorly socialized cats.

“Start at the goal, and work from there,” says Maureen. SAPA!’s original goal was to stay afloat and continue saving lives. Now the goals are getting much more refined and targeted.

So Where Do You Start?

Maureen agrees that it can feel like a lot, but if they can come back from an extremely challenging situation, anyone can have a notable impact in their community. “Start tracking what you can, and make sure that the data tells a story that relates to your goal. Don’t change what you’re tracking, but add to it over time so you have a complete baseline and you add more to the story.” Not all data is equally useful. “For us, it’s not that useful to know if the dog is a pit bull, especially since dogs are so often misclassified. It’s a lot more useful to know things like if that dog has heartworms.” And don’t be hard on yourself. It takes time, and the road can be enormously difficult. Start small, and the lessons will come.

Maureen O’Nell recently spoke at the American Pets Alive! Conference. For more information, visit the American Pets Alive! website.


[1] The stated goal was 70% save rate.


[3] APA! immediately started pulling San Antonio animals to Austin in large numbers while SAPA! was being born.

The Perspective of the Rescuer

In many communities rescuers are the backbone of the No Kill effort. They pull animals from the shelter, including the ones most in need of medical or behavioral rehabilitation before adoption. They work hand in glove with shelter staff to manage emergencies. In an increasing number of communities, rescues and humane societies have a formal partnership with the municipal shelter.

But there are quite a few communities where the relationship between rescuers and the local shelter is adversarial or where there is a split among rescuers, with some in favor of the local shelter and some opposing it. Often this opposition by rescuers continues even when a shelter is making progress. It’s easy to see why rescuers would oppose a high-kill shelter, but why would they be critical of a shelter that is rapidly improving? A first step in understanding and addressing the concerns of rescuers is for shelter directors to look at things from the perspective of the rescuer.

Very few rescuers get paid for their work. Most of them have jobs and families and are trying to fit rescue work into their busy lives. They don’t have time to go to No Kill conferences or read about No Kill trends at the national level. Rescuers may know very little about No Kill innovations, especially the most recent ones like RTF and managed admission. They may work with several shelters, and they probably don’t have time to keep up on current statistics for each shelter, much less long-term trends in intake and live releases. Burnout is high among rescuers, and as a result many of them are relatively new at it and don’t have much institutional memory of how things were, say, 10 years ago.

Rescuers usually have a constant stream of animals coming at them. It can feel like a fire hose with no end. Rescuers get tired and angry, and it’s only natural for them to resent the sources of the fire hose — the shelter and the general public. It’s easy for rescuers to develop an “us against them” attitude, with shelter staff being part of “them.” A new director might expect that rescuers will automatically support a No Kill effort, but rescuers who are not familiar with how No Kill actually works and who have no experience with innovative programs may balk at what we in the shelter world know are lifesaving techniques.

Each community is a little different, but there are three types of concerns that I hear from rescuers in the context of new directors who are making a No Kill effort. First is a lack of trust. This can be made worse if there are mistakes while a new director is settling in. A couple of recent examples of this were an animal control officer who wound up in the local news for lifting a dog using a choke pole, and a mistaken euthanization of a family pet. The shelter director must be transparent in these cases, and take quick and decisive action. If the director gets on top of the situation as soon as a mistake happens, makes all the circumstances public, and takes action to fix whatever caused it, the harm can be minimized.

The second type of concern is that rescuers may feel displaced by a new director’s rules. Sometimes when a shelter has had bad leadership and rescues have had to step in and fill the void, rescuers (and volunteers) may resent the imposition of a new way of doing business because they see it as hindering their flexibility and effectiveness. This is best fixed by a new director making changes gradually and holding frequent meetings with rescuers to get their input. For example, if rescuers are no longer allowed to enter the shelter after regular hours, the new director might hold a meeting with them, explain the safety and liability issues, and ask for their suggestions on how to deal with the situation. Even if the director can’t reach an agreement that makes both sides happy, the opposition from rescuers will likely be less intense because they now understand the situation and had a chance to be heard.

The first two types of rescuer concerns are relatively easy to deal with, but the third is harder, because it involves a fundamental conflict between the role that rescuers see for themselves and the role that No Kill has for them. Many rescuers seem to feel that if a shelter needs to rely on rescues to get it to a high live release rate, then the shelter is failing at its job. They see the need for rescue as something that exists solely due to a dereliction of duty by shelters. No Kill, by contrast, sees the relationship between the shelter and rescuers as an ongoing partnership where each has a defined role. The obvious problem here is that rescuers may expect a new No Kill director to quickly put them out of business by saving all the animals herself or himself. They may be disappointed and infuriated when they find out that the shelter needs them as much as ever.

One way to address this concern is for the shelter to make rescuers part of the team, working with the shelter for the same long-term goals. A strategic plan can be a helpful way of setting this out. Making rescuers part of the team means that the shelter director must be aware of rescuer burnout and take steps to prevent it. That entails not asking more of rescuers than the director would ask of shelter staff. If a shelter has an emergency — say a natural disaster or a large hoarding bust — and shelter staff are working around the clock, then it’s appropriate to ask rescuers for their maximum effort too. Working together to meet that kind of crisis can help make rescuers and shelter personnel feel united. But when a shelter constantly operates in crisis mode and expects rescuers to bail it out, it is not a sustainable situation any more than it would be to ask shelter employees to constantly work 100-hour weeks.

Another part of the solution to this third concern is to educate rescuers (and shelter workers and volunteers) about the key role of the private sector in No Kill. Rescuers sometimes complain that they are forced to spend their money on saving the lives of strays and owner surrenders, something they see as the responsibility of the local government. This issue may become acute during a No Kill effort, because No Kill asks for community support to save animals who have expensive medical and behavior problems. The relationship of local governments to animal care and control is complex, and it differs from state to state and locality to locality. A handy (although somewhat oversimplified) way to look at it is that the core duty of local government is limited to animal control. That core duty can be expanded by state law or local resolutions or ordinances to include aspects of animal care and lifesaving, but laws and ordinances that put obligations on public shelters may wind up structured by legislators to make them difficult to enforce. The bottom line is that if we want a safety net for pets in our communities, the private sector is generally going to need to take a large role in creating and sustaining it.

There’s a trend, particularly in larger cities and counties, for the local government to contract with rescues and private shelters to take a certain number of animals each year from the public shelter. This is a great way to deal with the situation, as it recognizes that lifesaving for strays and owner surrenders has benefits for the entire community. A new No Kill director may want to float this idea to local officials as a short-term or long-term goal.

Every jurisdiction is different, and what works for a new No Kill director in one place won’t necessarily work in another. Understanding and sympathizing with the perspective of the rescuer is crucial, though, in creating a team dynamic. And in order to achieve peace between warring factions one side has to take the first step. It behooves those of us on the shelter side to be willing to take that first step — and as many more as are needed.

January 1, 2018

This blog takes a look at the big trends in No Kill in 2017, but first I want to say a word about sheltering in 2018.

We’ve made tremendous progress since the No Kill movement started in 1989. The progress, however, has generally been a local phenomenon. Each community has fought for and attained No Kill in its own way. This has worked well because each community is different, but the result has been that sheltering has never developed a national organization that can set goals, establish best practices, and issue guidelines.

Many people reject the idea of a national organization because they think it would impede creativity. That is unlikely. Legal control of animal sheltering is at the state level, and a national steering organization could never be anything more than advisory. It would not be a credentialing body.

Why do we need such an organization? One reason is that a substantial percentage of rescuers, and a not-inconsiderable number of shelter workers and directors, are completely unfamiliar with the broad trends in sheltering that have happened in the last 50 years. They are very familiar with the situation in their locality, but they generalize that to the U.S. as a whole and find it hard to believe that conditions may be different elsewhere.

As a result, we get books and articles and news reports claiming that dog and cat populations in our country are “at crisis levels,” or “out of control,” or “exploding.” In fact, the statistics we have (imperfect as they are) indicate a very strong trend of falling shelter intake dating back to 1970. Indeed, shelter intake hasn’t just “fallen,” it’s gone off a cliff. Today, the best estimates are that we have only one-fifth or less shelter intake per thousand people as we had in 1970. The fall in intake may have leveled off in the last 15 years, but shelter intake is not “out of control” or “exploding.” With the fall in shelter intake and the increase in the human population and the number of owned pets, and the new ways of looking at cats, there is no reason why any dog or cat has to be killed today for lack of a home.

The massive fall in shelter intake has huge implications for sheltering, today and in the future. I’ve written about some of those implications — most recently here. But instead of dealing with the facts and what is likely to happen based on those facts, many people are stuck in a doom-and-gloom mode that hinders their ability to make progress in the present, let alone the future. Doom-and-gloom is not a good message. If we want to attract people to our cause we must emphasize the positive, not chase people away with messaging about “overpopulation” that just leads to despair. Especially when that messaging is not just self-defeating but factually wrong.

The No Kill movement has done great things, but one thing we have not succeeded in doing is getting the message across about the current very hopeful state of sheltering in the U.S. and the trends that got us here. We need a national umbrella organization or steering committee that can speak with one voice to educate people about the recent history of sheltering and then identify policy choices that must be made. When we speak with many voices, it’s easy for the facts to get lost.

I would love to see this happen in 2018. So far, though, nothing seems to be on the horizon.


Now on to the big trends in sheltering in 2017. It was a year of exceptional progress in many areas, but two trends stood out to me.

  1. Statewide No Kill efforts.

These efforts are designed to help every jurisdiction in an entire state get to No Kill. The reason that statewide efforts are so important is that there are many resource-poor communities in the U.S. that are having great difficulty making any progress toward No Kill on their own. With statewide efforts, the stronger shelters in the state help the weaker ones. This makes so much sense, because the helping shelters are already familiar with the climate, terrain, and political and legal environment of the weaker shelters, and are geographically close enough to make help feasible. The “hub” model used by many of the current regional and statewide efforts is specifically built on this idea of the stronger helping the weaker.

In addition to the practical reasons for statewide No Kill efforts, they make sense politically. In the United States it’s state legislatures that governs animal-control issues. Much of this state authority has been delegated to local communities, which enact ordinances, but there are many state laws that strongly influence sheltering. State-level control of animal shelters has resulted in institutions such as state federations becoming very powerful in sheltering. These state structures can help with communication and recruitment for No Kill efforts.

Here are some of the statewide No Kill efforts that are currently underway:

  • New Hampshire
  • Delaware
  • Utah
  • South Carolina
  • Virginia

New Hampshire shelters have averaged over a 90% save rate since the 2000s due to a statewide low-cost spay-neuter program, efforts by individual shelters, and the influence of the state federation. The Delaware effort, which combines animal control done by a state office with animal sheltering done by the Brandywine Valley SPCA, is saving over 90%. The Utah, South Carolina, and Virginia efforts are all headed by private organizations, and are well on their way to their goals.

In addition to these five, we have several additional initiatives. In Washington, a non-profit is using networking and direct grants to leverage help for areas that have insufficient resources. An interesting aspect of this effort is its emphasis on regions that have little or no animal-sheltering infrastructure. In Michigan, a non-profit is publicizing state statistics and using yearly awards to help motivate shelters to improve. Colorado is another state with mandatory reporting of shelter statistics, making it easy for advocates to know what shelters need help. Colorado as a whole appears to be at or above the 90% goal.

Statewide efforts can grow out of regional initiatives, of which there are many. A regional effort can be a great way for a strong shelter to take the first steps toward a statewide effort.

Statewide No Kill efforts may give us our best chance to quickly improve rural shelters in areas with low average incomes. Local government in such areas may be minimal, and there are a surprising number of U.S. counties that have no formal animal control or sheltering agencies. If we wait on the local population to build the necessary institutions in those areas, recruit volunteers, get sustainable funding, etc., we may be waiting for a long time. An outside organization that can come in and start a transport program for dogs, an RTF program for cats, and an HQHVSN clinic can jump-start an effort that can eventually be taken over by local people.

Statewide No Kill efforts may be the fastest way to get to our goal of a No Kill United States. They can leverage networks that are already in place, making huge gains in areas where No Kill might have seemed unlikely. It will be exciting in the coming year to see how the current efforts play out and how many new ones get started.

  1. We’re all on the same page

The second big trend of 2017 was the coming together of the traditional shelter industry and No Kill. When the No Kill movement first developed a national presence in the mid-1990s, the traditional shelter industry reacted with considerable outrage. The leaders of the traditional shelter industry in the 1970s and 1980s had to deal with a crushing pet overpopulation problem, and they were slow to realize that spaying and neutering of pets, which took off in the 1970s, had made a big difference in decreasing shelter intake by the 1990s. Traditional shelter leaders and workers in the 1990s were also hurt and offended by the term “No Kill,” which they thought was a back-handed way of calling them killers.

Today we have a new generation of leaders and workers in the traditional shelter industry who do not remember the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s and were not invested in the battles of the 1990s and 2000s. The result is that “traditional” shelters of today are often just as interested in raising their live release rates as No Kill shelters. We still have lots of poorly performing shelters, and we even have one major national organization that still has an old-fashioned view of animal sheltering, but we’ve turned the corner.

This obviously has major implications for how the No Kill movement operates, and that was on display in 2017. Cooperation has broken out all over. When you think about it, there is really no entrenched opposition to No Kill. There is no powerful constituency of people who want to kill cats and dogs. Shelter reform is not like farm-animal reform, or laboratory-animal reform, where huge businesses with lots of political power oppose animal welfare. The opposition to No Kill was always more emotional than real, and it is rapidly melting away.


If there is one big takeaway from our experience in 2017, it’s that knowledge is power. In the past we’ve concentrated on the nuts and bolts of shelter reform. Now we can reap some big gains by broadening our vision and using our knowledge of past trends to steer the best course in the future.

The Future of Sheltering

This is the fifth and final blog in my series on the professionalization of the animal shelter, and it covers an important part of professionalization – planning for the future. The lifesaving movement in the United States, whether you call it No Kill or shelter reform or some other name, has a choice to make about its future. That choice will determine whether the movement continues to expand and save more lives, or whether it will die out. We should not just bumble into this choice without thinking about it. Instead, we need to examine the issue and decide, as a profession, how it should be addressed.

We can’t predict the future, but there are several pet-related trends in the United States that have been underway for decades now and seem likely to continue. One trend is that shelter intake is holding steady or declining on average, even as the human population and the number of owned pets continues to climb.* Another is that people are valuing pets more and treating them more like family members. A third is that adopting a pet from a shelter is becoming a popular way for people to acquire a pet, because people like the idea of giving a home to a homeless animal.** A fourth is that the private sector is increasingly partnering with the public sector to market homeless pets.

If we extrapolate these trends, we come up with the very real possibility that shelters of the future will not have enough pets to meet the demand from people who want to adopt. This is already happening for dogs in many parts of the country, and there would seem to be little doubt that we are headed for a nationwide shortage of adoptable dogs in the not-very-distant future. The common thinking about cats is that their numbers are increasing and that there are tens of millions of outdoor cats, but it is very possible that the number of outdoor cats is falling. Cats are a commensal species, and if we see fewer cats at large in cities and towns, and if shelter intake of cats (including intake diverted for Return-to-Field) is falling, as it seems to be, then the logical conclusion is that the number of outdoor cats is declining, not increasing. In any event, we now recognize that many cats are happy and thriving in their outdoor “homes” and do not need homes with humans.

There are two possible solutions to the problem of shelters of the future not being able to meet the demand for pets, and that is why animal sheltering as a profession has a choice to make. One possible solution is that shelters will continue their current practice of passive intake of animals that come to them as strays, confiscations and owner surrenders, which would eventually result in shelters not having enough animals to meet demand and having to turn away adopters. The other possible solution is that shelters will begin to actively seek out homeless pets so that they can continue to meet the demand from people who want to adopt.

I think this choice is a no-brainer on the merits, and that we should go for option two. If we choose option one, then commercial breeders will move in to capture the market that shelters have abandoned. Commercial breeders care more about making money than anything else – indeed, the managers of a commercial entity are required by their fiduciary duty to maximize value for the entity’s owners. They owe no duty at all to animals, who are just property under our legal system. Commercial breeders, aka “puppy mills,” have earned a terrible reputation for their treatment of animals. If the ultimate result of the No Kill movement in the United States is to abdicate the market for pets to commercial breeders, then that will be a sad ending indeed.

But where will shelters find homeless animals, if current trends continue? An answer for the short term is to use transports within the United States. We already have a booming transport network for homeless pets. Eventually, though, if current trends continue, moving animals around within the U.S. will not be enough to meet the demand for adoption. At that point we will need to begin to import homeless animals from other countries.

Whenever I’ve brought this idea up in the past, some people have reacted by recounting horror stories of rabies, exotic diseases, unsocialized pets, and high costs. Those concerns are real, but we are already importing large numbers of animals into the U.S. each year, including an estimated 400,000 dogs for the commercial market. This proves that we can design and implement safe protocols for importing pets from other countries. In fact, existing laws and regulations mandate a safe procedure for importing animals and preventing rabies and exotic diseases from entering the country.

As for lack of socialization, street dogs and cats in other countries are often extremely well socialized to people and other animals and new situations. And for those who are not, the No Kill movement has demonstrated that people love to help their pets, and needing help in some aspect of behavior does not have to be a barrier to adoption. As for high costs, the massive transport network that has sprung up within the U.S. shows that people will volunteer to fly their own planes, drive their own cars, donate money, and volunteer many hours to save lives.

There are a few non-profit organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, that are currently importing homeless animals to the U.S. on a small scale. One way to prepare for the growth of this practice, as demand requires it, would be for our leading No Kill shelters to begin to reach out to these organizations and familiarize themselves with the process. Major national No Kill organizations may want to begin strategic planning for a future when large numbers of homeless pets will be imported from other countries. There is no logical reason why No Kill should not help animals in other countries — compassion does not stop at the border.

Finally, we need to think about puppies. It’s becoming common for shelters today to have long waiting lists and multiple adoption applications for puppies. I’ve seen puppies with more than 10 adoption applications. In many parts of the country, people who want puppies have little choice other than buying from a breeder. We need to start to think about non-profits breeding puppies to meet the demand from people who want a puppy but do not want to support the cruel commercial breeding industry. Such puppies would be bred from dogs living in homes as pets, and the goal would be to produce healthy and well-socialized puppies, not monetary profit or show-ring winners.

The idea of non-profits breeding puppies to meet adoption demand always brings cries of dismay, which is understandable given the massive struggle that has gone on for decades to reduce the number of litters born. But the world has changed, and we have to change with it. Commercial breeders, here and in other countries, produce millions of puppies each year, with cruel conditions for the breeder dogs and lack of adequate socialization for the puppies. The puppies then go to pet stores that take few or no steps to try to match a puppy’s temperament to the buyer’s lifestyle. Puppies should not be bred commercially, but our legal system allows it because animals are property. We can and should take this market away from commercial breeders.

The pet lifesaving movement in the United States has done its work very well, and in the process it has created an impressive number of great humane organizations and phenomenal shelters. We can’t let that infrastructure, with its cultural construct of treating all pets as family members, go to waste. Nor can we ignore the plight of homeless pets in other countries just because they are on the other side of a geographical boundary. There is much work yet to be done, and resting on our laurels will have to wait.


* The massive spay-neuter effort that got underway in the United States in the 1970s solved what was a very real pet overpopulation problem in those days. In 1970, by our best estimates, shelters were taking in about 5 times as many animals per available home as they are today. There were also far more stray animals in the environment in most places than there are today. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that you could find a new pet in the 1970s just by taking a walk.

** Over the last 25 years, the shelter reform movement has facilitated a major change in how Americans acquire pets. In the 1970s only about 10% of pet acquisitions were from shelters. Purebred dogs were very popular at that time, and many people bought purebred cats as well. Today, it is estimated that about 35% of pet acquisitions are from shelters and rescues (all-breed rescues seem to have been very rare before the 1990s).

On the Same Page

In the last few years, the idea that traditional shelters are fundamentally at odds with No Kill shelters has been evaporating. Traditional and No Kill shelters are quickly coming together around a new set of operating procedures that are based on data. This is a big deal because it means that most people in sheltering are on the same page now, and we can move forward together toward the goal of saving all healthy and treatable animals. Today’s blog looks at three new concepts that are creating common ground between traditional shelters and No Kill.

Professionalization of Intake Procedures

Perhaps the greatest point of contention between traditional and No Kill shelters historically was intake procedures. In the late 1990s, some in the traditional shelter industry began to use the concept of “open admission” versus “limited admission” to criticize No Kill. The traditionalists argued that open-admission public shelters were necessary because private, limited-admission No Kill shelters were not able to deal with all the homeless pets who needed help. According to traditionalists, No Kill shelters warehoused animals and caused an increase in pet abandonment by turning animals away. And No Kill shelters fundraised on the basis of not killing animals, which demonized open-admission shelters that had the responsibility for animal control and accepting owner surrenders. We still see those arguments made today, although much less frequently.

One reason that criticism of No Kill on the ground of “limited admission” has died down is that it is now abundantly clear that “open admission” public shelters can be No Kill. You can find entire No Kill jurisdictions dating back to the late 1990s. Otsego County, Michigan, went No Kill in 1999, and several small towns, including Ithaca and Aspen, were No Kill in the early 2000s. Reno, Nevada, a typical mid-sized American city, became No Kill in the mid-2000s, and Austin, one of our larger cities, became No Kill in 2011. Today, with hundreds of cities and counties saving 90% or more of their shelter animals, anyone who presumes that all No Kill shelters must be limited admission is just denying reality.

But the main reason that the old open-versus-limited-admission debate is losing steam may be that today we have a new operating procedure, managed admission, that is rapidly superseding the old intake procedures. “Managed admission,” which was discussed in Part I of this series, means simply that a shelter asks people to make an appointment to surrender a pet unless it’s an emergency situation.

Managed admission may seem like a small change, but it has enormous consequences. In fact, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that an entire new paradigm of sheltering has developed around it. Managed admission affects pet retention, staffing, use of space, disease control, capacity for care, and risk management. It leads to better community relations because it encourages responsible pet care, minimizes mistakes, and helps create a more homelike atmosphere at the shelter. The benefits of managed admission are so great that it appeals to both traditional and No Kill shelter directors. It has been an effective “wedge” program to get traditional shelters started in the direction of No Kill. Shelter admission policies have gone from being the signature difference between No Kill and traditionalists 20 years ago to being one of the most notable areas of common ground today.

Innovative Adoption Screening

A concept called Open Adoption is another example of a data-driven approach that has been widely accepted in recent years by both No Kill and traditional shelters. Like managed admission, Open Adoption has its critics, most of whom argue that Open Adoption programs hand pets out to anyone. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Open Adoption process. Open Adoption thoroughly screens potential adopters, it just does it in a different way. Instead of the traditional process of adopters filling out forms and having to meet fixed requirements, Open Adoption is centered on trained counselors talking to potential adopters, having a conversation about their homes and lifestyles, and observing how they interact with animals.

Open Adoption was pioneered by a few No Kill shelters in the 1970s and 1980s (although not called Open Adoption at that time), but beginning in the late 1990s the idea was fleshed out in conferences that included both traditional and No Kill leaders. The concept has subsequently been embraced by large numbers of traditional and No Kill public shelters. It has been slower to spread to rescues and private shelters. Even today, many rescues continue to have a long list of rigid requirements for adoption, such as a fenced yard, a minimum income, no young children in the house, a promise to keep cats indoors, home visits, references, retaining ownership rights, etc. Studies have shown that adoption success rates are no better when a laundry list of requirements is used, and the downside is that many people are excluded from adopting who would make great pet owners.

A phenomenon that has accompanied the Open Adoption concept is the mass adoption event. Mass adoption events have been around since the 1990s, but in the last few years they have become very common with both traditional and No Kill shelters. Such events are usually held in a large venue that has good public access. The animals may come from one jurisdiction, or a host jurisdiction may invite shelters from an entire region to participate. Some of these events have racked up staggering numbers of adoptions, as many as 1,000 or more in a weekend. In just the last couple of years the Clear the Shelters event has created a new kind of mass adoption event, with turnkey promotion allowing individual shelters to set new records for the number of adoptions in one day. These mass adoption events generally use Open Adoption concepts and rely heavily on trained volunteers to do “meet and greets.” The sheer number of animals adopted in these events would overwhelm any old-fashioned system that relied on extensive paperwork, background checks, and home visits.

The old way of doing adoptions emphasized excluding “bad” adopters, whereas Open Adoption takes a positive approach to starting people off right with their new pet. This positive approach makes Open Adoption a gateway to No Kill, because it carries forward the idea of the shelter as a welcoming community center.

Recognizing the True Nature of Cats

In traditional shelters, feral cats were killed. Tame cats who were freaked out by the shelter environment and did not present themselves well for adoption were also killed. Shelter workers and management believed that cats who were not social with people were like fish out of water, and that they were better off dead than “abandoned” outdoors.

Trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs that started in the United States back in the 1970s gradually began to show a different picture. Cats who lived outdoors and were brought into TNR clinics were mostly of good weight and basically healthy. The lives of outdoor cats, including feral cats, were not “nasty, brutish, and short” at all. There was a high mortality rate for feral kittens, but outdoor cats who reached adulthood had an excellent chance for many years of healthy life.

Cats have many different lifestyles, and they may transition from one to another. The unifying theme in cat lifestyles is that cats are a commensal species, meaning that they prefer to live in or around human habitations. They may be commensal wild animals (like raccoons, squirrels, and rats), or they may live as pets, or they may be something in between. The critical things for cat survival are food and shelter. The old idea that every cat must have an owner and a home in order to live a good life is wrong. Some cats are very adapted to living in a home and would not be happy outside, but those cats may represent a minority of the cats that come to public shelters.

The knowledge that outdoor cats, including feral cats, can live good lives slowly seeped into the sheltering world, and in the last few years it has created a revolution in how shelters handle cats. A central component of this revolution is Return to Field (RTF), which was discussed in the first post in this series. In an RTF program, healthy cats found outdoors are sterilized and returned to where they were found. The popularity of RTF with both traditional and No Kill shelters has grown out of our new, shared understanding of the nature of cats.

As with Open Adoption, criticisms of RTF tend to come from people who are not running shelters. People who are running shelters often embrace RTF with joy, because it allows them to stop killing healthy cats, even in shelters that receive large numbers of cats. That, in turn, allows shelters to spend more time and resources on neonatal kittens, sick and injured cats, and owner-surrendered cats. When an outdoor cat is healthy and well fed, as the majority of them are, the cat is obviously getting its needs supplied in its environment. If a cat found outdoors comes into the shelter thin or sick, or is too young to take care of itself, then it is not doing well in its environment and is a candidate for veterinary care and adoption, not RTF.

Most jurisdictions in the United States have a large number of outdoor cats, too many for shelters to successfully place them if all the cats were captured, and it makes no sense to take them into a shelter only to kill them. RTF is another program that strongly appeals to traditional shelter directors, and allows them to start on the road to No Kill.

Other Factors

The three revolutionary new lifesaving concepts discussed above have great appeal to traditional shelter directors, and they can set the stage for traditional shelters to take further steps toward saving all healthy and treatable animals. In addition to the availability of these new gateway programs, there are several other reasons for the recent rapprochement between No Kill and the traditional shelter industry. I will list some of them briefly.

— An important underlying factor in all discussions about sheltering has to be the tremendous fall in shelter intake since 1970. This fall in intake appears to have been brought about by the massive spay-neuter movement that started in the early 1970s, along with an increased trend for people to confine their pets to their home or yard. This fall in intake greatly reduced the number of animals that public shelters are dealing with, allowing them some breathing room to try new things.

— Many shelter workers and directors who lived through the 1970s and 1980s, when pet overpopulation was a real and severe problem, killed lots of animals for time or space. They had to rationalize what they were doing, and it caused many of them to have lasting emotional scars. By the year 2000, the balance between homeless animals and people who were willing to adopt shelter animals was far different from what it had been in 1970, but many people in that older generation of shelter workers did not recognize the extent of the change and continued to believe in 1970s-style operating procedures that were driven by pet overpopulation. Today, most of that generation of shelter workers has retired, and has been replaced by people who do not have those preconceptions.

— Training for shelter directors has improved, and this has led to a realization by both traditional and No Kill shelter directors that working together on regional and national efforts helps everyone. Animal sheltering is a very emotional profession. People who work in animal control see a lot of cruelty, and everyone in the profession deals with homeless animals, some of whom are sick and not treatable or have difficult behavior issues. Today’s most effective shelter leaders keep their emotions in check, and can work with just about anyone if it will help animals. When they must oppose another person or group – for example, in lobbying for a change to an ordinance or state law – they do it on the merits of the issue, without resorting to name calling or righteous indignation. This allows them to build coalitions that can create strong safety nets for pets.

— No Kill advocates are increasingly taking over traditional shelters. In some cases No Kill advocates win a bid for a contract to run the shelter, and in other cases they partner with the shelter to take animals that the shelter can’t place by itself. City and county leaders have seen the success of this public-private model and have increasingly embraced it. When private organizations get involved with public animal shelters, private donations can often be leveraged to increase services at no extra cost to taxpayers.

— Finally, in looking at reasons why we’ve recently seen great progress in reconciling No Kill and the traditional shelter establishment, there is one factor that is hard to quantify but seems very powerful. In the last five years, No Kill’s messaging has changed from predominantly negative to predominantly happy. Today’s most effective No Kill organizations and leaders are upbeat, and project confidence in their mission and their success. This positive outlook encourages volunteers and donors to sign up. It persuades city and county leaders to help. And it sells the public on the idea of shelter adoption as both a good deed and a fun experience.


This blog is the fourth in my series exploring the effects of the recent trend of professionalization in the animal sheltering industry. The fifth and final blog in this series will look at where we’re headed in the future.