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.

Three Waves of No Kill

This is a very exciting time for No Kill advocates because we are entering on a third, and final, stage of No Kill progress.* In just a few years, if things continue on their current path, the great majority of shelters in the United States should be at No Kill or within shouting distance of it. No Kill will be the accepted standard procedure for shelters, whether public or private.

Today, shelters are achieving No Kill (defined as saving all healthy and treatable animals, which typically results in a live release rate of 90% or more) at a pace almost too fast to monitor. We don’t have solid data on the number of shelters in the United States or their live release rates, but my best guess is that there are approximately 3,500 public shelters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if as many as half of those shelters were at an 80% or above live release rate. That’s up from just a few hundred such shelters as recently as five years ago, and only a handful of such shelters 20 years ago.

What are the three waves of No Kill and why should we be aware of them? In order to reform the remaining shelters that have not yet begun the No Kill journey, it’s helpful to know what types of shelters have already made the transition and what types have not. Then we can select tactics to assist the remaining shelters based on their characteristics.

The shelters that still need to change are in a different situation than shelters in the first two waves of No Kill. To understand this, we need to go back and look at how the first and second waves of No Kill communities developed, starting in the late 1990s. In the mid-1990s we had hundreds of individual, private No Kill shelters (they were labeled “limited admission”), but the idea of an entire community being No Kill, including all of its public and private shelters, was very new. It was being promoted mainly by Richard Avanzino, president of the San Francisco SPCA, and a group of advocates led by people like Lynda Foro, Ed Duvin, and Bonney Brown.

The first wave of No Kill was what we might call low-hanging fruit. Many of the first communities to get to a 90% or better live release rate, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, were resort and college towns. Several of these early No Kill towns had advantages such as a highly educated population or a progressive city government. These early No Kill towns were almost all in parts of the United States where cold winters may have helped keep down the number of free-roaming cats and dogs. Florida, for example, appears to have far more outdoor cats than Maine does, although we do not have actual population counts. Examples of No Kill communities from this period are Otsego County (MI), Tompkins County (NY), and several small resort towns in Colorado. It seems likely that some towns in New England met the No Kill definition by the late 1990s and early 2000s, although I have not seen specific documentation of that. The state federation of shelters in New Hampshire reported a combined 80% live release rate around the year 2000, and it seems very likely that some counties and towns within the state were at a 90% or higher rate at that time.

These small first-wave towns may have had populations of animals who tended to be healthier and better socialized than the animals coming into more typical shelters. The fact that these towns tended to be progressive meant that city leaders and citizens were more likely to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, and more supportive of the goal of saving animals. The small size of these communities also made a founder effect possible, where one organization, or even one person, could have a dramatic impact. In Otsego County, for example, which went No Kill in 1999, a “friends of the shelter” group was critical to the shelter’s save rate rapidly shooting up to well over 90% of intake.

The second wave of No Kill began when larger cities, including some very large cities, started No Kill efforts. Large cities took longer to get to No Kill, and there are several possible reasons for that. A large city usually has an animal control system that has been in existence for a long time and has a formal chain of command. This may make change from outside extremely difficult to achieve, and change from inside faces more hurdles. A large city is likely to have a detailed animal ordinance, which may have provisions that hinder some No Kill programs. Shelter intake in a large city may be in the tens of thousands, which makes it difficult for a single person or organization to have an immediate impact. No Kill in a big city may require years of institution-building. The animals coming into a big-city shelter may include many who have been neglected or poorly socialized. There may be higher percentages of dogs raised for guarding homes or fighting, and more confiscation cases.

Whatever the exact reasons, the second wave of No Kill proceeded at a much slower pace than the first wave. Both the first and second waves started in the late 1990s, but the pioneering second-wave cities typically took a decade or more to reach No Kill. No Kill movements started in Austin, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and New York between 1997 and 2003, but it was not until 2011 that the first one (Austin) got to the goal of a 90% live release rate. One mid-sized county – Washoe County (NV), home of Reno – got to No Kill in the mid-2000s, a notable accomplishment and an important step in convincing people that No Kill was possible anywhere.

There were two large cities that started working on increasing live release rates even earlier than the late 1990s, and actually created the model for shelter reform. Those cities were San Francisco and Denver (the metro area, including Boulder). Both cities reported live release rates around 70% in the late 1990s. This was an outstanding achievement at a time when other large cities and metro areas were saving only 25% to 35% of intake on average. The Denver metro coalition was a leader in the use of a cooperative model, and Boulder pioneered the critically important open-adoption concept. Shelter leaders in Denver tended to abjure the “No Kill” term because they felt it insulted workers at traditional shelters, but they were pioneers in using programs that we think of today as No Kill (the hideous pit bull bans in the city of Denver and some adjoining areas are a tragic exception). San Francisco was the most influential of the two cities in promoting No Kill specifically. Richard Avanzino, the president of the San Francisco SPCA, wrote and spoke extensively about the city’s No Kill model in the 1990s and even invited other shelter leaders to the SPCA for workshops.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Avanzino’s work on No Kill at the San Francisco SPCA. In fact, many people date the start of the No Kill movement to 1989, the year Avanzino cancelled the San Francisco SPCA’s contract to do animal control and sheltering for the city. That led to a partnership between the city and the SPCA, which ultimately produced the historic 1994 Adoption Pact. Another 1989 event that is also credited with starting the No Kill movement was the publication of an enormously influential essay called In the Name of Mercy by an animal-rights activist and non-profit consultant named Ed Duvin, in which he argued that the animal sheltering industry was failing to face the ethical implications of killing millions of animals each year.

Today about half of our largest 20 cities are at No Kill or closing in on a 90% live release rate. Most of the rest have active No Kill movements that are making progress. A majority of our progressive small towns and counties are at No Kill. There are entire swathes of the United States where shelters, including public shelters, have a shortage of adoptable dogs. These shelters are saving tens of thousands of pets from other parts of the country each year through transports.

Now that the first two waves of No Kill have crested, and most large cities and progressive small towns are at No Kill or at some stage in the No Kill reform process, what’s left for the third wave? The communities that are not yet on the road to No Kill tend to be small, rural communities that have challenges such as low average income, low average education levels, or a lack of progressive leadership. Some large cities have similar challenges — think of cities like Houston and El Paso, for example. But even large cities that have challenges generally have enough resourceful people and enough donors to get to No Kill.  El Paso has institutions and talented people who are able to push for No Kill change. They have something to build on, and they are making progress, even though it’s slow and difficult. Houston has a group that is moving thousands of dogs out of the city on transport, enough to make a real difference in the save rate of the shelter it’s helping.

It’s different in the third-wave communities. You’ve heard the expression “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” That’s really the situation of the third-wave communities. They tend to have fewer animal-welfare institutions, and may have fewer people who are able to build or lead such institutions. They often have governments that are not progressive and in some cases are not even professional. The type of animals taken in by the local shelter may include many permanent strays, who will be undersocialized and possibly in poor health. Shelter intake may be high relative to the human population due to a lack of high-volume spay-neuter capability. These communities have many needs, and improving the local animal shelter may not rank high on their list. First-wave towns tend to be homogeneously privileged. Second-wave cities are heterogeneous, but have people and resources sufficient to build No Kill. Third wave towns and counties tend to be homogeneously handicapped in resources and human capital.

If we wait for third-wave communities to get to No Kill on their own, it will probably be a long wait. But there is an effective way to help such communities, and that’s for other communities that have already made the No Kill transition to assist them. Towns and large cities in the first two waves of No Kill generally drew on their own talent pools and resources to create No Kill. The third wave of No Kill, by contrast, will feature existing No Kill communities directly helping their resource-poor neighbors get to No Kill. In just the last couple of years we have seen several regional and statewide No Kill efforts start up. Most of these statewide efforts are using a hub-and-spokes approach, where shelters that have already achieved No Kill are mentoring and assisting their neighbors. Examples are Virginia and South Carolina.

The statewide approach in general and the hub-and-spokes approach in particular have several advantages. Shelter directors and government officials may be more likely to accept help and advice from neighbors, because neighbors know what they are facing in terms of climate, terrain, and type of shelter intake. Animal control laws are made at the state level and local ordinances must be consistent with state law, so a neighbor in the same state is already familiar with the legal and regulatory climate. Boots-on-the ground help from a shelter that is geographically close is more feasible due to shorter travel distance — the No Kill South Carolina effort, for example, wants to create a system where no animal will be more than an hour from help. Transport will be a big part of helping third-wave shelters, and transport is easier on people and animals if it is intra-state rather than inter-state.

Animal sheltering has long been a profession where people tend to stay in their own silos. One advantage of statewide and regional animal-shelter collaboration is that it can help break down the silo walls. In Virginia, the state federation of animal shelters has been a big part of No Kill progress, and is one of the leading agencies in the current statewide No Kill effort. Perhaps state federations of animal shelters can take a leading role in other states too. The first two waves of No Kill were primarily about individual communities, but the third wave will be about networking. This will ultimately benefit the stronger communities as well, because a robust network of shelters will be better able to handle big challenges like natural disasters, large confiscation cases, and lobbying for pet-friendly laws.

How long will it take for the third and final wave of No Kill to complete its work? Major organizations and donors, including Best Friends, Maddie’s Fund, and Petco Foundation, are providing a great deal of support for regional and statewide cooperative efforts. The community cat program popularized by the Million Cat Challenge, which will hit its goal very soon, is a dramatically effective way for a No Kill shelter to mentor its neighbors. Transport networks for dogs have greatly expanded in the last few years, and one of the fastest ways to improve live release rates for dogs is to just get them out of the shelter and on transport. Given this momentum, the 2025 goal set by Best Friends may be a reasonable target for achieving a No Kill country. The task seems difficult because the communities that still have high-kill shelters are so lacking in infrastructure and resources. We have a blueprint for solving that problem, though, and an army of dedicated people who are working to get it done as fast as possible.

*NOTE: The “waves” of No Kill progress that I’ve described in this blog do not apply to every single shelter. There are exceptions, and the waves are meant to describe trends, not hard and fast rules. For example, the community that appears to have been the very first in the United States to save all healthy and treatable animals was a small, isolated, non-progressive, non-wealthy county in Utah, the kind of place we would expect to see in the third wave rather than preceding the first wave. It happened in the mid-1980s when Best Friends took over animal care and control for Kane County in Utah, and its town of Kanab, and made them No Kill.

Creating A Safety Net for Pets

An animal shelter is more than just the sum of its internal programs. It’s also a public institution that has an interlocking relationship with its surrounding community. In recent years city leaders have increasingly realized how important it is to have a good animal shelter system that provides a safety net for pets. People today think of pets as family members, and it’s not unusual for families with pets to consider the shelter system in deciding whether to relocate to a particular city or go elsewhere. In much the same way that people with young children avoid cities with bad school systems, people with pets may hesitate to move to a city where their pet could be in danger if it got lost or injured and was impounded at the local shelter. And even if a family is sure that they can keep their own pets safe, they may not want to live in a city where the local shelter is killing adoptable pets.

In a 2014 survey by Boston University, the mayors of 70 U.S. cities were asked to identify the cities they looked to as models of good governance, considering all factors. Of the top ten cities identified in the survey, eight have shelter systems that are at or close to a 90% live release rate, one city is probably there but we do not have statistics for it, and the remaining city has an active No Kill reform effort underway. The mayors identified a “No Kill animal shelter” as one of several policy ideas that they wanted to implement in their own cities. Fortunately, tremendous progress in professionalizing animal sheltering has coincided with the demand for better shelter systems. This blog discusses some of the recent advances that make it possible today for every city to have a great animal shelter.


In the old days, municipal animal shelters had one primary job, and that was animal control. Many public shelters, perhaps most of them, also made efforts to treat the animals in their care humanely, but city and county officials evaluated the success of their animal departments primarily on their ability to protect people from nuisance and dangerous animals. Shelters for most of the 20th century were not a major concern in civic governance, and were too often the place where employees who had failed in other jobs could be put to get them out of the way.

Spaying and neutering of owned pets did not begin to become common until the 1970s, and for most of the 20th century the United States had a severe pet overpopulation problem. The spay-neuter movement (and a concomitant change in people’s attitudes toward allowing pets to run free) caused shelter intake to plunge in the years from 1970 to 2000, to the point where the number of available homes and the number of homeless pets came into much better balance. All at once, it was possible for shelters to begin to think about rehoming their animals rather than killing them. Today, many cities and counties have renamed their shelters to add the word “care,” as in “animal care and control.” Public shelters have increasingly undertaken a duty to provide the best outcomes for animals in their care, not just keep them off the streets. Private-sector rescues and humane societies have increasingly devoted themselves to helping public shelters save as many animals as possible.

This new mission to save as many animals as possible requires shelters that are capable of operating at a much higher level of professionalism. Some changes in shelter operations began to be made as far back as the 1970s, but it has only been in the last few years that the sheltering profession has matured. Animal sheltering today finally has data-driven professional standards and operating procedures to match the level of other civic institutions like public health and law enforcement. Part 1 of this blog series described internal program changes that have recently revolutionized sheltering. This blog looks at changes in the civic milieu that have helped shelters operate more efficiently and effectively, so that they can carry out those programs.

Academic (“Deep Dive”) Reference Materials

Animal sheltering has been virtually ignored by academia, but we are beginning to see hints of change. We now have an online certificate course in shelter lifesaving at the University of the Pacific, taught by Bonney Brown and Diane Blankenburg of Humane Network. We also have textbooks and in-depth guides available on an increasing number of shelter issues. One example is Every Nose Counts: Using Metrics in Animal Shelters, written by veterinarians Janet Scarlett, Mike Greenberg, and Tiva Hoshizaki and published recently by Maddie’s Fund. Every Nose Counts has detailed, cutting-edge explanations on topics like length of stay, capacity for care, and live release rate, written in understandable and practical terms. It is a comprehensive guide that shows how any shelter can gather data and use it to make shelter operations much more efficient and effective. Another example is Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff, a 700-plus page textbook on shelter medicine edited by the ASPCA’s Lila Miller and Stephen Zawistowski. A second edition of this text was published in 2013. Books like these are not only important in themselves, they also help pave the way for sheltering to be taken seriously as a topic for academic publishing in the future.

Along with textbooks on general topics, we are also seeing more and more detailed guides on particular topics in shelter lifesaving. One example is the Alley Cat Allies Shelter Series. This series offers four guides written in conjunction with Humane Network. These guides are exceptionally detailed. The “Saving Cats and Kittens with a Foster Care Program” guide, for example, is 90 pages, with appendices. One would be hard-pressed to think of any aspect or detail of setting up a cat or kitten foster program that is not covered in this guide. Other guides in the series include setting up and managing a cat Help Desk, how to gain community acceptance for a shelter-neuter-return program, and how to get people and organizations involved in TNR programs. The guides are available for free download and in hard copy.

These are just a few examples of the new generation of reference materials that support shelter reform. What distinguishes them from the type of books, brochures, and pamphlets we used to see is the level of detail and the academic rigor of the presentations. It’s only in recent years that No Kill has standardized and professionalized operations to such an extent that experts in the field can write confidently and in detail about procedures that have been proven to work in many different shelters and under widely different starting conditions.


Even with great reference materials available, it can be hard for shelter directors to take the plunge and start making changes. Consultants seem to be particularly valuable in helping directors decide to take that first step on the road to reform. There is a lot of information about No Kill online, and advocates often think that shelter directors should be able to implement No Kill techniques by themselves, simply by being told about the programs. That doesn’t seem to happen very often, though, and those directors who can’t effectively get started on their own can often do excellent work once they have the help of a consultant.

A shelter can’t just be shut down for a few weeks while the director experiments with how to do a community cat program or set up managed admission. A consultant who knows exactly how to implement a program can give the director confidence that it will work and chaos will not be the result. A consultant can also offer solutions in the many cases where a shelter director has implemented a program but did not get the expected results. For example, if a marketing campaign did not raise the number of adoptions, or a spay-neuter initiative did not decrease intake, a consultant can diagnose the problem and offer recommendations to make the program more effective. Consultants can also help with issues that go beyond the usual expertise of shelter directors, such as getting an ordinance revised to allow Return to Field, or getting community acceptance for a managed admission program.

In recent years a few excellent consulting services for shelter reform have been founded, including Humane Network and Target Zero. We still don’t have enough shelter consultants, but they are making a noticeable impact. Several communities that have very successful No Kill shelters got there with the help of consultants. We need more consultants than we have, and we also need ways to offset the costs of consulting. In another blog in this series I will be discussing state and regional No Kill networks. These networks may offer another way for shelter directors to get No Kill consulting.

A New Generation of Shelter Buildings

The first public dog shelter in the United States, founded in 1870, had large pens for the dogs. This arrangement, called “gang pens,” became the standard dog housing for shelters for decades to come. Many shelters in that era did not take in cats, but when they did, the cats were often housed in rooms with open shelves, a kind of gang pen for cats.

A second generation of shelters that were built starting around the mid-20th century used corridor-style housing for dogs and cages for cats. These shelters were designed to deal with pet overpopulation, and they were often ugly concrete-block buildings located near the town dump. Animals typically were not held for very long, and these shelters were designed for efficient processing of the large numbers of animals taken in and killed.

Today we are seeing a third generation of shelter buildings, designed in a completely different way and for a different purpose. Most notably, the third-generation shelter building welcomes the community to come in and meet the animals and participate in everything from adoption events to cat yoga. These shelters are ideally located in high-traffic areas where people shop and play. They are designed to draw in people who might not have thought about visiting a shelter.

The third-generation shelter is highly efficient, but it also places great emphasis on making shelter spaces pleasant for both animals and people, with as much of a homelike atmosphere as possible. The Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center, built at the San Francisco SPCA in 1998, was an early prototype of this idea. It housed animals in furnished rooms, and the entire Center was designed to help prospective adopters imagine how a pet would fit into their own homes. Today’s third-generation shelter buildings have a variety of types of housing, from congregate to solo, with enrichment built in. They also have veterinary clinics in-house, and isolation areas to keep down the spread of disease. Much attention is given to the type of surfaces used and to air exchange and controlling noise and odors.

When a community gets a third-generation shelter, the live release rate often goes up, even if it was already high. One shelter that was struggling to stay at 90% in its old shelter saw its live release rate shoot up to around 95% in its new building. Such shelters can become strong enough to offer assistance to their entire region.

Shelter Medicine

Several of the most effective shelter-management concepts that have become widespread in recent years have been designed or heavily influenced by veterinarians who specialize in shelter medicine. Return-to-Field, managed admission, capacity for care, neonatal kitten programs, and the new generation of shelter buildings would not be what they are today without the influence of shelter veterinarians. Shelter veterinarians are also increasingly influential as consultants for shelter reform efforts.

The first-ever course in shelter medicine was presented in 1999 at the Cornell veterinary college in Ithaca, New York, taught by Dr. Jan Scarlett of Cornell and Dr. Lila Miller of the ASPCA . That same year, the board of the Tompkins County SPCA, which runs the public shelter in Ithaca, made a No Kill declaration and began to improve its live release rate. It’s probably no accident that a city that was at the forefront of shelter medicine was also an early adopter of No Kill sheltering.

Another important step forward for shelter medicine that also occurred in 1999 was a Maddie’s Fund grant for the first shelter medicine residency program. Dr. Kate Hurley was the resident, and she is now head of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Shelter medicine proved to be an immensely popular career choice for veterinary students, and in 2014 it was recognized as a specialty.

Shelter medicine specialists in today’s shelters may be involved in virtually every aspect of operations. We have a shortage today of top-level talent to run shelters, and cities and counties are increasingly looking to shelter veterinarians to run not just the shelter’s medical clinic, but the entire shelter.


High Quality, High Volume Spay-Neuter (HQHVSN) clinics can be a critical part of shelter reform, particularly in places that have a high intake relative to human population. The model for such clinics was created by bringing professional management techniques to a difficult issue – how to make quality spay-neuter services accessible and affordable for pet owners while achieving a high enough volume to control cat and dog populations. For much more on this subject check out Humane Alliance, which has developed a sustainable model for HQHVSN and mentors people who are setting up and operating HQHVSN clinics.


When you look at the innovative inventory-management programs discussed in the first blog in this series, and the new methods of implementing those programs discussed in this blog, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are falling into place. But true professionalization of the animal sheltering system in the United States requires looking beyond the level of the individual community. The next three blogs in this series will discuss how the professionalization of animal sheltering is operating at the national level.


The Professionalization of Animal Sheltering, Part 1: Inventory Management

In the last few years several new programs have become central to the professionalization of animal sheltering. One theme common to those programs is management of inventory. In the old days, directors of traditional shelters complained that they were the victims of the irresponsible public, and that they had no control over the “flood” of animals coming in the door. Today, No Kill and traditional shelters are developing ways of managing the inventory problem, and those methods are rapidly spreading throughout the industry.

Managed Admission

It seems like such a minor thing – asking people in non-emergency situations if they would be willing to make an appointment to bring their pet to the shelter to surrender it, rather than simply dropping the pet off without warning. But this “minor” adjustment in shelter procedures has had huge impact for the many shelters that have tried it. In fact, managed admission is a keystone program for the professionalization of animal sheltering, in that it makes many other innovations and improvements possible. It may be the most effective method of managing inventory that shelters have ever had.

Managed admission affects only the “owner surrender” portion of a shelter’s intake, but owner surrenders are half or more of intake for many shelters. And the other main source of intake, impounds by animal control officers, is more predictable simply because it is limited by the number of animal control officers on duty on any given day.

The most obvious effect of managed admission is that it smooths out peaks and valleys in a shelter’s workload. A shelter director who uses managed admission has a much better idea of how many animals are going to enter the shelter on a particular day, which allows for better planning. Peaks and valleys in intake, such as receiving 30 animals one day and 5 the next, are stressful for staff and for the animals, and make it almost impossible to run a shelter smoothly. This in turn can lead to mistakes and poor customer service. And requiring an appointment to surrender a pet gives shelter staff an opportunity to learn more about the pet, ask for its health records, and find out if there is any way to head off surrender.

A less obvious but perhaps even more important result of managed admission is its effect on the community’s pet owners. Shelters that have implemented managed admission find that it helps to change community attitudes toward pets and make people more responsible. If a shelter treats surrender as a serious business, worthy of an appointment, it discourages people from thinking of their pet as disposable. Another effect of managed admission is that it seems to encourage people to make more of an effort to find a home for their pet themselves. With easy access to social networks today, a person can often find a home for a pet with a friend, neighbor, or family member, and this gives the owner peace of mind as well as being easier on the pet than a trip to the shelter.

In recent years shelters have found that in the case of non-emergency surrenders, many people are happy to help the shelter by temporarily fostering the pet they want to surrender. For example, if a person wants to surrender a litter of 5-week-old kittens, they may be willing to not only get the mom spayed, but foster the kittens for three weeks until they can be adopted. Or, if they have an adult dog or cat to surrender, they may be willing to foster their pet while the shelter helps them find a rescue placement or adoptive home.

One of the improvements that managed admission makes possible is assessment of a shelter’s capacity for care. Knowing a shelter’s capacity for care is essential for deciding how space within the shelter should be allocated. Capacity for care can help guide decisions about the number of veterinary staff that must be on board. It can even affect how successful the shelter’s adoption program will be, since adoption rates go up in shelters that “right-size” their inventories.

Managed admission has been criticized by some traditional shelter personnel who fear that it will lead to increased pet abandonment. That has not turned out to be the case with shelters that have tried it, however. One reason is that shelters generally waive the requirement to make an appointment if it’s an emergency and an owner truly needs to surrender the pet without notice. Another reason is probably that when people are expected to be responsible with their pets, they will be.

A little-noticed but important aspect of managed admission is that it has the power to finally and completely wipe out the distinction between “open admission” and “limited admission” shelters. “Open admission” was never a desirable way to run a shelter. It invites chaos, since it asserts no control whatever over inventory. As discussed in a later blog in this series, managed admission, by offering an improvement over previous admission strategies, is an important aspect of the rapprochement between No Kill and the traditional shelter industry.

Managed admission was one suggestion in the draft California whitepaper, released in 2013, which made 23 recommendations for shelter professionalization. If we wanted to pinpoint the date when the current wave of professionalization of animal sheltering began, the release of this whitepaper in 2013 would be as good a date as any. The whitepaper gathered several revolutionary suggestions together in one document, which was endorsed by HSUS, ASPCA, Maddie’s Fund, and a variety of No Kill and traditional shelters.

Return to Field

Another critical inventory-control program for modern shelters is Return to Field (RTF), also known as Shelter-Neuter-Return, also known as the Community Cats paradigm. This program was tested in the Jacksonville shelter system in the mid-2000s. It came to wide attention in 2013, when it was included in the draft California whitepaper on shelter reform. The wildly successful Million Cat Challenge is built around RTF, and has enrolled hundreds of shelters.

Some people confuse RTF with Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), because both programs involve sterilizing cats and returning them to where they were found. TNR is generally done by volunteers or non-profit organizations, however, and targets feral cats who have caregivers, whereas RTF is done by public shelters and targets unidentified healthy cats of any socialization status found outdoors. In many shelters, healthy, unidentified cats found outdoors make up half or more of the cat population. The implementation of a program that simply sterilizes and vaccinates these cats and returns them to where they were found can have an enormous impact on length-of-stay and live release rates for cats. RTF is a complete game-changer for shelter cats.

Some people oppose RTF because they feel that all cats should be held in a shelter for a week or more to see if their owners will reclaim them. It is very important to give owned cats their best chance at being reunited with their families, but RTF actually gives cats a far better chance to return home than sitting in the shelter. In fact, a scientific study on this issue showed that lost and stray cats are 13 times more likely to return home on their own than they are to be reclaimed in a shelter. Many cat owners do not think to look at the shelter for a lost cat, and if they do look it is likely to be long after the hold period has expired. And many outdoor cats are only loosely attached to their “homes.” They may receive food and some degree of shelter from a family that does not really look on them as an owned pet, or they may have a circuit of homes in a neighborhood that they visit. The reclaim rates for cats in shelters are usually in single digits, even at good shelters that try hard to raise cat reclaim rates. A typical cat reclaim rate is 2-3%.

Not only is holding a cat in a shelter likely to prevent the cat from getting back home, it’s also very bad for the cat. Shelters, with all their noise and activity, are stressful for cats, and stressed cats can get sick. Cats may show behaviors in the shelter that keep them from getting adopted, whereas in a neighborhood or home setting they are tame and friendly. Holding healthy outdoor cats in the shelter is also inefficient, as it takes up space and employee time that could be used in extra care for sick and injured cats and rehoming owner surrenders and kittens. For all these reasons, RTF has proven to be extremely popular and is rapidly being adopted by both No Kill and traditional shelters.


Transport for dogs (and, to a lesser extent, cats) has been around since the 1970s. In recent years, though, transport has become a critical way for shelters to use inventory management at the national level to save lives. Today, public shelters in the northeast, parts of the upper Midwest, most of Colorado, and metro areas in the Pacific northwest routinely have dog shortages, and they rely on transports to meet the demand for pets from people who want to “adopt, not shop.” Many people who come to shelters to find a pet do so because they want to save a life. Transports make this possible in places that otherwise would have a very limited selection of adoptable pets. The sending shelters are communities that have more pets than they can place, so transports very directly save lives. There are no national statistics on the number of shelter pets transported each year, but I would guess that number is currently over 100,000. Colorado shelters alone reported taking in some 35,000 pets from out of state in 2016, a number that has gone up dramatically in recent years.

Transport, like RTF, has been criticized by some. The usual reason for criticizing transports is the argument that no animal should be transported into a community unless 100% of shelter animals within the community are being saved. That criticism has failed to stop transports, possibly because the people involved in transports have seen the positive results for themselves, and possibly because receiving communities generally have very high live release rates for shelter animals. The increasing desire of people to “adopt not shop” shows that people don’t want to buy pets from commercial breeders, but if the local shelter does not have a variety of pets, people may be forced to turn to a pet store or backyard breeder.

As discussed in a later blog in this series, transport may have a very important role to play in the future of animal sheltering. Transports may make it possible for No Kill in the United States to begin to have an international reach.

Saving Neonatal Kittens

With the resources freed up by professionalizing the management of inventory, shelters are able to do more for some of their most vulnerable populations. An example is neonatal kittens. Shelters tend to receive a lot of kittens in the spring and summer months, a period known as “kitten season” in animal sheltering. People may find a litter of kittens near their home and decide to take them to the shelter, not realizing that the mother is probably hiding nearby. Very young motherless kittens require round-the-clock care in order to survive, and they are highly susceptible to disease. Traditional shelters generally euthanized such kittens on intake, because they did not have the resources to keep them alive until they were old enough to be adopted.

Today, progressive shelters are setting up foster networks to save these neonatal kittens. Kittens are highly adoptable if they can reach 8 weeks of age, so caring for neonatal kittens is a great option for people who want to foster but who cannot take on what might be a several-months commitment to an older pet or one with disabilities.

Another option for neonatal kittens is a special medical ward with round-the-clock staffing. One of the major tools in Best Friends’ effort to make Los Angeles a No Kill city is a neonatal nursey. The nursery is the center of an effort that aims to save 3000 neonatal kittens in Los Angeles this year. The Best Friends program uses both fosters and the nursery in its effort to save kittens.

Helping Large Dogs

One of the biggest issues for shelters that are trying to improve live release rates is finding good placements for large dogs with high energy levels or behavior issues. The environment of the traditional shelter works against such dogs, because the typical housing arrangement in a shelter is a noisy kennel surrounded by other dogs. A dog’s behavior and mental status can quickly deteriorate under those conditions. The atypical lifestyle of a dog in a shelter can also mask a dog’s normal behavior, making it difficult for shelter workers to know what type of home would be a good match for each dog.

Large dogs with behavior issues are an inventory concern because they tend to stay in the shelter longer than well-socialized and smaller dogs. In any bell-curve chart of length-of-stay, large dogs with behavior issues are likely to be in the “long tail.” Part of the professionalization of animal sheltering is the realization that this group of dogs requires special programs to reduce their intake and increase their adoptability.

Dogs Playing for Life, a program developed by Aimee Sadler, is an elegant solution for cage stress in dogs. This program gets dogs out of their kennels and into playgroups, where they can have fun, work off excess energy, and learn social skills under the watchful eye of trained facilitators. Playgroups not only help keep dogs mentally healthy, they also help shelter workers get a much better idea of how a dog will behave in a home outside the shelter. Play groups can even help with capacity-for-care issues, as kennel cleaning can be done efficiently while dogs are in their play groups.

A program that can help reduce the number of hard-to-place dogs coming into shelters is Pets for Life, developed by HSUS. This program aims to reduce the number of animals coming into shelters by going into underserved communities and offering free care, including spay-neuter. When outreach efforts have gained the trust of residents, they are much more likely to take advantage of services.

The approach of offering help rather than coercion is being applied to another long-standing problem, dogs kept on chains. Several organizations have begun offering to build fences for people so that their dogs can be outdoors safely, without the dreaded chain.


One of the striking aspects of the programs discussed in this blog is that they are being widely adopted by both traditional and No Kill shelters. That is partly because the programs are so effective that they sell themselves, but it is also because the shelter industry has matured and is now recognized by local governments as an important aspect of civic life and good city management. My next blog will look at some of the new factors at work in encouraging and implementing professionalization in animal sheltering.

The Professionalization of Animal Sheltering: Introduction to Series

In recent years the animal-shelter industry has made giant strides in professionalizing its operations. This blog post is an introduction to an Out the Front Door series about changes in sheltering that are part of that professionalization. The series has five parts:

  1. A look at some of the new programs that have become widespread in recent years and reflect empirical evaluations of shelter lifesaving methods.
  2. A look at new methods of implementing best practices.
  3. A discussion of the historical progress of No Kill in three waves. We are currently in the second wave and beginning to enter the third, and final, wave.
  4. An analysis of the rapprochement between the traditional shelter industry and No Kill.
  5. A consideration of the future of sheltering. Part of the professionalization of animal sheltering is setting long-term goals. What will the shelter of the future look like, and what will be its mission?

As an introduction to this series about professionalizing animal sheltering, I want to set the historical stage with a brief look at the work of Ed Duvin on this issue. Duvin was an animal rights advocate and non-profit consultant, and he saw first-hand the failure of the shelter industry to adopt basic procedures for effective management. In a series of essays written in the 1980s and published in his popular newsletter Animalines, he set out a no-holds-barred critique of the industry’s failure to meet even minimal standards of professionalism.

In a 1984 essay called Hello Out There, Duvin referred to the national animal-welfare organizations as “timid and unimaginative.” He urged the awakening of those “sleeping giants,” and noted that they had “the potential to lead the way if only they were willing to take creative risks and damn the organizational consequences.” In order to do that, “they must begin to ask themselves some agonizing questions about where they have been and where they want to go.”

Duvin continued to criticize the lack of professionalism in the animal shelter industry in essays written over the next five years. In 1989 he published In the Name of Mercy, the essay that is often credited with sparking the No Kill movement. Mercy set forth Duvin’s vision of No Kill sheltering, but the essay also made some very specific observations about the shelter industry’s failure to adopt even minimal professional standards. Duvin noted that in his years of assessing non-profit organizations, he had yet to encounter one that had “a comprehensive performance assessment program to ensure that stringent quality standards are met.” He specifically mentioned the failure of animal shelters to use data to guide their operations, pointing out that they existed in a “statistical nightmare” which made it “literally impossible to draw any conclusions that stand the test of empirical scrutiny.” He argued: “It’s evident that the shelter community either doesn’t know enough or care enough to meet even the most marginal professional standards.”

Change within an industry does not happen overnight, but today, 28 years after the publication of In the Name of Mercy, the shelter industry is making rapid strides in professionalizing its operations. In my interviews with a wide variety of shelter leaders, some consistent themes about this process have emerged, and it is those themes that I present in this series of blogs. My hope is that we can begin to agree on a comprehensive picture of how animal shelters should operate and how they should relate to their communities, both now and in the future.

Know Your LOS

Length of Stay (LOS) is the amount of time that an animal spends in a shelter between impoundment and disposition. It is a particularly important measure for No Kill shelters, but often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. LOS is so important that it ought to be routinely made available by shelters as part of full disclosure, along with their other statistics. Yet it is very rare to see LOS reported. This is partly historical. Back in the days when public shelters had some 5 times higher intake per person than they have today, and there were far more homeless animals in the environment, most shelters set a time limit on an animal’s stay. Today’s No Kill shelters keep an animal as long as they need to. That means that LOS for a given animal can range from as short as 1 day (for a healthy owner surrender who is quickly adopted or diverted to rescue) to 365 days or more.

When the public shelter in a No Kill community has a short LOS, that means the shelter is not only saving all healthy and treatable animals, it (1) is exposing animals to less disease risk, (2) can care for more animals with the same amount of resources, and (3) will have fewer animals developing shelter-induced behavior problems. That makes LOS one of the most powerful predictors of efficient and effective No Kill performance.

Keeping track of LOS can help No Kill shelter directors figure out what programs they need to emphasize to get the best return on lifesaving. For example, let’s say a shelter has the common problem of “too many” pit bulls. As Dr. Emily Weiss points out, longer LOS for pit bulls equals a higher percentage of pit bulls in the dog population at the shelter. If a shelter’s dog intake is 25% pit bulls and pit-bull LOS is twice as long as that of other dogs, then far more than 25% of the dogs in the shelter at any given time will be pit bulls. In that circumstance, a failure to market pit bulls effectively may be the problem. If, on the other hand, pit bulls have the same LOS as other dogs, the shelter’s resources may be better spent on a program like Pets for Life that micro-targets free spay-neuter services for under-served populations.

The usefulness of knowing the LOS is not limited to established No Kill shelters. In fact it may be even more important for shelters that are in the process of making No Kill transitions, because LOS can indicate whether No Kill programs are being properly implemented. If LOS starts to rise significantly during a transition to No Kill, it may be an early indicator of a problem. Finding the problem quickly and fixing it can save the No Kill effort from crashing and burning. A good LOS is important in refuting allegations that a shelter in transition to No Kill is “warehousing” animals. If the shelter director can say that its LOS is average or better for the industry, that’s the very best answer to those critics.

A short LOS can also help increase adoptions, since it can allow the shelter to “right-size” its capacity. It’s important that an adoption venue have the right amount of animals available for adoption. Studies have shown that if a potential adopter has a large number of animals to choose from, it makes it harder for the adopter to make a choice and decide on one particular animal. If the shelter has too few animals the adopter may not be able to find a compatible pet (too few animals is rarely a problem with a public shelter and when it does occur it is easily fixed by transports).

Finally, if you doubt the importance of LOS, think of this: If a shelter can cut LOS in half while continuing to save all healthy and treatable pets, it has the same effect as doubling the size of the shelter. And it does that with no increase in cost or staffing.

There is help for shelter directors who want to know more about LOS. The ASPCA has a series of webinars that go into detail about LOS, and a page that explains the usefulness of distinguishing between average and median LOS. A webinar from Maddie’s Fund discusses how LOS relates to shelter flow-through. The new book Every Nose Counts explains how to use shelter statistics, including LOS, to increase lifesaving. For shelter directors who simply want quick, proven tips to reduce LOS, check out Brent Toellner’s blog on the issue, as well as several articles from Maddie’s Fund.

A Window of Opportunity to Make Houston No Kill

Harris County and the city of Houston have five major intake shelters. In 2005, a city task force reported that annual intake at the five shelters was about 120,000 animals, of whom over 80,000 were killed. Things have improved in Houston since 2005, and the BARC shelter, for example, is doing much better today and is reporting far higher live release rates. But the problem in Houston has always gone beyond the shelters. The city has a large permanent population of stray dogs that do not come into the shelters.

It is unusual for cities to have a permanent population of stray dogs the size of Houston’s. In fact, there seem to be only a few such cities in the U.S., including Dallas and San Antonio, and possibly El Paso and Detroit. In most cities, the large numbers of homeless and feral dogs that were seen in the 1970s disappeared by the year 2000. Most dogs found outdoors today in the great majority of cities are owned dogs who are allowed to roam.

Current intake at Houston and Harris County shelters is at a level where it could be managed with best practices, but current intake does not include the permanent stray dog population. Houston will never be No Kill unless its stray dog problem is dealt with. No Kill means taking care of all the animals in a city, not just the ones who come into the shelters.

South Dallas has the same stray-dog problem as Houston. In a major consultant’s report one year ago, the number of stray dogs in South Dallas was estimated to be almost 9,000. Private donors in Dallas responded to the consultant’s recommendation for a massive spay-neuter effort, and now there are plans to sterilize some 46,000 dogs in South Dallas, owned and unowned, every year for the next three years to get ahead of the problem. Since Dallas has documented its stray dog problem and developed a plan to deal with it, it would make sense to use that plan as a blueprint for Houston too.

Hurricane Harvey has resulted in rescuers scouring flooded parts of Houston and Harris County for stray dogs. This may have reduced the permanent population of stray dogs to a historic low, but the number will rebound quickly if action is not taken. Money will be flowing into the city to rebuild. One of the most cost-effective and sensible ways to rebuild and strengthen Houston’s animal care and control system would be to institute a massive spay-neuter effort, similar to the one taking place in Dallas.

Dallas is roughly half the size of Houston, so a comparable effort at spay-neuter of owned and stray dogs might need to target more dogs in Houston — perhaps as many as 100,000 dogs per year for three years, to match the effort in Dallas. The city might not have the resources to do that many dog sterilizations per year, but if a large sterilization program was combined with a program to catch stray dogs, treat and socialize them as needed, and transport them out of the area, a similar effect could be achieved. That should not be beyond the limits of possibility, given that Houston will be the focus of a gigantic rebuilding and improvement effort in the coming years.

An effort to permanently deal with the stray dog population in Houston and Harris County would require an organization to take the lead. It could be one of the national animal-welfare organizations, or it could be a group of local citizens. Houston already has local organizations that do transport (notably the Rescued Pets Movement) and spay-neuter (Emancipet has a Houston office), so there is existing infrastructure for the effort.

Such an initiative could be paired with transitioning all of the county’s animal care and control facilities to a community cat program. The decreased intake and length-of-stay that a county-wide community cat paradigm would produce would allow the shelters to spend more time and resources on owner-surrendered, sick, and injured cats.

This blog post presents only a rough idea of what a permanent fix in Houston could look like. An effort to transport stray dogs and sterilize up to 100,000 dogs in Houston every year for the next three years would be a heavy lift. Letting this opportunity slip by, though, would allow Houston to continue to be what it has always been — one of the worst places in the United States to be a homeless dog. Change for stray dogs is being accomplished in Dallas, so why not Houston?