The Origins of No Kill in Virginia

I recently posted a blog about Virginia’s new, statewide No Kill effort. Regional and statewide efforts are a big trend in No Kill right now, and there is very often a history to such efforts – they usually don’t just pop up out of nowhere. The history in Virginia is particularly interesting because it traces back to the origin of the national No Kill movement.

No Kill in Virginia had its roots in Richmond two decades ago, when Robin Starr became CEO of the Richmond SPCA. The Richmond SPCA, a non-profit, was founded in 1891. Richmond is an independent city located on the I-95 corridor in eastern Virginia. The city itself is not large, with only some 200,000 people, but the metro area has well over 1 million people. Richmond has a city-run shelter that is known today as Richmond Animal Care and Control.

Starr came to animal-shelter management from outside the industry. Before becoming CEO of the Richmond SPCA, she had a successful practice as an attorney with a large law firm. Like many attorneys, she sought to give back to her community by serving on the board of a non-profit, and she joined the Richmond SPCA board in 1994. A turning point for her and the organization occurred in 1997, shortly before she took over as CEO, when one of her fellow board members gave her a copy of the San Francisco SPCA’s “Our Animals” magazine. The magazine described the historic Adoption Pact that had been signed in 1994 by Richard Avanzino, president of the San Francisco SPCA, and Carl Friedman, head of San Francisco’s city shelter. Since that time, no healthy and non-vicious animal had died in either the city shelter or the San Francisco SPCA, and most of the treatable animals were saved as well.

That was the first Starr had heard of an entire city going No Kill, and she was intrigued. She made a trip to San Francisco and spent most of a day with Avanzino, observing how the San Francisco SPCA worked. She describes this experience as “transformational,” and says that it “changed my perspective on everything.” Avanzino was “incredibly generous” with his time and expertise, and became a mentor for her. She still keeps in touch with him.

At the time that Starr became CEO of the Richmond SPCA, the organization was voluntarily taking on a lot of the responsibilities of local animal control and sheltering in Richmond, without any contract with the city. In San Francisco, the SPCA had for many years done animal control and sheltering under a contract with the city, but that had changed in 1989 when the San Francisco SPCA did not renew its contract. The city then built its own municipal shelter, and the partnership that was forged between the new city shelter and the San Francisco SPCA was key to the increase in lifesaving that had made the Adoption Pact possible. Starr was struck by the contrast between San Francisco, where a successful partnership between the city and the San Francisco SPCA had doubled the resources available for animal care and control, and Richmond, where there was almost no communication between the city and the Richmond SPCA, much less a partnership.

Starr discussed all this with the board of the Richmond SPCA, and they decided to do some strategic planning to develop a No Kill program. This planning took place in 1998 and into 1999. Back then there were few examples to follow in creating a No Kill city, and it was a huge leap of faith for a legacy humane organization like the Richmond SPCA to even consider such a project. Starr began to push back on the city’s view that it was the duty of the Richmond SPCA to take in and kill homeless animals. This pushback resulted in criticism from people who felt that the Richmond SPCA just wanted to force someone else to do the killing. Starr believed that it was up to every organization to chart its own path. If she and the board of the Richmond SPCA believed that killing healthy and treatable animals was morally wrong, then it was their duty to stop killing animals themselves and start working to provide the city with tools to avoid killing entirely.

Starr began discussions with the city of Richmond to get the Richmond SPCA out of the business of doing animal control, and she describes the result as “an avalanche of criticism and hostility” that caught the Richmond SPCA off guard. In fact, the late 1990s were perhaps the peak years of resistance by the traditional shelter industry nationwide to the No Kill philosophy. Many in the traditional shelter industry saw No Kill as an attempt by private humane societies and SPCAs to portray themselves as animal saviors and garner more donations, while leaving it to public shelters, who were not getting any of that money, to deal with pet overpopulation, including killing. Within a few years, though, the traditional shelter industry would begin to understand that No Kill was more than just an attempt to appear virtuous, and attitudes toward No Kill would gradually begin to change. But in the late 1990s it took courage to do what the Richmond SPCA did and follow it through.

In spite of the initial opposition, Starr was very successful in moving Richmond toward the San Francisco model. From 2001 until 2008, the Richmond city shelter and the Richmond SPCA had a formal public-private partnership. The live release rate was 80% for the coalition for 2008. This was one of the highest live release rates in the country at that time for a city of substantial size. The relationship between the Richmond SPCA and the city shelter has had its ups and downs since 2008, but today the organizations are working well together, although they do not have a formal partnership. The live release rate of the Richmond SPCA itself has been over 99% for years. The live release rate for the Richmond city shelter was 90% in 2016.

The Richmond SPCA has made it a priority to help other shelters throughout the state of Virginia, not just the Richmond city shelter. For example, when the new director of the Tazewell County shelter wanted to increase the shelter’s live release rate in late 2015, the Richmond SPCA assisted the effort by pulling animals from the shelter. Last year the Richmond SPCA took in 1369 cats and 995 dogs as transfers from other Virginia agencies.

The Richmond SPCA has helped move No Kill forward in Virginia in other ways too. Starr has worked on statewide issues that were supported by the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies (VFHS). (VFHS first introduced a statewide plan to save all healthy and treatable shelter animals in 2006.) Several people who worked at the Richmond SPCA have gone on to successfully manage their own shelters, including Makena Yarbrough, executive director of the Lynchburg Humane Society, and Denise Deisler, executive director of the Jacksonville Humane Society. Both Yarbrough and Deisler are having impact beyond the jurisdictions of their own shelters. Yarbrough’s shelter is central to Virginia’s current statewide No Kill effort.

The No Kill effort that started in Richmond in the late 1990s is interesting because of its close ties to the San Francisco model, and because of its importance in the early development of No Kill in Virginia. There have been additional important influences on No Kill in Virginia in more recent years. Susanne Kogut played an outstanding role as executive director of the Charlottesville/Albemarle SPCA, which inspired many people when it achieved and maintained a 90%+ live release rate in the mid-2000s. Kogut wrote about the possibility of a No Kill Virginia back in 2011. Some shelters in Northern Virginia, including the ones in Arlington County and Fairfax County, have also been setting high standards for years.

Virginia’s No Kill evolution illustrates the importance of institution-building, which historically was a slow process. If the Virginia No Kill effort achieves its goal of a 90% average live release rate by 2020, it will mark 23 years since Starr took over as CEO of the Richmond SPCA. Today it is possible to build No Kill institutions and cooperative networks much faster than it was 20 years ago, because No Kill is much more accepted today and reformers do not have to reinvent the wheel. The prospects seem excellent not only for Virginia to reach its No Kill goal, but also for the Virginia No Kill experience to be an inspiration to other states.


  1. The Richmond SPCA
  2. Robin Starr with Minnie
  3. Richard Avanzino presenting a Maddie’s Lifesaving Award to the Richmond SPCA

How “Clear the Shelters” Got Started

It was the summer of 2014, and Corey Price had a problem. She had recently taken over as manager of Irving Animal Services (IAS), in the city of Irving, Texas, and the shelter was packed full. Price was determined not to kill animals for space. What to do?

IAS is located in the same building with the DFW Humane Society, and the two organizations work together seamlessly. DFW Humane Society and IAS ran themed adoption events every month, so Price began to think about how she could get more publicity for the August event, which was called Empty the Shelters. She decided to consult with the Irving communications manager, Meribeth Sloan, hoping that they could brainstorm about adoption promotion and come up with something big. Boy howdy, did they.

Sloan told Price that if Price could get several shelters in the area to agree to do a mass adoption event, the local NBC affiliate might be willing to supply free publicity as part of its “Texas Connects Us” initiative. Irving is part of the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area, so Price set to work contacting shelters in that media market, and in two weeks she had recruited 33 shelters to participate, including Dallas Animal Services.

Price and Sloan took their idea to Nada Ruddock, NBC’s vice-president of community affairs for the Dallas metro area, and she quickly approved it. So did Larry Boyd, the Irving police chief at the time. His support was crucial for participation by Price’s shelter, because the plan was to waive fees for the event.

The event was held on Saturday, August 16, 2014, under the name Empty the Shelters, and it was even bigger than expected, with the 33 participating shelters adopting out 2,256 animals. Dallas Animal Services ran out of adoptable pets by 2:30 PM. One shelter adopted out more animals on that day than it had in the entire month of August in the preceding year.

The event went so well, in fact, that Valari Staab, president of NBCUniversal-owned stations, decided that all of its stations would participate in 2015. The first nationwide event was held on August 15, 2015, under the name Clear the Shelters. Over 18,000 adoptions were recorded by some 400 participating shelters from coast to coast. The event took another big leap in participation in 2016, when Clear the Shelters was held on July 23rd. Roughly 700 shelters participated and over 50,000 animals were adopted. The third annual nationwide Clear the Shelters event is coming up on Saturday, August 19th, and indications are that it will be even bigger than last year.

What makes Clear the Shelters so massively successful? The adoption part of the event is pretty standard, with some shelters having a one-day, fee-waived event, while others charge a reduced fee instead of a fee-waiver, or make it a multi-day event. The unique aspect of Clear the Shelters is that the promotion for the event is done for the shelters. All shelters have to do is sign up. And the promotion is done very professionally and effectively, reaching large numbers of people. Not having to worry about promotion makes it an easy decision for shelters to participate. One of the notable things about Clear the Shelters is its appeal to “traditional” shelters, which often don’t have the resources or the flexibility to run their own promotions effectively.

There is also an esprit de corps inspired by Clear the Shelters, perhaps because, although it is a national event, it is implemented at the regional level. When I interviewed Price a few days ago, she said that what moved her the most about the event was the cooperation among the shelters and all the sponsors and volunteers who made the event possible. It’s a real community-building phenomenon. She mentioned that the event gives small shelters an opportunity to get on the radar screen of local residents who never knew they existed. As an example, she cited one tiny shelter in her region, run by a single person and with only 9 kennels, that received a huge boost from Clear the Shelters.

In addition to inspiring shelter workers and volunteers, Clear the Shelters has deep meaning for the people who come to adopt a pet. People are willing to wait in line at busy shelters because they believe in the mission of the event. They want to show their support for saving shelter pets. It isn’t just an adoption of a new family member, it’s doing their part to end the killing of shelter animals. It’s also fun. There is a party-like atmosphere on Clear the Shelters day, and everyone celebrates each new adoption.

The future looks bright for Clear the Shelters to continue to grow. This event is an example of how one person can start out with a goal to save lives, and create something huge by enlisting others who also want to help. Congratulations to Price for lighting the spark of this tremendous event.


  1. Corey Price
  2. Clear the Shelters participants in the north Texas area
  3. Price with Lester Holt
  4. NBC’s Brian Curtis gives a thumbs up for the crowd waiting to adopt on Clear the Shelters day

A New Statewide No Kill Effort in Virginia

A group of experienced No Kill shelter and rescue officials has launched a statewide No Kill effort in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The goal is to have the average live release rate for the state’s shelters reach at least 90% by 2020, and then continue to improve until all adoptable and treatable animals are being saved. Virginia joins Utah, Delaware, South Carolina, and Washington as states that now have No Kill programs. There are other states that do not have a formal statewide program but are already close to or above the 90% mark, including New Hampshire, Colorado, and Maine.

The Virginia No Kill movement got its start when Makena Yarbrough, executive director of the Lynchburg Humane Society (LHS) in Lynchburg, Virginia, heard Julie Castle speak at the Best Friends conference in 2016. Castle urged her listeners to start thinking big, including No Kill efforts for entire regions and states. The speech inspired Yarbrough to start thinking about what it would take to make the Lynchburg region and the entire state of Virginia No Kill.

When Yarbrough returned from the conference, she contacted Debra Griggs, president of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies (VFHS). VFHS is a very progressive organization that works to improve shelters in Virginia, and Griggs was enthusiastic about the idea of a statewide No Kill effort.

Yarborough and Griggs started with an advantage, which is that Virginia is one of the few states that requires public and private shelters and rescue groups to report detailed statistics each year. So they had a database they could use to identify what parts of the state were already doing well and what parts needed help. Yarbrough is on the board of VFHS, and the board had several brainstorming sessions in the fall of 2016. They crunched the numbers and found that the average live release rate for the state in 2015 was 81% (it rose to 83% for 2016). They decided that the fastest way to support progress would be to concentrate on the regions in the state that were doing the worst.

The VFHS board identified two regions where additional resources could potentially have the biggest impact – the southwest corner of the state and the Norfolk/coastal region. LHS is centrally located in Virginia, so Yarbrough took the lead in southwest. Griggs is working on the Norfolk/coastal area. In addition, Yarbrough is working on making the entire region around Lynchburg into a No Kill zone. One of the first necessities for the effort was funding, and Petco Foundation provided a generous grant of $400,000 over two years. LHS has just received the first part of the grant, and is using it to create some of the resources needed to make No Kill sustainable.

The story of LHS’s growth in recent years since Yarbrough took over is a good example of how a No Kill shelter can become strong enough to not only provide a safety net for pets in its own community, but have an impact that extends far beyond that community. When Yarbrough became executive director of LHS in July 2009, it was just another shelter. She got the shelter to a 90% live release rate within a couple of years. Then came a crucial turning point in the history of the shelter, when LHS ran a successful capital campaign and built its new, modern, No Kill shelter.

The new LHS shelter was designed to be a community meeting place, and it has become a destination for residents of Lynchburg and its surrounding counties. LHS has Bow-Wow Fridays, with food trucks in the parking lot. They have cat yoga. Another fun event is the Ping-Pong Palooza, with ping-pong tables all around the shelter, including the cat rooms. You can imagine the possibilities of ping-pong with cats. They have First Fridays, where local artists bring their work, wine is served, and music is played. The goal is to draw people to the shelter who would not normally visit, in the hope that they will adopt now or in the future. These events help brand the LHS shelter as a fun place to visit as well as a great place to adopt a pet.

The broad appeal of the LHS shelter draws in people who would be unlikely to adopt from a traditional shelter, thereby increasing the pool of adopters for LHS pets. The greater demand for LHS pets has allowed LHS to increase its intake by pulling animals from overcrowded shelters in its region. For some time now, LHS has been helping neighboring shelters in this way.

Lynchburg is an independent city in Virginia, surrounded by four counties – Appomattox, Amherst, Campbell, and Bedford. LHS takes cats from the Campbell County shelter, and recently began taking some cats from Amherst County as well. Virginia has a state law that restricts the ability of shelters to do Return-To-Field, which means that providing best-practice services for community cats is difficult. LHS is helping to fill the big gap in the pet safety net created by this law.

But Yarbrough feels that merely helping isn’t enough. So as part of the new No Kill effort, LHS is becoming involved in managing other shelters, not just pulling animals from them. Last January LHS entered into a contract with Appomattox County to run its shelter. Yarbrough regarded this as something of a test case, and it has worked out very well.

On July 1st, LHS took another big step, signing a contract with Pittsylvania County (south of Lynchburg, on the North Carolina border), to run its new shelter. Previously, Pittsylvania County had been sending its animals to the Danville Area Humane Society in the city of Danville. The Danville shelter has a very low live release rate, especially for cats. Yarbrough’s hope is that the new Pittsylvania County shelter, run by LHS, will be able to attract owner surrenders from Danville and take some of the load off that shelter, in addition to doing No Kill sheltering for Pittsylvania County’s animals.

With this background of regional impact, Yarbrough has been able to take some first steps in helping the southwest area of the state, one of the two regions identified by the VFHS board as most in need of assistance. Since February of this year, LHS has been part of an innovative program to transport cats from Wise County, in southwest Virginia, to Washington, DC, for adoption. The northern Virginia area (NOVA), just south of DC, has been doing extremely well and has many high-functioning shelters. This allows NOVA shelters and rescues to transport at-risk animals in for adoption. One such effort is run by Homeward Trails, which supplies cats for a cat café in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC.

Southwest Virginia would seem like a logical source of cats for Homeward Trails, but one problem is that cat cafés need socialized cats who will interact with humans and tolerate being fussed over. They also need fully vetted cats. Yarbrough solved that problem by making the LHS shelter a pit stop and transfer station for cats from southwest Virginia to Homeward Trails. LHS sends cats to Homeward Trails who have spent time in the LHS cat rooms and are highly socialized, and keeps the Wise County cats to do vetting and socialize them. VFHS and Homeward Trails have also sponsored a visit by Alley Cat Allies to southwest Virginia for an informational meeting on how to help community cats.

The Virginia No Kill initiative, although it is new, has a great chance to have a major impact on the state. It is building on years of work by LHS and VFHS, and they have resources in place. The VFHS wing of the statewide No Kill effort is called “SaveVaPets – Crossing the No Kill Finish Line.” Yarbrough has founded No Kill Virginia (NKVA), which she hopes will help brand the project. The strength of this initiative can be measured by how much it has accomplished in just one year since Yarbrough first conceived the idea. It has already made measurable progress in several counties, with plans in place to help additional cities and counties. This impressive No Kill plan is yet more evidence that regional and statewide efforts are one of the most effective current trends in No Kill.

American Pets Alive Conference, Now Better Than Ever

Back in 2010, the city of Austin started making national news as its animal shelter neared the goal of reaching a 90%+ live release rate. A local non-profit named Austin Pets Alive! (APA) that worked with the city shelter was thrust into the media spotlight. APA was central to Austin’s No Kill effort, and people from all over the country started contacting them and asking about the lifesaving programs they had pioneered.

Dr. Ellen Jefferson, the executive director of APA, realized that they did not have enough staff to offer consulting to all the people who wanted and needed it, so she started the American Pets Alive! (AmPA) conference. From the first, this conference has emphasized tactics. Although concepts are discussed, the main emphasis has been to show participants how to do things. The conferences have been small, from 100 to 300 participants, which made this approach feasible. The conferences generate a lot of enthusiasm — this photo is from the 2016 conference:

The tactical approach has worked well in helping people solve specific problems they are experiencing in their communities. Jefferson recalls the story of one shelter director in a large city who was discouraged and on the point of resigning when he attended the AmPA conference. He had actually drafted his resignation letter. After the conference, he deleted the letter and decided to stay at his shelter and keep fighting. He was able to effectively present a new lifesaving plan to city officials, leading to the removal of roadblocks that had previously stymied progress. Today the shelter he headed is a success story, saving around 90% of intake. He says that the AmPA conference “changed my life.”

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Jefferson about what’s new and different with the 2017 conference. This is the 8th annual AmPA conference, and it will be held in Austin on September 23-25. AmPA is making important innovations this year to make it even easier for people to get the tactical knowledge they need to save the largest possible number of animals in their community. The entire conference will be set up to help people identify the areas they need to focus on, then drill down in those areas using small-group consultations with experts.

Every person who attends a conference comes from a unique situation. Although there are issues that all shelters tend to have — such as getting buy-in from stakeholders to make changes at the shelter, finding resources for veterinary care and pet retention, dealing with community cats, or helping large dogs with behavior problems – the solution to each of these issues may be different from one place to another due to the starting situation. What works in one community might not be the right solution for another community.

The AmPA conference this year will feature a “gap analysis” on the first morning of the conference, right after the introductory presentation. The purpose of the gap analysis is to help each member of the audience identify what groups of animals are not safe in their community and why. Some cities might still be killing cats in large numbers, for example. A failure to have an effective community-cat program could be due to local ordinances, or opposition from bird conservation groups, or a lack of veterinary support. Another city might be doing well with community cats, but falling short in adopting out large dogs. The causes might range from inability to market the dogs to a lack of training resources to a lack of shelter enrichment programs. Yet another city might be losing a high percentage of neonatal kittens due to inadequate disease-prevention protocols, lack of a nursery program, or a lack of fosters.

When people come to a conference they sometimes choose sessions to attend based on their interests rather than their needs. For example, an attendee might have a great community-cat program in her city that is saving 95% of the cats, and her interest in that program might cause her to select sessions on community-cat programs. But the real need in her community might be large dogs. If the large-dog save rate is low, then there is a big gap in the community’s safety net that needs to be fixed, and her time might be better spent attending large-dog sessions. The AmPA “gap analysis” presentation can also help people identify groups of animals that they might not have even realized could be saved, like parvo puppies. The photo is of a puppy who was saved by APA’s parvo program.

After the gap analysis, conference participants will attend panel discussions with directors of successful No Kill shelters. Most of these directors are saving around 95% of intake, including pit bulls and owner-requested euthanasias. Shelters face different issues depending on the size of their communities, so this part of the conference features four panels, each representing a different intake level. The intake-level breakdowns are: under 2000, 2000 to 5000, 5000 to 12,000, and over 12,000. These panels will zero in on the critical factors that allowed the directors to attain their high save rates. This part of the conference is designed to help attendees understand what is possible in today’s best shelters, through partnerships with non-profits and through their own programming. The panels are also designed to help everyone, whether affiliated with a shelter or not, learn about the distinct needs that communities have based on their shelter intake levels.

In addition to presentations and panels, the conference has workshops and a brand-new type of session called “master classes.” The master classes are small groups, led by experts, designed to help people identify and solve problems that are holding them back. One issue with traditional presentations is that the problems and solutions discussed may not fit the specific situation of each attendee. The master classes deal with that issue by offering a very granular level of advice. For example, a participant might ask for help with a city council member who opposes return-to-field (RTF). If the “master” offers a suggestion and the participant says they tried that and it didn’t work, the master can ask follow-up questions and then suggest other ways to approach the problem. The AmPA conference this year will have ten master classes: fundraising; animal control in No Kill communities; political issues; saving large dogs; starting a lifesaving organization; bottle-baby kittens; marketing; volunteer and foster programs; dog behavior; and cat lifesaving.

In addition to emphasizing specific topics, the conference has several tracks. A new track this year is on the emerging issue of how to create a safety net that protects all pets in the community, not just the ones who come into the shelter. APA and the city of Austin have been successful at creating a No Kill city shelter, and now they are working on taking that lifesaving to the entire community. As part of this effort, animal control officers in Austin have a new way of measuring their performance based on their effectiveness in the community. They do town halls throughout the city, and bring resources to people who need them. The idea is to reach out to the community and stop problems from developing, not just deal with problems that have already developed. A community safety net must include robust pet-retention programs at the shelter too, of course, and the Austin city shelter has made its intake area into a pet resource center. Intake workers do a lot of counseling rather than just processing.

Maddie’s Fund has been a sponsor of the AmPA conference the last couple of years, and at this year’s conference they will offer presentations as part of the development track. Fundraising and marketing are important areas of focus at AmPA conferences, and Maddie’s Fund, as the recipient of many grant requests from shelters and rescue groups, has insights they can share on making effective grant applications. Maddie’s Fund will also be sharing success stories resulting from their “innovation” grants earlier this year. Best Friends is a sponsor as well, and will have representatives speaking in some sessions at the conference.

Maddie’s Fund is a primary sponsor of APA’s training academy. Dr. Jefferson sees the training academy as a logical next step for people who have attended the AmPA conference and want in-depth experience in some aspect of sheltering. Apprenticeships in the training academy, which are supported by Maddie’s Fund, offer 3 to 5 days of work on specific shelter programs. Examples are the Bottle Baby Nursery, Parvo Program, and Barn Cat Program. Maddie’s Fund also supports two fellowships, where future leaders in the shelter industry receive training from APA’s executive team and Austin’s Chief Animal Services Officer, Lee Ann Shenefiel, and her executive team. It can be hard for a city to find good No Kill leadership, and these fellowships are designed to help solve that problem. One project by the current fellows is to write a whitepaper documenting how Austin’s public-private system works, with enough specificity that other cities can use it as a model.

Dr. Jefferson notes that the AmPA conference is designed from the ground up for people who have already made a commitment to save every savable animal in their community. To her, that means striving for a save rate well over 90%, and the conference provides the tools to do that. Although the conference in the past has generally not exceeded 300 attendees, they are expecting over 400 this year, and the venue can accommodate a higher number if needed. We in the No Kill movement are fortunate to have several yearly conferences that offer great networking and educational opportunities. It’s exciting to see the continued effort to find better ways to help people throughout the country who are creating No Kill in their communities.

A New Statewide No Kill Effort Launches in Washington

I recently had the opportunity to interview Jeanine Foucher, executive director of Pet Net Washington (PNW). PNW is a grant-making organization, founded by Hans and Cindy Koch, that is launching a No Kill effort in the state of Washington (Foucher is center in the photo, with the Kochs). Several states are No Kill or making rapid progress toward No Kill based on statewide efforts, including Utah, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Delaware.  It’s exciting to welcome Washington to this group.

An interesting thing about these statewide efforts is that each of them uses a somewhat different methodology. PNW’s plan for Washington is based on two important operating principles. First is to gather and analyze data in the state to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each area’s safety net for pets. Second is to use that data to facilitate programs and networks within the state to bring up live release rates in the areas that are not saving all their healthy and treatable animals.

An example of how this works is shown by one of their grants. There are areas of Washington that are doing very well in helping homeless companion animals, and other areas that do not even have animal control officers or shelters. In one of the areas with no shelter and minimal animal control, a man and his wife were trying to help homeless dogs by taking them in, giving them vaccinations, and transporting them to No Kill shelters. PNW’s data study had identified their area as one of the ones most in need of help, and the Kochs and Foucher contacted the couple and learned how they were preparing dogs for transport. PNW was then able to help the couple in two ways – one by purchasing a transport van and donating it to their organization, and the other by making contacts for them with some of the larger No Kill shelters in the state that, after hearing from PNW about the couple’s careful preparation of dogs for transport, were eager to help them by taking in their dogs.

Although PNW was just recently founded as an organization, its statewide No Kill vision dates back several years, when the Kochs were inspired by the example of Best Friends and Maddie’s Fund. In 2014 Foucher completed a “landscape analysis” for the Kochs of services for homeless pets in Washington. The analysis broke the state into ten regions, eight of which were visited and analyzed. It illustrated the wide variations in the state in resources and services for homeless pets.

The 2014 study made it clear that a sustainable statewide No Kill effort would need to find a way to provide help to the underserved areas. One way to do that would be recruiting help from the high-performing parts of the state to assist areas that have few resources. More granular data was needed for this project, though, so Foucher spent 2016 collecting and analyzing 2015 data from over 120 organizations in the state. Almost 70 of these were animal-welfare organizations and the rest were low-cost spay-neuter providers. She used the Basic Data Matrix for shelter statistics, the same form used by Shelter Animals Count.

Foucher, with assistance from Best Friends, produced infographics based on the 2016 analysis. The infographics included maps of live release rates for cats and dogs in 2015 for the entire state. Three things were immediately apparent from these maps – the state is doing far better with dogs than with cats (the statewide live release rate for dogs was 89% in 2015 but only 77% for cats), there are surprisingly large areas of the state with too few services to quantify, and the configuration of high-performing areas of the state is such that most low-performing areas are reasonably close to a high-performing area. (The northeastern part of the state is geographically isolated, and travel may be over mountain passes.)

PNW is using Foucher’s 2016 in-depth data analysis to plans its initiatives. One emphasis will be community cat programs. PNW recently funded a TNR program that they hope will grow to include a return-to-field program, and they want to facilitate more such programs. PNW’s data analysis could also be used to help create high-tech resources for making sure that dogs and cats can be transported effectively and efficiently.

PNW is a grant-making organization, not a shelter, so they are reaching out to shelters and to other funders in the hope that they can create cooperative networks. These networks might function something like the “hub” concept used by No Kill South Carolina. That could be an effective way to deliver help to areas that need it the most.

Rescues are important to hub-type networks and to cooperative efforts between a public shelter and its community. Larger rescues can also “stand in” to a certain extent for shelters in parts of the state that lack them. One of Foucher’s maps shows the location of high-volume rescues in the state:

The hub concept can also lend itself to mentoring. Many times, shelter directors are interested in new concepts or new ways of operating but do not feel that they can take the risk of making major changes. Shelters cannot just shut down to re-tool, and directors may want evidence that a change will improve their shelter before proceeding. Mentoring by the director of a nearby No Kill shelter can make all the difference in helping a traditional director decide to make the jump.

Cooperative networks can be invaluable in the dreaded situation where a shelter gets inundated with animals from a hoarding or puppy mill or dog-fighting situation. In those cases, the problem is not only the numbers, but also the fact that the animals may need extensive rehabilitation. A network of shelters and rescues that have each other’s backs can help manage such emergencies.

Another priority for PNW is spay-neuter services. The in-depth 2016 data analysis allowed them to calculate shelter intake per 1000 people in each county where data is available (see infographic below). By matching this information with the data PNW has on existing spay-neuter programs, they can target the areas of the state most in need of additional spay-neuter services. This information will also be helpful in setting up transport networks.

The Washington state No Kill effort is just beginning, but its data collection and analysis is impressive. Foucher will soon be making a presentation to the Washington Federation of Animal Care and Control Agencies, and hopes that this will lead to opportunities for building cooperative networks and launching programs to bridge the gap between the resource-rich parts of the state and the resource-poor areas. Foucher is willing to advise others who may want to do a similar data analysis in their own state, and she can be contacted through PNW. Those of you who want to keep up with PNW and their efforts to make Washington into a No Kill state can follow the organization’s Facebook page.

Anderson County’s No Kill Transition

Anderson County, South Carolina, is in the western part of the state, bordering Greenville County. It is located on the I-85 corridor between Charlotte and Atlanta – a corridor that is expected to see major growth in the future and is already seeing progressive change. The county has about 200,000 people. Anderson County P.A.W.S. (Pets Are Worth Saving) is a government-run shelter that serves the entire county.

Last fall some important changes were made in the operation of the shelter. Target Zero did a consultation. The county shelter was moved to the Public Works department following pressure from citizens about the quality of oversight. And veterinarian Kim Sanders was hired as interim director (later made permanent) in October. At that time, the live release rate at the shelter was 42%. I recently had the opportunity to interview Sanders, and she told me about some of the changes she has made to the shelter’s operations. The changes have been dramatically successful and the shelter’s live release rate is running at 92% so far in 2017.

Sanders, before becoming director of the shelter, worked at the Anderson County Humane Society’s high-quality, high-volume, spay-neuter (HQHVSN) clinic. About seven years ago when the HQHVSN clinic was opened, intake at the county shelter was around 14,000 animals per year. By 2016, intake had plummeted to 7,311 animals. Sanders was therefore aware of the importance of spay-neuter when she started her new job as shelter director, and one of her first initiatives was to start sterilizing all cats and dogs before they left the shelter.

That included community cats. With Target Zero’s help (including revision of a county ordinance), Anderson County P.A.W.S. started a Return-to-Field (RTF) program that sharply reduced the number of cats held at the shelter for adoption. Usually when a shelter starts an RTF program it must find a veterinarian or clinic that can sterilize all the cats. The Anderson County shelter did not have money appropriated for that, so Sanders does the surgeries herself. She did almost 300 such surgeries last month.

The program is for healthy, apparently unowned cats found outdoors, and most of the cats they get go into the program. The shelter has a part-time person who picks the cats up in the afternoon after their surgeries and returns them to their territory. They have had a good deal of success in asking people who drop off cats if they will come back and get the cats themselves, and close to 60% agree. Owner surrenders, declawed cats, kittens, and highly adoptable cats are held for adoption. Sick and injured cats are treated.

When I asked Sanders what one program had made the most difference in their turnaround, she named managed admission. The shelter requires an appointment for owner surrenders. Exceptions are made for injured animals, who are taken in immediately, and strays brought in by residents are also taken without appointment. The shelter accepts surrender of owned animals two days a week. Although there were a few complaints about the program at first, people in the county adjusted quickly to the idea that the shelter was no longer a place to casually drop off a pet.

The concept of managed admission is sometimes criticized on the ground that it will result in increased pet abandonment, but the experience in Anderson County shows that managed admission has the opposite effect. When officials expect people to take responsibility for their animals, people will live up to that responsibility. No Kill advocate Craig Brestrup argued in his 1997 book Disposable Animals that when shelters take in animals on demand with no questions asked it actually encourages people to regard their pets as having little value. By contrast, when shelters ask people to help them help their pet, most are happy to make an appointment.

The managed admission program allows shelter personnel to communicate with an owner before a pet is surrendered, and that can help the shelter keep pets in their homes when possible. If someone wants to surrender an animal because it needs veterinary treatment that the owner cannot afford, or if there is a behavior problem, the shelter can often help the owner fix the problem and head off surrender. A local non-profit called Freedom Fences can work with people to get their dogs off chains.

One part of Anderson County’s managed admission program is to ask people who want to surrender litters of puppies and kittens to keep them and care for them until they are old enough to be adopted. Sanders reports that most people readily agree to this, and that it has been a “complete game changer” for the shelter. The shelter provides supplies and support for the caregivers. This program not only reduces length of stay and demands on shelter staff, it also keeps puppies and kittens out of the shelter during the time they are most vulnerable to infections.

Pet retention, sterilizing animals before adoption, treating sick and injured animals, and providing supplies for fosters are all programs that cost money. The shelter has not received additional funds yet, but Sanders is hoping to see an increase in its budget next year. She has been able to make ends meet so far, due to a decrease in the number of animals in the shelter and reduced length of stay.

An important change that occurred around the time Sanders became director was moving the shelter to the Public Works division under the management of Holt Hopkins. Animal shelters are a unique government service, and sometimes the method of management of a particular county department might not mesh well with the needs of the shelter. Directors who want to make big changes in shelter operations need to have authority to act on their own, and to act on short notice. A change from one department to another can have a good effect if it allows the director more flexibility in operations.

Another important change in operations at the shelter has been an emphasis on working with rescues. Locally, the shelter works with Day Before the Rainbow, Lucky Pup Rescue, Low Country Lab Rescue, and Carolina Poodle Rescue, among others. Two large organizations from the northeast, All Breed Rescue and St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, send vans to the shelter once or twice a month to pick up dogs and cats for transport.

South Carolina has an ambitious statewide No Kill effort called No Kill South Carolina (NKSC) that is spearheaded by the Charleston Animal Society. The operating plan for the effort is to establish several “hubs” in the state that can offer advice and resources to nearby shelters. NKSC wants every shelter animal to be no more than one hour away from help. Anderson County P.A.W.S. joined NKSC in December 2016 and very quickly became a provider of help. The shelter has been called in to assist Abbeyville County, and took in animals from a hoarding case.

Sanders projects confidence and competence, but she admitted that even she was surprised by how quickly the shelter improved. She credits the successful turnaround to a great staff, the pride and interest that the community took in the shelter, and support from the county council. As she says, it was a whole group of people coming together to do the right thing for the animals. Sanders believes that Anderson County P.A.W.S. is proof that any community can become No Kill if they have the commitment to do it.

Catching Up with Humane Network

In the last few years we’ve seen a welcome and much-needed increase in the number of shelter consultants. We now have a wide variety of consultants — everything from individuals who do consulting on an ad hoc basis, to organizations with several people who provide a range of services, to firms that can do large-scale projects. We have specialists such as shelter-medicine and shelter-building consultants, and generalists who offer a complete shelter makeover. Some consultants do a one-time appraisal, while others may offer formal or informal arrangements with shelters to help shepherd them through making changes. There is enough variety in consultants to fit every situation.

Humane Network is a mid-size consulting group that provides a wide range of services. Not long ago I had a chance to chat with Bonney Brown, president and principal consultant of Humane Network, and catch up with her on the organization’s latest activities. One exciting project they recently completed, funded by Maddie’s Fund, was a study for shelter lifesaving in an entire state.

Statewide shelter reform is a noteworthy recent trend. We have such efforts underway today in Utah (led by Best Friends), South Carolina (led by the Charleston Animal Society), and Delaware (led by the state Office of Animal Welfare and Brandywine Valley SPCA).

One of the first steps for Humane Network in their evaluation of the statewide lifesaving project was a feasibility study. Humane Network consultants identified the relevant organizations in the state, including non-profit shelters and animal-control agencies, and did 71 interviews. According to available statistics, the state’s shelters are currently saving over 80% of dogs and 60% of cats. There are some gaps in services. Some parts of the state have no private-practice veterinary clinics that handle small animals. A few counties have no animal shelter, and several have no rescues with an online presence.

Uneven distribution of services is an issue for shelter reform in many states. Often the most urbanized parts of a state have a good level of services for shelter animals. In rural counties, though, the lack of basic institutions such as shelters, small-animal veterinarians, and rescues presents a major challenge to lifesaving. Part of Humane Network’s evaluation was to develop ideas to help counties that currently have little to build on. Bonney believes that MASH-style clinics and mobile units could be part of the answer for the lack of veterinary services in under-served counties. Additionally, they are recommending the creation of a robust statewide network of volunteers with the goal of developing a shelter-less safety net for animals in rural areas.

Humane Network has been working on a dizzying array of other projects in addition to the statewide feasibility analysis. A common complaint among animal-shelter administrators is that it is hard for shelters to recruit top talent for leadership positions. Bonney and Diane Blankenburg, CEO and principal consultant of Humane Network, are addressing that situation by teaching a certificate program in Animal Shelter Management at the University of the Pacific. The program, which was launched in 2013, currently has several animal shelter directors (nonprofit and animal services) enrolled, along with shelter staff, rescue group leaders, and people seeking to break into the field. This will be their largest graduating class yet, with over 50 people enrolled. The certificate course recently received help from Maddie’s Fund to expand to year-round, so that students can start the course series in either the spring or the fall. Maddie’s is providing scholarships for current students and internships/externships for graduates.

Humane Network also works with individual shelters to increase their live release rates. Humane Network was called in for ongoing consulting on El Paso’s ambitious shelter-reform program, for example. Sometimes individual shelters can obtain grants to defer the cost of consulting. Petco Foundation, Alley Cat Allies, Maddie’s Fund, and the Banfield Foundation have supported recent consulting projects for shelters.

Shelters may retain Humane Network for specific purposes short of a full consultation. Bonney says that shelter assessments and training are probably the most common issues for which shelters seek consulting. Executive recruitment is another common issue. Humane Network is sometimes called on to help ensure that reform efforts are sustainable. And last year Humane Network worked with multiple humane organizations, including Alley Cat Allies, when Louisiana was devastated by flooding. The photo is of Wendy Guidry of Feral Cat Consortium of Louisiana, Clay Myers of Alley Cat Allies, and Diane Blankenburg helping out in Louisiana.

In addition to Bonney and Diane, Humane Network offers the services of several people who have expertise on particular issues. Those people include Mitch Schneider, former manager of Washoe County Regional Animal Services, and Kelley Bollen, who is an animal behaviorist. Other key people are Laurie Daily-Johnston, who assists with research and is the teaching assistant for the online shelter management course; Don Jennings, who assists organizations with fundraising and program development; Dr. Linda Harper, who provides training on compassion fatigue; and Julie Snyder, who manages research and logistics. Denise Stevens (at Nevada Humane Society), Abigail Smith, and Tiffany Barrow work with Humane Network on an ad-hoc basis.

Bonney has been involved in shelter lifesaving and reform since the early 1990s, and I asked her how she sees the historical arc of progress. She answered that she believes the principles behind the movement to save all healthy and treatable animals have now been widely adopted, and that most animal-protection professionals believe in the goal and believe it is achievable. She characterized this as a “dramatic” change since the early 1990s, and says that today everyone is “so busy working that we don’t always stop to take a look at that and appreciate how really far things have come and the great progress that’s been made.”

One perennial challenge to improving shelter lifesaving is the large dog with behavior issues. Bonney likes a concept suggested by Aimee Sadler for regional rehabilitation organizations that could pull such dogs from shelters. Hyper-energetic, hard-to-train, or fearful dogs who might deteriorate or not get the consistent attention they need in a busy shelter environment could be handled and prepared for adoption much more effectively in training centers devoted solely to their needs. The often-chaotic conditions in a busy municipal shelter can undo any progress made in a training session as soon as it is done, because the environment cannot be controlled. In a well-designed facility dedicated to rehabilitation this would not be an issue. An added benefit would be that staff at a specialized rehabilitation center would have more time to interact with potential adopters, instruct them in how to keep up a successful training regimen, and serve as a support system for the new owner.

In winding up our conversation, Bonney observed that one of the reasons consulting is important is that the situation of each shelter is different. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. One shelter manager may be dealing with high intake, whereas the major problem for another shelter might be lack of a good marketing program. The manager of a county shelter might be coping with reluctance on the part of county management to consider alternative ways to deal with feral cats. A consultant can look at the entire situation and tailor a plan that allows the shelter to find additional resources and to use its existing resources more efficiently. Humane Network also emphasizes the importance of providing tool kits and templates to their client organizations to make change easier and more sustainable.

Humane Network is staying very busy these days, and that is a good sign. The popularity of consultants is evidence that the shelter industry is embracing change. Consultants can help animal-protection organizations and individual shelters see the big picture and stay in the forefront of progress.

Target Zero’s Kentucky Initiative

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Sara Pizano and Cameron Moore, the principal consultants for Target Zero (TZ). A lot has happened since I last spoke with them a year ago, including a very exciting new project in Kentucky that is already showing encouraging results.

TZ’s business plan is to help open-admission shelters adopt best practices that will allow them to save all of their healthy and treatable animals. TZ is donor-supported, which allows it to offer shelter consulting at no charge. TZ received a grant not long ago from Maddie’s Fund for $750,000 over three years, and they also receive additional funding from other organizations. Consultations are designed to increase live release rates for both dogs and cats, but in many cases Pizano and Moore find that shelters need more help initially with cats.

TZ is a strong supporter of the “community cat” method of dealing with healthy cats. In this method, healthy cats found outdoors who have no identification are spayed or neutered, given a rabies vaccination, and returned to where they were found. This type of program has become very popular. Scientific studies have shown that lost cats are 13 times more likely to be reunited with their owners if they are left alone than if they are taken to a shelter. And many unowned outdoor cats, both feral and tame, have adequate sources of food and shelter and are doing very well on their own. The last thing they need is to be impounded.

There is quite a demand for TZ’s services. In fact, so many shelters want to consult with TZ that Pizano and Moore are currently booked until August. They are hoping to bring an additional consultant onboard soon to avoid an extended backlog. In order to help the maximum possible number of animals with the resources they have, Pizano and Moore ask managers of smaller shelters who are interested in consulting to recruit neighboring shelters to participate in a regional effort. Their work in Kentucky is an example of this approach. It has shown not only better efficiency, but also tremendous synergy arising from cooperation among stakeholders in the communities.

Kentucky has been slow in making progress with shelter lifesaving. The state has a shelter-standards law setting minimum levels of care, but a recent study showed widespread violations of the law. Shelters in the state commonly have problems placing all the animals they receive, and many shelters rely on transports to other states. The new TZ effort is possibly the most ambitious attempt yet to change that picture and bring best practices to Kentucky shelters.

Two years ago TZ did a spay-neuter assessment for northern Kentucky. The study was for both cats and dogs, but when they analyzed the results they realized that one of the fastest ways to improve outcomes in the region would be a community cat program. The Joanie Bernard Foundation, which makes grants to feline-welfare organizations within 100 miles of Cincinnati, Ohio, was a potential source of funds for a community cat program, but  there was no obvious way to disperse a grant to the entire area that needed to be served.

Kentucky has county-based regional development districts that range from 8 to 15 counties each and are run by county representatives. One of them is the Northern Kentucky Area Development District (NKADD). Until recently, NKADD was solely devoted to providing services for helping humans in its eight counties. Animal shelters were not on its radar screen. That all changed when Target Zero got involved.

Pizano and Moore knew that the NKADD had a non-profit arm. They came up with the innovative idea of having the NKADD be the recipient of the grant money and then make the money available in the counties for the community cat program. The parties readily agreed, and the Joanie Bernard Foundation granted $500,000 dollars to the NKADD’s non-profit arm.

Of the eight counties in the NKADD, four — Kenton, Boone, Grant, and Campbell — have open-admission county shelters that take in both cats and dogs. The other four — Carroll, Gallatin, Owen, and Pendleton — have county shelters that take in only dogs. Grant County has had a live release rate of over 90% for some time, but the other county shelters had a wide range of live release rates, some of them quite low. The new community cat program had to be designed to deal with the situation in each of these counties.

One of the first challenges was making sure that legal barriers to the community cat program were removed. Boone, Kenton, and Campbell had ordinances that prohibited some aspects of the community cat program. Local ordinances are unfortunately a barrier to modern cat programs in many places. Pizano and Moore often face this situation and are accustomed to dealing with it. Within a month after starting the Kentucky project, they had succeeded in getting the three counties to update their ordinances.

Pizano and Moore have been successful so far in all 12 of the communities where they have tried to update ordinances, and they are now working on their 13th ordinance, in Lafayette, Louisiana. Their approach is to demonstrate to local leaders that the new community cat paradigm has been widely accepted by major animal-welfare organizations like ASPCA and HSUS, and represents current best practice. They provide local governments with data to show that community cat programs are not only good for cats, they are the most fiscally responsible way to deal with outdoor cats.

In Kentucky, once local governments were on board, ordinances were updated, and funding was in place, the last piece of the puzzle was to recruit clinics and veterinarians who could carry out the NKADD community cat program. The United Coalition for Animals (UCAN), headquartered in Cincinnati, has a spay-neuter clinic for dogs and cats. Another Cincinnati organization, Ohio Alleycat Resource & Spay-Neuter Clinic (OAR), provides many services for cats, including a spay-neuter clinic for cats only. Both UCAN and OAR agreed to participate, as did several private veterinarians. The plan went into effect on October 1, 2016, and if you go to the NKADD site you will see a page on its new cat program.

The three categories of cats eligible for the program are community cats, cats owned by low-income people, and indoor cats whose owners do not qualify as low-income. Community cats are diverted from the shelter in the four counties where the shelter takes in cats. In the counties with dog-only shelters, cats are brought to the service providers by people in the community. Services are free for community cats and low-income pet owners. For owners of indoor cats who do not qualify for the free service, a provider is allowed (although not required) to charge $20. So far, in its first five months, the program has met its target number of surgeries every month. In the first four months the program did 2,262 surgeries.

The effect of the program can be seen in the live release rates for cats at the three county shelters that take in cats (the fourth shelter that takes in cats was already at a 90%+ live release rate when the program started). Comparing the live release rates for cats in those shelters for the first nine months of 2016, before the program started, to the first four months of the program from October 2016 through January 2017, live release rates for cats increased from 82% to 88% in Boone, from 42% to 71% in Kenton, and from 49% to 83% in Campbell.

We will not know the full effect of the program on the Boone, Kenton, and Campbell shelters until we have statistics that include kitten season, but the program is certainly off to a good start. An indication that the program may be strong enough to withstand kitten season is that two of the counties were able to deal with large cat-hoarding cases between October and January while still reducing cat deaths. In addition to increasing live release rates at the shelters that take in cats, the community cat program will hopefully lead to a gradual decrease in the number of unsterilized outdoor cats in all 8 counties.

Success breeds success, and the success of the NKADD program has caught the notice of officials in other districts in Kentucky. Pizano was recently invited to make a presentation about the program in Frankfort, the state capitol, to the directors of all 15 state districts. Seven of the districts are interested, including the district that contains Louisville, which is one of TZ’s newest Fellows.

Pizano and Moore have other projects that involve regional and state level work. A project in Georgia covers three counties. TZ has four Fellowship shelters in South Carolina, and they network with a statewide No Kill effort that is under the aegis of No Kill South Carolina. Pizano feels that regional projects can set up a dynamic where there is good-natured competition among jurisdictions. People see a neighbor’s success and want to have the same level of success or even more at their own shelter.

One thing I admire about TZ is that they have shown a willingness to go into places like Kentucky, Louisiana, and South Carolina that have traditionally been seen as tough venues for shelter lifesaving. Pizano and Moore seem to be very good at finding sparks in those areas that can be fanned into flames. We all know what needs to be done to enable a shelter to save its healthy and treatable animals. The trick is to put the programs into practice. Every community is different, and can present challenges like ordinances that need to be changed, funding that must be found, non-profits that must be recruited to help, and local leaders who must be educated. Consultants like TZ can identify the hurdles and find ways to get over, under, or around them.

2016 — A Banner Year for No Kill

Many of the general retrospectives on 2016 that have appeared in the media in the last few days have branded the year as a disaster. It’s easy to see why, given the political uproar of our recent election season and the uncertain future we face. But for No Kill, 2016 had few flaws. In fact, 2016 may go down in history as the best year yet for No Kill, a year when landmark progress was made.

Here is a short list of some trends and events that made 2016 such a noteworthy year for No Kill:

  • Citizen complaints about large numbers of stray dogs in Dallas, Texas, have been frequent for the last several years, and the media has carried on a steady drumbeat about the problem. In May 2016 a tragedy occurred when a woman was attacked and killed in South Dallas by a pack of dogs. City leaders decided they had to act, and hired the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to analyze animal control and sheltering in the city. In August BCG released a report analyzing the shelter system and recommending changes. BCG is a highly prestigious, mainstream consulting firm, and No Kill advocates feared that the BCG recommendation would be to simply round up and kill all the stray dogs. Instead, the report provided a beautiful summary of how cities get to No Kill today while not shirking public safety and not busting the budget. The BCG report was proof that No Kill is now the new industry standard, as it placed shelter lifesaving on a par with public safety in a truly stunning statement of modern priorities. In the future it will no longer be possible for any city or town or county to plan a state-of-the-art overhaul of its shelter system without taking lifesaving into account. Links to the BCG report are here and here.
  • The Pets for Life concept came into its own in 2016. Pets for Life does not just provide services to underserved neighborhoods — it moves in to zip codes where people are having trouble caring for their pets. Distrust between residents and animal control has been a major problem in poor communities dating back to the 1800s, and that distrust is the underlying reason why many pets wind up in the shelter today. Residents who may not have the resources to vaccinate, license, sterilize, and confine their pets have had good reason in the past to fear punitive enforcement and high fines from animal control. This has led them to avoid any contact with pet services, including services designed to help pets. Pets for Life staff members get at this problem by going door-to-door to build relationships with residents in neighborhoods that have the highest numbers of strays and owner surrenders. They provide whatever people need, including driving a person’s dog or cat to the vet when the owner does not have a car and the nearest vet is miles away. Or free dog training. Or free collars and tags, including licenses. When they do a big vaccination or spay-neuter event in the neighborhood people line up to participate because they trust Pets for Life. The result is that people and pets are happier and shelter intake is lower.
  • Neighbors helping neighbors broke out all over in 2016. We’ve had No Kill communities that reached out to neighbors before 2016, of course, but 2016 saw an explosion in this trend. An especially exciting example is happening in South Carolina, where No Kill proponents have divided the state into five regions, each of which will have a “key resource center” for No Kill. The resource centers are shelters that can help smaller shelters around them with things like grant-writing, adoption events, acquiring donors, and best practices. The Charleston Animal Society, which achieved No Kill in 2015, is heading up the South Carolina initiative with help from the Petco Foundation, which provided $200,000 to get the effort started. Petco also made a grant to Greenville, SC, one of the regional hubs. It wasn’t long ago that “South Carolina” and “No Kill” were hardly mentioned in the same sentence. Now, the entire state may soon be No Kill.
  • If South Carolina does get to No Kill in 2017 it will join a growing number of states that have that distinction. Colorado has been running at or near 90% for a couple of years now. And this year, when the final numbers are in, Colorado will probably be joined by Delaware. Delaware started an innovative program on January 1, 2016, when a new state agency took over animal control, anti-cruelty enforcement, and lost-and-found. The agency, Delaware Animal Services, is part of the Office of Animal Welfare within Delaware’s public health division. The state contracted out animal sheltering to the Brandywine Valley SPCA, where statistics through September showed a 92% live release rate. This structure for animal control and sheltering may be a viable approach for other small states. It’s inspiring to see how well it has worked so far in Delaware.
  • And speaking of No Kill states, Arizona has become a surprise No Kill leader in the southwest. The southwest has been a problem area for No Kill, and in my January 2016 “State of No Kill: Western U.S.” post I rated the lower southwest (Arizona and New Mexico) as the worst area in the U.S. for No Kill, with a D-minus grade. Not anymore! Arizona has 15 counties, including 5 large counties — Coconino, Yavapai, Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima — that run down the middle of the state and contain the large population areas. Coconino and Yavapai are reporting over 90% live release rates, and No Kill efforts are underway in the other three counties as well. Is it too much to hope that Arizona will be a No Kill state in 2017? We will see.
  • In 2016 the idea that it is ethically and morally wrong to deliberately breed dogs that have the genetic defect of brachycephalism really took hold, as evidenced by an August Washington Post article on the problem. Brachycephalism is a defining characteristic of several dog breeds, including English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. The genetic defect produces flat faces and protruding eyes, which many people think is cute, but which causes a lifetime of suffering and disability to the affected dogs. Dog breeding is not usually thought of as a No Kill issue, but it becomes a No Kill issue when it implicates the right of dogs to live a normal, happy life free of pain. It’s hard to believe that people would deliberately breed dogs with the goal of carrying on a horrible genetic defect, but the practice is very entrenched. This shocking form of animal cruelty has gone on far too long, but as 2016 draws to an end we have hope that dog breeders (and cat breeders) will finally be shamed into stopping the breeding of brachycephalic animals. If not, then the new public awareness about this issue may help advocates pass laws that will compel them to stop by identifying what they are doing as a crime.
  • Last but very far from least is the Million Cat Challenge (MCC), which had another fabulous year in 2016. Shelters that have signed up to participate in the MCC are using the MCC’s five key initiatives to save the lives of 1,000,000 shelter cats in the five-year period from the beginning of 2014 to the end of 2018. When that goal was announced it sounded incredibly ambitious. Now, at the end of 2016, the effort is on track to succeed — we are 60% through the time period and 66% of the way to the goal, with participating shelters reporting 657,000 cats saved so far even before the year-end update. The MCC is particularly noteworthy because so many traditional shelters have chosen to participate. If you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, a great one would be to make sure your local shelter is signed up with the MCC.

There were so many other areas of progress in No Kill in 2016 that this list could be twice as long if I wrote them all up. They include the increasing success of turnkey events like Clear the Shelters and Strut Your Mutt that draw in traditional shelters, the rapid spread of Open Adoptions, the increasing importance of shelter consultants, tremendous progress in Michigan (particularly in reducing shelter intake through spay-neuter programs), the growing expectation that every shelter will have one or more veterinarians on staff trained in shelter medicine, and the creation of No Kill campuses that show how far we’ve come from the days of the concrete-block shelter building next to the town dump.

Each year in No Kill brings surprises, and awe at how fast progress is being made. I can’t wait to see what 2017 will bring.

The Controversy Over Shelters Spaying Pregnant Animals

A perennial issue for No Kill has been whether it is ethical for No Kill shelters to spay dogs and cats who are known to be pregnant. Some No Kill advocates argue that a community cannot truly be No Kill if community shelters are spaying pregnant dogs and cats rather than allowing the litters to be born, raising the puppies and kittens, and adopting them out. I’d like to propose a structure for looking at this question in the ideal circumstance of an existing No Kill community with adequate resources, and then look at whether and how this proposed structure might need to be modified in the triaging that often accompanies No Kill transitions.

First, the proposed structure. I think the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), offers a framework for dealing with this issue in the shelter context. The Court in Roe v. Wade balanced the interest that a woman has in controlling her own body against the interest that a fetus has in being born, and concluded that in early pregnancy the balance favors the woman’s choice, but the closer a pregnancy is to term the greater the weight given to the interest of the fetus. That’s an oversimplified description of the Roe v. Wade decision, but it will suffice for this discussion.

The parallel between choices made by humans and choices made for shelter animals is not exact, of course, because we cannot consult a dog or cat and ask her if she would prefer to carry her pregnancy to term. But since a shelter is in the position of making decisions for dogs and cats in their care, it is reasonable to delegate this choice to the shelter.

When a shelter animal is in early pregnancy, is it in her best interest to be spayed? I think it would be reasonable for a shelter to conclude that the answer to that question is “yes,” for two reasons. First, it means the animal can be immediately adopted rather than going through some 4-6 months of gestation and care of her and her litter in a foster home before the litter is raised and she has been rehabilitated and readied for adoption. Second, an early spay is probably safer for an animal’s health than going through gestation and birth of a litter under the stressful circumstances of living in a shelter or a foster home.

With an animal who is close to delivery, the calculus is different. By that point, the spay surgery is riskier for the mother and the recovery period is longer. The time to adoption for an animal who is spayed late in pregnancy may not be that much longer than if she delivers and raises the litter. And the lives of puppies and kittens who are nearly full term are entitled to more weight than when they were early fetuses. I think it would be reasonable for a No Kill shelter to conclude that late-term spays are unethical and not in line with the principles of No Kill.

However, that conclusion might need to be modified when a shelter has not achieved No Kill and is instead in transition to No Kill. The transition to No Kill is a heartbreaking time, because a commitment has been made to save every savable animal, but the shelter does not yet have the capacity to accomplish that. There are some No Kill advocates who argue that No Kill can be achieved overnight in every shelter. No Kill overnight may be possible in some shelters, particularly those that are small, located in wealthy and progressive communities such as resorts or college towns (where the live release rate is likely to already be over 70%), and where the shelter director has the power to run the shelter the way he or she wishes. I’ve seen no evidence that No Kill is achievable overnight in more typical conditions of cash-strapped municipal shelters with high intake, outdated facilities, multiple layers of city management, and a population that includes many people who are indifferent or even hostile to No Kill. Oddly enough, the people who argue that No Kill can be achieved overnight anywhere never seem to be the people who actually take jobs as shelter directors in cities like Memphis, Dallas, Sacramento, and El Paso.

So, accepting the reality that the No Kill transition in most cities involves triage, how does that impact the decision on weighing the interest of a pregnant dog or cat versus the interests of the fetuses she is carrying? Successfully managing a pregnant dog or cat through birth and delivery and then helping her raise the puppies or kittens to an age when they can be adopted is a labor-intensive endeavor, as anyone who has ever done it knows. If the job is going to be done well and the puppies or kittens given the best chance to survive and thrive, it requires that the pregnant animal go into a foster home. And not just any foster home, but one that has facilities for raising a litter and a foster who has both the knowledge and the time for the task.

Raising a litter of puppies or kittens is not merely a matter of letting mom do all the work. The birth of the puppies or kittens must be monitored, and the foster caregiver must know how to recognize if a problem has developed, and what to do. A puppy or kitten may need help to start breathing. The mom, especially if she is a first-time mom, may need help in figuring out how to take care of the litter. The biggest task of all is socialization. From the age of 3 to 8 weeks, the foster caregiver must provide intensive exposure of the puppies or kittens to human contact. The foster must also ensure that mom and the puppies or kittens receive veterinary care, including vaccinations. And finally, when the work is all done and the puppies or kittens are old enough for adoption, the foster has to give them up to their new homes. Then mom must be rehabilitated from the stresses of pregnancy and readied for adoption.

Finding fosters is one of the challenging tasks that face shelters that are in the process of No Kill transitions. It is much easier on people to foster for an established No Kill shelter, because fosters know that when they return their charges to the shelter they will be adopted out and not killed. It’s much harder to recruit fosters for shelters that are in transition. Finding fosters that are willing and able to care for litters, and setting up a system within the shelter to provide the support they need in terms of veterinary care, is even more challenging than finding ordinary fosters.

A shelter that is in transition to No Kill may not have sufficient fosters to care for pregnant animals and raise their litters. In that case, a shelter might reasonably consider a spay late in pregnancy to be in the best interest of the mother and outweigh the limited prospects for life that the puppies or kittens would have if born in the shelter.

One additional factor may need to be considered in a transitional shelter’s decision whether to do a spay on a pregnant animal, and that is the effect on the lives of other animals in the shelter. The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade balanced only the mother’s interests against the interests of the fetus. That was reasonable because it is hard to think of any situation in our modern world where a woman carrying a pregnancy to term in the United States might threaten the lives of other people besides the mother and fetus. With animals in a transitional shelter, it’s different. The lives of other animals in the shelter might be compromised by the space, supplies, and staff time that would be taken up by housing a mother and litter in the shelter until the puppies or kittens are old enough to be adopted.

Even though the Court did not consider the circumstance of additional lives being threatened by a pregnancy, the balancing test of Roe v. Wade can still be applied to that issue in the shelter context. A shelter that is in transition to No Kill may find that it would be reasonable to establish a policy that all female cats and dogs should be spayed, regardless of pregnancy status, because to do otherwise would lead to a significant loss of life among other shelter animals. Such a policy is obviously not ideal, and should be made only after careful consideration and weighing of the interests of all the animals involved. It should also be clearly designated as an interim policy, to be modified as soon as circumstances permit.

When a shelter is in transition to No Kill, rather than criticizing the shelter for doing spays on pregnant animals, No Kill advocates could offer to foster the mothers and raise the litters. This would solve the problem at its root, by giving the shelter the help it needs. Criticism of shelters in transition, without such offers of help, risks being destructive of the No Kill effort by making it harder for the shelter to raise money and recruit volunteers and fosters.