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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor People Should Be Able to Have Dogs Too

The United States used to have a nationwide dog overpopulation problem. In the early 1970s humane advocates started mass spay-neuter campaigns, which by the year 2000 had greatly decreased the population of free-roaming dogs.  In most cities today we do not see large numbers of dogs wandering the streets. There are some places, though, where the spay-neuter campaigns were not effective, including parts of Dallas, Houston, Detroit, and San Antonio. A consulting group recently estimated that there were about 8700 free-roaming dogs in South Dallas, for example.

The problem of large numbers of stray dogs in the streets is linked to poverty. In poor communities and communities that have few veterinary services available, pets are much less likely to be sterilized. And poor people don’t have the money to build and maintain fences, so their dogs are much more likely to be allowed to roam. Poor people love pets as much as anyone else, and if their free-roaming dogs are captured and killed by the city, they get more dogs and the cycle is perpetuated.

The key to solving this problem is not to try to sanction poor people with fines they cannot pay – it’s to help them take better care of their pets. There are several approaches that have been growing in popularity in recent years that do exactly that. These are programs that can help communities everywhere that have a problem with free-roaming dogs, particularly large cities that have extensive areas of poverty.

One of the programs is Pets for Life, a project of the Humane Society of the United States that receives support from PetSmart Charities. The idea of Pets for Life is, as they put it, to not only reach out to underserved communities, but to move in. Pets for Life staff members go door-to-door and build relationships with people who have reason to be wary of animal control. They gain the trust of neighborhoods by starting with individual contacts. They might drive a person’s dog or cat to the vet when the owner does not have a car and the nearest vet is miles away. They may provide free pet food. For behavior problems they offer free dog-training classes. They give away new collars, complete with ID tags. The individuals they help in those ways then talk to their neighbors. The result is that when Pets for Life does a big neighborhood event like free spay/neuter or vaccinations, they have people lining up to participate. Pets for Life is now in 34 cities, including Atlanta, Detroit, San Antonio, and Dallas. The program offers a practical way to help reduce the free-roaming dog problem in those cities, which will immeasurably help with No Kill efforts.

Another program that works with poor people rather than penalizing them is the Coalition to Unchain Dogs. This organization grew out of the realization by a woman named Amanda Arrington that many people who chain their dogs don’t do it out of negligence or cruelty, but because it’s the only way they have of keeping their dogs safe and at home. In 2006 Arrington and a group of like-minded people met in Durham, North Carolina, to discuss how they could get anti-tethering legislation passed. They realized that the legislation would be accepted much more easily if it was paired with a positive effort to help people fence their yards. In March of 2007 they built their first fence. Now the Coalition is building fences for poor people in North Carolina and Atlanta, and they help similar programs in other parts of the country. Fences for Fido, which built its first fence in 2009, is another group carrying out this important mission.

One important benefit of programs like Pets for Life, the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, and Fences for Fido is that they are alternatives to the strong-arm enforcement tactics that cities have historically used for animal control. Studies have shown that mandatory spay/neuter laws and heavy fines for non-compliance with dog ordinances don’t work.  They just make the problem of free-roaming, unvaccinated, and unregistered dogs worse because they penalize people for being poor and drive them and their pets underground.

Breed-specific legislation (BSL) is another heavy-handed enforcement tactic. As Bronwen Dickey discusses in her recent book Pit Bull (Knopf, 2016), society has a long tradition of labeling dogs commonly kept by poor people and racial minorities as dangerous. In our society today the breed that is the victim of this stereotyping is the pit bull. We can see the results in shelters that are overflowing with pit bulls who have been forced away from their families by BSL. Even in cities that don’t have BSL, anti-pit-bull rental and insurance policies can force people to give up their dogs. Progress is being made as more and more scientific studies show that there is no basis for the idea that some breeds are inherently dangerous. City leaders are increasingly realizing that all dogs should be judged as individuals, and hopefully landlords and insurance companies will follow.

If we understand the problems faced by low income dog owners, we can make progress toward No Kill even in poor neighborhoods. Poor people love their pets just as much as financially secure people, and a good pet safety net can help poor people keep their families together.

The Devil Is In The Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michigan’s Progress in Reducing Shelter Killing

Michigan is one of the handful of states that (1) require shelters in the state to report their statistics and (2) make the reports available online. The Michigan Pet Fund Alliance has kept track of these statistics for years, and recently they’ve released a summary covering the nine years from 2007 to 2015.

The statistics show a big decline in shelter euthanasia, from 118,369 in 2007 to 27,250 in 2015. That’s a drop of 77%. A survey of most-improved shelters that the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance did recently showed that the shelters attributed their success to a change to a “compassionate director.” While a change to a new director may well have been a factor in some shelters in the state, the statistics show a quite different story for the state as a whole.

According to the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance report, about 88% of the drop in the number of animals killed from 2007 to 2015 was due to fewer animals coming into Michigan shelters. Only 12% of the drop in shelter killing was due to more animals going out the door alive. Thus, the reason that Michigan shelters improved so much since 2007 was largely because shelters had fewer animals to start with, not because of any big increases in adoptions and return-to-owner.

I reached out to Deborah Schutt, head of the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance, and asked her if she had any ideas about why shelter intake had dropped so much between 2007 and 2015. The first thing she mentioned in response was low-cost, high-volume spay/neuter programs. She pointed out that All About Animals Rescue (AAAR), which was founded in 2005, has been doing almost 25,000 surgeries per year, including TNR and return-to-field. Shelter intake in the county where AAAR is headquartered has dropped from 8,023 to 2,400 since 2009. Michigan’s shelter intake in 2015 was about 14 animals per 1000 people, which puts it on the low end of the average range of intake. In 2007, intake was about 23 animals per 1000 people, which is considered to be average.

Some people have the misconception (no pun intended) that spay/neuter programs were an invention of No Kill. That’s incorrect. Although No Kill embraces spay/neuter programs, the big campaign to get people to spay and neuter their pets was started by humane advocates and the traditional shelter industry circa 1970, before the No Kill movement existed. At about the same time, shelter intake in the United States began to plummet. Shelter intake is thought to have been static in the U.S. as a whole since around the year 2000, but Michigan demonstrates that there is still more to be gained, at least in some places, by low-cost, high-volume spay/neuter programs.

Pet retention programs can also reduce intake. Roughly half of shelter intake on average is owner surrenders, and some pet retention programs have claimed high rates of success. Managed admission can also reduce intake, as experience has shown that many owners are able to find a new home for their pets themselves, especially when the shelter helps them arrange a social media campaign or referral to a rescue. It is unclear whether such programs have been widespread enough in Michigan in the years from 2007 to 2015 to have contributed much to the fall in intake.

It’s interesting that shelter intake in Colorado increased a small amount — about 3% — from 2007 to 2015, during the same period when shelter intake in Michigan was dropping by 37%. Yet Colorado today has a higher average live release rate than Michigan. This reinforces the idea that No Kill progress can be made in a variety of different ways. It may be that one of the reasons that shelter consultants have such a good success rate in improving community live releases is that they know how to look at the whole picture and see what needs to be changed. For a small shelter run by a non-profit in a resort or college town, a director with good marketing and management skills may be all that’s needed, and the transition to No Kill may be quick. In a city like San Antonio or Dallas with a serious stray problem, low spay/neuter rates, and low return-to-owner rates, one or more large, non-profit partners and an aggressive spay/neuter program may be needed. No Kill may take years to achieve in those tougher circumstances.

The Michigan Pet Fund Alliance is having their annual conference next week. They deserve kudos not only for collating shelter statistics all these years, but also for telling Michigan shelters how they are doing and giving awards to high-performing shelters. Their work has no doubt been part of the progress in Michigan.

The BCG Report on Dallas Animal Services – A Watershed Moment for No Kill?

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a prestigious, full-service consulting firm with international reach. The city of Dallas, TX, hired BCG a few months ago to make recommendations for reform of the city shelter, Dallas Animal Services (DAS). BCG just issued the report, and it could be a game-changer for No Kill reform efforts, especially in large cities.

Dallas has had complaints for years from people who live in South Dallas about large numbers of free-roaming dogs. The city’s media took up the cause, pointing out that South Dallas was an impoverished area with a high minority population, and arguing that the residents of South Dallas were being ignored by the city. Complaints of people being harassed and bitten by stray dogs continued to grow. Then, in May of  this year, a woman was attacked by a pack of dogs in South Dallas and bitten more than 100 times. She died of her injuries.

After the woman was killed, many other horror stories were publicized, including one of a woman who was walking her small dog when she was attacked by two free-roaming dogs. She heroically held her small dog up over her head while the two strays bit and scratched her. Finally the owner of the dogs arrived and called them off. The victim had to be driven home because she could not walk. A photograph of her after the attack shows what appears to be an 8- or 10-inch gash on her upper arm and several other scratch or bite marks. Another story was of a grandmother who had to use her cane to keep a dog from attacking her pregnant daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter.

The dogs of South Dallas suffer too. Many are killed by cars. There are so many dead dogs that certain areas of South Dallas have become known as dumping grounds for dead and injured dogs. Most cities got their stray-dog populations under control in the years from 1970 to 2000 by means of spay-neuter and leash-law campaigns. In a few cities, like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, those efforts never took hold, and some parts of those cities still have large numbers of stray dogs roaming the streets.

It was in this context that Dallas hired BCG to analyze the situation and come up with recommendations to reform DAS. When I heard about this, I felt that BCG would probably develop a strategic plan that was long on enforcement (“catch and kill”) and short on shelter lifesaving. After all, BCG is a mainstream group. The consultants who work for BCG understand very well that the primary duty of local governments is to exercise the police powers that are delegated to them by the states. Local governments, first and foremost, have a duty to keep people safe. And that duty extends only to human beings, not animals. In any contest between the safety of a human and the life of an animal, a local government is required by its delegation of powers to put the safety of the human first.

Even if BCG was favorable to shelter lifesaving and wanted to make lifesaving a priority, I thought it was unlikely that they would talk to the right people about how to do that. Relatively few people today understand how large cities make No Kill transitions. Indeed, there are some prominent No Kill leaders who do not seem to understand that public-private partnerships have been key for almost every large city that has gone No Kill. I was afraid that even if BCG talked to No Kill leaders, they would talk to the wrong ones and come away thinking that No Kill was not ready for prime time.

For all those reasons, I was shocked to see that BCG’s final report, which was just released, puts shelter lifesaving on an equal footing with public safety. The commitment to shelter lifesaving in the report is not just lip service. The report prominently states that the goal is to “increase the number of positive outcomes for Dallas dogs, euthanizing only the sickest animals.” It specifically targets a 90% live release rate. This high-profile report, prepared for a major American city by a prestigious mainstream consulting firm, says unequivocally that the goal of No Kill is just as important as the goal of public safety. That is extraordinary.

What makes the BCG report a watershed event, though, is that it provides Dallas with a detailed roadmap and a step-by-step plan of exactly how to get to No Kill, without busting the budget. The report sets out the usual things that we’ve all heard — increasing adoptions, better online marketing, increasing shelter hours, preventing surrenders by helping owners with pet problems, increasing volunteer hours, etc. Any No Kill advocate could list those things in their sleep. But the report provides details of the research it did to back up those recommendations, the details of exactly how and when and to what extent they should be implemented, and the cost and number of animals expected to be affected by each program.

For example, the report doesn’t just say “start a spay-neuter program.” Instead, the drafters of the report counted the dogs in South Dallas, figured out how many of them would have to be sterilized to keep the population down, and researched how the program could be structured to make it effective. They came up with a recommendation to provide 46,000 low-cost spay-neuter surgeries per year for three years. To increase adoptions, one recommendation is that the city open a second offsite adoption center, either using its existing arrangement with PetSmart Charities or with a similar organization. The report estimates the cost for this added venue and the number of additional adoptions the new venue would produce. The report even goes into detail about the order in which things should be implemented, with the goal of keeping lifesaving high at the same time enforcement is being stepped up.

The BCG report goes beyond the usual No Kill cookbook, though, and includes two things that I thought it would surely miss. One is the critical importance of a large, private-sector partner for the city shelter. We have seen this arrangement work spectacularly well in many cities. The two major cities that, to my knowledge, have the highest sustained live release rates in the nation today — Jacksonville and Austin — both have municipal shelters that work closely with a large non-profit. This arrangement has also been key in San Antonio, which has recently been running at a 90% live release rate. The BCG report recommends that Dallas enlist such a partner for DAS, and spells out the benefits that will provide for the shelter.

The second thing I thought the BCG report would surely overlook is the highly important issue of the authority that the shelter director has within city government. Far from missing this issue, the report zeroed in on it and set out a string of recommended changes. The report proposes that DAS become an independent department within the city government, that DAS should be exempt from the civil service hiring recommendations, and that the city should provide adequate funding (spelled out in detail, with dollar amounts) to meet the goals.

Having DAS as an independent agency is key, because that gives the shelter director more power and flexibility. We’ve all noticed the phenomenon of shelters improving dramatically after being taken over by a private, non-profit No Kill contractor, as happened in Atlanta and in Kansas City, Missouri. With DAS as an independent agency, the DAS director will be on a par with the directors of private organizations in terms of ability to make and execute policy. The changes to hiring will be an important part of that increased power and flexibility. So often the directors of municipal shelters are hamstrung by layers of bureaucracy that can restrict even small things like reducing fees for an adoption special or what can be posted on social media. The BCG report recognizes that problem and proposes radical and effective fixes.

Some people in Dallas think that the director of DAS, Jody Jones, should be fired as part of the reform process. I think that would be a big mistake. Jones has been criticized as weak on animal control, but in most cities the size of Dallas the executive director does not personally manage animal control. The public safety part of the BCG proposal is technically the easiest part, and could be carried out by a person specifically hired for that type of expertise, if a new hire is necessary. Shelter lifesaving is far harder to do well, and in that area Jones has expertise. Moreover, because of the limitations imposed on her by the city’s bureaucratic structure, Jones has not previously had a chance to show what she can do. In a time of great change, her familiarity with the system could be an important point of stability.

Some people within No Kill have already criticized the BCG report because it recommends increased enforcement. I think this reaction is short-sighted and harmful. The report provides a roadmap for how the city can quickly increase lifesaving at the same time it increases enforcement. If implementation is done as BCG recommends, there will be no need for more dogs to die in Dallas. And the long-term problems, including the serious public safety issues and the suffering of dogs on the street, will be solved.

It would be counterproductive for No Kill advocates to ignore the very real threat to public safety caused by the free-roaming dogs in Dallas. I myself have advocated for community dog programs analogous to community cat programs. But that idea is a non-starter in Dallas because of the numerous attacks on people that culminated in a woman being literally torn to pieces by a pack of dogs. Public safety is a serious issue, and if we as No Kill advocates refuse to admit that public safety must be taken into account, then we risk marginalizing ourselves and losing any ability to be taken seriously and influence the debate. The BCG report has handed us a huge gift by making lifesaving equal in importance to public safety. We should welcome the report and work hard to see that it gets implemented.

It is possible that the city of Dallas will implement the public safety part of the recommendations and fail to implement the lifesaving part. But if the No Kill movement offers help and support with the lifesaving recommendations, the chances of Dallas implementing the entire report will be much improved. If the No Kill movement instead stands on the sidelines and throws rocks, that just makes it more likely that the lifesaving proposals will fail to be implemented.

And that would be a tragedy. The BCG report could be a watershed moment for the entire country, not just for Dallas. If Dallas succeeds in putting shelter lifesaving on a par with public safety and turns around a very bad situation for its residents while at the same time increasing shelter lifesaving to 90%, then all the other cities that have not yet succeeded in getting to No Kill will have a roadmap that their leaders have to take seriously. BCG is about as prestigious and as mainstream as you can get. If we as No Kill advocates blow this opportunity, we will blow the best chance we’ve had yet to make No Kill a default aspect of good city government.

Getting the street dogs of Dallas into good homes may not be easy, because Dallas seems to have many dogs who have been living rough for a long time, and some who are apparently feral. A lot of these dogs may require rehabilitation before they can become adoptable. Standing ready to help these dogs would perhaps be the most crucial role that the No Kill movement could play in making the BCG recommendations a success. If every No Kill shelter and organization in the country could take in just a few of these dogs, they could all find safety.

The BCG report concludes by stating that Dallas has the opportunity to both improve the quality of life for Dallas residents and “to rescue animals and treat them with dignity and care.” We should make sure that opportunity is not lost.

No Kill Mentoring

Have you noticed that No Kill communities tend to occur in clusters? Take Austin, which achieved a 90%+ live release rate in 2011. Williamson County just to the north achieved No Kill around that same time, and in the years since then we’ve had the nearby towns of Georgetown, Pflugerville, and Taylor all going No Kill. And San Antonio, a big city about an hour away from Austin, has gone No Kill along with its nearby town of Kirby.

Then there’s Jacksonville, which has helped other towns and counties in the First Coast region. Charlottesville, Virginia, has seen an explosion of No Kill neighbors, including Lynchburg just to the south, which in turn has been helping its neighbors. The shelter serving Duluth, Minnesota, made Superior, Wisconsin, a No Kill city. On the west coast, San Francisco has helped Stockton to dramatically improve its live release rate. The Nevada Humane Society in Washoe County has made nearby Carson City into a No Kill community. Brother Wolf in Asheville is reaching out to other communities. And in what may be the most dramatic example of all, South Carolina shelters are embarking on an ambitious plan to make the entire state No Kill by setting up five hubs that will offer No Kill help throughout the state.

The assistance that No Kill communities offer their neighbors takes many different forms. Dr. Ellen Jefferson helped San Antonio with the creation of San Antonio Pets Alive!, which was modeled on Austin Pets Alive! The San Francisco SPCA pulls at-risk animals from the Stockton shelter and finds homes for them. Jacksonville includes its neighbors in its gigantic mega-adoption events. Personnel from Charlottesville and Jacksonville have become successful shelter directors in Lynchburg and Tampa, respectively.

Other factors may be at work too in spreading No Kill. When a city goes No Kill, government officials in nearby communities will take notice. It’s much easier to commit to an idea that has already been proven successful by your neighbor than it is to be the first one to try it. It’s natural to trust a neighbor more than someone from hundreds of miles away. If a nearby neighbor has gone No Kill, it tends to take away the excuses that climate, terrain, or community demographics make No Kill too difficult or impractical. Defeatism is replaced with the idea that “if they can do it, we can do it too.” And in purely practical terms, boots-on-the-ground help is much easier from one neighbor to another since travel is not a problem.

Mentors can help with one major problem that shelter directors face in trying to go No Kill, and that is taking the plunge. Animal shelters are fast-paced, working organizations. They are like a police department or a hospital in that they have to function every day. A director cannot just shut the shelter down for a couple of weeks to retool. A traditional shelter director may be afraid to institute managed admission for fear of creating chaos, or reluctant to try a community cat program for fear it will take too much time or money, or cause complaints. An experienced No Kill director from a neighboring city who is there with step-by-step guidance and encouragement can make all the difference in getting those programs underway.

Most traditional shelter directors these days seem to be interested in shelter reform, but they may be reluctant to take advice from No Kill advocates who do not work or volunteer at the shelter and have little hands-on shelter experience. Shelter directors may resist engaging with local No Kill advocates because they have heard of cases where shelter directors have been unfairly attacked by advocates. If a traditional shelter director gets to know a neighboring No Kill director as a person, they can build trust that can lead the traditional shelter director to a more sympathetic consideration of new ideas.

Even shelter directors who do not have any nearby No Kill neighbors can get help, but they may have to take the initiative in finding it. National conferences provide a great way to network. There are more and more shelter consultants, and they are becoming more specialized and effective. Consultants may work in teams that can include a building specialist, a behaviorist, a community cat expert, etc. Most consulting organizations have access to a wide variety of specialists who can be called on as needed.

Animal shelter federations may be an under-used opportunity for No Kill mentoring. These federations are usually at the state level. Although historically the federations have been conservative, things are changing. Virginia is an example of a state federation that actively offers help to its members. Since animal control is in most respects a state function, with delegation to the local level, the state federation is a natural place to look for regional mentoring.

There are no doubt many more stories of No Kill shelters helping their neighbors than we know about. It’s an exciting trend that holds great hope for the future.

Purist or Pragmatist?

There are two types of No Kill activists. Those of you who have been around for a while know exactly what I mean. For people who don’t, here’s a summary:

Purist No Kill Advocate:

  • Believes that shelters should find live dispositions for all savable animals.
  • Sees No Kill in moral terms and makes statements like “I have no problem holding my local shelter to high standards because animals continue to die.”
  • Does not work or volunteer inside a kill shelter, believing that would be too painful or would help enable killing; instead, works or volunteers for a No Kill shelter or rescue, or carries out activism on social media or by writing or lobbying.
  • Believes that all shelter directors could stop killing quickly if they chose to, and when they don’t it’s because of laziness or ineptitude or because they like killing.
  • Believes that governments have a duty to save the lives of shelter animals and that political pressure must be used to force governments to hire No Kill shelter management and to enact laws forbidding shelter killing.
  • Uses the term “No Kill” a lot.
  • Believes that every animal, or almost every animal, can be saved.

Pragmatist No Kill Advocate:

  • Believes that shelters should find live dispositions for all savable animals.
  • Sees No Kill in utilitarian terms and makes statements like “we should all work together toward the No Kill goal.”
  • Works in and with kill shelters to help them reform, including volunteering in a traditional shelter, forming a non-profit to work closely with the shelter, or winning a contract to run the shelter.
  • Believes that getting to No Kill is a complicated and sometimes lengthy endeavor that requires marshaling resources and building cooperative networks and infrastructure.
  • Does not spend much time trying to lobby local government or pass laws, is willing to assume responsibility for creating no kill without waiting for government to do it.
  • May use the term “No Kill” rarely or not at all because it alienates the traditional shelter officials the pragmatist is working with.
  • Thinks that the proportion of animals who can be saved depends on the available resources and the mix of intake that a particular shelter gets.

As you can see, the first bullet point in each description is the same. Both purists and pragmatists believe that shelters should find live dispositions for all savable animals. This is very important, because it shows that both groups are starting from the same place with the same goal. Where they differ is in how to get there. In general, pragmatists are willing to engage with the traditional shelter system directly and take personal responsibility for change. Purists believe that the traditional shelter system must be smashed and rebuilt and that it is the job of government to do the rebuilding.

There are far more purists than pragmatists. This is not surprising, since being a pragmatic advocate requires a lot of work inside traditional shelters and a lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears. In spite of the much larger number of purist advocates, what I see in city after city where a successful transition to No Kill has taken place is that pragmatists have been central to the change. It is rare for No Kill change to happen without considerable boots-on-the-ground intervention by pragmatists. That makes sense because at some point the actual work has to be done, and who is better able to do the work of No Kill change than No Kill advocates.

Although pragmatists are essential for No Kill change, purists also have an important role to play. Every movement benefits by having a lot of debate and a lot of discussion of ideas. The purists provide this, and it may serve a function in keeping the pragmatists from getting too pragmatic. Another reason that purists may be essential to No Kill is that the moral clarity and black-and-white presentation of issues by the purists is good for drawing people in, and some of those people, as they get more involved in No Kill and come to understand the complexities, will become effective pragmatists.

No Kill as a movement has a serious problem in the relationship between purists and pragmatists. Some purists regard the pragmatists as kill enablers, because the pragmatists are willing to work with people whom the purists see as the enemy. In some cases purists have deliberately tried to silence or discredit pragmatists by trying to shut them out of the debate or bullying them. And some purists have undercut the work of the pragmatists by demonizing and threatening the traditional shelter officials that the pragmatists are trying to work with. This is why many pragmatists have stopped identifying themselves as No Kill advocates. Few people within the purist faction have spoken up to condemn the behavior of the bullies.

The pragmatists, for their part, have not done a good job of communicating with the purists. The purist group contains many new advocates who do not have a deep understanding of how shelters work or the complexity of reforming shelters. Pragmatists often see the purists as a distraction rather than as people they need to engage and educate. And pragmatists, who tend to be cooperative by nature and do not want to criticize others in the movement, have failed to push back against those purists who are bullies.

One way in which the pragmatists have failed to communicate with the purists is by failing to make the case for private action in shelter reform rather than government action. Many purists have mistaken beliefs such as that shelter animals have a right to life, or that government has an inherent obligation to provide live outcomes for shelter animals. Purists may overestimate the number of voters who are willing to make their electoral choices solely on the issue of change at the shelter. These mistaken beliefs encourage purists to spend their time hectoring public officials instead of creating change themselves. Demonstrating by case histories and statistics that No Kill change in most cities has occurred with the participation of the private sector would go a long way toward helping purist activists understand the advantages of pragmatism.

The traditional shelter industry is starting to build its own internal momentum for lifesaving change, and that will go on regardless of what No Kill advocates do. But the process of shelter reform will go a lot faster and a lot smoother if the No Kill movement can begin to coalesce around approaches that have the best track records.

Cory Booker, U.S. senator from New Jersey, is an animal advocate who has done as much for animals as any legislator in the country. In his speech last night to the Democratic convention, he said words that could apply to the No Kill movement – when we work as a team “we will rise.” Let’s get out of our silos, have respect for each other, make the effort to understand each other, and rise together.

No Kill: Programs and Models

We hear a lot about No Kill programs, and very little about No Kill models. That’s too bad, because the programs are only one aspect of getting to No Kill. What are the programs, and what are the models?

A No Kill program is any particular initiative or technique that a shelter uses to increase lifesaving. Many of the most important No Kill programs were developed by Richard Avanzino in the years from 1976 (when he was hired as president of the San Francisco SPCA) to 1989. The San Francisco SPCA during those years had a contract to do animal control and sheltering for the city. The programs Avanzino developed included a foster network,  integrating volunteers into most shelter operations, offsite adoptions, pet retention, behavior training, creative marketing, engaging the public, etc.

Avanzino did not develop all of the programs that we think of today as part of No Kill operations. Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) for feral cats was developed back in the 1950s in England and the 1970s in the United States, independent of the shelters. The concept of open adoptions was pioneered by people in the traditional shelter industry in the 1990s. The low-cost spay-neuter movement started in the early 1970s. And in just the last three years we’ve had a revolution in cat sheltering with the new community cat paradigms. Many of the programs are common sense, and people in the 1980s and 1990s like Bob Rohde in Denver and Bert Troughton in New Hampshire independently developed foster, volunteer, and other programs for their progressive shelters. But even though Avanzino did not develop all of the programs himself, and even though others worked on similar initiatives, Avanzino was the one who first advocated at the national level for shelters everywhere to put a comprehensive group of lifesaving programs into practice.

So that is a short history of No Kill programs. What about No Kill models? Avanzino realized early on when he started work at the San Francisco SPCA that full implementation of lifesaving programs was being hampered by the SPCA’s contract with the city. The SPCA was responsible under the contract for both animal control and sheltering, but the amount of money the city paid was not enough to do the job correctly. Every year the SPCA had to make up the difference out of funds donated by the private sector. Finally, in 1989, the SPCA ended its contract with the city over the funding issue. In the years from 1989 to 1994 Avanzino built a new model for No Kill – a public-private model that charged the city with carrying out its responsibilities of animal control and the private sector with serving as back-up for shelter lifesaving.

The model that emerged in San Francisco consisted of two agencies, the San Francisco SPCA and a new city shelter. The new city-run shelter was responsible for animal control and return-to-owner, and also did many adoptions. The San Francisco SPCA pulled at-risk animals from the city shelter, did medical care and behavior training as needed, and adopted them out. This arrangement was formalized in 1994 in the famous Adoption Pact, in which the SPCA guaranteed to take any healthy animal that the city shelter could not place through its adoption program. The SPCA also worked toward taking all treatable animals, although it did not reach that goal in the 1990s. The public-private model freed the SPCA to spend more resources on spay-neuter, TNR, and other lifesaving initiatives while the city concentrated on the core functions of animal control and basic sheltering.

The model worked extremely well, and by the time Avanzino left the San Francisco SPCA at the end of 1998 to head Maddie’s Fund, San Francisco as a community was saving roughly 70% of its shelter animals. That is not a great percentage by today’s standards, but it was extraordinary in 1998. The average live release rate for the nation as a whole in the year 2000 was on the order of 25-35%. Shelter medicine, which is so critical to high rates of lifesaving, barely existed in the 1990s. In fact, the first class in shelter medicine was not held until 1999. Under the conditions of the time, the San Francisco SPCA’s live release rate in 1998 was a stunning success.

Not every community requires a complicated model to succeed. No Kill programs by themselves, put in place at a city or county shelter, have worked in some communities, particularly small communities with adequate resources. But on the whole shelters seem to be able to get to No Kill faster and to sustain higher rates of lifesaving if they are part of a public-private network of some type. Lots of cities have successfully used the San Francisco model, and we can think of that as the classic approach – the city shelter that works with a large private organization that is dedicated, first and foremost, to pulling at-risk animals from the shelter. This classic model, combined with a third large agency that deals primarily with feral and community cats, has produced extremely high live release rates in Jacksonville and Austin and, importantly, has proven to be sustainable.

The classic San Francisco model is not the only one that works. There are other approaches, such as coalitions across jurisdictional lines (the Portland and Denver metro areas are examples), and New York City’s model of a rescue consortium that works with the city shelter through a non-profit umbrella agency. We also have examples (Atlanta, Kansas City MO) of cities where private organizations have bid on the contract to run the city shelter and are making it work with little or no help from other large, non-profit animal organizations. It is my impression that when larger cities use a contract model where the contractor has little outside help they struggle more than cities that are using the San Francisco or coalition models. Smaller cities, however, can do extremely well with the model of a local non-profit doing animal sheltering by contract with just rescue support – Charlottesville and Lynchburg, both in Virginia, come to mind.

One thing that seems to be common to the most successful public-private models in large cities is that the public shelter, instead of trying to work with 50 or 100 or 200 individual rescues, is working primarily with one or a small number of partners. In Austin, it’s Austin Pets Alive. In Jacksonville, it’s the Jacksonville Humane Society and First Coast No More Homeless Pets. City shelters have limited time to devote to networking, and it greatly helps their efficiency and their willingness to work with the private sector when they have one or two large, well-organized non-profits to deal with rather than a myriad of individual groups.

The bottom line from all this is that experience shows that for a large jurisdiction to succeed at getting to No Kill and sustaining it we need to think about both programs and models. A large city is not likely to achieve No Kill simply from implementing programs. The idea that all you have to do to get to No Kill is to hire a good director for the city shelter and implement a few programs is greatly oversimplified. The frequent failure of this approach when it has been tried without any consideration for the model being used has resulted in a lot of confusion, discouragement, and angst on the part of advocates when their “proven” programs fail to produce the desired result. The answer to this problem would appear to be that advocates should, from the beginning, think about how they are going to supply the public side of the partnership. If no suitable private organization exists, will they need to build one in order to succeed?

When I have proposed this idea to advocates in the past I’ve gotten a lot of pushback. It’s much more complicated for advocates to think about forming a non-profit and building it into a large organization than it is to just complain to city leaders about the shelter. Complaining can be done from the comfort of home, while building an organization takes a lot of work and requires shouldering some risk of failure. The great majority of No Kill leaders today realize that the public-private model is a key to success, as you can see from simply looking at where the large national organizations are putting their money and on-the-ground support. But are they articulating this realization in a way that is getting to advocates? Are they making an effective counterargument to the people who maintain that all you need is a new director and a few programs for No Kill to happen overnight anywhere?

For advocates who are not willing to do the work of building large non-profits from scratch, there is another possible route to take in some cities. Many cities have large humane societies or SPCAs that have been around for decades – in some cases since the 1800s. These organizations are often not doing much to help the city shelter. Instead of pressuring the city shelter to reform (which, without the necessary resources, can be like telling a person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps) advocates could work with the legacy humane societies to encourage them to start pulling at-risk animals from the city shelter. Too often I see advocates who are all over the city shelter but are ignoring the large legacy humane organization that might be just a couple of blocks away.

The need for more attention to No Kill models is why I was glad to see Brent Toellner’s recent blog post (link is here) that provides a thoughtful look at various models. Toellner makes the very important point that the public-private model is not an end in itself. Instead, it is a way to make sure that the shelter has the resources it needs to do its job. In San Francisco, the resources available for shelter lifesaving essentially doubled when the city set up its own shelter operation and the San Francisco SPCA took the role of backup. Getting to a 90%+ live release rate requires having the resources for medical treatment and behavior rehabilitation. Resources can also allow a city to have a modern shelter in a good location rather than an animal warehouse next to the city dump. And resources can greatly help with recruiting talented people.

There are many things to think of in making an effort to get a city to No Kill. This blog post, long as it is, covers only a fraction of the relevant considerations. A great place for advocates to start is talking to people who have made No Kill happen in a city of relatively the same size, with similar conditions. Mentoring may be as important as programs and models, but that will have to be the subject of another post.

Clear The Shelters

The Clear the Shelters adoption event is coming up on July 23, 2016. Last year, in its first year as a nationwide event, almost 20,000 animals were adopted out. Adoption fees were waived. This event has the potential to develop into a major step forward for No Kill.
Clear the Shelters is a project of NBC and Telemundo television stations. It appears to have a somewhat loose organizational structure at this time, with local television affiliates offering publicity for shelters that sign up. Last year roughly 400 shelters participated. Support for the event appears to be coming from a variety of organizations depending on the location.
The beauty of this arrangement is that it is enlisting traditional shelters as well as No Kill shelters. This makes sense since the event offers free publicity, and most traditional shelters are accustomed to looking to local media for publicity. The event can be a way for shelters that have been reluctant to participate in discounted adoption events to take the plunge.
Another huge benefit of this event is that volunteers are being drafted to be adoption counselors for a day. This gives volunteers at these shelters something to do beyond walking dogs and socializing cats, and gets them involved in shelter marketing. When volunteers see the effects of adoption specials, they will be motivated to try new methods of marketing.
And not to be ignored is the importance of the timing. July is one of the highest intake months for shelters, if not the highest, due to kitten season and an increase in stray intake. The Clear the Shelters event can be carried on for more than one day in cities that are having particularly high summer intake. Dallas Animal Services, for example, is carrying on the event for the entire month of July.
The event started in 2014 in northern Texas as the brainchild of Corey Price, director of the City of Irving animal shelter. Irving is a city of about 230,000 people and is part of the Dallas metro area. That first year, in 2014, the event was known as “Empty the Shelters,” and 33 shelters in northern Texas participated.
A map of participating shelters for 2016 shows that so far participation has been primarily in northern Texas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, northern Georgia, North and South Carolina, central Ohio, Chicago, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Miami, and the northeast corridor. But there is no reason that the event could not spread to virtually any community with a local television station, which is virtually all communities.
Kudos to Corey Price for her great idea of using local television stations to serve as a focal point for recruiting shelters and promoting the event. This event, with its synergy between shelters and local media, could eventually rival Home 4 the Holidays in the number of lives saved.

What Happened in Moore County

Moore County, North Carolina, is located about an hour southwest of Raleigh and is known for its golf courses. Two years ago Moore County did a nationwide search for a new shelter director after problems surfaced with the old management. They hired Brenda Sears, who had a good track record as a shelter official in Asheville. (For those of you who are not familiar with the Asheville shelter, it is a tremendous No Kill success story in North Carolina.) In the two years since Sears was hired she has made progress at the Moore County shelter. According to North Carolina state statistics the save rate for cats went from 19% in 2013 to 44% in 2015 and the save rate for dogs went from 44% to 77%. Those save rates are still bad, but if the rapid upward trend continues Moore County will be at or close to No Kill within a couple of years.

At a meeting last Tuesday the chairman of the board of commissioners for Moore County brought up the subject of personal attacks they and Sears have been experiencing from animal advocates who feel that progress is not being made fast enough. A recent news report described an onslaught of insults and even threats that county employees have been receiving from animal advocates. County officials are frustrated that the substantial progress they have made has not made any difference in the criticism, except possibly to make it worse. The county chairman expressed his frustration in very plain language:  “ISIS doesn’t talk about Americans the way some of these people talk about our animal control director,” he said.

This is unfortunately not an unusual situation. A new director comes in and starts making progress, but criticism by advocates continues because they think change is not fast enough. The critics not infrequently wish bodily harm on the shelter director or shelter workers. In general this appears to be social media venting, but it is understandable that officials find it upsetting.

What happened next, though, was unusual. The Moore County chairman asked the county manager to explore getting out of the animal sheltering business entirely. It wasn’t because they were unhappy with Sears’ work – they believe she has been doing a fine job. It was because of the criticism. As the chairman said: “If we can’t solve the problem, let’s give the problem to them. Make sure we find a place for the employees, who do a good job, other employment, and get out of the animal sheltering business and let the private sector handle it.”

The county would save $800,000 per year by doing only the things that are required by state law, which (as described to the council by an expert) are rabies control and management of dangerous dogs. As for everything else, which would presumably include accepting owner surrenders and housing and rehoming unclaimed strays, as well as veterinary care and behavior rehabilitation, the chairman said: “Maybe this is something the private sector needs to do and let them take care of it. Then if they make a mistake, they can talk with themselves.” The commissioners are studying the issue and will decide this fall whether to retrench shelter operations and possibly even shut down the shelter.

Moore County unfortunately appears to have every right to get out of animal sheltering and do only minimal animal control as required by state law. Animal control, defined as protecting people from dangerous or nuisance animals, has been recognized as a core function of state governments since the 1800s. States generally delegate that function to the cities and counties, and that is why communities have animal control officers who have police powers. Once animals are off the street and not threatening or annoying humans, it is not a core function of state or local governments to make sure that those animals find new homes.

Some states have passed laws requiring local governments to maintain some shelter functions. In Virginia, for example, each city or county is required to maintain a shelter for confinement of dogs running at large without tags. States may have other rules, such as requiring humane methods of euthanasia, or requiring veterinary care for sick animals within a certain time frame. State legislatures can strengthen or weaken such requirements as they choose, but there is no state in the country where the law provides that animals have an inherent right to life. Every state has provisions making animal cruelty a crime, and enforcement of animal cruelty laws is often delegated to animal control officers, but anti-cruelty laws do not provide animals with a right to life.

Animals are property under the law. The duties of government run to persons, not property. This is why anti-cruelty laws have often been justified not on the ground of averting harm to animals, but on the ground that people harm themselves when they engage in animal cruelty. It’s easy for a state to justify laws about traffic safety, restaurant sanitation, licensing of doctors, etc., because those laws are all designed to benefit people. It’s difficult for legislators to justify laws requiring preservation of the lives of homeless, unclaimed shelter animals, because there is no obvious benefit to the public in spending tax dollars to maintain the existence of property owned by the state that has negligible monetary value.

Some No Kill proponents compare advocacy for shelter reform to social justice movements such as the historic fights for racial and gender equality. However, such comparisons are false in the eyes of the law. Social justice movements are about achieving equal treatment of various categories of human beings, who are universally recognized in our legal system as having fundamental rights of personhood. Animals, since they are not “persons,” have no fundamental rights. In order to make the analogy to civil rights movements meaningful, we would first have to change our law to recognize a legal personhood for animals.

Perhaps some day in the future our legal system may make a seismic shift and confer fundamental rights on animals equivalent to the legal status of personhood. But don’t hold your breath. If fundamental rights were conferred on animals there would be no more bacon and eggs, no leather shoes, no horseback riding, no zoos, and no more testing of medical therapies on animals. Many No Kill advocates (myself included) are animal-rights supporters and vegans, and we would like nothing better than to see an amendment to the federal constitution conferring the fundamental rights of personhood on animals. But if we took a vote on it right now in the United States probably 99% of people would vote against extending fundamental rights to animals.

The lesson from what has happened in Moore County is that advocacy efforts that focus solely on forcing local governments to change the way they operate public shelters can backfire. And that is because the primary duty of local governments is to protect people from animals, not to find live outcomes for unclaimed shelter animals.

The fact that government’s core duty is animal control and not animal sheltering is the reason why public-private partnerships are so common in animal shelter operations. There is great synergy in having private shelters work with government animal-control operations. In those partnerships the local government operates (or funds) at least the core functions of animal control and return-to-owner. The private organizations do all the lifesaving functions that local government does not do. The very first animal shelter in the United States was founded by a women’s SPCA in Philadelphia in 1870 for the purpose of replacing a cruel city animal control system. The women took over both animal control and sheltering and were reimbursed by the city for the animal control costs. One of their first tasks was to fight and defeat the medical establishment of the city, which wanted the right to take unclaimed dogs for medical experiments.

Today we see variations on the Philadelphia model (minus the fight with vivisectionists) in many of the large cities that have achieved and sustained No Kill. A private organization may contract with a county to do animal sheltering while the county does animal control, as in DeKalb County, Georgia. Or a private organization may do both animal control and sheltering and be reimbursed by the local government for part of the costs, as in Fulton County, Georgia. Another very successful public-private model is for a city-run shelter to do both animal control and sheltering, but to arrange with a large non-profit rescue partner to pull at-risk animals. This is possibly the most common model we see today in large cities that are sustaining very high rates of shelter lifesaving, such as Austin and Jacksonville. It is also the model used in the first major No Kill community, San Francisco. In this model the city agrees to go beyond its core functions and fund part of the lifesaving operation by having its own adoption facility and doing at least some veterinary care and rehabilitation. Public-private partnerships exist in small towns and rural counties as well as big cities, but the partnership is usually more informal and consists of rescues pulling at-risk animals.

Quite often we see people complaining that their local public shelter is increasing its live release rate by increasing the number of animals it transfers to rescues rather than increasing its adoptions. This complaint has been made about New York City, San Antonio, and many other city shelters. The critics argue that the shelter should be doing its own adoptions rather than “dumping” animals on rescues, and that government shelters that rely on rescues for lifesaving are not doing their job. These critics fail to realize the limited scope of a local government’s duties to homeless animals. They also fail to understand that if the private sector assumes some or all of the responsibility of rehoming, that can free the local government to do a better job on its core functions of animal control and return-to-owner.

There are cases where a public shelter is treating the animals in its care with negligence or cruelty. And sometimes local governments arbitrarily refuse offers of help from volunteers and rescues. Those situations usually seem to occur in rural, less progressive, low-income areas where the local government is not functioning very well at anything. Such situations do not appear to be common, but there are thousands of public shelters in the United States. If even one out of fifty of those shelters is abusive or refuses outside help, that adds up to a lot of shelters. A fast way to improve such shelters would be for the private sector to step in and take animals as soon as the hold period is up, and offer veterinary help for animals who need it during the hold period. The problem is that in resource-poor communities the private sector is typically just as impoverished and lacking in skills as the local government. Often what we see in such cases is a few volunteers who have tried to help the shelter but who do not have the resources to offer a true partnership.

No Kill advocates tend to see shelter reform as a difficult struggle, and it is. But No Kill is in a much better position to make progress than other animal-rights endeavors such as the effort to improve conditions for farm animals. We are not in the position of factory-farm opponents who have to fight the power of a gigantic, wealthy, politically connected industry. There is no industry that has a financial stake in shelter animals dying rather than going to good homes. All we have to do to achieve No Kill is to reform shelters, and offers from the private sector to pay for and carry out shelter lifesaving are generally met with little resistance. We are very fortunate that the power to help shelter animals is in our own hands. We may not have the power to force local governments to do the work of shelter lifesaving, but we can do it ourselves and very often local governments will help us.