No Kill: Getting Started

I usually report about No Kill efforts that already have a track record of success. But not infrequently I get questions or comments from people who say that there is nothing going on in their city or town – no type of No Kill effort at all – and they wonder what to do, how to get started. Based on the stories of successful No Kill leaders I’ve interviewed, there does not seem to be any one path to accomplishment. However, in this post I list some themes that have turned up over and over in my talks with successful leaders. Please note – I am not a consultant and have never worked for pay in a shelter. The following is based on what I have learned from interviews with lots of people in both No Kill and the traditional shelter industry in my five years of reporting on No Kill. So take it for what it’s worth.

Seek out inspiration.

A common theme with successful No Kill leaders I’ve interviewed is that they actively sought out inspiration. Robin Starr went to San Francisco in the 1990s to see in person what Rich Avanzino was accomplishing at the San Francisco SPCA. Rick DuCharme went to Lynda Foro’s 1997 No Kill conference in Massachusetts and met Peter Marsh, who told him about the impressive results of New Hampshire’s approach to No Kill. Rebecca Guinn attended the 2002 Best Friends conference and received encouragement to start a non-profit. All three of these people went on to have a major part in making their cities No Kill.

If you are a new No Kill advocate wondering what to do, you cannot do better, in my opinion, than attending the Best Friends conference. There are other great conferences, including American Pets Alive! and HSUS Expo, but I think Best Friends is particularly helpful because they present workshops by people who have been key in getting their cities to No Kill. It would be nice if Best Friends would stagger the schedule of these workshops so an individual can attend all or most of them. But in addition to the workshops themselves the Best Friends conferences offer a great opportunity to network with those successful leaders.

If I were a new advocate I would ask the successful people what were the very first things they did on the way to No Kill. Makena Yarbrough raised a lot of money and built a fabulous shelter for the Lynchburg Humane Society, but that was not the first thing she did. Rick DuCharme’s organization works with other organizations to put on gigantic mega-adoption events in Jacksonville, but he did not start out doing that. Find one thing that you think will put you on the path to No Kill, something that’s doable starting out. It may be transports. It may be a TNR program. It could be starting a volunteer program for the shelter, or a foster program, or a help desk. It might be building a grass roots organization to work at creating a city council that is more friendly to animal issues. It isn’t a bad thing to start small, and learning how other people have succeeded can inspire you to realize that small efforts can grow into big organizations.

Ask for help.

Once you decide what you want to do, ask for help. There is lots of help out there, but if you want people to help you, you really need to have a plan. People are much more likely to want to help you if you have done your homework, know what you are talking about, have made contacts within No Kill, and above all are practical about what you can accomplish. You must be able to articulate specifically what help you want and why you think your plan will make a difference.

Some of the best places to look for help are:

(1) No Kill shelters near you. I have yet to meet a successful No Kill director who does not want to help neighboring communities go No Kill. A No Kill shelter in your area can do several things for you, such as alert you to local resources, help you build a grass roots group, and maybe even stage regional events. And when you are trying to convince city leaders that No Kill is possible in your city, they will be far more impressed by what a neighboring shelter has accomplished than a shelter hundreds of miles away.

(2) State federations. These are really an overlooked resource. Some state federations, like the one in Virginia, are fabulous and very committed to No Kill. Even some of the more traditional federations may have people who are successfully raising live release rates, but who do not advertise that fact or call it “no kill.” The state federation is definitely worth checking out.

(3) Consultants. The most productive way to use a consultant is if you can have the consultant meet the shelter director and make an inspection of the entire animal control and sheltering system in the jurisdiction. That’s not always possible, but if it is, a consultant can be incredibly helpful. Today there are shelter veterinarians who offer consultations, and they may be a little less intimidating to a traditional shelter director than a No Kill consultant.

Lots of people seem to start out by focusing on getting donations or grants. Donations and grants are critically important, but it seems like people are much more successful at getting them once they have at least a little bit of a track record or institutional backing. Asking for donations or grants for a brand-new enterprise that hasn’t done anything yet is a tough sell. Not impossible, but not easy.

Build bridges.

I’ve seen some people who advise new No Kill advocates to view themselves as superheroes who are coming in to destroy the old system and raise a new system in its place. That does not appear to be a very effective method. Virtually all the successful No Kill efforts I’ve reported on involve people who built bridges to city leadership and to other organizations in the city.

Building bridges does not mean you all get together and sing kumbaya. It means that you conduct yourself in a businesslike, professional way. Perhaps the most important part of building bridges is to prove that you are willing to work. No one likes an armchair quarterback, and any advocate who just stands back and tells people what to do, even if they frame their message politely, is not going to be very effective.

The beauty of building bridges is that you may find help where you were not expecting it. Even if you don’t, you have left open the possibility of a future coalition. And by having an open dialogue with the other players in the city you will learn a lot more about the situation than if you wall yourself off in a silo. Building bridges may help the work you are doing, and it certainly will not hurt. Burning bridges, on the other hand, can permanently make your job harder.

There has been an unfortunate tendency among some No Kill advocates to demonize people who work in traditional shelters. The psychology of traditional shelter workers and the interface between the traditional shelter industry and No Kill has deep historical roots, and a thorough discussion of it is beyond the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say that there are all kinds of people who work in traditional shelters. Just don’t pre-judge them, take each one as an individual, and you will do fine.

Analyze the situation.

One might think that “analyzing the situation” should be done earlier in the process. As a practical matter you will be analyzing the situation all the time, right from the start. But it is difficult to analyze a situation accurately until you are pretty familiar with it. And getting too wrapped up in an analysis can slow you down if the analysis turns out to be wrong or incomplete. So by all means analyze the situation, but don’t get too invested in the analysis until you are sure of your ground. Many of the successful No Kill leaders today started out in one direction and then either changed directions or added additional initiatives as they went along.

That said, you do need to know the basic facts about your community. What is your shelter’s policy toward cat intake? Does the shelter make traps available to people? Does animal control actively seek out free-roaming cats to impound? Do they only accept cats over the counter? Is there a TNR program? What is intake per 1,000 people? What is the breakdown between strays and owner surrenders? Between dogs and cats? How long is kitten season in your location? How much money does the shelter receive? How old is the shelter building? How convenient is it for adopters? What are the state and local laws, regulations, and ordinances that affect the shelter? Who on the city council or among the county commissioners is friendly to animal issues? Are there a lot of free-roaming animals in the city? What organizations and rescues pull animals from the shelter? What is the shelter’s social media outreach? How many non-euthanasia deaths are there each year? What categories of animals are dying of disease? What percentage of dogs and cats are killed for behavior? Does the shelter do owner-requested euthanasia, and if so how many and what are the requirements? Does the shelter vaccinate on intake? Does it require an appointment for owner surrenders?

Knowing the answers to these questions and a lot more like them can help you decide what needs to be done and how to focus your energies. In starting out you want to pick a goal that will have an impact and is big enough to attract other people to your effort, but not so big that it becomes unfocused or overwhelming.

Don’t get discouraged

It is possible that you will struggle for months or maybe even years and feel that you are not accomplishing very much, but in fact you really are. Maybe your effort to persuade the shelter director to meet with a consultant failed, but if you have been polite, constructive, and professional, and have done a good job explaining the advantages of a consultation, you will have made an impression on the shelter director. And you will have learned something about that director. Maybe you set a goal to do 1,000 free spay-neuters in the city’s poorest neighborhood in your first year and you only did 500, but 500 is far better than nothing. And you will have established contacts that can allow you to do better next year. Just talking to people about No Kill and making the effort is important. If your projects fail, they will still help pave the way for people after you to succeed.

Regardless of what you might hear, No Kill is almost never easy. In a tiny town where the shelter receives a few hundred animals a year, you might be able to achieve No Kill overnight, but not in Memphis. Or Dallas, or Houston, or Detroit, or any of a lot of mid-sized cities and counties. Be realistic, not ideological. Above all, make your own way.

5 thoughts on “No Kill: Getting Started

  1. Bill

    This “no-kill” movement does more harm than good. Out of site, out of mind. In what world does getting run over by a car, being shot or poisoned, or dying a long slow death from disease or parasites sound better than humane euthanasia? Oh, and by the way, how many native animals are suffering because of TNR and how many more people need to be exposed to disease?

    There is no shortage of cats and dogs in this world, euthanasia is absolutely required when it comes to controlling a population of man-made animals. Cats and Dogs fill no ecological niche in our environment, if there aren’t enough people to give them loving, forever homes, then their numbers need to be reduced. Blame the ignorant, irresponsible pet owners that treat these animals as a commodity. But in no way does it make it acceptable to re-abandon an animal back in the wild where it doesn’t belong so it can continue killing wildlife and spreading disease.

  2. Susan Houser Post author

    To take your points one by one:
    – People also die in car accidents and from disease or violence, and we don’t preemptively kill them, so why should animals be any different? I bet if you ask the animals they will be happy to take their chances rather than being killed.
    – As to TNR, there is quite a bit of evidence that populations of free-roaming cats are declining due to a combination of TNR and feral populations receiving less seeding from owned pets now that over 90% of owned cats are sterilized
    – The supply of dogs in the United States is just about in balance with demand, and the supply of cats is manageable. There used to be a bad pet overpopulation problem in the US, but today the great majority of owners fix their pets.
    – There are enough people to give cats and dogs loving homes, and even if there weren’t, their lives still have value and should not be tossed away.
    – There are some irresponsible pet owners, but there is a far greater number of people who care about pets. Witness the hundreds who turned out over the weekend in North Carolina to adopt animals rescued from a hoarder. So many people adopted that the third day of the event had to be cancelled due to a lack of pets.

  3. Elizabeth Keeley


    Thanks for sharing your opinion. I can understand why things you’ve read online made have lead you to these conclusions about TNR. Perhaps on paper, it doesn’t make sense. But I can tell you from personal experience, as a person who lives in Jacksonville and was skeptical of TNR, that it does, in fact, work.

    TNR is the best solution to animal control. Euthanasia was used for decades and there was no measured decrease in euthanasia or intake. In fact, intake was escalating. TNR, on the other hand, is shown to decrease the population — there is a measurable decrease in cats and kittens entering shelters in cities who practice TNR.

    Here’s why TNR is a solution to the things you’re mentioning.:

    1) Most city shelters cannot afford to pay someone to trap cats – it’s a full time job and you’ll never catch them all. And euthanasia isn’t cheap either. So, they will rely on the public to bring the cats in. If people know you euthanize, they are less likely to bring cats to your shelter. So without the public and without an employee – you get way less cats to EU and you don’t even make a dent in the population. You just get a cycle of cats having kittens, and more kittens, and more kittens … you get the picture.

    2) Volunteers, however, are free and willing to trap for TNR on their own dime. Charitable foundations give grants to pay for spay and neuter. Non-profits raise money and provide surgeries. Zero cost to the municipal shelter AND having more hands on deck means catching more cats than one officer could do. Getting better yet?

    3) Studies show that feral cats don’t harm wildlife. The Smithsonian study was debunked. It’s not an accurate representation of cities like Jacksonville. Humans have a far more significant and measurable impact on ecosystems. Ask the folk in the Indian River area how human impact is affecting them right now.

    4) Did you know that fixed cats are a natural deterrent to other unfixed cats? Unfixed males are drawn to the scent of unfixed females. They seek each other out. If all the cats are fixed on your street – more won’t appear and make babies. If an area is overrun with cats, it’s because they aren’t fixed.

    5) Feral cats do belong in the wild because they are not domesticated animals. They are provided vaccines to prevent disease. Yes, their lives are shorter. Yes, they will die. But so will the animals in my house who are loved and cherished and fed better food that I feed myself. And – you’d be surprised just how many people care for ferals, even when they are sick and need help. (We have heated blankets and plush dog houses for our feral cats. They live a very nice life.)

    6) People hurt cats who are not feral and people hurt feral cats. We can’t change that. We can, however, TNR cats so that the population decreases and gives bad people less opportunities to do bad things.

    We can blame the ignorant, like you said, but where does blame get us in terms of fixing the issue? Nowhere. If you look at Jacksonville’s statistics, you will see a significant decrease in intake of cats to city shelters. Frankly, we tried killing before and it didn’t work. So, we have a new method that has shown in less than a decade to make a real impact. I appreciate your view on the subject and hope that mine has helped you better understand that TNR isn’t just a hippie-dippy movement to “save the cats”, but it’s genuinely about controlling the population so that we don’t have to kill ANY cats – adoptable or not.

    Thank you! 🙂

    p.s. – The birds on my street dive bomb the feral cats daily. The only dead thing the cats ever bring me are palmetto bugs, of which there are plenty.

  4. Janice Farnsworth

    Thank you both for giving details in order to educate others that have the same opinion. One other point, most feral colonies are managed and get fed quite often. Cats that aren’t hungry would rather laze around than work for prey. I, personally, have seen a big decrease in stray cats in my area since the TNR program started, and our birds and wildlife are more noticeable.

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