Trends: The “No-Kill” Shelter Movement Is on the Rise

A status report on the growing movement that has taken root, especially in major U.S. metropolitan areas.

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Long considered by some as an idealistic, unworkable goal, the no-kill effort has now moved into the mainstream. “Even just a decade ago the majority of Americans probably believed that a no-kill approach was improbable,” says Ellen Jefferson, DVM, of Austin, Texas, executive director of Austin and San Antonio Pets Alive! “But today as people see cities, such as Reno, Kansas City and Austin, successfully establishing no-kill programming, they increasingly believe the ideal can become a reality.”

Despite challenges and struggles still ahead, life-saving programs are gaining dramatic headway. “Within a decade, most cities should be able to save 70 percent or more of their animals,” Jefferson says. “That 70 percent is the low-hanging fruit (a very manageable percentage to accomplish) so with mainstream public sentiment favoring no-kill programs, there’s no reason why this goal — or more — can’t be accomplished in each community.”

Rich Avanzino of Pleasanton, Calif., president of Maddie’s Fund, offers the following: “At Maddie’s Fund we consider having a no-kill nation by 2015 a realistic goal; public sentiment is firmly behind the movement, and the numbers make it a realistic goal.”

Numbers give hope

Although euthanasia to control population is still practiced in traditional, open-admission shelters, the number of animals euthanized has significantly dropped. “In 1970, some 23 million animals were being euthanized in shelters each year, but this year (Maddie’s Fund estimates) the number to be roughly 3 million … Once we subtract the number of animals euthanized for truly merciful purposes such as terminal cancer, we find we need homes for about 2.3 million animals per year,” says Avanzino, who is widely regarded as the father of the no-kill movement.

That figure of 2.3 million pets euthanized every year seems large at first glance, but consider that Americans today own about 170 million cats and dogs. “Each year there are an estimated 17 million Americans looking to get a new pet but haven’t decided where,” Avanzino says. “It’s quite reasonable to believe that we can convince 2.3 million of these 17 million to adopt from a shelter or rescue.”

Positive outcomes can happen quickly when a community commits to a life-saving program.


“In Austin, we had a euthanasia rate of close to 50 percent as recently as 2008, but our annual save rate is now 91 percent,” Jefferson says. “Most importantly, since 2011 no cat, kitten, puppy, small-breed dog or (readily handled) large-breed dog has died in Austin simply because it didn’t have a home. Our big dogs with behavior problems will also be saved once we have people committed to the extensive training work.”

Money matters

“Thirty years ago private foundation dollars spent on animal welfare causes amounted to less than $1 million per year, but today that number is more than $70 million,” Avanzino says. “In 2015, we expect that number to be more than $100 million.”

Individual people also now reach deeper into their wallets to support no-kill shelters. “Even in recent challenging economic times the number of individuals giving to animal welfare went steadily up,” Avanzino says. “In today’s society where 63 percent of owners consider pets as family and the amount spent on pet care has tripled in the last two decades, it’s realistic to project individual contributions to animal welfare will at least double in the next few years.”

Moving into the mainstream

As no kill becomes more accepted and realized, veterinarians are exploring new roles in a life-saving nation. “Twenty years ago there was no such thing as shelter medicine taught in veterinary schools, but now 24 of the 28 veterinary colleges offer classes and programs on the subject,” Avanzino says.

Animals entering shelters can be stressed and especially vulnerable to disease, which can delay or prevent adoption. Moreover, veterinarians in general are an important part of the no-kill solution because they can identify risk factors that lead people to abandon their pets and offer support and intervention to prevent relinquishment.

Building coalitions

Today, localized small organizations are banding together to effect more powerful change. “These grass-roots organizations, some made up of a mere handful of people, are critical to the no-kill movement,” says Gregory Castle, chief executive officer and cofounder of Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. Best Friends has been working to establish a network and infrastructure to connect the various local groups.

“Many small local groups don’t have the resources or knowledge for fundraising efforts, so Best Friends helps with advice, promotion and a model for big fundraising events,” Castle explains. “We provide the mechanism for the event, and for example in projects, such as the Strut Your Mutt dog walk (which has now expanded to 11 cities), we leave 70 percent of the funds raised with the local organizations to further their no-kill efforts.”

In Los Angeles, Best Friends launched the No-Kill Los Angeles initiative, forming a coalition of more than 70 animal welfare organizations to end the killing of healthy and treatable pets in the city shelters by the year 2017. In 2012, the NKLA Coalition’s first year of existence, deaths in Los Angeles city shelters decreased 12 months in a row, culminating in 4,200 fewer animals killed than in the year prior.

In addition to joining forces to promote no kill, participation in conferences can also serve as a barometer of the measure of interest in no kill. “We had 350 (participants) at our annual conference in 2001, but we had 1,500 participants at our No More Homeless Pets conference in Jacksonville, Fla. (in 2013),” Castle says. “No-kill efforts are getting results, and the results are being noticed.”

Government partners

“In the past, many governments were too firmly entrenched in established systems to accept lifesaving programs,” says Bonney Brown of Reno, Nev., president and founder of the Humane Network and past executive director of Nevada Humane Society in Reno. “Proactive support from local governments undoubtedly makes a dramatic difference, but changes come slowly to most governmental agencies.”

Fortunately, progress is under way. Cities such as San Antonio, Jacksonville and counties comprising Atlanta have proactively sought out partnerships with no-kill organizations.

“As opposed to the common scenario of outside private groups leading — if not pushing — a city toward no kill, the city of San Antonio itself wanted to change and sought out the help of Austin Pets Alive!” Jefferson says. Although the city still has a huge stray population (especially cats), the city initiative and involvement allowed a newly formed San Antonio Pets Alive! to move forward effectively and quickly.

“Focusing on saving only the animals slated for euthanasia, San Antonio Pets Alive! has been able to save more than 10,000 animals from unnecessary euthanasia since January of 2012 when we set up the program,” Jefferson says.

Some government animal services departments are directly initiating conversations with no-kill organizations. “For example, at the November 2013 conference Alley Cat Allies conference in Washington D.C., there were several directors of animal-services departments speaking about their progressive cat population management efforts,” Brown says.

In cities such as Jacksonville, programs that allow cats to remain free after spaying and neutering are gaining acceptance. “The city of Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services partnered with First Coast No More Homeless Pets in a Feral Freedom feline program (trap/neuter/release), leading to dramatic life-saving results,” Brown says.

Passionate debate

Within the no-kill movement, as with many social movements, distinct groups advocate different means to achieve similar goals.

“Animal-welfare groups debate issues, such as statistical reporting, the use of resources and even how to define a no-kill shelter,” Brown explains. Different shelters, for example, might both state that they euthanize only for humane purposes, but disagree on the definition of humane purposes. “The specific debates within the no-kill groups may be a good sign because in many social movements, right before a cause becomes accepted by the majority of the populace, the loudest debate may come from the entrenched groups,” Jefferson says.

Although various life-saving groups and individuals debate specifics, the no-kill goal is on the rise. “We need all kinds of passionate people to move this issue forward,” Brown says. “A social movement thrives with both tough-stance people out in front and also people willing to work together and compromise to get things done.”

Setting the stage

A community might have the heart for no kill, but they also need resources, a roadmap, realistic goals and a starting point. “We found that the first step was to focus on the specific animals at the city shelter that would definitely die (usually in the next few hours) without intervention,” Jefferson explains. “This focus gave us direct feedback: if we saved 10 animals on a day when 100 were euthanized, we knew we had reduced the killing for that day by 10 percent.”

After the establishment of a no-kill system, sustainability becomes the challenge. “To sustain a life-saving system, the shelter needs to move more animals out alive and reduce the number of incoming animals,” Brown explains. “Typically this involves aggressive adoption programs, as well as programs that help people keep their pets rather than turn them in to shelters.”

Programs need flexibility. “Austin has now seen over 30 consecutive months of a greater than 90 percent save rate, but we must continually stay responsive to change and keep the government, community and volunteers committed,” Jefferson says.

Well-oiled machine

Both in the initial stages and down the road, timing is critical to the success of a no-kill shelter. “For the program to work, we need to recycle animals quickly, hurrying them both in and out of the system as fast as they are entering the municipal shelters,” Jefferson explains. “To accomplish this we rely heavily on foster homes that currently house over two-thirds of the rescued animals.”

No-kill cities must continue to cultivate increased adoption rates. “We hold regular adoption events, offer extensive information on the animals online and provide convenient hours of operation,” Jefferson says. “Sustaining the no-kill programs requires ongoing volunteer and foster dedication and recruitment, reaching new audiences and constantly innovating for every new problem that arises.”

Photo Credit: Golden Retriever by Shutterstock.

Lynn M. Hayner

A retired attorney, Lynn Hayner is a contributing editor to DOGSTER magazine and has been writing about animals for 10+ years. She especially enjoys combining her two interests: animals and law. A lifelong owner of German Shepherd Dogs, she also shares her home with a rescued cat and two gerbils.


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