In the animal rescue world, no-kill shelters are a fairly new idea, having come on the scene around the early 1980’s. Before then, it was common practice for shelters to kill animals whenever they ran out room in order to make room for more.
Fortunately, the way people relate to animals has changed dramatically for the better over the last 30 years, and more animal rescue organizations are devoting their time and energy to figuring out how to lower the number of homeless animals being destroyed in shelters.
But are “no-kill” shelters really possible? To help answer that question, first we need to understand the difference between a traditional, open admission shelter and a no-kill shelter.
What Constitutes A “No-Kill” Shelter?
By definition, a traditional, or open admission, animal shelter is an agency that must accept (or chooses to accept) any and all companion animals regardless of health, injuries, temperament, reason for surrender, or space available, with no limitation. These include municipal animal control facilities that are funded by the local government (commonly referred to as “the pound”).
In contrast, a no-kill shelter does not kill healthy or treatable animals even when the shelter is full, reserving euthanasia for terminally ill animals or those considered dangerous to public safety.
Also included in the animal welfare picture are rescue organizations, who typically get their animals by rescuing them from either private shelters or municipal animal control facilities. Rescue organizations often don’t have a physical building in which to house animals. Instead, they rely on volunteer foster homes to provide care and socialization for the animals until they are adopted.
The generally accepted criteria for a shelter to be considered “no-kill” is that it maintains a 90% or more “live release rate” – which means 90% or more of the animals leaving the shelter leave alive. The ultimate goal for no-kill shelters is to get more adoptable pets out of shelters and into forever homes, while also actively working to reduce the number of animals coming in.
“Euthanasia” vs. “Killing”
So why is it becoming more common to hear animal advocates using the word “killing” instead of the less offensive word “euthanasia”?
The fact of the matter is, the word euthanasia is derived from the greek words “eu”, meaning good or well, and “thanatos”, meaning death. So euthanasia is a “good death”, or an act of mercy. From a veterinary standpoint, it’s reserved for situations when a pet is terminally ill, suffering, or has sustained injuries that just can’t be fixed with veterinary intervention. It would also apply to some animals who, usually due to a history of abuse, have such severe anxiety or behavioral problems that it doesn’t allow them to be candidates for rehabilitation or makes them a threat to public safety.
Conversely, if an animal is considered healthy, or can be treated or saved with medical intervention, has special needs, or is considered a “senior” pet and has its life ended simply to free up space in a shelter to make room for more animals, that animal is considered to have been killed.
Here are the tragic statistics: According to Best Friends Animal Society, more than 4,100 cats and dogs are killed in America’s shelters every day. These are healthy and adoptable animals who could have made beloved family pets. This number does not include the approximately 2,000 cats and dogs who are euthanized each day for either incurable illness or insurmountable behavior problems.
That’s the bad news… now for the good!
Are No-Kill Shelters Really Possible?
The cold hard fact remains that there always seems to be more homeless animals than there are homes. Every city in the country has the unfortunate task of taking in surrendered animals or picking them up off the streets every day. Since no-kill shelters have to limit their intake, by default the remaining animals must go to another agency (usually municipal shelters) to accommodate them.
But here’s where it gets interesting. The beauty of the No-Kill Movement is that it isn’t based purely on what individual shelters do or don’t do. Instead, no-kill status is achieved when an entire community, and the group of shelters within that community, works together instead of separately to achieve an overall 90% save rate.
Just a few short years ago, the estimated number of pets killed in shelters annually was around 17 million. Today, that number has dropped to 1.5 million. According to Best Friends, more than 1,500 communities in the United States are now no-kill. These include Los Angeles, California; Atlanta, Georgia; Kansas City, Missouri; Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Lynchburg, Virginia; and Duluth, Minnesota, with hundreds more on the way.
So what does this look like in the real world?
Numbers Don’t Lie
In 2008 in Lynchburg, Virginia, a city of 80,000 people, the Lynchburg Humane Society (LHS) had a save rate of only 49%. In 2009, one of the shelter’s board members started researching the no-kill movement (interestingly, with the original intention of discrediting it). After much research, the board member realized that no-kill status might actually be possible, and reached out to a former colleague at a local SPCA for help. This colleague came on board with LHS as Executive Director in 2009, and she immediately began implementing strategies to get more adoptable pets out of the shelter and into forever homes. By 2010, the LHS live release rate was 84%, and by 2011 it had officially reached no-kill status. In 2016, the LHS reached a live release rate of 96%!
In Duluth, Minnesota, prior to 2009 at the non-profit Animal Allies Humane Society (AAHS), the save rates were around 50%. After making some changes in their policies (including identifying and correcting an issue with the adoption process that was making it unnecessarily difficult for people to adopt), the projected save rate for 2017 is estimated to be at 97%.
These are but 2 examples of many communities around the country who are achieving no-kill status. Best Friends says, “It used to be that the no-kill mindset was found mainly in private non-profit shelters run by people who wanted to save as many animals as possible. The idea that a municipal shelter (more commonly known as ‘the pound’) would embrace progressive ideas aimed at saving animals while also protecting the public and accepting all animals brought to them was just that – an idea. A fantasy. Thankfully, ‘no-kill’ and ‘municipal’ are no longer mutually exclusive.”
How No-Kill Shelters Are Achieving Success
One of the primary ways no-kill shelters are achieving higher save rates is by increasing the number of animals being adopted. This is being accomplished by:
- Holding adoption promotion events several times throughout the year.
- Aggressively marketing the shelter, including rebranding it if necessary.
- Eliminating unnecessary barriers to adoption (i.e. requiring fenced-in yards for all dogs, requiring adopters to be at home during the day, focusing on looking for ‘perfect’ adopters instead of for loving homes).
- Expanding the pool of potential adopters by opening satellite adoption centers (smaller facilities in shopping malls or big-box pet supply stores like Petco and PetSmart).
- Remaining open almost every day of the year, including weekends and most holidays (to allow people to come in when they’re not working).
- Stopping the practice of having animal control officers pick up healthy community cats and bringing them into the shelter (feral cats are not always socialized and can be extremely hard to adopt out since they are not used to being around, or trusting, people).
- Expanding low-cost or free spay and neuter programs to reduce the number of unwanted pets being born.
- Requiring people who surrender pets to make appointments for scheduled intake (which allows a counselor to meet with them to find out why the pet is being surrendered and if there are any options available that would allow the person to keep their pet.)
- Offering free microchipping and low-cost vaccines.
Another way no-kill shelters are achieving success is by working closely with other shelters and rescue groups to pool resources so the population of homeless dogs and cats can be redistributed. One example is a Los Angeles shelter who reached out to a shelter in Colorado in the month of March during kitten season (which in warmer climates like California can run almost year round). The LA shelter was overrun with kittens and faced the prospect of having to kill many of them due to lack of space.
It was still cold in Colorado in March, and the Colorado shelter was actually experiencing a high demand for kittens, but they had a very short supply. The LA shelter used a van to transport over 20 kittens to the Colorado shelter, and all the kittens were adopted within a week!
Creating No-Kill Communities – What Can You Do To Help?
Every day more than 4,100 cats and dogs are killed in America’s shelters simply because they didn’t get adopted. This tragedy doesn’t just affect the animals; it also affects the thousands of compassionate people who work in these shelters who suffer the incomprehensible pain of having to destroy healthy, adoptable animals on a daily basis who, had their circumstances been different, would have made wonderful family pets.
So what can you do to help?
- Talk to the people who run your local shelter and ask them what they want to do but can’t, whether due to lack of funding, lack of resources, or laws and/or regulations currently in place that prevent them from doing it.
- Ask your local shelter if they are publicly reporting their shelter statistics on the national database Shelter Animals Count. This website collects data in every state and uses it to identify which animals are most at risk, where they are located, and how best to increase adoptions for these animals. If your shelter already reports their numbers, let them know how much you appreciate their help! If not, request they consider sharing their data so that more lives can be saved.
- Find out when your shelter’s governing policies and rules were put into place. Are they outdated? Can they be re-examined? Give them the website information for the Best Friends Network, a group of over 2,200 animal welfare groups in every state in the U.S. who can provide valuable resources and work directly with them to help implement more effective policies to increase adoptions.
- Email your elected officials, or attend city council meetings and let your elected representatives know your feelings on animal homelessness and your desire for establishing a no-kill movement in your community.
- Be an advocate for proposing legislation to better protect animals in your community. This can include overturning breed-specific legislation that discriminates against certain breeds of dogs, passing laws to protect community cats who have been spayed or neutered and released back into their environment as part of a TNR (trap-neuter-return) program, or passing a law to prohibit pet stores in your community from selling dogs and cats from puppy and kitten mills.
No-Kill: The Future Of Animal Rescue
The No-Kill Movement isn’t just a pipe dream. With the help of animal lovers in our communities, rescuers, volunteers, and lawmakers, it can become reality. Over the last several years, grassroots movements have been making great strides towards achieving this goal.
Success looks different for every community, and there’s no one size fits all solution. The secret to success is figuring out the biggest challenges in each individual community and finding out how to solve them, one at a time. As more and more cities and communities become no-kill, other shelters and communities realize that not only is it possible, it’s possible for THEM. And when this happens, everyone wins!
For more information on the No-Kill Initiative and how you can help, go to https://www.bestfriends.org/ .
Best Friends website also has a national map containing shelter data so people can pull up information on their own state to see what’s happening and how they can help. Identifying which areas are struggling is the first step towards identifying how the community can help.
Thank you to Best Friends Animal Society for statistics and information from their articles: “No-Kill Communities: One Size Does Not Fit All”, Best Friends Magazine, March/April 2018 Issue; and “What A Difference Data Makes”, Best Friends Magazine, May/June 2018 Issue.
Has your local animal shelter achieved no-kill status? If not, would you be willing to reach out to them to see how you can help? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!