I’ve been meaning to move some of my favorite articles from Examiner.com over to this blog for a while. With the Atlanta screening of Redemption just a week away, I thought I’d start with the two-part interview I did with Nathan Winograd back in 2010, when he gave a Building No Kill Communities workshop in Douglasville. I re-published Part 1 yesterday. Some things have changed in the past few years, some have not. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this new documentary is that it will reach an audience that loves animals, but doesn’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about animal shelters, and will reframe the issues for a lot of people who do spend a lot of time thinking about them. Change starts with looking at a problem differently, from another angle, with thinking about it differently. Tickets to the Atlanta premiere ofRedemption are only $5 and must be purchased in advance here. There will not be ticket sales at the event.
Last month, internationally respected No Kill advocate Nathan Winograd visited Georgia and gave a free seminar entitled‘Building No Kill Communities’ to an audience of almost 300 animal advocates from across Georgia and from five neighboring states. He kindly answered a series of questions from the Atlanta Animal Welfare Examiner about the No Kill movement in general, and about what it means for Georgia in particular.
Georgia recently passed Grace’s Law, which bans the use of the gas chamber to kill shelter pets, effective December 31, 2010. This will end one particularly tortuous way of killing dogs and cats in shelters, but Georgia still kills a lot of shelter pets—260,000 a year, according to the GVAW report. Is there anything we can do legislatively that would stem this tide? Anything we should definitely not do?
The ideal animal control law would ban the killing of dogs and cats, and would prohibit the impounding of feral cats except for purposes of spay/neuter and release. But at this time in history, it is unlikely that local governments would pass such sweeping laws. The answer, therefore, lies in passing and enforcing shelter reform legislation that mandates how all shelters must operate. We need to regulate shelters in the same way we regulate hospitals and other agencies which hold the power over life and death.
We know how to end the killing and have for over a decade. But Georgia shelters are not voluntarily implementing the programs and services that make No Kill possible. As a result, animals continue to be needlessly killed. So we need to force them to. We need to force them to operate their shelters in a progressive, life-affirming way—removing the discretion which allows shelter leaders to ignore the best interests of the animals and kill them needlessly. We need to move beyond a system of shelters and pounds in which the lives of animals are subject to the discretion and whims of shelter leaders or health department bureaucrats. In short, we need to codify the programs and services of the No Kill Equation.
One of the programs is working with rescue groups. But it is clear too many shelters are not doing that voluntarily. The No Kill Advocacy Center, for example, surveyed rescue groups throughout New York State and found that almost three out four had tried to rescue animals from shelters and had been turned away. Worse, the shelters then turned around and killed those animals. I heard similar complaints from rescue groups when I was in Georgia. Thankfully, the New York State legislature is considering a law to make it illegal for a shelter in that state to kill an animal if a qualified rescue group is willing to save that animal’s life. Laws like that are needed in Georgia too.
We are also going to see legislation introduced in another state that would make it illegal for a shelter to kill an animal unless of the following criteria is met: there are no empty cages, kennels, or other living environments in the shelter that are suitable for the animal; the animal cannot share a cage or kennel with another animal; a foster home is not available; rescue groups have been notified and are not willing to accept the animal; and the shelter manager certifies that the above conditions are met and that he/she has no other reasonable alternative.
In fact, that law is modeled after the No Kill Advocacy Center’s model legislation, which would be a good place for Georgia animal lovers to start crafting their own shelter reform law. But what they should not do, what I hope they don’t do, is seek punitive legislation aimed at the public. Because when we seek laws to punish the public, we just end up punishing the animals. Animal shelters have proven that they are not responsible with the lives of animals. Animal shelters have proven that they find killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it. We should not pass laws giving them even more power to cite, impound, and kill animals. Because if Georgia shelters have proven anything, it is that they are more than willing to do just that.
Some people have called for mandatory spay-neuter laws (MSN), possibly on a temporary (5 year) basis as a means of reducing the number of animals killed in Georgia’s shelters. Is that a good idea?
If they worked, I would say “Yes.” If they worked, I would be mandatory spay/neuter’s biggest advocate. I would be going around the country seeing to it that every community passed one. I am not philosophically opposed to them, and I would never put a human-centric interest (breeding, breed enthusiasts, perpetuation of a breed) over the life of an animal. I know that is going to get a lot of people who support my work very upset. But I’ve never claimed otherwise. I’ve never written anything against mandatory spay/neuter on the basis of those other interests. I’ve been very clear from day one: I oppose them because they lead to more killing. And ending killing is my only goal.
It is not that I don’t support spay/neuter. I do. And when I was in charge of shelters, I supported it more than most shelter directors do. Spay/Neuter is one of the cornerstones of the No Kill Equation and a program I offered for free in both San Francisco and Tompkins County. My opposition to mandatory spay/neuter laws is because they increase the power of the animal control bureaucracy to impound and kill animals for violations, and that is what has occurred in municipalities which pass them. They exacerbate rather than decrease killing. This is not an anomaly. It has happened time and time again. It also causes animal control to divert scarce resources from programs which save lives to enforcement of ordinances that result in higher rates of killing. Now, the ASPCA has come out against them for the same reason, so even an organization that supports killing shelters and backs killing directors could no longer ignore the overwhelming evidence that they do not work. In fact, the evidence is so overwhelming that even the former head of animal control in Los Angeles, one of the chief proponents of such laws, admitted that his mandatory spay/neuter law was a failure.
These laws are not about saving lives. They are about more power for animal control departments, more officers, more sweeps of stray animals, more citations written, more animals impounded, and more animals killed. (They also feed the backyard breeder market as people then find other unaltered animals.) That groups which claim to be concerned with high levels of shelter killing would actually seek legislation to empower a dysfunctional animal control bureaucracy to impound—and thus kill—even more animals, is a contradiction they conveniently ignore.
When was the last time a mandatory sterilization law reduced killing 50% or 75% as has occurred in communities using the No Kill Equation model of sheltering? It has never happened. Ever. And more often, the opposite results. Los Angeles City shelters saw the first increase in impounds and killing in a decade after passing their spay/neuter law—a 24% increase in dog killing and a 35% increase in cat killing, at a time when other California communities were seeing killing decline.
That is why I’ve asked supporters that if they are going to push for these, despite all the evidence to the contrary, to add protections for animals in these laws, such as no impound provisions, free spay/neuter in lieu of a citation, and automatic repeal if killing goes up. They always refuse to do so. If they believe in these laws, despite all the evidence about how harmful to animals they actually are, why not put in these protections?
What about anti-tethering laws?
I support them because it is in a different category than the law above. Anti-tethering laws are aimed at stopping cruelty—and chaining dogs in the backyard 24/7 is cruelty. But they need to be well crafted so they do not result in the round up and killing of dogs. ‘Pit Bulls’ often fare even worse than other animals in Georgia’s shelters. For example, DeKalb County kills about 90% of the ‘pit bulls’ it takes in (almost 35 per week), as opposed to 65 % of all animals considered together. This leads some to see the ‘pit bull’ situation as hopeless. What can be done?
First of all, it is important to realize that shelter workers misidentify breeds over 70% of the time. So they are killing dogs by calling them “Pit Bulls” even when they have no real “Pit Bull” in them. But that aside, when I was in Tompkins, we saved 9 out of 10 dogs classified as “Pit Bulls.” Charlottesville has been No Kill for four years despite a 50% “Pit Bull” intake. And Reno is saving 92% of all dogs, despite a significant “Pit Bull” intake. To say it is hopeless when shelters across the country are living proof that is not is indefensible naysaying. That doesn’t mean it is not without its challenges. It most certainly is. We have to overcome stereotyping that is, in some ways, of the animal protection movement’s own creation. Every time organizations like HSUS or PETA call for Pit Bulls to be killed en masse, as they have in certain contexts, we reinforce the stereotype that they are different. But, as Karen Delise, who I consider the nation’s foremost Pit Bull advocate likes to say, Pit Bulls are just dogs. Two eyes, four legs, one heart.
Do you think it is possible to implement the No Kill Equation in a shelter staffed by prison inmates?’
Well, you are asking a former prosecutor who spent years sending people to prison, so I would guess I may be a little biased in my perceptions here. But given widespread No Kill success, and the fact that not a single one has been run with prison labor, my beliefs are on firm ground. So with those caveats, the short answer is that yes, it can be implemented. And yes, it will save some lives. But will it achieve No Kill? I doubt it.
Achieving No Kill is hard work, which is why many shelters are not No Kill. Killing is easier because they have a built in excuse for their own failures: pet overpopulation. But, if shelters are going to succeed, they need a professional staff. A modern shelter interested in reducing killing to the maximum extent practicable must meet certain mandatory minimums. These are:
1. Providing nourishment, medical care and social enrichment/behavioral rehabilitation for all domestic animals in its care; 2. Providing basic health screening for all animals; 3. Providing a preventative disease control program; 4. Providing a comprehensive adoption program; 5. Providing a volunteer and foster care program through which members of the community can get actively involved in helping the animals; 6. Providing lost and found services; 7. Providing information and access to subsidized spay/neuter services for low income pet owners in a community and for unowned feral cats; 8. Maintaining accurate and thorough records on all animal-related activities;
To reach its goals, these duties translate into several key program areas including working with rescue groups, providing access to low cost spaying and neutering, developing a community-based volunteer, foster care and offsite adoption program, providing options and solutions to overcome medical, behavioral and environmental issues that may cause caretakers to relinquish their pets, medical and behavioral programs and rehabilitation, disease control and socialization, and a proactive and positive public relations and marketing campaign. All these programs are essential to a well run shelter. And a well run shelter requires an ethical, highly motivated team with an emphasis on accountability, responsibility, and good judgment. People don’t get into prison by exercising those characteristics.
You’ve said that it is possible to transition shelters from high-kill to No Kill without additional funding or staff. How would that work in Georgia shelters, which are often staffed by prison inmates? What about spay-neuter before adoption in shelters that do not yet do that? How would that be funded?
In Tompkins, we actually reduced the number of staff despite a 75% decline in killing. In Reno, they’ve actually cut costs despite almost doubling the adoption rate. And as the 2009 leadership study showed, funding levels don’t really account for the differences between No Kill and killing shelters. In fact, when we became the first No Kill community in the country, municipalities were only paying us about $1.50 per capita for animal control. Is it right to do that? It isn’t. And part of the current director’s priority is to make the arrangement more equitable. What we did was subsidize that through our own fundraising. And despite that, we were still able to balance the budget. In fact, in 2003, my last full year, we finished with a $23,000 surplus to expenses. But, it is not a long term strategy and shelters must have an adequate level of funding.
So, that study should not be used to eviscerate shelter funding. But rather than wait around until more money flows from taxpayer coffers, using that as an excuse to kill, shelter directors can be doing a lot while they lobby for fair funding levels by cutting inefficiencies and firing underperforming staff. In addition, any increases in costs can be offset by more revenue from adoptions and donations from the community.
Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that while saving lives costs money, it is often more cost effective than killing. Adoptions bring in revenues, while killing costs money. Transfers to rescue groups also transfer the cost of care from taxpayer to private philanthropy, while saving money associated with killing. Foster parents augment services at little to no cost while the adoption revenue goes to the facility. And it is certainly less expensive to sterilize a feral cat than take that cat in, kill the cat, and dispose of her body, or that of her offspring. And the savings are exponential. Thanks to an investment in free and subsidized spay/neuter, San Francisco shelters are only taking in 7,000 dogs and cats per year, down from over 20,000 in the 1980s: a rate five times less than Reno and one of the lowest of any municipality in the nation. That’s a huge savings.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly, most expenses in an animal shelter are fixed costs, so saving the animals won’t increase the bulk of those.
How long does it take to transition a shelter from a place of killing to a place of safety? What if a shelter director wants to implement the No Kill Equation gradually, on a small scale or only partially?
We turned Tompkins County around overnight. Charlottesville became No Kill overnight. As did shelters in Kentucky, Utah, Indiana, Kansas and elsewhere. Some communities took a little longer, but there were real obstacles such as a shelter director hostile to calls for reform. But once committed, they also achieved success virtually overnight when those directors were replaced. And these communities take in more animals per capita than the national average. Reno takes in 39 animals for every 1,000 residents, five times the rate of San Francisco, three times the rate of Los Angeles, over twice the national average. In fact, their per capita intake rate is higher than New York City and other communities still killing healthy animals. But Reno is saving 90% of all animals, while these communities are not. Tompkins took in 26 animals per 1,000 residents when I was there, well above the national average of about 14. And not only do these communities prove it, the national data does to.
What needs to happen is that directors must implement all of the programs of the No Kill Equation comprehensively so that they replace killing entirely. In other words, every neonatal kitten should go into foster care, not just a precious few.
Of course, I would rather see shelter directors implement some of them rather than none of them, and I’d rather see them do them even at a token level rather than none at all, but that isn’t really the choice presented. Historically in Austin, Texas, for example, the pound director boasted that they had a foster care program. But she only allowed staff to foster. In other words, she was willing to kill kittens and puppies while turning away thousands of people in the community who would have been willing and able to help foster animals. The ASPCA backed her, saying she was doing a “good” job. I take issue with the ASPCA’s definition of what constitutes a good job, in fact, it should be categorized as a resounding failure. And thankfully, despite the ASPCA’s endorsement, she was removed because of her hostility to saving lives. But that aside, even if she were doing a “good” job compared to other shelters, good enough is never good enough when the lives of animals are at stake.
When Tompkins County, NY became the first No Kill community in the entire country back in 2001, how did shelter directors across the country react? Was it what you expected? It certainly electrified rescue groups and animal lovers all over the country, and I believe it played a pivotal role to the widespread success of the No Kill movement since then. In fact, a national magazine called it one of the top achievements in the nation. Because of Tompkins County’s seminal achievement, No Kill is taking the country by storm. And, thankfully, some shelter directors sought to replicate our success, with similar success. The success in Charlottesville is a direct result of the success in Tompkins. In fact, the future director of Charlottesville came to visit us in Tompkins to learn about our success so she could implement it back home. But, tragically and unethically, that is not how most directors responded. Most shelter directors sought to denigrate, downplay, ignore, and dismiss our success.
They came up with excuse after excuse. I was accused of killing animals in the middle of the night so no one would notice. I was accused of meeting people surrendering animals in our parking lot and killing them out there so they wouldn’t count in our statistics. I was accused of taking friendly animals and dumping them on the side of the road and claiming they were adopted. But you were there, hundreds of volunteers were there and all of us were part of a vast lifesaving initiative. So the attacks against me and our success denigrated the work of thousands of people who were working very hard to make a lifesaving difference in Tompkins County. And all of their malicious and false attacks were motivated by a desire to avoid accountability—to avoid having to answer the question, “if they can achieve No Kill in Tompkins County, why can’t we do it here?”—here, being in the community where shelter directors were still butchering animals by the hundreds or thousands in the face of readily available lifesaving alternatives they simply refused to implement.
But they aren’t making those claims anymore. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. It was easier to dismiss and ignore No Kill when Tompkins was the only No Kill community. But I’ve not been in Tompkins since 2004 and they are still saving over 90% of the animals (at least 92% each year for the last eight years). And Tompkins is not alone. There are now No Kill communities all over the U.S., and abroad—in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And our numbers continue to grow. Unless there is a mass conspiracy of parking lot killing, middle of the night killing, and dumping animals on the side of the road, there are simply no excuses left. As a result, shelter directors mired in killing are increasingly being seen for who and what they are.
We visited a local taxpayer-funded shelter while you were in Georgia—the Carroll County Animal Shelter. Would you comment on what you saw there?
I was met at the door by an incredibly hostile shelter director. When I asked him if he would give me a tour, he told me I could take one myself. He then proceeded to stand around chatting with lazy staff congregating at the front desk. I also saw lots of empty cages. In fact, banks and banks of empty cages, in spite of a high kill rate. I wish I could say it was an aberration, but I can’t. That is the paradigm built and maintained by HSUS and it is the status quo. In other words, it was typical of a do nothing, killing shelter run by uncaring staff who have no business having the power of life and death over defenseless animals.
What are the most important things concerned animal-lovers should do to reform their community’s shelter?
Fight hard and fight smart. Learn from the success of others. There are good resources out there to help you including the No Kill Advocacy Center, Fix Austin, and KCACCexposed. But if there is one piece of advice I can give animal lovers working for shelter reform is to remember that while we can achieve a No Kill nation overnight, regime change in shelters like the one I visited in Georgia may take time. Activists have to remember that killing is entrenched in this country and they will be ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, and attacked for challenging the status quo. But they need to look at the silver lining: the dialog was never occurring before, the killing was never challenged. If they keep fighting and fight smart, they will wear the opposition down, they will educate the public that there is another way, they will educate candidates for city council who will eventually campaign on a pro-No Kill platform as they have in other communities, they will eventually strip away the excuses.
In other words, no matter how many times they knock you down, you will win if you remember the golden rule: dust off, stand up, and fight back. In short, never give up, never give up, never give up.
I’ve been meaning to move some of my favorite articles from Examiner.com over to this blog for a while. With the Atlanta screening of Redemption just a week away, I thought I’d start with the two-part interview I did with Nathan Winograd back in 2010, when he gave a Building No Kill Communities workshop in Douglasville. Some things have changed in that time, some have not. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this new documentary is that it will reach an audience that loves animals, but doesn’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about animal shelters, and will reframe the issues for a lot of people. Change starts with looking at a problem differently, from another angle, with thinking about it differently. Tickets to the Atlanta premiere of Redemption are only $5 and must be purchased in advance here. There will not be ticket sales at the event.
Last month, internationally respected No Kill advocate Nathan Winograd visited Georgia and gave a free seminar entitled‘Building No Kill Communities’ to an audience of almost 300 animal advocates from across Georgia and from five neighboring states. He kindly answered a series of questions from the AtlantaAnimal WelfareExaminer about the No Kill movement in general, and about what it means for Georgia in particular.
Redemption: the Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No kill Revolution in America—that’s a pretty provocative title. When did you first realize that ‘pet overpopulation’ was a myth? Did you find it difficult to believe? I mean, 4 million animals are killed in American shelters annually. That’s a large number of animals. I talk about this in my new book, Irreconcilable Differences. I did not wake up one day and say, “Pet overpopulation is a myth.” Nor did I think that someday I would champion the notion that it was. I did not even set out to prove it. It unfolded as part of my work in the humane movement and the facts began to compel further analysis. In fact, many years ago, I too believed the opposite. I once argued with my wife that “There were too many animals and not enough homes.” I am ashamed of having done so, but I did. She correctly argued that even if it were true, killing remained unethical. She also correctly argued that if we took killing off the table, human ingenuity and human compassion would find a way to make it work. But, more importantly, she asked me how I knew it was true.
How did I know? Because I’ve heard it repeated a thousand times. Because I took the fact of killing in shelters and then rationalized the reason backward. I was too embarrassed to admit so. But therein began a journey that started in San Francisco, then Tompkins County, New York, then Charlottesville, Virginia, followed by dozens of shelters in communities across the country. I reviewed data from over 1,000 shelters nationwide, and reviewed several national studies. And the conclusion became not just inescapable, but unassailable. Rather than bury it, ignore it or downplay it, I did what anyone who truly loves animals would have done. I celebrated it. Why? Because it meant that we had the power to end the killing, today.
And since that time, other studies and the increase in the number of No Kill communities have proven I was right; indeed, they show I was being conservative. While four million animals are being killed, it is not because of a lack of homes that they are being killed. Of these four million, roughly 3.6 million are not suffering, hopelessly ill, or truly vicious dogs with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation. If shelters did a better job returning lost animals home, they could, for example, increase the percentage of dog reclaims from an average of about 25% to 60%. If shelters embraced TNR, they could release these cats to their habitat, rather than kill them. If they had pet retention programs to help people overcome the behavior, medical, and environmental conditions which cause them to surrender animals, they could reduce by as much as 30% the number of animals coming in to the shelter. If they utilized foster care programs, such a program would provide an alternative to killing the underaged animals entering their facility. And if they had good customer service, employed basic marketing principles, and comprehensively implemented an adoption program, they’d have little trouble finding homes for the 2 to 3 million animals being killed in U.S. pounds and shelters who need adoption. That’s potentially 2 million dogs and cats competing for the 17 million people who are looking to bring a new dog or cat into their homes, have not decided where that animal will come from, and can be influenced to adopt from a shelter.
Contrary to what many shelters falsely claim are the primary hurdles to lifesaving (e.g., public irresponsibility or lack of homes), the biggest impediments are actually in shelter management’s hands. Effectiveness in shelter goals and operations begins with caring and competent leadership, staff accountability, effective programs, and good relations with the community—which do not currently exist in most shelters. It means putting actions behind the words of every shelter’s mission statement that “All life is precious.” And it is abundantly clear that the practices of most shelters violate this principle.
Shelter killing is not the result of pet overpopulation; it is the result of shelter managers who find it easier to kill animals than save them. And not only do they kill animals they should be saving, too many of them neglect and abuse them in the process. The bottom line is that shelter killing is unnecessary and unethical. And pet overpopulation is merely an excuse for poorly performing shelter managers who want to blame others for their own failures and keep on with business as usual. Instead of challenging the data, however, they attack me. But I could go away tomorrow and that wouldn’t change the facts, or the inescapable conclusion. The cat is out of the bag, and is never going back in.
When did things go wrong in the American animal sheltering system? It was always wrong. In the 19th Century, the modern pound system was established to rid cities of stray dogs by putting them to death. This was done in a variety of cruel ways: shooting, poisoning, drowning, even beating them to death. By contrast, the animal protection movement was founded on compassion, to combat those efforts. What I argue in Redemption is that the humane movement lost its way when it moved from advocacy on behalf of those stray dogs to operating the majority of kill shelters. It was a great betrayal of Henry Bergh’s founding vision for an SPCA. As a result, an agency founded to save lives, in fact founded on the highest ideals of compassion, was replaced by a network of thousands of them all across the country whose primary mission became killing animals, even when those animals were not suffering.
In the mid-1970s, a lot of these agencies, along with the leaders of the national animal protection organizations like the ASPCA, Humane Society of the United States, and American Humane Association, met for the first time to discuss shelter killing. But by this time, the view that killing was both necessary and proper, indeed the right and kind thing to do, had become so entrenched that any effort to change the status quo—to save feral cats, to work with dogs who might have behavior challenges, to save neonatal animals, to partner with rescue groups—was met with recrimination and open hostility. Groups like HSUS gave shelters a new enemy: the American public, even though the public held the keys to ending the killing through adoption, fostering, volunteering, and rescue. And, sadly, the American public had one more reason to avoid their shelter, aside from the fact that they killed the bulk of their occupants.
When did they go right? Well, they started to go right when Rich Avanzino changed the course of the San Francisco SPCA’s history and put it on a path toward lifesaving. In total contravention of HSUS’ conventional wisdom, Avanzino embraced the public and asked them to help him save lives. And they did, opening up their hearts, homes, and wallets and in the process—through a series of programs and services that made it easy for the public to do the right thing; to adopt, rather than buy, to spay/neuter because cost was no longer an issue—made San Francisco the first to end the killing of healthy dogs and cats.
I took those lessons, and that philosophy, with me when I took over in Tompkins County, NY, radicalizing and expanding the programs to the point that they replaced killing entirely. Together, I, the volunteers, a new staff with a “can do” attitude, and all the animal lovers of Tompkins County, created the nation’s first—and at the time only—No Kill community. We took a concept from the theoretical and made it real. And we not only proved it was possible, but that it could happen overnight.
Moreover, we didn’t just save all healthy dogs and cats the way San Francisco did. We also saved all the sick, injured, unweaned, and traumatized treatable ones. We saved all the feral cats. And we saved other shelter animals including bunnies, mice, hamsters, iguanas, even the occasional chicken, goose, and horse who came through our doors. It electrified the nation. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The No Kill Equation is the 11-point plan for reforming animal shelters. When was it first articulated? How has it evolved?
Most of the programs that are articulated in the No Kill Equation came from the vision of Richard Avanzino. But after Avanzino left San Francisco, I put together a document called, “Mission: Possible.” At the time, it was a description of the 10-point plan. That is what I set out to implement in Tompkins, with the help of the volunteers who always, always rose to the occasion.
But over time, it has expanded. We added an important 11th program, which I call “proactive redemption efforts” to increase the percentage of lost animals who get back home. That has made a crucial lifesaving difference in places with higher than average impounds, allowing them to rehome over 60% of stray dogs and increasing seven-fold the percentage of cats reclaimed by their families; thus freeing up shelter kennel space and allowing them to save more lives.
At the No Kill Advocacy Center, we needed to name the programs and services, since “Mission: Possible” was associated with the San Francisco SPCA. It was actually my wife who coined the term the “No Kill Equation” and since then, it has taken on a life of its own. What does the NKE mean for the South? Is it even possible in the land of red clay? In Georgia, about 50 of the 159 counties have no form of animal control and no animal shelters. What does the NKE mean for them?
Historically—and to this very day—animal control in this country is an institution that is designed to warehouse and kill animals at the lowest possible cost. That is the status quo that HSUS and other national organizations have championed for so long.
Given the success of the No Kill philosophy, these agencies can and should be temporary way stations for animals, a place where they go for a new life, rather than what they too often find—the end of the line. So we need to be careful we are not striving to create institutions of killing. That is never the better choice.
The good news is, of course, that this isn’t the only choice faced. It is not “no animal control” vs. “animal control based on killing.” The third choice is No Kill animal control.
And the even better news is that some of the most successful communities in the country in terms of saving lives are in the South, in historically poorer states. Right now, there are No Kill communities in the North and in the South, in urban areas and in rural areas, in politically liberal states and in very conservative ones. What I have learned is that it is not where the shelter is located that matters, it is who runs it and whether they implement the programs and services of the No Kill Equation.
Traditionally, the blame for shelter killing has been directed at two targets—one amorphous and the other, defenseless—the “irresponsible public” and the animals themselves. If ‘pet overpopulation’ is a myth and there really are enough homes for the animals killed in shelters, and shelters like the Tompkins county SPCA, Reno, NV and Charlottesville, VA have demonstrated for years that it is possible for communities to be No Kill, then why do we have so much shelter killing today? According to a recent report compiled by the Georgia Voters for Animal Welfare, Georgia’s shelters kill about 260,000 dogs and cats annually.
Why, indeed? Just the other day I got an e-mail from a shelter volunteer whose director told her No Kill was impossible, even though it has already been achieved and has been a reality for almost a decade. She also wrote to tell me that their local shelter director said a shelter had to turn animals away in order to be No Kill, another falsehood given the proliferation of No Kill animal control shelters.
The term No Kill means that a shelter does not kill savable animals, roughly 90-95% of all shelter intakes. It has nothing to do with whether the shelter is public or private, municipal or SPCA, open admission or one that only takes in animals it can do so without killing. There are No Kill shelters that fit all of these categories.
The reality is that shelters continue to kill because killing is easier than doing what is necessary to stop it. Shelters kill because they are run by uncaring, inept, and lazy managers, and equally uncaring, inept, and lazy staff. Shelters kill because they refuse to accept responsibility, while they point the finger of blame elsewhere: the public and the animals themselves. And shelters kill because national organizations like the ASPCA and HSUS that should be holding them accountable, instead provide them political cover to continue killing.
Also according to that report, the percentage of animals killed varies greatly from county to county and is even 100% in some places. What are usually the most important determinants for variation in the percentage of animals killed in one shelter versus another?
In 2009, the No Kill Advocacy Center commissioned a study to look at this very question. The study looked at funding rates, location, a host of factors. But none of those could explain the differences in lifesaving rates between shelters. For example, one shelter spent $6.00 per capita on animal control but only saved 40% of the animals. A shelter in a neighboring community with similar demographics only spent $1.50 per capita, ¼ the rate of the former, but saved 90%.
What did explain the difference in lifesaving—in fact, the only thing that accounted for the differences—was who was running them. In other words, the difference between high rates of lifesaving and high rates of killing came down to the choices made by the people running those shelters. It came down to leadership and how committed those leaders were to embracing the No Kill philosophy and implementing the programs which make it possible.
That is why San Francisco went from slaughtering most animals to saving most. That is why Tompkins County went from killing to No Kill. And the same is true of every community that has achieved No Kill thereafter. Leadership is the single most important aspect of the No Kill Equation. Because all the money in the world, all the offers by rescue groups and volunteers, won’t save animals at a shelter run by an uncaring director who refuses to hold his or her staff accountable, or refuses to give animals to rescue groups rather than kill them, or refuses to use foster parent volunteers, or refuses to implement any of the other alternatives to killing. Quite simply, No Kill starts as an act of will.
The buck stops with the shelter’s director. Yes, there are other factors: if a shelter is overseen by regressive health department bureaucrats, if they are hamstrung by an inept Board of Directors, if they inherit a shelter in disarray, all of these will impact how quickly a director can cross the No Kill goal line. But at the end of the day, all of them can and should. And, so it is fair to say that in the vast majority of cases, the ultimate responsibility for whether animals live or die under their watch lies with them. The buck stops with the shelter’s director. And no amount of posturing or protesting will ever change that fact.
Why do some people oppose No Kill? It seems obvious that lives should be saved. What is all the fuss about?
That is the question I tackled in Part I of Redemption called “The Controversy over Saving Lives.” The difference comes down to the fact that “we” (meaning SPCAs, humane societies, animal protection groups) are doing the killing. And it is always harder to stand up to one’s so-called “friends” than one’s clear cut enemies. But stand up we must. For if we are ever to achieve a No Kill nation, we must always do what is in the best interests of animals even when it means that we must fight against someone who claims to be part of our movement, but whose actions in killing defenseless animals belie that claim.
In the end, the people who oppose No Kill do not care enough about the animals. Because I’ll tell you one thing you can engrave in stone: no one—and I mean absolutely no one—would be an advocate for killing if they were the ones facing the needle.
How does the current economic situation in Georgia pose challenges and opportunities for No Kill?
Economic downturns are always a challenge for organizations. Especially if bureaucrats down prioritize lifesaving, the downturn gives them an excuse to continue underfunding and underprioritizing shelter services. But here’s the flipside: those shelters which have embraced No Kill have seen donations continue to increase during the recent economic recession, and some of these are seeing donations hit all-time highs. They also continue to save record numbers of lives, despite the recession.
In order to achieve success in this difficult economic environment, a shelter must be run for innovative, optimistic, passionate people who see challenges as opportunities, rather than just one more in a long litany of excuses they use in order to justify their needless killing.
History has proven that there is enough love and compassion in every community if shelters do good things for animals and ask for the public’s help. Even while virtually every other sector of the economy was plummeting, per capita spending on companion animals continued its meteoric rise and hit $50 billion in the U.S. And giving to animal related causes remains the fastest growing segment in American philanthropy.
What the public won’t do with their hard earned dollars, especially in times of economic stress, is finance a shelter that kills animals. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to No Kill in Georgia? And what are important assets?
The biggest obstacles to lifesaving success in Georgia are the same obstacles faced in communities in other states where killing is the norm: shelter directors content with killing who refuse to change, uncaring bureaucrats who fail to hold those directors accountable, and the built in excuse of pet overpopulation. That is why any effort to reform these shelters must attack the root cause of shelter killing, by removing these directors, electing animal lovers to positions of power, and exposing the myth of pet overpopulation.
What is going to overcome this is the same thing that has overcome it in communities across the country: the people. A few months ago, the head of the pro-killing Humane Society of the United States came to San Francisco to defend their anti-animal positions including the embrace of Michael Vick, the most notorious animal abuser of our generation even while HSUS lobbied to have the dogs he abused killed, and their abhorrent record on advocating killing in shelters. Barely two dozen people showed up.
When I went to rural Georgia, in Douglasville, to talk about how Georgia can become a No Kill state, almost 300 people showed up. Why? Because people love animals and want to help build a better world for them. Experiences like that, which I encounter frequently, remind me just how widespread our love for companion animals is as a society. And it is that love that gives me faith that we will fix our broken animal shelter system.