How Can No-Kill Communities Hold the Line? By Sharing the Wealth

One of the stickier problems for our movement is how to move forward from our successes. While it is horrifying to see so many shelters and animal control departments still mired in conditions that would shame a slaughterhouse, it is also disappointing to watch organizations fall from grace, whether abruptly after the loss of a good director or gradually through one decision after another to slide back into a “we-have-no choice-but-to-kill-some” mentality.

My hypothesis is that in the DNA of organizations is programmed for “too many animals” and does not support the necessary adaptation to a universe of doing something other than processing this surplus.

Imagine this scenario – far away in some communities, already achieved in others:

  • Spay/neuter programs have been so successful that there are waiting lists for puppies.
  • TNR is established in the community. Despite detractors and occasional controversies, colonies are healthy and small, and consist of mostly old cats.
  • All dogs, puppies, cats and kittens free from medical or behavioral problems are saved.
  • Strong networks of veterinarians, behavior trainers, and supporters exist, and almost all treatable animals are saved. There is open discourse around what the true thresholds are for irremediably “dangerous” dogs and irremediably suffering animals; every individual killing is based on the situation of that animal.

Now what? How can a successful community truly lead?

In my experience with the San Francisco SPCA, I saw three responses:

  1. Nathan Winograd’s response: launch a replication strategy, first in the form of duplicating San Francisco’s successes in upstate New York, and then in articulating a model, the No-Kill Equation.
  2. Expand the organization’s radius by transferring animals in from other jurisdictions.
  3. Branch out into other animal-related services not directly tied to saving homeless animals, such as extensive humane education and animal-assisted therapy programs.

Focusing solely on the latter two strategies, while grounded in noble impulses, has a pitfall – it tends to lead back to more killing within the original jurisdiction.

The import strategy has a limiting factor: physical space. There is some non-infinite number of animals that any one organization can process. If nearby jurisdictions have not implemented spay/neuter programs, are not placing animals for adoption, and continue to kill most of the animals, the successful organization that takes in a handful of animals at a time achieves local homeostasis, saving a given number of animals each year, but the larger problem remains.

What follows is a dropping threshold for the animals in the formerly successful community and defeatist rationales like: “While we spend our resources on saving one sick cat, dozens of others are dying fifty miles away” or “We could be placing ten friendly dogs for adoption in the time it takes to socialize a single shy one.” Faced once again with an oversupply problem, “potentially” dangerous dogs and temporarily sick cats are killed, essentially for reasons of space.

In the meantime, if the donations keep coming in and the organization wants to keep them coming in, the money gets funneled to those other well-meaning but arguably marginal programs. (The ASPCA, to its credit, strategically pulled back on its public dog training classes. They determined that, given the explosion of options on the market, the shelter can refer clients to some wonderful private companies for dog training and focus its own resources on work only it can do.)

In brainstorming this, I’ve been playing with the idea of another way forward, a four-prong approach that can be even be seeded while the NKE is being implemented. Some work can be done in conjunction with life-saving programs and/or without spending additional money:

  • Replicate — In addition to taking individual animals, a private shelter (not tied to taxpayers in a single municipality) might send a mobile spay/neuter van to an outlying community.
  • Educate — A shelter might create a mentoring program that enables administrators from around the country to learn from its own directors.
  • Investigate — A shelter might partner with a university to study outcomes of pit bull adoptions and help create the knowledge that would let us do better by that breed.
  • Innovate – A shelter might try to create some game-changing programs, as the SPCA did when it reached out to San Francisco landlords to open up more dog-friendly homes in the city.






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