Practical - Index > Companion Animals > Pet Care > Your No-kill Shelter

No More Homeless Pets Forum
February 17, 2003
Going No-Kill
Nathan Winograd

No-kill overnight? Can't be!
Nathan Winograd, director of Tompkins Country SPCA shares how he made his community no-kill, virtually overnight with his innovative programs.

Introduction from Nathan Winograd: In 2001, the Tompkins County SPCA divorced itself from its 100-year history. In one year, by sheer will, we stopped the killing of healthy dogs and cats. The next year, we stopped the killing of treatable sick and injured pets, as well as feral cats. In the end, 92% of the animals were either returned to their responsible caregivers or found loving, new homes, an achievement unparalleled anywhere in the country. The remainder were either too sick or too injured to be rehabilitated, or were vicious dogs who were clearly a threat to public safety, to other animals, and, in many ways, to themselves. There were no excuses, no blame shifting. The animals came, the animals were cared for, and the animals were saved. It is, after all, what an SPCA is there to do.

In two years, the Tompkins County SPCA went from a shelter:

    that was killing 100% of feral cats to killing none

    that was killing healthy dogs and cats to killing none

    that was killing treatable sick/injured dogs and cats to killing none

    that reduced the death rate by 75%

In those same two years, the TC SPCA increased:

    the animals spayed/neutered before adoption from 10% to 100%

    the number of volunteers from a dozen to 181 the number of animals fostered from a handful to close to 800 per year

And we did it without big bucks and without a big shelter. During the same period, the SPCA:

    reduced its expenses by approximately $150,000 per year

    reduced the number of employees from 16 to 12

    went from a $250,000 a year annual budget deficit to a $23,000 surplus

    and has so far raised $2.8 million dollars to build a new shelter

    We opened relationships with rescue groups in five states, engaged every veterinarian in the community, and forged alliances with the media that resulted in being either in the newspaper, radio or on the local television news 251 days out of 365 last year -- with a total advertising budget of zero.

The Tompkins County SPCA has shown what can happen when we make a commitment to stop the killing and sweep away the employees, the policies and procedures, and the defeatist mentality that gave legitimacy to the past.

If we believe in our dreams, hold on to our principles, and work hard and persevere -- we will succeed. So that compassion will win the day. And thousands upon tens of thousands upon hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats will leave shelters across the country after finding loving homes -- finding in animal shelters, a new beginning, instead of the end of the line.

We did it in Ithaca. And you can too. Today.

Recruiting new foster homes and support from the community
Your intake statistics
To stay or not to stay in animal control contracts
FeLV/FIV cats in shelters
What the no-kill movement is about
Nathan's three things to remember for success
How to change views on euthanizing ferals
Getting shelters and the public to spay/neuter
When the state won't let you adopt FIV/FeLV cats
How can all-volunteer groups with no budget go no-kill?
Weeding out the bad foster homes
How to find the right director to lead an organization to no-kill
How can shelters go no-kill overnight when taking in so many animals?
Increasing adoptions through adoption policies

Recruiting new foster homes and support from the community

Question from Patti:

Our group has really come a long way, but we still don't have a shelter. Lately our foster homes are experiencing burn out.
It is hard to turn away animals and we end up over loading ourselves. Everyone is just worn out.

I would be interested in getting ideas on how to recruit new foster homes and obtain more financial support from our community.

Response from Nathan:

There is no secret to fundraising. It can be summed up in three sentences: 1. Do Good Things for Animals; 2. Tell People About It; and 3. Ask for Their Help.

When I took this job, I did not know the first thing about development. I also knew that those syrupy letters I get every week from one animal group or another were mediocre pap that ended up in my recycling basket. I also knew that I never read stuff about the barrels of dead animals or that two unaltered cats equal 420,000 in seven years--more pap that ended up being recycled. There is an old cliche: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing, getting the same result, and yet still doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Why does a shelter that kills most of its occupants struggle to find volunteers, donors, and supporters? Is it really that much of a mystery? Why does a newsletter talking about dead animals and the millions of kittens that are born because people are irresponsible not bring in the dollars?

People do not want to donate their money so the shelter can replenish its sodium pentobarbital. Volunteers do not want to socialize a cat that will end up in a body bag the next day. The public doesn't want to be told they are the cause of the killing, and yet should donate to you so you can kill.

The answer is simple: stop the killing, start saving, tell people about it, and the support--more volunteers, more adoptions, more money--will follow.

When I worked at the San Francisco SPCA, I heard over and over that San Francisco could save lives because the SPCA was wealthy. Indeed it was. Over 200 employees, 7 full-time veterinarians, dog trainers, a full service hospital that saw tens of thousands of patients every year, 8,000 free spay/neuter surgeries per year, and 40 million dollars in the bank.

But it wasn't always that way. In fact, two decades prior it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. But by focusing on the fundamentals (1. Save lives; 2. Tell people about it; 3. Ask for help), Richard Avanzino took an SPCA and turned San Francisco into the safest urban city in the U.S. to be a homeless dog or cat.

When I took over the Tompkins County SPCA, we were running a significant annual operating deficit, we had an exhausted and angry volunteer base, and few foster homes.

We began saving the animals, putting out press releases, doing offsite adoptions, putting up posters, and saturating our community with who we are, what we are doing and the lives we are saving. We attended every church bazaar, every grand opening, and every town festival. Everywhere you turned, the SPCA was there--adopting out animals, recruiting foster parents, recruiting volunteers who in turn were sent out to do more events, more offsite adoptions, hang up more posters (all designed on my lap top and copied at the local Kinkos cheaply).

When the letter came asking for money, it wasn't out of the blue--they were getting a letter from an SPCA they saw at the mall, at their church, at the Farmers Market, whose flyer is in the window of their bank, their favorite restaurant. And the letter wasn't the kind of traditional junk that chastised them for not spaying their cat or telling them that they (the public) was to blame for the barrels of dead animals. Instead, the letter told them about what the shelter was doing to save lives and asking for their help. In six months, we had 600 animals in foster care, over 150 volunteers, our dogs were being walked four times a day, and our average gift doubled in size.

Save the animals, tell people about it, and then ask for their help. To expect money and volunteers first is putting the cart before the horse, and that is not such a good idea when your cart and your horse have such a long way to go.

Don't overwork your foster parents. What we do here is maintain an e-mail list of all foster parents. When I have an animal who needs fostering, I e-mail the entire list and let people decide if they are ready to foster.

So the trick is to be flexible and keep recruiting. When you do an offsite adoption at the local mall, set up a list for people to sign up and be foster parents. Is there a college or university in your town? You might not adopt to undergraduates because they are not ready for a 10-year commitment, but they are ready for a 10-week one. Have them foster for you. Is there an assisted living housing for elderly folks in your town? They too might be gun shy with a 10-year commitment, but how about 10 weeks? Do you put out press releases every spring to recruit foster parents? We have posters all over town asking for foster parents. What about a military base? They can't adopt because they might be shipped out, but they sure can foster. The possibilities are endless.

Make your program FLEXIBLE and you should be able to recruit foster homes. We let them foster as long or as little as they like, dogs or cats, puppies or kittens, healthy ones or sick ones, they can adopt them themselves free, they can come and go as they please. This prevents burnout and allows me to keep the assembly line of animals moving.

But there also has to be an exit strategy. Burnout usually comes because the animals sit in foster for too long. Fostering should be temporary until you have space, you have an adoption event, or the animal is healthy. We are constantly at the mall, Farmers Market, community fairs, church bazaars, grand openings, etc. adopting out animals. It is 100% volunteer-run and the animals that go there are foster animals.

I also allow foster parents to adopt their animals for free or if they can find homes for them (family, friends, etc.) that is OK too. If you trust them to bottle feed a kitten for four weeks or nurse a sick dog back to health, trust them to find homes for the pets.

From Celeste in OR: Regarding foster programs

I wanted to add that no matter how trustworthy a foster is, altering an animal BEFORE it gets released into the community-at-large is a very wise and farseeing practice.


Tompkins County SPCA alters all animals prior to adoption. That's probably because they realize that's the ONLY way to ensure that none of those pets will go on to contribute to pet overpopulation, either by accident, procrastination, or breach of adoption contract.

The same risks of non-compliance are inherent, whether the adoptee be an adult or 2 pound juvenile (any other system, including deposit programs, has about a 20% non-compliance rate--that's 1 in 5).

NBA (neuter-before-adoption) is good for the animal rescue community, but it's also good for the individual animals starting their new lives with a truly 'fresh start'. Adopters like it because they never have to be 'the bad guy' who has to put up with feelings of guilt imagining how 'Buffy will never forgive me'.

And veterinarians, once they give it a chance, like it, too! I work at a veterinary clinic in close proximity to a major shelter that started practicing neuter before adoption over a year ago. Guess what?! Clients are still spending as much when they bring their newly adopted, already "fixed" pet in for the first-time exam--it's just that now they're free to spoil their new friend with health tests, elective dental cleaning, healthy treats, or vet-approved toys, instead of a sterilization surgery.

Your intake statistics

Question from several members:

Could you share some actual numbers (in addition to percentages) from Tompkins County such as:

What was the shelter intake when you took over?
What were the euthanasia numbers when you took over?
What were your adoption numbers when you took over?
What is your shelter intake now?
What are your euthanasia numbers now?
What are your adoption numbers now?

Response from Nathan:

2002 (my second year):

Cat Intake: 1,609
Saved: 1,487 (92%)
Killed: 122

Dog Intake: 845
Saved: 782 (92%)
Killed: 63

2001 (my first year):

Cat Intake: 1,762
Saved: 1,526 (87%)
Killed: 236

Dog Intake: 1,128
Saved: 991 (88%)
Killed: 137

2000: (the year prior to my arrival):

Cat Intake: 1,868
Saved: 1,068 (57%)
Killed: 800

Dog Intake: 1,187
Saved: 818 (69%)
Killed: 369

In 2000, all feral cats were killed, treatable cats and dogs were killed, and healthy dogs and cats were also killed.

In 2001, none of the dogs or cats killed was healthy, although a small percentage was reasonably treatable. In addition, 70 feral cats were killed.

In 2002, none of the dogs or cats killed were either healthy or, if sick or injured, treatable. Also, none of the feral cats we took in were killed either.

Saved means adopted or redeemed and, in the case of feral cats, TNR. More detailed breakdowns by adoption, redemption, TNR, use of rescue groups is available on our website at Click on the menu under "The Shelter" and then click on "Our Mission." You can download our statistics and annual report.

To stay or not to stay in animal control contracts

Question from Kathi in MO:

Our local humane society is under contract with many surrounding rural towns to accept the city's unclaimed animals from animal control. They receive $15 for every animal surrendered by one of the contracting towns. Obviously, it costs more than $15 to store an animal for 5-15 days, and the humane society is losing significant money. I asked why they don't cancel the contracts (so they can get out of the killing business), and they answered "What would happen to the animals if we didn't take them?"

The humane society is essentially letting itself be blackmailed because they care about the animals. How can I make the board see that the situation will never improve if they continue to make it easy on these towns? Obviously, they can't just cancel the contracts without providing some guidance to these towns, or the animals will most certainly suffer. But what can the humane society do to make it win/win for both groups? And what do they do with the towns that won't be willing to work toward a solution?

Response from Nathan:

Unless they are content to continue killing animals on behalf of local government, every SPCA and humane society under contract for animal control is going to find itself in this dilemma.

We too hold the contract for animal control, with all ten townships, the City of Ithaca, and the health department for rabies control. By way of example, our largest township paid $13,000 for animal control services last year and we spent $114,000 servicing just that town. We lose money on each and every contract. We contract with the town for stray cat control at $36,000 per year. Last year alone, we spent $82,000 on stray cats--and that doesn't include medical care, spay/neuter, and services past the five-day holding period. A significant portion of our funds is essentially going to underwrite animal control services.

Should we get out of animal control? Prior to my arrival, several of the towns did use an alternative provider for animal control. The dogs were housed in barns, staked to the ground, not vaccinated, and virtually all of the dogs not redeemed were killed. We naturally worry about what would happen to the animals if we did not provide the service. And the towns know this. They know we want the animals coming to us, so there is little incentive for them to pay more.

Many humane societies and SPCAs find themselves in this dilemma. What will happen to the animals if they don't take them in? But because they are spending donor dollars subsidizing animal control, they can't use their resources for more spay/neuter, behavior modification, medical care, adoption promotion and the like, the types of programs that reduce intakes and save lives.

There are three main scenarios as I see it:

1. If your community is a major metropolitan area, it will likely build its own municipal shelter due to the volume of dogs and cats, so the humane society in this situation SHOULD get out of animal control. This is what Richard Avanzino did in San Francisco in 1989.

Because the San Francisco SPCA owned the current shelter, the city built a brand new facility. Now there would be two shelters, instead of one, taking in and trying to save animals. And no longer subsidizing animal control, the SPCA could use its money for more spay/neuter, more medical care, behavior rehab, and other programs to save lives. Eventually, this proved so successful, and the public support so overwhelming, that the SPCA was able to start taking animals out of animal control and saving them too. By 1994, healthy dogs and cats were no longer dying in San Francisco.

2. If you live in a rural area and the alternative is what we call a "pickup truck, barn and a gun," you still SHOULD get out of animal control if you are killing healthy animals and your money is going to subsidize that killing. SPCAs and humane societies were never created to kill animals for local government and it is a function they should not do.

It will be difficult to get public support and donor dollars if you are using that support to kill animals because your township will not pay an adequate share for animal control. If the town takes over or if they go with an alternative provider, the animals will still die, but it matters who is doing the killing because you will never get the kind of support you need if the public perception of your shelter is that it is a place where animals go to die. (Admittedly, some organizations are very wealthy despite killing the majority of the animals they take in, but most of these are in major metropolitan areas.)

Once you sever the chord, you can focus on those other programs such as building up your volunteer base, foster homes, spay/neuter, medical care so that there are fewer strays, fewer unwanted births, fewer animals ending up with the alternative provider. Over time, you could also begin to take animals from the alternative provider who they can't or won't place.

But you WILL see an increase over time in lives saved because there will now be two shelters (admittedly, one may be a barn) for the town (yours for owner-surrendered pets and the alternative provider for strays). And you can begin to use increased donor support for spay/neuter and other programs which will cut down the number of strays (things you can't do now because your money is being eaten up by stray control).

I have also seen where the public clamors for change and the towns capitulate and begin to pay their fair share, so it is not always true that the towns will not pay more. When the public created enough clamor, the towns in Tompkins County who used the alternative provider finally caved in and signed multi-year contracts with the TC SPCA at significant increases over past contracts. We thought it was hopeless, that they would not pay more, but the public didn't stand for it. In fact, this year the county cancelled our stray cat control contract. The public was so outraged, the county caved in and signed a 3-year contract tied to CPI two months after saying they had no money to do so. It is not hopeless.

3. If you live in a rural area, the towns are not paying their fair share, but if you are NOT killing animals, you may want to keep the contracts, even at a loss. This is where the TC SPCA is. Although the towns do not pay what it costs the SPCA to service the contracts, we are saving 100% of the healthy animals, 100% of the treatable animals, and 100% of feral cats. We also had a budget surplus last year. Under these circumstances, I want all the animals to come to our shelter because we will SAVE them.

There are myriad scenarios, but the bottom line is this: IT MATTERS WHO IS DOING THE KILLING. If the humane society is killing and the alternative provider would kill too, get out of the contract. Use the money for lifesaving programs. Because it matters to your conscience, it matters to volunteers, it matters to potential donors, it matters to the public, and it matters to the animals--if you use your money for lifesaving programs now that you are not subsidizing animal control, over time you can begin to save animals who you are now forced to kill.

FeLV/FIV cats in shelters

Question from several members:

I was wondering how your shelter copes with feline leukemia-positive cats. The group I am a member of is a network of foster homes. Since we all have our own cats none of us are comfortable with having FeLeuk+ cats in our homes, and for our local humane society it is next to impossible to get these cats adopted. I would love to hear your ideas for getting these special cats adopted. How are they housed at your shelter?

Response from Nathan:

Our shelter does not test for FIV. Cats with FIV can live long, healthy lives and most will fight off the virus over time. In addition, because transmission of the virus is difficult (even housemates can live together without transmission), the costs of testing make it prohibitive. At about $8-12 per test over 2,000 cats per year, with a 1-2% risk (less if you exclude asymptomatic cats who are either false positive or have as much as 90% chance of fighting off the virus), the risk is small, the cost is great, and you can reduce the incidence of transmission by using that money for spay/neuter which will reduce the likelihood of transmission (births and bites). If adopters want to test after adoption and return FIV+ cats, they are free to do that with a full refund but that has only happened one time in the last two years.

Personally, I would not test for FeLV either for the same reason - the costs of testing are great and the incidence of the virus is low (again, 1-2%). If there is a positive saliva test, we need to blood-test to prevent killing false positive cats; if adopters are concerned, they can do the test at their own veterinarians and return positive cats, and that money is better spent on spay/neuter which would reduce transmission (bites and births). But the Committee of the Board which helps monitor vaccination protocols insists (with two veterinarians on that Committee and so it is a battle I do not wish to wage), we do so. So be it. We do. Admittedly, FeLV is somewhat different in transmission risk than FIV, since FeLV transmission is a more likely than with FIV. We do saliva screen for FeLV. All saliva-positive cats are then blood-tested to ensure a true positive. FeLV positive cats are almost always killed, but not as a matter of policy. We have been able to adopt some, but, unfortunately, not all.

Your concerns about bringing them into contact with your own cats are not out of bounds. The larger issue here is where the shelter is in terms of its feline lifesaving. If the humane society in your community is still killing either healthy cats, bottle-feeding kittens, kittens with URI, ringworm kittens, cats with treatable injuries like broken bones, etc., trying to save FeLV-positive cats is laudable, but shouldn't be your first priority.

I am a firm believer in working your way strategically to saving the most lives. First, save all healthy animals. If your shelter is still killing healthy animals, why invest in medical care? Once the animal gets better, the animal still faces a risk of being killed or may displace another healthy cat who will be killed. So start out with healthy cats. Saving all healthy cats ensures you have the infrastructure and policies to begin saving sick and injured but treatable cats so that once they get better, they can be guaranteed a loving, new home. In addition, it is important to set these types of initial goals (healthy animals first) so that you have some success, so that you have measurable impact, and so that the community can support the next round of lifesaving.

In Tompkins County, our first goal was saving 100% of healthy animals. Once we did that, and shared our success with the community, we asked for their support in saving sick and injured but treatable animals (a more costly undertaking because of medical and behavior rehabilitation costs such as staff, medication, surgery, etc.) We used our success in saving healthy animals as a springboard to more challenging cases, and the public supported us. First is medical care for URI and ringworm animals, and then it's on to more and more complicated cases, such as Hit By Car dogs and cats with multiple medical problems.

When we finished the year saving 100% of these animals as well, we knew we could turn to the community for more challenging scenarios since they knew we would use their donations wisely and for the benefits of the animals. Last week, we took in 59 dogs from a residence in our county. All the dogs ranged in age from 5-9 years old, many were blind, had cataracts, had tumors, rotten teeth, you name it. If we were still killing healthy animals, it would not have made much sense to try and save a 9-year old dog with a mammary tumor and cataracts. Investing in that dog could have saved a dozen puppies instead. But because the puppies were being saved anyway, we asked the community to send us money for medical care and to help us place these dogs. That was Friday. By Monday, 57 dogs were placed and all of them have appointments for dental and other surgeries. Why? It's because the community believes in our mission, and because they know what can be accomplished when they are called to action.

The whole point is to work your way up the pyramid. Once you save healthy animals, then save sick cats with relatively easy issues like ringworm, URI, or bottle feeders. As you save these, you can move on to broken bones, etc. Once you are saving healthy and treatable cats, the next frontier is obviously more challenged cases--like FeLV, cancers, etc.

What the no-kill movement is about

Question from Michelle:

No-kill is such a dirty phrase to most shelters. For example, we cannot even use the phrase when talking with our local shelter or county government lest they kick us to the curb. If a shelter director refuses to embrace the concept, how can we make the case that this is what our community really wants?

Response Nathan:

Let me lay out what I believe to be true, and then let me back peddle and give you a practical answer. In other words, let me tell it like it is (which is usually the first draft of my letters) and then let me give you a more practical answer (my second draft).

Here is draft one:

This year, four and one half million dogs and cats will be put to death. For far too long, we have accepted it as a "necessary evil." In reality, for the 3,000,000 or more who are hardly suffering, it is just evil.

The No Kill movement is fundamentally a story about heroes and villains. It is about those who have dedicated their lives to the truth, and those who have made careers out of obfuscation. And it is about a social movement as noble and just as those that have come before.

The movement that began in San Francisco, and spread East toward the State of Utah, to a rural community in Upstate New York, and points in between gives us one fundamental lesson. That No Kill begins and ends as an act of will.

To save the lives in a community - the healthy, the sick and injured, those who are traumatized, or those wild by nature - an SPCA or humane society needs a leader with a desire to do what is right, and a philosophy that what must be done, will be done. All traits critically missing from the "old guard" of the animal shelter industry.

There are those, particularly directors running shelters who continue to kill the bulk of their occupants, who will nonetheless say "what happened in Ithaca can't happen here" or that "No Kill is smoke and mirrors."

If No Kill isn't happening in Atlanta, or Denver, or Los Angeles or New York, or anywhere and everywhere that killing is the primary method for achieving results, it is not because of some singular trait that makes that community different from Ithaca. To imply such is a misrepresentation of the highest order. It is a lie. If a community is still killing the majority of shelter animals, it is because the SPCA or humane society has fundamentally failed in its mission. And this failure is nothing more than a failure of leadership. The buck stops with the shelter's director. Whatever title he or she takes, with it comes the reality that at the end of the day, every death of a healthy, sick or injured treatable animal, or feral cat is a profound failure - the responsibility for which is his or hers alone.

That is what No Kill requires. There is no doubt about it.

And therefore it is not surprising that the two major actors in the killing will get defensive. Why? The answer is simple.

For decades, most of these directors turned to Sodium Pentobarbital, a barbiturate that "painlessly" ended life to manage their shelter populations under the theory that the best we could do for the bulk of these animals was to provide them a humane death. They even created a euphemism: "putting them to sleep" to make the task of killing easier.

More importantly, these shelter administrators killed hundreds of thousands of animals without much public condemnation by deflecting the blame for the killing back unto the public itself: According to the Fund For Animals, people "who do not spay and neuter are the greatest single cause of the companion animal tragedy' Each day an estimated 70,000 puppies and kittens are born (25.5 million a year). Six to ten million, we classify as 'surplus' and kill' The problem is simple: we have too many dogs and cats. Too many for the too few homes available."

The buck was passed. If you blame the public for the killing, the shelter not only shields itself from public scrutiny and accountability, but the question of how to stop the shelter from killing is never even asked. It was a brilliant strategy. But to imply that this was all orchestrated would be too cynical. The logic appeared inescapable. There are only so many cages, limited numbers of kennels, few adoptions, and day after day, the wave of animals keep coming through the door: kittens that were unplanned, a dog that has become a burden, the stray cat nobody wants.

A shelter director explained it like this: "You build a shelter with 200 cages. Today, you get 50 homeless animals and you place 10. The other 40 go into cages. Tomorrow, you get 50, but only 15 total go home. When the fictional shelter is full [people] suggest building more cages, which we do, but then those cages are quickly filled' The inflow of unwanted animals is an ongoing phenomenon." What do you do with the rest?

In just one American city, Los Angeles, of 25,000 cats who come in through the doors every year, 21,000 will be put to death. Over 80% will die, most never even offered for adoption. Multiply that by every city, every county in the United States and the picture is bleak. But the irony is that much of this suffering is conducted under the watchful eye of self-described "animal lovers" who feel they are doing the right thing. In fact, it is often these "animal lovers" who administer the "cocktail" to disorient the animal, who bring the dog or cat into the "euthanasia" room, hold him down while he struggles to make sense of what is happening, and then administer the fatal dose -- day in and day out, until the numbers simply become staggering.

While most shelter workers simply believed there was no other way, for the bureaucrats who had spent the prior two decades overseeing a national infrastructure that killed 5 million dogs and cats per year, No Kill hits a darker, more raw nerve. If it succeeds, the changes would mean a fundamental alteration in their public standing. Never before had the killing in animal shelters really been questioned, most accepting the killing as a necessary evil. In fact, shelters could kill most of the animals in their care, and their directors and presidents were still being paid handsomely, upwards of $100,000 per year and more, often giving national conference workshops, hailed as pillars by colleagues.

Despite the killing, many of these organizations had also amassed impressive endowments: 20, 30, 50, 70 million dollars, some with state of the art veterinary hospitals, complete with cardiologists, neurologists, and more, for those wealthy enough to pay, while homeless, unowned animals in their own shelters were killed, outside of public scrutiny, behind closed doors for something as simple as a cough, a cold, or worse, being the wrong color - one too many black cats in a shelter that already had a handful of them.

But No Kill proponents are now challenging that. Successful No Kill communities now threaten to bring public scrutiny to their own operations: "If they can do it in Ithaca, or Utah, or San Francisco or somewhere else, why can't we do it here?"

The best summary of the situation I have ever read is by Merritt Clifton, who wrote the following in ANIMAL PEOPLE:

The bottom line is that too many animal control departments and humane societies have a vested interest in doing what they have always done. Going a different and more successful route would mean accepting some of the blame for causing barrels to fill, day after day, with furry bodies. Complain though many animal control and humane society people might about the stress of killing, they still find killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it.

County government has a different agenda: animal control. Animal Control (which the TC SPCA does, mind you) is fundamentally about protecting PEOPLE from ANIMALS. No Kill is the opposite. It is about protecting ANIMALS from PEOPLE. County government wants to do animal control at the cheapest possible price. If they can get away with paying $5 per cat, they will do so. What happens to the cat after the stray period is of little consequence. This does not mean everyone in county government lacks compassion. I am not casting aspersions on people. I am summarizing the fundamental logic of county government.

When you start talking about "No Kill," county government starts clutching to its coffers very tightly because of the notion that if you stop killing, you need to spend more money: $5 per cat becomes $500 after you include medical care, vaccinations, food, shelter, and spay/neuter. So it is not surprising that they would "kick you to the curb." But the notion that No Kill means bankrupting the general fund or your own endowment is a myth, and the public is ultimately behind you.

So after you are done kicking the shelter director to the curb, kick your elected officials there too. The public will support you! Two months ago, the Tompkins County legislative voted to eliminate stray cat control after 20 years--with about 45 seconds of debate (and that is being generous). In one swoop, our contract was eliminated. They didn't have the money in light of the current economic downturn, we were told. The public did not stand for it! And we just received a unanimous resolution to reinstate it for 3-years with annual increases tied to CPI.

Revolutionaries do not fear the truth, because the truth is revolutionary. And the No Kill movement is fundamentally a revolution in animal sheltering.

OK. Now that the truth is out, here's Draft Two:

Some shelters have used the term "Low Kill" because they feel that "No Kill" is too adversarial. But I believe this is a mistake. The term No Kill inspires the public, it excites the community, it means you are saving those animals who can and should be saved. It is about ensuring the community's faith in the shelter. It also brings in the dollars, and those dollars are crucial to save lives. Yes, No Kill costs money. But it also creates money in the form of more support. And if you realign your priorities, you can actually spend less and save more. Keep in mind that the TC SPCA reduced its staff from 16 to 12, reduced its expenditures to the tune of about $150,000 per year, and went from a $250,000 annual operating deficit to a $23,000 surplus--at the same time we reduced the death rate by about 75%.

When you announce your No Kill goals, and begin achieving them, the community will rally. To announce a "Low Kill" goal carries the implication that you are still killing animals that do not need to be killed, though at a reduced rate. It is like President Kennedy announcing that we were not going to land a man on the moon; we were going to send him almost to the moon. That is not the stuff of community inspiration.

But you can alter your message with the shelter director and speak to him/her in terms that are more amenable to his/her worldview: reducing the shelter intake, reducing the death rate of healthy animals first, then sick/injured animals, etc. Save the No Kill message for the public.

And when speaking to county government, talk about "public-private" partnerships and shifting costs from local government to private organizations. When I meet with government officials, I inform them that the SPCA's expenses on spay/neuter (all paid for by private donations) reduces their animal control expenses because we are taking in less animals over time. That is what they want to hear. I tell them that our partnership (public funding of animal control and private funding of SPCA programs like spay/neuter, adoption, medical care) allows us to save more lives. So that their public money goes further, saving more lives. That way, they can take credit for the lifesaving without worrying that I am going to raid the treasury -- different audience, different message.

If, however, at the end of the day the shelter director still stands in your way, take it to the people. Look what is happening in cities like New York and Atlanta. A grassroots effort is sweeping away the policies of the past.

In 1989, Roger Caras who then headed the ASPCA in New York called No Kill a fabrication: "It is essential that some agency take on the responsibility of killing an animal when that is the ethical, compassionate thing to do. It is a hoax when the public is led to believe otherwise."

And now, although New York City is used to setting trends, rather than being swallowed up by them, already No Kill advocates - inspired by the successes in San Francisco, Ithaca, and elsewhere - are challenging the status quo and sweeping away the directors and policies of the past. A hoax? No. After more than a century of silence, the voice of compassion re-making itself heard.

Nathan's three things to remember for success

Question from Susan:

If you had had a crystal ball two years ago, or could go back and start all over again, what four things might you do differently...In such a huge undertaking, what mistakes did you make, or situations did you encounter, that you would want others to avoid when following in your footsteps?

Response from Nathan:

Since I never make mistakes, this question is meaningless. Ha, ha. OK, this is actually a great question, but I am going to stick with three.

The first is

The skill I most lack, the one thing totally out of character for me, is diplomacy. I am from the Dr. Laura school of animal sheltering. The best thing about Dr. Laura (I hope people know the reference) is that she is NOT morally ambiguous. You might not agree with her, but she doesn't hide behind ambiguities, nor does she pull any punches. You call, you ask, you get it right between the eyes. I LOVE Dr. Laura.

When it comes to animal sheltering, I believe there is a right way and a wrong way. I also believe that there is only one golden rule--don't kill the animal if the animal does not have anything wrong with him/her that requires her to die (the animal is not a vicious dog, or sick/injured but not reasonably treatable animal), policies and procedures be damned.

I believe there is a model for sheltering that can be implemented in every community to achieve No Kill results and I believe that model can be implemented in a wealthy urban environment like San Francisco, a rural community like Ithaca, or points and parts in between. The end result will be the same: the animals will live instead of die.

Having said that, I wish I had a twin who could put a more diplomatic face on some of my ideas and beliefs. I have been told that if I were the mayor of a town, it would have a population of one.

I believe you can get more if you know how to be diplomatic. But it is a deep character defect that I cannot seem to overcome. If you can get the results you want without compromising your beliefs, being diplomatic will ensure that things will go smoother (with your staff, your board of directors, local veterinarians, etc.) if you can do it with diplomacy and tact.

The second is

The best books ever written on the Civil War are from a father-son team, Michael and Jeff Shaara (Gods & Generals, Killer Angels, and The Last Full Measure). If there is one lesson in those books and the civil war, it is to pick and choose your battles. The most obvious example is Gettysburg. Had General Lee not felt compelled to attack simply because the enemy was there, right in front of him, a different outcome might have resulted (although thankfully he did feel compelled and the forces of good won the day--and the war!)

At any rate, there are so many issues that can confront you as you try and make change in a community: 1. How the district attorney handles animal cruelty cases (not very well), 2. How much money the county pays for animal control (not very much), 3. How you can offer low-cost and free spay/neuter (and not alienate the local veterinarians who can make life difficult). The list goes on. Each issue should be developed and thought through strategically, and not fought all at once. Take your time. Play it out. Attack when you can; retreat when you should; and keep your head about you.

The third is

I knew my shelter manager would not work out from day one when I arrived and the sick cats and kittens in the infirmary had no water. I knew she wouldn't work out day two when I saw rabbits in cages that had the same bedding as the day before (in other words, weren't cleaned daily). I knew she wouldn't work out day three when I got to know everyone on staff that she hired. I should have fired her right then and there. But I kept thinking, she'll change, she needs mentoring, she is from the old school. I let it go too long and it compromised morale of the staff (those I hired after firing 7 of the 16 within a few months of my hiring) and the volunteers.

I also knew that the changes--other than THOU SHALT NOT KILL--I wanted implemented (not enforcing technical violations of the leash law, not handing out citations for dogs impounded at the shelter for first offenses, etc.) would have thrown staff into a tizzy because it so thoroughly violated their worldview that I made a lot of these changes over time after softening the ground for a while. I should have done them day one. The staff that complained was fired over time anyway.

I knew what I wanted to do and the transition took longer than I wanted. I could have been building earlier (including rebuilding our relationship with the community) had I just been more decisive with staff.

I thought some of the changes I wanted to make would have been easier to swallow for the shelter manager (fired), animal control officers (fired), front desk staff (fired) and cleaning crew (fired) if I soft peddled them and implemented them over time. It didn't happen. I could have saved others and myself a lot of grief had I been more decisive from the get go.

How to change views on euthanizing ferals

Question from Denise:

How did you go about ending the euthanization of feral cats? In Nevada, our state law requires local animal services to "deal" with at-large animals. The general feeling is that property owners have a right to not have feral cats on their property.

The rescue group I work for and our local SPCA (great folks) collaborate to TNR as many cats as possible. We have neutered more than 1,400 in the last two years and expect to do more than 1,000 this year. Animal Services is aware of the program and are spreading the word but we would like to do more. Any suggestions on helping our animal services to reduce the number of feral cats euthanized?

Response from Nathan:

As the animal control authority for Tompkins County, we also accept all stray cats and ferals are no exception. Tompkins County is what I would describe as a semi-urban/rural community. There are a number of large farms that do not mind the cats and are willing to feed them so long as the cats are vaccinated against rabies and altered. So while we do get feral cats in and sometimes the folks do not want them back, we manage to find an alternative release location. All we ask the farmer to do in return is to leave food out for the cats in a barn or other location.

Having said that, let me take it one step further. If you do not live in a rural community or you do not have a known caretaker, should the feral cat be released back to his/her habitat anyway? The answer is YES.

When I first moved to upstate New York, I was asked by a local SPCA about releasing ferals. They were interested in starting a TNR program but were hesitant because they bought into the old garbage that "feral cats live short, miserable lives" and that TNR amounted to nothing more than "subsidized abandonment."

I asked her to do what I ask all SPCAs to do. For every feral cat who comes into your shelter, keep a list and document whether the cat is healthy and robust, or thin and sickly--regardless of whether there is a known caretaker. What I told her was that after 6 months or so of doing that, she would probably find that the vast majority would fall into the former category. Well guess what? In fact, the vast majority was healthy and robust--and she became a true believer.

We try to categorize everything to make sense of our world. But too often we fall into the trap of mistaking the category for the reality. In biology, for example, we divide living beings into two kingdoms--plant or animal. Plants do photosynthesis. Animals can walk/fly/move. But what happens when you have a living being that can walk but also can photosynthesize? Is it plant or animal? Reality is much more complex than our categories.

Take the feral cat. Is a feral cat a domestic animal that is not socialized? Or is the feral cat a wild animal? We don't have "caretakers" for wildlife and would never think about "euthanizing" a wild animal for his or her own good, even if they do not lead extraordinarily long lives or are subject to dangers in the outside world (take mice, foxes, deer, etc. for example). But because we see feral cats as domestic animals that happen not to be socialized, somehow the humane movement thinks it is OK to kill them because life outdoors is filled with risks. Is this fair? In reality, feral cats are extremely hardy survivors even without caretakers. The fact that the vast majority who enter shelters are healthy and robust proves this. Try it in your own shelter.

At one point, I too believed that only feral cats with caretakers should be released under a TNR program, but I believe that view is also outdated, even in harsh winter climates like upstate New York. Although we do NOT release ferals without some caretaker, if you live in a state where this is not prohibited, I think you should.

If feral cats are offspring of former pets who were abandoned, and if they are reproducing and thriving, if they come into the shelter healthy and robust even without a known caretaker, then they seem to have found a niche. So why not release them without a caretaker since TNR makes them healthier and better able to survive since they are not longer mating and nursing?

The notion that you should kill feral cats NOW because some of them will suffer LATER is--whether we are talking about feral cats, field mice, deer, foxes, or other animals--yet another cruel deception of a bygone era.

From Sandy in IL: Regarding promoting TNR to officials

One tactic we use when promoting feral cat TNR to village officials in our county is to say that TNR will save them money, that no taxpayer dollars will be used to subsidize spay/neuter. I think we're shooting ourselves in the foot by saying that we are using only our organization's money (and funds donated by caretakers) to pay for spay/neuter. We will run out of funds as we get more and more of these villages on board for TNR. However, before we talked about the potential for villages to save money, some of these officials were dead set against TNR. Once they saw that cash didn't have to come out of their pocket, they became more willing to listen, and possibly "ignore" ordinances that prohibited the return of the neutered cats.

What a trade off - using the potential for villages to save money as a means of getting them on board while risking the long-term financial viability of our organization!

From Vanessa in OH: Regarding returning ferals with no caretaker

I have to say I have never entertained this line of thought: release a feral cat rather than return one. I have been doing TNR (return) for 7 years, with 3 years being high quality work and four years where I muddled thru with no help.

Where I live (Cleveland, Ohio) TNR is viewed by rescue groups as too cruel to begin with (this is the "release to caregiver" idea). They resist this greatly and refuse even to work with caregivers who need help with adoption of socialized kittens. Many rescue people practice TNR without letting other group members know they do this, because they would be asked to leave the group.

The thought of selling Trap/Neuter/Release to these groups is beyond comprehension. Of course, we are an urban area and I believe feral cats do better without a caregiver in a rural area.

You have given me something to think about.

From Cyndi in KC: Regarding returning ferals with no caretaker

I would like to strongly disagree with advocating on releasing ferals to a place with no caretaker. In my opinion, this is inhumane, they are NOT wild animals but domesticated animals. They may not be socialized to humans, but that doesn't make them wild. In my opinion, releasing ferals where there is no caretaker instead of relocating or killing them is no better than the shelters not counting them in their "killed" statistics. If there is no caretaker and no chance of relocation, dumping them back should not be an option. Another post about not saving the sick until you can save the healthy was posted earlier this week. It would make sense to me that you TNR the colonies that have caretakers and with proper spay/neuter programs, etc. in place eventually colonies without caretakers will be non-existent, but until then feral cats should not be released without caretakers as they NEED someone to care for them.

Response from Nathan:

The above post about returning ferals with no caretaker is totally off the mark. Let me be clear where I may have been vague. What I wrote is not a matter of opinion. It is FACT. Killing a feral cat with no caretaker is not defensible.

On what basis is the claim that "...this is inhumane, they are NOT wild animals they are domesticated animals. They may not be socialized to humans, but that doesn't make them wild." Is the writer offering a biological basis for this argument? A sociological one? A spiritual one? One based on anecdotal evidence? Field studies? What? In fact, the statement is totally groundless.

The cat we deem our house pet is biologically identical to the African Wildcat, who is categorized as a true wild animal. So, the claim that feral cats are merely unsocialized DOMESTIC animals has no basis in biology.

These animals live and act as many wild animals do, in virtually all respects, with perhaps one exception: they seek out close proximity to humans (in some cases) for a free meal. But that is true of much "urbanized" wildlife.

They share mortality rates similar to other wildlife, they share hardships similar to other wildlife, and we would NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER as a humane movement recommend killing skunks, deer, field mice or other wild animals for "their own good" because they share hardships. In fact, the very foundation of the pro-hunting lobby is that they are helping deer survive starvation in the winter. Hunters, remember, call themselves conservationists. Anybody out there buy that B.S. or agree with it?

Why do we do that for feral cats? For one reason and one reason only: social conditioning, thanks to national groups who peddled the garbage that TNR "is an inhumane act," that all cats "belong in a home," that TNR is "subsidized abandonment," that feral cats live "short, miserable lives."


The bottom line, which the person missed completely, is that we all agree that feral cats are the unsocialized offspring of abandoned pet cats. And if they are reproducing, and if your shelter's experience is like ours, like San Francisco, like Palo Alto, like virtually every shelter I have talked to, most of the feral cats are coming in plump and healthy, with or without a known caretaker. That means they are doing well out there. If your state allows it, neuter them and return them with a good meal and a hearty "go to it."

Killing them is not only wrong. It is pernicious to boot.

Getting shelters and the public to spay/neuter

Question from Gloria:

We are a small grassroots organization DETERMINED to change the idea that euthanasia is the only way to stop pet overpopulation. However, we have run into a snag that has us a little stumped.

The county itself is adding to the overpopulation problem, since animals adopted out from Animal Services are not altered and last year they euthanized over 7,000 cats and dogs. Not only does Animal Services adopt out pets unaltered but a couple of people in management positions breed dogs.

Still, we were able to open a discussion with county commissioners about the need for change in our county. The chairman urged the manager of Animal Services to work with nonprofit groups and come up with an action plan and come back to them during a budget workshop that will be held in June. We don't want to lose this opportunity with the commissioners, but the Animal Services manager has cut us out of the picture altogether and we don't know what to do now. We are afraid he will only make small changes to satisfy the commissioners and then go back to "business as usual." Do you have any suggestions?

Response from Nathan:

I am going to give you a long-winded answer so bear with me here, because I believe some background is in order. I am not a big believer in legislative solutions to pet overpopulation, with one exception: when the legislation is aimed at the shelter.

In order to force the public to become "responsible pet owners," the old guard animal organizations came up with a plan that was aptly nicknamed "LES." LES was an acronym for Legislation, Education and Sterilization. The first prong promoted legislation at requiring people to keep better track of their pets, usually through licensing and confinement laws. The second prong was aimed at educating children about "responsible" pet ownership, in hopes that they would grow up to do the "right" thing. The third involved forcing people to spay and neuter their pets. It was widely popular among local shelters. Indeed, LES was sweeping the nation. But, in my view, it was doomed to failure from the start.

Prong One: Legislation
A flurry of legislation aimed at making people responsible was promoted by the large national organizations and passed in localities nationwide. Among the many laws favored, the most common were those that: 1. required dogs and cats to be confined in homes; 2. required dogs and to a lesser extent cats to be licensed with local authorities; 3. limited the number of animals a family could care for; 4. prohibited the feeding of stray cats; and, 5. provided authority for animal control officers to seize and destroy pets they deemed a "nuisance." The theory behind all these laws was to severely curtail not only the public's behavior, but also that of the animals. Instead, the laws ended up being ignored, or worse - targeting the wrong people.

In a convoluted reading, anyone who fed a stray animal - or left food out for a hungry cat - was considered that animal's owner for purposes of these new laws. As the animal's "owner," these individuals were required to do a host of things often including licensing and confining the animal indoors. Failure to comply would often result in fines, or worse, the confiscation and killing of the animal.

In towns and communities throughout the United States, well-meaning people, many of them elderly, found themselves threatened by animal control authorities for feeding the stray cats who wandered to their backyards in search of food. As "owners" under these new ordinances, they were violating the law for "allowing" the cats outside, a curious twist of facts since these people were not allowing anything, other than allowing the animals to have occasional food. Although these people did not own the animals by any stretch of the imagination and were acting to curb their hunger, they were now accused of "allowing" the cats outside in violation of local laws, and being punished because of it.

Dogs fared little better under these new laws. Dogs who were picked up by the "dog catcher" were held on threat of execution if their owners did not pay licensing fees, impoundment penalties, and other fines for the return of their pet. Many localities passed laws prohibiting dogs from being on any street or public place unless collared and leashed, thus preventing dog owners from exercising and socializing their dogs in parks and other places.

Since the Legislation prong of LES was premised on the fact that the public was "bad" and had to be "punished" and "coerced" into doing the right thing, it ignored the obvious - even if the national organizations were right, the law would nonetheless miss its intended target, since responsible people acted responsibly whether there was a law or not, while truly irresponsible people would merely ignore the laws.

More importantly, making an "owner" more responsible could hardly result when they ended up targeting non-owners, such as those who fed stray cats. And limiting the number of animals a family could own to often small numbers - three or four in some cases - merely limited the number of animals a family could help and thus prevented adoptions. In the end, however, since failure to comply often resulted in the pet's impoundment and killing, the net effect of the legislation was to exacerbate shelter killing.

Prong Two: Education
While the national organizations were encouraging localities to pass such laws, they was also encouraging shelters to educate school children in the hope that they would grow up with more humane views than their parents. And so, in communities nationwide, shelter employees, often with dogs and cats in tow, would enter classroom after classroom across the nation where overworked teachers needing a break met them with relief, and wide-eyed school children petted animals while grinning from ear to ear. Meanwhile, generations of shelter directors boasted to their constituents about the number of school children they were reaching with their humane message and promising that the light at the end of the tunnel, the mythical place where animals were loved and had lifetime homes, was as close as the emancipation of these kids. It was, and remains, a lovely thought.

But this effort was never challenged to see if it could actually get results. In fact, no shelter director - not a single one - could point to any: Were more animals being sterilized because of these efforts? Were people keeping their pets longer? Was the death rate at the shelter declining because of it? Would these children grow up to be more responsible pet owners? No one had any answers. Despite tight budgets and cuts in the areas of animal care, shelters continued to send legions of staff members into classrooms without any proof that it was having or ever hoped to have an impact whatsoever on the death rate in shelters. Over twenty years of humane education has yet to produce a single study showing it has made a damn bit of difference.

Prong Three: Sterilization
Here is where the old guard organization hit pay dirt (almost). Had they focused on prong three, had, in fact, promoted it, pushed it, paid for it out of its tens of millions of dollars sitting in bank accounts, the end result would have been TODAY a No Kill nation. But they didn't and wouldn't. They were afraid to alienate private practice veterinarians and their industry groups.

In order to increase the number of animals sterilized - the one thing that would have had dramatic results - they predictably encouraged the passing of even more laws, this time to force pet owners to spay/neuter at their own expense. Many localities took up the banner, passing such laws that required pet owners to spay or neuter their dogs and cats on threats of fines, increased licensing costs, impoundment and killing of the pet, and, in at least one case, the potential for a jail sentence.

Despite studies showing that simply providing a low-cost alternative doubled the number of poor people who spayed or neutered their pets, and that the wealthiest communities voluntarily spayed/neutered their pets at four times the rate of their poor counterparts, localities failed to provide meaningful solutions to obstacles that prevented people from acting the way shelters wanted them to. While laws were passed to force people to spay or neuter their pets, little was done about the high cost of the surgeries charged by private veterinarians that kept poor people from complying. Even in the poorest communities where the federal government was subsidizing the cost of home heating oil to prevent families from freezing during the winter, in order to appease veterinarians who continued to oppose perceived threats to their profits, no effort was made to provide a meaningful alternative to a $150 dog spay.

Not surprisingly, the effort didn't pay off.

Study after study had already confirmed that unaltered pets tend to belong to the people with the lowest incomes. If there was a solution in front of them, it was not hard to see: make spay/neuter affordable.

The first organization to do this to a significant degree was Mercy Crusade of Los Angeles. On February 17, 1971, it opened the first low-cost spay/neuter clinic in the country for owned pets, with the City of Los Angeles paying for the veterinary staff. By 1973, two more clinics opened, the first was expanded a year later, and a fourth clinic opened in 1979. The program was so successful that Los Angeles shelters were killing half the number of animals than they were prior to the clinics in just the first decade of the program. Every dollar invested in the program was saving taxpayers ten dollars in animal control costs because of the reduced numbers of animals they were handling. And despite outcry from private veterinarians and their associations, there was no discernible loss of business.

With four clinics operating, private practice veterinarians were still performing 87% of all neutering within Los Angeles, because the clinics were used by poor people who would not otherwise have had their pets altered. While national "leaders" were trying to appease private veterinarians, Los Angeles had begun the march to save the animals.

But the effort wasn't allowed to play itself out. After two decades, the clinics were closed, and Los Angeles began following a different path: the thoroughly discredited road to LES. On March 22, 2000, the city council passed the nation's strongest spay/neuter law. During the legislative process, the shelter director proposed a misdemeanor for violators, with penalties of up to six months in jail, making failure to license a dog on par with weapons possession and domestic violence. But the final ordinance, while less draconian, nonetheless punished the poor with fines of up to $500 and empowered animal control officers to go door-to-door with the ability to fine, confiscate, and subsequently kill animals. Low-cost spay/neuter was not written into the law and no effort was made to reopen the spay/neuter clinics that had brought Los Angeles to the lowest third of per capita U.S. killing. Not surprisingly, the law has thus far predictably failed to achieve the desired results.

In 1998, however, California passed two significant pieces of state legislation, one sponsored by Assemblyman Ed Vincent requiring shelters to spay/neuter before adoption, and the other by Senator Tom Hayden requiring shelters to give rescue groups animals they plan on killing.

As no fan of legislation (people celebrate when they are passed and then realize implementation and results are elusive), I nonetheless believe Hayden/Vincent are excellent pieces of legislation. So, if you can get someone at the local or state level to take the banner up, requiring shelters in larger counties to spay/neuter before adoption is worthwhile.

Keep in mind that in rural communities, many shelters will simply respond by killing the animals instead to forego the revenue costs, so requiring a spay/neuter deposit may be a reasonable alternative. Vincent makes the split based on county population of 100,000: if the county's population is less than 100,000, shelters must either alter the animal or take a deposit. If the county's population is greater than 100,000, they must alter the animal (a deposit is not allowed).

The alternative, of course, is to try to get public or private funding for low-income spay/neuter, since this availability will actually impact shelter intakes and deaths to a significant degree. (A good resource for public funding information is Peter Marsh (Ed: See past schedule for transcript of forum with Peter Marsh). I prefer the private route by fundraising for it and then setting up a system with veterinarians who will do it at a reduced fee with SPCA vouchers we give out). In other words, never mind the laws, just fix the animals.

When the state won't let you adopt FIV/FeLV cats

Question from several members:

What do you do when your Dept. of Agriculture requires shelters to test for FIV/FeLV and does not allow them to adopt out cats, or even transfer to another shelter/facility, if they test positive? How can you convince them to re-think this policy?

Response from Nathan:

This question is really a legal and political process question, more than an animal sheltering one. There are various vehicles for changing state regulations including petitions for rule making, changes in law, legal action, etc. and so I would simply refer the person to either a sympathetic legislator, to an attorney, or a political advocacy group.

There are also different legal rules that may vary by state as to how agencies can interpret regulations. A lawyer might find the Department's interpretation of the statute that gave rise to the implementing regulations to be beyond its mandate. I can't offer more legal or political guidance beyond common sense stuff like educate them, meet with them, petition them, that sort of thing.

But there is another issue here. I don't know if the person involved specifically rescues FeLV and FIV + cats. And if they do, bless them and take up the fight. I do not want, in any way, to imply that these cats are not worthy of our compassion and that we shouldn't do everything we can to try and save them. We should.

But there is a larger community issue here for the animal shelter involved. Is the community saving 100% of healthy cats? Is the community saving 100% of sick and injured, but treatable cats (ringworm, URI, broken bones, eye injuries, that sort of stuff)? If not, the focus should be there.

Once you cross those bridges, you are in a better position to take on the tougher and tougher challenges: cancer, FeLV positive cats, etc.

In Tompkins County, I found a home for the first cat who tested FeLV-positive. (We don't test for FIV and I don't recommend it, but I see in the question where it is mandated by the writer's state). We found a home for the second one, and the third and the fourth, and the fifth -- but not all. We do not save 100% of FeLV positive cats. We do not kill them as a matter of policy, but they do die here. It is the challenge in front of me. But in a community that is still killing, say, URI kittens, the focus should be on those.

Having said that, on an individual or rescue group level, or even with a no-kill shelter who holds no contracts, it is a worthy fight and I would say take it up. First, put out a position paper with plenty of facts. Send it to the department and petition for a change in the rules. If that fails, you have a full-blown political or legal campaign on your hands and can get some allies with experience in that area.

How can all-volunteer groups with no budget go no-kill?

Question from Cheryl:

I volunteer for an all volunteer-operated humane association. We operate on donations and fundraising only and have no paid employees. Presently, we have no other animal control programs in our city/county. So far, the local entities have refused our pleas to work with us. We would like to see our shelter become no-kill. Do you have any suggestions for a volunteer group who has no annual operating budget? Any help would be appreciated.

Response from Nathan:

No annual operating budget? Why? You can't blame that one on "local entities who refuse to work with you."

I use volunteer designers, volunteer fundraisers, volunteer coordinators, volunteer mechanics for our vans, volunteer carpenters to make repairs at our shelters, volunteers to build and maintain our website, volunteer socializers, volunteer adoption counselors, volunteer front desk staff, volunteer foster parents, local veterinarians volunteer to do our volunteer-run spay/neuter clinics. If I can't find a volunteer, I do it myself (last year my wife and I bottle-fed 60 neonatal kittens!)

You can be a professional organization that applies for grants; sends out fundraising appeals; has an active spay/neuter program such as vouchers for low-income pet owners; has adoption events at local pet stores and malls; has a website with available animals and the ability to donate online, and still be all volunteer.

And then as you build up your funds, you can hire staff. But you should be professional through and through and that means having an operating budget, with set income and expense goals, and a strategic development plan to get it.

And finally, if all you are doing is killing animals and this is keeping you from building for the future, you aren't doing anyone any good--especially the animals. You might want to consider not taking in more than you can handle since they are going to die anyway--and build up your capacity over time.

At the same time that you take personal responsibility for professionalizing your own organization by covering your bases (fundraising, spay/neuter, adoption, etc.), you can begin to take your built-up public support to do battle with local entities to help you in your efforts.

Good luck!

Weeding out the bad foster homes

Question from a Member:

The group I volunteer with is very small and relatively new to the area. We are doing well with adoptions and money but have a tremendous problem attracting and keeping good fosters. Many of our fosters find that they grow too attached to their foster critters and feel that they emotionally can't foster for us again. Another great problem is "crazies". We recently had one new foster who felt that he could do whatever he wanted within the group, to the extent that we could not trust him not to transfer the animal to a breed rescue group. (We ended up removing the foster from him.) We have a problem with enthusiastic but misguided animal lovers and this is causing problems in our group. How do we screen out these types of people before we approve them for foster or volunteering with us? What types of questions should we ask? I have no problems saying no to an individual, I would rather have fewer good fosters than a larger number of iffy ones that I have to keep tabs on. Please help!

Response from Nathan:

I am a firm believer that a foster parent should be allowed to adopt their foster pet. In short, if I trust them to care for them while they are sick, injured, unweaned or traumatized, I will trust them to keep the critter as a lifelong pet. The reality is you will always lose foster parents as they adopt out their charges and then drop out of the program. The key is to keep recruiting and there are many avenues for that: high schools and colleges, military personnel, elderly, non-custodial parents who have their kids for the summer, regular volunteers, newsletters, offsite adoptions, press releases, speaking to community groups, etc.

The question here is the "crazies." My gut feeling is that people who have difficulty relating to people are often drawn to animals, for obvious reasons: they are not judgmental, dismissive, or sarcastic, and they don't talk back. That's my two-penny psychoanalysis. But whatever the reason, you want to screen them out.

We temperament test dogs to make sure they are not vicious before placing them into foster, and it is an excellent idea to temperament test people to make sure they aren't nuts, either. But I find that the best method, to begin with, is an indirect approach.

Make people jump through a few hoops, keeping in mind that there is a balance between too much bureaucracy, which will result in fewer foster parents (even good ones) and too little, in which you open yourself up not only to wacky folks, but to other problems as well.

Here is our process:

1. We start out with an application to foster. Time and time again, we get people coming to the shelter who want to foster--and they are obviously nuts--and they get annoyed with having to fill out an application. This will screen out those who are completely over the top.

2. We then follow up with an orientation, about an hour or so long, where the program is explained, the expectations are set out, they sign a statement agreeing to abide by certain rules, they waive liability, and they can ask questions. This too will give you a good insight into your future foster parents. If people start giving you trouble here (and a few will), you simply never call them back, and avoid the confrontation.

3. Following the orientation, we do a home visit. We want to make sure the home is clean, we want to see where the foster animals will be kept, we want to meet the resident pets (if they are relaxed, you can relax!), and we want to make sure all pets in the home are current on vaccinations and are spayed/neutered--a sign of responsibility.

4. We then start new foster parents with "easy" animals, say six week old kittens that just need to get chubby so we can neuter them at eight weeks. If they do well there, we continue. If not, we end it there. Not formally, we simply do not call them back for more fostering.

5. Remember, stay flexible. The key is to find a balance between protecting the integrity of your program, saving the most lives, and screening out the crazies.

Even with that process, people will slip through the cracks. It is unavoidable. But you will find that these are the exceptions and not the rule. You just adjust and move on.

From Jude: Regarding screening out bad fosters

I feel you missed two points in this discussion. Following your apt description of social misfits who are drawn to animals, some of these people can do very well with animals in their charge. If we judge them solely on their ability to competently and responsibly care for animals and not by how we feel about them in human social terms, you may have a very good foster home. We don't have to think of everyone who volunteers as a potential best friend or "equal." However, with some of these people, the group needs to be strong in its boundaries, for example, letting these people know they will not be allowed to represent the group at adoption fairs.

Contrary to this is an admonition for groups who take all comers. The group I worked with in Florida had a young woman who had no obligations (work/children/etc.) and was able to donate a lot of time. Because of this, she was "all over" this group. While not "crazy," she definitely had a personality disorder and managed to anger everyone involved with the group. The group's leader was shortsighted, seeing this person as an asset to be utilized, but she lost literally every single good person associated with the group (including myself) as a result. The lesson being, just because someone is willing and able to work full-time for your cause, pay attention to your group at large. If everyone is getting angry at one person, that person is probably a problem and should be eliminated.

Response from Nathan:

My response was never about judging people based on IQ, social skills, or any other criteria. It was about making sure foster parents followed rules and helped the animals. This is a movement about saving ANIMALS. If the person can do that, fabulous! If not, they have no business in your shelter or its programs. I couldn't care less if they are introverted or extroverted, speckled with tattoos, have pierced body parts, or claim to hail from another planet.

Ed. Note: we recommend reading Nathan's manual on the subject:
Starting a Foster Community (.pdf).

How to find the right director to lead an organization to no-kill

Question from several members:

Our humane society is looking for a new director/manager. My personal belief is that the right person is nowhere to be found in our community -- too much history and strife. Attempts at coalitions haven't been very successful, because even at a population of 300,000, our town is "small" when you're in animal welfare. Pretty much everyone in animal welfare has done something to offend someone else. Nobody has demonstrated the kind of leadership ability necessary to bring our region around.

Where do we find someone with the vision and experience of a Nathan Winograd to clean up our town? And what kind of salary can we expect to pay to attract him/her? What made you decide to relocate and take the position as Executive Director at Tompkins County SPCA?

Response from Nathan:

I believe that the best, most successful shelter directors around the county have no animal sheltering experience. Why? Because they are not schooled in the defeatist mentality that has thoroughly defined the soul of our nation's animal shelters for over a century. They have not adopted the excuses, they have not betrayed their obligations to the animals, they do not kill with impunity, they are not content to parrot the same old tired clich's, and promote the same old worthless programs without examining whether they are actually having an impact.

The primary difference between for-profit and non-profit organizations is not the mission, is not the quality of the people who work in them, is not a different principle of doing business. It is, quite simply, accountability. Non-profits, at least animal shelters in my experience, don't seem to aspire to any. The CEO of a for-profit business that failed to meet his bottom line would not survive, nor would the business.

In the non-profit world, however, very few CEOs seem to feel they need to be accountable to the public for their mission. They could merely decry the "sad state of affairs" and continue to ask for money without ever being required to get results.

Hard work is laudable, but efforts do not mean anything to the feral cat in the alley, the dog with separation anxiety, or the sick cat in your shelter. What they need are results! Are they going to live? Are they going to get to keep their home?

You need a shelter director who is going to make the shelter accountable--the bottom line in our "business" is how many animals the shelter saves. We have one goal: reducing the number of animals that are being killed in our community.

And to do that, you need to do two things - adopt more animals and lower the number of animals surrendered to the shelter. In short, you need to know what programs work? What programs don't work? And why?

You need accountability.

And that might be hard to find with the "experienced" crowd. Look around the country, who do you see saving the most lives?

Is it the gentleman from one of those "premier" national organizations who is making a fortune running a shelter in California? No.

Is it the gentleman from a city in the South who has been at it for decades? No.

Is it one of the leaders of the large, well-established, well-funded organizations from New England? No.

No. The promise of No Kill is built upon a former pharmacist who took over an SPCA in Northern California with no sheltering experience (no longer there); a former minister who helped found a sanctuary in the Utah canyons; another minister who settled in the Arizona desert; a former police officer who hung up his badge for a dog; a lawyer who wanted to help animals; a former business executive.

No animal sheltering experience, just an abiding sense of what is right, and an understanding that you are being paid to get results, not pass the blame to others.

Hire someone who comes from a field where it is not acceptable to meet your goals by killing those you have been hired to protect.

Setting the salary depends on too many factors to give a short answer. It depends on region, economic climate, expectations, negotiations between the parties. But keep in mind that if you set goals that person must meet, including fundraising targets, they should be able to meet them, so financially it makes sense to pay more.

Why did I take the job in Ithaca? One reason is that no one else would hire me--because I did not have executive director experience! I was dismissed as an activist, as a troublemaker, told I was too young, and had never raised a dime. In fact, one of the "experts" told me I wasn't "executive director" material and should stick to advocacy.

How can shelters go no-kill overnight when taking in so many animals?

Question from several members:

When a shelter goes "no kill", what happens to the animals that cannot be accommodated by the shelter because the shelter is full? What is a shelter to do when twice as many animals come in as go out? Until recently I worked at a shelter that was trying to be "no-kill". What happened in actuality is that the animals were placed in extremely crowded, stressful conditions, where they became very ill in about a week. THEN, they were killed, because illness is an acceptable reason. I can understand working toward the day when the number of animals available match the number of people wanting a pet, but until then I really don't understand a no-kill plan. Soon, literally hundreds of kittens will pour into the shelter in my city every day. Maybe twenty a day will be adopted. What is your immediate answer?

Response from Nathan:

For far too long, animal shelters have swallowed and accepted the thoroughly discredited notions perpetuated by the old guard national animal organizations that claimed to speak on behalf of animal shelters.

Chief among these precepts was that SPCAs were required to kill the bulk of the animals because there were simply "too many animals and not enough homes." This view, a gospel upon which the bedrock of animal sheltering depended, was a truth so ingrained, it was simply beyond question. A corollary of that governing principle was that the public, in failing to have their animals neutered and, subsequently, failing to make a lifetime commitment to them by surrendering them to shelters, was to blame for this sorry state of affairs. As a result, shelters - through no fault of their own - were merely performing the public's dirty work.

At the same time, the public saw most shelters, and they were in fact, the place where animals were killed. If the pet loving public was slow to support shelters financially, and was even slower to visit to adopt animals, it should have come as no surprise. Animal lovers hated to go shelters to adopt animals because the pet they didn't choose was likely to get killed. Instead, they went other places to get animals - to friends, to neighbors, to newspaper ads, to pet stores, to rescue groups, even to breeders (if there are truly not enough homes, how is it that pet stores, puppy mills and breeders continue to make money?)

While people's reluctance to visit the shelter seems obvious to any pet lover, to many within the shelter industry it is not, and, in fact, still isn't today. As the vast majority of shelters do now, they simply tally up the number of people who came to the shelter to adopt animals and tally the number of people who came to surrender animals and came to the conclusion that since more animals were being surrendered every day than people who came to adopt, the number of animals exceeded the community's ability to care for them. If there were more homes out there, they were nowhere to be found.

The problem, of course, was that the SPCA wasn't looking for them. In fact, the SPCA was simply expecting them to come to the shelter. So as the cages became full and the adopters failed to come, the remainder were simply executed.

And so the "not enough good homes" myth was perpetuated, when there were/are plenty of good homes in the community. The homes are so good, in fact, that potential adopters refused to go into a shelter that did little more than exterminate the occupants because they didn't want to look into the eyes of the animals they left behind to be killed. But with national agencies vindicating their point of view, thousands of shelters nationwide continue to kill dogs and cats under the belief that there are no alternatives - except at some mythical time in the future.

That is, in short, a whole lot of BUNK.

But that doesn't mean that cages do not get full. They do. What to do about it is what separates an executive director who is earning his/her money from one who should be looking for other work. Most shelter directors appear content to shrug their shoulders, blame the public, fall back upon the myths, and continue the killing, as if they have no power to effect change.

But even with empty cages, some animals come in too young or too sick to adopt immediately and so they are also simply killed, a failure of passivity that contradicts the No Kill movement's whole philosophy that the shelter could be proactive in saving lives. To save these animals, you need to turn to your volunteers for help.

A foster program--until the animals are old enough, well enough or there is enough space in the shelter to bring them back for adoption--allows you to increase the capacity of the shelter without adding to staff, facility, or budget.

And the results will be dramatic. Not only will the program be successful at increasing the capacity of the shelter during peak periods, but the foster program has other big benefits. Instead of adopting the animal only to relinquish it back to the shelter a year or so later, fostering animals temporarily makes it easy for transitory people who wanted to share their lives with animals - such as students, military personnel, senior citizens, and others - to do so, even when they aren't ready to make a 15-year commitment to a pet.

In addition, foster parents and their friends, neighbors and colleagues will begin falling in love with and adopting these animals - which can now be seen without having to go into the shelter. And so, many of the animals who go into foster care "temporarily" never come back. Instead, they are adopted into homes. The pets placed in foster care seem to get adopted very quickly, and many of them are adopted to people who want a pet, but who don't - or more, appropriately, won't - come to an SPCA because they don't want to look at the faces of the many animals destined to die.

If these animals are being adopted out of the foster homes because people didn't want to come to the shelter, how about taking the animals out to people? In Tompkins County, we call them the "traveling pets." We simply fill a van full of cats and dogs and then set up temporary adoption booths for an afternoon around the community--at the mall, at the Farmers Market, and elsewhere. At one of our pet supply and hardware stores, Ithaca Agway, we have two cats permanently on display looking for homes.

By taking animals to where people work, live and play, you will make it easy for them to adopt a shelter animal, rather than buy one from a breeder, a pet store, or elsewhere. Immediately, you will find a large percentage of all animals adopted from the shelter are being adopted offsite.

In addition, you'll also see that most shelters are only open during "regular business hours," Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 p.m. for adoption - exactly when the working public is not available and their children are mostly in school anyway. How could you blame them for getting animals from pet stores who do most of their business on weekends? Sure, there are economic issues involved in weekend hours, but how is it that even cash strapped public libraries could manage to have hours accessible to school kids and the working public?

The answer is easy - follow the libraries' lead. In other words, not necessarily more hours, just different ones. By opening later in the day, and staying open later on weekdays and opening on weekends, a shelter could make it easier for the public to adopt animals from the SPCA - and for those who lost their pets to come to the shelter and reclaim them, without the risk of losing jobs or having to miss work.

At the same time that the shelter is being proactive in adopting out animals, it should be proactive in reducing supply--and again, that means affordable spay/neuter! And neutering animals before adoption. It simply makes no sense to adopt out breed-able animals, and then take in--and kill--the offspring of the pets you yourself adopt out.

Unfortunately, a large number of organizations continue to maintain their passive policies, content to pass the blame for the killing to others. Five employees at an animal shelter in Virginia, for example, had long requested that the shelter start a foster program to save younger and sick animals rather than immediately killing them. But the organization's long-time executive director refused, saying she did not want a foster care program at the shelter, decades after the program's success elsewhere demonstrated conclusively that it was a cost-free way of saving lives. Instead, tired of killing savable kittens and other sick animals, staff - in concert with caring volunteers - began taking them home and then returning them when they were old enough or healthy enough to be adopted. Their efforts were discovered by the director, however, and they were fired FOR SAVING LIVES.

In 1998, with many shelters still closed on weekends, efforts to force them to stay open until 7 pm one day a week so that working people had an opportunity to adopt or reclaim pets by statute in California were met not only with open hostility by these very shelters, but were bitterly opposed by their allies statewide.

Despite successes around the county, many shelter bureaucrats will not believe that anything could actually make a significant difference in reducing the killing.

It is a lesson in shelter defeatism that you should NOT embrace!

When I first took this job in animal control, I did not know what to expect. I had my ideas, but the animals kept coming, day after day, 10 a day, 20 a day, 30 a day, more, I had never seen that many kittens. But I took killing off the table. We started with a few cats in foster care, then twenty, then fifty, then one hundred, then two hundred, and it kept going. What the hell was I ever going to do with them? To be honest, I did not have a clue. But killing was not an option. Eventually, we found a rhythm--foster, rescue groups, offsites, more publicity, adoption incentives, pleas for help, you name it. And almost two years later, we still have not killed for space.

So "what happens to the animals that cannot be accommodated by the shelter because the shelter is full?" They go to rescue groups, foster parents, offsite adoptions, they are in some cases (if the person agrees) put on a waiting list, they are put on your website for adoption. Anything and everything creative but KILLING.

So "what is a shelter to do when twice as many animals come in as go out?" Be proactive in adoptions so that more animals are adopted over the short-term, and provide affordable spay/neuter, TNR and neuter all animals before adoption to reduce intake over the long term.

So what of the scenario when "hundreds of kittens come in but only 20 get adopted"? Fire the person in charge of adoptions because they are doing a miserable job.

So, what is my "immediate answer"? I quote my mentor: "What is unconscionable, abominable and outrageous is that animals, healthy and well-behaved, are being killed because someone says there are too many. That is something we do not accept. That is something we find intolerable."

Increasing adoptions through adoption policies

Question from a Member:

Could you share some of your adoption policies? (Indoor vs. outdoor cats and dogs; declawing homes vs. non-declawing; placing kittens and puppies with small children?) Does increasing adoptions necessarily mean accepting lower quality homes? What is your rate of return?

Response from Nathan:

Increasing adoptions means offsite adoption events, public access hours, greater visibility in the community, a foster program, working with breed rescue groups, competing with the pet stores and puppy mills, adoption incentives, marketing, and a good public image. It has NOTHING whatsoever to do with lowering the quality of homes.

I would, however, caution people to challenge some of their accepted notions of what is and what is not a "good" home. Or what is and what is not acceptable in terms of alternatives.

Let's take the examples posed in the question.

The first we can dismiss in relatively short order: Adopting puppies and kittens to homes with small children. WHY IS THAT BAD? Puppies, in particular, absolutely NEED to be around children to get properly socialized. The pulling of tails, the dressing up in clothes, the crawling all over, that is good stuff that will ensure the puppy grows up without fear, without undersocialization, with a disposition I like to call "wet spaghetti": you pick them up, you lay on them, you put a Halloween costume on them, and they go limp like wet spaghetti. It's all fun and games. That puppy will grow up to be a GREAT dog!

What about declawing? If you were to ask 100 people, would they rather have no fingers or be dead, ALL OF THEM would answer no fingers. If the cat is facing declawing or death, let them declaw.

If you have a No Declaw policy, you damn better be a no-kill agency, because if that cat could talk, he would beg you to drop the No Declaw policy before giving him the needle. (We educate people about alternatives and why they shouldn't declaw, but don't have a set in stone policy).

Let me give you another example. When I was doing rescue work in California, we had an FIV positive cat. An adopter was willing to take him but her veterinarian informed her that transmission would occur to her house cats if the FIV cat bit them. So she asked me to remove the incisors so that if he did bite, he couldn't puncture. Mutilation? Maybe. But that cat has now celebrated his fifth year in that home, instead of having been incinerated.

I also adopted two FeLV positive cats to a home that agreed to take them so long as they were declawed--I not only agreed, I paid for the declaw. Mutilation? Maybe. But those kittens just celebrated their second birthday in that home, instead of being ground up for pet food or whatever they do with the furry bodies after shelters kill them.

That is not lowering the quality of the home. That is not lowering your adoption standards. That is SAVING an animal who does not need to die.

The final issue is allowing cats outdoors. This, in my view, has nothing to do with No Kill. Cats should be allowed outdoors--maybe not in downtown Manhattan, but absolutely in rural Tompkins County. It makes them healthier and happier. I can't tell you how tiresome the flyers are that indoor cats don't face hazards faced by outdoor cats. How about a flyer on the epidemic of obesity, boredom, behavior problems and mental illness as a result of keeping cats from exercising basic instincts and keeping them confined in apartments all day?

I do not advocate for a blanket policy either way. People should use common sense. I live on 17 acres in the middle of nowhere. Despite an open door policy in my house, half the cats never leave the house, the other half love to play outside. When I lived in the Bay Area, my cats were indoor only. It depends.

But again, if the alternative is death and someone is going to let a cat outdoors, but it is otherwise a great adoption, why kill that cat for space? Life is about risks. Not allowing adoptions because cats are going to go outdoors is the same mentality that calls for the round up and killing of ALL feral cats because SOME might suffer. That argument is as ludicrous as it sounds.

And, in the end, I like adopters to let the cats outside for one more reason. If you were wrong and the adoption wasn't so great, that cat can run away and find a better home!

In Tompkins County, our general rules are as follows:

Applicants must show identification such as a driver license to confirm their identity.
Applicants must be at least 18 years old. However, we do not adopt out to undergraduate students or to sororities/fraternities (we do allow undergraduates to foster animals).
Applicants must provide a permanent address and telephone number.
Renters must have permission from the property owner.
Animals at home must be altered unless the animal is elderly or infirm.
Applicants must not be on our "Do not adopt" list.
Applicants must not want animals for any other reason than as a pet. We do not adopt out cats to be "mousers" or dogs to be "guard dogs."
Applicants must not indicate that the dog will be outside most of the time. Dogs must be allowed indoors as family members.
Applicants must have adequate income to support care including unforeseen medical care.
Anyone surrendering an animal within the last year is not eligible to adopt.
Pit bulls and Rottweilers cannot be adopted without a home visit by one of the humane officers.
Staff may delay an adoption for 24 hours or more until they can discuss with the Executive Director or Shelter Manager, if for any reason they do not feel comfortable with the adoption.
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