What "No Kill" Means (and the Alternative)
year (or so) ago, I experienced a random advocacy opportunity. As my
late-evening return flight from Dallas to Austin was just about to take off, a
last-minute passenger was allowed to board the plane, and he took the first
empty seat available— the one next to me.
Now, even if you're from Austin (heck, even if you're intimately involved in
Austin animal-welfare politics), you might not realize just how much this
last-minute passenger regretted sitting next to me the moment he realized who I
was. You see, the new passenger sitting next to me for the next 60 minutes was
none other than the immediate-past Mayor of the City of Austin. And I'm the guy
who publicly, adamantly, and sometimes successfully questioned his
administration's stewardship on animal issues.
But I was polite and professional (albeit persistent), and after the third time
I attempted to strike up a conversation, he engaged. I asked him about his pit
bulls (there was a rumor going around that he had two), but he didn't own a dog.
'Any pets?,' I asked. 'Yes,' he said, 'my daughters have a cat that we got as a
kitten from Town Lake Animal
Center (Austin's shelter). They do such a great job adopting out kittens
that it took us three months to get one, and she was only available because she
had a broken leg and a scar."
Like a lighting strike, it hit me. This guy, intelligent, talented, and highly
successful, hadn't the faintest clue of what had really been going on at his
City's animal shelter under his leadership. The reason that there weren't any
small kittens at TLAC for he and his daughters to adopt was not that the shelter
was doing such a good job of adopting out kittens. Nor was it due to a lack of
kittens entering the shelter. No, the real explanation for the lack of kittens
available at Town Lake Animal Center during his tenure was that if an impounded
kitten was too small to be spayed or neutered, he or she was unceremoniously
killed. No foster program; no bottle-baby program; no second chance. The
kitten was killed. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of small kittens that
entered Town Lake Animal Center— prior to recent reforms— were killed within
minutes (or, if they were lucky, hours) of their arrival.
And that, my friends, is the norm at municipal and private open-admission animal
shelters all across the United States.
Why do I bring this up now?
Because I continue to see, over and over again, in community after community,
otherwise smart and talented people who oppose No Kill reforms not because they
are uncaring, but because they are either uninformed or misinformed. (Others
oppose No Kill because they are just plain crazy, but that's for another blog
post.) And let me be the first to say this: it's our fault. If smart, caring,
and talented people are against No Kill programs and policies because we haven't
communicated what we mean by "No Kill," it's on us. We have failed.
So, in an effort to dispel the myths and communicate exactly what being in favor
of "No Kill" means, here goes:
What No Kill means: Bottle-baby
programs that feed, nourish, vaccinate, spay/neuter, and adopt out kittens
brought into the shelter under adoption age. The alternative: Killing all
under-8-week-old kittens within minutes of arrival without giving them any
chance of finding a loving home.
What No Kill means: Innovative and cost-effective
parvovirus treatments that save 90% or more of puppies diagnosed with or
exposed to the virus in shelters. The alternative: Killing all puppies exposed
What No Kill means: Improved
and welcoming customer service that treats every person who enters a shelter
as a potential adopter, volunteer, foster parent, and donor. The alternative:
Treating shelter visitors with noticeable suspicion and disdain, creating an
unwelcoming environment, turning off potential adopters, and losing
opportunities to cultivate volunteers and donors.
What No Kill means: Low-cost
and free spay-neuter programs, as well as trap-neuter-and-release
programs, proven to reduce shelter intake, saving money over time as the shelter
population declines. The alternative: Doing nothing to reduce shelter intake
(or worse, enacting
laws proven to increase shelter intake), and instead continuing the cycle of
What No Kill means: Reducing shelter intake by
helping solve routine behavioral and medical problems encountered by pet
owners considering surrendering their dogs or cats. The alternative: Killing
animals for routine behavioral and medical problems.
What No Kill means: A
creative adoptions program that includes enhanced marketing techniques and
adoptions, which take the animals out into the community rather than waiting
for adopters to come to shelters, which are often out-of-the-way, dark, smelly,
loud, and depressing. The alternative: Killing the animals that would have
been adopted with a better adoptions program, and blaming the public for those
that don't get adopted.
What No Kill means: Learning from the nation's
best shelters and shelter
directors, and replicating successful programs and policies. The
alternative: Shelters continuing to do what they've always done, ignoring
innovation, avoiding change, and missing clear opportunities to save lives.
What No Kill means:
leadership committed to dramatically decreasing unnecessary shelter killing,
rejecting excuses, and embracing change. The alternative: Bureaucratic
management that clings to disproven myths and excuses for killing, opposes
life-saving innovation, and blames the public for the killing of animals—
killing that the shelter itself has the power to avoid.
Finally, what No Kill means: Saving all treatable and healthy adoptable pets
impounded at open-admission shelters (or roughly
90% of all impounded companion animals). The alternative: Killing the
overwhelming majority of impounded animals and continuing the cycle of killing
that currently takes place at most shelters.
Oh, yes, I did make these arguments to the former Mayor of Austin on our
hour-long flight— although with the utmost courtesy, of course. It's possible
that I even reached him; he appeared alarmed to learn the real reason he had so
much trouble finding a kitten. But the bigger lesson, I think, is that we
animal advocates need to continue to do a better job at explaining the
difference between the traditional animal-shelter strategy ("save a few, kill
the rest"), and the hope, strategies, and progress that the No Kill movement
It is not enough to criticize those who oppose No Kill reforms. It is
insufficient to call names and demand change. Yes, we should stand up, stand
tall, and fight for proven, cost-effective life-saving reforms. But we must
also teach. The overwhelming majority of the public is with us, even if they
don't yet entirely know what it is we're for (and against).