The first step to No Kill is a hard working, compassionate animal control or shelter director not content to regurgitate tired clichés or hide behind the myth of "too many animals, not enough homes."

Unfortunately, this one is also oftentimes the hardest one to demand and find. But find him or her we must. Because the public wants No Kill, the animals deserve it and if it requires regime change to get it, we must fight for that too.  

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."

--Henry David Thoreau

It is has been twelve years since San Francisco became the first city to end the killing of healthy dogs and cats. The programs and services which made this possible are the same programs and services that allowed Tompkins County (NY) to achieve No Kill in 2002. Following the same model, Charlottesville, VA saved 87% of dogs and 67% of cats last year and pledged to do better this year-to-date, over 90% of dogs are finding homes; while the City of Philadelphia went from killing nearly 9 out of 10 dogs and cats to a fraction of that.

These communities achieved or are achieving success because of rigorous implementation of the key programs and services outlined in the U.S. No Kill Declaration ( These programs, collectively called the No Kill equation, include: a TNR program for feral cats, high volume low-cost spay/neuter, rescue group access to shelter animals, a foster care program, volunteers, comprehensive adoption programs including offsite adoption venues, pet retention programs, medical and behavior rehabilitation, good customer service, and public relations/community involvement.

To the extent a shelter isn't implementing this model, animals are needlessly being killed. And because No Kill advocates must represent the interests of the animals, they must first demand these programs, and then fight for them. But throughout the United States right now, there is a major roadblock to this occurring. The roadblock is the old guard of shelter directors who will not implement these No Kill solutions because they are content with the status quo. They have accepted killing even in the face of lifesaving alternatives. No amount of excuses can change the simple fact that the biggest barrier to No Kill success in any given community is often a single person. Who runs animal control or the large private shelter in a community can make--or break--No Kill success. So the first order of business is regime change.

Why is killing still occurring at rates in excess of 50%, 60%, 70% or higher in almost every single community in the United States? Is it because there are too many animals? Is it because there are not enough homes? Is it because of irresponsible people? Is it because we don't have enough mandatory laws like cat licensing? Is it because the animals aren't adoptable? We have been conditioned to believe those are the reasons.

But most are being killed for one reason--failure. A failure to learn from the past. A failure to implement the programs and services that save lives. A failure of caring. The buck stops with the shelter's director.

Many shelters are not sterilizing animals before adoption or providing the public with affordable alternatives. Some do not have a foster care program, nor do they work with or socialize dogs with behavior problems. Still others do not take animals offsite for adoption, have not developed partnerships with rescue groups, limit volunteerism, and still retain adoption hours that make it difficult for working people or families to visit the shelter, the very people they should be courting to adopt the animals in their care. Or they do not implement Trap-Neuter-Return programs for feral cats.

These shelters continue to ignore their own culpability in the level of killing, while professing to lament the continued killing as entirely the fault of the public's failure to spay/neuter or to make lifetime commitments to their animals. When you deny any responsibility for the killing, the impetus to change your own behavior which might impact that killing disappears.

In Missouri, a shelter run under the auspices of the county health department is filthy and teeming with cockroaches, flies and fecal matter. These same conditions in someone's home would cause the health department to issue citations but there is apparently no contradiction when it is their own facility. In Georgia, a rural shelter overseen by the chief law enforcement official in the county turns a blind eye to cruelty and neglect that results in animals unnecessary dying in the shelter. In California, a humane officer unnecessarily beats a dog repeatedly with a baton until there is blood all over the cage. The officer remains employed. And despite unnecessary high rates of shelter killing, leadership is satisfied with the job their agency is doing in animal control. In an New York shelter, over eight out of ten cat cages are kept empty during the busy summer season to reduce staff workload, while the vast majority of cats are killed--some ostensibly "for space." In Maryland, a dog sits in a kennel for days with a broken leg with no care or treatment of any kind. While in a Florida shelter, a mother dog unable to nurse due to poor nutrition watches her puppies die of starvation and dehydration, while shelter staff walk by oblivious to their condition.

But the uncaring need not be so blatant. A shelter may be clean, it may have competent staff, and it may have good customer service. But if the shelter director does not implement a foster care program, he or she is needlessly killing animals and has tacitly accepted that it is more convenient to do so. If a shelter director does not have a TNR program, he or she has decreed that feral cats can and should be killed. If a shelter director does not take animals offsite for adoption, he or she is accepting a body count associated with failure to do so.

And that takes us to perhaps the most important element of the programs and services that make up the No Kill Equation (See No Kill Sheltering, Vol. I Issue 4, July/August 2006). The first step to success is often the hardest one of all--a hard working, compassionate animal control or shelter director not content to regurgitate tired clichés or hide behind the myth of "too many animals, not enough homes." Unfortunately, this one is also oftentimes the hardest one to demand and find. But find him or her we must. Because the public wants No Kill, the animals deserve it and if it requires regime change to get it, then we must fight for that too.

The Dark Side of Collaboration

So why are activists putting aside blame and focusing instead on collaboration with these very directors? Unfortunately, they cling to the erroneous view that collaboration is the key to No Kill success. But it is not. A community which implements each and every program and service of the No Kill Equation comprehensively will succeed. Those who focus on collaboration instead will fail so long as the director(s) of the community's major shelters are not committed to the No Kill paradigm.

While the job is certainly made easier if all parties are willing to work together, collaboration only works when animal control or private shelters are dedicated to the No Kill endeavor. If they are not, a focus on collaboration can actually delay lifesaving efforts or even doom them altogether. In such cases, the effort at coalition building detracts from the real impediment to saving lives: reforming the animal shelter or regime change within those agencies that continue to cling to outdated models of sheltering.

In fact, there is not a single community in the United States where collaboration has actually led to No Kill success. If collaboration is so important, why hasn't it created No Kill? It has utterly failed and will continue to fail for the simple reason that while the large national organizations like the Humane Society of the United States continue to push the idea that all humane societies and animal control agencies are interested in the same goals, the facts frequently tell a different story--one of intransigent, reactionary policies that cause animals to needlessly die even in the face of lifesaving alternatives as demonstrated by No Kill success in progressive communities nationwide. Programs and services such as Trap-Neuter-Return for feral cats, foster care for sick, injured, unweaned or traumatized animals, and working with rescue groups.

We have known for over a decade that if No Kill is going to be achieved, shelters must put in place these key programs that have proved successful at saving lives. Why are some shelters still killing rather than sterilizing feral cats? Why do shelters still refuse to work with rescue groups? Why do they continue to keep volunteers out? This is the status quo in many communities throughout the United States and it begs the question of why animal activists--despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary--continue to believe that collaboration is the key to No Kill Success?

The Future of No Kill

Whether we realize it or not, whether we appreciate it or not, whether we believe it or not, as history marches toward greater compassion for our four legged companions, No Kill's conquest of the status quo is inevitable. But we are wasting precious time and energy trying to rehabilitate animal control directors who do not want to change. And, consequently, an opportunity will be lost to speed that process along. The price to be paid for our refusal to seize this opportunity will be the lives of millions of dogs and cats needlessly killed in shelters next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.

We have a choice. We can fully, completely and without reservation embrace No Kill as our future. Or we can continue to legitimize the two-prong strategy of failure: adopt a few and kill the rest. It is a choice which history has thrown upon us. We are the generation that questioned the killing. We are the generation that has discovered how to stop it. Will we be the generation that does? Only if we are willing to demand leadership changes in our local shelters when they have failed to get the job done. We must hold shelter directors accountable for failures that are theirs, and no one else's.

The most important question we can ask ourselves as animal lovers who want to end the killing in our communities is this: Is the animal control shelter and/or large private humane society in my community rigorously implementing each and every program of the No Kill equation?

If the answer is "No"--as it is in all but a small handful of communities nationwide--the next step becomes increasingly apparent. Because there is simply no excuse for continued delay. Delay means unnecessary killing. And no amount of collaboration with directors who have not felt the internal compulsion to implement these programs on their own accord will change that fact. It is time to replace them with compassionate ones who will. It is time for widespread regime change in shelters across the country.

The future of No Kill depends on it.


For an article on reforming animal control, click here.

To sign the U.S. No Kill Declaration, click here.

To learn how to leverage the No Kill Declaration to create change in your own community, click here. 

A Call for Regime Change appears in the September/October 2006 issue of No Kill Sheltering magazine. Other articles include a guide to seeking regime change, a profile of the ideal animal control director and how to recruit one, and why the much heralded King County, WA animal control ordinance is a dismal failure. For more information or to begin receiving the magazine, click here.

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