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NKLA: How together, we’re going to achieve it

The launch of NKLA — No-Kill Los Angeles — has been filled with celebrations and celebrities, but now that things have settled down a bit, I’d like to share a more detailed view regarding the substance of the campaign and the plan for ending the killing in L.A. shelters.

Taking Los Angeles no-kill is a job that is too big for any single agency. Our answer is to bring as many stakeholders to the table as possible — L.A. Animal Services, the city government, the rescue community, spay/neuter providers, and the business community.

As a city, Los Angeles poses many challenges, not the least of which is its sheer size. Driving from north to south, Sylmar to San Pedro, in reasonable traffic, takes more than an hour and will put about 53 miles on your odometer. East to west, it’s about 31 miles. There are six city animal shelters, seven counting the facility that Best Friends is operating as a pet adoption and spay/neuter center. Los Angeles is amazingly diverse, with many people who speak little or no English, and like every big city (Los Angeles is America’s second most populous), there are the haves and the have-nots. Poverty, however, is not only characterized by low income. In a city that lives on wheels, lack of a car is as crippling as lack of money because the poorest communities have the fewest services, and that is especially true with regard to spay/neuter and other veterinary services.

Last year, based on a no-kill threshold of a 90 percent save rate of dogs and cats entering Los Angeles city shelters, over 17,000 were killed who should have been placed in adoptive homes. Reaching that 90 percent and reducing the 17,000 number to zero will take a combination of reducing shelter intake (what we call “noses in”) and increasing the number of animals leaving the shelters alive (what we call “noses out”).

How to do that? There’s not a lot of mystery here — just application and a lot of hard work:

NKLA is a coalition of local animal welfare organizations and city shelters focused on ending needless shelter killing in the city of Los Angeles. The area is blessed with a pretty sophisticated rescue community that accomplishes a tremendous amount, including providing support for many of the special-needs medical cases who enter the shelters, incorporating training and behavior programs, and working with the general public to help solve pet-related problems before they result in an animal being turned in to the shelter. The task of NKLA is to help multiply the effectiveness of the rescues — leverage strengths, identify and shore up weaknesses, and build out projects and programs that either don’t exist or don’t exist on a scale sufficient to make a difference.

Several prominent national no-kill leaders passed on the challenge of leading L.A. Animal Services before Brenda Barnette stepped up and accepted the job. Los Angeles represents the kind of tough fight that’s going to require more resources, more creativity, and more collective input from an array of heavily invested stakeholders to achieve no-kill. Best Friends very much sees our role as the organization that can and should take on cities of the size and complexity of Los Angeles.

At the very inception of the project, priority #1 was to undertake an in-depth community analysis, overlaying shelter service area data on top of demographic information — shelter surrender data (numbers, species, breed, etc.), household income, language spoken at home, car ownership, proximity to spay/neuter and vet services — for every one of the city’s approximately 130 zip codes. The study didn’t simply confirm what everyone knows anecdotally; it provided unarguable hard data. In a city of four million people that is this economically and ethnically diverse, it is imperative that data drive the decisions on where to place resources.

Noses out — In addition to the six city shelters, there are at least a dozen other shelters in the greater Los Angeles area, along with hundreds of rescue organizations. The public has many choices when it comes to adoption. The first step forward is a concerted effort to find permanent homes for an ever-increasing number of city shelter animals through a subsidy program funded by Best Friends. The program encourages coalition rescue partners to focus a greater portion of their effort on city shelter animals. The requirements for participation in the coalition are straightforward — become a registered rescue partner of L.A. Animal Services (any animal-oriented 501(c)(3) qualifies) and report your monthly adoptions of shelter animals to the department.

Best Friends supports that effort to the tune of $150 per adoption above the number of adoptions that the rescues accomplished in 2010 (our shelter-data baseline year). The year-one target for the NKLA coalition is 3,000 adoptions of city shelter animals above the level achieved by coalition members in 2010.

Noses in — Paralleling amped-up adoption strategies is a push on spay/neuter projects targeted to the low-income pet owners who live in the city’s stray and surrendered pet hotspots. Projects developed by coalition partners are funded through NKLA by Best Friends. There are already a number of very healthy spay/neuter resources in Los Angeles, including several mobile units and spay/neuter clinics that will reach 15,000 pets of low-income families. The NKLA effort is intended to push the number of targeted surgeries to over 20,000 per year for Los Angeles city residents. When all resources are totaled, we expect to exceed that by several thousand procedures the first year.

That’s an important benchmark because of the work of Peter Marsh, the New Hampshire attorney who pioneered a statewide, publicly funded, low-cost spay/neuter program. He demonstrated that economically targeted spay/neuter delivered at the rate of five low-income procedures per 1,000 residents in the general population reduced shelter intake by up to one-third over a five-year period. His findings have been validated in Jacksonville, Florida, and Hillsborough County, Florida (Tampa), where shelter intake reductions in excess of 25 percent and 33 percent respectively were recorded even though his guidelines were not strictly followed. In Jacksonville, a rate of only three of the recommended five low-income procedures per 1,000 residents was sustained over six years. In Hillsborough County, the target of five low-income surgeries per 1,000 was reached but for only four rather than five years. For a city the size of Los Angeles, 20,000 spay/neuter surgeries targeted to low-income households is that five-per-1,000 mark and is our minimum target over the course of the campaign.

Based on the in-depth community assessment, the NKLA steering committee chose to target 12 underserved Los Angeles zip codes for spay/neuter projects. Seven of these are so uniformly below the poverty line that no means testing is required and any demonstration of residency in those zips qualifies for free spay/neuter services.

As referenced above, one of the pillars of the adoption and spay/neuter effort is the Best Friends Pet Adoption and Spay/Neuter Center operating out of a recently completed city shelter that never opened to the public due to budget shortfalls. All animals offered for adoption here come from one of the six L.A. Animal Services shelters. Our year-one goal for the center is to save the lives of 3,000 city shelter animals and to perform 6,000 spay/neuter procedures, 3,000 of which are targeted to pets of low-income residents.

A critically important piece of the noses-in/noses-out picture that needs to be developed almost from scratch is a robust network of foster homes. Most rescue organizations here manage their own foster programs, but a credible foster network supporting the city shelters directly has never gained traction, and it is a top priority for the city and for NKLA. That includes an all-important unweaned kitten program.

In any calculus of no-kill, trap/neuter/return (TNR) is a critical piece. In Los Angeles, this common practice is complicated by the fact that a state court ruled in favor of several bird conservancy groups and issued an injunction stating that L.A. Animal Services could not support or promote TNR until the city had complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) regarding the alleged negative impact of TNR on the environment and completed an environmental impact study. Although TNR is still legal and is broadly practiced throughout the city, the TNR injunction has had a very negative effect on shelter cat numbers as well as the number of those roaming at large because under its terms the city shelters cannot offer any advice, references or resources regarding TNR to members of the public who contact them with community cat problems or questions. Likewise, as a result of the injunction, Best Friends’ contract with the city to operate the city’s Northeast Valley shelter as a pet adoption and spay/neuter center prohibits us from providing any support to the public for TNR from or through that specific city-owned location. Consequently, all local TNR work, including Free Fix L.A., is managed and supported from Best Friends headquarters in Utah and doesn’t interface or otherwise coordinate with the Best Friends Pet Adoption and Spay/Neuter Center.

In year two, the campaign will push deeper into the less-accessible pieces of the puzzle. NKLA will continue to offer grants to coalition partners for programs, such as targeted low-income surgeries in tough-to-get-to areas requiring use of the Neuter Cruiser — a special van donated by Nissan to shuttle pets to and from spay/neuter project locations —  as well as trapping programs, shelter surrender intervention projects, an expanded bottle baby program, and more. These programs will leverage the strengths of the rescue community and what they do best, along with the resources that Best Friends can bring to the table and broad community support to get the job done.

L.A. is not going to become NKLA overnight — it’s a big megillah, but we believe that the threshold of a 90 percent save rate can be accomplished in five years — maybe less. Putting numbers together and plotting one possible future goes something like this: Starting in 2011, with a live shelter intake of approximately 56,000 dogs and cats and the live release of 33,000 animals, our goal, keeping the 90 percent save rate in mind, is to reduce shelter intake over five years to about 47,000 dogs and cats and increase live release to about 42,300, or 90 percent of intake. Over time, we would expect those numbers to improve even more. The year-one goal for coalition adoptions above the 2010 data baseline year is a minimum of 3,000 in order to stay on track with our five-year NKLA targets.

However, if L.A. is going to become NKLA, it will need to be embraced and owned by more than the few hundred to a thousand activists who make up the core of the rescue and spay/neuter community. It must be embraced and owned by the city as a matter of civic pride, from the mayor and the City Council who are already on board, to the corporations and small businesses that call Los Angeles home.

That’s where the amazing media campaign designed by Let There Be Dragons, a content company in the Omnicom Media Group that draws on the talent of TBWA and the creative genius of Lee Clow, the man who was instrumental in fashioning brands like Apple, Nissan, Energizer, Adidas, Absolut, and Gatorade, among others, comes in. The pro bono media campaign is arresting and compelling and includes a website that supports the work of the NKLA coalition and drives public action on behalf of shelter animals.

Action by the mainstream public will be critical to creating and also sustaining NKLA. The website created by the digital team at Let There Be Dragons was purposefully created to engage the public through straightforward action. The generosity of the team that created this campaign has been extraordinary. This is a full-on media campaign that few corporations, let alone a nonprofit, could have afforded. It’s worth a look and serves as the perfect capper to this quick overview of NKLA. You can check out the components of the media campaign here:

NKLA is a massive effort that’s going to take the cooperation and collaboration of many stakeholders, but we know it’s achievable with the right effort, attention and commitment. The NKLA project has already involved and mobilized hundreds of Angelinos in one unifying effort to transform L.A. into NKLA.

  • Community involvement through an “all hands on deck” collaborative effort — from the NKLA steering committee, to NKLA coalition partners, to civic leaders, to the business community.
  • High-volume adoptions — 3,000 over the baseline set in 2010 — via NKLA coalition partners.
  • High-volume spay/neuter targeted to the L.A. communities and residents who need the services the most and can afford them the least. Goal: Five surgeries for pets of low-income families per 1,000 residents = 20,000 surgeries per year.
  • Best Friends Animal Society Pet Adoption and Spay/Neuter Center (located in L.A.’s Northeast Valley Shelter) to save the lives of 3,000 L.A. city shelter animals and perform 6,000 surgeries.
  • Build-out of robust foster care network.
  • Addressing of community cats issue.
  • Year two: Grants to support: 1) shelter surrender intervention; 2) deeper penetration of target zip codes for spay/neuter; and 3) trapping grants.
  • Wide-scale recruitment and use of volunteers.
  • Media campaign.
Gregory Castle, CEO emeritus, Best Friends Animal Society Gregory Castle
CEO emeritus
Best Friends Animal Society