Accountability is key: Why socially conscious sheltering falls short


The no-kill movement began with a simple but profound idea: The lives of homeless animals matter and have intrinsic value beyond whatever benefit they might bring to people. That simple understanding obligates us to do everything in our power to save the life of every dog and cat who comes into our care. Today, no-kill has grown to become a nationwide movement, benchmark and commitment for shelters and the communities that support them.

Leading the country to no-kill by 2025

From our beginnings 35 years ago, Best Friends Animal Society has been both a founder and a leader of the no-kill movement, and in 2016 we planted an ambitious stake in the ground that by 2025 every shelter and every community in the nation will be no-kill. Every single staff member at Best Friends, our shelter and rescue partners, our volunteers, and our new 2025 Action Team are all working in concert to make this a reality.

Meaning of no-kill

No-kill means that 100% of the animals who can be saved will be saved. Under the no-kill philosophy, animals who are irremediably suffering or too dangerous to be adopted are humanely euthanized, but the shelter strives to find a loving home for every other animal, while still ensuring high standards of care. 

A community that saves the lives of 90% of the animals who enter its public and private shelters is considered to be no-kill. Today, there are more than 4,000 no-kill communities in the United States — more than a third of the shelters in the country, representing a wide range of demographics. Many more communities are rapidly approaching that benchmark. To be clear, a 90% save rate is the no-kill threshold, not the ceiling, and the lifesaving rate for many communities is well above that threshold. 

Likewise, it is understood that there may be special circumstances in which a community could be successfully implementing no-kill principles and practices but not reach a 90% save rate due to the types of services shelters provide to their community. As part of our community lifesaving dashboard project, Best Friends has created a process by which shelters fitting these special circumstances can still be designated as no-kill.

Socially conscious sheltering

Recently, there’s been some buzz in animal welfare circles about what its advocates refer to as “socially conscious” sheltering. On paper, socially conscious sheltering appears to be very similar to the no-kill philosophy. It shares the no-kill values of “respectful treatment of animals,” “fostering a culture of transparency,” “alleviating suffering and making appropriate euthanasia decisions,” and “assessing the medical and behavioral needs of homeless animals and ensuring these needs are thoughtfully addressed.” In fact, Best Friends works closely with sheltering organizations to advance those very principles, along with developing innovative lifesaving programs. 

But while socially conscious sheltering shares many values with the no-kill philosophy, it lacks definable goals, benchmarks of success and accountability. If we are truly going to save all the animals who can be saved, we must hold ourselves to a measurable standard. 

Measuring success and progress

The no-kill framework sets a measurable standard for what success looks like in our shared goal of saving every animal who can be saved. The 90% benchmark provides a way to measure our progress toward that goal. Lacking any specific metrics or a definition for success, socially conscious sheltering can embrace both high-performing shelters with save rates at no-kill levels, but also include low-performing shelters that are simply going through the motions of generic best practices with no path or intentional plan for improved lifesaving. 

We understand that the goal to achieve no-kill nationwide by 2025 is demanding and challenging. In some underserved communities, it means moving shelter operations from the standards of the 1970s to the 2020s in short order. There will be successes and failures along the way, but without clear goals, metrics and benchmarks, things will remain as they have been for the last 40-plus years. 

As a nation, we’ve already made so much progress in getting to no-kill. Just a few decades ago, as many as 17 million animals were killed each year in shelters. Today, that number is down to around 730,000. But 730,000 animals is 730,000 too many, which is why we are working every day to support shelters, build community support and directly save lives in service of our goal of getting the country to no-kill.

In Los Angeles, for example, a coalition led by Best Friends took the nation’s second largest city from a save rate of 56% at the start of 2012 to 89.7% by the end of 2018. Kansas City Pet Project took that heartland community’s save rate from 65% to 90% in just six months. In 1999, the year before Best Friends launched a statewide no-kill campaign for Utah with the support of Maddie’s Fund, the save rate was 43%. Today, it is 84.5% for the entire state.

Accountability is key

While socially conscious sheltering may be getting some attention, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of our shared goal and that we ensure that we have ways to hold ourselves accountable to the standards we have set. Because no matter what we call it, we’re all in this together and we all want to save as many lives as possible, so that one day we can all live in a world with no more homeless pets.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle with Sunny the dog
Julie Castle
Best Friends Animal Society