Confused about what no-kill means and doesn’t mean?

There seems to be persistent confusion about what the no-kill movement advocates for, what no-kill means and doesn’t mean, and the feasibility of no-kill as a comprehensive approach to sheltering.

While this is old territory, let’s do a refresher for those who find themselves in conversations with folks who don’t get the concept and for those who are themselves confused about what no-kill means in practical terms.

Here are some of the most common misperceptions about no-kill policies and practices. They are all incorrect and I’ll address each in turn.

Myth: It can't be done. An open-admission no-kill shelter doesn't exist.

This is just plain wrong. In every community considered to be no-kill (including Reno, Nevada; Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; and Fairfax County, Virginia), there is at least one open-admission shelter. In many communities, it is the only shelter in the jurisdiction.

Myth: If one shelter is no-kill, another facility in that community has to do the dirty work of killing the excess animals.

The calculation of no-kill includes all animals entering all shelters in a jurisdiction. A 90 percent save rate is the threshold that must be achieved for any community to be considered no-kill, and that includes all shelters, regardless of their individual operating models. There is no “bait and switch” happening in no-kill communities. Saving 90 percent of the animals in a community can be done, and it is happening in cities and towns all across the country. In our home state of Utah, 28 communities have reached and maintained that 90 percent threshold.

Myth: With no-kill, animals are allowed to suffer instead of being humanely euthanized.

This one is just crazy talk! I do not know of any no-kill shelters that allow suffering animals (those with no chance of recovery) to continue to suffer rather than be euthanized. On the contrary, no-kill sheltering is driven by compassion for the animals being cared for and collaboration with rescue organizations that focus on the special needs of older pets. Hospice care for terminally ill homeless animals is often a feature of no-kill communities.

Myth: No-kill sheltering means an increased length of stay, causing animals to languish in the shelter environment.

No-kill sheltering is usually driven by high-volume adoptions, with as short a stay as possible in the shelter. Since animals are not killed to make room for others in a no-kill sheltering environment, it is possible for dogs or cats who are not quickly adopted to remain in the shelter for longer periods, although many no-kill operations place longer-term animals in foster care. The idea that killing long-term shelter residents is an acceptable solution to long-term stays is just bizarre.

Myth: No-kill shelters "dump" cats instead of caring for them.

Those who make this accusation are using “dumping cats” as code for criticizing TNR (trap/neuter/return) and its shelter-integrated variant, RTF (return-to-field programs). These types of community cat programs acknowledge the fact that feral and free-roaming cats (collectively known as community cats) have homes — and they are just not indoor homes. The practice of fixing and returning cats to locations where they live in the community makes sense and saves lives. Opponents of TNR and RTF advocate catching and killing community cats, a practice that for decades has been failing in its goal to reduce the numbers of community cats.

Myth: Unadoptable and dangerous animals are released to the public without any screening.

Not true. It is a regrettable fact that in all sheltering models, there are genuinely dangerous dogs who have to be euthanized unless appropriate sanctuary care can be arranged.

Myth: No-kill sheltering is just a better-marketed version of hoarding. Animals are piled up in terrible conditions, leading to more hoarding cases because there is no screening of rescuers or adopters.

This is probably the most ignorant statement of the batch. First, as I said above, a primary no-kill strategy is high-volume adoptions — not piling up animals and clogging facilities. Second, hoarding is a mental condition that exists independent of sheltering policy. Third, if any sheltering model attracts hoarders more than another, it is a shelter that kills high numbers of animals. In such circumstances, hoarders justify their mania as necessary lifesaving.

Ultimately, no-kill means ending the killing of shelter pets as a means of population control. Depending on the size and complexity of the community, a variety of approaches will get you there, but the first is a commitment to making it happen. Each year at our national conference, we highlight communities that have reached a 90 percent save rate or are very close to achieving that goal. We develop “playbooks” that provide a snapshot of how each community approached its problems and the strategies deployed to overcome them. We will consider how each of the following communities achieved a 90 percent save rate and think about how your community can use some of these strategies to save more lives:

  • Austin, Texas

  • Baltimore, Maryland

  • Jacksonville, Florida

  • Kansas City, Missouri

  • Los Angeles, California

  • Portland, Oregon

  • Rockwall County, Texas

  • State of Utah

The Best Friends National Conference, to be held July 16-19 in Atlanta, Georgia, offers a comprehensive lineup of sessions about no-kill strategies and supporting functions such as fundraising, marketing, volunteer engagement and social media. We’ll also be profiling some new no-kill communities. I highly recommend attending the conference for any individual, organization or animal control professional interested in learning how to move their community to no-kill.

Together, we can Save Them All.

Francis Battista