Large-scale lifesaving

By Julie Castle

There’s a popular saying in America that bigger is better. Well, that hasn’t always been the case, at least if you’re talking about big cities and lifesaving. But I’m happy to report that this is changing, and it’s changing fast.

Not long ago, many of the nation’s largest cities were also the places where the most animals were being killed in shelters. If a city has more people, there are generally more pets. And the more pets in a community, the more animals get lost or need to be rehomed and eventually find their way to a shelter.

That’s why some large municipal shelters have massive intake — tens of thousands of animals per year. With that kind of volume, maybe it isn’t surprising that as much as they would love to implement innovative lifesaving programs, leadership and staff at some of these large municipal shelters are just too busy providing the basic necessities to the animals in their care.

I’m happy to report, however, that incredible progress is being made in these very large shelters.

Take Los Angeles. In 2011, L.A.’s six city shelters took in 56,000 animals and the save rate was less than 60%, way below the 90% benchmark to be considered no-kill. That year, Best Friends began working with Los Angeles Animal Services and a core group of local rescue organizations. This core group eventually became the NKLA Coalition, making up more than 150 groups dedicated to making L.A. a no-kill city. Together, we celebrated a save rate of 90.49% for the city of Los Angeles in 2020. It was a monumental effort and in a city the size of L.A., the difference between 60% and 90% translates into an additional 20,000 lives saved every single year.

As excited as I am about Los Angeles, I’m happy to report that the city is not alone. In 2005, approximately 80% of the 26,000 animals who came into BARC, the city shelter in Houston, Texas, didn’t make it out alive. Over the past decade, BARC has undergone what staff there affectionately call “the transformation.” By 2016, the shelter had almost flipped that statistic and was saving 77% of the animals. But they weren’t done. In 2020, BARC celebrated reaching no-kill status, with a save rate of 92.6% for the 20,301 animals entering the shelter.

Let’s not stop there. In 2016, Dallas Animal Services (DAS), one of the largest shelters in the nation, had a 59.4% save rate, with a gap to no-kill of more than 10,000 animals per year. Enter Ed Jamison, who was hired to lead Dallas Animal Services in 2017. Fast-forward three years and through Ed’s leadership, amazing support from the city of Dallas and the work of a tremendous team that Ed assembled, DAS achieved a save rate of 89.9% for 2020. An incredible transition in just three years for a city of that size.

Lifesaving strides have also taken place in other big cities. Rebecca Guinn has long been a lifesaving leader through her work at LifeLine Animal Project in Atlanta, Georgia. Among her many accomplishments was taking over the contract for Atlanta’s DeKalb County shelters and bringing them to no-kill. Her success was repeated in 2020, when the LifeLine animal shelter in Fulton County achieved a save rate of more than 90%, which means that the shelters for both of Atlanta’s two largest counties are now no-kill.

Like Dallas, both Charlotte, North Carolina, and Memphis, Tennessee, have seen amazing successes between 2016 and 2020, and those cities are also on the cusp of no-kill. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Shelter, under the leadership of Dr. Josh Fisher, took its save rate from 57.5% to 85.6% between 2016 and 2020, and Memphis Animal Services, under the leadership of Alexis Pugh, increased its save rate from 72% to 89.5%.

Sure, we like to say that bigger is better, but we also say, “Everything’s bigger in Texas,” and apparently that includes lifesaving. San Antonio Animal Services has been a lifesaving leader for many years and, in 2020, broke through to no-kill with a 91.1% save rate, making it a banner year for all three of Texas’ largest cities.

In total, these six municipal shelters (representing the second, fourth, seventh, ninth, fifteenth and twenty-eighth largest cities in the country) combined save more than 100,000 animals per year, and they’re all above or are tantalizingly close to passing the 90% no-kill benchmark.

The progress of municipal shelters in many of the nation’s largest cities is a major factor in the push to achieve a 90% save rate in every shelter in every community by 2025. I couldn’t be happier for so many of our friends and partners at these leading agencies — and for all the pets who come into shelters and, more important, are now leaving them for forever homes.

Big cities, big wins. Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society