New Hampshire: a leading light for no-kill

By Gregory Castle

No More Homeless Pets means every animal has a homeEditor’s note: In a multipart series over the next several weeks, we’ll be providing an analysis of successful No More Homeless Pets campaigns – how they work, why they work and what distinguishes them from each other to achieve no-kill in their communities.  

Part I: Sustainable Success: A Case for Targeted Low-income Spay and Neuter. 

New Hampshire is best known for its early and often decisive presidential primaries and its cool Revolutionary-era inspired official state slogan,  “Live Free or Die.”

Among animal people, New Hampshire is known as the first and, to date, only state to achieve No More Homeless Pets, what is arguably a no-kill status.

The architect of this phenomenal achievement is Peter Marsh, a classic New Englander with a blunt, tell-it-like-it-is approach to life. He has a broad New England accent and a contagious laugh, and he is a rabid baseball fan. Peter is an attorney/activist who set about putting his home state on the path to no-kill in the early 1990s.Peter Marsh with a black dog

Peter raises eyebrows and hackles when he proclaims that “we can’t adopt our way out of the problem,” referring to the needless killing of shelter animals. It’s a perspective that draws cheers and jeers, depending on the audience. However, it’s hard to argue with sustained success and that’s what Peter’s model has delivered for the state of New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire approach is decidedly non-sexy. It doesn’t have the set good-guy/bad-guy roles that generate public controversy and Internet flame wars with bumper-sticker slogans, and it definitely wouldn’t make much of a reality TV show.

The model leans heavily on a non-mandatory, publicly funded spay/neuter program that targets the low-income communities and families that Peter’s and other research determined to be the source of the majority of animals entering the state’s shelters. And while there is certainly room for a good, old-fashioned pitchforks-and-torches march on a regressive shelter, the long-term sustainable results that Peter regards as defining the success of any model rely on a community-based infrastructure that is independent of the longevity of any particular shelter director, rescue organization or charismatic leader.

As an illustration of the community-based infrastructure and sustainability point that Peter touts, it’s worth noting that the historic success of San Francisco’s becoming a no-kill city in the 1990s was followed by a period of decline and then an official rejection of no-kill as a city mandate. So much of the success was dependent on one organization – the San Francisco SPCA – and on its creative and charismatic leader, Richard Avanzino. Following Avanzino’s departure, the no-kill ideal of San Francisco began to fade. Today, San Francisco is no longer no-kill, and what was a decline became virtually official policy last year when a measure mandating a no-kill San Francisco was tabled by the Commission of Animal Control and Welfare. The City by the Bay is apparently no longer even trying to be no-kill.

The lesson: Life-saving programs, especially targeted low-cost and free spay/neuter services, need to be institutionalized at a level that is protected from the policy changes of a single organization or the comings and goings of particular leaders.

Despite his focus on spay/neuter, Peter is adamantly opposed to mandatory spay/neuter laws, which he sees as driving people out of the pet-licensing system, thus cutting off a funding source and encouraging the surrender of pets by families who can afford neither a fine nor a retail-priced surgery for their pet.

In developing his approach to No More Homeless Pets, Peter analyzed shelter intake, adoption and death rates from every available source. The constant that emerged was a relative difference over time between the number of animals entering shelters and the number being returned to their owner or adopted. That terrible difference was and is the number of animals dying in shelters. As intake rose or fell, the positive outcomes for shelter animals rose and fell in a seemingly orchestrated manner. Adoptions peaked when intake peaked, but the difference, the number of animals killed, remained a relative constant. In his most recent book, Replacing Myth with Math, Peter states that, historically, the reduction in shelter deaths has been produced almost exclusively by a decline in shelter intake rates rather than increased adoptions. The best way to reduce intake rates, he says, is through targeted spay/neuter.

The supporting logic goes like this: The shelter has no control over the selection of animals available for adoption, but the average member of the general public, especially a first-time pet owner, begins their search for a pet with a particular idea in mind. A puppy or a kitten is the normal starting point and possibly a breed, look or type. The shelter has a selection of pets based not on the expectations of the customer, but on a generic mix of stray and owner-surrendered animals, many from low-income communities. Sales, promotion and marketing strategies can move the dial to some degree on shaping the public’s pet preference, but with a publicly funded spay/neuter program, there is complete control over to whom and how you target the resource in order to affect the number, sources and even types of animals entering the shelter to begin with.

Peter’s analysis of the impact of targeted spay/neuter services states that spaying or neutering five animals per 1,000 people in low-income areas will reduce shelter intake by as much as 33 percent over a five-year period. Jacksonville, Florida, reduced shelter intake by 23 percent in four years, and New Hampshire reduced shelter intake by 33.6 percent in six years, with an accompanying reduction of animals killed annually from 11,494 to 2,575 between 1993 and 2000. That number, as of 2009, is 2,495 animals killed yearly in shelters statewide despite a sizable growth of 7.2 percent in human population in that same timeframe. That’s a statewide live release rate of 83 percent, with zero animals being killed to make room for incoming homeless pets. As a function of the human population, that specs out to an impressive 1.9 deaths per 1,000 people.

The significance of the above calculations is that we can get an enormous bang for the buck and make a significant impact on shelter populations by intelligent targeting of spay/neuter services upstream of the shelter and before homeless pets clog those shelters and require heroic efforts on the part of shelter directors and the rescue community.

Peter’s single-minded focus on targeted spay/neuter is hard to refute. For example, California has perhaps the most extensive and productive network of rescue organizations in the country, supported by provisions of the 1997 Hayden Bill that mandated shelter access and extended hold times for strays, but it has a weak network of low-cost or free spay/neuter services. Between 2004 and 2008, the state saw a rise of 54,000 in the number of animals killed annually in shelters (from 378,445 to 432,412) while shelter intake jumped by 106,404 (from 729,238 to 835,642).

For some, public funding in today’s economic climate is an eye-roller, but Peter offers a variety of relatively painless strategies, ranging from a $2 add-on to pet license fees, to a $.01 tax on bags of pet food, to special-purchase car license plates. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

In New Hampshire, Peter was able to pass legislation, through an imaginative advocacy campaign, which added $2 to the state dog license fee. The money goes into a fund that provides subsidies for sterilizing the animals of low-income families that are unable to pay full price for these surgeries.

There is no question that the New Hampshire model works and does so without a lot of fanfare. One of the strongest arguments for the model is that it appears to be relatively immune to the uncertainties of organizational leadership, economic downturns and policy.

Peter Marsh continues to design funding strategies and service-delivery models for publicly funded, targeted spay/neuter programs. Most recently, he has worked with the cities of Jacksonville and Tampa, Florida, and on a legislative initiative in Washington state.

Can it work in your community?

About Peter Marsh:
Peter Marsh was a founder of Solutions to Overpopulation of Pets, the group that spearheaded the establishment of publicly funded pet-sterilization programs in New Hampshire. During the first six years after the programs were established, shelter euthanasia rates dropped by 75 percent and have been maintained at that level since that time. For the past 15 years, Peter has helped animal care and control agencies, humane organizations and advocacy groups establish effective shelter overpopulation programs in their communities.

Click here for Part II:  A case study in self funded progressive animal services.

Cat Dog No-Kill 2025

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society