The next four years


Yes, I know that when you saw the headline above, you probably thought I was going to talk about the election results. Not so!

For Best Friends, the next four years will be about putting all of our energy and resources into reaching our goal of making the country no-kill by 2025. We announced this audacious goal in 2016, and we’re now at roughly the halfway point. So, this is a good moment to review where things stand as we come to the end of this year and what the next major steps are.

We began this campaign by conducting the first-ever comprehensive survey of animal shelters in this country. Believe it or not, before that, no one even knew how many shelters exist in the U.S., let alone how many dogs and cats enter those shelters each year or their life and death outcome numbers. To get the country to no-kill by 2025, we needed to know the lifesaving gap — the number of additional dogs and cats that must be saved to get to no-kill.

Just as important, we needed to know where in the country animals were being killed so that we could target our work and that of our partners to be able to maximize the impact of our resources. This effort led to the creation of the most groundbreaking tool in the history of our movement, the pet lifesaving dashboard, an interactive data map that provides shelter stats at national, state and local levels, down to the individual shelter.

Armed with these figures, we developed a comprehensive plan, prioritizing lifesaving need, to work with shelters, local communities and people everywhere to bring an end to the killing of homeless pets in America. That’s what the campaign to achieve no-kill nationwide is targeting — every community, every shelter.

Having a no-kill goal, though, is not just about numbers and targets. Certainly, those are important and essential. But underlying it all is the understanding that no-kill is fundamentally a way of living — one that’s rooted in the belief that we all have a duty to protect the life of every animal entrusted to our care.

There are cases, of course, in which a dog or cat who’s brought to a shelter is so sick or injured and in such pain that we can do nothing to relieve the animal’s suffering. In these circumstances, the shelter or sanctuary may conclude, in consultation with caregivers and veterinarians, that it is in the animal’s best interest that she be euthanized to spare her any further suffering.

So, to be clear: The term “euthanasia” can only be applied to a specific patient and what’s in her best interest. It has nothing to do with killing animals in order to reduce their numbers.

How then do we determine whether a shelter has reached its no-kill goal? The generally accepted view is that a shelter has achieved no-kill status when 90% of the dogs and cats admitted leave the shelter alive. On average, one in ten of the animals who are admitted will fall into the category of having no quality of life and no reasonable likelihood of it being turned around. Only in those situations can a caring veterinarian advocate euthanasia.

Best Friends agrees with this view, and that’s why, in building a plan for a no-kill country, we say that our target is a save rate of 90%.

But again, let me be clear: What we’re talking about is a guide, not a rule. It absolutely doesn’t mean that if you can find homes for nine out of ten of the homeless pets you’ve brought in, then you’ve met your target and it’s OK to kill the others. Achieving no-kill is not only a matter of reaching some prescribed numbers and quotas. That’s what we mean when we say that no-kill is a philosophy and a trust.

With all of that in mind, here’s roughly where we are as we head into the final four years of our no-kill plan. Our 2016-17 nationwide survey revealed that 1.5 million cats and dogs were killed in shelters that year. Right now, we’re projecting fewer than 500,000 animals killed this year. If that holds true, 2020 will be the best year on record. (In 2019, the number was about 625,000.)

For several years, Best Friends has advocated moving away from the brick-and-mortar shelter system to a more community-based model. Our kitten care foster networks were a first phase of this shift. Some of the tremendous progress this year is due to an unexpected silver lining in the dark cloud of COVID-19. You’ll recall that back in March, during the lockdown period, adoption centers had to close, and shelters were reduced to admitting animals on an emergency-only basis. In response to what became an urgent need for thousands of new foster volunteers and adopters, people stepped forward in greater numbers than we’ve ever seen to save the animals. It was a remarkable moment, and our challenge now is to make this heartwarming response a part of everyday life.

The other critical key to our no-kill goal relates to the felines we call community cats: outdoor, free-roaming cats who are cared for by people in the neighborhoods where the cats live. For decades, community cats have been trapped and killed in a failed attempt at population management. Using this trap-and-kill approach is not only ineffective at reducing outdoor cat populations, it’s a burden on shelters. Because shelters aren’t able to handle that level of feline intake, cats now account for roughly two of every three animals being killed in U.S. shelters.

Thankfully, this ineffective, expensive and inhumane approach to managing community cats has been discredited and is steadily being replaced with progressive community cat programs (CCPs) in shelters across the country. At the heart of all CCPs is a simple, humane philosophy: Cats are accepted members of many communities, and they are often valued and cared for by multiple residents. The best way to manage the community cat population is to humanely trap them so they can be vaccinated and spayed or neutered, and then return them to their outdoor homes.

A critical focus of attention in the coming year will be to advance these types of programs through advocacy with local governments and animal control agencies in targeted communities. In fact, the latest data suggests that accomplishing this one key aspect of the plan will lead to a national aggregate save rate of 90%. And while that’s an exciting prospect, our goal for 2025 is a 90% save rate for every single shelter in the country.

We are in a great position to put an end to the shame of killing animals in shelters, but we didn’t get here by accident. Because of the dedicated work of those involved in the no-kill movement, achieving no-kill nationwide by 2025 is a realistic goal. When the founders of Best Friends and a few other visionaries began fighting to end the killing in the mid-1980s, around 17 million dogs and cats were being killed annually in our nation’s shelters, and all the established humane and sheltering agencies thought we were out of our minds to believe it could be otherwise. Thanks to you and animal lovers across the country, we have proved the naysayers wrong and animal sheltering has been changed forever.

You can dig into the details of how the plan is progressing by checking out the pet lifesaving dashboard. I’ll keep you updated, and thank you, as always, for helping to make it possible.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society