Radical notion of not killing our friends

It sounds perfectly reasonable. No-kill, that is: not killing dogs, cats or any pets as a method of population control. It’s not surprising that no-kill is hugely popular with the public. Many pet lovers, in fact, are unaware that in most cities, their local animal shelter actually kills healthy pets.

While no-kill communities have been demonstrated to be achievable and economically viable, the future of shelter animals is not yet secure as one of the basics of public policy even in those cities where no-kill has been realized. Two years ago, in a city where a no-kill community became a reality in the mid-1990s, San Francisco Commission on Animal Control & Welfare voted to indefinitely table a measure that would have made no-kill official public policy.

Likewise, in Austin, Texas — where Austin Pets Alive (APA) and a coalition of activists successfully campaigned to have the city council declare a 90 percent save rate as official city policy and within the year delivered on that goal — funding to maintain that benchmark is hard to come by. APA, the key private partner for Austin Animal Services Office, saved over 6,000 animals in 2012, three times as many as the next important partner, an older and better-funded traditional humane organization. However, when their contract for city funding expired at the end of 2012, the city council declined a renewal despite APA having exceeded their obligation under the contract by more than 100 percent — more than 6,000 shelter rescues compared with the contract obligation of 3,000.

In Los Angeles, no-kill had been the official city goal since then-Mayor Hahn declared it in 2003, but the subject had become something of an eye-roller in the rescue community due to a revolving door at the top of L.A. Animal Services (LAAS) and continued shrinkage of the animal services budget until the arrival of Brenda Barnette as LAAS general manager and Best Friends’ launch and commitment to fund the NKLA campaign at the beginning of 2012.

Imagine another essential service or public policy goal for a major city sitting around waiting for a private agency and teams of volunteers to get it off the ground. Burst water main or a downed power line? Wait for volunteers!

The day will come, though, when there will be no question or controversy about every city in the country being a safe environment for homeless pets — a no-kill community whether publicly or privately funded. The day will also come when the average citizen would no sooner surrender a pet to a city shelter than cut off one of their fingers, but if they had to, they’d know that their family member would be safe — no question.

That’s social change, and it is driven by repeated successes in lifesaving that continue to reset public expectations of municipal services and ways of thinking. It also means recalibrating accepted social behavior and what is considered to be the norm. In the late 19th century, the “norm” in New York City was to drown homeless dogs in the East River in large iron crates in groups of up to 50 at a time. Clearly, such open disregard and callous abuse is no longer acceptable, but sanitized killing hidden from public view is still killing.

While we have made great strides as a movement and have the public in our corner emotionally and philosophically, if not always behaviorally, the work required to achieve and sustain no-kill is undervalued in public policy circles and still largely dependent on privately funded programs and a tremendous expenditure of time and personal resources on the part of volunteers. In the final analysis, it’s still too easy for animal control agencies to get away with murder when it comes to homeless pets.

Best Friends and other agencies and individuals all over the country have our shoulder to the wheel in terms of projects, programs and campaigns that are pushing the envelope as never before on the numbers of lives saved and communities slotting into the no-kill column, but our larger task is to effect serious social change that elevates the intrinsic value of the lives of our animal friends. Everyone for whom this issue is important has a job here as role models and affirmative advocates for no-kill.

It might not seem so to you or to me, but no-kill is a radical notion in that we are proclaiming unambiguously that a life is a life and that killing homeless pets is wrong not by virtue of their special relationship to humans, but because their lives do have intrinsic value and they are not ours to take.

No-kill is the most powerful and the most important movement in all of animal welfare because if we can’t do right by the animals who share our homes and are part of our families — animals who return our investment in them many times over — then how likely is it that we will do right by farm animals, wildlife and species that are under threat of extinction with whom we have no personal connection.

We are part of a social movement that will have far-reaching implications for good beyond the lives saved in your local shelter, but for now that’s where the work is.

Francis Battista