This week, I was very fortunate to spend time with three extraordinary American animal-shelter directors—members of the so-called “90% club”—who were in town for the Austin No Kill Workshop, a full-day conference hosted by FixAustin.org and the Austin No Kill Coalition. What exactly is the 90% club? It’s the small but expanding group of leaders of open-admission animal shelters that are saving at or more than 90% of their community’s impounded dogs and cats. Although they each have distinct personalities, backgrounds, and life stories, I was fascinated by what these shelter leaders have in common— an extraordinary “can do” attitude and an all-out insistence on rejecting traditional excuses for animal-shelter killing.
The first of the club to speak at the conference was Bonney Brown, the Executive Director of the Nevada Humane Society, which is now saving 91% of all animals impounded at the open-admission Reno animal shelter. Bonney has accomplished this goal despite Reno’s faltering economy and a very high shelter intake of over 16,000 animals per year—over twice the nation’s per-capita average for shelter intake. At the conference, Bonney shared her secrets for creating exciting and entertaining adoption events, as well as great customer service and a warm and welcoming shelter environment. Bonney pointed out that it’s important to make adoptions fun—to celebrate the gift of life that every adopter gives to a one-time homeless pet.
Here’s the amazing part: When Bonney took over the Nevada Humane Society, the shelter was adopting out about 4,000 dogs and cats a year. But under her leadership, that number has more than doubled because Bonney refused to accept “no” for an answer, and she refused to accept killing as an outcome for the large number of animals entering the shelter. And, although I’m fairly certain that Bonney’s staff doesn’t have time to do a dance every time a dog gets adopted, check out this video of a recent adoption at the Nevada Humane Society—I dare you not to smile.
Later, we heard from Mike Fry of the Animal Ark of Minnesota, a shelter in Hastings, Minnesota that is saving over 95% of all impounded animals in the community. Mike gave an entertaining and educational presentation about Animal Ark’s efforts to reduce the number of community cats entering the shelter. He taught us about how traditional efforts to eradicate feral-cat populations in communities across America by killing them is completely pointless because more cats will simply move into the territory of the removed cats. Instead, the only proven way to reduce community-cat populations is to trap and sterilize the cats—and then release them in the same place they were trapped. Animal Ark has conducted these operations, called TNR (trap-neuter-release) operations, all across Minnesota—sterilizing over 300 feral-cat communities.
In many communities, shelters kill cats in large numbers, claiming that there are just “too many” of them, blaming the cats’ unsocial behavior for their own deaths, and making no effort to either find live outcomes for them or reduce their intake numbers. Mike would accept none of those traditional answers to high numbers of community cats. He rejected excuses and found cost-effective and progressive solutions. Below, check out Animal Ark’s mobile spay/neuter clinic called the “Neuter Commuter.”
And the last member of the 90% club we were lucky enough to hear from was Susanne Kogut of the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA, an open-admission shelter that has saved over 90% of all impounded animals since 2006. A former corporate lawyer who took over the shelter in 2005, Susanne is a passionate and inspiring shelter leader and speaker. At the conference, Susanne told us how the shelter put 300 animals in foster homes the first year she got there, and how some of the shelter employees insisted that expanding the program beyond 300 was impossible because, they said, there were simply no more foster homes available. Rejecting excuses, Susanne expanded the program and the shelter’s volunteers fostered 900 animals in her second year at the shelter—three times the purported maximum number previously thought possible. And in her third year and thereafter, the shelter’s volunteers have fostered over 1400 dogs and cats.
Susanne didn’t accept killing as an option for reducing the number of animals sheltered at the SPCA. When the shelter got full, she didn’t authorize her staff to kill animals in order to make room for others; she instead got busy recruiting more foster homes in order to save more lives. Here’s a nice video about the Charlottesville SPCA:
So what did I learn from my time with Bonney, Mike, and Susanne? I learned that their “can do” attitude was not only infectious, it is a key element of their success. A lot of people running animal shelters throw up their hands and say there are just “too many” animals, that animal-shelter killing is the inevitable result of the “irresponsible public” and “pet overpopulation,” that there simply aren’t any more adopters, resources to conduct spay/neuter services, or fosters in their communities.
But Bonney, Mike, and Susanne aren’t like a lot of people; they are, instead, natural leaders who reject excuses and accept nothing less than excellence.