A year (or so) ago, I experienced a random advocacy opportunity. As my late-evening return flight from Dallas to Austin was just about to take off, a last-minute passenger was allowed to board the plane, and he took the first empty seat available— the one next to me.

Now, even if you’re from Austin (heck, even if you’re intimately involved in Austin animal-welfare politics), you might not realize just how much this last-minute passenger regretted sitting next to me the moment he realized who I was.  You see, the new passenger sitting next to me for the next 60 minutes was none other than the immediate-past Mayor of the City of Austin.  And I’m the guy who publicly, adamantly, and sometimes successfully questioned his administration’s stewardship on animal issues.

But I was polite and professional (albeit persistent), and after the third time I attempted to strike up a conversation, he engaged.  I asked him about his pit bulls (there was a rumor going around that he had two), but he didn’t own a dog.   “Any pets?,” I asked.  ”Yes,” he said, “my daughters have a cat that we got as a kitten from Town Lake Animal Center (Austin’s shelter).  They do such a great job adopting out kittens that it took us three months to get one, and she was only available because she had a broken leg and a scar.”

Like a lighting strike, it hit me.  This guy, intelligent, talented, and highly successful, hadn’t the faintest clue of what had really been going on at his City’s animal shelter under his leadership.  The reason that there weren’t any small kittens at TLAC for he and his daughters to adopt was not that the shelter was doing such a good job of adopting out kittens.  Nor was it due to a lack of kittens entering the shelter.  No, the real explanation for the lack of kittens available at Town Lake Animal Center during his tenure was that if an impounded kitten was too small to be spayed or neutered, he or she was unceremoniously killed.  No foster program; no bottle-baby program; no second chance.  The kitten was killed.  Indeed, the overwhelming majority of small kittens that entered Town Lake Animal Center— prior to recent reforms— were killed within minutes (or, if they were lucky, hours) of their arrival.

And that, my friends, is the norm at municipal and private open-admission animal shelters all across the United States.

Why do I bring this up now?

Because I continue to see, over and over again, in community after community, otherwise smart and talented people who oppose No Kill reforms not because they are uncaring, but because they are either uninformed or misinformed.  (Others oppose No Kill because they are just plain crazy, but that’s for another blog post.)  And let me be the first to say this:  it’s our fault.  If smart, caring, and talented people are against No Kill programs and policies because we haven’t communicated what we mean by “No Kill,” it’s on us.  We have failed.

So, in an effort to dispel the myths and communicate exactly what being in favor of “No Kill” means, here goes:

What No Kill means:  Bottle-baby programs that feed, nourish, vaccinate, spay/neuter, and adopt out kittens brought into the shelter under adoption age.  The alternative:  Killing all under-8-week-old kittens within minutes of arrival without giving them any chance of finding a loving home.

What No Kill means:  Innovative and cost-effective parvovirus treatments that save 90% or more of puppies diagnosed with or exposed to the virus in shelters.  The alternative:  Killing all puppies exposed to parvovirus.

What No Kill means:  Improved and welcoming customer service that treats every person who enters a shelter as a potential adopter, volunteer, foster parent, and donor.  The alternative:  Treating shelter visitors with noticeable suspicion and disdain, creating an unwelcoming environment, turning off potential adopters, and losing opportunities to cultivate volunteers and donors.

What No Kill means:  Low-cost and free spay-neuter programs, as well as trap-neuter-and-release programs, proven to reduce shelter intake, saving money over time as the shelter population declines.  The alternative:  Doing nothing to reduce shelter intake (or worse, enacting laws proven to increase shelter intake), and instead continuing the cycle of killing.

What No Kill means:  Reducing shelter intake by helping solve routine behavioral and medical problems encountered by pet owners considering surrendering their dogs or cats.  The alternative:  Killing animals for routine behavioral and medical problems.

What No Kill means:  A robust and creative adoptions program that includes enhanced marketing techniques and off-site adoptions, which take the animals out into the community rather than waiting for adopters to come to shelters, which are often out-of-the-way, dark, smelly, loud, and depressing.  The alternative:  Killing the animals that would have been adopted with a better adoptions program, and blaming the public for those that don’t get adopted.

What No Kill means:  Learning from the nation’s best shelters and shelter directors, and replicating successful programs and policies.  The alternative:  Shelters continuing to do what they’ve always done, ignoring innovation, avoiding change, and missing clear opportunities to save lives.

What No Kill means:   Inspirational, positive leadership committed to dramatically decreasing unnecessary shelter killing, rejecting excuses, and embracing change.  The alternative:  Bureaucratic management that clings to disproven myths and excuses for killing, opposes life-saving innovation, and blames the public for the killing of animals— killing that the shelter itself has the power to avoid.

Finally, what No Kill means:  Saving all treatable and healthy adoptable pets impounded at open-admission shelters (or roughly 90% of all impounded companion animals).  The alternative: Killing the overwhelming majority of impounded animals and continuing the cycle of killing that currently takes place at most shelters.

Oh, yes, I did make these arguments to the former Mayor of Austin on our hour-long flight— although with the utmost courtesy, of course.  It’s possible that I even reached him; he appeared alarmed to learn the real reason he had so much trouble finding a kitten.  But the bigger lesson, I think, is that we animal advocates need to continue to do a better job at explaining the difference between the traditional animal-shelter strategy (“save a few, kill the rest”), and the hope, strategies, and progress that the No Kill movement offers.

It is not enough to criticize those who oppose No Kill reforms.  It is insufficient to call names and demand change.  Yes, we should stand up, stand tall, and fight for proven, cost-effective life-saving reforms.  But we must also teach.  The overwhelming majority of the public is with us, even if they don’t yet entirely know what it is we’re for (and against).

21 Responses

  1. Chris Dignan January 11, 2011

    Great post Ryan and I think you hit at the heart (IMO)of what the matter is: most people just don’t know or care to know about what’s going on with the surplus animals in their communities. Keep up the good work!

  2. Pizza Girl January 11, 2011

    Awesome blog! It’s nice to have “No Kill” spelled out even for those of us who already supported it. Now I’ll have the words to explain it when I need to.

  3. Bett Sundermeyer January 11, 2011

    Great explanation of No Kill. I am really amazed that Austin’s former Mayor would not be more aware of the situation at Town Lake AC. You and Fix Austin have been talking about issues there for how many years, 5 or 6? Really amazing.

    • Ryan Clinton January 11, 2011

      Bett: This happenstance meeting with the former Mayor solidified my beliefs that advancing No Kill goals requires personal relationships. We had none with the then-Mayor.

  4. Valerie January 11, 2011

    Great post, Ryan. People have a tendency to believe what is most comfortable for them to believe and also to assume that other people are like them and these things lead to a certain mental resistance to confronting just how bad things are in “shelters”. People hear talk of No Kill and assume it to be done. People see empty cages and assume that is because there were not enough animals to fill them, not that they were killed “for space” d in the presence of plenty of empty space. People assume that those who claim to shelter animals would bottle-feed kittens rather than kill them, because that is what they themselves would do. The reality is that the thought process behind what happens in “shelters” is absolutely unlike that which most normal people subscribe to and absolutely unlike the way it is presented (on those occasions when it is not completely hidden). It is so utterly mind-bending that it is difficult and devastating to even face.
    This was really good reminder.

  5. Stephanie Conrad January 11, 2011

    Fabulous post Ryan. We are really lucky to have you here in Austin. There are lots of people who care but have no idea what is really happening behind the scenes.

    I am curious how he responded when you informed him about the lack of programs with TLAC at the time when he adopted his kitten.

    • Ryan Clinton January 11, 2011

      Thanks, Stephanie. Honestly, he was mostly uninterested. It’s not his issue, and he has moved on from city government. But he’s very talented and smart, and I was glad to spend some time talking with him about it because it helped me better understand the advocacy process. Press releases, websites, and e-mails won’t reach every official. For some, it’s going to take a face-to-face meeting before they begin to understand our side of the policy debate.

  6. Steven Phipps January 11, 2011

    Ryan, As always, a wonderful BLOG… Thank you!

  7. Ellen January 12, 2011

    Hi Ryan,
    Great blog. Maybe I haven’t read far enough in both you and Nathan’s writings, but I have to ask about surrenders. Many “no-kill” shelters like NSAL on LI and one in Queensbury, NY can claim this because they don’t take in all animals so they don’t get overcrowded and can say none are euthanized.
    I personally witnessed many years ago people from NSAL only taking the litter of a bitch at the shelter and leaving her behind because the cute puppies would be adoptable and she wouldn’t be since she was older.
    Is this the protocol that is followed in the Equation – can’t take them all in? I don’t see it stated so in the Equation.
    Above it’s stated, and I’ve read about, better adoption clinics and laws to alleviate shelter intake, but do true no-kill shelters turn away surrenders or any animal? This part really confuses people (and me) about what no-kill truly means when faced with rejection at the door because the place is full.
    Thanks, Ellen

    • Ryan Clinton January 16, 2011

      Hi Ellen,

      There is a bit of re-definition going on in the animal-welfare community as it pertains to what “No Kill” means. In the past, people have viewed “No Kill” as a proxy for limited-admission shelters who, by their nature, limit their intake and can “pick and choose” who it is they want to save. Presently, however, the new No Kill movement believes that all open-admission shelters should save all healthy and treatable adoptable animals— or about 90% of all shelter intake. Reno, NV, Charlottesville, VA, and Ithaca, NY, are examples. Thanks for your comments here!

      • Ellen January 24, 2011

        Thanks, Ryan, for your response to my concerns. That redefinition is crucial in my opinion. I just saw Nathan refer to open admission no-kill in his recent interview of 1/8/11 on his blog. Another point I’d like to make is that when questioned about whether he knew of Nathan Winograd, the shelter director mentioned above in Albany stated that he’s heard of him but has never read any of his material! He also went on to say that he’s good friends with the director in Ithaca (Ann Marie? who I believe is now going to head up Austin) – and you never discuss no-kill? How can that be? How disappointing.

  8. Ellen January 12, 2011

    Wow, I might have answered part of my own question by reading the Animal Help Desk section of the Nevada Humane Society PDF. I actually try to do these things when people approach me about what to do to rehome, surrender, etc. I also try to help people on Craigslist looking to rehome dogs because of behavioral issues. I can’t help them all, but if I save one from entering the system, it’s a start. I’ve been pushing one particular shelter director by me in Albany by asking why they still euthanize despite wonderful revisions under new management. And, unfortunately, you guys are right in the respect that they roll the word off their tongues as it’s just the way it is for some animals that can’t adjust to shelter life while waiting, or have severe “behavioral issues.”

  9. Peter J. Wolf January 16, 2011

    Well done! Let’s not forget about TNR, though…

    One of my favorite quotes from Redemption has to do with feral cats: “there is no other animal entering a shelter whose prospects are so grim and outcome so certain.”

    • Ryan Clinton January 16, 2011

      Absolutely, Peter! TNR is a key element of achieving No Kill. (And as an aside, it is listed in the spay/neuter paragraph of this blog post.) Thanks for commenting over here, and please keep up the great work on your blog.


  10. Natasia January 17, 2011

    Well said , I honestly believe that all animal shelters should be no kill because it is not right that a innocent animal should die just because of uneducated and mean hearted people dumping them and not committing to looking after them. Animals should not be killed full stop!!
    It’s disgusting how people trey animals they are living creatures and deserve to live their life to the full. Close down all high kill shelters and replace them with loving animal sanctuaries where animal are in no rush to find a new home and get the respect they deserve.

  11. Kathy Pobloskie January 18, 2011

    Awesome, thought-provoking blog post as always, Ryan. And one that reaches a large audience – it not only educates, but it motivates and embraces. Thank you for being an outstanding leader in this movement. We are so lucky to have you.

  12. Susie Reuter July 21, 2011

    Hi Ryan,

    This is a great explanation for those who have little or no knowledge of no kill, or a lot of horribly incorrect information. Now that we discovered what no kill is, and that it defines our existing beliefs, we find ourselves explaining the no kill concept to people on a daily basis. Would it be okay to share this and the no kill equation/declaration on our website, as a quote from you, with references to your sites?

    Word of encouragement for everyone: I now work at a tiny, no-limit stray shelter, which also takes dozens of surrenders, and our save rate is over 95%. We save ferals and cats with FIV, and rehab dogs. Medical needs are ALWAYS met. My director was saying today, from the heart, how he just can’t imagine ever putting ANY of our savable animals down. I will treasure the memory of hearing that for the rest of my life! Every director needs to feel that way… they just do. Someday, they will. (Or their replacements will!)

    • Ryan Clinton July 21, 2011

      Hi Susie,

      Yes, of course you can share and use this. Please do! And thanks also for your note about your shelter. Great to hear!

      I’m sure you know this, but in case it isn’t clear, Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Advocacy Center wrote the No Kill Declaration.


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