Defining No Kill

The "adopt some and kill the rest" paradigm which has dominated our nation's shelters for so long is being replaced. But what is it being replaced with? In other words, what does "No Kill" mean? And when does a shelter or community truly achieve it?
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Why saving 90% is not enough.


Today, almost 1,000,000 people live in communities where the municipal shelter is saving at least 98% of the animals; at least 10,000,000 people live in communities where the municipal shelter is saving at least 90% of animals; and over 40,000,000 live in communities saving at least 80%. And the numbers continue to grow. There is little doubt that the No Kill movement has come into its own. The "adopt some and kill the rest" paradigm which has dominated our nation's shelters for so long is being replaced. But what is it being replaced with? In other words, what does "No Kill" mean? And when does a shelter or community truly achieve it?

There are some who want to simply reduce the killing to 10% or less. They claim a shelter or community achieves No Kill when it saves at least 90% of the animals. This is the kind of thinking that allows a city in Florida to claim No Kill despite a pit bull ban that condemns dogs based on the way they look. It is what allows a Michigan shelter to claim No Kill because of a save rate higher than 90%, while asking people to submit a "euthanize card" whenever they surrender healthy, community cats who are not social with people. It is what allows a California shelter to claim No Kill regardless of its killing of healthy animals so long as it maintains a 90% save rate.

While we celebrate the increasing success of cities that reach 90%, claiming to have achieved No Kill suggests that they have crossed the finish line and are doing all that is medically and behaviorally possible to save animals, when they are not.

So where did this idea that saving 90% determined whether a shelter is No Kill come from? It came from me.

In the mid-2000s, the humane movement didn't speak about save rates and had no data as to how many animals entering shelters were healthy and treatable versus hopelessly ill or injured. As a result, there was little awareness of how much lifesaving was, in fact, possible. As a means of not only giving activists a goal to shoot for but to highlight how poorly most shelters were performing (with one in two animals facing death), I promoted the average percentage of animals being saved by the most successful communities in the nation, putting it between 91% and 95% of the animals they took in--and lamentably called it the "90% rule."

So why is this no longer an accurate way to measure success? For four primary reasons. First, the "90% rule" was promulgated with a very limited data set. We now have hundreds of cities and towns across America saving above 90% of the animals and, of those, there are communities saving 97%, 98%, even 99% of them, proving that my original benchmark was far too low.

Second, advancements in veterinary medicine have made some commonplace, once fatal illnesses in the shelter no longer so, such as parvovirus. Parvovirus has a good to great prognosis for recovery. In the past, it was a death sentence in a shelter. Moreover, advancements in our understanding of dog behavior have also allowed us to rehabilitate dogs who we once considered nonrehabilitatable and dangerous. Today, greater save rates are possible, so our duty to animals demands that we no longer measure today's performance by yesteryear's now antiquated veterinary standards.

The third important thing that has changed since I first began promulgating the 90% benchmark a decade ago is the climate of public opinion in which shelter directors once operated. The first No Kill communities were achieved by bold leaders with the courage to challenge the status quo at a time when virtually every shelter and every large, national animal protection group was openly hostile to No Kill. These were people who were willing to embrace a new way of operating, and that meant being motivated by truly saving lives rather than simply placating rightfully disgruntled, animal-loving citizens who organized for and demanded change. A growing awareness of the viability of No Kill and the exponential growth in communities achieving unparalleled levels of lifesaving for their communities has stripped regressive shelter directors of the political cover they once enjoyed. As such, we are now seeing a more widespread implementation of many of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation by shelter directors who once tenaciously fought such innovations--not because of an innate drive to do better for the animals and people they serve, but because an increasingly savvy No Kill movement stripped them of the myths and excuses they once used to justify killing. Many of them simply have no choice but to evolve their practices.

Fourth, the large, national groups are embracing methods of reducing killing that allow shelters to do so without any additional work on their part by telling them to simply stop taking in animals if they don't plan to do anything other than kill. In what is no doubt terribly appealing to shelter directors who lack the internal compunction to save as many lives as possible and do not want to do the hard work of cleaning cages, medicating animals, socializing them to keep them happy and healthy, promoting them for adoption, and actually finding them homes, the large, national groups are giving them permission to respond to calls for shelter reform by working even less, not more. These groups invite shelters simply not to take animals in. In essence, the large, national groups promoting this agenda, groups like HSUS and the ASPCA, are telling shelter directors that in light of public pressure being generated from nationwide No Kill success, the best thing to do is not to innovate and modernize operations, but to simply close their doors, ironically prescribing that kill shelters become the very thing that was once the backbone of their efforts to publicly malign and disparage No Kill shelters: the false accusation that they were successful only because they turned their backs on animals.

Of course, while I celebrate the fact that shelters that use to kill 50% of the animals are now saving 90% and while I celebrate the hundreds that now do so, allowing the last ten percent of animals who are still being killed at these shelters to be swept under the rug was never what I intended when I began promoting the 90% benchmark almost a decade ago. And while, until somewhat recently, the "90% rule" was an incredibly powerful tool for inspiring change, one that motivated activists, and highlighted--by the sheer contrast it afforded--just how poorly our nation's shelters were performing, changing circumstances have tragically allowed it to morph into a tool that is being misused and abused by unscrupulous shelter directors to justify needless killing. The time has come to reach higher.

The goal of the No Kill movement is not to reduce killing to some consensus-based level. It is to end killing for all animals who are not irremediably suffering physically, rigorously defined. Otherwise, the movement legitimizes the killing of animals who can and should be saved while betraying the very ethos at the heart of the term "No Kill." Shelter staff should never feel okay about killing, regardless of whether the animals are healthy, have treatable conditions such as ringworm, are categorized as "feral," happen to be of a species other than a dog or a cat, or because killing such an animal won't affect statistics that still allow the shelter to post a 90% save rate.

At the No Kill Advocacy Center, we define No Kill in the most honest, most accurate, and most objective way possible:

A shelter or community achieves No Kill when it ends the killing of all animals, except those who are physically suffering irremediably.

Irremediable physical suffering means an animal who has a poor or grave prognosis for being able to live without severe, unremitting pain even with prompt, necessary, and comprehensive veterinary care, such as an animal in fulminant organ system failure.

Following this very strict definition which serves each and every animal entering a shelter, and not just a certain percentage of them, shelters will be making the same decisions for animals in their facility that you or I would make with our own animal companions. And only then would a shelter truly return "euthanasia" to its dictionary definition.

By adopting this definition, a true No Kill shelter would, therefore, not kill community cats, regardless of whether they are perceived to be friendly or unsocial with humans ("feral"); orphaned animals, pregnant animals, in utero animals, or animals with newborns; animals suffering from or exposed to a treatable, contagious illness; poorly socialized or unsocial "feral" dogs, shy dogs, or traumatized dogs; animals surrendered for "euthanasia"; treatable animals labeled "behavior" or "medical"; and animals based on arbitrary criteria such as color, age, or perceived breed. It would not kill animals who are "psychologically suffering" as there is no such thing as irremediable psychological suffering. And it would include all species of animals into its safety net of care, including, but not limited to, companion mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, aquatic animals, "farmed" animals, and wildlife.

We come by the definition and these principles through several means: evidence, analysis, an awareness of how far the sheltering industry has progressed over the last decade, and an unequivocal commitment to the highest ideals of the animal protection movement. Nonetheless, we recognize that this involves a discussion that many within the animal sheltering industry and animal protection movement do not want to have. They will argue that the definition and guiding principles are premature and would be more politically convenient to embrace at a later date, when more or most communities are saving better than 95%. In other words, they will claim that we are setting the bar too high.

We disagree. Much of what our organization has advocated over the past decade was also once greeted with admonition and decried as impossible but has since been adopted by hundreds of shelters and organizations nationwide, including some of the largest in the nation. There is no reason to assume that further innovation will not likewise receive the same eventual acceptance. Second, and more importantly, it is our duty to do so. With animal shelters throughout the nation claiming to be "No Kill" while simultaneously killing animals who are not irremediably suffering, ignoring the plight of these animals by allowing such shelters to claim success short of the actual goal line means animals not only needlessly lose their lives, but that we risk embodying the very things the No Kill movement was founded to combat: the stagnation and complacency with killing that characterized generations of shelter leaders following the industry's founding.

The animals still being killed matter just as much as those who no longer face death, and for many of them, such as behaviorally challenged dogs, our duty is compounded by the fact that we--as humans--are often responsible for their condition through our neglect, abuse, and undersocialization. Relieving us of that burden by killing such animals does not result in redress for them.

This view does not mean we deny that some communities currently face infrastructure, legal, and other impediments to saving all these animals at this time, but rather that we do not allow such current limitations to hinder our vision, to stop us from setting aspirational goals and continually striving to improve the care of the animals served by working to overcome those obstacles. Indeed, the underpinning of the No Kill philosophy is that it goes beyond what is commonly assumed to be a practical necessity by focusing on what is morally right. It is, first and foremost, a movement of beliefs, of ethics, of what our vision of compassion is now and for the future. Its success is a result of a philosophy prompting us to do better; to embrace more progressive, life-affirming methods of sheltering that address the needs of animals still falling through the safety net of care. Failing to admit to the existence of such gaps means the impetus to eliminate them simply disappears.

Before many of us within the No Kill movement felt comfortable with the answer to questions of whether or not "feral" cats suffered on the street and whether or not No Kill was possible, we had already rejected mass killing. We had rejected practical explanations based on a "too many animals, not enough homes" calculus, or that a death was preferable to indeterminate future suffering. Even though early in the No Kill movement's history, though the practical alternative of the No Kill Equation was yet unknown, the movement still recognized that whatever practical explanations there were to "justify" it, the killing was still wrong and had to be rejected. Moreover, calculations which elevate expediency over what is right are generally inaccurate and historically, have been used to excuse atrocities. Ethics will always trump the practical and the two are seldom so inexorably linked that an untoward action must follow some fixed practical imperative.

Every action taken by animal advocates must be subservient to preserving life, a principle that not only puts our movement in line with the successful rights-based movements that have come before ours, but is a philosophy that fosters the motivation necessary for us to figure out how we can bring our aspirations into reality. That is the job and duty of the animal protection movement, not--as it has historically done--to justify or enable the killing of animals with tired maxims that are not subjected to rigorous analysis.

A better and ethically consistent future in animal sheltering inevitably awaits us if the No Kill movement can continue to do what it has always done until every last animal entering our nation's shelters--whatever the species, whatever the challenge--no longer faces killing: overcome the flawed but mutable traditions we have inherited from prior generations. The sooner we recognize the need for change and further innovation, the sooner we will find the motivation and tools to bring that brighter future into reality.

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