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New York City's Homeless Animals Saved by National, Local Partnerships

Achieving no-kill status in communities across the country is something that we should not only aspire to -- we should also demand it.
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New York City has the lowest per capita rate of killing homeless dogs and cats by animal shelters, according to the latest findings of cities studied by Animal People, the leading independent newspaper providing original investigative coverage of animal issues worldwide.

Data in the July/August 2012 issue of Animal People shows that New York City's shelters now kill 1 dog or cat for every 1,000 people (a 1.0 per capita kill rate), which makes New York the most successful city in the country in saving homeless animals. This is a stunning turnaround for a city that had a 5.5 per capita kill rate in 1995; a 2.6 per capita kill rate in 2005; and a 2.1 per capita kill rate in 2008.

While many animal advocates are now familiar with "no-kill" goals, when I started working in the animal welfare industry more than 30 years ago the idea that homeless animals would not be killed in shelters was unfathomable. That changed when Rich Avanzino reformed the sheltering model in San Francisco and declared that city "no-kill" in 1994. I followed Avanzino at the San Francisco SPCA and when I was confident that the no-kill model Avanzino had started and I had continued was sustainable, I decided to leave San Francisco so that I could take its no-kill model national, starting with New York City.

At the time I became the President and CEO of the ASPCA in 2003, 33 percent of the homeless dogs and cats in New York City's shelters made it out alive versus nearly 80 percent today. That means that since 2003 more than 220,000 dogs and cats have been saved in New York City.

When I talk to groups around the country about the reversal of fortune for homeless animals in New York City since I've been at the ASPCA, the primary question I'm asked is how we did it. Getting to where we are today is largely the result of the collaboration of groups and individuals who decided that the killing of healthy and treatable dogs and cats had to stop.

Before I joined the ASPCA, New Yorkers who wanted to save homeless dogs and cats generally worked independently to save animals instead of joining forces with others who shared their goals. But despite their good intentions, the best success rate that animal welfare organizations working independently ever achieved was saving 33 percent of New York City's homeless dogs and cats in 2003. Since the ASPCA joined other groups to launch an initiative in 2004 to make New York City "no-kill," the number of animals saved has climbed exponentially.

New York is the most collaborative city in the nation when it comes to saving homeless animals. The ASPCA has awarded grants of more than seven million dollars to the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals, which is a coalition of more than 150 animal rescue groups and shelters that are working to end the killing of the city's homeless animals. The Mayor's Alliance, led by Jane Hoffman, and all of the rescue groups that are a part of it have been instrumental to New York's lifesaving trajectory. And it would be impossible to talk about the number of lives saved without giving enormous credit to the generosity of Maddie's Fund, a charitable foundation whose mission it is to revolutionize the status and well-being of companion animals. Maddie's Fund has provided more than $28 million to save New York City's animals and its funding has made a world of difference. Most cities across the country are not going to be able to get 150 groups to work together to save animals, but the number of groups is not what's crucial -- it's the commitment of those groups to work together to save animals.

Collaboration among open admission shelters, limited admission shelters, rescue groups and individuals is the most important criteria for saving animals that end up in shelters, but other measures should be taken to stop animals from becoming homeless in the first place. One of those critical measures is encouraging the spaying or neutering of pets by educating the populace as to its importance and helping financially needy pet guardians by providing low cost options. Between spay/neuter surgeries done at the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital and those performed by the ASPCA Spay/Neuter Operations team, the ASPCA has spayed and neutered approximately 20,000 cats and dogs so far in 2012. Nearly 36,000 procedures were done in 2011.

The ASPCA also strives to end pet homelessness by developing programs that target the animals that are the most at risk for being placed in shelters. For example, since the majority of dogs that are enter shelters in New York City are pit bulls and pit bull mixes, we started the Operation Pit program in July 2010 to encourage the spay/neuter of pit bulls in New York City by offering free spay/neuter, micro-chipping, and vaccinations to young pit bulls and pit bull mixes. Since its inception, more than 1,300 surgeries have been performed.

Achieving no-kill status in communities across the country is something that we should not only aspire to -- we should also demand it. New York City's animal shelters still have many problems, in part due to inadequate public funding. We will not allow data showing improvements to blind us to the fact that we are engaged in a life and death battle to save homeless animals and that we still have a long way to go.