The Future of Sheltering

What will animal shelters look like in the years ahead – in 2030, 2040, 2050? What functions will they serve in their communities? These are questions that have not received much attention from shelter advocates, most of whom are too busy trying to save lives now to devote a lot of time to thinking about the future. Yet they are important questions. Actions that we take now will determine the nature of shelters of the future, and radically different outcomes are possible. Most industries and professions devote considerable attention to formal planning for the future, and animal sheltering needs to catch up in this regard.

When people today do think about the future of sheltering, they tend to fall into one of two groups. One group sees the animal shelter as the center of a community “safety net for pets.” This safety net provides the usual animal-shelter services such as taking in lost and homeless animals and either returning them home or finding them new homes. It also reaches out into the community to work for things like breed-neutral ordinances, veterinary care for the pets of those who can’t afford it, protection of living spaces for community cats, and abolishing barriers to pet ownership such as restrictive HOA and insurance rules. A shelter system that is a safety net for pets sees its job as making a city or county a great place to live for pets and their people.

The other common view of the future of sheltering is very different. People in this group believe that the best shelter is no shelter at all. They seek to reduce the need for an animal shelter by reducing intake to a very minimal number of animals. They emphasize spaying and neutering all the dogs and cats in the community, including community cats, and using education and pet retention initiatives to keep pets in homes. They believe that the ideal situation is for the municipal shelter to put itself out of work except for confiscations and emergency triage for injured and vicious animals. The small number of owner surrenders and healthy or treatable strays that still exist in this vision of the future will be handled by private-sector groups.

Members of the second group argue that even if municipal shelters are put out of business through intensive spay-neuter of pets, we could still have a safety net for pets made up of smaller private non-profits that would be dedicated to things like helping community cats, offering dog behavior training, etc. The problem with that vision is that so far, the cities and counties that have the strongest safety nets for pets are the ones where the municipal shelter is the center of the net. There is a value in having one central institution that the public can look to, rather than an atomized group of organizations. And a safety net that centers on the municipal shelter is likely to have far more political support and influence than a group of small non-profits with no strong connection to each other.

I want to look at these two groups in some detail, because they represent two stark choices in the future of sheltering. I’ll call the first group the Expansionists and the second group the Reductionists.

The different worldviews of Expansionists and Reductionists seem to arise from their different views about some important issues in sheltering. One fundamental difference is on the issue of “pet overpopulation.” People who belong to the Reductionist group see pet overpopulation as still being a problem. People in the Expansionist group think that the problem today is not too many pets in the nation overall, but rather a pet distribution problem and a problem of insufficient adoption marketing.

The differing views as to pet overpopulation have effects on how the two groups feel about other issues. Reductionists typically oppose transport, for example, because they see it as merely moving one community’s problem of excess animals to another community. Expansionists see transport as helping to solve the problem of uneven distribution of pets, particularly dogs, within the U.S.

In deciding between an Expansionist and a Reductionist vision of the future, therefore, one of the first things we need to do is analyze whether we have a pet overpopulation problem. We have never had a formal, nationwide mechanism for collecting pet ownership and animal-shelter data. In recent years, though, data collection has improved, and we now have what seem to be fairly decent rough estimates. According to recent estimates, shelter intake in the U.S. today is about 7 million cats and dogs per year and about 1.5 to 3 million of that number are killed.

Some of the animals who are killed are sick and untreatable, and “euthanasia” is an appropriate word to describe their deaths. Some dogs are dangerous and are in a sense “executed” for the safety of the community. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that as many as 3 million cats and dogs who are currently killed in shelters each year are healthy or treatable and could be adopted. Does the fact that they die in shelters mean that we have a pet overpopulation problem?

Expansionists look at the fact that people acquire roughly 15 million cats and dogs as pets each year and say that there is no pet overpopulation because there are far more people acquiring pets each year than the number of animals entering shelters. All we need to do to zero out shelter killing of healthy and treatable animals is to improve adoption marketing. The Reductionist sees things in a very different way. They define “pet overpopulation” to mean “more pets are coming into shelters than the shelters can place as live releases.” For reductionists, the fact that healthy and treatable animals are still being killed in shelters means that, ipso facto, we have a pet overpopulation problem.

Now we get to what may be the central difference in philosophy between Expansionists and Reductionists. Expansionists see the primary cure for shelter killing as being adoption promotion, while Reductionists see the primary cure as being spay-neuter. This doesn’t mean that Expansionists only care about adoption or that Reductionists only care about spay-neuter. For most people, both programs are important. The difference is in the emphasis given to each program.

If you talk to an Expansionist about adoption, they will tell you how shelters can use marketing to raise the percentage of pets that people acquire by adoption and create so much demand for shelter animals that the shelters run out of dogs and cats. They talk about large cities that have such a high rate of adoption that they must transport thousands of animals into the city each year for the many people who want to adopt, not shop. They see the animal shelter of the future as continuing this trend and bolstering it by becoming a one-stop shop for all the support a pet owner might need. The “safety net for pets” arises naturally out of this vision.

If you talk to a Reductionist about adoption, they will say that adoption may be a good outcome for individual cats and dogs, but that adoption has historically not been shown to reduce shelter killing. This sounds counter-intuitive to Expansionists, but it was quite true – historically. Studies that were done in the 1990s in many shelters demonstrated that shelter killing tracked intake very closely. In looking at graphs of intake and killing from many individual shelters and some statewide data from the 1970s to the early 2000s, it is striking how closely shelter killing tracked intake. In recent years, though, that pattern has changed, and today we have begun to see live releases relative to human population increase – in other words, shelter killing no longer follows intake in lockstep at many shelters. This phenomenon was documented recently by Andrew Rowan and Tamara Kartal.

To illustrate these trends, here is a graph of the intake and kill numbers from the New York City shelter from 1974 to 2016:

In this graph you can see how shelter killing moved virtually in lockstep with shelter intake until the early 2000s, when it began to diverge as the decline in killing accelerated and intake leveled off.

To make sense of these trends, we must take a brief detour here to look at the history of the dog and cat markets from 1970 to the present. We start with 1970 because that is the earliest date for which we have rough estimates of national shelter statistics. The estimates from the 1970s were not very good, but the trends since then have been so marked that they more than compensate for the wide confidence intervals in the estimates. In 1970, average shelter intake nationwide was some five times higher per person than it is today. It is hard to see how a shelter could have adopted itself out of killing in those days because shelter intake alone was more than pet demand. And in addition to shelter intake there were large numbers of homeless animals in the environment, since it was not common in 1970 for people to sterilize their pets. There were lots of homeless animals in the street and a seemingly endless supply of puppies and kittens born each year. People who wanted a puppy or kitten generally had a friend, relative, or neighbor who could supply one for free. They had no need to go to the shelter.

Animal-welfare advocates who were horrified at the high levels of shelter killing in those days – some 20 million or more dogs and cats are estimated to have been killed in shelters in 1970 — started a big spay-neuter movement, and they worked tirelessly. By the year 2000, we lived in a different world as far as homeless animals were concerned. Shelter intake had plunged and there were far fewer homeless animals in the environment. The spay-neuter movement had radically changed the supply side of the pet market. People reacted by beginning to value their pets more.

The plunge in shelter intake was so dramatic that some parts of the country started to develop pet shortages. Some shelters in New England and in other parts of the north, where the spay-neuter ethic had been widely embraced and the climate and terrain helped limit breeding, started to run out of adoptable pets in the 1990s. Shelters in the southern part of the U.S. generally still had high intake, leading to the phenomenon of transport, which has literally gone a long way toward solving the distribution problem.

The cat population differs from the dog population because we have a reservoir of cats who live in our communities without any clearly defined owners. Cat intake numbers have plunged at shelters along with dog intake numbers, though, which may indicate that the number of “community cats” is declining due to the success of spay-neuter programs. Spot shortages of cats are starting to be seen.

One of the biggest effects of the plunge in shelter intake was that shelter workers in many places now had time to put their heads up and look around – they were no longer buried in an endless onslaught of animals, and they could start to think about how to better help the animals they were still receiving. One obvious way to save more animals was by increasing adoptions. The No Kill movement had always had adoption promotion as one of its central tenets, but by the late 1990s many people within the traditional shelter industry also wanted to improve adoption numbers. Because of the drastic changes that had occurred in supply and demand for pets, they no longer felt that adoption was just a game of musical chairs where finding a home for one homeless animal meant leaving another one in the lurch — there now seemed to be enough homes for all. A meeting of No Kill and traditional shelter professionals in 1999 started a movement for Open Adoption. Today, Open Adoption and the use of adoption marketing have resulted in public shelters in many cities and counties becoming the default place for people to acquire pets.

When shelters improve their marketing, their live release numbers go up. And adoption rates in cities and counties that have established a culture of adoption prove that there are enough homes for every healthy or treatable animal that comes into a shelter today – although distribution is still an issue and there is a great need for more transport capability.

With the proven success of adoption, why are Reductionists not more enthusiastic about it? Why do they still see intake reduction, and not adoption, as the key to the future of sheltering? Reductionists may give lip service to the desirability of adoption, but they seem to have a fundamental belief that animal shelters should not be involved in marketing pets. Creating a culture of adoption means that animal shelters must very deliberately go head-to-head with commercial breeders and compete for market share. Reductionists see this as beyond the scope of a shelter’s job. They point to the fact that shelters are traditionally a government function and argue that it is not the place of government to pick winners and losers in markets. Some Reductionists will say that animals are not commodities and that adoption marketing hawks them as though they were cars or furniture. Many Reductionists feel that only responsible people who have the resources to take care of a pet should acquire one, and that encouraging adoption results in unfit people adopting pets. And some Reductionists fear that if spay-neuter is not the centerpiece of lifesaving efforts, fewer people will sterilize their pets and the number of homeless pets will increase.

The question of whether a person is an Expansionist or Reductionist has not been terribly important until recently, because it hasn’t been until recent years that shelter intake has fallen to a level where it has become possible to think of finding a home for every healthy or treatable shelter animal. The Rowan-Kartal article identified 2010 as the year when national statistics began to show that adoptions per thousand people were increasing, marking the end of the era when there were not enough homes available to reduce shelter killing through adoption. The phenomenon of adoptions per thousand people going up happened in many individual cities before 2010, but by 2010 the phenomenon was so widespread that it was visible in national statistics. Now that the change has occurred and is measurable, it is becoming imperative that we examine the two competing visions of the future presented by Expansionists and Reductionists and decide which way we want to go.

If you ask an Expansionist where people in the future will acquire pets, they will answer “at the shelter! Everyone will adopt, not shop.” If you ask a Reductionist the same question, he or she is likely to give you a blank stare or deflect the question. Reductionists see reducing intake as the solution to shelter killing, and therefore they see questions about pet acquisition, particularly pet acquisition in the future, as not relevant to the issue of pets being killed in shelters. The Expansionist views the shelter of the future as a major player and perhaps the dominant factor in the pet market. The Reductionist views the shelter of the future, since it will hardly exist, as having no presence in the pet market.

Let’s think about what these two differing futures would mean in terms of pet acquisition. In recent years shelters and rescues have provided about 35% of pet acquisitions. Adoptions today therefore account for a little over one out of three pet acquisitions. Under the Expansionist vision, the shelter has a prominent place in the community and makes it easy and pleasant for people to visit. With an emphasis on establishing a culture of adoption, such a shelter could supply 70% or more of a community’s pets.

In the Reductionist vision of the future, where spay-neuter programs have reduced homeless pets to a tiny number, homeless pets would not be a factor in the pet market. The shelter of the future will become synonymous with sick and injured animals and vicious dogs, because that is all the shelter will take in. The shelter will be very small, and few people will visit it or even know where it is. Because there will be very few homeless pets, the percentage of pets acquired by adoption may sink from its current 35% to single digits.

The two contrasting visions of the future of sheltering represented by the Expansionist and Reductionist camps would have very different effects on commercial breeding. If the Expansionist vision of the future of sheltering prevails and shelters become the “go to” place to acquire a pet, sales of pets by commercial breeders will decline. With 70% or more of pets acquired by adoption, it is very likely that social norms would put a lot of pressure on the few remaining commercial breeders to make their premises available for inspection, treat breeder animals well, and properly socialize the puppies. Acquisition of pets would largely be taken out of the commercial sphere and put into the hands of people whose primary concern is the good of the animals.

If the Reductionist view of sheltering prevails, the continuing emphasis on spay-neuter over everything else will mean that pet shortages continue to worsen, which in turn will allow commercial breeders to thrive. Reductionists do not have a goal of establishing a culture of adoption, and with few homeless pets coming into shelters they could not have a culture of adoption even if they wanted one. There would be no barrier in the way of commercial breeders establishing themselves as the default way for people to acquire a pet. We would have commercial breeders, not shelters and rescues, holding the dominant place in the pet market. Once commercial breeders increased their market share to a high level their political power would be strong enough to allow them to avoid meaningful regulation, meaning that the cruelties of puppy mills would continue. Their political power would also allow them to put roadblocks in the way of animal-rights goals such as changing the “property” status of animals.

Most animal-rights issues have had only modest success in recent decades in changing the public’s view of and treatment of animals. The most notable exception to that rule has been in the case of pets. People have come to see pets as part of the family. The No Kill movement has operated on the ethic that pets have a right to their lives and should not be treated like property. I think it would be a tragedy if the ultimate result of the No Kill movement was that the Reductionist view of the animal shelter, where shelters would take themselves out of the adoption market and leave the field open for commercial breeders, prevailed. Pets would go from being the brightest hope of the animal-rights movement to just another cog in the commercial abuse of animals.

But the fact is that if we continue on our current course, we are headed for the Reductionist view of the future of sheltering. As we get better and better at making spay-neuter available and helping people keep their pets, shelter intake will continue going down and more and more communities will have shortages of adoptable pets. Transport will help ameliorate the shortages in the near term, but within 10 or 20 years we may find that there are no longer enough homeless animals in the U.S. to meet adoption demand. That future is coming, and we have not done anything to plan for it – we haven’t even thought about it.

If we want the Expansionist vision of the future of sheltering, we need to start planning for it now. We need to start focusing on the pet market, on creating a culture of adoption in every city and county and increasing the animal-shelter-and-rescue percentage of pet acquisition. If we make the decision to go in the Expansionist direction, an issue that is sure to arise is where shelter animals will come from. Where will we get the supply to meet the high demand for adoption? Reductionists will argue that if we slack off on spay-neuter efforts, we will in effect be encouraging the birth of animals who will experience homelessness, even if for only a short period of time until they are adopted. They will argue that we have an ethical obligation to prevent unplanned births of cats and dogs, regardless of whatever effect that might have on the pet market.

This is a very strong argument, and the answer is that we can continue to reduce the number of homeless animals born in the U.S. while at the same time ensuring a large supply of homeless animals for our shelters. All we have to do is expand our horizons. There is a whole world of animals who need saving, and importation of homeless pets from other countries is already being done on a small scale. Many of the recent imports have been from Korean dog-meat farms, and most of the dogs brought in have not been well socialized. This has given some people the idea that street dogs from other countries would be hard to place. Nothing could be further from the truth, because most street dogs are extremely well socialized and could fit right into American homes. There are also many litters of puppies and kittens born in the streets in foreign countries, who could be taken in by non-profits, socialized and cared-for, and sent to the U.S. when they are old enough.

Some people object to the idea of importing pets because they think they will bring in diseases. The fact is, though, that hundreds of thousands of dogs are already being imported each year for commercial sale. So it is possible to import dogs safely, with the proper vaccinations and health checks. By the way, the fact that commercial breeders are already importing large numbers of dogs to sell as pets adds urgency to the need to make animal shelters dominant in the U.S. pet market. U.S. puppy mills are bad enough, but if commercial pet breeding companies can locate anywhere in the world, there will be no oversight on how they treat breeder animals and what kind of socialization the puppies and kittens receive.

Another way to meet the future demand for pets would be for volunteers to breed litters of puppies and kittens to meet spot shortages as they develop. The purpose of the breeding would be to produce happy and healthy puppies and kittens. We already have a model for this type of breeding in the programs of some service-dog organizations that breed their own stock. Breeder animals would live as cherished pets in their homes, and the puppies and kittens would get excellent socialization and medical care, just as happens with service dogs. The emphasis would not be on pedigree or looks, but on health and temperament. Mixed breeds would be welcomed.

Some Reductionists, when questioned about where pets will come from in the future, suggest what they call “responsible” breeders as a source. “Responsible breeder” is a term generally used for people who breed show dogs and cats as a hobby. The idea is that because they are not motivated by money, they will provide a good life for breeder animals and have healthy, well-socialized puppies and kittens to sell. Sadly, that is not the case. Showing animals is an expensive hobby, and selling puppies and kittens is a source of funds to offset the expense, so it can hardly be said that “hobby” breeders have no monetary interest in the sale of puppies and kittens. Furthermore, hobby breeders are breeding purebreds, which are notorious for genetic disease due to the overuse of inbreeding to produce a consistent look. Hobby breeders also participate in the deliberate perpetuation of genetic defects like brachycephalism. And many hobby breeders keep breeder animals confined in small cages or runs, just like commercial breeders do.

The bottom line from this long article is that the future of sheltering may center on how we view the place of shelters in the pet market of the future. Adoption can become the dominant force in the pet market, which would mean that, with commercial breeders diminished in number and political power, animal-welfare policies for pets would be based on what is good for pets and their families, not on what is good for commercial animal exploiters. The alternative, if current trends continue unchecked and we increasingly have insufficient animals available for adoption, is that commercial breeders will become the dominant source of pets in the future, thus increasing the power of commercial breeders and giving them control over how pet-keeping and animal welfare are regulated.

This is a very long blog, possibly the longest blog I’ve ever written, but it is also possibly the most important issue I’ve written about. This issue involves both traditional and No Kill sheltering, but it goes beyond that particular construct. The bottom line is that we are currently on a path that will take us to a place where I don’t think most of us really want to go. We – both No Kill advocates and the traditional shelter establishment — need to start thinking about the future of sheltering in a systematic way and developing programs and initiatives that will be good for animals in the decades to come.

NOTE: The pet market is very complex, and I’ve left a number of the complexities out of this discussion in order to keep the blog a readable length. The complexity of the issues involved is all the more reason why the animal-shelter establishment needs to approach the issue of planning for the future of sheltering in a systematic and organized way.

Maddie’s Pet Forum: A New Way to Communicate

Did you ever wish there was a place online where you could go with questions about shelter lifesaving and quickly get answers from experts in the field? Would you like to be able to talk over your latest shelter initiative with people who have been there and done that? Or get advice in the middle of the night about a foster kitten? Would you like a way to meet people in your state or region and form coalitions? Maddie’s Pet Forum offers everyone a chance to do all that and a lot more. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Kim Domerofski, Manager of Partnerships & Collaboration at Maddie’s Fund, about this important new means of communication.

Kim Domerofski and her dog Gidget

Maddie’s Pet Forum just officially launched on May 14th at HSUS EXPO, following a beta release in 2017. It already has over 2000 members and is growing rapidly. At this point in the development of the forum the emphasis is on shelters and rescues, and the discussions are offering a very granular level of information and help. For example, recent topics have included how to write a puppy foster care manual, whether day foster for dogs leads to longer-term fostering, and the benefits of tracking the weight of neonatal kittens.

At the end of this blog post, under “Additional Information,” there is a link to sign up for Maddie’s Pet Forum. It’s extremely easy, the forum is open to everyone, and it’s free. In the rest of this blog I’ll talk about how the forum developed and where it’s going. I’ll also talk about the “groups” function of the forum, which is one of its most important features and offers a powerful and flexible way for existing groups of people to communicate.

Maddie’s Fund staffers show off Maddie’s Pet Forum at EXPO.

The idea for Maddie’s Pet Forum grew out of another initiative, the Maddie’s Pet Assistant app. This app helps adopters and fosters get answers to questions about the pets in their care. The designers of the Pet Assistant discovered that help for adopters and fosters needed to be faster and more individualized than was typically available. Adopters and fosters needed 24/7 access to specific answers to their questions and concerns. As the people at Maddie’s Fund discussed the best way to provide that kind of assistance, they realized that this need for person-to-person communication was not limited to adopters and fosters, and instead applied to just about everyone in the pet-welfare field.

The Maddie’s Fund crew came up with an ambitious idea of starting an online forum to build a broad communication network and knowledge base. Their research showed that although other forums existed, there were none that were free and open to everyone. The next step was to make sure it was something that people really needed. Maddie’s Fund sent out a survey to shelter and rescue staff and volunteers and asked if they’d be interested in an online forum. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Now that the forum is up and running, its appeal to shelter and rescue people can be seen in the numbers. Of people who have formally introduced themselves on the forum, 44% work at shelters, 31% work with rescues, and 25% are involved with shelter lifesaving in other ways. At least 12 veterinarians are members.

Maddie’s Pet Forum may help solve a difficult problem for No Kill, which is that there are many isolated, rural shelters that have few resources and are very much out of the loop when it comes to lifesaving. The forum may help staff and volunteers at such shelters connect with others and learn about new techniques and programs. There is great momentum right now to make every shelter in the U.S. No Kill, as exemplified by Best Friends’ goal of a No Kill nation by 2025. If we are going to reach that goal we must find a way to reach all these small, isolated shelters. The forum may be a big step in that direction.

The Maddie’s Fund crew welcomes feedback in developing the forum.

Some of the most popular topics in the forum so far have been adoptions, marketing (including fundraising and managing finances), foster care, behavior and training, people and management, and technology. Often a conversation gets started when someone writes in with a question. The person may be in the planning stages of a new program or may have started an initiative and encountered some issues. People respond by sharing how they handled a similar issue, or by pointing out sources of help. Sometimes the responses redefine the problem to make it easier to approach. Another common way to start a conversation is to post a topic of general interest and ask people how they feel about it. The tone of the forum has been impressive – it’s friendly, respectful, and professional.

Another major benefit of the forum will be to help maintain connections that people have made at venues like conferences, workshops, apprenticeship training programs, state federation meetings, etc. The forum allows people who have connected with others to keep in touch and continue to share their experiences and aha! moments. Conversations can be in the open forum or they can be restricted to public or private groups within the forum.

The “groups” function of the forum seems likely to develop into one of its most important aspects. The forum already has several groups, including a very large private group for Best Friends Network Partners. Other groups have been formed for Maddie’s Lifesaving Academy, Austin Pets Alive! master classes, and the Maddie’s Apprenticeship Program. You can imagine what an advantage it is for people who have just gone through an apprenticeship, conference, or workshop to be able to stay in touch with the group they trained with as they return home and start applying what they’ve learned. Domerofski hopes that people who have groups on other platforms will move them to the Maddie’s Pet Forum, as the group members would then have all the benefits of the forum as well as the benefits of their private group.

The forum has lively conversations on a lot of different topics.

In addition to private groups, the forum can host public groups. These are open to anyone and are helpful for specific interests. Some of the current public groups include “Adult Dog Foster Care,” “Keeping Pets in Homes,” and “Working Cats.” Many shelter-lifesaving organizations have produced brochures and guidelines for things like starting a neonatal kitten foster program or setting up a help desk, and public groups on specific topics would seem like an ideal place to make such documents available.

The managers of Maddie’s Pet Forum are allowing it to grow organically so it will reflect the needs of the people who use it. The forum is still in a phase of rapid development, and the Maddie’s Fund crew wants feedback on what is and is not working for people. The forum has a section for feedback, and the designers are rolling out changes every month.

I urge everyone to check out Maddie’s Pet Forum – it’s well worth your time. We have long needed a communication tool like this, and we have the opportunity to grow this forum so that it serves the entire pet-welfare community.

Additional information:

Fostering: A Keystone Program — Interview with Kristen Auerbach

I recently had the opportunity to interview Kristen Auerbach, head of the Pima Animal Care Center (PACC) in Tucson, Arizona. Before taking the helm at PACC, Auerbach was an executive at two other shelters in large urban areas – the Austin Animal Center in Austin, Texas, and Fairfax County Animal Services in northern Virginia. In this blog I want to discuss her ideas on fostering. Auerbach believes that “fostering is about engaging the community in a profound way that no other program can do.” What I found most striking about her approach to fostering is how she integrates it with other programs, gaining some tremendous synergistic effects.

Kristen Auerbach with her dog Otter.

PACC is the only public shelter serving Pima County and it is high volume, taking in some 16,000 to 18,000 animals per year. Auerbach started as director at PACC on July 10, 2017. It was already a good shelter before she was hired, with a live release rate in 2016 near 90%. A reorganization in 2017 made PACC a stand-alone department, and Auerbach was hired as the first director under this new system. She has set up the new department and staffed it, and shepherded a new shelter building toward its completion date in 2018.

Auerbach’s focus now is to bring PACC to the next level in lifesaving, and she’s done a lot toward that goal in the past year. In addition to the foster program, she oversaw the expansion of PACC’s Pet Support Center (funded by PetSmart Charities and the ASPCA), which works to keep pets in their homes. In 9 months the Pet Support Center has responded to over 33,000 calls. Auerbach is also working with the Jackson Galaxy Project on a Cat Pawsitive program. And volunteers worked almost 78,000 hours in 2017. Auerbach is a big fan of the HSUS Pets for Life program, and she recruited Bennett Simonsen, who previously worked as the Pets for Life coordinator for the Humane Society of Charlotte, North Carolina, as PACC’s Animal Protection Supervisor.

That’s a lot of change, but Auerbach’s renovated foster program may be the biggest change of all. Auerbach is a recognized national leader in fostering based on her revolutionary work with big-dog fostering. She feels that the problem is not large dogs per se. People love large dogs just as they love all dogs, and there would be sufficient demand for large dogs if there were no obstacles in the way of adopting them. The most prevalent obstacles are landlord and HOA restrictions that prohibit people from keeping large dogs. Because of these obstacles, shelters must put extra effort into getting large dogs adopted.

As a high-volume shelter, PACC takes in many large dogs.

Fostering is important for big dogs because it is not just a temporary lifesaver but a strong contributor to finding a permanent home. A recently published study of dog adoptions by Gary Patronek and Abbi Crowe of Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy was carried out at PACC, and concluded that dogs who went into foster had a higher live release rate (99%) than all dogs (88%).

Auerbach’s approach to fostering integrates the dog foster program into the adoption program. Every adult dog available for adoption has a notice on its kennel saying “available for foster.” Shelter staff have a target of mentioning “foster” in 30% of their social-media posts. Adoption counselors are encouraged to talk to potential adopters about fostering, and every adoption counselor can process fosters. In the eight months that this approach has been in place they’ve had many more inquiries about fostering. People who are interested in fostering but unsure about it are encouraged to foster a senior dog, which often turns into an adoption. Day trips and short-term foster opportunities can encourage people new to fostering to take the plunge, and the time out of the shelter is great for the animals.

Historically, the return rate for adoptions has been one of the factors used to judge shelter performance – a low return rate was considered good and a high return rate was bad. The Patronek-Crowe study found, however, that dogs who were adopted and then returned had higher subsequent adoption rates than the general population of dogs. Auerbach believes that adoption returns should not be viewed as failures. She and her staff encourage people to feel that they can bring a dog back to the shelter if an adoption does not work out, and pick out another dog.

Auerbach believes there is nothing wrong with a prospective adopter feeling unsure about whether a rowdy, 18-month-old chewing monster is a good fit. Why not encourage the potential adopter to take the dog home on a temporary basis as a foster, and see how things work out? If things go well, the animal has a new permanent home. At worst, it has had some time out of the shelter. This is one example of how integrating fostering with the adoption program can turn a negative – adoption returns – into a positive, by using fostering to make sure that dogs are a good fit for their adoptive families.

Some people object to large-scale dog-foster programs on the ground that such programs may be placing dogs who have behavior issues with fosters who are not capable of managing them. Temperament testing has become a hot-button issue lately, as more and more evidence has piled up that the traditional temperament tests don’t work in a shelter environment.

The Patronek-Crowe study found that fewer than 4% of shelter dogs had identifiable behavior concerns at intake. Auerbach sees the shelter environment itself as the cause of much of the fearful or aggressive behavior that is often seen in shelter dogs. She believes that the high placement success for fostered dogs that Patronek and Crowe observed is due to the fact that fostered dogs are not experiencing the stress of the shelter, so they behave like the normal dogs they are. That’s why she believes it is so important to get large dogs out of the shelter right away and into foster homes.

Auerbach feels that it is much safer for everyone concerned to have dogs out of the shelter and in a normal home environment than to house them in a shelter where their behavior will deteriorate. As she puts it: “the most dangerous thing we’re doing in sheltering is to house dogs with anxiety, young dogs, energetic dogs in tiny little boxes for 23 and a half hours per day, day in and day out, and then expect that they will act like teddy bears when we get them out.”

The shelter follows the same protocol for fosters as it does for adoptions and rescue placements. Since observing temperament in the shelter does not give an accurate picture of a dog’s real temperament, shelter staff rely mainly on the individual dog’s history. People who are taking a dog, whether as a foster, adoption, or rescue, get all the known information about a dog verbally and in writing, so that they can make an informed decision about the dog.

PACC does not have the resources to provide sanctuary care or extensive rehabilitation for every dog with severe behavior issues, so each week Auerbach has to make decisions about dogs in the shelter who are candidates for euthanasia because they have bitten or attacked a person or another animal. As busy as she is, she spends at least 10% of her time making a thorough investigation into each one of these cases. Her investigations include interviewing bite victims, if possible. Often she finds that the original report that labeled the dog as dangerous was inaccurate – the dog was misidentified, or the victim gives her a very different account of the incident from what is in the report. She believes it is important not to lump all bites together – there is a big difference between a minor bite and a moderate-to-severe bite. Auerbach sees making decisions to euthanize a dog for behavior as the most profound part of her job, and believes that shelters have a duty to provide careful consideration before taking a dog’s life for past behavior.

Currently, many of the adult dogs that PACC places in foster homes are large dogs who are experiencing behavioral decline in the shelter – dogs who showed no behavior issues when they came into the shelter but after 6 weeks or so start showing signs like reactivity and leash biting. Recently, however, PACC received a 3-year grant from Maddie’s Fund to hire three people who will be entirely dedicated to foster coordination – one for adult dogs, one for adult cats, and one for marketing and placement. The goal is to build a demonstration foster program, the largest foster program in the world, and get as many animals as possible out of the shelter and into foster before behavior problems set in.  And for dogs in the shelter, a Dogs Playing for Life program can help achieve some of the same effects as fostering. One of PACC’s 2018 projects is a large-scale Dogs Playing for Life program.

Participant in the Maddie’s apprenticeship program.

The PACC foster program is the centerpiece of another of Auerbach’s interests – training shelter staff from across the country in lifesaving techniques. PACC is part of the Maddie’s Fund national apprenticeship program for shelter staff who want to improve their community shelters but need help in getting started. Maddie’s awards grants that allow recipients to travel to communities like Tucson that have shelters with cutting-edge programs, where they receive hands-on training to learn how to implement those programs at their own shelters.

Auerbach believes that hands-on training programs are crucial because the sheltering profession has high turnover and new people coming into the profession are not likely to be familiar with the latest lifesaving techniques. Even if they have heard about new techniques, they don’t have experience in implementing them. And rapid turnover of leadership means there is little institutional memory at many shelters, so shelter staff need continuing exposure to basics such as Open Adoption as well as the new techniques. Auerbach believes that messaging on some shelter basics, like not discriminating against “pit bull” dogs, has fallen off in recent years and we have regressed in some of those areas.

The most recent apprenticeship training at PACC, a 4-day Maddie’s Medium and Large Adult Dog Foster Apprenticeship program, was held from April 9-12. Staff from shelters across the U.S. participated in workshops led by Auerbach and Kelly Duer of Maddie’s Fund. Although the focus at PACC apprenticeships is on adult-dog fostering, foster is so interrelated with other programs at PACC that the apprentices wind up receiving a broad exposure to many issues and programs. For example, a foster program requires staffing, so each apprentice is asked to bring an organizational chart. The chart might show that animal control is over-staffed, and that people could be reassigned to coordinate fostering and perhaps volunteers and rescue outreach as well. Another example is that since fostering at PACC is integrated with adoption, apprentices get direct experience with the PACC adoption program as well. The next apprenticeship program will be held May 22-25.

In Auerbach’s experience, the great majority of shelters still have no formal protocol in place for training new workers. She believes that the type of hands-on training provided by the apprenticeships is a good way to break into the cycle experienced by many people in sheltering, where they come into the field with little knowledge and then are immediately forced into a reactive mode just to get through each day. This leaves them without time to think and plan, much less keep up with today’s rapid pace of change in shelter lifesaving techniques. The apprenticeships offer several days where each participant can analyze their shelter’s situation, experience how a model program works, and have time to reflect.

The apprenticeships are not just for providing information about PACC’s existing programs, they are also about encouraging participants to apply their own creativity to come up with innovative variations for their own communities. For example, a PACC apprentice from the 2017 class started Paws on Patrol in Louisville, where police officers take shelter dogs along with them on patrol. The program has received a lot of publicity, and it helps both the police and the shelter in their mutual goal of engaging the community.

The PACC bottle-baby kitten program is another non-traditional way of engaging and benefiting the community.

Fostering is also important for cats, particularly bottle-baby kittens, for whom it can be the difference between life and death. PACC’s bottle-baby kitten program is another example of a fostering program that serves the twin goals of helping people in the community and increasing the shelter’s lifesaving rate. Petco Foundation has funded the innovative approach of placing bottle-baby kittens in memory-care facilities, where round-the-clock kitten care is shared by residents and staff. The residents of the facilities often become very engaged in caring for the kittens, and for the kittens it’s a lifesaver. As Auerbach says, “with fostering, you’re sending out a piece of your shelter that goes all over the community.”

My interview with Auerbach touched on many issues that she cares about that we did not have time to discuss in depth, including the effect on shelter workers of carrying out euthanasia decisions, the need to attract and retain leaders in sheltering, and the importance of expanding the focus of sheltering to include animals outside the shelter. Although this is a long blog, it would have to be much longer to even begin to encompass all her ideas and insights. Fortunately, Auerbach frequently writes and speaks about shelter issues.

What is happening at PACC is exciting for the future of shelter lifesaving. Auerbach and her staff, with support from grant-making organizations, are making the shelter a demonstration project on many issues. With fostering as a keystone program, shelter lifesaving promises to reach new heights.

The Culture of Adoption

Many communities in the United States have a high intake of animals at the local shelter. The consulting service Humane Network recently published a comprehensive 10-step guide explaining how communities can establish a “culture of adoption” that drastically increases the number of shelter adoptions. With this technique, we are no longer solely reliant on reducing intake to save lives — we can quickly increase the number of adoptions to match whatever intake level we have. In this blog I want to provide a little background on the concept of the culture of adoption; what it is, how to measure its progress in a community, and why it is so important. (Note: I love the Humane Network guide so much that I link to it each time it’s mentioned — don’t want you to miss it!)

The adoption experience should be welcoming and fun.

A culture of adoption means that when people think of acquiring a pet, they don’t think about going to a pet store or checking Craigslist, they think about going to the shelter. In a community that has a culture of adoption, the default place to get a pet is the community shelter.

The way to achieve a culture of adoption is to use marketing to “brand” the animal shelter as a fun and trendy place to visit, and to brand shelter animals – both mixed-breed and purebred – as great pets. This branding cannot be achieved by a one-time messaging effort — it is something that must be achieved by constant repetition. It also must reflect reality – branding depends a lot on word-of-mouth and personal recommendations, so the shelter must actually be the fun and welcoming place that its marketing presents.

Games are a fun way to engage people.

In recent years we have come to understand how important it is for shelters to reach out and engage the community. Today we see new shelter buildings being located in parks and shopping malls – places where people congregate. We see shelters holding events like Yoga with Cats, or First Nights, that seek to attract people who would not ordinarily come to a shelter. And most of all we see creative ways to get people to adopt, not shop.

As a result, shelter adoption is becoming a popular and cool way to acquire a pet. The statistics we have for pet acquisition in the 1970s and 1980s are not very comprehensive, but it appears that in those days only about 10% of people acquired their pet from a shelter. At that time there were few if any all-breed rescues. Today, the estimated percentage of pets acquired either at a shelter or through a rescue is 35%. In cities with a culture of adoption, that percentage can go even higher. There is no reason why shelters and rescues could not supply 70% or more of pet acquisitions.

When a community has a very high adoption rate, it runs out of shelter pets. This is one of the explanations for the phenomenon we are seeing more and more in the United States, where city and county shelters must import animals from other communities, and even from other states, to keep up with demand.

Bonney Brown

An example of a community that has established a culture of adoption is Washoe County in Nevada, home of the city of Reno. In 2007, the Nevada Humane Society (NHS), which is located in Reno, kicked off a No Kill effort in partnership with the county’s animal control service. NHS hired Bonney Brown as executive director to lead the effort. The problem with getting to No Kill in Washoe County was that the shelter system had an unusually high intake, and Brown had to find a way to deal with that issue.

Brown had a background in shelter lifesaving extending back to the early 1990s, and before that she had worked in retail. She credits Michael Mountain and Steven Hirano at Best Friends Animal Society for mentoring her in techniques for engaging the public in shelter lifesaving. When she started work at NHS, she immediately began a campaign to brand NHS as the place to get a pet. Her work at NHS was the first example I’m aware of where marketing was successfully applied in a high-intake community to raise shelter adoption rates to a level where the shelter literally ran out of animals, even after pulling all the savable animals (including medical cases) from the local animal-control facility. Brown eventually left NHS to start Humane Network, but NHS directors have continued to maintain the culture of adoption. NHS is now running the Carson City shelter in addition to its work in Washoe County, and also pulls at-risk animals from other shelters, including the one in Las Vegas.

Diane Blankenburg

Humane Network can train people in how to create a culture of adoption, but for communities that cannot hire Humane Network, Brown and Diane Blankenburg, who is also a former executive with NHS, have created the free 10-step guide I referred to in the first paragraph of this blog post. The guide is posted on their website at this link.

A common mistake that people make with marketing is to try one or two special events, and then get discouraged if those events don’t result in a big increase in people coming to the shelter. Brown and Blankenburg emphasize that marketing to create a culture of adoption is an ongoing effort – a campaign. Brown tells people that it requires “relentless promotion” over time to make a shelter “THE go-to place to adopt a pet.”

I’m not going to talk about all the the nuts and bolts of how to create a culture of adoption in this blog, because that topic is covered so well and in such depth in Humane Network’s free online brochure. I do want to go into some depth on how to measure adoption rates, though, and what a culture of adoption means in the big picture for No Kill nationally.

To measure progress toward a culture of adoption, you will need to track two easily calculated numbers. The first number is shelter intake related to the number of people who live in the community. This is helpful because it is people in the community who provide homes for shelter animals, and the more people there are, the more potential homes are available. Average shelter intake in the United States is estimated to be around 22 dogs and cats per thousand people, although it varies widely from one location to another.

To calculate “Intake per Thousand People” (IPTP) for an individual community, simply take the shelter’s intake number per year and divide that number by 1/1000th of the human population of the shelter’s service area. For example, a city of 600,000 people served by a shelter that has intake of 10,000 cats and dogs per year has an IPTP for cats and dogs of 10000/600 = 17. If there is more than one intake shelter in a community, total intake of all the shelters should be used to calculate IPTP.

The second number we need is “Adoptions Per Thousand People” (APTP). This measures how many people in the community choose to acquire a pet by adopting from the shelter. It is calculated the same way as IPTP, except that the number of shelter adoptions per year is used instead of the intake number. In a city of 600,000 people, if city residents adopted 3500 cats and dogs per year (either directly from the shelter or from rescues that pulled the animals from the shelter), the APTP would be 3500/600 = 6. In traditional shelters, an APTP in single digits is common.

So let’s think about this. If the community shelter has 17 dogs and cats coming in the door for every 1000 people in the community, but only 6 per 1000 going out the door as adoptions, the shelter has a big problem. It is not finding homes locally for all its pets. A culture of adoption can fix this problem.

How high must we raise the APTP to find homes for all the shelter pets in a community? Not all animals who come into a shelter need adoptive homes. Some animals are reclaimed by their owners, and some are healthy community cats who can be returned to their community homes. The percentage of animals who need adoption in a shelter varies a lot from one community to another, but generally will not exceed 70%-80%. If we have an APTP number high enough to represent 80% of IPTP, we will have enough adoptive homes for every healthy and treatable animal who comes into the shelter, in pretty much any community in the country. In our shelter with IPTP of 17, for example, we would need at most an APTP of 17 x 0.8, or 14.

A high APTP is an achievable goal.

Getting back to our average shelter intake of 22 IPTP, and multiplying that by 80%, we would need a maximum of 18 APTP to find homes for all of our healthy and treatable animals in an average community in the U.S. The good news is that a successful culture of adoption can easily result in APTP of 18. In fact, in the shelter system of Washoe County, which has a higher-than-usual IPTP of over 32, APTP runs about 23 per year. Washoe County also has a strong return-to-owner program, and at 23 APTP, the Washoe County shelters have so much adoption demand that they do not have enough homeless animals from within the county to meet it.

A culture of adoption helps create a community where pets are valued.

A culture of adoption can create high enough APTP to provide homes for shelter animals even in communities with very high IPTP. An IPTP of 35, for example, is near the top of the scale of what we usually see today. At that level of intake we would need an APTP of 28 to provide homes for 80% of shelter animals. This level of APTP has been achieved by some communities – Portland, Oregon, is one example. Portland’s culture of adoption allows it, like Washoe County, to take in and place many animals from shelters in other communities.

The fact that a culture of adoption can increase APTP to a number that is higher than the average intake for shelters in the United States has exciting implications. It means that right now, if every shelter in the country was able to establish a culture of adoption, we would have homes available for all our healthy and treatable animals. That means that there is no pet overpopulation in the United States – the market is there for shelter pets, and we just have to mobilize it.

In places that have a strong culture of adoption we sometimes see high intake that is a result of the high number of transported animals that the community is able to take in. We see this in the average shelter intake for the state of Colorado, which is a well-known destination for transports from overcrowded shelters in other states. In the past, high shelter intake in a community was almost always a sign of a lack of sufficient low-cost spay-neuter services. Today, high intake may be a sign of a compassionate community that has a culture of adoption.

To sum up, it’s tremendously important for shelters to establish a culture of adoption in their communities, and that requires, as Brown says, “relentless promotion” to make a shelter “THE go-to place to adopt a pet.” Creating a culture of adoption is a campaign – a way of engaging the community long term. I urge you to read the brochure to learn how to make it happen in your community.

Nevada’s New Statewide Pet Lifesaving Campaign

This month, Maddie’s Fund is commencing a three-year effort to make Nevada a state where all healthy and treatable animals are saved. The effort is called Maddie’s Pet Project in Nevada (MPP-NV), and it is jointly funded by Maddie’s Fund and the Dave and Cheryl Duffield Foundation. MPP-NV will be officially kicked off by Nevada governor Brian Sandoval on April 26th at an event in Reno. The kickoff will be followed by a statewide Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days event on April 27 and 28. Every incorporated animal-welfare group in the state is invited to participate in the adoption event.

When Maddie’s decided to do the MPP-NV campaign, they called in the Humane Network consulting service. The Humane Network team for MPP-NV is led by Bonney Brown, Diane Blankenburg, and Mark Robison. I recently interviewed Brown about MPP-NV – its goals, the challenges it faces, and the plans for creating a statewide safety net for pets.

Humane Network did an in-depth feasibility study for MPP-NV which looked at shelters in the state but also went beyond the shelter walls to look at how pets are doing in communities that don’t have shelters. The study used interviews, surveys, and other data-gathering methods. We rarely get this type of demographic data on pets in individual communities, let alone entire states.

A survey that was part of the feasibility study showed that Nevadans have strongly positive attitudes about pets. 93% of Nevadans have owned a pet, 88% feel it is appropriate to grieve the death of a pet, and 86% think the well-being of dogs and cats is important. Similar percentages of Nevadans have positive attitudes toward homeless pets — 91% reported that the fate of dogs and cats in shelters mattered to them, 90% would help a stray animal, 76% indicated that they would be interested in volunteering to help cats and dogs in their community, and 66% said that they would obtain a new pet from a shelter or rescue group. There were no significant differences in attitudes between urban and rural residents or between average and low-income people.

The Humane Network feasibility study included a map of Nevada’s human population density. This map illustrates the huge geographic distances between communities in the state – a problem that is common in western states. The average Nevada county is over 6,400 square miles, and most of the land area is sparsely populated (click map for larger version):

Humane Network identified three main issues based on its feasibility study:

  • A lack of communication among shelters in the state, which leads to missed opportunities for shelters to help each other. One example is that some shelters have built up more demand for adoption than they have animals, while animals are dying in other shelters due to time or space limitations. Some shelters have so few resources that they struggle just to complete basic tasks, and are not able to focus on networking or developing programs.
  • In almost every community, large mixed-breed dogs, Chihuahuas, and community cats need help. Kittens and puppies who are too young for adoption are also at risk. These groups make up a disproportionate percentage of animals who die in shelters or are left on their own in areas that do not have animal services.
  • Rural areas, Native American reservations, and low-income urban areas often lack low-cost veterinary services. Animals are dying of easily preventable and treatable illnesses. These areas tend to have few or no veterinary clinics, and residents often have transportation difficulties and lack money to pay for veterinary care. Nevada has few low-income spay-neuter services, and spay-neuter and vaccination services are unavailable in many rural areas.

A data analysis of Nevada shelter save rates found that in most shelters the save rate for dogs is substantially higher than the save rate for cats. This data analysis allowed Humane Network to identify counties that have high numbers of animals dying in shelters and propose ways to bring down those numbers.

The Nevada Humane Society (NHS) in Washoe County is a linchpin of the MPP-NV plan. Washoe County, located along the western border of the state, is home to the cities of Reno and Sparks. It has a very high shelter save rate resulting from the partnership of NHS and Washoe County Regional Animal Services (WCRAS). As with many such partnerships, the private shelter (NHS) pulls unclaimed animals from the public shelter (WCRAS) once their hold periods are up and finds homes for them. The partnership between NHS and WCRAS dates back to 2006. In recent years NHS has partnered with nearby Carson City, which is now saving a very high percentage of its shelter animals. Reno is also the home of the SPCA of Northern Nevada, which has grown into an important organization.

Humane Network has a close connection with NHS, since Brown is a former executive director of NHS and led its successful community lifesaving campaign. A high priority for Brown when she became director of NHS in 2007 was to make adoption from a shelter the first thing people thought of when they wanted to acquire a pet. Brown and Blankenburg, who was also an executive at NHS at the time, used marketing to achieve this goal, and subsequent NHS leaders have kept up the marketing effort. The “culture of adoption” in Washoe County can be seen when comparing its high rate of adoption to other counties in Nevada. This phenomenon is so important that I’m going to talk about it in detail in a follow-up blog. One of the results of the high adoption rate in Washoe County is that NHS has a shortage of animals for adoption, and can help other shelters in the state by taking in some of their at-risk animals.

The Reno area has a substantial population, but the Las Vegas area, which is in the far southern tip of the state, is far bigger. Clark County, home of Las Vegas, has 75% of the state’s population. A shelter reform effort has been underway in Las Vegas in the last few years, and the shelter system has been making good progress. MPP-NV wants to help that effort reach its 90%+ save-rate goal. One method of helping is to transport animals from Clark County to Washoe County. MPP-NV funded its first transport of 49 cats and 6 rabbits from the Animal Foundation in Las Vegas to NHS in Reno on April 10-12. These were animals with medical or behavior issues that made them difficult to place in Clark County.

The MPP-NV feasibility study showed that veterinary clinics, shelters, and nonprofit animal organizations are heavily concentrated in and around Reno, Carson City, and Las Vegas. A handful of animal organizations are also located in small communities that have grown up along the I-80 corridor, which runs from Reno across the north-central part of Nevada. MPP-NV will start out its lifesaving efforts by strengthening the safety nets for pets in two areas of the state – Clark County and the I-80 corridor from Washoe County to Elko County on the eastern border of Nevada. These areas contain a high percentage of Nevada’s human population.

Humane Network is conducting listening tours in the areas they have identified as starting points for MPP-NV. In Washoe County they met with county officials, veterinarians, and tribal governments and asked for their views on how lifesaving could be improved. They visited all the major shelters and spay-neuter clinics in Clark County. The most recent listening tour was conducted on the I-80 corridor. The photo shows the Humane Network team with staff from the Elko Animal Shelter.

By starting its work in the parts of the state that have existing infrastructure for lifesaving, MPP-NV will be able to first strengthen that existing infrastructure and then reach out into the underserved rural areas. In 2015, two of the 17 counties in Nevada had no animal shelter and several had no private veterinary clinic and no identifiable rescues. Only Clark and Washoe counties and Carson City have non-profit veterinary clinics. The state has few TNR clinics. The remote rural areas in the state are not only lacking in infrastructure for saving homeless pets, they also have few services for owned pets. Everything must be built from the ground up.

Because creating an entire lifesaving infrastructure from scratch is a new type of endeavor, Brown does not have a roadmap for it. She believes, however, that grassroots organizing will be one key to developing a safety net for pets in sparsely populated areas. She has experience with that kind of organizing going back to her work on TNR in Massachusetts in the early 1990s, when she founded a humane society that spearheaded TNR efforts in several towns. She found that grassroots organizing helps local people form their own sustainable institutions.

Grassroots organizing in rural communities could begin with the development of foster networks and the use of marketing to develop a culture of adoption. Transport of animals to Washoe County could be used to jump-start lifesaving, but creating a culture of adoption will allow communities to place their animals locally, which is the ultimate goal.

Many of the remote rural communities in Nevada cannot economically support a private-practice veterinary clinic. In those cases, a mix of for-profit and non-profit organizations may need to work together to create solutions. NHS and the SPCA of Northern Nevada have mobile vans for transport and spay-neuter. It might be possible to work out arrangements for private veterinarians to use those vehicles and donate their time.

A creative idea for expanding pet services is to piggyback on existing services for people. An example of this approach is MPP-NV’s outreach to an organization called Immunize Nevada, which helps people get vaccinations. MPP-NV also participated recently in the Family Connect – Family Resource & Health Fair event in Las Vegas. All of these approaches to creating infrastructure from scratch are promising, but as Brown said about this new type of effort, “exactly what it looks like? We don’t know yet.”

Given the need for creating infrastructure, MPP-NV is developing a strong leadership-building component. That component will help recognize and develop grassroots leaders, but also train leaders who are already in the field. In conjunction with that effort, MPP-NV has provided 18 scholarships to attend HSUS EXPO.

An exciting component of the leadership effort is that Maddie’s will be hosting two conferences each year, one in Reno and one in Las Vegas. The conferences are called Saving Nevada’s Pets and are free for leaders and managers of Nevada humane organizations. The Las Vegas conference will be held on June 5, and the Reno conference is scheduled for October 25. The hope is that the conferences will help not only with training, but also with networking. Brown feels that networking opportunities are important because rescuers and shelter staff are often so busy with the work they face every day that networking can fall by the wayside.

The Nevada effort will be data-driven, and the plan is to repeat the surveys and data collection at the end of the three-year program to measure progress. The project’s founders envision that, by developing sustainable grassroots organizations and networks, the good effects of the project will carry on in Nevada long after it ends. MPP-NV may also have an exemplary effect outside Nevada, especially in western states that have many communities that are lacking in lifesaving infrastructure.

“How Can I Reform the Shelter in My City?”

I get this question frequently on social media, and there is no short answer, so I decided to write a blog on the topic.

As a preliminary note – this blog sets out a process for starting from scratch and creating a No Kill community. if you read all this and are discouraged at the complexity and the amount of work it takes to create a No Kill community, don’t despair. If you can’t do everything, it is still helpful to do something. In fact, there are many communities where a full No Kill initiative eventually developed starting with one program. If I lived in a high-kill community and had a demanding full-time job but still wanted to do something to increase lifesaving, I’d start a transport program. Transports can be coordinated during lunch hours and evenings, and can be run on weekends, and they can make an enormous difference in a community. Another great program that can be stand-alone is the Help Desk, which can be run with recruited volunteers and donated supplies and services. Help Desks often have a 30% or more success rate in heading off owner surrender. One person could make a difference by working with the shelter director on a marketing program, including low-fee adoption events. It may be tremendously helpful to work on getting anti-cat ordinances changed, if they are impeding TNR or RTF. So there is no need to despair if a full No Kill initiative seems too much for you to tackle all at once.

I’ve set this out as a series of steps, but the first two steps can be done at the same time. The last two steps may overlap some too, depending on circumstances. Even if you must limit your activities to one program, the first three steps may be valuable to complete.


Do you know what the adoption rate per thousand people is in your city’s shelter? Do you know what the cat ordinance says? What the dog ordinance says? What the required holding period is? Do you know your shelter’s intake? How is animal control structured? Does animal control actively pick up cats, or do they accept them only over the counter or as emergencies, or not at all? Do you have full statistics (at least as much information as is contained in the Basic Matrix used by Shelter Animals Count) for your shelter for the last 10 years? Do you know how to interpret those statistics? What is the shelter’s yearly budget? How many full-time and part-time employees does it have? Are you familiar with the activities of all the rescues and humane organizations that work in your community? Do any of them partner with the shelter, formally or informally? Do you know where animals who are transferred out of the community are going? What is the capacity of your shelter? When was it built? Does it have a good air-exchange system? Is it in a good location for foot and vehicle traffic? What are its hours? Does your shelter do RTF, have a kitten bottle-baby program, have a foster program? Does the shelter have managed admission, a Help Desk, a program for pit bulls, or an exercise yard for dogs? How many volunteer hours does the shelter have each month, and what do the volunteers do? Does your city have a low-cost spay-neuter program, either public or private? If so, how many animals per year are sterilized? Is there a TNR program? A transport program? How does the shelter evaluate temperament? Does the shelter have a veterinary staff? Where do people in your community go when they want to acquire a pet?

You can learn the answers to these and similar questions by doing basic research on the shelter, talking to people associated with the shelter, making a FOIA request for statistics if the shelter doesn’t make them available, and volunteering at the shelter or with organizations that work with the shelter. Once you have gained a basic familiarity with the shelter, talk to the director. Explain that you would like to help the shelter and ask what he or she sees as the biggest needs and biggest problem areas. If this is the first time you’ve met the director, don’t expect him or her to welcome you with open arms. Shelter directors get a lot of criticism, and all kinds of people approach them with all kinds of agendas. If you go in with an attitude of wanting to learn and help, the director is more likely to be candid with you. But at the least, you will get an idea of how effective the director is as a leader and how open he or she is to change.

Talk to the people in your community who are active in helping the shelter and ask for their ideas about resources that can be leveraged. Also talk to the heads of local non-profits that help humans or make grants for people-oriented projects – this may give you ideas for creative networking possibilities. If there are any city or county officials who are sympathetic to your efforts, get their ideas, especially as to finances and shelter location.


Just as you had to learn the facts about your own shelter for the first step, for this step you have to learn about successful No Kill shelters. Go to the Best Friends maps at and, and find out how your region is doing at No Kill and where the closest No Kill communities are located. Contact them, tell them what you’re trying to do, and ask if you can tour their facilities and speak to someone (preferably the director) about how they got to No Kill. The reason for going local is twofold – first, local communities are likely to be similar to yours in climate and terrain, and if they are in the same state they are probably functioning in a similar legal and regulatory climate. Second, this will give you a start in future networking, because No Kill shelters often help other communities.

One important thing to realize is that there is no “one size fits all” approach to getting to No Kill. As Richard Avanzino put it, there are many routes to the top of the mountain. Successful No Kill transitions build on what the community already has, and its own particular strengths and resources. That said, there are some programs that have been successful in a wide variety of communities. While you are visiting nearby No Kill communities, educate yourself about core programs like managed admission, Return-to-Field, and transport. Learn about Help Desks, bottle-baby-kitten foster programs, social-marketing programs, and Dogs Playing for Life.

Just as important as programs are institutional arrangements. Find out who runs the No Kill shelters you visit. Is it the city or county? Is it a local humane society or SPCA or rescue that contracts with the city? If the city or county runs the shelter, are there any formal or informal partnerships with non-profits that take a significant number of animals from the shelter? Do the shelters you visit have rescue coordinators? Foster, volunteer, or transport coordinators? If you are visiting a shelter run by a city or county, find out if the director had to overcome chain-of-command issues such as restrictions on social-media use or fundraising.

In recent years shelter medicine has become an enormously important part of No Kill. Learn about shelter medicine and what it can do for shelters in areas like capacity for care, infection control, and quality of life for animals. Learn about No Kill shelter buildings and how location plays a crucial role in adoption promotion and community engagement. If possible, visit a city or county that has a new shelter building designed specifically for No Kill, and talk to the director about the difference it’s made. Familiarize yourself with the Million Cat Challenge and the High-Quality High-Volume Spay-Neuter (HQHVSN) model for clinics taught by Humane Alliance. Attend a TNR clinic. The University of the Pacific offers an online certificate course in lifesaving-centered shelter management. This course is taught by people with a proven track record in lifesaving shelter management, and could be a great way to boost your education about No Kill.


If you’ve done all your research, you’ve probably formed a lot of opinions and already have some goals. Now you need to take the next step and decide how you’re going to reach those goals. Many people ignore this aspect of the process and go directly from the learning phase to the doing phase. They think that strategic planning is a waste of time. On the contrary, a good strategic plan can be the difference between success and failure. Think of the strategic plan as your road map to No Kill. Forming a strategic plan also forces you to think in detail about how to do each step. It’s easy to say “have a bottle-baby program for kittens” or “put on low-cost adoption events,” but it’s much harder to figure out all the details and hoops to jump through to make these programs work.

One of the best ways to make a No Kill plan is to call in a consultant like Humane Network or Target Zero. If that is not possible, there are many other resources to help. One is the yearly conference held by American Pets Alive! in Austin: The whole purpose of this conference is to provide practical help for people who are making No Kill transitions, and it’s an excellent first step in making a comprehensive No Kill transition plan. The Best Friends National Conference has presentations on how to get to No Kill, and it’s a great place to network. HSUS EXPO also provides tremendous networking opportunities.

One of the most important parts of the strategic plan is the operational model for the shelter. There are many operational models for shelters, and which one is best for your community will depend on the circumstances. For shelters that are run by the city or county government, a common and highly successful model is a public-private partnership. This model was originally developed by Avanzino in San Francisco, and it is used today in Austin, Jacksonville (FL), San Antonio, Washoe County (NV), Asheville (NC), and many other places. If the shelter director in your city is open to transferring animals to a partner organization, then this may be the best way for you to go. Keep in mind that shelter directors may not immediately embrace a new organization. If you choose to go this route you might need to start small and prove that you can responsibly handle the animals you take from the shelter, both in terms of public safety and good placements for the animals. Remember that animal sheltering has an animal control component, and any city or county is going to be very concerned with public safety and abating nuisances caused by animals.

Another important part of the strategic plan is to analyze all the data you gathered and use it to map out your shelter’s current strengths and weaknesses. You will need to set out what types of savable animals are being killed and why. For example, if your shelter is saving 85% of dogs but is having trouble placing large, active dogs, you may want to include programs in your strategic plan like transport, Dogs Playing for Life, micro-targeted free spay-neuter for the zip codes most associated with large-dog intake, regular adoption specials for large dogs, and intensive marketing. If the cat live release rate is, say, 50%, then you will need to plan for implementation of a community cat program and a bottle-baby program. You may need to modify local ordinances to allow RTF and TNR. If the shelter has a high died/lost rate, then the strategic plan must identify the causes and suggest solutions.

You will almost certainly need an organization to carry out your strategic plan. You may already be working with an animal-welfare non-profit that you can re-purpose for a No Kill effort. Or you may have to start from scratch and form your own non-profit. Hopefully you have met people in the course of doing your research who want to help, and you can bring them on board.


At this point you have a comprehensive strategic plan, an organization, and a group of people to implement the plan. In one sense you’ve come a long way. But really, the work you’ve done so far is preliminary, and now you’re at the starting line.

Implementing your strategic plan will probably require building a working relationship with the current shelter director. This may take some patience. What I see with many No Kill efforts is that shelter directors are willing to try out help that is targeted toward their problem areas. Once the lifesaving effort starts, it gains popularity and momentum. As the director sees the progress and gains trust in the No Kill effort, he or she becomes more open to change, as do city or county elected officials. I like the analogy of a snowball rolling down a hill and getting bigger and bigger. If you’re doing a good job and being sensitive to the concerns of other people, then before long the shelter director may be your biggest fan. Even if you never develop a great personal relationship with the director, you can have a great working relationship if everyone focuses on the goal of getting animals out the door alive.

But what if you can’t work with the current director? It’s understandable for a shelter director to be a little wary of a brand-new organization and ask it to prove itself, but what if the director is adamantly opposed to doing things differently and refuses your help? An ambitious and scary but potentially highly effective approach to this problem is to take over the shelter and run it yourself. This is obviously a heavy lift, but it has been done with great success in Kansas City (MO) and Atlanta. The process is for a private organization, generally a non-profit, to win a bid on a contract to provide animal sheltering (with or without animal control) for the city or county. How do you get the city or county to put a contract up for bid? One way is for the private organization to make a credible showing that it can do a better job of running the shelter, at a lower cost. Private organizations often have an advantage over a city or county government in running a shelter because a private organization can fundraise directly from the public and may have more flexibility in personnel decisions.

You can try political action to force the hiring of a new director when the existing director is uncooperative. If this method is used, it may be advantageous to have one organization running the political effort while another organization works on building No Kill infrastructure. This approach worked extremely well in Austin, with a two-pronged effort led by Fix Austin, which handled the lobbying aspect, and Austin Pets Alive!, which partnered with the shelter to pull at-risk animals. Without a simultaneous infrastructure-building effort, a political effort runs the risk of a city or county hiring a new director and having that director fail too.

Another way to deal with the problem of an intransigent shelter director is to modify your strategic plan to do all you can outside the shelter. Instead of partnering with the shelter to take at-risk animals, for example, you could start taking in owner surrenders directly and get them before they ever go to the shelter. This could save half or more of the community’s at-risk pets without ever involving the shelter director. If you have a Help Desk, or a transport program for dogs, or a neonatal kitten foster program in your strategic plan you can do all those things outside the shelter. With the kitten foster program, for example, you can ask people to bring litters of underage kittens to you rather than to the shelter where they would be killed. You can start pushing a community cat program, including any necessary ordinance changes. After running successful programs like this for two or three years, you may find that local officials appreciate what you are doing and are willing to give you a seat at the table in making decisions about animal sheltering. And if local officials do decide to appoint a new shelter director, that director will be much more likely to succeed with your programs already in place.

Whatever method you use, keep in mind that strategic plans sometimes fail. In San Antonio, for example, the city’s first strategic plan to get to No Kill failed. They took the lessons learned from that experience and created a new strategic plan, and it has had far better success. Creating No Kill is hard work and there are no guarantees, but it has been done now in hundreds of communities. I have seen enough No Kill transitions by this point that I fully believe it can be done in any community in the United States.

Rescue Buying of Puppy Mill Breeding Stock – Good or Bad?

There’s considerable controversy over whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing for rescues to buy puppy mill breeding stock at auctions. The typical scenarios for these rescue purchases are large auctions in the Midwest, where hundreds of purebred breeder dogs are on sale.

The argument that rescue buying of breeding stock is a good thing is that it saves the animals purchased at auction from a dismal or even torturous life in a puppy mill. The argument that it’s a bad thing is that it funnels the money of animal-welfare donors into the puppy mill industry, because the dogs are being sold by puppy mill operators.

Obviously, anything that helps the puppy mill industry is something we want to avoid. This blog looks at the question of whether rescue purchase of puppy mill breeding stock at auction helps the puppy mill industry or not.

The first thing we need to do is make a distinction between baby puppies (generally 6-8 weeks old) that puppy mills sell to brokers, and the breeding stock used to produce those puppies. The puppies are the “product” of the puppy mill industry, and the profit from sale of puppies is what keeps the industry going. Breeding stock is the means of production for puppy mills. As such, breeding stock, far from representing profit, represents a cost of doing business. This is a crucial distinction. When the market price of baby puppies goes up, puppy mills benefit because they get more money for their product. When the market price of breeding stock goes up, puppy mills lose money because their cost of doing business is higher.

Let’s take the example of a sale of one puppy by a puppy mill operator to a broker for $1000. The puppy mill’s profit on that puppy is $1000 minus the amount that the operator spent to produce the puppy. Part of the cost of producing the puppy is the acquisition cost of the puppy’s parents. If that cost (pro-rated for this individual puppy) represents $30 of the cost to produce the puppy, the puppy mill will have more profit than if the pro-rated cost to acquire the parents was $35.

So when puppy mills have to pay more money for breeding stock, it directly reduces their profits. Lower profit hurts the puppy mill industry because it reduces the incentive for people to become puppy mill operators and encourages current puppy mill operators to get out of the business.

That’s pretty much economics 101, and is non-controversial. Now we need to look at the effect that rescue buying of puppy mill breeding stock at auction has on the average price of breeding stock. If it drives the average price of breeding stock up, then it is hurting the puppy mill industry. If it drives the average price down, it is helping the puppy mill industry. If it has no effect on the average price of breeding stock, then it is neither helping nor hurting the industry.

Rescues compete with puppy mill operators to buy breeding stock at auction. Thus, there is no way that rescue buying of breeding stock at auction can help the puppy mill industry. Rescue buyers are competing with puppy mill operators for the means of production, and that puts upward pressure on puppy mill costs of doing business. Under basic principles of economics – econ 101 again – rescue buying of breeding stock at auction is bad for the puppy mill industry.

If you doubt this, imagine that you are a puppy mill operator and you are at an auction to buy breeding stock. You obviously would prefer not to have to bid against rescuers, because you know they are going to bid up the prices.

Some people argue that the money paid by rescue buyers of breeding stock is going into the pockets of puppy mill operators who are selling dogs at auction, and therefore that money is helping the puppy mill industry. It is true that rescue buying of breeding stock at auction puts money in the pockets of puppy mill operators, but that’s not the same thing as helping the puppy mill industry. Let’s look at how the puppy mill operator can spend that money. First, it might be that the puppy mill operator is going out of business. That’s quite a common reason for selling breeding stock at auction, because business operators do not normally sell their means of production if they plan to continue in business. If that’s the case, the money that goes to the retiring puppy mill operator will not benefit the puppy mill industry at all.

Another way the puppy mill operator might spend the money from the sale of breeding stock is to buy more breeding stock. Maybe the operator sold off less-popular breeds to fund the purchase of breeding stock of more-popular breeds. Here again, rescue purchases of breeding stock are not going to help the industry. The puppy mill operator may make a premium on the dogs he or she sold to rescues at auction – let’s say the operator gets a 10% higher price on the dogs sold, due to rescues bidding up the price. But the puppy mill operator will have to pay 10% more for the new stock that he or she purchases, due to the competitive bidding of rescues. This type of transaction just represents “churn” in the means of production, and again there is no net benefit to the puppy mill industry.

Some critics of rescue buying of breeding stock at auction argue that the entire practice of selling breeding stock to rescues is a fraud, because puppy mills can just hold some puppies back when they want more breeding stock, so they have no need to buy breeder dogs at auction. This argument shows a lack of knowledge about how puppy mill operations work. A typical commercial puppy mill has breeding stock of many different breeds. For example, it might have 35 breeds, with an average of maybe 2 stud dogs and 10 breeder females for each breed — the number of stud dogs is small because not many are needed. Puppy mill operators favor outcrossing, because that produces the largest, healthiest litters. A puppy mill operator is not likely to hold back a dog as a future breeding animal, because that would result in inbreeding that would reduce the number and viability of puppies produced.

A related argument I’ve heard is that some puppy mill operators are breeding dogs specifically to sell to rescues at auction. This is nonsense, because it is not an economically viable model for a business. If a puppy mill operator can sell a registered, purebred, 6-8 week old puppy for $1000 to a broker, why would that operator spend money to house, feed, and provide veterinary care for that animal for 1 or 2 years (the usual minimum age for breeding stock) just to sell it at auction for less than $1000? The people who make this argument have simply not thought through the economics of the issue.

To sum up, rescue buying of breeding stock at auction puts downward pressure on the profits of the puppy mill industry by putting upward pressure on the cost of production. We do not have enough information to know the extent of the effect of this downward pressure on industry profits – it may be minuscule, or it may be substantial. But we do know, just from looking at the issue as one of basic economics, that rescue buying of breeding stock at auction does not help the puppy mill industry.

The Game Changer: How San Antonio Pets Alive! Turned the Tide in San Antonio’s Goal to Save Lives

With the terrific progress of No Kill in San Antonio, I thought my readers might be interested in a report from San Antonio Pets Alive about their part in helping the city get where it is today, and how other cities can use these same techniques. Thanks to Christine Bentsen for this article.

— Susan Houser


Guest post by Christine Bentsen

San Antonio, Texas, has made substantial progress toward its No Kill goal. But it has been a long road. In 2006, backlash against ingrained city practices and the self-reported save rate of just 11% prompted a publicly announced initiative to achieve No Kill status by 2012[1]. But even so, the city was unable to achieve above a 34% live release rate through 2011.[2] With failure looming, the City reached out to Austin Pets Alive! to dramatically change the trajectory and achieve their goal.

San Antonio Pets Alive! was born from this effort, and its inception marks the first implementation of the techniques, programs, and practices created by Austin Pets Alive! in another community. There were lessons learned — first and foremost —  that even with setbacks, APA! techniques work, they are transferable, and great things can be achieved in a short amount of time.

Now, San Antonio has a live release rate of 90%, and SAPA! programs are key to that success.

APA! was consulted in 2011 when the City of San Antonio needed new approaches to achieve No Kill status. San Antonio Pets Alive! was founded, and helped the city achieve their goal in the stated time frame. SAPA!/APA!’s influence on the save rate is seen starting in 2011.[3]

APA! Techniques Work, Even When Challenged in New Ways

Things at SAPA! have been challenging. Because SAPA! was the first iteration of Austin Pets Alive! techniques in a new city, many of the factors that keep APA! successful simply did not yet exist in San Antonio. These included high-level volunteer teams solely devoted to marketing and fundraising, community support around changing shelter practices (the organization was prohibited from sharing information about city shelter practices), grassroots fundraising (SAPA! was heavily reliant on grants), and long-term commitment from the city to support change in partnership, practices, and culture.

SAPA! was heavily focused on saving lives, and through this time of triage, they began to experience financial difficulties because their budget was based on Austin’s budget, which was heavily reliant on volunteers rather than paid staff. And despite the incredible transformation in San Antonio, SAPA! lost the support it did have from the city as city shelter leadership changes occurred, and ultimately the wonderful, centrally located city adoption center that SAPA! used as a primary lifesaving tool was handed over to another group. SAPA’s own leadership turnovers, organizational woes, and a substantial amount of bad press later, Maureen O’Nell joined SAPA! as Executive Director to help “right the ship.”

“When I came in, the city had given us 30 days to vacate their shelter, and our funded contract to save 5,400 ‘on the list’ animals went down to 3,100,” Maureen explained. “We had nowhere to go, nowhere to operate from. But we were going to figure it out. We had so many challenges, but the core people, we still had their support. The first thing we did was sit down with our employees and do a SWOT.” These documents, common in business scenarios, ask organizations to frankly detail their Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

“The outcome is that we firmly acknowledged that as an organization, we are scrappy, determined, and we save lives. Killing is not a solution, and it is our obligation to find ways to save lives. These guiding principles made everyone feel like it was OK not to have all the answers, and to know that we were going to figure it out.“

Where to Start: Be Creative, Build Relationships, and Persevere

Maureen’s first orders of business: find a working “adoption center,” rebuild community trust, and enhance the SAPA! brand.

Item #1 was helped by PetSmart Charities who offered one of their Everyday Adoption Centers – and SAPA! moved in.

SAPA! also found a grant for a mobile adoption center, inexpensively rebranding it with a fun, positive wrap designed to catch the eye and build positive associations with the group.

Billboards around town (also grant funded) helped rebrand and build positive awareness.

The organization then took a hard look at their population of animals, which like Austin’s population, is comprised of the pets that inevitably face euthanasia at the city shelter. They worked together to formulate creative solutions. These included:

  1. Increasing the transport program. SAPA! formed strong relationships with carefully screened adoption partners in communities that are not experiencing the same sorts of overpopulation issues. Through the transport program, easily adoptable animals, who are still on the euthanasia list at San Antonio Animal Care Services, are sent to these communities to find their forever homes. Currently, the transport program places about 100, mostly large adult dogs, which is quite unique for transport programs, per month.
  2. Increase foster homes. The growth of the transport program also created a novel way to recruit new fosters (now at 1700 from an already robust 600 in 2016). When animals are awaiting transfer, all kennels are full. If temporary placement could be found for them while they await their trip to a new community – all of those kennels could be open to in-community placement pets. SAPA! ran a “short-term foster” campaign, which generated substantial interest, and not only solved the short-term foster problem but had a substantial impact on overall foster numbers as well. Careful nurture of the foster program also allowed more placements of special needs animals such as moms with babies, ringworm cats, and bottle baby kittens. With growth and time, organizations like APA! are able to have many of these programs onsite but for SAPA! foster saves lives now.
  3. Find creative solutions to existing health profile issues. San Antonio often needs orthopedic veterinary expertise, most often due to car incidents. Through a professional connection, SAPA! is able to get increased access to these expensive, very necessary services.

Through these programs and innovative solutions, SAPA! has been able to increase the number of lives saved, year over year, every year since inception. The organization consistently exceeded the pull rate contract from the shelter. Maureen says, “They know that if they call us, we’ll be there.”

Data shown for 2016. Parvo and orphan numbers are saves since SAPA! Inception.

Using Data to Fine Tune

“Bottom line, the most important metric we track is lives saved,” says Maureen. Now that the organization can focus on more than day to day survival, they are implementing a comprehensive analytics program. This includes reporting on a number of key metrics on a monthly basis. These center around Volunteers, Fosters, Operations, and Development. New programs, innovations, and investments within existing programs are sure to come from these insights.

“We are a data rich community, and we know the things we need to report on, but sometimes that information isn’t easily accessible,” explains Maureen. For example, in the current system, tracking whether an animal has heartworms isn’t a sortable checkbox, but rather something that requires combing through the pet’s medical records. “We know heartworm is a significant barrier to adoption, so we track it, and we’re looking for a long-term solution to eliminate that barrier to adoption.”

Development has shifted from being primarily focused on grant support to a more best practice, sustainable ratio of grant and donation support. This has called for an increase in donor and community alignment, which pays off not only in individual support, but also in awareness and branding.

Relationships with veterinary clinics offer deeply discounted triage services and help support SAPA!’s only clinic. And, a new Barn Cat program will provide an alternative for poorly socialized cats.

“Start at the goal, and work from there,” says Maureen. SAPA!’s original goal was to stay afloat and continue saving lives. Now the goals are getting much more refined and targeted.

So Where Do You Start?

Maureen agrees that it can feel like a lot, but if they can come back from an extremely challenging situation, anyone can have a notable impact in their community. “Start tracking what you can, and make sure that the data tells a story that relates to your goal. Don’t change what you’re tracking, but add to it over time so you have a complete baseline and you add more to the story.” Not all data is equally useful. “For us, it’s not that useful to know if the dog is a pit bull, especially since dogs are so often misclassified. It’s a lot more useful to know things like if that dog has heartworms.” And don’t be hard on yourself. It takes time, and the road can be enormously difficult. Start small, and the lessons will come.

Maureen O’Nell recently spoke at the American Pets Alive! Conference. For more information, visit the American Pets Alive! website.


[1] The stated goal was 70% save rate.


[3] APA! immediately started pulling San Antonio animals to Austin in large numbers while SAPA! was being born.

The Perspective of the Rescuer

In many communities rescuers are the backbone of the No Kill effort. They pull animals from the shelter, including the ones most in need of medical or behavioral rehabilitation before adoption. They work hand in glove with shelter staff to manage emergencies. In an increasing number of communities, rescues and humane societies have a formal partnership with the municipal shelter.

But there are quite a few communities where the relationship between rescuers and the local shelter is adversarial or where there is a split among rescuers, with some in favor of the local shelter and some opposing it. Often this opposition by rescuers continues even when a shelter is making progress. It’s easy to see why rescuers would oppose a high-kill shelter, but why would they be critical of a shelter that is rapidly improving? A first step in understanding and addressing the concerns of rescuers is for shelter directors to look at things from the perspective of the rescuer.

Very few rescuers get paid for their work. Most of them have jobs and families and are trying to fit rescue work into their busy lives. They don’t have time to go to No Kill conferences or read about No Kill trends at the national level. Rescuers may know very little about No Kill innovations, especially the most recent ones like RTF and managed admission. They may work with several shelters, and they probably don’t have time to keep up on current statistics for each shelter, much less long-term trends in intake and live releases. Burnout is high among rescuers, and as a result many of them are relatively new at it and don’t have much institutional memory of how things were, say, 10 years ago.

Rescuers usually have a constant stream of animals coming at them. It can feel like a fire hose with no end. Rescuers get tired and angry, and it’s only natural for them to resent the sources of the fire hose — the shelter and the general public. It’s easy for rescuers to develop an “us against them” attitude, with shelter staff being part of “them.” A new director might expect that rescuers will automatically support a No Kill effort, but rescuers who are not familiar with how No Kill actually works and who have no experience with innovative programs may balk at what we in the shelter world know are lifesaving techniques.

Each community is a little different, but there are three types of concerns that I hear from rescuers in the context of new directors who are making a No Kill effort. First is a lack of trust. This can be made worse if there are mistakes while a new director is settling in. A couple of recent examples of this were an animal control officer who wound up in the local news for lifting a dog using a choke pole, and a mistaken euthanization of a family pet. The shelter director must be transparent in these cases, and take quick and decisive action. If the director gets on top of the situation as soon as a mistake happens, makes all the circumstances public, and takes action to fix whatever caused it, the harm can be minimized.

The second type of concern is that rescuers may feel displaced by a new director’s rules. Sometimes when a shelter has had bad leadership and rescues have had to step in and fill the void, rescuers (and volunteers) may resent the imposition of a new way of doing business because they see it as hindering their flexibility and effectiveness. This is best fixed by a new director making changes gradually and holding frequent meetings with rescuers to get their input. For example, if rescuers are no longer allowed to enter the shelter after regular hours, the new director might hold a meeting with them, explain the safety and liability issues, and ask for their suggestions on how to deal with the situation. Even if the director can’t reach an agreement that makes both sides happy, the opposition from rescuers will likely be less intense because they now understand the situation and had a chance to be heard.

The first two types of rescuer concerns are relatively easy to deal with, but the third is harder, because it involves a fundamental conflict between the role that rescuers see for themselves and the role that No Kill has for them. Many rescuers seem to feel that if a shelter needs to rely on rescues to get it to a high live release rate, then the shelter is failing at its job. They see the need for rescue as something that exists solely due to a dereliction of duty by shelters. No Kill, by contrast, sees the relationship between the shelter and rescuers as an ongoing partnership where each has a defined role. The obvious problem here is that rescuers may expect a new No Kill director to quickly put them out of business by saving all the animals herself or himself. They may be disappointed and infuriated when they find out that the shelter needs them as much as ever.

One way to address this concern is for the shelter to make rescuers part of the team, working with the shelter for the same long-term goals. A strategic plan can be a helpful way of setting this out. Making rescuers part of the team means that the shelter director must be aware of rescuer burnout and take steps to prevent it. That entails not asking more of rescuers than the director would ask of shelter staff. If a shelter has an emergency — say a natural disaster or a large hoarding bust — and shelter staff are working around the clock, then it’s appropriate to ask rescuers for their maximum effort too. Working together to meet that kind of crisis can help make rescuers and shelter personnel feel united. But when a shelter constantly operates in crisis mode and expects rescuers to bail it out, it is not a sustainable situation any more than it would be to ask shelter employees to constantly work 100-hour weeks.

Another part of the solution to this third concern is to educate rescuers (and shelter workers and volunteers) about the key role of the private sector in No Kill. Rescuers sometimes complain that they are forced to spend their money on saving the lives of strays and owner surrenders, something they see as the responsibility of the local government. This issue may become acute during a No Kill effort, because No Kill asks for community support to save animals who have expensive medical and behavior problems. The relationship of local governments to animal care and control is complex, and it differs from state to state and locality to locality. A handy (although somewhat oversimplified) way to look at it is that the core duty of local government is limited to animal control. That core duty can be expanded by state law or local resolutions or ordinances to include aspects of animal care and lifesaving, but laws and ordinances that put obligations on public shelters may wind up structured by legislators to make them difficult to enforce. The bottom line is that if we want a safety net for pets in our communities, the private sector is generally going to need to take a large role in creating and sustaining it.

There’s a trend, particularly in larger cities and counties, for the local government to contract with rescues and private shelters to take a certain number of animals each year from the public shelter. This is a great way to deal with the situation, as it recognizes that lifesaving for strays and owner surrenders has benefits for the entire community. A new No Kill director may want to float this idea to local officials as a short-term or long-term goal.

Every jurisdiction is different, and what works for a new No Kill director in one place won’t necessarily work in another. Understanding and sympathizing with the perspective of the rescuer is crucial, though, in creating a team dynamic. And in order to achieve peace between warring factions one side has to take the first step. It behooves those of us on the shelter side to be willing to take that first step — and as many more as are needed.

January 1, 2018

This blog takes a look at the big trends in No Kill in 2017, but first I want to say a word about sheltering in 2018.

We’ve made tremendous progress since the No Kill movement started in 1989. The progress, however, has generally been a local phenomenon. Each community has fought for and attained No Kill in its own way. This has worked well because each community is different, but the result has been that sheltering has never developed a national organization that can set goals, establish best practices, and issue guidelines.

Many people reject the idea of a national organization because they think it would impede creativity. That is unlikely. Legal control of animal sheltering is at the state level, and a national steering organization could never be anything more than advisory. It would not be a credentialing body.

Why do we need such an organization? One reason is that a substantial percentage of rescuers, and a not-inconsiderable number of shelter workers and directors, are completely unfamiliar with the broad trends in sheltering that have happened in the last 50 years. They are very familiar with the situation in their locality, but they generalize that to the U.S. as a whole and find it hard to believe that conditions may be different elsewhere.

As a result, we get books and articles and news reports claiming that dog and cat populations in our country are “at crisis levels,” or “out of control,” or “exploding.” In fact, the statistics we have (imperfect as they are) indicate a very strong trend of falling shelter intake dating back to 1970. Indeed, shelter intake hasn’t just “fallen,” it’s gone off a cliff. Today, the best estimates are that we have only one-fifth or less shelter intake per thousand people as we had in 1970. The fall in intake may have leveled off in the last 15 years, but shelter intake is not “out of control” or “exploding.” With the fall in shelter intake and the increase in the human population and the number of owned pets, and the new ways of looking at cats, there is no reason why any dog or cat has to be killed today for lack of a home.

The massive fall in shelter intake has huge implications for sheltering, today and in the future. I’ve written about some of those implications — most recently here. But instead of dealing with the facts and what is likely to happen based on those facts, many people are stuck in a doom-and-gloom mode that hinders their ability to make progress in the present, let alone the future. Doom-and-gloom is not a good message. If we want to attract people to our cause we must emphasize the positive, not chase people away with messaging about “overpopulation” that just leads to despair. Especially when that messaging is not just self-defeating but factually wrong.

The No Kill movement has done great things, but one thing we have not succeeded in doing is getting the message across about the current very hopeful state of sheltering in the U.S. and the trends that got us here. We need a national umbrella organization or steering committee that can speak with one voice to educate people about the recent history of sheltering and then identify policy choices that must be made. When we speak with many voices, it’s easy for the facts to get lost.

I would love to see this happen in 2018. So far, though, nothing seems to be on the horizon.


Now on to the big trends in sheltering in 2017. It was a year of exceptional progress in many areas, but two trends stood out to me.

  1. Statewide No Kill efforts.

These efforts are designed to help every jurisdiction in an entire state get to No Kill. The reason that statewide efforts are so important is that there are many resource-poor communities in the U.S. that are having great difficulty making any progress toward No Kill on their own. With statewide efforts, the stronger shelters in the state help the weaker ones. This makes so much sense, because the helping shelters are already familiar with the climate, terrain, and political and legal environment of the weaker shelters, and are geographically close enough to make help feasible. The “hub” model used by many of the current regional and statewide efforts is specifically built on this idea of the stronger helping the weaker.

In addition to the practical reasons for statewide No Kill efforts, they make sense politically. In the United States it’s state legislatures that governs animal-control issues. Much of this state authority has been delegated to local communities, which enact ordinances, but there are many state laws that strongly influence sheltering. State-level control of animal shelters has resulted in institutions such as state federations becoming very powerful in sheltering. These state structures can help with communication and recruitment for No Kill efforts.

Here are some of the statewide No Kill efforts that are currently underway:

  • New Hampshire
  • Delaware
  • Utah
  • South Carolina
  • Virginia

New Hampshire shelters have averaged over a 90% save rate since the 2000s due to a statewide low-cost spay-neuter program, efforts by individual shelters, and the influence of the state federation. The Delaware effort, which combines animal control done by a state office with animal sheltering done by the Brandywine Valley SPCA, is saving over 90%. The Utah, South Carolina, and Virginia efforts are all headed by private organizations, and are well on their way to their goals.

In addition to these five, we have several additional initiatives. In Washington, a non-profit is using networking and direct grants to leverage help for areas that have insufficient resources. An interesting aspect of this effort is its emphasis on regions that have little or no animal-sheltering infrastructure. In Michigan, a non-profit is publicizing state statistics and using yearly awards to help motivate shelters to improve. Colorado is another state with mandatory reporting of shelter statistics, making it easy for advocates to know what shelters need help. Colorado as a whole appears to be at or above the 90% goal.

Statewide efforts can grow out of regional initiatives, of which there are many. A regional effort can be a great way for a strong shelter to take the first steps toward a statewide effort.

Statewide No Kill efforts may give us our best chance to quickly improve rural shelters in areas with low average incomes. Local government in such areas may be minimal, and there are a surprising number of U.S. counties that have no formal animal control or sheltering agencies. If we wait on the local population to build the necessary institutions in those areas, recruit volunteers, get sustainable funding, etc., we may be waiting for a long time. An outside organization that can come in and start a transport program for dogs, an RTF program for cats, and an HQHVSN clinic can jump-start an effort that can eventually be taken over by local people.

Statewide No Kill efforts may be the fastest way to get to our goal of a No Kill United States. They can leverage networks that are already in place, making huge gains in areas where No Kill might have seemed unlikely. It will be exciting in the coming year to see how the current efforts play out and how many new ones get started.

  1. We’re all on the same page

The second big trend of 2017 was the coming together of the traditional shelter industry and No Kill. When the No Kill movement first developed a national presence in the mid-1990s, the traditional shelter industry reacted with considerable outrage. The leaders of the traditional shelter industry in the 1970s and 1980s had to deal with a crushing pet overpopulation problem, and they were slow to realize that spaying and neutering of pets, which took off in the 1970s, had made a big difference in decreasing shelter intake by the 1990s. Traditional shelter leaders and workers in the 1990s were also hurt and offended by the term “No Kill,” which they thought was a back-handed way of calling them killers.

Today we have a new generation of leaders and workers in the traditional shelter industry who do not remember the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s and were not invested in the battles of the 1990s and 2000s. The result is that “traditional” shelters of today are often just as interested in raising their live release rates as No Kill shelters. We still have lots of poorly performing shelters, and we even have one major national organization that still has an old-fashioned view of animal sheltering, but we’ve turned the corner.

This obviously has major implications for how the No Kill movement operates, and that was on display in 2017. Cooperation has broken out all over. When you think about it, there is really no entrenched opposition to No Kill. There is no powerful constituency of people who want to kill cats and dogs. Shelter reform is not like farm-animal reform, or laboratory-animal reform, where huge businesses with lots of political power oppose animal welfare. The opposition to No Kill was always more emotional than real, and it is rapidly melting away.


If there is one big takeaway from our experience in 2017, it’s that knowledge is power. In the past we’ve concentrated on the nuts and bolts of shelter reform. Now we can reap some big gains by broadening our vision and using our knowledge of past trends to steer the best course in the future.