As a tourism-based economy, Reno, Nevada, in Washoe County, has been very hard hit by the economic downturn. Loss of jobs and loss of homes are at all-time highs. In fact, the state of Nevada has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Reno and surrounding communities also have other challenges. A recent national survey called it the second “drunkest” city in the United States based on a number of factors including DUI arrests. Nevada has per pupil education funding levels that rival the lowest in the U.S., right down there with historically impoverished states like Mississippi. And its animal shelters have a per capita intake rate five times higher than San Francisco, over three times higher than Los Angeles, and over twice the national average.If there was any place where No Kill would not work based on traditional dogma, that place would be Washoe County, Nevada. And, of course, past leadership of the two largest shelters in the county—Washoe County Regional Animal Services (WCRAS) and the Nevada Humane Society (NHS)—exploited those problems to suggest that they had no choice but to kill homeless animals, even during times of relative economic prosperity. And that is exactly what they did, by the thousands.
But those “leaders” are gone, removed under ethical and performance based issues. Ironically, the former head of NHS was a leading voice attacking San Francisco’s pioneering No Kill work in the 1990s, a darling of the regressive Humane Society of the United States and a member of their exclusive national sheltering committee. Since new leadership has taken over at both agencies and while facing the same challenges, the excuses are gone. And the results have been dramatic. Since 2007, adoptions have more than doubled. Reclaim of lost strays are up, hitting 60% for dogs. And despite taking in over 15,000 dogs and cats per year, lifesaving has reached 90% of all impounded animals, near the top in the nation.
How does a community go from killing to No Kill level save rates? “We changed basically everything,” said Bonney Brown, the Executive Director of NHS and the winner of two awards from the national No Kill Advocacy Center. She was Animal Shelter Director of the Year in 2007 and a recipient of the Henry Bergh Leadership Award in 2009.
Most shelters blame the community for not caring. But not Brown. “I’ve not read the studies,” said Brown. “But regardless of what they say, every community has its challenges and of course we are no exception. Reno bills itself as the ‘Biggest Little City’ and there is a lot to be said for that. We may be small compared to cities like New York and Los Angeles, but our community has a big heart. And our results prove it.”
Another person who agrees is Mitch Schneider, who runs WCRAS. Given the high intake of animals compared to other communities (which some would suggest is evidence of high rates of “public irresponsibility”) one would expect WCRAS to have a very low reclaim rate for stray animals. But it doesn’t. In fact, Schneider has been dubbed the “King of Redemptions” for returning six out of ten stray dogs to their homes and 7% of the cats. By contrast, the national average hovers around 25% for dogs and only 1-2% for cats. He credits the success to the proactive efforts of his agency, rather than blaming the community. At WCRAS, staff is “encourage[ed] to ‘think outside the box’ to find ways to safely return animals to their owners.”
Brown echoes the sentiment. “People care very deeply about their animals here in Reno. Every time we ask for the community’s help, they respond overwhelmingly,” said Brown. And she has the results to prove it. When the road in front of her shelter was closed for repairs, making it impossible for people to see and get to the shelter over the weekend, she did not resign herself to losing all those adopters. She enlisted the help of the construction company, who agreed to put a half-page ad in the local newspaper to promote adoptions, and Brown and staff set up tents and cages in an empty lot in full view of the street and had a weekend adoption event, complete with people dressed as animals holding signs on the other side of the street. This event resulted in over 200 adoptions—over two times a typical weekend!
When Schneider’s officers seized dozens of dogs or cats in cruelty raids, he enlisted Brown’s help in placing them. The result: “The Great Orange Cat Rescue” and other promotions that find the animals new homes. “We turn challenges into opportunities,” says Brown. Last year, the NHS found homes for 9,184 animals—up front 4,539 the year before she started. That’s an increase of 102%.
And when a tent city for homeless people popped up in the community, NHS was there offering to help. “We already have a program with the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless to provide free spay/neuters and transport to our clinic for pets of the homeless,” said Brown. “We also have a pet food assistance program to help people who are having temporary issues providing food for their pets. We decided to go one step further.” NHS medical crews went in to provide free vaccinations and care.
The end result of all these programs is not only one of the highest save rates in the nation, but also great public perception of the agency. Before the changes, No Kill Solutions did a series of Town Hall-type meetings and surveys to determine how the Washoe County (Reno), NV community felt about its shelter, the Nevada Humane Society. Those efforts revealed deep dissatisfaction in the community, especially among animal welfare stakeholders (rescue groups, feral cat caretakers, No Kill shelters, and others) with the job being done. The vast majority did not believe the humane society was doing enough to save lives.
Not surprisingly, public perception today stands in sharp contrast to what it was. With the help of the Reno Gazette Journal, a community survey in January 2009 revealed that:
- 93% support the No Kill initiative;
- 95% gave the humane society positive ratings on adoption efforts and results; and,
- 93% say NHS has a good or great public image.
And recognition has gone beyond Washoe County’s borders. Because of these efforts, the leadership of both WCRAS and NHS have been asked to speak at national conferences. Both Brown and Schneider will be speaking at the No Kill Conference in Washington DC this summer. And both are leading a workshop at a conference on Transforming Local Government, put on by the Alliance for Innovation.
That success can be every community’s success. And the only thing standing in the way of it is the commitment and follow-through of its leadership. If there is one piece of advice Bonney Brown has for other communities, it is to follow proven methods, rather than relying on outdated and ineffective conventional wisdom: “The programs that create lifesaving success are no mystery. They are outlined in the No Kill Advocacy Center’s No Kill Equation model, and are being implemented in a growing number of communities.”
By the Numbers (Source: NHS & WCRAS)
NHS Save Rate for 2009: Dogs – 93% Cats – 95%
WCRAS Save Rate for 2009: Dogs – 91% Cats – 89%
Countywide Save Rate (NHS and WCRAS combined) for 2009: Dogs – 90% Cats – 89%.
Washoe County: 90%
Western Region of U.S.: 61%
Per Capita Animal Deaths in Shelter
Washoe County: 3.8 animals killed per 1,000 residents
Western Region of U.S.: 6.9 animals killed per 1,000 residents
National: 10.2 animals killed per 1,000 residents
2009: 9,184 up 549 animals, 6% increase over 2008
2008: 8,635 up 605 animals, 7% increase over 2007
2007: 8,030 up 3,436 animal, 75% increase over 2006
2006: 4,539 (pre-no-kill initiative)