An Embrace of SNR, With Caveats

October 23, 2014

cat close up 2 

For years, No Kill advocates have been promoting TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release*) for what were termed “feral cats,” cats who live outdoors and are not social with humans. Feral means an animal who has changed from being domesticated to being wild or untamed. This is not accurate for many free-living cats who have been born and raised without human contact. Moreover, the term is used to invoke the false notion that these cats are not part of the natural environment and therefore do not belong there. Thankfully, even as TNR has gone mainstream, the term “feral” has fallen into disuse, in favor of the more accurate term “community cat” or “free-living cat.” But at the same time, community cat has come to encompass a larger number of cats than those once deemed “feral.” Whereas “feral” denoted those cats who are not social with humans, “community cat” makes no such distinction. Any cat without a permanent address, social or unsocial with humans, is considered a community or free-living cat. At the same time as the movement has shifted from feral to free-living, therefore, TNR has morphed into SNR (Shelter, Neuter, Release) for these cats, irrespective of their sociability to humans. Should No Kill advocates support SNR for community cats who are social with humans with the same enthusiasm they supported it for feral cats who are not? With caveats.

For most of the history of animal sheltering in the United States, feral cats who ended up in shelters faced an almost certain death sentence. Without a human address, there was no one to reclaim these animals. Fearful of humans, they were not considered candidates for traditional adoption and were not afforded the opportunity. Combined with the misconception that they disproportionately suffer without human caretakers because some claimed they “belong” in homes, the tragic result has been the execution of virtually all healthy and self-sufficient free-living cats in shelters across the nation. Such killing was the status quo until cat lovers began advocating for the alternative of neutering and releasing them back into their habitats.

In a TNR program—an essential component of the No Kill Equation—free-living cats who are not social with humans and end up in the shelter are neutered and released back into their habitats. The shelter also works with local feral cat caregivers who trap the cats for purposes of sterilization and release. Sometimes, these cats have human caretakers who watch over them and feed them. But often, the cats who end up in shelters are like other “wild” animals, thoroughly unsocialized to humans, surviving on their own through instinct and wit and no worse off because of it.

Once in the shelter, sterilization isn’t the most important variable. The most important part of the TNR equation is the “R,” the functional equivalent of adoption. Through TNR, cat advocates have found a life-affirming way to address the dogmas which the animal protection movement itself created and expounded for decades that have been responsible for the mass slaughter of these cats. Right now, TNR is the most humane option for these cats because it assures their safety and buys them a ticket back home.

Today, many No Kill advocates are also promoting what they call SNR for all community cats, including those who are social with people; in other words, friendly cats who are adoption candidates. The reasons to do so can be compelling. First, some of these cats are not lost. They are outside, but they get lost when they are taken to a shelter. Returning them merely returns them home. Even if they were lost when they were picked up, the likelihood of being reunited with their families is greater for cats if they are allowed to remain where they are rather than being admitted to the shelter. In one study, cats were 13 times more likely to be returned home by non-shelter means (such as returning home on their own) than by a call or visit to a shelter. And another study found that people are up to three times more likely to adopt cats as neighborhood strays versus adopting from a shelter. At the same time, the risk of death for street cats in communities has been found to extremely low, with outdoor cats living roughly the same lifespan as indoor pet cats. In other words, the risk of death is lower and the chance of adoption higher for cats on the streets than cats in the shelter. In a study of over 100,000 alley cats, less than one percent of those cats were suffering from debilitating conditions. As such, SNR meets the two goals of a shelter better than impoundment in a shelter does: reclaim by families or adoption into a new home. In addition, SNR saves lives from shelters which have not comprehensively implemented the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. Where the alternative to SNR is death, SNR, of course, is always the preferred outcome.

But admittedly, SNR for friendly community cats isn’t what we did when I ran an animal control shelter. When they were not reclaimed, we found them homes. All of them. Moreover, if the cats are truly lost or abandoned, shelters should not forget that they have a mandate to help reunite families. Since the choice presented—SNR or death—is a false one, breaking up families by simply releasing animals back on the streets without trying to find their existing home is at odds with that mission. This view loses sight of what, in fact, is one of the primary functions and mandates of a taxpayer funded, municipal animal shelter: to provide a safe haven for the lost animals of local people and a place where they can go to find them. And if the family does not show up, if cats are truly without a human home and they are social with people, they should be given one. In fact, the shelter is obligated to find them a loving, new one. That’s their job. In other words, the reason cats are more likely to find their original home or a new one from the streets is because most shelters are run ineffectively and inefficiently, not because people aren’t looking for their cats or homes are not available. Those shelters that do a good job at both have been able to increase—by 20-fold and more—the percentage of cats reclaimed by their families, at the same time that they maintain adoption rates that allow them to save as high as 99% of all cats entering the shelter. If shelters did a better job at being shelters, therefore, not only would they have realized their mission, but SNR would not be the difference between life and death for cats it is today precisely because most shelters are poorly performing.

The bottom line is this: if shelters are going to embrace SNR, rather than guaranteed adoption, shelters should also do several other things: checking for identification, scanning for microchip, reviewing lost cat reports, knocking on doors in the neighborhood, and posting the cat’s photograph online. But that is not what groups like HSUS advocate. It is no surprise that they don’t since they have no experience running a fully functioning, successful shelter and have no idea how to create one. Instead, the only way they know how to save lives isn’t by training shelters to do the job entrusted to them and to do it well, but by telling them that they don’t have to do their jobs at all. By embracing SNR as a first choice, they have found yet another way to do so. Thankfully, this one does not involve killing and so when the choice comes down to SNR or death, SNR should be embraced time and time again. But those do not have to be the only two choices. If we reformed shelters, SNR wouldn’t be the first choice for socialized community cats: redemption and adoption would be. It would and should, however, remain the last, because killing should never be a choice at all.

* While it is popular to use “return” instead of “release,” I believe this is inaccurate unless the term return is considered expansively to include all of the outdoors. If it is not safe to return the cats to the location where they were trapped or picked up, they should be released in another location.

For further reading: The Life of a Wild Cat


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A No Kill Nation By 2005… 2010… 2015… 2020

October 21, 2014


We’re coming to the tail end of 2014. In two months, 2015 will be upon us. That is the year, according to Maddie’s Fund, that every shelter, in every city, in every county, in every state in the country will be No Kill. In 2015, according to the national organization that promised to “revolutionize the status of companion animals” by infusing “megabucks into every community,” not a single shelter will kill a single healthy or treatable animal. It won’t matter whether the animals are young or old, healthy or sick, unweaned, injured, or traumatized. It won’t matter if they are cats who are not socialized to people or dogs labeled “pit bulls.” Not a single one will be dying anywhere. And we won’t even have had to fight for it. In fact, Maddie’s Fund says we aren’t allowed to stand up and fight for it. That is because “no one wants to kill” and “we all want the same thing” and the shelter director who orders dogs and cats shoved into gas chambers cares as much as you do and the workers who neglect and abuse the animals actually love them. And saying otherwise is just “bash and trash.”


I don’t need to tell any of you that this is all at best, wishful thinking, and, at its worst, a damn lie. In 2000, shortly after its founding, Maddie’s Fund promised us a No Kill nation by 2005. In 2005, they promised it would happen by 2010. And in 2010, they said 2015. Of course, by the third go around, they stopped guaranteeing it and started to hedge: it became “probable,” they were “bullish” and “optimistic” about it. But the intent was the same: if we wait five years (in New York City, in Los Angeles, and everywhere else), the killing would stop. But here’s the rub: despite 15 years of promises, hundreds of millions of dollars in grants (not all of it for animal causes), and dozens of what they promised would be “game changing” programs that failed to deliver the promised results, they have not created a single No Kill community. Not a single one.

Shelter killing remains the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the U.S. with millions losing their lives every year. And the reason for that statistic is as shocking as the statistic itself. Most animals are being killed in shelters not because there are too many, too few homes, because people are irresponsible, or because people have failed to sterilize their animals. Animals are dying in shelters for one reason: because people in shelters are killing them.

Maddie’s Fund may be maintaining the delusion that No Kill will happen magically a few months from now or they may be planning their fourth “game changing” announcement that it will happen in yet another five years, in 2020, hoping everyone forgets about their prior claims. I don’t know and I don’t care and neither should you. No Kill is not going to happen by pretending that shelter directors who are thoroughly reconciled to the killing and collectively inject millions of animals with fatal doses of poison in spite of readily available lifesaving alternatives do not want to kill or want the same thing as we do. Nor will they magically wake up on January 1 and say to themselves, “Today is the day I will finally stop killing.”

If you want No Kill in your hometown and your local shelter director refuses to implement common-sense, cost-effective alternatives to killing, you are going to have to do what the people in successful communities across the United States have already done—fight for it. Like they did in Austin. And Reno. And Ithaca. And elsewhere. Regardless of what the “experts” at Maddie’s Fund tell you.

Here’s how:


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Redemption Wins Award for Best Film

October 15, 2014


I am happy to report that Redemption, my film about the No Kill revolution in America won the audience award for best film at the San Pedro International Film Festival. When I first announced that the film was accepted at SPIFF, shelter killing advocates (yes, there are such people) contacted the festival and told them not to show it and if the festival did, they would protest. Of course, you don’t tell a festival that focuses on films to censor films, but logic has never been the naysayers strong suit (if they were logical, they would embrace No Kill). This award proves them wrong and proves what I have said all along: my love for animals and your love for animals is not unique. It resides in most people. And because it resides in most people, our job as activists is to give them the information they need to cut through the misinformation about the “necessity” of killing and to give them the tools they need to help bring that killing to an end. When we do so, we’ll have every single one of them willing to follow us into a more compassionate future for shelter animals.


A lot of people deserve credit for the award including Sagacity Productions, Director Russ Barry, Producer Bonnie Silva, Narrator Don Morrow, Composer Sean Hathaway, the activists we interviewed like Larry Tucker, Ryan Clinton, Valerie Hayes and many others, the many fine actors like Michael Sayers who played the great Henry Bergh, as well as the entire cast and crew, too many to name here.

But the ultimate credit goes to the film’s benefactor, Debi Day. Debi brings to this cause a powerful combination of qualities: means and generosity. Debi’s philanthropy has enabled educating a wider audience about the myths and misperceptions that lie at the heart of shelter killing and spreading the good news that there is a humane, life-affirming alternative to that killing. Thanks to Debi, this film will serve an important role in reaching new people and moving the No Kill revolution towards its inevitable, and hopefully not too distant, victory. I remain grateful for her kindness, her unique and special contribution to our cause and the potential for animals her assistance helps to be realized. Thank you Debi.


While Tallahassee, FL is the only city left on the roughly 30-City No Kill is Love 2014 tour, there may be other opportunities to see it. We’ve been invited to do a private screening for the staff at one of the largest companies in the U.S. We’ve been invited to other film festivals. And it will be featured at the No Kill Conference in Washington, D.C. (everyone who attends will also receive a free copy of the film and a companion guide). In addition, there is a chance we may be able to screen it in a few other cities. Finally, once all these events are completed, the film will be available for rent/sale on Amazon. Stay tuned…


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When No Kill Isn’t

October 14, 2014


As the No Kill movement gets larger and more communities improve rates of lifesaving, we need more rigor in defining what constitutes a No Kill community. Elsewhere, I’ve posted why a 90% rate of lifesaving in and of itself does not actually constitute No Kill. Admittedly, I have been guilty of commingling the two—90% and No Kill—and we shouldn’t.

There are, for example, shelters that save over 90% of the animals—in some cases, well over 90%—but still kill healthy and treatable dogs and cats, including community cats who are not social with people. There are, in fact, communities with save rates approaching 98% who still kill healthy and treatable feral cats. Moreover, some communities use coalition-wide rates which can exceed 90%, irrespective of pound rates which may be lower. They also exclude “owner requested killing” and deaths in kennels as doing so reduces even the coalition-wide save rates below 90%.

In addition, there are shelters that save well over 90% of dogs and cats but either do not take in non-dog and cat species (and they shouldn’t if all they are going to do is kill them, but nonetheless leave these animals with no protections of any kind) or, worse, take in and kill rabbits, guinea pigs, and other animals. In the 1990s, for example, while the San Francisco SPCA was making progress for dogs and cats and helping spearhead a No Kill revolution in this country, there were no programs for rabbits at the SPCA, the species of shelter animal killed in the third largest number in shelters across the country. There were no programs for hamsters, guinea pigs, birds, and other animals who were still being killed in large numbers (as a percentage of their total intakes) at the San Francisco pound. Nor was there a No Kill guarantee for injured but rehabilitatable wild animals brought to the shelter, such as pigeons even though such birds, if unable to be released safely into the wild, should be adopted out as companions rather than killed. In fact, I share my home with two such pigeons. Because the city pound itself was not interested in putting in place programs to save these animals and efforts to get leadership at the San Francisco SPCA to do so were rebuffed, non-dog and cat species continued—and continue to this very day—to die in large numbers in that city. They still continue to die in other cities where the No Kill guarantee does not extend to every species entering those shelters. It can and it should.

All of these communities have called themselves “No Kill” and they aren’t. The penultimate question is always whether the shelter is saving all animals entering the shelter who are healthy and treatable, rigorously defined.

To call a community that still kills healthy and treatable dogs, cats (including community cats who are not social to people), rabbits, guinea pigs, and others “No Kill” without more because they save 90% of dogs and cats is not only misleading, it may in fact be fundamentally dishonest.


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Redemption Comes to Los Angeles

September 10, 2014

Join me on October 11 in Los Angeles for a screening of Redemption, my film about the No Kill revolution in America.


Redemption is an official selection of the San Pedro International Film Festival. The film will screen on Saturday, October 11. This will be the only Southern California showing. Advanced tickets are required.


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