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At MCAS, there has been a historical pattern of looking for reasons to fail and kill dogs based on the way they look by falsely labeling them as “unadoptable.” (Photo courtesy of Central California Pets Alive.)

We can celebrate declines in killing—even significant declines in killing—without whitewashing the killing that is still being done and thus sweeping those animals still falling through the cracks in the safety net, under a rug (and more literally, into a landfill). Yet there is a new trend among shelter directors and their social media promoters to declare No Kill before No Kill has been achieved, irrespective of whether it is true or not and irrespective of how many animals are still being killed and why. We’ve been told that Colorado is No Kill for dogs, even though they only save 86% of dogs and a few communities–such as Denver and Aurora–have breed discriminatory laws that cause dogs to be killed simply because of the way they look.

More recently, we’ve been told that Portland is the “largest No Kill metro area in the U.S.,” even though the Portland Alliance saved, at best, 88% of Portland metro area dogs and 86% of Portland cats and the animal control shelter continues to kill healthy community cats and even healthy dogs.

My organization, the No Kill Advocacy Center, analyzed the statistics in both Colorado and Portland and, in the latter, found that in a best case scenario, city groups are saving between 80% and 89% combined, below the best performing communities in the country which are saving between 98%-99%. Nor is it the largest community saving the percentage of animals it is. Compared to years past, there is indeed improvement in Portland, and we must have a language for progress, but pretending that they have crossed the goal line does not serve those animals still losing their lives.

The goal of the No Kill movement is not and has never been to “declare” No Kill through arbitrary classifications. It is not to reduce killing to some consensus-based level, such as 10%. It has been to actually achieve it: to save the lives of all but irremediably suffering animals. Otherwise, the movement legitimizes the killing of animals who can and should be saved while betraying the very ethos at the heart of the term “No Kill.”

I’ve written extensively about where the “90% Rule” came from and why it should be abandoned in favor of more accurate benchmarks to measure success. In fact, the rule came from me, laid down in my book, Redemption, published nearly a decade ago. There were, at the time of the book’s publication, many reasonable and pragmatic reasons why I created that rule and just as many reasonable and pragmatic reasons why I now reject it, ideas I fully explain by clicking here. It was my hope that the fact that the very person who created the “90% Rule” now publicly rejects it as an antiquated and inaccurate measure of shelter’s success would at least hinder, if not eliminate, its misuse and abuse, but, regrettably, that has not happened.

Instead, shelters and certain organizations claiming to champion No Kill have seized upon it as evidence of something it does not represent: whether or not every animal entering a shelter who is not suffering irremediably is saved. Shelter staff should never feel okay about killing, regardless of whether the animals are healthy, have treatable conditions such as ringworm, are categorized as “feral,” happen to be of a species other than a dog or a cat, are banned because of their perceived breed, or because killing such an animal won’t affect statistics that still allow the shelter to post a 90% save rate.

Even more troubling is the fact that Portland is claiming success even though it has not even achieved 90% and there is an open question as to whether the 88% dog/86% cat reported data is even accurate. There is no way to get to 90% for cats based on the reported data and in order to even get there for dogs, one has to include out of county animals and exclude deaths in kennel as well as those animals killed supposedly at the request of the families who surrendered them. Doing so is dishonest. Moreover, the Alliance which tabulates the data includes Multnomah County Animal Services (MCAS). That shelter has a notorious history of dishonesty not only in reasons for killing animals, but in the actual outcomes themselves.

Over the years, I’ve reviewed dozens, if not hundreds, of temperament test evaluations at MCAS and found a pattern of abuse designed to fail dogs in order to claim that the killing being done was being done because the dogs were “unadoptable.” Admittedly, it has been a number of years, but there is little doubt that MCAS has a long, ignoble history of calling healthy or physically injured but highly treatable dogs “aggressive” and thus “unadoptable” to justify killing them. For example, MCAS has historically killed pit bull puppies as “aggressive” for exhibiting normal puppy behavior such as mouthiness. They have killed underweight dogs for being “food aggressive,” when they were literally just hungry. And they have taken injured dogs and set them up for failure.

Here’s just one example: MCAS took in a dog who had a “left elbow luxation” and other evidence of chronic injury. By their own admission, the dog was obviously injured and perhaps, painful, even though the staff notes indicated that, “This dog allowed all handling with a happy face and wagging tail.” Under these circumstances, performing a temperament evaluation for interdog aggression is a recipe for disaster. And yet that is what they did. When another dog jumped on the dog and the injured dog snapped, the dog was failed and killed. Granted this was a number of years ago, but rather than document new procedures that prove they no longer do this, MCAS has decided to simply hide what they are doing from the public.

We do not know what kind of assessments are done or whether they do any at all because they have eliminated the paper trail of accountability. Instead, killing is ostensibly determined by a “Shelter Review Committee” but the identity of the decision makers on the committee is unknown and they keep no notes or written records. When these documents are requested via the Public Records Act, the response is simply that no such records are kept. How do they decide who lives or who dies and why? No one is allowed to know.

What we do know is that cats who urinate outside their litterbox more than once are deemed “unhealthy/untreatable” to justify killing. And except for a token community cat program, frightened cats deemed “feral” and true “feral” cats are killed, though healthy.

Another salient issue is whether, irrespective of those self-serving classifications, the percentages reported are even accurate. Recently, a management audit was done of MCAS which noted improvements since the departure of the old director. It found improved staff, innovative ideas to adopt out animals, working with rescue, and foster care. That is, indeed, welcome news. On the down side, the audit found continued problems, including a lack of enrichment for the animals (in one example a dog who was there for 9 days was only walked one time) and a need to improve overall operations.* It also found disparities in reporting numbers.

The audit found more than 1,000 animals had incorrect information and 700 animals over a period of five years had conflicting outcomes (e.g., listed as escaped in the computer and killed on notes). As to the latter number, the auditor indicated that the number may be higher. In addition, comparing monthly and annual data with weekly tallies finds hundreds of annual disparities. Admittedly, if this holds across all comparative years, the decline in killing is still significant. In other words, assuming the worst case scenario–that all the disparities were deaths–the killing is still down significantly.

But the same cannot be said for two other concerns. First, beginning in 2010, when the save rate was first reported to increase significantly, MCAS was counting foster animals twice in order to pad the lifesaving number. For example, if a litter of six kittens came in, they were listed as six intakes. They were then sent to foster care and listed as “owner reclaimed,” six positive outcomes. When those same kittens were then adopted, they were listed as six adoptions. Does this still occur? The audit didn’t say, but management claims they no longer do this. Second, they counted–and still count–community spay/neuter from sterilization clinics as “owner reclaims,” which again inflates the save rate number.

What does this mean? It means that the best we can say about Portland is that lifesaving is up and that we are pretty sure it is in the 80% range, making Portland one of the the largest cities saving between 80% and 89% of the animals. Without whitewashing the killing, without underplaying problems, without dismissing concerns about enrichment and other animal care, even admitting mischaracterization of animals, it does appear that killing has declined. Is that high enough and good enough? No. Is it happening quickly enough? No. Is it No Kill? Absolutely not. In the movement’s zeal to achieve No Kill success (itself a massive improvement over the old claim that it was “impossible”), let’s not pretend that all these things are true. There is still much work to do. But even admitting that, it still represents a world of difference for those animals saved–animals who would have been killed by the thousands more in years past. And that is indeed welcome news.

* While I believe that a higher save rate is the single most important goal and measure of a shelter’s performance, I also acknowledge that some shelters are responding to public pressure for less killing not by comprehensively embracing the programs and services which make it possible, but by not doing their jobs. As such, it does not always mean compassionate staff and it could potentially mean animals still suffer. Case in point: Hillsborough County, FL. Though less animals are being killed, adoptions have been declining (not going up), much of the lifesaving is the result of not taking in animals, and its declining kill rate–though again welcome–obscures other, significant problems, including an employee that reportedly tortured roosters to death.

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