The New Year opened in Reno, Nevada on January 1, as it did all over the country with one exception. Unlike most shelters which close on holidays, the Nevada Humane Society opened its doors on New Year’s Day and saved 49 animals: 35 cats, 13 dogs, and 1 bird in the first six adoption hours of 2009.

By contrast, the shelters of the City of Los Angeles “are closed for adoptions on … Holidays.” In other words, they are closed when working people and families with children in school—the two most sought after demographics—are available to adopt animals. Is it any surprise that despite taking in three times the number of animals per capita, and despite the fact that Los Angeles is one of the best funded shelter systems in the nation, that Reno is saving more lives? It all comes down to leadership.

Likewise, just six months ago, I held a two day seminar on Building a No Kill community in Indianapolis, attended by virtually all the rescue groups in the city and shelter administrators from surrounding states. But even though it was in Indianapolis, no one from the private Humane Society of Indianapolis came and only one person from Indianapolis animal control showed up, who privately told me “s/he” would get fired if the boss found out s/he was there—fired for trying to learn how to save more lives.

I also made unannounced visits to the two shelters. The Humane Society was keeping over 40 empty cages to reduce costs and was importing animals from outside Indianapolis while animals were being killed at animal control. In 2008, the director resigned. Meanwhile, Indianapolis Animal Control was filthy and 2008 saw a series of scandals of poor care and unnecessary killing that forced the resignation of its own shelter director.

The Humane Society hired a newcomer who is now taking animals from animal control rather than importing them and is keeping cages and kennels full. As part of his management team, he has also hired former critics of the shelter who have claimed support for No Kill. And animal control recently hired a pro-No Kill shelter administrator who was responsible for massive declines in killing in Arizona, Maryland and most recently Pennsylvania. The two have set a goal of reducing the death rate by 75%. It all comes down to leadership.

In Austin, by contrast, one person—the director of animal control—is saying “No” to foster care programs, “No” to offsite adoptions, “No” to TNR for feral cats, “No” to programs that would save animals, choosing instead to kill them. And in fact, since the director of animal control was hired, she has done that with ruthless efficiency: 97,000 animals have been put to death under her watch. That’s over 12,000 each year, 1,000 each month, 34 each day, 1 every 12 minutes the shelter has been open to the public. That is leadership too, only with a different goal and a more nefarious outcome.

One person in Reno, Nevada rejected the prior twenty years of a kill-orientation and began to put in place the programs and services which saves lives, as well as employees with a culture of lifesaving. In the case of Indianapolis, the former director of animal control and the former director of the Humane Society of Indianapolis were not committed to No Kill, and therefore did not pursue the goal of saving animals whose killing was neither merciful nor ethical, even though animal advocates in that community were desperate for change. In Austin, the director of animal control finds killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it.

One person—or in the case of Indianapolis, two people—can help give meaning to the values and will of community animal lovers. But one or two people can also thwart it. Unfortunately, this is also leadership (one is committed to modernizing shelters; the other committed to a paradigm of killing)—and in a system reliant on leadership, leadership can be used for good, or it can be used to perpetuate killing.

And so while, right now, we need progressive leadership, relying on the will of individual people cannot be a long term strategy for widespread and permanent No Kill success. It is why a city like San Francisco can be progressive one day—the crown jewel of the No Kill movement as it was in the late 1990s—when a progressive leader was at the helm, and moving in the opposite direction the next, after a regressive one took over. So while we seek progressive leadership, we need to take the power away from individual leaders at the same time. The system which gives power to one person to say “Yes” to No Kill also creates the power of one person to thwart the will of the entire community, because those different end goals of leadership are two sides of the same coin.

For No Kill success to be widespread and long lasting, we must move past the personalities and focus on institutionalizing No Kill by giving shelter animals the rights and protections afforded by law. Every successful social movement results in legal protections that codify expected conduct and provide protection against future conduct that violates normative values. We need to regulate shelters in the same way we regulate hospitals and other agencies which hold the power over life and death. The desire of the community for No Kill, the expectation of government for use of tax money to save, rather than end the lives of animals, and the rights of animals who seek refuge in shelters to their very lives must be codified in law.

The answer lies in passing and enforcing shelter reform legislation which mandates how a shelter must operate. This is not a radical concept. As a movement, we have been willing to pass all kinds of laws such as mandatory spay/neuter to empower animal control by regulating the public’s behavior. Now that we know that laws of these kind exacerbate killing, and now that we know what is really causing the killing—shelter policies geared to killing—we need to pass laws that do the reverse: that empower community groups (volunteers, foster parents, rescue groups, feral cat caretakers, adopters, taxpayers) by regulating how animal control operates.

The ideal animal law would ban the killing of dogs and cats, and would prohibit the impounding of feral cats except for purposes of spay/neuter and release. Given that local governments may not pass such sweeping laws at this time in history, the Companion Animal Protection Act (CAPA) was written as “model” legislation to provide animals with maximum opportunities for lifesaving in the interim, because too many shelters are not voluntarily implementing the programs and services and culture of lifesaving that makes No Kill possible, and animals are needlessly being killed as a result.

To combat this, CAPA mandates the programs and services which have proven so successful at lifesaving in shelters which have implemented them; follows the only model that has actually created a No Kill community; and, focuses its effort on the very shelters that are doing the killing. In this way, shelter leadership is forced to embrace No Kill and operate their shelters in a progressive, life-affirming way, removing the discretion which has for too long allowed shelter leaders to ignore what is in the best interests of the animals and kill them needlessly—as they did in Reno before the current director of the Nevada Humane Society, as they did in Charlottesville before the current director took over, as they did in Indianapolis, and as they currently do in Los Angeles, Austin, and most animal control shelters around the country.

Because while discretion allows shelter leaders to reduce deaths by 75% as we did in Tompkins County, or over 50% as they are doing in Reno, it also allows leaders to kill 97,000 animals as they have been doing in Austin, Texas; With laws like CAPA, and vigilant oversight by citizens (including litigation when the shelter violates the law), we can have lifesaving in all these communities, irrespective of who is in charge and how much or how little they value life.

If we work to pass these laws, we will be focusing our energy where it was have both an immediate and profound impact, while at the same time, we will be creating a system which will prevent retrenchment in the future. We will create permanence. Rather than fight the excuses and intransigence of regressive directors for each program of the No Kill Equation they will not embrace, the law can bind their hand and force them to send animals to foster care, to give animals to rescue groups rather than kill them, to treat injuries and illnesses, to open for adoption during hours that allow working people and families with children access to animals during non-working/non-school hours. We can have these things literally overnight, as opposed to begging for them and fighting for them, one by one, endlessly, only to have them implemented—if at all—in a limited, haphazard way. (Austin’s director boasts of a foster care program, but only allows staff of the shelter to foster, turning away thousands of animal lovers in the community who would be willing to care for these animals, choosing instead to kill them). Or to have them implemented as they did in San Francisco, only to have them removed when a new shelter director is hired.

With rigorous and comprehensive expectations codified in law, those who allow needless killing will find themselves the subject of litigation, forced to do their jobs, and ultimately they will either be removed or they will leave on their own accord. Because with CAPA comes accountability, and accountability causes incompetent and uncaring leadership to lose their jobs. At the same time, prospective directors will also know what the demands of the job are, and the expectations of the community as codified in law, before they decide to accept the job. This, too, will weed out uncaring and lazy applicants for the job.

And the era when shelter directors were handed a paycheck for sitting in their office all day doing nothing, while refusing to modernize, while dogs are forced to wallow in their own waste, while cats are killed arbitrarily, while staff socialize out back rather than meeting the demands of their job, and in doing so, the animals who depend on them are systematically put to death—in other words, the era of the status quo—will be over.

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