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A Defense of No Kill in Both Word & Deed

A social, friendly kitten rescued off the street by a rescuer (and her dog) after she was released to the streets, in a location she was not familiar with, by Brevard County Animal Shelter, a shelter that calls itself No Kill. And while many of us — myself included — support “Return to Field”  and TNR enthusiastically, it is lazy and dishonest to take friendly kittens and release  them in parking lots and claim they’ve achieved No Kill through “hard work.” Adoption is hard work. Releasing social kittens in a parking lot is easy.

A rescue group in the Denver area has dropped the term “No Kill” from their mission statement. They did not drop it because they wanted to. They did not drop it because they freely chose to. They did not drop it because they truly believed it was “divisive.” They dropped it because a local coalition made up of Orwellian language police told them that if they did not drop it, they could no longer be a part of that local coalition. They were also told that if they didn’t drop it, they would not receive grants that allowed them to help animals.

This is not a new phenomenon. These attempts at censorship from within the animal sheltering industry are as old as the movement itself; since the first private No Kill shelters sought to provide the public an assurance that by supporting their work, they were not funding harm to animals.

And that is why for as long as this term has been around, those seeking to shield poorly performing shelter directors from scrutiny have sought to banish the words “No Kill” from the animal protection movement and with it, the public consciousness. Language which is intended to convey distinctions between those shelters which kill animals and those which do not places the former on the defensive because it compares them — poorly — to those which embrace a higher ethical standard and a better standard of performance.

In fact, shortly after I left the Tompkins County, New York, shelter I oversaw to found the No Kill Advocacy Center — an organization committed to spreading the model of sheltering that allowed Tompkins County to end the killing of all non-suffering animals including rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, farmed animals, and “exotics” — I was asked to a meeting by Richard Avanzino, my former boss at the San Francisco SPCA and then the head of Maddie’s Fund. At that meeting, he asked me to stop using the term “No Kill,” saying he was signing an agreement with representatives from the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Humane Association, the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators, the Denver Dumb Friends League, Best Friends Animal Society, North Shore Animal League, and others to drive the term into extinction. That agreement — the Asilomar Accords — decried “No Kill” as divisive and, as the Vice President of Companion Animals for HSUS subsequently “decreed” (with no small measure of hubris), would no longer be “allowed.”

Though at that time, Tompkins County was the only shelter that had an adoption guarantee not just for dogs and cats, but for every species of sheltered animals, meaning that we were a nation uniformly filled with animal control shelters killing millions of animals a year out of habit and convenience, I was asked to stop using language that might convey this important distinction and therefore the dire need for shelter reform to the American public. I refused.

Since that time and as a result of the spread of the No Kill Equation model of sheltering across the nation, the term has caught fire. Rescuers, reformers and many progressive shelter directors across the nation have not only embraced it, but they have also embraced the programs and services which allow for its realization, causing some of the largest animal protection groups which once shunned the words to recognize the lost potential (including fundraising potential, which is often the only thing they care about) resulting from failing to likewise embrace it, including those groups which were once its fiercest opponents. Best Friends, which signed the agreement calling it “divisive” and refused to use the term in favor of the ill-conceived “No More Homeless Pets,” backpeddled and embraced “No Kill” (and then, “Save Them All”). If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Yet as might be expected from people motivated more by fundraising potential than what is in the best interest of animals, many of those who now embrace the term have been using it disingenuously. Though statistics from the best performing shelters in the nation indicate that ending the killing of all but irremediably physically suffering animals entering a shelter results in a life-release rate of 99% of the animals, too many shelters and their national allies are claiming “No Kill” success when a 90% life release rate is achieved, condoning the continued killing of healthy and treatable animals as long as that number does not exceed 10% of the overall number. That is not true No Kill, nor what the term, used with integrity, conveys.

Is it worth celebrating? Absolutely.

But does it indicate that only those animals who are irremediably physically suffering — in other words, those animals for whom killing really is “euthanasia” — are the only ones losing their lives? Absolutely not.

I have written much about where this 90% rule came from and why it is not an accurate indicator of a shelter’s success, and I have been gratified to see more and more people who are truly committed to No Kill and transparency at our nation’s shelters reject the misleading and arbitrary nature of a standard that only applies to 90% of the animals and sweeps the other 10% under the rug (or, more accurately, into garbage bags and then to the landfill). Not surprisingly, as these voices have multiplied and those shelters and their national allies now abusing the term have been held increasingly accountable for that misuse, a second wave — yet another backlash — is occurring within their ranks.

Once again, we are being told that the term No Kill is “divisive,” simply because, as before, their friends and colleagues are failing to do what is necessary to truly achieve it. Rather than explain to the community that they have reduced the death rate to 10%, that this is a worthwhile achievement and cause for celebration, but that they are not done yet and will not be done until full implementation of existing alternatives to killing are fully implement to the point that they reduce the killing even further, they are instead complaining that holding all of our shelters to the standards of the best performing ones is unfair.

Even worse is the fact that many of them are not even coming by the 90% rate honestly. Some claim they are “No Kill” despite a live release rate below 90% when “owner requested” killings are included. In others, like Brevard County, FL, the declining death rate is not occurring primarily because they are now finding homes for all kittens as is their job and the term implies, but because they are taking friendly, social kittens and releasing them in the parking lot of the local Walmart, where rescue groups have to scramble to save them. And while many of us — myself included — support “Return to Field” and “TNR” in lieu of killing, and do so enthusiastically, it is lazy and dishonest to take friendly kittens — KITTENS — and abandon them in a Walmart parking lot and claim they’ve achieved No Kill through “hard work.” Adoption is hard work. Releasing social kittens in a public parking lot is easy.


Poe is a 5 month old kitten who was abandoned when his family moved away and left him behind. He showed up at the neighbor’s house hungry and crying. The neighbor took him to Brevard County Animal Shelter and explained how he was abandoned when his family moved and had no one caring for him. Did Brevard County Animal Shelter find him a new home? No. They sterilized  him and re-abandoned him in the yard of the very same house they knew no one was living in to fend for himself. This is not a kitten who had  found a niche. This is not a kitten who was being cared for. This is not a kitten who had a home. This is not a scenario that called for “Return to Field” as the default  choice. Poe was abandoned twice. First, by his original family. Then  by the very shelter that is supposed to enforce laws against it. But Brevard County cat lovers face a Hobbesian choice: if they complain, the shelter will just kill them instead. If they do not complain, kittens like Poe will continue to be abandoned. Finding homes for those kittens does not appear to be even a ghost of a thought in the mind of shelter staff.

Should we celebrate Brevard’s decline in killing? Absolutely.

Is RTF for cats worth doing? Yes, for various reasons, not the least of which is that most cats are not lost but they become lost when they are taken to the shelter.

Is RTF of kittens better than killing? Absolutely. But here’s the rub: that is true by definition. Everything is better than killing. And abandoning kittens to unfamiliar  locations, to Walmart parking lots, or to abandoned homes does not represent the spirit or ideals of the No Kill movement. More on point, do we want a system of shelters that are paid to serve the animals of our community shirking their responsibilities by simply dumping baby animals in parking lots or abandoned houses then claiming they’ve crossed the No Kill goal line? No.

And so, while we celebrate progress, such as the achievement of a 90% live release rate, we have a duty to call out shelters like Brevard County who falsely claim that they are No Kill, especially since kittens are being abandoned and, perhaps even more importantly, healthy and treatable animals are still dying.

In still other communities, shelters who have reached 90% and claim to be No Kill turn their back on animals who need help by allowing known and ongoing cruelty cases to continue so they don’t have to pick up those animals because it might impact their numbers. And in still others, such as occurred in and near the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania and Delaware, people who call to surrender their animals have been told to take them instead to a “community euthanasia clinic” so they can be killed but not counted in shelter statistics.

Calling these shelters No Kill is a corruption of the term and I am grateful local advocates are not letting them get away with it. I am also glad that shelters being called to account have decided to stop using the term altogether. But even if they do drop it, and resurrect their ill-fated campaign to once again ban its use because they failed to corrupt it, they will lose on that score, too. I am going to keep using the term No Kill, the public will continue to use the term, and so will a lot of rescuers, regardless of what the language police advocate, and here’s why: knowledge is power.

Some shelters kill. Some shelters don’t kill. The public which pays for sheltering through their tax and philanthropic dollars has a right to know what the shelters they fund are doing in their name.
The term “No Kill” conveys that information, and has therefore forced many naysayers to implement the reforms we have long advocated because the public has become intolerant of anything less. Many shelters now experiencing success didn’t do it willingly; they were forced to by public pressure inspired by two powerful words: No Kill, and all that that name implies.

And for every rescue group like the one in Denver who drops it or risks losing the ability to continue helping animals because of threats from those who believe that the purse strings they control entitle them to censor others, another shelter stands firm. The Humane Society of Fremont County, for example, runs the animal control shelter for seven cities under contract. It is working toward a No Kill community and has seen kill rates cut significantly.

Doug Rae, its director, was asked by the same foundation that demanded the cat rescue group not use the term to do likewise. But unlike the cat rescue group, Rae refused. And though that foundation congratulated the Fremont Humane Society on their increasing success and lauded it as an example for the rest of Colorado, they ultimately turned their backs on the animals cared for by the shelter. Shielding other shelter directors in their area who kill from the transparency afforded by the term was ultimately a higher priority that supporting a forward thinking and increasingly successful shelter on its life-affirming work. And it is that lack of urgency, that lack of commitment to the best interest of animals, combined with such deeply skewed moral priorities that made, and continue to make, the term “No Kill” necessary in the first place.


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