The short answer is No.
What is the single, most crucial step to becoming a No Kill community? Over five years ago, I was asked this question by a Chicago magazine. This was my answer:
If you ask 100 animal welfare professionals this question, all 100 would say spay/neuter. But all 100 would be wrong. That is not to say that high volume, low cost sterilization services aren’t important, they are… But that is not why most dogs and cats are currently being killed in shelters. It isn’t “pet overpopulation.” What we are actually suffering from as a nation, what is actually killing a high number of animals, is an overpopulation of shelter directors mired in the failed philosophies of the past and complacent with the status quo. We know how to stop the killing, but many shelter directors refuse to implement the No Kill model. As a result, a widespread, institutionalized culture of lifesaving is not possible without wholesale regime change in shelters and national animal protection groups. Consequently, the most important single act—and the crucial first step—in achieving a No Kill nation is for private citizens to demand the firing of the current leadership of most animal control shelters across the country. And to replace them with compassionate ones who reject killing as a method for achieving results.
The last five years have proved that. There are now dozens of No Kill communities across the country, some of which have ended the killing even before a comprehensive spay/neuter program has been put in place. Despite that, many animal welfare professionals and large organizations continue to sing the mantra that spay/neuter is not just the most important thing, it is the only thing that really matters.* They claim that the only way to achieve a No Kill nation is through a No Birth nation. But that view is factually inaccurate.
Not all people will spay/neuter, regardless of our efforts, so we will never be a No Birth nation, effectively giving organizations that promote such views the excuse to continue killing or to defend killing as a necessary evil, as opposed to what it simply is: evil. Second, while it would make the sustaining of a No Kill nation easier if impound rates were lower, and this is a goal worth pursuing, not every dog and cat lover shares the goal of a No Birth nation (many people promote spay/neuter to prevent killing, not because they are philosophically opposed to puppies and kittens or want to live in a “pet-less” society). More importantly, while spay/neuter may help, it isn’t a prerequisite to No Kill when caring, compassionate, and competent leadership takes over a shelter.
Washoe County, Nevada is saving 91% of all the animals despite a per capita intake rate eight times that of New York City. They did it through regime change and adoptions, not spay/neuter. Similarly, when I arrived in Tompkins County, New York on June 11, 2001, the shelter was full and a spay/neuter initiative would not have helped a single one of those animals already in the shelter. It would not have helped them on June 12. And it wouldn’t have helped them on June 13 either. We needed adoptions (and programs that kept animals alive long enough to get adopted like foster care, medical care, and behavior rehabilitation). But the killing came to stop that day. We created a No Kill community overnight.
Of course, it was hard work to do so. That first summer was very difficult. A peek into my living room would have revealed this. I had a house filled with dozens of neonatal kittens because, having just arrived, I hadn’t yet had time to recruit the foster homes which would make the following summer so much easier. To the extent that spay/neuter can reduce intakes, it can make the job easier over time, the way a comprehensive effort brought intake rates in San Francisco to a fraction of Reno’s (San Francisco takes in less than half the number of animals of Reno, despite twice the population). But, and here’s the crux, Reno is No Kill and San Francisco is not (though it certainly can be if shelter leadership cared enough to end the killing; they do not.) And so while spay/neuter may be helpful to ending the killing, it isn’t a prerequisite to doing so.
Why? Spay/neuter will not save animals in shelters today. It might not even save many animals in shelters in the future: In Austin, Texas, nine years and 60,000 surgeries after the launch of a low-cost spay/neuter program, the city shelter still killed over 14,000 animals, more than it had in a decade. And it topped 14,000 kills two times. In fact, killing went up four of the previous five years. Ellen Jefferson of Austin Pets Alive explains,
I had spent nine years pouring my heart and soul into spay/neuter and while I knew it was helping the community, I had expected a bigger measurable impact at the shelter. It bothered me that we had no real conclusive studies that showed the impact of spay/neuter on [killing] in the shelter and that the labors of all my work were not something I could see an impact from in a decade.
It wasn’t until Austin advocates forced the replacement of their regressive pound director and began focusing on adoptions that killing declined significantly. Meanwhile, Allegany County, Maryland stopped killing because someone ordered them to stop, not because someone implemented a spay/neuter program. Seagoville, Texas killed less animals last year than they used to do in a single week because the new director ordered them to stop killing, not because he implemented a spay/neuter program. Williamson County, Texas stopped killing when their new director took over and brought the killing to a stop, not because she implemented a spay/neuter program. Marquette, Michigan did the same, as have others. They did it through adoptions, and programs that get animals ready for adoption.
Animal advocates have long advocated for spay/neuter as a means of curbing “pet overpopulation.” But given that the supply-demand imbalance runs in the other direction (there are over 23 million people who will add an animal to their home, and only about three million being killed in shelters but for a home), pet overpopulation is a myth. In other words, shelters could adopt their way out of killing those three million today. Rather than a “pet overpopulation” problem, our challenge is increasing market share—the percentage of animals those people will acquire who come from shelters. That doesn’t mean spay/neuter isn’t a good idea. It is. In fact, spay/neuter is a core program of the No Kill Equation. Even though pet overpopulation is a myth, continued promotion and availability of high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter is a means to reach stasis in shelters where adoptions equals intakes, without the market share challenges we have now. More than that, we want intakes low enough that even a lazy, bureaucratic, uncaring, inept director (in short, your average kill shelter director) can run a No Kill shelter with ease. In other words, we want to eliminate those communities with high intake rates (like Washoe County) needing thoroughly committed and hardworking leadership to succeed. If spay/neuter allows a community to drop intakes significantly enough that they are unable to meet adoption demand, they can begin importing animals from high-kill rate jurisdictions and save those lives, too. And less animals entering shelters is a good thing, especially when they are under the constant threat of a death sentence; and even when they are not. But the truth is you cannot spay/neuter your way out of killing.
Of course, spay/neuter saves unsocial, free-living cats who are not candidates for adoption, through Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR). But if you consider TNR the functional equivalent of adoption—or consider adoption INR (Impound, Neuter, Rehome)—spay/neuter, while important, isn’t the most important variable in saving those cats. The most important part of the TNR equation is the “R.” Spay/neuter, in other words, has its limits and we need to stop claiming it as the most important of all the programs. The goal of the No Kill movement has never been no more births, although reducing birth rates helps. The goal of the No Kill movement is, and has always been, no more killing. And we do not have to wait until spay/neuter initiatives are launched or even bear fruit before we can stop doing so. In fact, to do so is to wait for results that experience shows never come. It is to delay the lifesaving indefinitely.
This is not going to stop the anti-No Kill zealots from claiming I am against spay/neuter (I am not). When I was in San Francisco, we offered free spay/neuter for all cats of San Francisco residents, regardless of income. We offered free spay/neuter for all “feral” cats. We offered free spay/neuter of many dogs and low-cost spay/neuter of others. We even sterilized animals for the city pound. When I was in Tompkins County, and ran the pound, we offered free spay/neuter for all “feral” cats, free spay/neuter for anyone surrendering litters of kittens or puppies (a program we called “Spay Your Mama”), and free or low-cost spay/neuter for the animals in low-income households. I am an advocate for spay/neuter and have always supported it in order to reduce intakes in shelters. Nor will it stop the naysayers from claiming that I support puppy mills (I do not). I’ve spoken out against puppy mills. I’ve sponsored workshops on how to stop puppy mills. I support legislation to ban the sale of purposely-bred non-shelter/rescue animals in pet stores. But we need to be honest with ourselves.
Our movement has historically deified spay/neuter because we’ve been told to; because every organization is for it—even those regressive shelters which neglect, abuse and kill animals (and hypocritically do not spay/neuter shelter animals themselves); even national animal protection groups like HSUS and PETA that pursue a pro-kill/anti-No Kill agenda and, in the case of the latter, purposely seek out animals to kill themselves. Why have they done so, even when it is clear that they do not care about the animals in shelters or whether those animals live or die?
It is a way for them to avoid accountability and pass the blame for the killing to others. According to these organizations, the people who do not spay/neuter their animals are responsible for pet overpopulation; and pet overpopulation is why shelters are killing animals. In placing blame for shelter killing on the public, HSUS, the ASPCA, and the American Humane Association once claimed that their task was “to educate the public to the fact that irresponsible companion animal owners are at fault rather than the agencies [actually doing the killing].” And so long as there are intakes at shelters, they argue, the killing done there is the fault of the public for failure to spay/neuter. In short, shelters are merely doing the public’s dirty work.
But as surely as pet overpopulation is a myth, the idea that the only way to a No Kill nation is through spay/neuter initiatives is also a myth. It will certainly make it easier to reach and sustain, and that is why we should continue to advocate for it, promote it, offer it, and remove the barriers to people having it done (cost and availability). But no community has spay/neutered their way out of killing. And none ever will. Even if a shelter only takes in 25 animals a year, rather than 25,000, and we should strive for that, those animals are saved through adoption. Spay/neuter offers no immediate lifesaving benefit for the animals already on death row. And while adopting out 25 animals is easier than 25,000, we can do both. In other words, we can adopt our way out of killing, even without a comprehensive spay/neuter initiative. We can do it today. And in more and more communities, that is exactly what we have done.
* While historically, most animal advocates would have agreed with these organizations, that view is thankfully changing. In an informal survey I did on Facebook, which received over 400 responses, approximately 30% of respondents said spay/neuter was the most important program to save the lives of animals in shelters. The vast majority cited others such as adoptions, foster care, and working with rescue groups. Will the national organizations ever catch up?
The truth is enough: Spay/neuter is very important. Why lie?