Then Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signing a modified version of the No Kill Advocacy Center’s Companion Animal Protection Act into law; a law that the Office of Animal Welfare, the state agency which oversees sheltering in the state, credited with having “improved the quality of care animals receive in shelters and has saved thousands of animals that would have otherwise been euthanized due to outdated policies and practices.”
In 2010, Delaware’s brick and mortar shelters, including Faithful Friends, the Delaware Humane Association, and the Delaware SPCA, worked with the No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization, to pass a modified version of the Companion Animal Protection Act (CAPA), our shelter reform legislation. Within a few years, killing declined statewide by 65%. By 2015 — combined with efforts undertaken by those shelters and a declining intake rate resulting from a 2006 low-cost spay/neuter program — killing declined 91% statewide from its high water mark.
If there were ever organizations that should have announced to the nation the achievement of America’s first No Kill state, reaping both the accolades and financial support that would result from such a groundbreaking declaration, it should have been the groups that were actually responsible for the dramatic declines in killing: Faithful Friends, Delaware Humane Association, the Delaware SPCA, and the No Kill Advocacy Center. But no such announcement was made. Why?
Because despite tremendous improvement as a result of our combined efforts, Delaware was not, and is not to this day, a No Kill state. And while announcing otherwise may have proved financially lucrative, it would have been dishonest. More importantly, by declaring victory before victory was achieved, it would have sacrificed Delaware animals still losing their lives by eliminating any impetus to fill gaps in the safety net that still exist.
Nonetheless, to much fanfare and no doubt a great financial windfall to coffers already overflowing with an astonishing $110 million dollars in annual revenues, Best Friends Animal Society in Utah rocked the nation recently by claiming that Delaware was the nation’s first No Kill state. Along with the Brandywine Valley SPCA which came onto the scene in 2016, six years after the passage of CAPA, Best Friends — an organization which not only had nothing whatsoever to do with the passage of CAPA but has lobbied against such laws in other states — announced instead that they had made history.
The announcement by Best Friends and Brandywine Valley SPCA has been reported across the state and across the country: on CNN, in USA Today, in People magazine, on radio stations, and on television programs like the Today Show. It is being shared widely on social media. And they have given each other accolades and awards.
And yet it isn’t true.
Brandywine Valley SPCA, which holds the statewide contract for sheltering stray dogs, turns animals away as there is no existing contract for stray cats or for owner-surrendered dogs and cats. And while it does place roughly 90% of the dogs and cats it chooses to take in, that doesn’t mean Delaware animals they are refusing to take in aren’t being killed, especially when, as it has historically done, the Brandywine Valley SPCA was recommending that such animals be taken to veterinarians or its own community clinics for killing. Not only are such deaths not factored into Brandywine Valley SPCA’s placement rate, even the statistics regarding the animals they do take in are being heavily wrung through the Best Friends spin machine to suggest an achievement that has not yet occurred.
The fact that the Brandywine Valley SPCA is placing nine out of 10 animals who cross their threshold does not mean that the remaining 10% who are being killed by the Brandywine Valley SPCA are irremediably suffering. The best performing communities across the nation prove that placement rates of better than 99% are possible. And they are possible in communities which take in all animals from its jurisdiction, which despite calling itself an “open admission shelter,” Brandywine Valley SPCA does not do.
As such, Best Friends is lying when it says 10% of animals entering our nation’s shelters are suffering for whom “euthanasia” is a “compassionate” option. In fact, less than 1% of animals who enter shelters are irremediably suffering. Even with a 90% placement rate (a marker on the road to No Kill, but not its final destination), treatable and potentially healthy animals are still being killed in Delaware.
To claim otherwise may make for a good story and induce animal lovers nationwide to donate money to Best Friends even though they played no role in Delaware’s success, but that doesn’t make it true. More importantly, it doesn’t mean there isn’t more work that needs to be done in Delaware to protect the animals still at risk. And it doesn’t mean that ignoring the true causes and even limitations of existing success, advocates working to protect the lives of animals in other states won’t be misled by Best Friends’ lucrative fictions that ignore cause and effect in favor of declaring premature “victories” about efforts undertaken by others.
Here is the truth:
Delaware’s state-funded shelter system for stray dogs is run through OAW. Delaware Animal Services (DAS) is a unit of OAW and picks up stray dogs. The shelter for stray dogs is run by the non-profit Brandywine Valley SPCA, under contract. In 2018, the Brandywine Valley SPCA reported a placement rate of 90% for cats, 93% for dogs, and 88% for other animals. According to Best Friends, “A community is considered no-kill when every brick-and-mortar shelter serving and/or located in that community has reached a save rate of 90% or higher.”
Even if that were true (it is not as I discuss below), DAS is placing less than 90% of non-dog and cats species. And there is currently no state-funded shelter services for stray cats and animals surrendered by their families. If someone needs to surrender an animal or finds a cat, Brandywine Valley SPCA is not obligated to take them in and has turned them away, choosing instead to import more highly adoptable animals from outside the community. (Brandywine Valley SPCA, for example, transfers in dogs at a rate of as high as 11 to 1 to owner surrenders. In the 3rd quarter of 2018, it only accepted 35 owner surrendered dogs from Delaware residents. It transferred in 402.) Moreover, it has also told people in the past that if they could not find placement for their animals, to take these animals to either a private veterinarian or their own community “euthanasia” clinic and have the animals put down. These animals are not counted in statistics.
Historically, the Brandywine Valley SPCA has not been shy about doing this according to two heads of other shelters. Brandywine Valley SPCA leadership told them that doing so shifts the burden from shelters to “owners” and teaches people a lesson about the results of their own irresponsibility. This not only ignores the fact that Brandywine Valley SPCA could have saved these animals, it’s an old-school mentality based on killing and at odds with an organization accepting an award as a No Kill leader. It can’t have it both ways. Moreover, whatever lesson is being taught, the animals are the ones truly paying the price.
In early 2017, as a result of these revelations and after confirming the practice in a series of telephone calls to the Brandywine Valley SPCA, I wrote the Office of Animal Welfare (OAW), which oversees DAS and other shelters in the state, and implored them to protect stray cats and “provide rehoming services for ‘owner’ relinquished animals” given the protections offered by the state’s Companion Animal Protection Act, since the law would help prevent them from being killed. Although a community cat protection bill was passed the following year, the State of Delaware has, to date, not provided state-funded shelter services for animals surrendered by their families.
This isn’t meant to suggest that lifesaving improvement hasn’t been made in Delaware. It has. Before Brandywine Valley SPCA contracted with the state in 2016 to provide stray dog sheltering services, the state passed two important pieces of legislation. The first was a 2006 low-cost spay/neuter program that helped usher in a decline in intake from 24,194 animals statewide in 2008 to 9,693 in 2013. The second, after my trip to Wilmington, was CAPA in 2010.
OAW wrote that CAPA “established common-sense statutes to improve the health and wellbeing of animals temporarily housed in shelters,” including “vaccination upon intake,” “veterinary care for sick or injured animals,” “holding periods to allow owner reunification or transfer,” and transferring animals to rescue groups rather than killing them.
OAW concluded that CAPA “improved the quality of care animals receive in shelters and has saved thousands of animals that would have otherwise been euthanized due to outdated policies and practices. Prior to this law, healthy dogs and cats were euthanized very quickly, sometimes while their owners were looking for them.”
By 2015, killing in Delaware was down 91% from 2006. Brandywine Valley SPCA, which claims credit for the “No Kill” achievement, did not provide sheltering under contract until 2016 when OAW took over the function from municipalities. Unfortunately, OAW limited its contract to stray dogs. (The state does enforce cruelty laws against both dogs and cats and takes in injured stray cats but only if they are “suffering” which its officers define arbitrarily.) Now that Delaware has been falsely deemed “No Kill,” any pressure to get the state to provide a state-funded shelter safety net for “owner” surrendered animals and lost/abandoned cats will almost certainly dissipate.
That is not to say Delaware can’t be No Kill. It can. And when it funds shelter services for stray cats and “owner”-surrendered animals, given the protections of CAPA and the community cat protection law, it will be. As experience proves, there are communities in the U.S. which have a higher per capita intake rate, take in more animals overall, take in both stray dogs and cats, and take in “owner” surrendered animals, and still place a much higher percentage. (And they are not padding those numbers by importing highly adoptable and small dogs from outside the jurisdiction, while turning local animals away.)
There’s another more fundamental problem with the claim that a 90% placement rate equates to No Kill: 10% of animals entering shelters are not suffering. As such, Best Friends is being dishonest when it tells reporters that killing 10% of animals is “compassionate” “euthanasia” because it provides a mercy killing for animals who are “irremediably suffering.”
There are communities across the country placing 98%, 99%, in some cases even 100% of the animals, proving that a 90% standard is too low. The 90% standard was promulgated over a decade ago with a very limited dataset and before advancements in veterinary medicine made once fatal conditions treatable. In fact, some conditions like parvovirus, now have a good to great prognosis for rehabilitation, but a 10% kill rate allows these animals to be killed. It allows medium to large dogs to be killed, even if the only thing they are “suffering” from are poor manners or too much energy. It allows healthy animals to be killed as long as the killing is under 10% of total intakes.
Case in point: A Utah Good Samaritan in Best Friends’ own backyard,
[W]ent to great lengths to save the lives of a homeless cat and her kittens. She tracked them, borrowed a trap from Provo City and, after catching them, surrendered them to a facility that is a member of the [Best Friends] no-kill coalition.
She told a local news station,
I was concerned for the cat’s life and I wanted to make sure that the cat got to a safe area where somebody would be able to adopt it and provide it a safe home.
When she “attempted to visit the cat a few days later, she learned [the mother cat] had been killed.” Why? They cat was scared of people. Heartbroken, she says she “would have left the cat free, or worked herself to find it a good home.”
Claiming No Kill victory before victory has been achieved robs animals of their lives and breaks the hearts of compassionate people. In Delaware, it may prevent needed protections for those outside the safety net of care and which, to date, OAW has largely abandoned because it only pays for sheltering stray dogs. And that is too high a price to pay for an organization to pad fundraising coffers, especially one like Best Friends, which already takes in over $110 million a year.
For further reading: Where Have You Gone Best Friends?
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