In order to network him, a volunteer put Mr. Potato Head glasses on Mr. Pickles and snapped his photo to show others how sweet and cute he was. Instead, Mr. Pickles — young, healthy, friendly, already neutered, wearing a collar and little orange bell — was killed by Los Angeles County pound staff who falsely labeled him “feral.”

Two weeks ago, Governor Gavin Newsom announced he wanted California to become a No Kill state. I had written him several months ago urging him to do so. And I sent him a follow-up letter following his announcement with how to go about doing it. Specifically, I told him that his $50,000,000 grant to UC Davis to fund local initiatives to do so, while welcome and helpful if allocated appropriately, was at odds with the nature of the problem because animals are not being killed due to lack of money; they are being killed because of how those pounds are run.

Yesterday, the Sacramento Bee published an article on what it would take for California to end killing in which I, and others, were interviewed. Unfortunately, like the Governor, it got it wrong.

Kate Hurley of UC Davis (for many years one of No Kill’s fiercest and most outspoken opponents, until her recent embrace of community cat sterilization) falsely blamed, “Lack of veterinarians and medical resources” for high rates of killing. Jill Tucker of the California Animal Welfare Association, a group that represents some of the most regressive pounds in the state, also falsely blamed lack of funding. (Ironically, she blamed the state defunding of California’s 1998 Animal Shelter Law; a law which her organization opposed.) Worse, it made it seem like I agreed.

The article quotes me as saying that, “If (Newsom) truly wants California to be a no-kill state … then he needs to fully fund the 1998 animal shelter law.” While that is a technically accurate quote, it is not lack of resources that is the cause of shelter killing. It is the fact that not funding the law means that its mandates on adoption and rescue over killing are not enforceable. Local pounds don’t need more money to do the things the law requires because those things are less expensive than killing, bring in revenue, and save the cost of poisoning animals and discarding their bodies. But because they don’t have to follow the law, they don’t. Funding it would force them to do so.

As I told the Governor, animals are not dying in California “shelters” because of lack of money. California is the nation’s richest state. If we were our own country, we’d be the fifth largest economy in the world. If pound managers and their overseers wanted to adequately fund their local “shelters,” they have the resources to do so. Not only that, but No Kill is more cost-effective than killing and results in a financial windfall.

A University of Denver study, for example, found that a No Kill ordinance passed in Austin, which placed 98% for dogs and 96% of cats in 2018, yielded $157,452,503 in positive economic impact to the community in its first six years — a return on investment of over 400%. The study concluded that, “The costs associated with implementing the Resolution appear to have been more than offset by a series of economic benefits to the community.” And study authors further concluded that that’s “the most conservative possible measure of the data.” In other words, the true economic benefit is likely to be higher.

Prior studies have reached similar conclusions. In California, for example, one provision of the 1998 Animal Shelter Law which is enforced resulted in a 700% increase in lifesaving — from roughly 12,000 animals a year before the law went into effect to 100,000. That increase of 85,000 animals per year saved, rather than killed, corresponded with a cost savings of over $3,000,000 for killing and destruction of remains (these savings do not include additional savings related to cost of care). Similar studies, with similar conclusions, have been conducted in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and Oklahoma.

Instead, animals are dying because local pound managers choose to kill them by running those pounds on an anachronistic 19th Century model, by fighting efforts to modernize operations, by choosing to hide behind worn out clichés about “public irresponsibility” and the need to kill, and by blaming everyone and everything but the pounds themselves, just as Hurley and Tucker did in the article.

Take Mr. Pickles, for example. Mr. Pickles was surrendered by his family to the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control. Although initially scared, Mr. Pickles turned out to be very sweet, rubbing up against the bars of his cage when volunteers or staff walked by and calling out to them with a soft meow. Mr. Pickles — young, healthy, friendly, already neutered — should have had everything going for him; his stay at an American shelter in one of the richest and most cosmopolitan communities in the world a temporary waystation to a better life. Unfortunately, he entered a pound that did not revere life, did not hold staff accountable to results, did not embrace a culture of lifesaving. Staff at the pound chose to kill him with an overdose of barbiturates and then lied to cover up their malfeasance by falsely labeling him “unadoptable.” This betrayal had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with lack of caring and poor management of the shelter.

By implementing humane, cost-effective alternatives to killing, by contrast, hundreds of animal shelters throughout the United States have already dramatically reduced, and even eliminated, the killing of healthy and treatable animals. Some of those places, such as Austin, Texas and the state of Delaware, did so by passing laws like the 1998 Animal Shelter Law in California.

In order for California to become a No Kill state, it, too, needs to ensure that the Animal Shelter Law is enforced, and then it needs to pass more comprehensive shelter reform legislation that fills in the gaps of the safety net that the 1998 law did not close. That’s how we create No Kill: by emulating efforts that have already succeeded elsewhere; efforts aimed at eliminating the ability of shelter directors to choose killing in the face of already viable alternatives.

Of course that doesn’t mean other things couldn’t help. They could. That is why I hope the $50,000,000 is used for its intended purpose. And it is also why I proposed that the state expand the stock of available pet-friendly housing, by banning discrimination in rental housing against families that include a dog, cat, or other animal companion. But even if it does those things, it still needs to ensure that regressive pounds like the one that killed Mr. Pickles are forced to keep them alive long enough to be adopted.


Have a comment? Join the discussion by clicking here.