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It’s a Wonderful World

Thank you to all who made the No Kill Conference in Washington DC a tremendous success. We had representatives from 37 states, the District of Columbia, and six countries (the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden, France, and Thailand). Thank you to the attendees, to the speakers, to the sponsors, to the hosts, to the supporters, and to the No Kill Advocacy Center and George Washington University Animal Law Program for making it possible. The following was my keynote presentation which opened the conference on Saturday morning:


You are among friends here. And they are all available to you to share in this great revolution taking place all across the country. Here, you will find shelter directors saving 9 out of 10 animals. They have heard and rejected the excuses of why every community can’t do the same. And the trail they are blazing will lead the way to our goal of ending the killing of almost 4 million dogs and cats nationally.

Two of them work in a community that takes in four times the per capita rate of animals than Los Angeles, over five times the rate of San Francisco and over twice the national average. But they are still saving 90% of sheltered animals. Another runs a No Kill open door animal control shelter which has been saving at least 92% of animals each year for the last seven years.

Here, you will find animal lawyers who are on the vanguard of litigation and legislation to give sheltered animals the right to live. Others aren’t waiting for society to catch up and pass these laws, they are breaking new ground with existing laws. One of them used the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act to require shelters to provide better care and more lifesaving opportunities for the animals. Another helped make it illegal for a shelter to kill an animal if a rescue group was willing to save that animal’s life.

You will find attorneys who give voice to feral cats, to Pit Bulls, and who are using their legal skills to close down abusive puppy mills. Here, you will find activists who are challenging the killing in their communities through campaigns for reform: That harness the power of the Internet; That harness the reach of the media; By promoting pro-No Kill candidates for city council; and, Even by taking over animal control commissions to set shelters policies themselves.

In some cases they have no formal power, but they are forcing changes because they carry the mantle of justice and truth and they are proving that the power of compassion is mightier than the power of the largest and wealthiest institutions who still cling to outdated ideologies and failed philosophies.

Here, you will find a reflection of yourself: People who share your values. Who believe—as you do—that killing animals is never an act of kindness, when those animals are not suffering.

And it is our desire, our most ardent goal, that you will leave inspired. With the tools you need to achieve success. And with a renewed faith that a No Kill nation is within our reach. Whether you are an attorney, an animal control director, a veterinarian, a rescue group, a volunteer, an activist, or simply someone who loves animals, You are part of a larger army of compassion that is sweeping across the U.S. in the battle for the heart and soul of our nation’s shelters.

A battle we are winning—and will win. We have found our voice, and recognize the potential its fullest expression can create. No more compromises. No more killing.

This is our country, these are our shelters, these are our values, and this is our will. The power to change the status quo is in our hands. And we will use that power to achieve our dream. Together, we’ll bring sheltering into the 21st Century. Together, we’ll create a No Kill nation.

But not everyone shares our optimism. I received a letter from a woman who has spent 50 years doing animal rescue work. She described her experiences over the years, including a heart-breaking rescue of a near dead kitten abandoned near a dumpster. It was clear she cared deeply about animals. And yet she opposes No Kill. Because she believes “there are fates worse than death.” Because she believes “there are too many animals, not enough homes.” Because she believes “there is a crisis of uncaring” in the U.S.

She cannot conceive of a No Kill nation because of decades of experience seeing abandoned, neglected, and abused animals. She says she knows this not from “percentages, data, and studies.” But from “what she has seen with her own eyes.” She has been in the trenches of rescue work so long, she has become myopic. To her, the world of animals is a world of pain and suffering. The national organizations she turns to for guidance reaffirm her point of view. Visiting shelters on a regular basis, she sees scared, sick animals going out the back door in body bags. She blames the public for it. And believes in the inevitability of certain outcomes.

To her, the choice is a quick death at a shelter or a slow death on the street. Because she lacks personal experience at progressive shelters which would debunk these points of view. She hasn’t seen the success of shelters who have embraced the public. She doesn’t live in a No Kill community. San Francisco, Tompkins County, Charlottesville, Reno, and now a dozen and more communities are just points on a map. But they tell an exciting story which she and others like her need to hear. A story that begins in San Francisco.

Where over 20,000 animals were being impounded annually. Most of whom were put to death. It was nothing short of a “Blood Bath.” And we were told that the public was to be blame. And then along came a man named Richard Avanzino. He believed in the public and he started a series of programs and services which would harness their compassion to save the animals. Programs like Offsite Adoptions, Foster Care, Behavior Advice, Feral Cat TNR, Socialization & Training, Behavior Rehabilitation, and high volume spay/neuter. Programs which embraced the public and made it easy for them to do the right thing.

And the results were so dramatic that San Francisco was ready to take the next bold leap. What the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, the American Humane Association and all local shelters said was impossible. A lifesaving guarantee for each and every healthy dog and cat in San Francisco. The first of its kind in the country. No matter which shelter they enter. No matter how many there are. And no matter how long it takes to find them a home.

The number of healthy dogs and cats killed in San Francisco under Richard Avanzino since 1994 was zero.

In 2000, I was the Director of Operations for the San Francisco SPCA. And the one question I received more than any other was whether San Francisco was so unique its success could not happen anywhere else? It was time to find out. In 2001, I traveled across country to Ithaca, New York. Taking the Private SPCA No Kill Model to an open door animal control shelter which impounded animals for 10 towns and municipalities. Impounded rabies suspect animals for the Tompkins County Health Department. Enforced New York State’s animal cruelty laws. Enforced Tompkins County pet ordinances. And enforced the “Dangerous Dog” laws.

And by implementing the programs Avanzino pioneered–the programs & Services I have come to call   “The No Kill Equation”–in 2002, Tompkins County went from a community:

  • that was killing healthy dogs and cats to killing none
  • that was killing treatable sick/injured dogs and cats to killing none
  • that was killing feral cats to killing none
  • that reduced the death rate by 75%
  • that increased the total save rate to 93%, well beyond San Francisco

It should have been a celebration. Sadly, it was not. Entrenched shelter directors across the country were overcome with a case of collective amnesia. When San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. saving all healthy dogs and cats, shelters said: “You can do it in an urban community, but you can’t in a rural one.” When Tompkins County becomes the first No Kill community in rural America, shelters said: “You can do it in a rural community, but not in an urban one.” At the very least, they argued, it could not be replicated in what they mean-spiritedly called the “backward” South because of the “Bubba Factor.”

So we took the No Kill Equation to Charlottesville, Virginia. To an animal control shelter which hired a new director who was passionate about the No Kill philosophy and committed to implementing the programs and services which make it possible.   And in her first year, she saved 87% of all dogs and cats. In 2006, she saved 92% of all dogs and cats. And in 2007 and 2008, she repeated the No Kill achievement. At an open door animal control shelter in the South. That should have ended the debate. But it did not.

There was still another hurdle to overcome. When Charlottesville achieved No Kill in 2006, these Naysayers who were running shelters which still killed the bulk of their occupants argued that No Kill could not be achieved in a rapidly developing community because the influx of new people would mean more animals, which would overwhelm the infrastructure of animal control, “forcing” them to kill.

So we took the No Kill Equation to Reno, NV, the fastest growing county in one of the fastest growing states. To a community which takes in over three times the per capita rate of dogs and cats than Los Angeles, five times the rate of San Francisco and over two times the national average. So if there is a problem with “pet overpopulation,” they certainly face it in Washoe County (Reno), Nevada.

But in 2007, compared to 2006:

  • The kill rate for dogs dropped 51%
  • The kill rate for cats dropped 52%

At the same time:

  • The adoption rate for dogs increased 53%
  • The adoption rate for cats increased 84%

The 2007 save rate (including animal control) for dogs was 92% and 78% for cats. In 2008, the save rate for cats climbed to 83%. The goal in 2009 is a 90th percentile for both.

There are others: in California, in Texas, in Indiana, in Colorado, in North Carolina, in Montana, in Utah, in Kansas, in Kentucky, and elsewhere. Some of these are urban. Some are rural. Some are public. Some are private. Some are politically liberal. Some are politically conservative. And at least one is in the “reddest” part of the “reddest” state. Proving that people of all walks of life want to build a better world for animals.

Dorothy doesn’t see that, because what is happening in these communities isn’t happening everywhere. Not because it isn’t possible, but because it has not been a priority for shelter managers or the government officials who oversee them. The contrast between a fully functioning No Kill shelter and a regressive one could not be more stark. But people like Dorothy don’t see the former and keep being told that the latter is the “best we can do.” So Dorothy lacks the larger perspective.

To her, the story is about the 4 million being killed in shelters she has been told we can’t save. Which obscures the bigger, happier, more accurate story. The story about the 165 million in homes, the vast majority of whom are part of families who are crazy about them and consider them cherished members of the family.

Yes, some may become homeless during their life. But as San Francisco and other communities have proved, shelters can be temporary way stations with good care and plenty of comfort until they find loving new homes. The story of the 4 million doesn’t have to be a tragedy. If all shelters embrace the public’s love of animals. Plenty of communities have proved it. But so do the “percentages, data, and studies” Dorothy dismisses so casually.

Nationally, about 4 million dogs and cats are killed annually in shelters, of which roughly 90% are savable, meaning they are not suffering, or hopelessly ill, or truly vicious dogs. On top of that, not all animals entering shelters need adoption. Some will be reclaimed by families after becoming lost. Some of the cats will be feral and don’t need adoption. They need sterilization and release. Some will be suffering or hopelessly ill and, sadly, will be killed. A shelter can save 90% but only needs to find a home for fewer. And there are plenty of people who are willing to provide that home.

There are roughly 20 million people who are going to get an animal next year, and most have not decided where that animal will come from. We just need to convince a small percentage of these people to adopt from a shelter. And, in the end, that is why shelters exist in the first place. To be a safety net for animals whose caretakers no longer can or want to take care of them. And shelters can do so without killing. That is what they are doing in communities across the country. That is what we are going to teach you to do in your own hometowns. And that is the perspective we are asking you to take back to the Dorothies in your communities.

To let them know that our perceptions do not always reflect the truth. In the trenches, the problem appears larger and more pervasive that it really is. Visiting poorly performing shelters on a regular basis, seeing scared, sick animals who are not being properly cared for and the occasional victim of abuse and neglect, people like Dorothy lose sight of a broader, more accurate perspective of people and how most of them really feel about animals.

Even while virtually all other sectors of the economy plummet, purchases for our companion animals increase every year and increased again in 2008 to $47 billion. And give hundreds of millions more to animal related charities. In fact, giving to animal related charities is the fastest growing segment in American philanthropy. They miss work when their animals get sick. And they cut back on their own needs to meet the needs of their animal companions.

Dorothy and people like Dorothy forget that No Kill success throughout the country is a result of people—people who care deeply. Evidence of this caring is all around them, but they doesn’t always recognize it as such or dismiss it as the “exception” even when they are constantly seeing exceptions. When people who adopt rescued animals send them thank you letters telling them how much they love their animals.

When they see people at the dog park. Or on their morning walks through the neighborhoods. They fail to recognize it at the veterinarian’s office—the waiting rooms always filled, the faces of scared people wondering what is wrong, the tears as they emerge from the exam rooms after saying good bye for the last time.

They don’t see that books about animals who have touched people’s lives are not only being written in ever-increasing numbers but are all best sellers because people do care, and the stories touch them very deeply and very personally. They don’t see that the success of movies about animals is also a reflection of the love people have for animals.

They fail to see how people were terrified as news spread of the pet food recall in 2007, when tainted pet food from China devastated lives. And while animals lost their lives because of tainted food, they were not the only ones to suffer. Their caretakers did, too, as thousands of caring, of helpless people had to witness the suffering of their pets as their government and a government overseas betrayed them for industry profits.

They don’t draw lessons from the fact that people support animal-related legislation, even at the expense of their own economic interests:

  • During the 2008 election, for example, Massachusetts voters ended greyhound racing.
  • In 2007, Oregon voters followed Florida’s 2002 lead and banned gestation crates for pigs.
  • In 2006, Arizona voters passed a farm animal protection statute banning veal crates, while Michigan voters defeated a measure to increase hunting in the State.
  • And in November 2008, Californians voted overwhelmingly to end battery cages for chickens.

The conclusion they should draw from these votes but fail to reach is that Americans don’t just care about dogs and cats; they even care about animals with which they do not have personal relationships. So we need to put to bed, once and for all, the idea that dogs and cats—animals most Americans now consider cherished members of their family—need to die in U.S. shelters because people are irresponsible and don’t care enough about them.

If they would only open their eyes, they would see tremendous proof of caring all around them, which has been growing over the years. It is what I call in my book as “The Changing B’s.” For much of 19th Century, animals lived in our barns and were seen as commodities: they herded sheep, pulled plows, took goods to market, and kept barns free of mice.

In the 20th Century, they moved to our backyards. Increasing affluence, education, division of labor, and urbanization changed our views of dogs and cats. They became “pets” instead of workers.

Recently, we see the ethic shift significantly, as they move into our bedrooms. The “companion animal” comes of age.When it set itself up as an adversary with the public, our movement got it wrong. People love animals. To end the killing, we need to harness that compassion. By implementing the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. And that is how achieve a No Kill nation.

It is the public which has made the difference in successful communities because the public cares. That is what Dorothy must be made to see. That is what we must make all the Dorothies see. Everywhere you look, there is deep love for animals. Everywhere you look, there is our own reflection of that love. We must make them see that it truly is a wonderful world.

To see a video montage set to music, click here.