Articles Articles (Essential)

No Kill 2.0

In 1998, the California legislature enacted a comprehensive shelter reform package that, among other things, increased holding periods, incentivized adoptions, made it illegal for public and private “shelters” to kill animals who rescue groups were willing to save, and made it the policy of the state of California to end the killing of healthy and treatable animals. The legislation passed 96 to 12, as close to unanimity as possible in a state as large and as diverse as California.

As part of the reform, it defined “treatable” animals as those who could be rehabilitated with reasonable efforts. The goal was to increase the number of animals being saved. But increasing the number of animals being saved was not the goal of the leadership of those pounds, especially since their budgets were determined by how many animals they killed. The higher the kill rate, the more dollars flowing into their departments from taxpayer coffers. So they did what unethical people who have no regard for the lives of animals do, they sought ways to exploit loopholes in the language of the state law to continue killing. The fact that the people overwhelming demanded a commitment to lifesaving was of no moment. They were accountable to no one, least of all those who paid their salaries with their tax and philanthropic dollars.

Never mind that they were running institutions that were supposed to reflect the values of their constituents, that the killing was being done in the name of the people of the State of California, and that the people were being blamed for it. Never mind that the very same people, through their elected representatives, provided a framework for lifesaving. Directors who killed with impunity before the law was enacted were committed to killing afterward by flouting the law, both in letter and spirit.

Some shelters simply ignored the law, ignored the holding periods, ignored the rescue and other mandates and defiantly continued doing what they always did. (Kern County was sued six years after enactment and had no choice but to admit “guilt”.) Other directors throughout the state employed, with the blessing of their superiors, definitions and protocols to twist the meaning of statutory language beyond recognition. Despite the fact that the new law required shelters to provide dogs with regular exercise, the high killing pounds of San Bernardino County claimed that walking a dog from the front desk to his kennel during impound and from his kennel to the killing room four days later constituted the exercise demanded by the people. As part of a reform law, why would the state legislature pass a requirement that only restated what these pounds had already been doing? It wouldn’t. And San Bernardino officials knew it. It was dishonest, dishonorable, illegal, and immoral to be sure. But for scofflaws in agencies committed to a paradigm of neglect, abuse, and killing, it was par for the course.

In order to ignore the legislative policy that no treatable animals be put to death in California, these and other pound directors employed equally Orwellian definitions and policies. For example, many California pounds defined a “treatable” animal as only those conditions that could be fully cured within the state mandated holding period of four days. In one fell swoop, kittens with conjunctivitis, diarrhea, or simple colds, side by side with dogs who had kennel cough and other objectively and easily treatable medical and behavior conditions were now considered “unadoptable” and “untreatable,” an excuse to continue putting them to death with impunity. In fact, the American Humane Association, seeking to provide these killing pounds with the political cover they needed to ensure that their killing paradigm was not upended, even held a workshop where they told shelters that if they do not budget any money for medical care, they could say the animals were not treatable because they had no money to treat them. In one fell swoop, a pound could claim they had no treatable animals simply by refusing to buy antibiotics. It was not what drafters or supporters of the law intended.

But with organizations like Maddie’s Fund telling communities that they were each permitted to define for themselves which animals were healthy or treatable, that each community must determine for itself the lifesaving commitment, shelters were claiming or alluding to the fact that they were No Kill by defining the animals away (the County of Los Angeles, for example, claimed it was saving 91% of all “adoptable” animals despite putting to death 80% of the cats and half of all dogs).

In response, the No Kill Advocacy Center sought a more rational, objective, and honest standard. By looking at save rates of the best performing shelters in the country, it found that shelters were zeroing out the killing of healthy and treatable animals at roughly between 91% and at the time 93% of all the animals. Rather than allow pounds and killing shelters to define “healthy” and “treatable” or “adoptable” and “unadoptable” which they proved they could not be trusted to do so with integrity, the No Kill Advocacy Center promulgated the 90% rule, arguing that roughly 7-9% of the animals entering shelters were either hopelessly ill or injured, irremediably suffering, and in the case of dogs, truly vicious with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation. Except for a small handful of communities, given that almost all communities were killing the majority of all impounded animals, the goal was to increase between 40% and in some cases 80% of the number of animals saved in “shelters.”

Since that time, the number of known communities that have exceeded a 90% rate of lifesaving has grown to well over twenty—a monumental milestone and a cause for celebration. Admittedly, it may seem both premature and an exercise in minutiae to complain about killing in communities with 90% save rates, when some communities still embrace the policies of the pre-Henry Bergh 1860s by killing almost every animal, save for those lucky few reclaimed by their families, such as the regressive and evil (is there any other word for it?) Vermillion Parish, LA pound that refuses to allow adoptions. Or when communities like Memphis, TN not only slaughter seven out of ten animals, but neglect and abuse them in the process, including letting them die of starvation. But, as more and more communities are setting and achieving 90% target save rates, it is worth remembering and perhaps reminding people that the fundamental tenet of the No Kill philosophy is that our commitment is to each individual animal and that each individual animal is entitled to individual consideration. For the healthy feral cat who is killed in a community boasting 90% save rates, the safety net has failed. For the healthy dog who may be untrained, the fact that nine out of ten other dogs are being saved is meaningless. It is not meaningless per se. Indeed, far from it. But it is meaningless to him or her. He is entitled to his very life, a right that is not being honored. The 90% goal was never intended to be an excuse to kill either healthy or treatable animals, including healthy and treatable “feral” free-living cats, so long as the 90% threshold remains intact.

It is also worth remembering and reminding people that veterinary medicine and behavior medicine are not static fields. In fact, over the last few years, we’ve learned a lot, and since the rehabilitation of Michael Vick’s victims, we’ve redefined everything we thought we knew about behavior.   Moreover, with the work of behaviorists like Aimee Sadler in Longmont, Colorado, we are now finding that we can save upwards of 98% of all dogs, and with shelters saving 95% and more of the cats, especially when they mandate TNR for unsocial ones, the notion of a 90% rule is worth revisiting. We must change with the changing times.

It is also worth noting that while the focus on dogs and cats has preoccupied the movement (they are, after all, being slaughtered by the millions), there are other species of sheltered animals still being killed in larger numbers, even in some communities that boast of 90% save rates for dogs and cats. Those communities are certainly not No Kill from the standpoint of rabbits and rabbit lovers, or guinea pigs and guinea pig advocates.

Of course, we must have a language for progress and I am thrilled that there are so many communities nationwide with better than 90% save rates for dogs and cats. Just over a decade ago, we had none. These communities have much to be proud of and much to celebrate, especially given where they’ve come from. But the No Kill journey remains as much a journey in those communities (albeit a shorter one), and not a destination to be used to excuse killing of those who are not being caught by the safety net they’ve established. As animal lovers whose creed is the sanctity of life, who consistently remind those pro-killing shelter administrators in places like Memphis, TN, Fresno, CA, Cincinnati, OH, and elsewhere that “all life is precious,” we can’t ultimately sit back and allow the 90% rule to be limited to dogs and cats or to be used as an excuse to kill animals, so long as we do not fall below the magical 90% threshold. That is not what the No Kill Advocacy Center intended when it promulgated the 90% standard. Otherwise, we become what we claim to abhor, people who twist meanings to fit our own agendas. Like California’s killing directors of the late 1990s, we defend an unethical status quo (though one much closer to the goal line and certainly with a much lowered body count).

Austin, Texas, has the highest save rate of any urban community in the United States today. Despite over 20,000 impounds annually, Austin is on pace for a better than 90% save rates for dogs and cats this year, a monumental achievement and a beacon of hope for advocates in darker parts of the country. But it is certainly not No Kill from the standpoint of other species of animals and it continues to kill large, healthy, but “ill-mannered” dogs. Charlottesville, Virginia has saved roughly 90% of dogs and cats every year for five years, but it is still killing healthy and treatable “feral” cats. Tompkins County, New York, has saved at least 92% of the animals every year for the last 10 years. But, while it used to save 100% of healthy animals (including non-dog and cat species such as rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, hamsters, and others), 100% of treatable animals, and 100% of healthy and treatable feral cats, it has killed “feral” cats since my departure.

Are 90-93% save rates in these and similar communities commendable in light of the mass slaughter occurring in places like Memphis? Absolutely. Should other communities aspire to similar success? Absolutely. Should they proudly promote their success? Absolutely. Are they saving all healthy and treatable animals (or, looking at it from the other side, only killing hopelessly ill or injured animals, irremediably suffering animals, and in the case of dogs, those who are truly vicious with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation)? Some are; some are not.   Are they killing healthy and treatable rabbits, guinea pigs, or other species of animals who are just as entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as a dog or cat? They might be. In other words, should they sit back and announce mission accomplished? Absolutely not. There is still work to be done, programs to improve upon, and lives to be saved.

In fact, even if a community is truly saving all healthy and treatable animals, even if a community is saving healthy and treatable animals of all species, and even if they refuse to spay pregnant animals and kill kittens and puppies just because they are deemed “unborn,” they still have not finished their work. As I’ve said before and as I wrote in Irreconcilable Differences,

Indeed, it does not follow that killing of any hopelessly ill, injured or vicious animal is actually ethical. Most animal advocates are not calling for hopelessly ill or injured sheltered animals to be put up for adoption while irremediably suffering because that is cruel. And few, if any, are calling for truly vicious dogs to be adopted into homes in the community because that is dangerous. While over 90 percent of dogs and cats entering shelters would fall outside this limited range of exceptions, it does not follow that the remainder should be killed. While fewer than 10 percent of shelter animals may not be healthy or treatable, the vast majority of those are not suffering. This might include a dog with cancer whose prognosis is grave, but who still has a good quality of life for a limited time. It might include a cat with renal disease in its early stages. In fact, these animals live without pain, at least until they succumb to their illness.


Today, the great challenge in sheltering is between No Kill advocates working to ensure that healthy animals, animals with treatable medical conditions, and feral animals, are no longer killed in shelters and the defenders of tradition who claim that killing animals under the guise of “euthanasia” is necessary and proper. As the No Kill paradigm becomes more established, however, the humane movement will have to confront other ethical quandaries within our philosophy.


These ethical quandaries include: killing dogs who are aggressive but can lead happy lives in sanctuaries where they cannot harm the public; and killing hopelessly ill animals rather than giving them hospice care. Even today, the idea of killing at all is challenged by a small but growing movement of sanctuaries and hospice care groups. They argue for a “third door” between adoption and killing. That these issues have not yet been rigorously debated within the No Kill movement does not mean they shouldn’t be. They should. Compassion must be embraced whenever it presents itself, especially when it furthers an animal’s right to live.

Every social movement that grows quickly, becomes successful, and replaces the status quo is subject to disagreements and factions. We are naïve if we believe, contrary to the experiences of other social movements in history, that the No Kill movement will be the sole exception. Indeed, we are already starting to see those tensions. And some day, those who are currently fighting side-by-side with us will turn their “guns” on those of us who join the next generation of lifesaving advocates who aren’t satisfied with 95% save rates and want to push the envelope even further. And ironically, they will call us the same thing they were called for carrying the banner of saving lives: “unreasonable.” The next generation of No Kill advocates who challenge the killing of even 5% of the animals will ask our generation to end the killing, and having become the status quo (admittedly a better status quo than we are fighting), many in the No Kill movement will draw a line in the sand and say, as we’ve been told by the current traditionalists, “that goes too far.”

We can see it even today. There are shelter directors saving 90% of animals who oppose rights of rescue access, claiming they alone have the authority to determine which groups are responsible and which groups are not. In their view, what makes them different from killing directors is that they believe their standards are reasonable, while the ones used by killing directors are not. There are No Kill shelter directors who recoil at the thought that the people can and should, through their elected representatives, determine which animals go to rescue and which animals should not be entitled to that safety net of care, because they alone claim to hold the expertise to weigh risk and benefit. There are No Kill shelter directors who do not believe in the right of transparency by giving the public access to their killing rates, because they do not trust the people enough with the information and fear that even with 90% save rates, they will be accused of too much killing.

Should we honor them for achieving “No Kill-level” save rates, when butchers in Memphis and Cincinnati are operating assembly lines of death? We should. At the same time, are we heading for conflict as we try to codify those successes by passing laws mandating transparency, rescue access, and the other needed policies? We are. That appears inevitable, as their progressive tendencies have the kinds of limits that those of us who believe in the principles of full transparency and legislative rights do not share. In other words, they, too, have their blind spots.

Of course, we should support and embrace any community pushing toward 90%-level save rates and we should continue to celebrate when they actually achieve them. When Cincinnati is putting to death seven out of ten animals despite only 15,000 intakes a year, while Reno is saving nine out of ten with the same intakes but half the population, Reno is a shining light, a Camelot on the hill. We must demand that the SPCA of Cincinnati do the job it was entrusted to do but which it is not doing, as the Nevada Humane Society has done theirs. That shouldn’t change. But we must also continue to challenge our own assumptions so that we not become complacent in our own thinking, unable to see that the avant garde of today can become the entrenched dogmatic excuses of tomorrow. Again, I turn to Irreconcilable Differences,

It has been said that rare is the individual who can see beyond the mores of his or her own time. I’ve always admired such people and try to emulate them. Even if I never get there, I strive to. I struggle to. That is why I read history; to remind myself that those in our past who have moved us forward were those who continually questioned the accepted values and beliefs of their time, and never let custom or the pervasiveness of a practice deter them from championing what they deduced to be right. In doing so, they laid out a vision for a more compassionate and ethical future for all of us. And so I continually question, and will continue to question, regardless of what may seem like a practical imperative, whether we go far enough in our actions for and in defense of our companion animal friends and family. It is a tremendous responsibility to speak for the interests of someone else—especially when that someone else cannot speak for themselves, especially when it involves life and death:

With that in mind, we should offer hearty congratulations to the people of Austin, Texas for their monumental achievement in saving a higher percentage of dogs and cats than any urban community in the nation. They have much to be proud of. At the same time, we should urge them to climb higher, to work diligently and with all deliberate speed to expand that success to other species of sheltered animals and to bring into their protective lifesaving embrace all healthy, but large, ill-mannered dogs who are still losing their lives.

We should also offer hearty congratulations to the people of Charlottesville, Virginia for their monumental achievement in saving roughly 90% of dogs and cats every year for the last five years, as we offer the same to the people of Tompkins for doing so for ten years. They, too, have much to be proud of. At the same time, we should urge them to climb higher, to work diligently and with all deliberate speed to expand that success to all healthy and treatable “feral” cats who are still being killed. They are equally deserving of the right to live guaranteed to other animals in those shelters

Indeed, we should offer our hearty congratulations to the roughly two-dozen known communities who are saving better than 90% of the animals and the large numbers of others that are very nearly there. At the same time, I urge them to climb higher, to work diligently and with all deliberate speed to catch up to those communities saving upwards of 95% of cats and 98% of dogs. And I urge them to be as committed to rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, hamsters, rats, and birds, as they are to dogs and cats.

Given that a 90% save rate remains out of reach for most communities because of pro-killing directors, union-protected shirkers on staff, and bureaucratic indifference within local government, I will continue to focus my energies on working to getting those communities to higher rates of lifesaving and to assisting advocates and activists fighting for No Kill in their hometowns. But I will also lend my voice and my influence to those advocates out there working to ensure that the 90% threshold isn’t used as an excuse to kill those who the “90% rule” was intended to protect (namely, all healthy and treatable animals, including healthy and treatable feral cats). I will also lend my voice to those who want to push the envelope even further, by making hospice care and sanctuary the right for those who fall outside an even expanded definition of “savable”: the cat with advanced kidney disease; the dog who can’t be around people but who loves other dogs.

And I urge my colleagues in the No Kill movement not to call them what the current status quo calls us. I urge my colleagues in the No Kill movement to check their own “traditional” thinking at the door, even if that traditional thinking is “new” relative to who and what we are fighting. We must welcome the debate. We must strive onward and upward because while 90% is a monumental milestone and a goal worth celebrating, it is simply that, one milestone. When I was the director in Tompkins County, our save rate was 93% As some communities have since proved, we can push past even that—to 96%, 97%, and higher. But even then, given not just continual advances in veterinary and behavior medicine and the more widespread opportunities for sanctuary and hospice care, as well as our own moral evolution, until we save each and every animal who enters a shelter, there is no finish line.

Even as we succeed in more and more communities, we must not simply sit back and wait for the others to catch up. We must update our efforts to reflect the changing nature of the No Kill debate within our own movement. We must upgrade to No Kill 2.0 with open and loving arms. The animals who are currently falling through the cracks that continue to exist also deserve our protective embrace.