Why does one shelter send thousands of animals every year into foster care, and another kills puppies and kittens because the shelter director “doesn’t want” a foster care program? Why does one shelter set up temporary adoption cages and kennels during peak periods, while another keeps half the cages empty year around for ease of cleaning? Why does one shelter offer legitimate rescue groups “any animal, any time,” while another refuses to work with them? The answer is leadership.

Leadership: a passion for saving lives. It is the single most important element of the No Kill Equation. It is what causes communities to achieve No Kill. Lack of leadership is why communities fail

Back in January, I did a review of the highlights and lowlights of 2008. I also went on to write that,

The New Year opened in Reno, Nevada on January 1, as it did all over the country with one exception. Unlike most shelters which close on holidays, the Nevada Humane Society opened its doors on New Year’s Day and saved 49 animals: 35 cats, 13 dogs, and 1 bird in the first six adoption hours of 2009. By contrast, the shelters of the City of Los Angeles “are closed for adoptions on … Holidays.” In other words, they are closed when working people and families with children in school—the two most sought after demographics—are available to adopt animals. Is it any surprise that despite taking in three times the number of animals per capita, and despite the fact that Los Angeles is one of the best funded shelter systems in the nation, that Reno is saving more lives? It all comes down to leadership.

Half a year later, we are seeing the difference. It is not surprising that despite a very difficult economic climate (tops-in-the-nation unemployment rates and a foreclosure crisis), Reno shelters also have nation-best save rates, while Los Angeles death rates are climbing. On the Fourth of July, the Nevada Humane Society was open again. So was another shelter I noted was worthy of keeping an eye on in 2009 in that January blog: Indianapolis Animal Care & Control (IACC). They too decided to stay open on July 4 and did a big adoption promotion. The result? 150 dogs and cats found homes. Move to Act, a long-time critic of regressive shelter policies and a champion for No Kill policies in that community, wrote that,

There was not only a sense of excitement with the IACC staff today, but also a sense of hope… that the agency is beginning to turn the corner for better helping the animals get out alive. The long, winding drive from Harding St to the IACC parking lot was cars parked bumper-to-bumper on both sides of the drive. People were at the facility who had never been there before, and if they didn’t find who they were looking for, they were planning on returning in the future.  There were more people than animals available.

And once again, City of Los Angeles shelters along with many across the country still steeped in a culture of killing, were closed. The difference again was leadership.

Leadership is why a shelter with only $1.50 animal control funding per capita is able to save 90 percent of all animals at its open admission shelter, and lack of leadership is why a shelter with $8.50 per capita in funding slaughters most cats entering its facility. Leadership is why No Kill communities are being created in places as diverse as California and Kentucky. And why killing rates are increasing at those shelters whose “leaders” have not embraced—and demanded—a culture of lifesaving.

True leaders always demand better. By contrast, those who are running shelters but incapable of leadership are offering excuses: “the economy,” “the irresponsible public,” “the animals are not adoptable,” and the boogeyman of them all, “pet overpopulation.”

But those shelters which are succeeding are succeeding despite the economic climate. And those shelters which are succeeding despite high intake rates which conventional wisdom says is indicative of irresponsibility also have very high stray animal reclaim rates (evidencing the opposite?) and nation-best save rates. And those shelters which are succeeding, are saving nine out of ten dogs and cats proving that the vast majority of animals are “adoptable.” And finally, while “pet overpopulation” is accepted with a level of religious fervor, the numbers simply do not add up that way: 17 million people next year are looking to bring a new animal into their home and can be influenced to adopt the 3 million animals available. Even if 85% of them get their pet from other than a shelter, we can eliminate the killing of these animals entirely.

As I indicated in my book, Redemption:

There are many reasons why shelters kill animals at this point in time, but pet overpopulation is not one of them. In the case of a small percentage of animals, the animals may be hopelessly sick or injured, or the dogs are so vicious that placing them would put adoptive families at risk.*  Aside from this relatively small number of cases (only seven percent of the animals in Tompkins County), shelters also kill for less merciful reasons.

They kill because they make the animals sick through sloppy cleaning and poor handling. They kill because they do not want to care for sick animals. They kill because they do not effectively use the Internet and the media to promote their pets. They kill because they think volunteers are more trouble than they are worth, even though those volunteers would help to eliminate the “need” for killing. They kill because they don’t want a foster care program. They kill because they are only open for adoption when people are at work and families have their children in school. They kill because they discourage visitors with their poor customer service. They kill because they do not help people overcome problems that can lead to increased impounds. They kill because they refuse to work with rescue groups. They kill because they haven’t embraced TNR for feral cats. They kill because they won’t socialize feral kittens. They kill because they don’t walk the dogs, which makes the dogs so highly stressed that they become “cage crazy.” They then kill them for being “cage crazy.” They kill because their shoddy tests allow them to claim the animals are “unadoptable.” They kill because their draconian laws empower them to kill.

Some kill because they are steeped in a culture of defeatism, or because they are under the thumb of regressive health or police department oversight. But they still kill. They never say, “we kill because we have accepted killing in lieu of having to put in place foster care, pet retention, volunteer, TNR, public relations, and other programs.” In short, they kill because they have failed to do what is necessary to stop killing.

And they have failed to do what is necessary to stop killing because they lack leadership. So that takes us to a three-step program for achieving a No Kill nation: regime change, removing the discretion to kill, recruiting true leaders.

Step One: Regime Change

It is time to point the finger of blame for animals being killed where it belongs: directly on the shelter managers who continue to kill despite readily available lifesaving alternatives. It is time for regime change.

Step Two: Shelter Reform Legislation

We need shelter reform legislation which mandates the programs and services which have proven so successful at lifesaving in shelters which have implemented them; follows the only model that has actually created a No Kill community; and, focuses its effort on the very shelters that are doing the killing. In this way, shelter leadership is forced to embrace No Kill and operate their shelters in a progressive, life-affirming way, removing the discretion which has for too long allowed shelter leaders to ignore what is in the best interests of the animals and kill them needlessly.

Step Three: Leadership

And finally, we need leaders. Again I turn to Redemption,

Anyone with a deep and abiding love for animals and a “can do” attitude can take on positions of leadership at SPCAs, humane societies, and animal control shelters across the nation, and quickly achieve the kind of lifesaving results that were once dismissed as nothing more than “hoaxes” or “smoke and mirrors” by the leaders of the past. With no allegiance to the status quo or faith in conventional “wisdom,” new leaders can cause dog and cat deaths to plummet in cities and counties by rejecting the “adopt some and kill the rest” inertia of the past one hundred years… It is time for the humane movement to develop a new definition of “leadership,” a definition not based on who has the biggest budget or the loudest voice, but rather on success relating to the most important job a shelter has—saving lives.

We don’t know who the No Kill leaders of tomorrow are. But we know who they are not today: their shelters were closed on July 4 to the adopting public. On July 5, they also ordered the animals killed claiming “lack of space” at the shelter.

For further reading:

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* This killing is also being challenged by sanctuaries and hospice care groups, a movement that is also growing in scale and scope and which all compassionate people must embrace.

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