Our Eyes on the Real Prize

Reaching Higher and Why I Now Disown My Progeny, the 90% Rule


Lane “was underdosed with Fatal Plus by a staff member and placed in a cage where he began seizing. He suffered for 90 minutes” at a shelter that some call “No Kill” because it saves 90% of the animals. It is time for a new approach.

The City of Irvine’s shelter in California saves 91% of the animals. For people living in communities that kill that percentage, it must sound like nirvana. And there is no question that with shelters in this country killing roughly 40% of animals on average, many killing twice that percentage, and some killing over 90%, the City of Irvine is a better shelter than many, if not most. But is it nirvana for the animals? It is not. Is it No Kill? No.

Rescuers and volunteers at that shelter have recently come forward and documented abuse and killing of savable animals, including a veterinarian who referred to himself as “Dr. Death.”  Why does he call himself that? Because he apparently admits he enjoys killing animals—animals who have adopters waiting, animals with treatable conditions, healthy, full term puppies in utero, and animals such as Lane, a 14 week old kitten.

Lane, a cat diagnosed with FIV, was scheduled to be killed. No follow-up test was done even though the test is prone to error, especially on young kittens, and even though, most important of all, Lane was not experiencing symptoms of the disease. Instead, Lane was killed, not only in full view of other cats, but in a manner that caused grave and prolonged suffering. According to an expose of the shelter, “He was underdosed with Fatal Plus by a staff member and placed in a cage where he began seizing. He suffered for 90 minutes before finally being injected with a weight appropriate dose of Fatal Plus.”   He is not the only one. The Executive Director has resigned under a cloud of misconduct, “Dr. Death” is on his way out, too, and, thankfully, the City is claiming to be moving forward with reforms.

At another California shelter with a 90% save rate that also calls itself No Kill, a lawsuit will soon be filed alleging, among other things, fraud. According to the complaint, the shelter believes it has carte blanche to call itself No Kill while killing healthy and highly treatable animals so long as the save rate doesn’t drop below 90%. At this shelter, plaintiffs have documented dogs who were killed for arbitrary reasons and cats with minor colds falling to the needle.

There are 90% shelters that kill community cats. Indeed, one such shelter asks people to fill out a “euthanize card” when bringing in feral cats. That way, they do not impact the shelter’s statistics as they are considered turned in for purposes of killing. There are shelters that exclude “owner requested killing” and deaths in kennels as doing so would reduce save rates below 90%. Others that are at 90% kill large, exuberant dogs, pit bulls, or kill healthy and treatable bunnies and other animals. Moreover, some communities use coalition-wide rates which include healthy animals brought in from outside the jurisdiction to keep the save rate up, while treatable animals from their city are still killed, such as occurs in San Francisco.

Despite this, there are some who insist that if a community saves 90% of the animals, it must be classified as “No Kill.” In reality, No Kill has nothing to do with a shelter achieving a 90% save rate, but, rather, ending the killing of all healthy and treatable animals, including all community cats and species beyond dogs and cats as well. While that number should—given advances in veterinary and behavior medicine since the introduction of the 90% threshold—be between 95% and 100% of all animals, varying slightly from year to year, the question we must ask of every shelter claiming to be No Kill is not, did they save 90%? But rather, did they save the lives of every single healthy and treatable animal entering the shelter?

So where did this rubric for determining whether or not a shelter is living up to its responsibilities to the animals and the people it serves come from?

It came from me.

The first time the “90%” rule was articulated was in my 2007 book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, in which, on page 110, I wrote:

A shelter succeeds at saving all healthy and treatable dogs and cats, including feral cats, when it is saving roughly 90 to 95 percent of all impounded animals.

Why did I say this?

In the mid-2000s, after serving as the director of the shelter in Tompkins County, New York, I founded the No Kill Advocacy Center, an organization committed to ending the systematic killing of animals in our nation’s shelters by working to spread the model that had allowed for our tremendous lifesaving success: The No Kill Equation. A series of programs and services which we implemented to replace killing, the No Kill Equation allowed Tompkins County to transform itself: to go from a community that killed healthy dogs and cats to killing none; that killed sick and injured but treatable dogs and cats to killing none; that killed unsocial community cats, or alley cats, to killing none. When I set out to spread the good news with animal lovers so that our success could be replicated in shelters nationwide, I felt it was important to arm activists with a benchmark they should be shooting for. The humane movement at that time didn’t speak about save rates, had no clear data about the kinds or conditions of animals entering shelters, nor how many were healthy and treatable versus hopelessly ill or injured, and so there was little awareness of how much lifesaving was, in fact, possible. While activists across the nation were chanting “Stop the killing!” there was no sense of what, in practice, that actually meant.   And so as a means of not only giving activists a goal to shoot for but to highlight how poorly, in fact, most shelters were performing, with one in two animals entering our nation’s shelters facing death, I promoted the percentage of animals we were able to save in Tompkins County, and in a few other communities we knew about who emulated that success. These communities were saving between 91% and 95% of the animals they took in.


So why is this no longer an accurate way to measure success? For four primary reasons. First, the “90% benchmark” was promulgated with a very limited data set. We now have hundreds of cities and towns across America saving above 90% of the animals and, of those, there are communities saving 97%, 98%, even 99% of them, proving that in citing 90%, my original benchmark, was far too low.

Second, advancements in veterinary medicine have made some commonplace, once fatal illnesses in the shelter no longer so, such as parvovirus. Parvovirus has a good to great prognosis for recovery. In the past, it was a death sentence in a shelter. Moreover, advancements in our understanding of dog behavior have also allowed us to rehabilitate dogs who we once considered nonrehabilitatable and dangerous. Today, greater save rates are possible, so our duty to animals demands that we no longer measure today’s performance by yesteryear’s now antiquated veterinary standards.

The third important thing that has changed since I first began promulgating the 90% benchmark a decade ago is the climate of public opinion in which shelter directors once operated. The first No Kill communities were achieved by bold leaders with the courage to challenge the status quo at a time when virtually every shelter and every large, national animal protection group was openly hostile to No Kill. These were people who were willing to embrace a new way of operating, and that meant being motivated by truly saving lives rather than simply placating disgruntled, animal loving citizens who organized for and demanded change. A growing awareness of the viability of No Kill and the exponential growth in communities achieving unparalleled levels of life saving for their communities has stripped regressive shelter directors of the political cover they once enjoyed. There is no longer the same safety in numbers they once found when they resisted change, and that, combined with large, national groups likewise under pressure to evolve (and evolving), it isn’t as easy as it once was to resist or forestall positive improvement. And so we are now seeing a more widespread implementation of many of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation by shelter directors who once tenaciously fought such innovations—not because of an innate drive to do better for the animals and people they serve, but because with an increasingly savvy No Kill movement stripping them of the myths and excuses they once used to justify their resistance to greater lifesaving, many of them simply have no choice but to evolve their practices. (On a different but equally important note, this success proves how easy it is to bring the vast majority of shelter killing—done primarily out of habit and convenience—to an abrupt end. When shelters stop compulsively reaching for the needle as they have done for most of the history of animal sheltering in this country and instead implement simple, common sense alternatives to killing such as foster care for sick and orphaned, neonatal animals, TNR for community cats instead of killing, and actively promoting and marketing animals for adoption instead of passively impounding and killing them, much of the routine killing stops. These successes prove that shelter killing is not, as has been argued for over half a century, the fault of the public, but rather, the fault of shelters which choose to kill in spite of other options.)

Fourth, the large, national groups are embracing methods of reducing killing that allow shelters to do so without any additional work on their part by telling them to simply stop taking in animals if they don’t plan to do anything other than kill. In what is no doubt terribly appealing to shelter directors who lack the internal compunction to save as many lives as possible and do not want to do the hard work of cleaning cages, medicating animals, socializing them to keep them happy and healthy, promoting them for adoption, and actually finding them homes, the large, national groups are giving them permission to respond to calls for shelter reform by working even less, not more. Campaigns like the Million Cat Challenge and the California White Paper invite shelters simply not to take animals in or only to take them in for purposes of sterilizing and rerelease, rather than adoption. And while I welcome shelters not taking in animals if they plan to kill them in lieu of offering the care they are being paid by taxpayers to provide and while I acknowledge that not all cats outdoors are in need of shelter assistance, this move to encourage shelters to simply abdicate their responsibilities to animals instead of putting in the effort necessary to not only take in animals but to care for them in a life-affirming manner is a false choice,   one that, just as before, often places the interests of lazy shelter directors before the welfare of the animals they are tasked by the community they serve to care for. In essence, the large, national groups promoting this agenda, groups like HSUS and the ASPCA, are telling shelter directors that in light of public pressure being generated from nationwide No Kill success, the best thing to do is not to innovate and modernize operations, but to simply close their doors, ironically prescribing that kill shelters become the very thing that was once the backbone of their efforts to publicly malign and disparage No Kill shelters: the false accusation that they were successful only because they turned their backs on animals.

Because of changes such as these, no more does a 90% save rate necessarily hinge on a comprehensive change in leadership that replaces the director who dug in her heels with one eager to save lives and personally unwilling to kill any healthy and treatable animal. Today, many shelters which are achieving 90% save rates are doing so with the same directors who once oversaw the shelter when it was little more than an assembly line of killing. Shelter directors of this sort find the same sort of shield to enable and defend their needless killing in the 90% benchmark that they once found in the collective resistance to No Kill by the entire humane movement. When you are an individual who is motivated not by what is right and by doing the best job possible, but by putting in only the amount of effort as is necessary to reduce public scrutiny and complaint, there is no intrinsic motivation to save the remaining ten percent of animals if saving only 90% gets you off the hook. And as the last 10% may be more challenging, why bother when the movement is willing to say you have already crossed the finish line?

Of course, while I celebrate the fact that shelters that use to kill 50% of the animals are now saving 90% and while I celebrate the hundreds that now do so, allowing the last ten percent of animals who are still being killed at these shelters to be swept under the rug was never what I intended when I began promoting the 90% benchmark almost a decade ago. And while, until somewhat recently, the “90% Rule” was an incredibly powerful tool for inspiring change, one that motivated activists, and highlighted—by the sheer contrast it afforded—just how poorly our nation’s shelters were performing, changing circumstances have tragically allowed it to morph into a tool that is being misused and abused by unscrupulous shelter directors to justify needless killing. The time has come to reach higher.

While the “90% Rule” is my progeny, it is one necessity and ethics compel me to reject and to urge others to reject in favor of a more accurate and fair gauge: the answer to the straightforward question: Has a shelter fully and comprehensively ended the killing of all healthy and treatable animals, whatever the species? Likewise, I encourage animal lovers to reject the false answer of “Yes” when the save rate is in the low 90s.

For as I believe and I know most animal lovers do, too, I hold this truth to be self-evident: that each and every animal entering a shelter is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Not just 90% of them:

For further reading:

They’re More Like Guidelines

When No Kill Isn’t

No Bunny Left Behind


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