And what it means for other communities.

In 2018, Huntsville Animal Services (HAS) placed 90% of dogs and 92% of cats, earning Huntsville/Madison County the distinction of being the only place in Alabama to reach the 90% marker on the road to No Kill. A few years ago, it was placing only 24% of dogs and cats, putting nearly eight out of 10 animals to death. Getting there was not “rocket science.”

That’s the premise — indeed the title — of a new book by Aubrie Kavanaugh about the transition of HAS from a place where the vast majority of animals were being taken out the back door in garbage bags to one where nine out of 10 now go out the front door in the loving arms of families.

The title is doubly apt. First, because Huntsville ⁠— the site of a NASA center that designed the Saturn V, “the rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon” ⁠— is nicknamed “Rocket City.” Second, and more importantly, because to get into the 90% Club, HAS embraced the No Kill Equation, the programs and services which have led to all the communities of the 90% Club. As Kavanaugh explains, “Existing no kill communities across the country do not have anything Huntsville does not have, so there was no reason we could not follow the same path as those places and keep animals alive. Because Huntsville is also called the ‘Rocket City,’ the mind-set was simple: Saving pets is not rocket science, and even if it were, that’s okay. We have people for that.” Fortunately, rocket scientist-level geniuses would prove unnecessary.

That’s because the No Kill Equation — the means by which shelters across the nation can achieve immediate and dramatic reductions in shelter killing — isn’t complicated. It simply requires municipal pound administrators to implement common-sense, cost-effective, readily-available alternatives to killing.

The No Kill Equation: A Solution to Shelter Killing

Animals enter shelters for a variety of reasons and with a variety of needs, but for over 100 years until the early 2000s when the No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization, began advocating for the No Kill Equation, the “solution” at every municipal “shelter” across the nation was the same: adopt a few and kill the rest. And until No Kill Huntsville began advocating for change, that is exactly what HAS did, with decidedly deadly results. By contrast, the No Kill Equation provides a humane, life-affirming means of responding to every type of animal entering a shelter, and every type of need those animals might have.

For example, some animals entering shelters are community cats. Many of these cats are not social with people and do not want to live in a human home. At traditional shelters, as such, they are deemed “unadoptable” and are killed, but in a No Kill Equation community, they are sterilized and released back to their habitats. Some animals entering shelters are motherless puppies and kittens. At traditional shelters, these animals are not yet ready for adoption, so they are often killed as well. In a No Kill Equation community, they are sent into a foster home to provide around-the-clock care until they are eating on their own and old enough to be adopted. Some animals have medical or behavior issues. At a traditional shelter, they are killed. In a No Kill Equation community, they are provided with rehabilitative care and then adopted. Whatever the situation,the No Kill Equation provides a lifesaving alternative that replaces killing.

And that’s important because the fundamental lesson from the experiences of the communities that have achieved success, including Huntsville, is that the choices made by shelter managers are the most significant variables in whether animals live or die. The public didn’t change in Rocket City; the shelter did. To underscore this point, Kavanaugh debunks misleading claims that no one wants to kill (or at least, that they find killing easier than doing what is necessary and proven to stop it), that falsely blames the public for the killing, and that falsely claims that unless and until all people adopt, spay/neuter, and volunteer, the killing cannot be stopped. She notes that, “The public in Huntsville and Madison County, Alabama did not suddenly become more responsible; the public was interested in saving the lives of animals all along. What changed… was the shelter operation itself.”

The Myth of Collaboration: It Took a Fight

But that change did not come easy and Kavanaugh believes it is important for activists in communities still killing the majority of animals entering local pounds to understand that. Now that a certain measure of success has been achieved, the history of the struggle to achieve that success is being rewritten, as it has in other cities such as Austin, Texas, as the result of “collaboration.” It was not. It was the result of sustained political advocacy in the face of entrenched opposition. The pound dug in its heels and government officials ignored and even sought to assassinate the character of citizens seeking change. As a result, “it took years longer than it would have taken had city officials” willingly embraced the No Kill Equation. And that has a body count attached to it.

For example, when No Kill Huntsville started advocating for change, a “shelter” employee established a Facebook page to attack citizens advocating for better treatment and outcomes for animals at the pound, with other municipal officials contributing to it. In other words, HAS, a government agency, was defaming (or at least disparaging) tax-paying citizens for expressing their First Amendment right to petition their government for a redress of grievances, a potentially illegal attempt to repress speech. After filing a complaint for conduct unbecoming of city officials, the City shut the page down.

“We do a disservice to those places [still fighting their pounds to stop killing] if we behave as if our progress was achieved by reaching across differences, finding common ground and all working together to seek a newer and better future.” Indeed, after it joined the 90% Club, the director admitted “that she spent too many years moving slowly” and that “she should have been acting with a greater sense of urgency.”

The Myth of 90%: Huntsville is Not No Kill

Kavanaugh hopes that this newly embraced “greater sense of urgency” is now applied to those animals still losing their lives, but that’s not likely to happen as long as national groups, like Best Friends, keep peddling the fiction that a 90% placement rate is No Kill. Although the City is at 90% for dogs and 92% for cats, Kavanaugh points to other communities with placement rates as high as 98%. In fact, there are a number of communities with placement rates of 99%-100%, proving that a 90% benchmark is too low. Still dying in Huntsville are treatable cats, as well as medium and large dogs who can and should be rehabilitated and placed. She admits that Huntsville is not the unqualified “success story” she hoped given how long it took, failure to pass comprehensive reform legislation like the Huntsville Animal Protection Act, and with placement rates only in the low 90s. Nonetheless, given that HAS was killing eight out of 10 animals when No Kill Huntsville began advocating for change, there is a lot to be proud of. And there is still a lot to teach other advocates in other communities struggling with pound directors still steeped in a culture of killing.

Of all the lessons the book offers — the need to embrace the No Kill Equation, the importance of political advocacy, the willingness to fight when that is what the situation calls for (such as when efforts to collaborate are rebuffed), and the focus on changing the pound’s behavior, rather than the public’s — perhaps none is as important as challenging false narratives that allow the killing to continue. Kavanaugh does this by taking to task the “starfish” metaphor when applied to “shelter” killing. The well-known and cliched metaphor is usually offered as some variant of the following:

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

While Kavanaugh would no doubt celebrate rescuers who save lives, no matter how many or how few, she believes (correctly) that its conclusion is wrong when applied to shelters. The No Kill philosophy, the No Kill Equation, and political advocacy to force a shelter to embrace them, proves that we can indeed make a difference not just for a small number of animals, but for the vast majority: as high as 99% or better. Huntsville may not yet be there, but it is close. And even if Huntsville isn’t there, others are. We no longer have to choose between one starfish or another. We can save all the healthy and treatable starfish — and in this case all the animals in “shelters” — because we already have. Something can’t be impossible if it has already been achieved.

“See you on the beach.”

Not Rocket Science: A Story of No Kill Animal Shelter Advocacy in Huntsville, Alabama,” is available on Amazon.

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