They’re More Like Guidelines

The 90% Rule  Guideline


When I was hired as the director of the animal shelter in Tompkins County, New York, neither I nor anyone else had an idea exactly what percentage of animals entering shelters could be saved. National organizations, like the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA and the American Humane Association, which claimed to be leading the humane movement weren’t interested in figuring that out, content as they were to excuse shelter killing under the myth that were simply too many animals, not enough homes. Why?

If you are an agency that is supposed to be providing oversight and you intentionally fail to, standards are a threat. Standards invite comparison and comparison can compel criticism. So while trying to figure out exactly what percentage of animals in shelters can be saved in order to gauge success and highlight areas of deficiency is important if you are seeking improvement and accountability, if you are not—that is, if no matter how many animals a shelter needlessly kills, you do not intend to do anything about it—then setting a benchmark for which we should both strive and hold shelters accountable to is dangerous. Because not only can such a standard be used to criticize your friends and colleagues who run shelters, but they could be used to criticize you for failing to hold them accountable, too. And that is why they were—and continue to be—very careful never to address the issue. This  laissez-faire approach to sheltering championed by HSUS and other has allowed our shelters to remain virtually unsupervised and unregulated for decades, with devastating results. I set out to change that.

When I worked in San Francisco, we were saving roughly 80% of animals communitywide, but treatable animals were still being killed at the city pound. Because the leadership of the San Francisco SPCA refused to expand the safety-net of care (my plea to the Board of Directors to commit to saving all treatable animals having fallen on deaf ears), I left for Tompkins County to prove that at an open admission shelter could not only save all the healthy animals, but all the treatable ones as well. And while I was there, our save rate hit 93% (about 95% using the methods in vogue today). Reno and then several other communities emulated the model, and, likewise, began posting similar save rates: Charlottesville hit 92% and Reno hit 91%.

But with many communities claiming they were No Kill while still killing half or more of all animals, I promulgated what I called, “The 90% Rule,” arguing that—based on the best performing shelters at the time, along with dog bite extrapolation data and rates of infectious diseases in the cat and feral population—only when a community was saving animals in the 90th percentile range was it likely zeroing out deaths of healthy and treatable animals.

In fact, if I had excluded what are now called “owner required euthanasia”* and did not exclude out of county animals, our save rate in Tompkins County was closer to 95% , perhaps more, and I could—and perhaps should—have promulgated a “95% Rule.” Indeed, I use 95% in both Irreconcilable Differences and talk about 95-98% in Friendly Fire. Hindsight is 20/20. More importantly, a lot has changed in 10 years. I left Tompkins nearly a decade ago and, and as our knowledge of behavior and shelter medicine has expanded, we have the ability to save animals who would have had a poor to grave prognosis just a few short years ago. In fact, once generally fatal diseases such as parvovirus now have a good prognosis for recovery, which is why we are increasingly seeing communities post save rates as high as 98% and even higher. Shelby County, Kentucky, for example, finished 2012 with a 99% save rate for dogs and cats and a 100% save rate for rabbits and other animals. That thrills me.

This sort of progress is what I was hoping would occur. Sharing the advancements that make these higher rates possible is also part of the mission of my organization, the No Kill Advocacy Center, because we want people to understand that our goal should be to continue to innovate and push the envelope so that eventually, each and every animal entering a shelter is given an alternative to killing. Today, there is a lot of room for advancement and growth in the area of shelter medicine, behavior rehabilitation, and even palliative and sanctuary care for what is an ever shrinking percentage of animals entering shelters who remain beyond the current reach of rehabilitation. That, combined with educating shelter directors that it is best to release community cats back into their habitats rather than kill them even when there is no known human caretaker, is a large focus of my efforts and the efforts of the No Kill Advocacy Center.

We need a language for success, we need a gauge that we can use to help us compare and contrast shelters so that we know what goal we should be striving for, and governments need measurable benchmarks that more qualitative standards like “No Kill” or “saving all healthy and treatable animals” don’t provide. In that sense, giving people a numerical idea of the percentage of animals a community should be striving to save, a benchmark that many other shelters have been able to achieve is important. Before we had such indicators, our mantra was simply “Stop the Killing.” We had no idea, in practice, what that really meant, or how many animals we thought that should apply to. Now we do. But I do not want people to become complacent that it doesn’t matter if a shelter is killing certain animals as long as the save rate for that shelter hovers around 90%. I hope that the enthusiasm which motivated people to embrace the 90% benchmark will also embrace the good news that, in fact, experience is proving that that number is not fixed and we don’t have to stop there.

There is no doubt we have much to celebrate. Just over a decade ago, we had no communities saving in excess of 90% of the animals. Since then, about 90 communities representing some 300 cities have reached that threshold. That is news we should all celebrate. Ultimately, however, the bigger question we should be asking is not just whether a shelter’s save rate is in the 90% range, but whether it is truly providing each and every animal that enters that facility with every existing lifesaving option? Is it doing everything it should be to save the remaining animals who are still losing their lives? Thankfully, many of the newest shelter directors to join the 90% club are thirsty for the knowledge that would allow them to push their rates even higher.

So let’s celebrate when communities reach a 90% save rate. Let’s celebrate the fact that better than one new community per week crossed that milestone in 2012. Let’s encourage others to do the same. And then let’s encourage them to push on. In short, keep on keepin’ on.

* We did not perform “owner requested euthanasia,” but instead allowed the owner to surrender the animal and then we made the determination based on a medical assessment, whether the animal was treatable. In other words, we did not kill healthy or treatable animals simply because we were asked to do so. Instead, the animal was taken in, treated and adopted out, rather than killed, something that happened on several occasions where the person asked that the animal be killed due to a medical condition they either erroneously believed was not treatable or was beyond their financial ability to do so.


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