My 1st lesson: No Kill is a very complicated ‘simple concept’

by Leslie Smith, DogTime editor

July 2010

A big, blonde Retriever mix died in his kennel today. He’d been at the shelter for just over a week, picked up as a stray. During his time there, I never once heard him growl or noticed him standing. I never even saw him sit up. Every time I passed the cage, he was crouched, cowering, in the farthest corner from the door.

I know nothing about his history, or how he came to be a stray, but I imagine it would’ve taken weeks of slow, cautious interaction to eventually gain his trust. Few shelters have the resources it would have required to turn the dog into an attractive adoption candidate and there are few foster families who would have had the time to devote to his rehabilitation. He was not aggressive, simply terrified and large, and therefore considered a safety risk.

The only week that I knew this dog, the last one of his life, was spent shivering in fear at the back of a kennel. His final moments became a futile attempt to dodge the ring of a catchpole — the device animal control officers use to capture potentially fractious dogs. It’s also used by shelter staff to keep an unpredictable dog at a safe distance as he’s being tranquilized.

The Retriever ducked his head and writhed, trying to avoid the snare, but the ordeal finally culminated with the ring around his neck. A moment later, the tranquilizer, and then, a lethal injection.

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Does No Kill mean what I think it means?

The answer is yes. (Mostly.) The No Kill movement aims to end the practice of euthanasia by city, county, and private shelters as a means of population control for companion animals. That is, don’t kill dogs and cats because they don’t have homes. Instead, find them homes.

At face value, No Kill is a very easy notion to get behind; no one wants healthy, adoptable dogs and cats to die. But scratch the surface just a bit and the matter of pet homelessness is at once complicated, heartbreaking, hazy, and polarizing. At issue are the very definitions of healthy and adoptable, the question of how long we can humanely expect a dog or cat to remain in a shelter, and the dilemma of how to effectively allocate our very limited resources. (See sidebar.)

The movement began over fifty years ago but didn’t really appear on the national radar until the mid-1990s when San Francisco SPCA President Richard Avanzino transformed the city, for a time, into the nation’s first No Kill municipality. Since then, a handful of cities around the country have attempted to do the same, with varying degrees of success and permanence.

No Kill advocacy

If you’re looking for comprehensive reading material on the topic, the online No Kill Advocacy Center is the place to start. It contains hundreds of documents — some philosophy, some practical application — for communities, shelters, and individuals wanting to learn more about the movement, its tenets, and prescription for success.

On a theoretical level, the No Kill recommendations indeed make sense and appear simple to institute. Among them:

  • Extended shelter hours
  • Increased off-site adoption fairs
  • Pet retention programs
  • “Comprehensive vaccination, handling, cleaning, socialization, and care policies”

Actually implementing these programs and services, however, presents a massive logistical, organizational, and often political challenge. Where does the money come from to extend shelter hours? How many extra volunteers — and volunteers hours — does it take to staff off-site adoption fairs? Who establishes and monitors a pet retention program?

The fourth bullet above — a direct quote from the No Kill Advocacy Equation document — in and of itself requires huge human resource reserves, which are already in meager supply. Success depends heavily on public involvement in the form of committed volunteers, an extensive foster family network, plenty of willing adopters, and a tireless shelter staff.

If all, or even any, of those critical elements were easy to come by, we probably wouldn’t have this problem in the first place. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to solve it now.

Next installment: The No Kill movement says pet overpopulation is a myth. Are they right?

Read previous installment: Introduction to the series.
Read next installment: People love pets — as long as they’re convenient.
Read all installments.