History of No-Kill Shelters

Emily Smith

By Anusha Barwa from Unsplash

The concept of no-kill can be traced back to independent caregivers rescuing and caring for homeless animals. This was in response to the killing of stray and abandoned animals by animal control services. Over time, these animal caregivers began forming groups to protest the norm of killing homeless animals. While some were protecting the lives of these stray animals, others were looking for solutions on how to reduce the overpopulation of cats and dogs. In the 1930s, preventing unwanted animal births became a focus, which ultimately led to the spay/neuter programs we have today. Realizing that the efforts to reduce overpopulation and rescuing lives went hand in hand, the groups joined forces and the no-kill movement began. However, this movement was slow to pick up speed. 

SPCA transformation 

Flash forward to 1976, Richard Avanzino took control of the San Francisco SPCA, transforming it from a dysfunctional organization into a beacon of the no-kill movement. Eight years later in 1984, he informed the City of San Francisco that he would no longer be a contractor for their animal control. Between then and 1989, Avanzino helped in establishing a new animal care and control department, and formally ended his contract with the city. The San Francisco SPCA officially became a no-kill organization. With the help of Avanzino’s leadership, San Francisco passed the Adoption Act in 1994, becoming the first large no-kill city in the United States.

National no-kill directory 

In the 1990s, millions of animals were continually being killed due to uncontrollable breeding. Tired of seeing these animals’ lives wasted away, animal caregivers along with a handful of small humane societies joined together to rebel against the killings. Groups began forming around the nation, but at the time there was a lack of  communication amongst the groups. In 1994, Linda Foro created the first national no-kill directory. The positive response was so outstanding that she decided to organize a national meeting for people to come together and discuss the issues pertaining to saving animals’ lives. Up until this point, no-kill was not something being addressed amongst national animal welfare organizations in meetings. Doing Things for Animals, a nonprofit organization Linda founded, planned the event and had its first retreat in September of 1995. People like Richard and Linda didn’t start the no-kill movement, but they did give it the power it needed to move forward.

Defining no-kill

With any movement, there are disagreements. This one, in particular, revolves around questioning what the term “no-kill” means. To be considered a no-kill shelter, you must have a ‘save rate’ of 90% for all cats and dogs. This is due to the fact that some of these animals have to be euthanized. The philosophical principles of no-kill include ending the life of an animal only to cease irremediable suffering, or when an animal is too dangerous to rehabilitate and place in the community safely. Other than that, it is considered unnecessary to euthanize an animal. Decisions regarding ending the life of an animal should be made by animal welfare professionals who are held to the standard to engage in the best practices and protocol. 

Delaware as the first no-kill state

In 2018, the state of Delaware became the first and only no-kill state in the United States. Even with the help of organizations like Doing Things for Animals and the San Francisco SPCA, animals were still being killed simply because their time had expired at these shelters. That same year, Texas and California had the highest rate of kills with each being over 110,000. Each year, about 6.5 million dogs and cats enter U.S. animal shelters. Of those entering shelters, about 1.5 million are euthanized, a decrease from a reported 2.6 million in 2011. The state of Delaware has made great strides and set an example for other states to follow. Programs such as adoption events, trap/neuter/spay programs for cats, low-cost veterinary clinics, education programs, and behavioral programs for dogs all contributed to achieving their goal of becoming a no-kill state.

Spay and neuter efforts

Shelters that decide to become no-kill need to establish spay and neuter services first. If this does not happen, animals could be subjected to a variety of less than optimal situations. For many no-kill shelters, animals are turned away if the shelter is at full capacity. This means animals are going back into abusive situations, dumped out on the streets, or even killed. Additionally, the animals that are cast out keep reproducing, and the cycle continues. Dogs and cats with existing medical conditions are the first to be turned away. Now instead of dying peacefully by euthanasia, they must suffer a slow and agonizing death. For example, in San Antonio, a city striving to be no-kill, approximately 16,000 dogs and 12,000 cats were found dead in the streets in just one year. When no-kill shelters focus too much on the adoption numbers rather than the animals themselves, they can end up in abusive situations, whether that is being confined to a cage or being thrown into dogfighting. It is crucial that the focus still remains on what is best for the animal. Finding a loving home for a dog or cat brings feelings of accomplishment and joy, but it can’t ultimately solve the runaway animal birth rate. Sterilizing dogs and cats can, in turn, save thousands of lives. Passing laws concerning spay/neuter of animals can save even more lives. Stopping the problem at its source is a way to reduce and ultimately end the number of animals who are homeless and the need for euthanasia.

Sources: ASPCA, Best Friends Animal Society, CNN, Maddie’s Fund, NPR, PETA