What “no kill” means to me

Ever since coming to understand the myth of pet overpopulation, I have defined killing as ending the life of a healthy/treatable shelter pet and euthanasia as ending the suffering of a medically hopeless pet or behaviorally hopeless/dangerous dog.  These definitions make more sense to me since euthanasia, or “good death”, can not possibly apply to an animal who is healthy or has a treatable condition.  There is simply nothing good about the death of that animal.

As such, the term no kill to me has always meant no killing of healthy/treatable pets.  I’ve never considered no kill as being defined by a percentage of saved pets, even though we commonly refer to the 90%+ save rates of various shelters.  To me, the percentage that reflects a no kill shelter’s save rate is somewhat incidental – it is the shelter’s commitment to saving every healthy/treatable animal that is critical.  As Nathan Winograd puts it:

[T]he fundamental tenet of the No Kill philosophy is that our commitment is to each individual animal and that each individual animal is entitled to individual consideration.

I believe the one year standard – that is, a shelter must have saved every healthy/treatable pet in its care for 12 months in order to be considered truly no kill – is a reasonable one.  Many shelters have shown that it is possible to stop killing animals for a short period of time without putting in place the programs necessary to maintain it long term.  Just because a shelter doesn’t kill animals for 2 weeks or 2 months doesn’t make it a no kill shelter.  But by demonstrating a commitment to saving every healthy/treatable pet for a year, a shelter has earned the right to call itself no kill in my view.

The label though, does not come with a lifetime membership.  No kill is a daily commitment to save animals’ lives much in the way that sobriety is a daily commitment to refrain from the use of drugs and alcohol.  To my mind, if a shelter has saved every healthy/treatable animal for more than a year but then kills one or more healthy/treatable animals, that shelter is no longer no kill.  You don’t hear people at AA meetings stand up and say, “I’ve been sober for 13 months except for one day last week when I was falling down drunk.”  Once the commitment fails, the clock resets.

If a shelter which has saved every healthy/treatable animal for more than one year starts killing healthy/treatable animals for whatever reason, it’s possible there has been a temporary breakdown of some sort.  Perhaps a failure of leadership or a faulty system of checks and balances are to blame.  Regardless of the explanation, that shelter is no longer a no kill shelter.  But it can be again.  Shelter leadership can step up and say, ‘We made a mistake.  We’re sorry.  It won’t happen again.  We are committed to the no kill philosophy and would ask the community to support us as we prove that in the weeks and months ahead.”

We’ve all made bad decisions at times.  We’ve all been in need of forgiveness.  It’s easy for me to hear someone take ownership of a mistake and offer my support going forward.  If a former no kill shelter has made a bad decision regarding killing animals, wants to own it and move forward with a renewed commitment to no kill, I will support that unequivocally.  I will help in any way that I can.

But without ownership, there is no accountability and therefore, no trust.  In the absence of trust, there is no faith in future outcomes.  As the saying goes, the first step to getting help is admitting you have a problem.  Austin Animal Center – you have a problem.


17 thoughts on “What “no kill” means to me

  1. Well written yet again, Shirley. I was so upset to read what had happened which is why I was left wondering how the the world it did happen. How to we go from a battle waged for years to a city which says “yes, we will,” to a side group trying to help other places achieve similar success to “yes, we had too many so we killed a few.” I know there are a lot of people involved in Austin and many moving parts those of us outside the area surely don’t appreciate. Having said that, I felt kinda like Superman feel from grace and beat the crap out of someone when no one was looking. Poor analogy, yes. I just felt disappointed and still do. I had said the words “Austin” so many times in reference to what we can do with the right commitment. Now I need to stop doing that, at least for a while.

  2. “No Kill” means no killing, i.e. a sanctuary. I wish the terminology would change to “low kill.” My definition of “low kill” is a shelter who:
    1. takes in all community-based animals in need (open admission) within a reasonable time period. If a shelter is full, shelters can schedule a date/time of surrender if the owner is agreeable.
    2. will save the life of every medically treatable/behaviorally or mentally rehabilitatable animal in the shelter – cats, dogs, birds, rodents, etc. – within their capabilities. The definition of treatable and rehabilitatable can vary from shelter to shelter, based on their capabilities, financial status and staff ability.
    3. euthanizes animals that are suffering, not treatable or cannot rehabilitatable within a reasonable amount of time. If the animal can be treated, but its care exceeds the shelter’s capabilities, the shelter must try and find another shelter or rescue group, qualified foster home, seek out fundraising options.
    4. has enrichment programs in place for long term animals (stays that exceed 30 days)

    It’s a difficult balancing act.
    Should a shelter attempt to save the life of a cat or dog with a broken pelvis, leg and ribs who “might” recover and use up the majority of the medical funds on this one animal, or is the need of all the animals weighed against this one?
    Should a shelter keep all its feral cats alive, which can be a danger to staff, or stop their mental anguish from being confined in a cage and open that kennel up for another cat?

    Shelters that import cats and dogs from way outside their community shouldn’t even be eligible for no-kill or low-kill status. Any shelter than can cherry pick its population can be no kill easily. Those who should be eligible for this prestigious title are the shelters who are truly serving their community by taking in all the owner surrenders and s tray animals, and doing the best they can for each animal.

      1. I completely agree. However, when the public brings in a stray cat, shelters that are stray holding facilities have to take it, feral or friendly,

      2. The issue here is that the average person, who is not connected to animal welfare issues, has a different understanding of No Kill than we do. Many people just don’t know that even as No Kill facility we euthanize vicious/dangerous or hopeless injured/sick animals.
        As open admission shelter you can’t avoid housing feral cats for a short period of time. The public is trapping cats and they will bring them in. In most cases this are just stray cats but sometimes also feral cats. It will take several days to setup appointments for spay/neuter, vaccination and finally finding a place for the cat.

      3. That is my concern in a nutshell. The public thinks “No Kill” means no killing of any animal – period. The terminology should be “Low Kill.” “High Kill” is used all the time when referring to shelters who euthanize as soon as some arbitrary time has been reached. It’s been a gripe of mine for 20 years…

      4. I disagree. I feel it’s important to spread awareness of the difference between shelter pet killing and euthanasia. If we change “no kill” to “low kill” it means no kill shelters do the same thing as high kill shelters except they do it less frequently. This is misleading and benefits no animal or group.

      5. I’m not sure if I’ve got this in the right place or not. I’m with Shirley on this one. I think that using the phrase “no kill” is important. As I’ve said on both of my web sites, it is a culture and not a definition. I think that in the course of educating people, it is important to emphasize that the no kill does refer to the culture regarding healthy and treatable animals v. those who are suffering or dogs so aggressive they pose a danger to the public (following a double blind eval, etc.)

        I think that to use “low kill” in the course of trying to reach people outside of our circles causes more confusion. Most people in my region either don’t know what happens using their tax dollars or they know in some way and they block it mentally. If I’m gonna reach them about no kill concepts, I qualify the culture while educating them on other issues.

        Just my position from my keyboard.

      6. @bamabrie; I agree with you. But we also need to find a way to bring this over to the “mainstream” society. We have 2 large animal welfare groups and the cult of PETA who are trying their best to confuse everybody. The problem is that “mainstream” society is not only listening to it but also believing what the so called experts have to say. Now, I do believe that the No Kill movement has picked up good steam in the last 6 month alone and we are heading in the right direction.

  3. I doubt if anyone would disagree that “no kill” means no killing except for hopelessly ill or dangerous animals. The problem is in how to define and apply those terms. For example, is a large dog that is OK with people but very aggressive to other dogs “dangerous”? Then there is the question of resources. What about an animal that has cancer and can be treated, but the cost will be 10K? or 20K? The line-drawing can get very difficult. I think people have adopted the 90% rule as a benchmark that a shelter is doing well – a simple way to measure success. As time goes on and shelters get better at things like fundraising and attracting volunteers and fosters, the benchmark can likely be raised. The ultimate goal is to have hospice and sanctuaries even for animals who are hopelessly ill and dangerous.

  4. I completely agree with this post. Obviously there are going to be exceptions (i.e. too dangerous or medically hopeless) but I think if we use the term “no-kill” rather than say, “low-kill”, people basically have an idea in their head that this applies, for the most part. If you start saying “low-kill”, then you have to define how many cats/dogs can be killed while still be considered “low” and then it brings a whole other element in to it that doesn’t help anyone. Just shoot for the lowest number you can naturally, but hopefully it could be within the 90-100% bracket anyway. *shrugs* Just my .02.

  5. Thank you for pointing me to this post. I’m glad to see that you are promoting the fact that the percentage cutoffs do not mean that a shelter is necessarily No Kill.

    1. The percentages came into play, I believe, because the definition of “healthy/treatable” is open for interpretation whereas math is not. So a shelter simply saying, “We save every healthy/treatable pet” without providing a rate of lifesaving raises a red flag. Of course it can work the opposite way as well in that a shelter can say, “We save 90% of our pets” but still kill healthy/treatable pets. Classifications on stats into “number of healthy/treatable” and “number of unhealthy/untreatable” are again subjective so do not provide a definitive answer. I think percentages are useful as an indicator, and certainly any shelter saving 90% or more of its pets is doing a good job. But it’s not a sole standard for no kill to me.

      1. Most likely one also should take a look at a shelters definition of healthy/treatable. It should be clearly written in the euthanasia policy what is treatable and what is considered untreatable. As example, a No Kill shelter will have listed Parvo as treatable in the euthanasia policy.

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