Shelter pet advocacy is not static in nature. As the no kill movement grows and evolves, so do we as individual advocates. As more information and experience becomes available, we may learn better ways of performing tasks and communicating ideas. While we remain committed to the basic principle that shelter pets have the right to live, our views on the who, what, when, where and why of various details may require reexamination and modification over time. This is a natural part of the growth of any movement and as challenging as change may seem at times, it’s a good thing. It means our movement is alive.
For some time, I have been reexamining my view of the 90% save rate which serves as a benchmark for many animal shelters who use the term “no kill” to describe themselves. Nathan Winograd talks about how the figure became established in a January 2013 post on his blog:
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.
He explains how things have changed in the 10 years since:
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 in the 90th percentile range. 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.
I understand that bureaucrats need hard numbers which can be plugged into colorful graphs and pie charts. And I’m happy we have these numbers at our disposal on the occasions we need them. But I am not a stuffed suit in a political office. I am someone who loves dogs and cats and strongly believes in their right to live. I can do qualitative. I can do nuance.
I do not accept that a shelter is no kill based on statistics alone. Shelters that save 90% or more of their pets are obviously doing very well. In elementary school, scores of 90% or higher earned us an “A” which was listed on the report card as “Excellent”. Shelters saving 90%+ of their animals get an A. I am thankful for them. I will celebrate them. But let’s be real: There is likely very little difference between a shelter saving 89% and one saving 90%. It’s just that structured benchmarks are required in some areas and so the former shelter gets a B+ while the latter gets an A-.
There are some people who believe that a 90% save rate is “good enough” and that no further information is needed on any shelter which achieves it. The issue of killing of healthy/treatable pets at such shelters slides into a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell category. In some cases I think this stems from desperation on the part of shelter pet advocates whose local shelters are little more than pet killing facilities and to whom a 90% save rate sounds like a fantasy. In fact, like the shelter that is saving 89%, the one saving 90% may be killing a small number of healthy/treatable pets. The stats alone don’t tell us the shelter director’s philosophy or the level of commitment to every individual animal.
For me, no kill is not a number. No kill is the belief that every shelter pet has the right to live and is deserving of individual consideration. Any shelter which in some way conveys to the public a commitment to every individual animal in its care gets my attention. I will check the shelter’s stats, expecting to see a very high save rate. To my mind, verifying the shelter’s public commitment to every individual animal along with annual stats which reflect a save rate near 100% is the best an average outsider can reasonably do in performing due diligence. In order to delve deeper, individual animal records must be examined.
In such cases where more detailed examination is conducted, the key areas which interest me are the circumstances surrounding each animal who was euthanized and whether the shelter appears to be serving its own community first and reaching out to assist neighboring communities second. The former is simply to verify that animals who are medically (or behaviorally in rare dog cases) hopeless and suffering are being promptly and humanely euthanized and that no healthy/treatable animals are being killed. The latter is a more complex issue.
My vision for how a grassroots movement such as no kill will spread nationwide is that it begins locally, then extends to the neighboring county and so on. The reason I see this as so important is that valuing the lives of every individual shelter pet begins at home and is reinforced by helping our neighbors. This is how commitment to shelter pets as individuals is demonstrated by a shelter. Animal groups that import so-called high value shelter dogs from hundreds or thousands of miles away while unadopted dogs in neighboring communities are sent to the kill room are ignoring killing in their own backyard. I do not subscribe to the notion that “A life saved is a life saved” when it is used to justify this practice.
If no kill advocates do not advocate for the right to live of every individual animal, including the challenging-to-adopt pets, who will? If no kill advocates do not advocate for the animals in their own and their neighboring communities, who will? It is unrealistic to expect someone else to care about the unadopted pets in our own and our neighboring communities after we have turned our backs on those animals. And it is inconsistent with no kill.
A life saved is a life saved sounds swell, unless you’re saying it to an unadopted healthy dog in a kill room one county over from a shelter that imports dogs from out of state. Say it then and the answer as to what we need to do as no kill advocates seems obvious.
Which brings me back to the basic premise that no kill is not a number. No kill is loving shelter dogs and cats – every one of them – enough to fight for them and to not turn a blind eye when they are being killed. It’s asking uncomfortable questions. It’s not giving up regardless of whether you’ve achieved “good enough”. It’s a willingness to reexamine ideals and change as the movement grows. No kill is a commitment which does not lend itself to being graphed but shows itself in a community where homeless dogs and cats are truly sheltered and the color of compassion spills outside the pie chart.