Is No Kill Really Possible? Part 2: The Path to Lifesaving

Rebecca Guinn remembers that ah-ha moment as if it were yesterday. Standing in the middle of the “stray ward” at the Dekalb County Animal Services shelter in Atlanta, she couldn’t believe her eyes – the kennel was practically empty. There to save a stray dog she’d reported to Animal Control after he’d gotten caught in a fence behind her home, Guinn decided to adopt him after finding out he would soon be euthanized if no one claimed him. Just days earlier, when she’d first visited the facility to put her name on his kennel card, the shelter had been jam-packed with hundreds of desperate, barking dogs. Where had they gone?

“The dog I wanted to save was still there, but where there had been 400 dogs, now there were practically none…(the staff) had gotten ‘caught up’ over the three-day weekend and euthanized most of them,” Guinn explained. “At that point I just stood there, looking around at the one or two dogs here and there, and I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but there has got to be another way.’ That moment changed my life, and I haven’t been able to think of anything else since.”

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(Photo by Chris Savas)

As a criminal defense attorney with no experience working in animal welfare, Guinn could have easily pushed the disturbing encounter from her mind and gone on with her life. But once she began digging deeper into her city’s troubling animal welfare situation, she knew she couldn’t turn back. At that time, in the early 2000s, over 100,000 animals were dying every year in Atlanta’s metro area shelters, with its two largest open admission facilities, Dekalb and Fulton County Animal Services, carrying an appalling 80% kill rate.

Undaunted, Guinn rallied a couple of dog-loving friends and together they began researching the needs of the local animal welfare community to come up with a targeted strategy to help stop the needless killing of healthy and treatable shelter pets. And that’s when she stumbled across a concept that would become the guiding light for her burgeoning career in animal advocacy.

“I first learned about no-kill when I started researching the issue in 2001, long before the term “No Kill Equation” had been coined and long before Reno or Austin had achieved no-kill status,” said Guinn. “I attended a Best Friends National Conference in Seattle in 2001, where I met Nathan Winograd, Peter Marsh, Richard Avanzino, and Bonney Brown, who was with Best Friends Animal Society at the time and later went on to take Reno no-kill. My first real mentors were Bonney Brown, Aimee St. Arnaud, who is now with the ASPCA and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the animal welfare movement, and Susan Feingold, one of the founders of SPOT (Stopping Pet Overpopulation Together) here in Atlanta, who later went on to manage Fulton County Animal Services from 2003-2008, and ran the DeKalb shelter from 2013-2015.”

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Rebecca Guinn, founder and CEO of LifeLine Animal Project, and local legend in the Georgia animal welfare community. (Photo by Chris Savas)

Inspired and motivated to make an impact in a city with an unfortunate animal welfare legacy, Guinn and her partners founded LifeLine Animal Project, a non-profit organization designed to end the shelter euthanasia of homeless animals and transform Atlanta into a no-kill community. And make an impact they did – over the next decade, LifeLine successfully implemented a host of lifesaving resources and programs, including an online “shelter” for showcasing adoptable pets; a volunteer-driven feral cat TNR (trap-neuter-release) program; a boarding facility; a cat adoption center; a rehabilitation program for dogs with medical or behavioral issues, and two low-cost spay and neuter clinics.

But despite ten years of hard work that had helped make a dent in Dekalb and Fulton’s intake numbers, euthanasia rates were still alarmingly high, at 50% and 65%, respectively. The LifeLine team knew they needed to find a way to make a broader impact, so when both counties put their shelter management contracts up for bid in early 2013, Guinn and her team made a pivotal decision.

“The thinking was that if we really want to have impact in this community, we’re going to have to run the shelters,” she explained. “At that time we were asking, what is the resource that’s missing that’s really keeping us from achieving (no-kill)? Austin and Reno had gone no-kill, and other cities were getting really close, but (Atlanta was) still hovering at this national average of 50%. So we were like, ‘well, somebody needs to step up and do this,’ and that was us.”

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A young man waits outside the Dekalb shelter to drop off his dog. (Photo by Chris Savas)

By mid-2013 LifeLine was managing the shelters, putting them through a much-needed process of reform, and creating a culture of lifesaving. The results were almost immediate – within a short period of time, Dekalb and Fulton saw more than a 50% drop in their euthanasia rates, and by 2014 they were in the teens. Now, most months both facilities are staying within the benchmark 90% save rate, the minimum a shelter must maintain in order to call itself no-kill.

So what did it take to transform two antiquated kill shelters into progressive, welcoming community centers that have saved over 40,000 pets to date? Although LifeLine’s template for lifesaving pre-dates the “No Kill Equation” (a term coined by no-kill revolutionary Nathan Winograd, executive director of the No Kill Advocacy Center), it implemented the same programs and services, as follows:

  • Community cat sterilization (TNR) and re-release
  • High-volume, low-cost spay and neuter
  • Collaborative rescue group partnerships
  • Comprehensive adoption programming
  • Pet retention
  • Medical and behavioral rehabilitation and prevention
  • Public relations and community outreach
  • Volunteers
  • Foster care
  • Proactive pet redemptions

“It isn’t rocket science,” Guinn said. “Basically, you have a foster program, you do TNR for free-roaming cats, and you open up adoptions and really focus on them,” she explained. “We’re trying to overcome (an old and outdated) facility in both counties, so we try to create with people what we can’t do with the facilities, providing the best customer service we can, making it fun through social media, and trying to drive people to the shelters. A lot of people do want to help, so we try to make it easy for them to do the right thing, and we’ve put a lot of effort and resources into that. We do a lot of adoption promotions where the fee is waived or at a very reduced rate, and we’re trying to be the leader, so if you’re looking for a rescue animal or shelter pet, we want to be the source.”

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Young kittens are a common sight a LifeLine’s shelters, especially during “kitten season.” Luckily the organization boasts a robust foster network that helps get young animals out of the shelter and into nurturing home environments. (Photo by Chris Savas)

Although both Fulton and Dekalb remain open-admission shelters that take in approximately 15,000-16,000 dogs and cats each year, LifeLine manages intakes by making pet retention a big point of focus. Long gone are the days when an individual could just walk in and drop off an unwanted pet – now a person must make an appointment, pay a surrender fee, and meet with an “Animal Help Specialist” counselor to explore possible options to help keep that pet in its home, such as behavioral training assistance. That preventative approach also extends to Fulton County’s Animal Control, which LifeLine also oversees.

“We work with our animal control officers to not just instantly impound everything,” Guinn said. “For example, can they knock on doors, use their microchip scanner, and do everything they can to keep animals in their community rather than impound them? If there are people who won’t be responsible then we enforce the law, but we’ve tried to take a community-driven approach rather than just a pure complaint-driven approach to animal control, and have it truly be ‘animal services.’ We want people to come to us for help, and we work at it. Sometimes the people who need our help are the same people causing a problem, so it’s a hard balance.”

But when it comes to saving more lives, there’s nothing like teamwork to help move more pets out of shelters and into new homes. That’s why LifeLine collaborates with 70 different rescue groups, including shelters in the northeast that have high demand for the kinds of adoptable pets the southeast tends to have in great supply, such as puppies. By transporting pets out of high-volume regions, shelters in low-volume areas can meet the needs of their pet-loving communities while getting more homeless animals where they belong – with loving families.

LifeLine has taken pet adoption marketing to an all new level with its adorable videos! Check out this one featuring a sweet bully girl named Amelia (warning: major cuteness overload!):

For decades, many in the animal welfare and sheltering community have resigned themselves to the common belief that there are too many unwanted animals and not enough homes. Yet according to the No Kill Advocacy Center, approximately 30 million people acquire a new companion animal every year. Line that up with the estimated 3 million dogs and cats killed in shelters annually, and it seems logical that there would be more than enough homes for our nation’s homeless pets. But is it that simple?

“Mathematically there are enough homes, but not every dog is perfect for every home and vice versa, so we have to create a market for the animals in our care,” Guinn explained. “At each facility we take in about 7,000-8,000 animals a year. Our population area is 1.6 million people, and 60% of households are pet-owning, so yes, there are enough homes, but that doesn’t mean there’s an abundance of homes for the animals we have. It’s not just math, there’s some creativity to it. That’s why we have the spay and neuter clinics, our outreach programs, and we’re encouraging our animal control officers to be part of the community because there are areas where animals are at-risk, and we have to address that.”

LifeLine Rescue Coordinator Andie Peart “interviews” Peggy about what she’s looking for in a forever home:

For a shelter truly committed to no-kill, the work doesn’t stop at getting to a 90% or greater save rate. That rate has to be maintained, and if anything, achieving that number is just the beginning of a facility’s journey toward sustainable reform. And that isn’t easy in a city like Atlanta, with its shelter populations predominantly consisting of harder-to-adopt bully breeds, thanks to rampant over-breeding. But despite the challenges it faces, LifeLine is unwavering in its commitment to its no-kill mission and communities it serves.

“We hope we can keep doing this because our work here isn’t done,” Guinn said. “We’ve just barely achieved the (no-kill) threshold, we’ve still got work to do to keep it sustainable, and we still need the community to really support the mission. That’s the whole idea behind our ‘I’m In’ campaign – we need people to be invested in making Atlanta a no-kill community.”

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Some of the awesome, animal-loving staff at Dekalb County Animal Services (from left to right): Andie Peart, rescue coordinator, with Orio; Kerry Moyers-Horton, shelter director, with Giselle; Fredrica Lewis, kennel supervisor, with Hogie, and Kayla Morneault, adoption supervisor, with Divine. (Photo by Chris Savas)

Alongside the steadily evolving animal welfare movement, reform is indeed taking place in our old and outdated U.S. sheltering system. To date, there are just under 300 no-kill communities in the U.S., with more shelters making fundamental shifts toward lifesaving and away from impounding, warehousing, and killing. The hope is that as more and more facilities make this humane paradigm shift, saving healthy and treatable pets will become the industry norm rather than the exception.

“There is a philosophical shift in animal welfare, and the days where we needed to demonize the way things used to be, I believe that time is over,” said Guinn. “I’m sure there are communities that need more help and that there are vestiges of the way things used to be, but I really think there’s a lot more investment in moving forward and making progress. When we first started our TNR program for cats, for example, HSUS was against it, ASPCA was against it, most vets were against it, and people said it was abandonment. Now everyone is for it and it’s a model for controlling cat populations. So things have changed as people have opened their eyes, and a lot of organizations are working toward taking killing off the table. That’s what we’re working toward, to really change the model for animal care and control, and to change the law. LifeLine has always been about trying to create the space where no-kill is possible and we’ve shown that it is.”

To learn more about LifeLine Animal Project, check out their website or visit their Facebook page.

Is No-Kill Really Possible? Part One

If your Facebook news feed looks anything like mine, it’s probably flooded with tons of postings and photos of homeless animals, including the most heartbreaking – those of dogs whose time is running out at yet another high-kill animal shelter. Their sweet, confused, and frightened faces never fail to pierce holes in your heart. But if you’re like me in that you’re unable to foster, adopt, or donate more than a few dollars to rescue groups that save shelter pets, all these postings do is leave you feeling incredibly frustrated, depressed, and downright helpless. Because it seems that no matter how many lives are saved at a given facility one week, another wave of unwanted animals is sure to follow the next. Meanwhile, every moment you’re sitting there, trying not to cry, you know that those desperate dogs will likely be among the estimated 9,000 pets that die in U.S. shelters every day. It’s enough to make any animal lover want to go offline and stay there.

According to the No Kill Advocacy Center, shelter killing is the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the U.S., with “almost half of all animals who enter our nation’s shelters going out the back door in garbage bags rather than out the front door in the loving arms of adopters, despite the fact that there are plenty of homes available.” If you take into account that only 37% of all dogs and 46% of all cats living in homes today were adopted from shelters, that means that the lion’s share of homeless pets are not making it out of our sheltering system alive.

It’s a soul-crushing reality, one we in rescue and animal advocacy constantly wrestle with (and often argue over) in our desperate search for expedient and lasting solutions. What’s it going to take to stop the killing of millions of savable dogs and cats in shelters? How do we stop the flood of unwanted animals by convincing more people to spay and neuter their pets, as well as choose adoption first? How do we stop unethical breeders and irresponsible pet owners from creating this mess in the first place? Is taking our sheltering system no-kill the answer, and is it even possible, or is no-kill just some lofty, unrealistic dream with its own fair share of unintended consequences?

The moment I decided to cover the no-kill movement I knew I’d bitten off a whale of a topic. It’s a highly controversial and contentious issue, long known for its polarized camps of passionate proponents and opponents. In fact, just say the words “no-kill” within earshot of any animal lover and you’re likely to spark a heated debate. Although I’ve always loved the idea behind the no-kill philosophy, after everything I’ve observed in the rescue community here in the southeast (where pet homelessness and irresponsible breeding are endemic), I figured euthanizing pets for lack of good homes was a necessary evil we’d probably always have to live with. But after hours of research, several eye-opening interviews, and a fair amount of soul-searching later, I have come to the conclusion that no-kill is not only possible, but is also the most ethical direction for our animal-loving society to move.

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A volunteer cuddles an adoptable pup at a Best Friends mobile adoption event in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

Best Friends Animal Society is one of my favorite animal welfare groups and a true leader in the no-kill movement. I’ve always loved their positive messaging, progressive philosophy, and intelligent approach to ending pet homelessness. In fact, they’re the only national animal welfare organization exclusively dedicated to stopping the endless killing of dogs and cats in our nation’s shelters. I couldn’t wait to talk with them, especially since I learned they’d be launching their fourth regional center in Atlanta next month (plus, I was wondering whether they fully understood how much work they would have cut out for them here!). But what started as a straightforward, fact-finding interview with Judah Battista, Best Friends co-founder and chief regional programs officer, turned into an incredibly enlightening and inspiring educational session about the true meaning of the no-kill mission.

“Best Friend’s overall organizational vision is a better world though kindness to animals, with our mission to bring about a time when there are no more homeless pets,” Battista explained. “En route to achieving that mission, one of our goals is to end the killing of dogs and cats in shelters. But first, it’s important that we distinguish between euthanasia and killing, and frankly, any pet owner who’s had to put an animal to sleep knows the difference. Euthanasia is an act of mercy for a physically or behaviorally irredeemable animal that can’t be humanely cared for, while distinctly separate from that is killing, or the ending of a life because we as a society don’t have better solutions yet. I would argue that we do have better solutions, we just don’t have enough community awareness (yet). (No-kill) doesn’t mean that no animal ever dies, but it does mean that we’re not killing dogs or cats who are healthy or treatable – in other words, savable.”

Unlike traditional animal shelters that follow the standard cage-and-kill operating model, no-kill shelters don’t use euthanasia as a primary means of population or disease control. They value each individual animal life and believe that every dog or cat deserves equal consideration. But before we dig further into the philosophy, how it works and what it takes to achieve it, it’s important to understand how our nation’s sheltering system evolved and got us to this point where most of us who love animals are no longer satisfied with the status quo.

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A turn-of-the-century dog pound. (Photo credit: history-denverlibrary.org)

Once upon a time, homeless dogs and cats were viewed as a public nuisance in America. Sections of many cities were overrun with wandering strays that not only posed a direct threat to people and horses, but were also feared to carry rabies. The solution was to catch and warehouse these animals in “pounds,” substandard facilities used in colonial agricultural communities to collect and hold stray livestock until their owners could reclaim them. But unlike cattle, pigs, or sheep, dogs and cats had little monetary value, so ending up at a pound basically meant death, typically through beating, drowning, or shooting.Traditional animal shelters evolved from these primitive facilities in the late 1800s in response to their barbaric approach to stray population control, with early humane efforts focused on finding “kinder” forms of euthanasia for homeless dogs and cats.

The U.S. humane movement officially kicked off in 1866 with the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the country’s first animal welfare organization that initially focused primarily on the treatment and condition of horses. Founded in 1969, the Women’s SPCA of Pennsylvania (now the Women’s Humane Society) built the country’s first animal shelter, and became the first humane group to direct its energies toward the humane treatment of shelter animals.

Soon, more and more humane organizations were popping up across the country in major cities, and the concept of animal control and shelters slowly took hold. For the next several decades, community animal control services would be assumed by humane groups, with the emphasis on improving shelter conditions and developing more “humane” methods of euthanasia, such as electric shock, gas and decompression chambers, and finally, lethal injection. This endless cage-and-kill model would remain the status quo through the mid-1900s, with little thought given to saving lives or solving the increasing pet overpopulation crisis.

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Fast forward to the 1970s, which proved to be a defining decade for decreasing euthanasia trends in animal shelters. Spay and neuter became an important part of shelter operations and pet adoption, with the ASPCA instituting a mandatory sterilization-before-adoption policy in 1972, one that would set a standard at most shelters across the country. The important role of early sterilization of young dogs and cats began to grow, and the numbers of companion animals entering shelters in some communities began to decline. Soon, an important conversation about saving animals rather than killing them began.

The no-kill movement officially started in San Francisco in 1989 under the leadership of Richard Avanzino at the San Francisco SPCA, who made the critical decision to relinquish the shelter’s contract for animal control and instead work with the city’s municipal animal control agency in an effort to end the killing of adoptable animals. This action had a far-reaching impact on the entire animal welfare movement, one that would challenge shelters and their communities to evaluate the need to kill savable animals. Many other animal sheltering agencies followed suit, leading to an often heated and ongoing philosophical debate about the use of euthanasia as a primary means of shelter population control. But despite the controversy and push-back from those who would resist change, the viability and appeal of the no-kill movement has gained traction and continues to build momentum, with hundreds of shelters across the nation striving to achieve 90% or greater save rates.

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Stripes the kitty awaits her forever home at the Best Friends Sugarhouse Adoption Center in Salt Lake City. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

While our sheltering system has undergone many dramatic changes over the last century, especially within the last three decades, it remains a primarily antiquated system in dire need of reform. But thanks to the influence of the no-kill movement and growing public awareness of the plight of shelter animals, we are seeing a veritable revolution taking hold in communities throughout the country. More and more shelters, both public and private, are working harder than ever to go from dark, smelly, and depressing places that warehouse animals until they’re killed, to friendly and inviting community centers with comprehensive programming and pet care services to help decrease pet populations, increase adoptions, prevent pet homelessness, and most importantly, save lives.

“The reality is that we as a generation have inherited an animal welfare system that was implemented basically for rabies control, not a system that was intended to save animals’ lives,” said Battista. “But what is happening at shelters is what the community has subsidized – they are a reflection of the will of the community. We as a society have decided that there should be a service that gives people the ability to dump a pet…that that’s an acceptable decision for citizens to make. But our expectation as pet guardians has changed, and our consciousness as people has changed from when most of our ordinances and services were established, so now we’re in a position where we need to catch up.”

So how do we transform our shelters from places where unwanted animals go to die, to places where savable dogs and cats are guaranteed a home? Stay tuned for Part Two!

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Adorable pooches wait for someone to save them from an over-crowded animal shelter. (Photo credit: petbucket.com)

To learn more about Best Friend’s policies and positions on no-kill and other related animal welfare topics, click here.