Editorial: No-kill sheltering & the quest for the holy grail

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2009:


PetSmart Charities, as the November/December 2009 edition of
ANIMAL PEOPLE goes to press, is celebrating four million adoptions
achieved through the Luv-A-Pet adoption centers located in each
PetSmart store, the first of which opened in February 1992.
“That’s four million lives saved, thanks to the
collaborative efforts of PetSmart Charities, more than 2,500 local
animal welfare groups and shelters across the U.S., and PetSmart,
Inc.,” said PetSmart Charities communication manager Kim Noetzel.
PetSmart Charities is also expecting to grant $10.3 million
to “local animal welfare agencies, shelters, and rescue groups to
support their pet adoption efforts” this year, Noetzel
mentioned–an increase of $1.3 million from 2008, when PetSmart
Charities was already granting more money to small animal charities
than any other grant-giving institution.
Few other funders have increased their aid to animal
charities at all in the past two years. Many foundations have cut
their grantmaking. Some have ceased operation.
Yet Friends of the Plymouth Pound, on Cape Cod, called a
boycott of PetSmart because, after 10 years, the PetSmart store in
Hyannis chose to work with a different adoption partner. Friends of
the Plymouth Pound had placed 49 cats through the Hyannis store in
2009. Other adoption partners had placed 821 cats through the
PetSmart store in Plymouth.

As that issue smouldered, the American SPCA–rather than be
accused of doing anything covertly–announced on November 12, 2009
that a pit bull terrier named Oreo would be euthanized because of
dangerous behavior. Fabian Henderson, 19, pleaded guilty to
felony cruelty for throwing Oreo from a six-story building on June
18, 2009, and faces a four-year prison sentence after failing to
appear in court to accept a plea-bargained probationary sentence on
December 1, 2009. Few dogs survive long falls, but Oreo did. The
ASPCA made every effort to save her, but found after her physical
recovery that she “triggered on everything, redirected
unpredictably, and was extremely dog-aggressive,” ASPCA president
Ed Sayres told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “She could have been kept in drugged
isolation for the remainder of her life,” Sayres said, “but I can’t
support that philosophy.”
Hardly quick to kill dogs, especially since giving up the
New York City animal control contract in 1994, the ASPCA has led New
York City to the second lowest rate of animal shelter killing of any
major city in the U.S., just a whisker behind San Francisco. Nor
was Oreo a victim of “breed discrimination.” The ASPCA has actively
opposed breed-specific dog legislation since the mid-19th century, a
position ANIMAL PEOPLE has often criticized, and was the first major
humane society to try to rehabilitate pit bull terriers for adoption.
Sayres is a second-generation lifelong humane worker, who
grew up helping his father at St. Hubert’s Giralda, one of the first
successful low-kill adoption shelters in the United States. Sayres
succeeded his father as director of St. Hubert’s. Later, as
then-head of the animal protection division of the American Humane
Association, Sayres co-hosted the second of the No Kill Conferences
(1996), which introduced no-kill approaches to the mainstream of the
humane community. Still later, as head of PetSmart Charities,
Sayres markedly increased PetSmart Charities support of no-kill
shelters and shelterless rescues. Sayres subsequently headed the
no-kill San Francisco SPCA, 1999-2003, before moving to the ASPCA.
Despite the ASPCA’s record, and Sayres’ record, the ASPCA
in general and Sayres in specific were savaged for weeks by no-kill
sheltering advocates and pit bull enthusiasts. “The intensity of the
response and violence of the language is stunning,” Sayres
Many critics of the ASPCA decision mentioned that the no-kill
Pets Alive shelter in Middletown, New York had offered Oreo lifetime
care. Few seemed to be aware that Pets Alive is still recovering
from the 2007 death of founder Sara Whelan, who tried to provide
care-for-life to hard cases, with eventually catastrophic results.
The Best Friends Animal Society evacuated nearly 200 dogs from the
dilapidated premises and spent nine months getting Pets Alive back
into working condition.
The San Francisco SPCA, under Richard Avanzino from 1976
through 1998, enjoyed 22 years of ever-increasing fundraising
success, including a ninefold rise in donations and bequests after
giving up the San Francisco animal control contract in 1984, going
no-kill in 1989, and introducing the Adoption Pact in 1994,
guaranteeing a home to any dog or cat relinquished by the city animal
control agency. As animal control does not relinquish animals who
are deemed to be dangerous, or too ill or injured to be recoverable,
this in effect made San Francisco a no-kill city. Successful
fundraising enabled rapid program expansion, including importing
animals for adoption from crowded Central Valley animal control
shelters where they were almost certain to be killed.
Avanzino intended to build a state-of-the-art animal hospital
on the site of an adjacent warehouse, but the hospital was still on
the drawing board when he left to head Maddie’s Fund. Sayres,
during his tenure, moved the hospital project forward despite
catastrophic financial losses resulting from the high tech stock
collapse of early 2001 and the subsequent economic shocks produced by
terrorist attacks of 9/11. A $13 million bequest received just
before Sayres’ departure enabled construction to proceed.
But the work did not go smoothly. By the time current San
Francisco SPCA president Jan McHugh-Smith formally opened the
hospital in February 2009, the cost of building it had increased to
more than $32 million–mostly before McHugh-Smith’s tenure.
McHugh-Smith came to the SF/SPCA in February 2007. She had
headed the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, in Colorado, since
1995. She wrote to ANIMAL PEOPLE in January 1999 to explain how the
Humane Society of Boulder Valley, while continuing to hold the
animal control contract, had cut the rate of shelter killing per
1,000 residents to just 4.2, trailing only San Francisco among U.S.
communities of at least 100,000 people.
McHugh-Smith at the SF/SPCA had little opportunity to
innovate. First the hospital budget overruns squeezed the rest of
the organization into a corner. Then came two years of global
financial catastrophe, accompanied by a 37% increase in requests for
free or low-cost veterinary care from hard-pressed pet keepers.
Trying to keep core services, McHugh-Smith cut other popular
but fiscally draining programs–and was lambasted by local activists
and some media. McHugh-Smith expanded rescues for adoption from
Central Valley shelters, achieving a 20% increase in adoption
placements–and was lambasted for that by activists who demanded that
she should instead rescue more of the dogs, mostly pit bull
terriers, who were euthanized by animal control as too dangerous to
adopt. Meanwhile, a 2007 San Francisco ordinance requiring that pit
bulls be sterilized cut the community rate of pit bull killing in
shelters to the lowest of any major U.S. city except New York City
(0.03 per 1,000 human residents below San Francisco), and Denver,
where pit bulls have been banned for all but 15 months of the past 21
McHugh-Smith resigned on November 20, 2009, effective in
March 2010, to succeed Wes Metzler as president of the Humane
Society of the Pikes Peak Region in Colorado. McHugh-Smith was
lambasted for that, too, by critics who wanted her gone yesterday.
By comparison, the attacks recently directed at Lucas
County, Ohio dog warden Tom Skeldon, amplified by the Toledo Blade,
have been almost understandable, if still unjustified. Skeldon,
who resigned in November 2009 after 22 years of service, never
identified himself with no-kill sheltering. Outspokenly critical of
people who believe that every dog can be saved, Skeldon refused to
adopt out pit bulls, and endorsed breed-specific laws to combat pit
bull proliferation. But the Blade editorially alleged on October 23,
2009 that the Lucas County animal control data under Skeldon “leads
to the reasonable conclusion that the dog warden enjoys killing dogs.”
In truth Skeldon, 61, is the third generation of a family
whose lives have centered around animal care and public education
since his grandfather, Frank Skeldon, served as Toledo Zoo
director, 1922-1948. Frank Skeldon died in the same year that Tom
Skeldon was born, but Frank’s son Phil Skeldon headed the Toledo Zoo
from 1953 to 1980. Tom Skeldon began volunteering at the zoo at age
8. Before becoming the Lucas County dog warden, Tom Skeldon served
as a U.S. Air Force dog trainer in Vietnam, directed a small zoo in
Delaware, and after two Peace Corps stints, trained dogs with his
two brothers in the Philippines.
As dog warden, Skeldon cut the volume of shelter killing of
dogs in Lucas County by 77%–a little better than the improvement in
the U.S. national rate over the same years.
Critics howled that 54% of the dogs Skeldon killed in recent
years were pit bull terriers. Yet the national figure in 2008 was
58%, and under Skeldon the Lucas County rate of killing pit bulls
per 1,000 people was 2.9, compared to 3.2 for the U.S. as a whole.


Many proponents of no-kill sheltering are bitterly frustrated
lately that despite more than a decade of ambitious effort to save
animals, U.S. shelters are still killing between four and five
million dogs and cats per year–barely fewer than 13 years ago, when
the numbers last showed a substantial annual decrease.
Pit bull advocates are especially vocal: even though about
16% of the people who adopted dogs from shelters in 2008 took pit
bulls or pit bull mixes, three times higher than the rate of pit
bull acquisition by people who purchase dogs from breeders, shelters
killed more pit bulls than ever. But the pit bull birth rate must
be cut by about 80% just to reduce the numbers of pit bulls coming to
shelters to a volume proportionate to their numbers in homes.
Feral cat advocates are perhaps quieter, but no happier.
Despite more than a decade of volunteers energetically funding and
staffing neuter/return programs, the numbers of cats killed in U.S.
shelters are also barely changed in 13 years, and 70% of those cats
are still believed to be feral. Many new techniques introduced to
animal care-and-control and humane work achieve immediate drops in
shelter intakes and killing, only to hit limits to efficacy just a
few years later. Neuter/return appears to have hit such a limit
several years ago, succeeding in reducing feral cat numbers and
shelter intake wherever practiced in a concientious and thorough
manner, but proving problematic or even impossible to practice in
other situations, particularly those where hostile neighbors,
property owners, birders, or other wildlife advocates object to
cats being present at all.
Though feral cats may be present anyway, if adequate food
and cover exists, regardless of the intensity of efforts to kill
them, many people will not accept the return of any cat to
particularly sensitive locations, even if sterilized and vaccinated.
Typically cats continue to reproduce in these areas, many of whom
are later killed after being trapped and taken to shelters. Cats
also continue to reproduce in areas where most neuter/return
practitioners have difficulty gaining physical access, or do not
feel safe working at night, alone. As such locations also tend to
be relatively inaccessible to people who practice catch-and-kill, or
simply shoot cats, they sometimes become incubators from which feral
cats may radiate out to repopulate areas where neuter/return was
successfully practiced years earlier.
Hiring and equipping professional neuter/return practitioners
to augment and assist volunteers in hard-to-reach places might help,
but that leaves the question of what to do with cats who cannot be
returned responsibly or humanely to places where they may be
Increasingly often, the “answer” that well-meaning rescuers
find is to telephone around, or search the web, until they discover
someone purporting to operate a no-kill shelter or sanctuary, who
will accept unlimited numbers of hard-case dogs and cats in return
for a donation. Frequently these people will have obtained nonprofit
status, and will have posted an attractive web site. Some attend
and even speak at animal advocacy conferences. A few no-kill
sanctuarians who accept almost any animal are endorsed and even
partially funded by national animal advocacy organizations.
But adequately caring for large numbers of animals requires a
significant and sustained fundraising operation and a trained
fulltime staff, including veterinarians and veterinary technicians.
Adequately caring for special needs animals requires even more. And
any care-for-life sanctuary will soon be filled to capacity, if not
also managing or partnering with an effective high-volume adoption
program. If any quality care-for-life no-kill sanctuary–or
high-volume adoption center–has ever existed anywhere in the world
without strictly limiting admissions, ANIMAL PEOPLE is unaware of it.
We are acutely and painfully aware of the many failures of
would-be no-kill shelters and rescues begun by people who hoped that
every animal could be saved. Excluding animals recovered from animal
hoarders who had no credentials as operators of shelters or rescues,
the humane community rescued at least 3,323 dogs and cats from
“rescuers” in 2007; at least 3,410 in 2008; and at least 4,397
thus far in 2009, including 2,118 cats and 2,196 dogs.
The numbers of animals who suffer and die in custody of
failed rescuers is still tiny compared to the numbers who are killed
at shelters that cannot find appropriate homes for them, but we
have seen a 62% increase in rescues from once seemingly legitimate
rescuers in only five years, and a 175% increase above the average
annual rate from 1982 through 1998, before “no-kill” sheltering
advanced from an idealistic ambition, occasionally achieved under
favorable conditions, to a quasi-religious ideology.
ANIMAL PEOPLE observed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that
the annual burden on the humane community resulting from hoarders was
equivalent to a disaster of Katrina magnitude. Since then, the
burden from puppy mill rescues has also increased to Katrina
magnitude, and the burden from rescue failures will reach Katrina
magnitude in only another two years at the present rate of increase.
Among the most prominent recent bail-outs, the City of
LaBelle Animal Control Department in Hendry County, Florida, on
November 17, 2009 accepted custody of about 600 cats from the Tenth
Life Sanctuary in Clewiston. Moving to Clewiston after founder Maury
Swee ran into trouble in Palm Beach County for keeping more cats than
zoning allowed, Tenth Life had 1,200 cats as recently as April 2008,
according to the IRS Form 990 that Swee filed for 2007.
Asked by NBC2 reporter Amy Oshier what became of the missing
600 cats, Swee said on camera, “Okay, they have usually passed on.”
Swee in November 2004 asked ANIMAL PEOPLE how he could avoid
allegations of “warehousing” cats.
“The best defense in that regard is to be wide-open,”
advised ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton, “so that anyone
interested can see everything you are doing at all times–and that is
also the best and fastest way to raise funds.” ANIMAL PEOPLE sent
Swee the packet of material on fundraising and shelter management
that became the free handbook Fundraising & Accountability for Animal
Charities. The 2010 edition may now be downloaded from
<www.animalpeoplenews.org>. Hundreds of shelter and sanctuary
operators around the world have used it, but Swee apparently did not.
In December 2005 Swee e-mailed again, looking for help to
distinguish Tenth Life from “closed access facilities” that “claim to
be no-kill,” but “send the excess animals to animal control to be
disposed of.”
Responded Clifton, “Sounds to me as if you are conflating
‘no-kill’ as a modus operandi with not killing animals as a matter of
principle. The now-defunct No-Kill Directory and all literature for
the No-Kill Conference series, 1995-2001, always carried on page one
the statement that, ‘Implicit to the no-kill philosophy is the
reality of exceptional situations in which euthanasia is the most
humane alternative available. Those exceptional situations include
irrecoverable illness or injury, dangerous behavior, and/or the
need to decapitate an animal who has bitten someone, in order to
perform rabies testing. They do not include ‘unadoptable, too
young, or too old,’ or lack of space.”
Successful no-kill shelters and rescues augment the work
of the open-admission shelters and animal control agencies in their
community, Clifton explained, to help the community as a whole
reach the point where the volume of animals in need of sheltering is
low enough and the humane resources in the community are large enough
to provide good alternatives for the “unadoptable, too young, or
too old.”
This requires, first of all, that the numbers must be
reduced. All of the animal shelters in the U.S. of every type,
combined, have space and budget enough to accommodate only about 1%
of the total U.S. dog and cat population–but about 5% of the total
U.S. dog and cat population arrives at shelters each and every year,
including about a third of the pit bull population and 20% of the
feral cat population.
Getting to no-kill requires finding ways and means of
preventing enough dog and cat births, facilitating enough adoptions,
and keeping enough animals in homes through good problem-solving
outreach to avoid killing three animals out of each five admitted to
Of these approaches, reducing dog and cat births through
sterilization has accounted for more than 90% of the reduction in
shelter killing achieved during the past 35 years. Targeted
sterilization, aimed directly at the animals most likely to arrive
at shelters and be killed, is still the most promising approach to
further lowering the numbers.
Even when the numbers of incoming animals are reduced until
there are no more surplus puppies and kittens, and no more healthy
but unruly one-year-old dogs, other than those who are dangerous,
so that shelter intake is reduced to just the animals who are
irrecoverably ill or injured, dangerous, or possibly rabid, about
one animal in five now coming to shelters is among these categories.
Most of these animals go to animal control shelters, which have the
duty of taking in every animal reported as an alleged threat to
public health and safety. Even allowing for the “exceptional
situations” in which animals must be killed, no community can hope
to achieve no-kill sheltering with present resources if the volume of
animals arriving at shelters exceeds about 2% of the community dog
and cat population.
No useful or humane contribution to the “no kill” quest
results from boycotting funders, attacking adoption venue providers
and shelter directors who act to maximize adoptions, ripping
shelters that perform necessary euthanasia, insisting that shelters
should save every animal regardless of the prospects of the animal
for enjoying good quality of life, ignoring economic reality, and
dumping ever more animals at “no kill” shelters that cannot properly
take care of them.
Like the quest for the Holy Grail, the quest to achieve
no-kill sheltering may seem endless, yet can also be ennobling. The
true value of the quest comes through the lessons learned–and the
animals helped along the way.

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