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  • Writer's pictureAubrie Kavanaugh

"Keep Them Out" Programs of the No Kill Equation

I blogged recently about the No Kill Equation developed by Nathan Winograd which is the foundation of the animal shelter advocacy of No Kill Movement. We support the Equation because it has been proven to work in animal shelters across the country. It can be molded and shaped to fit the resources in, and the challenges of, any community, large or small. The genius of the Equation is that any community can develop programs which serve to reduce shelter intake and increase shelter output by examining current operations and by putting in place programs being used by progressive shelters across the country.

The following programs of the No Kill Equation are "keep them out" programs. They serve to prevent animals from entering the shelter in the first place.

Community Cat TNR Programs

There is a robust population of free-roaming cats in almost every community. Some are cats who are not social to people. Some are former house pets who were abandoned or are lost. Some were born outside but still have the capacity to be social to people. They live where they find resources, and you may only see them in the evenings or when most people are not around.

Most cats do not belong in municipal animal shelters at all. If you've ever taken your cat to the vet in your car and had him or her turn into something from a horror film, then you know lots of cats don't do well with travel and new environments. When cats end up in shelters, it becomes almost impossible to differentiate between a feral cat and a beloved pet who is traumatized. This presents a huge problem across the country; roughly half of the cats who enter shelters are destroyed even though the vast majority of them are healthy and treatable.

In a community cat TNR Program, free-roaming cats do not go to the shelter at all. TNR means trap, neuter, return. Cats are trapped, sterilized, vaccinated, and left-ear tipped for easy identification. Those cats social to people are put into foster care or homes. Those cats who are truly feral are returned to their habitat. Some would say that feral cats should be relocated or destroyed. Because cats live in areas where they find food, water, and shelter, relocating them only attracts more cats. Destroying the cats is not only inhumane, but it often can result in loss of a service they provide: rodent control.

TNR is the only humane method of reducing populations of community cats while keeping cats from entering shelters, thereby saving tax dollars. When TNR programs are in place, municipalities don't need to do anything but endorse and advocate for the programs while no longer engaging in "catch and kill." In some no kill communities, funds that would otherwise be spent to catch and destroy these cats is applied to having them spayed or neutered, so rescue groups can use remaining funds in other ways (such as providing medical care to cats who can be rehomed or paying for basic needs while cats are in foster care).

Some shelters have begun the practice of SNR: shelter-neuter-return. When cats enter the shelter, they are held for any requisite property hold period, but are then returned to the area where they were found. Shelter reclaim rates for cats are usually very low. The argument is that cats are more apt to find their way home from the area where they were found. There is a delicate balance in this type of program to make sure that the cats returned outside are not just abandoned. The idea is not appropriate for kittens, for cats who have been declawed, or for cats who are injured or have some health condition. This presentation about SNR is helpful to understand the rational for releasing cats back to the areas they came from.

High Volume, Low Cost Spay/Neuter Programs

Having pets spayed or neutered makes perfect sense to most pet caregivers. Most of us will never even try to enter our pet into a formal breeding standards competition, so there is no reason to keep the pet intact. Altered pets can live two to three years longer than pets who are not sterilized. They are less prone to many diseases and cancers, and they are less apt to roam. If you've ever lost a beloved pet to age or disease, it is likely you would give almost anything to have just a few more days with him or her.

Most people who fail to have pets spayed or neutered don't think it is necessary, or they think they cannot afford it. For those who say it is not necessary, put your pet first. If you know your pet can live longer and be healthier, isn't that what you want? As far as the cost, it can be far less than the cost of caring for a litter of animals or the cost for a municipal shelter to destroy that litter of animals.

Some communities have nonprofit clinics that do nothing but spay and neuter surgeries, charging much less than full-service veterinary clinics. Because spay and neuter is all these clinics do, the people who work there are experts at the process.

Other communities have taken steps to reduce pet populations by investing in spay and neuter programs, or completely covering the costs of spay and neuter surgeries, for pets of low-income or fixed-income families. This type of program is not to be confused with the concept of mandatory spay/neuter laws, which every national animal welfare organization opposes, and which leads to increased shelter intake over time regardless of any initial success.

There is some disagreement about the appropriate age to spay/neuter animals. Many shelters spay/neuter animals as young as eight weeks old so they can be adopted into new homes while ensuring that they do not add to pet populations by later having litters of pets. There is some evidence that spay/neuter at such a young age has physical and psychological consequences. In my state, Alabama, shelters and rescue groups must spay/neuter animals prior to adoption or enter into a written agreement with the adopter to ensure the animal is sterilized within 30 days after acquisition of the animal (or within 30 days of the sexual maturity of an animal)

In the community where I work, the city has invested in spay/neuter programs for low income families for years. The city first invested $20,000 in a program called “Fixin’ Alabama” in 2009. this program provides sterilization services for $5 based on where people live and their annual household income. The city has continued to invest in this program annually. It now invests $70,000 a year to help low income families who live in Huntsville and Madison County. This has been one factor to reduce the number of animals entering the shelter each year; the intake of animals has gone from more than 10,000 animals in 2009 to 5,500 animals in 2019. Another factor has been the work of the North Alabama Spay & Neuter Clinic, Inc. This is a high-volume/low-cost spay neuter clinic which can be used by anyone, regardless of income. It is one of only four such clinics in the state.

Pet Retention Programs

Our ties with animals are emotional. When we are backed into a corner, we often don't think clearly enough, and we engage in irrational behavior. When the municipal shelter is not seen as a place of refuge or rescue, people will often knowingly break the law to avoid taking their animal to the shelter or seeking the advice of the shelter staff. The person would rather risk arrest and hope for the best.

Although municipal shelters are referred to as open admission, the designation does not mean that they should simply accept owner-surrendered animals without any questions asked. When shelters do that, they learn nothing about the history of the animals and they lose wonderful opportunities to keep animals where they belong: in existing homes. They may also end up perpetuating a cycle in which people surrender animals, get more animals later and then surrender those animals also. Studies have shown that simply having animal surrender counseling leads people to keep their pets more than half the time.

Pet Retention Programs keep animals from entering the shelter by helping people overcome obstacles, whether they are short- or long-term. These programs get people to slow down, think clearly and articulate why they think they cannot keep their pet. These programs include intake counseling, pet food banks, trainer referrals, grants for veterinary care, short-term foster plans, and having a Pet Help Desk. The majority of people who have pets love them and want the best for them. It is worth the time and effort to work with caregivers to keep animals in their homes, as opposed to accepting those animals too easily, only to hold them and then destroy them.

In progressive communities, people are more apt to seek help from the animal shelter, as opposed to abandoning animals as an act of desperation. The residents of progressive communities know they will not be judged and will get the advice and help they need to keep their pet in their own home.

In the community where I work, the shelter website refers to surrender of pets as a last resort and provides tips to help people. The shelter provides pet retention counseling to people who feel they can no longer keep their pet to try to find alternatives to surrender using local pet food banks, rescue groups, or close ties (family, friends, co-workers, people with whom they attend church, etc.) Rather than just accept owned animals without question, the shelter takes this situation seriously to truly make surrender a last resort and to avoid a revolving door process of adoption, surrender, adoption.

Proactive Redemptions

Proactive redemptions is another name for return-to-owner programs that get animals back home if they escape or get lost. For municipal shelters, animal control is part of daily functioning and what the public expects. There is a balance between keeping the public safe and caring for animals. Animal control officers respond to a lot of calls about dogs running at large or about free-roaming cats. When it comes to dogs and cats believed to belong to someone, the goal of proactive redemptions is to avoid taking them to the shelter and to keep them where they belong: home. The vast majority of the animals who end up in shelters and are later destroyed are actually beloved family pets. These animals should not be destroyed simply because they lack the ability to speak.

In many no kill communities, proactive redemptions boils down to actions that animal control officers take in the field. These steps include scanning animals for microchips, checking for rabies tags or identification tags, checking on a lost pet website such as Pet Harbor, and making inquiries of businesses and homes in the area. Mitch Schneider, the former Washoe County animal control director in Reno, Nevada, put it this way:

"It starts in the field. In order to reduce the intake of these animals, something that benefits everyone, officers make every reasonable effort (check for ID, scan for a microchip, talk to area residents, etc.) to return animals to their rightful owners rather than impounding them at our facility. We are very busy in the field. However, while it might be more work initially to try to find where these animals live for the officers in the field, it is less work for staff back at the shelter. It evens out in the end. It means less animals entering the shelter and more animals going home alive. It is a win-win outcome."

In the community where I work, animal control officers have computers in their vehicles to help them identify animal owners based on rabies tags and microchips toward preventing intake of found animals to the shelter. They also engage in community outreach to try to determine where animals belong to get them directly back home.

Another component of this element of the No Kill Equation is ensuring that pets can be identified. This is where the public comes in, and the solutions are not complicated. Pet caregivers can ensure pets can be identified if displaced from home by having pets microchipped, by using collars (embroidered with a phone number) and by placing identification tags on collars (provided cat collars are breakaway collars for safety purposes). Many shelters now microchip all adopted animals so they can be easily identified if lost or misplaced from home after having been adopted.

Although many people may think microchipping isn't necessary because their pets live inside or are never unsupervised, consider how many pets are lost or displaced each year after natural disasters such as fires, floods, or tornadoes. Thousands of animals are displaced from their homes each year due to disasters and simple accidents. Microchipping can ensure that they are identified and returned to the people who love them and may be looking for them. Microchipping can also increase the odds of having your pet returned to you if he or she is stolen and ends up in the hands of law enforcement officials or at a shelter.

The advocacy group I formed promotes periodic Chipathon events to encourage people to have pets microchipped at a reduced cost. These are month-long events during which local veterinary offices provide microchipping services for a low flat rate by walk-in or appointment to help reduce intake at the municipal animal shelter (because the animals can be identified and reunited with owners). Our next Chipathon is in March of 2020. Pets can be chipped for $20, which includes registration.


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