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  • Aubrie Kavanaugh

The No Kill Equation: Coming Full Circle

Earlier this year I began a series of blog posts about the No Kill Equation (developed by Nathan Winograd) to help advocates, animal shelters and rescues get back to basics. The No Kill Equation is the very foundation of our advocacy and we promote it for one reason: it works to keep healthy and treatable animals alive. The first blog covered the Equation in general terms, the second focused on the “keep them out” programs which reduce shelter intake and the third focused on the “get them out” programs which help move animals out of shelters. I fully intended to finish the series in March, but we all know what happened. The pandemic. Like others, I had to change my focus to other subjects, both personal and professional, and the final blog in the series had to wait. And maybe that’s a good thing.


We are in a state of crisis not just nationally but globally. As of today, more than 4 million people have contracted Covid-19 and almost 300,000 people have died. The numbers in the U.S. are grim and continue to rise with each day as different parts of the country struggle with how soon is too soon to open. Despite the daily bad news we all try to absorb as we adjust to incredible challenges, there is good news during these times and some of that good news comes from the animal sheltering industry in America.


We have seen animal shelters go in one of two directions related to functioning.


On the negative end of the spectrum are those shelters which routinely destroyed healthy and treatable animals while blaming the irresponsible public before the crisis. These so-called shelters have continued to remain willfully ignorant of proven no kill programs and have used the pandemic as yet another excuse to kill animals. They have hunkered down to protect the status quo. Some have cut off all contact with the public, have stopped adoptions and have continued to use the catch and kill model. To those shelters we say this: shame on you. Your behavior is nothing short of a betrayal of the public trust and we hope the public you serve is outraged enough to demand changes to your operation. Yours are more appropriately described as disposal facilities. Sheltering has little to do with how you function.


On the positive end of the spectrum are those shelters that were at least moderately progressive before the crisis. Those shelters have used this opportunity to engage with the public on a scale not seen before, really ramp up programs to keep animals alive. Many shelters are not entirely empty for the first time in their history. There are places with waiting lists of people wanting to foster animals. To those shelters we say this: congratulations! You have shown what is possible when we think outside the box and we work hard to engage the public to save lives. We hope you plan ahead to find ways to sustain this progress once your community returns to some semblance of "normal."



This crisis has proven one thing above all others: that pet overpopulation – as a reason for shelter killing – is, in fact, a myth as Nathan Winograd told us all years ago. The attitude of the public related to companion animals did not change as a result of the pandemic. We did not need to win them over because they already cared "enough." What happened was that shelters engaged with the public in ways never seen before to bring people to the table and explain what they can do as individuals to save lives. The No Kill Equation is more relevant now than at any time in the history of animal sheltering and we should all focus on that moving forward as we continue to honorable and compassionate work of saving the lives of the animals we love and value. I would argue that the crisis has given us much to consider regarding which programs of the Equation are the most important during times of crisis. We of No Kill Movement plan to chat about that in an upcoming panel discussion.


On that note, this is the rest of the No Kill Equation. These programs are dual-purpose in nature because they keep animals from entering shelters and they help animals who do enter shelters get through the system quickly. It is understood that some of these programs have been modified as a result of the pandemic.


Volunteer Programs

Volunteers have been described as dedicated “army of compassion” and the backbone of a no kill effort. There is never enough staff, never enough dollars to hire more staff, and always more needs than paid human resources. Volunteer programs are where people make the difference between success and failure and, for the animals, life and death.


When a shelter makes optimum use of volunteers for a variety of tasks, it can implement other elements of the No Kill Equation. Volunteers can help with TNR programs by trapping and releasing cats. They can help with pet retention programs by manning an animal help desk or helping out with owner surrender counseling. They can help at off-site adoption events. They can help facilitate a foster program. They can socialize dogs and cats by walking dogs or just spending time with the cats. They can help with neonatal puppies and kittens who need bottle feeding until they are old enough to consume solid food. The ways in which volunteers can help are limited only by the scope of our imagination.


Rescue groups and no kill shelters rely heavily on volunteers. Some people are willing to volunteer at municipal shelters that destroy savable animals, but many people will not, simply because they don’t want to be complicit in the killing. The great news is that once a community announces its intention to become a no kill community, volunteers have been known to come out of the woodwork. People are much more apt to volunteer at a shelter when they do not worry that healthy and treatable animals are at risk.


Almost every community has incredible and untapped resources in terms of potential volunteers: retirees, students, soldiers, people who cannot work but are otherwise fully able to perform helpful tasks and, of course, busy people who love animals and just want to help save them and make our communities safer for them.


Public Relations/Community Involvement


Increasing adoptions, maximizing donations, recruiting volunteers and partnering with community agencies comes down to one thing: increasing a shelter’s public exposure. That means consistent marketing and public relations. Public relations and marketing are the foundation of any shelter’s activities and its success. To do all these things well, the shelter must be in the public eye.


The way in which no kill communities develop this element of the equation is limited only by creativity.


A lot of people don’t give much thought to the municipal animal shelter in their community. Some know it exists but could not tell you where it is located. Some have an idea of what takes place there and perhaps don’t want to think about it. Some are active in helping the shelter and its staff, and see the wonderful things that happen there, along with the tragic. The first hurdle any shelter should overcome is making itself visible in the community; making itself relevant. When a shelter is viewed more as a place of hope and of rescue, the messaging goes a long way toward keeping animals out of the shelter and getting them out of the shelter.


Regarding the animals themselves, this element is all about marketing and making it easy to adopt shelter animals. Some people think we have a pet overpopulation problem when we really do not. There are more than enough homes for shelter animals in our communities, but people tend to get their animals from other sources because they think shelter animals must be damaged or they think all shelter animals are given the chance to be adopted. When we market animals consistently and the animals are visible in the community through off-site adoption events and use of the media, we seek the help of the public in placing animals, and we help people understand that homeless animals are just as worthy, loving, and loyal as animals from other sources.


When communities transition to no kill and people know that, incredible things can happen. Being a no kill community is a source of immense pride, and people are more apt to become part of changing the culture because they know that small acts save lives. They are proud of what can be accomplished when people work together.


Compassionate Leadership


Of all the elements of the No Kill Equation, the most important is compassionate leadership. When Nathan Winograd first put forth the equation in his book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, he used the title compassionate shelter director for this element. The buck stops with the shelter director because he or she is the person who has the most influence regarding how the shelter operates. This element of the equation has since been modified to a degree by some people in our social movement, particularly as it relates to municipal shelters. It is more appropriate to describe this element as compassionate leadership.


Most shelters are run by a singular person, but all shelter directors report to others, such as boards of directors or elected officials. The person running the shelter is the key, but the way the shelter operates is decided by a group of people who make choices about tax dollars and donations.


(images courtesy of Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control in Florida, Huntsville Animal Services in Alabama and Claremore Animal Shelter in Oklahoma).

There are currently hundreds of communities across the USA whose shelters have stopped killing healthy or treatable pets. The shelters in your community can do that, too. If your community is not already No Kill, your shelters need to hear from you and your friends.... please get involved to save lives.

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