Best Friends Blog

Confused about what no-kill means and doesn’t mean?

There seems to be persistent confusion about what the no-kill movement advocates for, what no-kill means and doesn’t mean, and the feasibility of no-kill as a comprehensive approach to sheltering.

While this is old territory, let’s do a refresher for those who find themselves in conversations with folks who don’t get the concept and for those who are themselves confused about what no-kill means in practical terms.

Here are some of the most common misperceptions about no-kill policies and practices. They are all incorrect and I’ll address each in turn.

Myth: It can’t be done. An open-admission no-kill shelter doesn’t exist.

This is just plain wrong. In every community considered to be no-kill (including Reno, Nevada; Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; and Fairfax County, Virginia), there is at least one open-admission shelter. In many communities, it is the only shelter in the jurisdiction.

Myth: If one shelter is no-kill, another facility in that community has to do the dirty work of killing the excess animals.

The calculation of no-kill includes all animals entering all shelters in a jurisdiction. A 90 percent save rate is the threshold that must be achieved for any community to be considered no-kill, and that includes all shelters, regardless of their individual operating models. There is no “bait and switch” happening in no-kill communities. Saving 90 percent of the animals in a community can be done, and it is happening in cities and towns all across the country. In our home state of Utah, 28 communities have reached and maintained that 90 percent threshold.

Myth: With no-kill, animals are allowed to suffer instead of being humanely euthanized.

This one is just crazy talk! I do not know of any no-kill shelters that allow suffering animals (those with no chance of recovery) to continue to suffer rather than be euthanized. On the contrary, no-kill sheltering is driven by compassion for the animals being cared for and collaboration with rescue organizations that focus on the special needs of older pets. Hospice care for terminally ill homeless animals is often a feature of no-kill communities.

Myth: No-kill sheltering means an increased length of stay, causing animals to languish in the shelter environment.

No-kill sheltering is usually driven by high-volume adoptions, with as short a stay as possible in the shelter. Since animals are not killed to make room for others in a no-kill sheltering environment, it is possible for dogs or cats who are not quickly adopted to remain in the shelter for longer periods, although many no-kill operations place longer-term animals in foster care. The idea that killing long-term shelter residents is an acceptable solution to long-term stays is just bizarre.

Myth: No-kill shelters “dump” cats instead of caring for them.

Those who make this accusation are using “dumping cats” as code for criticizing TNR (trap/neuter/return) and its shelter-integrated variant, RTF (return-to-field programs). These types of community cat programs acknowledge the fact that feral and free-roaming cats (collectively known as community cats) have homes — and they are just not indoor homes. The practice of fixing and returning cats to locations where they live in the community makes sense and saves lives. Opponents of TNR and RTF advocate catching and killing community cats, a practice that for decades has been failing in its goal to reduce the numbers of community cats.

Myth: Unadoptable and dangerous animals are released to the public without any screening.

Not true. It is a regrettable fact that in all sheltering models, there are genuinely dangerous dogs who have to be euthanized unless appropriate sanctuary care can be arranged.

Myth: No-kill sheltering is just a better-marketed version of hoarding. Animals are piled up in terrible conditions, leading to more hoarding cases because there is no screening of rescuers or adopters.

This is probably the most ignorant statement of the batch. First, as I said above, a primary no-kill strategy is high-volume adoptions — not piling up animals and clogging facilities. Second, hoarding is a mental condition that exists independent of sheltering policy. Third, if any sheltering model attracts hoarders more than another, it is a shelter that kills high numbers of animals. In such circumstances, hoarders justify their mania as necessary lifesaving.

Ultimately, no-kill means ending the killing of shelter pets as a means of population control. Depending on the size and complexity of the community, a variety of approaches will get you there, but the first is a commitment to making it happen. Each year at our national conference, we highlight communities that have reached a 90 percent save rate or are very close to achieving that goal. We develop “playbooks” that provide a snapshot of how each community approached its problems and the strategies deployed to overcome them. Check out each of these playbooks and consider how your community can use some of these strategies to save more lives.

The Best Friends National Conference, to be held July 16-19 in Atlanta, Georgia, offers a comprehensive lineup of sessions about no-kill strategies and supporting functions such as fundraising, marketing, volunteer engagement and social media. We’ll also be profiling some new no-kill communities. I highly recommend attending the conference for any individual, organization or animal control professional interested in learning how to move their community to no-kill.

Together, we can Save Them All.

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Francis Battista
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Dog Mom

    A Pitbull finally gets adopted after 2 years at a no-kill shelter sounds like a success story to me!

  • Shari

    I totally agree with you. Thank you for posting your valid concerns.
    So many animals are being warehoused in cruel conditions.
    They suffer for years, out of sight.
    Even to the point where people can’t or not allowed to check in on the animals.
    When pointing this out, I have noticed that alot
    of people will claim we are Pro-Kill just because we inquired into the lack of care and cruel conditions in which these animals have to indure.

    We must not look the another way and claim these things are just a myth.
    They are a reality and happening more often.

  • in texas

    There are so many things I could comment on concerning these myths, just from what I have seen from my own experience. Even before I became involved I had been turned away form No-Kill Shelters when I came across animals I didn’t want to see taken to animal control. Four years ago I had this wonderful vision of all these wonderful things being done to help animals and the wonderful people involved. When I got involved in volunteering and fostering, yes I saw a lot of great things being done, but I also began to see a side that was very disappointing. Where were all these wonderful adopters I thought that were out there? I have seen in my local area alone, the so called rescues that turn into neglect, greed, and down right abuse. The unbelievable never ending excuses people gave for surrendering their pets, the unreliability or integrity of fosters, yes, there were animals that had been in foster care or in shelters for years. I have also heard over and over again in my community, a dog gets adopted from one shelter and ends up in another down the road. I have had people tell me they adopted a dog from the shelter and turned around and gave it away on CL. I have seen people that adopted dogs from a rescue that I know of try to turn them into animal control as strays. To the inexperienced you have this idea fostering a dog for a week or two and someone wonderful is going to step up to adopt. People wanting to surrender where outnumbering the people who wanted to adopt. I have seen fosters and adopters want to return dogs because of behavioral issues, and then the blame placed on them because they are not working with the dog, and them being stuck because there was no where else for the dog to go. I had one woman tell me she would never deal with a rescue again, because of a dog she adopted they refused to take back> Her vet euthanized the dog for her, and she said to this day the rescue does not know. So, how do you know what happens to these dogs without follow ups? People try taking these dogs out of the goodness of their hearts, not to take on problems or projects they may have no experience. People want to add animals to their homes for love, and they want to feel comfortable with those animals in their homes. Why is it their responsibility to rehabilitate? I have been seeing almost every aspect of everything is you say to be a myth, as a reality. Just this week alone, I have seen 3 dogs come across my social media page with behavioral issues, that rescuers are trying to get adopted out, one with the issue of almost killing another dog. I myself two years ago ended up in a predicament with an unadoptable dog with behavior and health issues, being that I felt sorry for her by the time she got to me, even as inexperienced as I was worked very hard with her on both, and she progressed. After an incident at my home, she went to a home where supposedly this rescuer had all this experience and worked wonders… APPARENTLY NOT….I was heartbroken when I saw the physical condition she was in when I went to pick her up, and any spirit she did have was completely broken, in the end it came down to deciding to euthanize the dog, who had earned a special place in my heart, but I knew I could not have her in my home, how could you ask someone else to take on??? I reached out to many places as a last resort…. INCLUDING BEST FRIENDS…. where I wrote a long heart felt e-mail because you can’t get through by phone. Best Friends did not even respond, not even to say “sorry we cannot help” … I still have a copy of that e-mail. I am all for not killing animals, who wouldn’t be…. it’s nice to see what is working, but we cannot be in denial about what is not, and where rescue is losing it’s integrity and responsibility. As a major organization, if you want to point out what your vision of No-Kill is and you want people to step up and help, I think you should also educate those who want to rescue on how to do it responsibly and honestly. I also like the comment someone left, about what happened to the “no more homeless pets” focus?

  • johnbachman

    And by the way, what ever happened to, “NO More Homeless Animals”? as the goal for Best Friends?

  • Canine Behaviorist

    Sounds great, but not reality…. You are not correct on so many levels. Maybe your group does NK in a responsible fashion, but others are not and their only concern seems to be about live exit rate numbers, etc. Often putting pets and the public at risk. For example, there are shelters/rescues claiming to be NK and they do adopt out dangerous dogs. Shameful, dangerous, and dispicable practice. I have 30 plus years experience with behaviorally unsafe dogs and most of the public cannot safely manage these types of dogs. Any shelter/rescue adopting out these behaviorally unsafe dogs (with or without liability waivers) should be held culpable. We have seen an increase in the number of bite cases and pet and human death by dogs. Which I believe is a direct result of the NK movement because some self proclaimed NK groups are adopting out dangerous dogs. Also, NK groups that provide sanctuary for dangerous dogs are putting themselves at risk. Recently, in my state, a couple who run a NK SANCTUARY were seriously mauled by a Pitbull type dog who had previously bitten a child. This dog had come from a municipal shelter and was released to a NK rescue where it bit a child then they transfered it to the sanctuary to be rehabbed. The couple in this story are lucky to be alive and will have to undergo skin grafts. That is reality.
    I know for a fact that it occurs more often than not. In my city, a quasi animal rescuer claiming to be NK got a call from our municipal animal shelter that also claims to be NK to take out two Pitbulls type dogs that were deemed dangerous in court after both dogs killed other dogs on two separate occasions. The rescuer was advised to the Dangerous Dog status of both dogs. She takes dogs home and list them on her rescue facebook page as available for adoption and feels they can be adopted into homes with other pets. She fails to disclose the truth. True story…. The same municipal animal shelter in this story in their efforts to become NK have become a limited admission shelter because they are often at full capacity and now housing mostly pitbull type dogs. Some of those pitbull type dogs have been housed for more than a year. Fact… This taxpayer funded shelter’s director was quoted as saying that her shelter is now a NK sanctuary. One that is riddled with overcrowding, disease, enormously stressful from perpetual barking, dogs breaking away from handlers to fight with other dogs, dogs biting handlers and the public who come to visit. It’s a nightmare! A run away NK train.
    We need to be realistic and honest in our efforts to help pets and educate people. NK is a cozy warm feeling for most and nothing more than a money maker for others. Many homeless pets are adopted unknowingly to hoarders and adopters who lie on their adoption forms and then the pets live out their lives on the end of a chain in the freezing cold or on hot desert sands. Others are “rescued” by unregulated self proclaimed NK rescue groups who are nothing more than hoarders where pets reside in gang pens for long term until they are rescued by HSUS or other Animal Control agencies.
    Don’t get me wrong… I wish NK could fix the problem and all pets could live a decent life. I have dogs and cats who live inside the house and receive a lot of attention. They lay around on the sofa and our beds. They live the good life and that’s how it should be. While most dogs in our neighborhood live outside on chains and in pens. That’s the reality where I live. So most adopted shelter dogs end up outside in my area. TNR, another NK nightmare, will be responsible for an increase in diseases such as Rabies and a decrease in wildlife. Mark my words….
    NK, in my opinion, furthers irresponsible pet ownership and pet abandonment. Why? It increase the surrender rate to shelters and rescues because now the attitude is if I don’t like the pet I have then I can take it to NK where it won’t be killed and go get another puppy or kitten… Tends to lessen the guilt for some. Sad… Pets are for life. If you can’t keep a pet then take responsibility to find that pet a new suitable home. Demand accountability from breeders, pet owners, pet rescuers and shelters. That will decrease pet homelessness long before NK will. Demand honest dialogue about the issues… What about the Asliomar Accords? What are the pros and cons of NK verses Asliomar Accords? Let’s be honest… NK sounds great, but the bigger picture scares the hell out of me.

  • Shari

    Do you thinks it’s right to turn away strays when brought to a shelter?

    • Misty Scallion

      Why not try other shelters? I have six cats/two are sick. I have three dogs. and love them all.

  • Karen

    Thank you for this great post! The city of North Chicago, IL was turned no-kill literally overnight when a new Animal Control officer, Dana Kay Deutsch, took over. What went on before her was horrifying and the day she stepped in, it all stopped. And she is the ONLY AC officer in the whole city, with numerous pitties coming in weekly. It’s truly an amazing transformation.

  • Debbie

    Thank you for explaining this to the public!!

  • Brian Gold

    I am delighted that Best Friends is directly addressing
    these issues, as it is amazing how often arguments based on these misconceptions
    are still being made, despite all of the evidence contradicting them and the
    virtually complete absence of evidence supporting the nay-sayers. I just wanted to add a point about the
    reliability of no kill claims. I don’t
    think anyone disputes the fact that volunteers play an absolutely essential role
    in a shelter successfully achieving a no kill goal. They are also incredibly important in keeping
    the shelter honest, serving as constant watchdogs and very vocal critics when
    it is appropriate. Unlike many kill shelters, good no kill shelters encourage
    scrutiny from their communities and never try to silence their volunteers.

  • anon

    In TN it’s much different.. our only “no-kill” shelters are Limited Intake shelters, and they still can Euth up to 10% of their population for health and temperament reasons. They “rescue” animals from surrounding shelters when they have a lack of people surrendering and paying their fee. A No kill shelter is not able to exist in the south because we are over ran with idiots who don’t know how to spay and neuter. Overly macho obsolete males who equate their Dogs balls with their own. I’m happy it can be done somewhere, but I hope people in the south don’t think that this is true for them too… it’s not.

    • be kind

      Hey, anon: Is TX not in the South? Is VA not in the South? Both of them have no-kill communities. You may have further to go in TN, but I don’t think it’s helpful to say that it’s just not possible.

      • jondunn

        I also have to add that both Fulton and Dekalb counties in GA (metro Atlanta) are both saving lives at incredible rates. Both counties were in the high eighties for 2014, and both are doing even better in 2015!

        There may be particular challenges based on geography, but no-kill is possible (and happening) in every corner of the country.

        • Misty Scallion

          Not in Massachusetts except one shelter NK

      • MelindaTX

        To say that Austin is like other cities in TX is not really accurate. For one, the population is much less than a city like Houston. Parts of Houston are 69 miles from city limit to city limit. Also, Austin is a completely different culture. Even though it’s about half the size of Houston, their budget from their city government for animal control is almost double Houston’s.
        Every spare moment of my life is spent doing animal rescue work and the criticism of “kill” shelters is maddening. If everyone who condemns those shelters would send me their addresses, I’ll drop off a few of your new best friends. Who on here will take the mama dog with tumors hanging off of her that’s living on the street. Are one of you willing to take any of the 12 loose on the street I saw yesterday? Should they be left there to starve and suffer like they are? If I pick them up will you take them? Please let me know what fantasy “no-kill” shelters have room! Thank you!

      • Dog Mom

        be kind – I couldn’t agree more!

    • Misty Scallion

      LOL well said my friend….

  • Tina Clark

    Thank you for this. One more thing under the subject of long shelter stays. In addition to high-volume adoptions and foster care, enrichment programs and a lot of socialization by shelter workers or volunteers can be utilized to keep long term residents happy and well-adjusted.

    • Canine Behaviorist

      Hmmmm, why are those long term residents long term? All the things you mentioned I have seen done and our shelter is still a very stressful environment. Partly because they insist on housing behaviorally unsafe dogs. Nothing like a shy fearful dog being kenneled next to an animal aggressive dog. That’s the reality in our city shelter.

      • Misty Scallion

        Aren’t you a canine behaviorist? I don’t think it takes very long to calm an animal? They are afraid of being in those cells.It’s even more stressful for the dogs. If your stressed out then be patient because you must know how these dogs feel.

  • Well written, there are still a lot of people with misconceptions about what No Kill means. Thanks!

  • cutie_pi

    So does the 10% euth rate include those put down for aggressive behavior and illness?

    • MelissaLMiller

      Hi cutie_pi,

      Yes, it does. That 10 percent allows for humane euthanasia of genuinely dangerous dogs and animals irremediably suffering from injury, disease or age-related infirmities.

      Melissa Miller
      Social Media Community Manager

      • Christine

        Can you please define what BFS would deem genuinely dangerous dogs please?

        • MelissaLMiller

          Hi Christine,

          In regards to behavior, we’re referring only to animals who are too dangerously aggressive to be safely adopted to the public and for which no safe and humane management option exists. I hope this helps to clarify.

          Melissa Miller
          Social Media Community Manager

    • Misty Scallion

      Cutie; People should ask questions first. Pets that are aggressive are frightened and needs time to adjust. The dog I just adopted was a mental case but he has turned out to be well worth it.He still needs a few training lessons on his bad behavior but he appears to be solid and content.

  • JH

    So what about “No-kill” facilities that keep the border-line aggressive dogs? They adopt them out, just for them to be returned 2,3,4 times for aggressiveness (but it’s never the dogs’ fault, it’s always the people not handling them correctly…right?) until finally after 4 confusing years of being adopted, returned, adopted, returned… the poor dog is finally deemed unadoptable and pts? Is that the more “humane” option?
    And FYI, yes, this does happen.

    • MelissaLMiller

      Hi JH,

      As we’ve stated in the above post, no-kill does not mean that genuinely dangerous dogs are not humanely euthanized (and the 10 percent allows for this, as well as animals irremediably suffering from various factors. It is up to individual rescues/shelters to have a dog’s behavior evaluated by a professional.

      Melissa Miller
      Social Media Community Manager

      • jondunn

        JH and Melissa – Just to add to this.

        While I am prepared to agree that it can happen, I will say the scenario you’ve presented happens very, very infrequently – and no shelter, no-kill or otherwise *wants* to see an animal returned to the shelter multiple times. That’s obviously time and resource consuming, as well as not being good for the animal.

        While open adoptions are a core tenet of the programs needed to achieve no-kill, screening of adopters still needs to happen – and especially so for the animals that are behaviorally as you describe.

        Many shelters have training policies in place that have been incredibly effective at helping improve behavioral issues during an animal’s stay in the shelter. Of course a robust fostering program with skilled foster parents can be a true life saver for dogs with behavioral issues. I suggest you check out the playbooks we linked to in the blog. I think you’ll find some interesting information about how those communities met and overcame their particular challenges.

        Thank you,

        Jon Dunn
        Best Friends Animal Society

        • Misty Scallion

          Jon; Not every one can afford to openly buy a dog as these shelters choose to call it an adoption fee,then pay another huge amount to have the dog trained.? The shelter in my town charges an arm and a leg.If this shelter hauls in big money per day or even monthly then why charge so much for a much needed dog training? The building is brand new and supported by nothing but very wealthy people that have passed on.

      • Misty Scallion

        When any animal is euthanized it’s not actually humanely,it’s inhuman to ignorantly cook a poor innocent animal to it’s death. Is that humane? My goodness they DO suffer severely.Why not fight to get these poor pets an advocate or some one to train these pets? in order that they can in fact be adopted.? In Massachusetts the nearby shelter has a trainer but they charge big money.This is a newly re:built shelter where another wealthy human being passed away and donated big money for the shelters use,and yet we pay up the nose for defective animals,but it isn’t the pets fault.Put the blame where it should go. Peace.

  • Joe McDonald

    In the city of Calgary we have one of the best bylaws in regards to dogs. There is no breed specific legislation. The city is also working towards no kill status.

  • TDietz

    Thank you very much. And, just to point on the hoarding issue — the real thing that is important there is NOT the number of animals in one’s care but the TYPE of care (or lack thereof in hoarding situation) being given to the animal. For some, 2 animals can be overwhelming while for others, caring for 10 can be done very well. The individual must be evaluated as well as the condition of the home and animals to make a determination.