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What Does "No-Kill" Really Mean?

Spend five minutes talking to someone about animal adoption and you will likely hear the term “no-kill” in reference to an animal shelter or rescue. “No-kill” is a term very commonly used, but many animal rescuers themselves aren’t quite sure what it means. So is “no-kill” a real thing or just a buzzword to promote a shelter’s positive image and garner donations? Broadway Barks researched the topic and reached out to the experts to get the truth about the term “no-kill.” You might be surprised what we found out.

Despite the literal meaning of the term, a “no-kill” shelter is not a shelter that doesn’t kill any animals, but rather it is a shelter that does not kill healthy or treatable animals. True “no-kill” facilities only use euthanasia if an animal is terminally ill or dangerous. For example, a “no-kill” shelter would not euthanize due to overcrowding or because an animal has a treatable injury or illness. Sometimes people will say that a shelter is “no-kill” because it doesn’t kill “adoptable” animals, but the definition of the word “adoptable” can be pretty slippery. So if you hear a shelter being described as “no-kill” you should be wary and ask more questions. Rescue experts consulted for this article say they’ve seen unscrupulous shelters claim that an animal with a minor cold was “not adoptable” an—despite being young, friendly, and otherwise healthy—was marked for destruction. Yes, destruction. Some overcrowded big-city shelters consider black dogs unadoptable simply because they tend to stay in the shelter longer than lighter-colored dogs. Cats and dogs killed for reasons of “adoptability” rather than what is best for the animal is what defines a “kill” shelter. Focusing on the word “adoptable” allows the shelter to euthanize healthy and treatable animals because they are deemed “unadoptable.” These shelters might say they are “no-kill,” but that is a false claim.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are shelters that absolutely do not kill any animals for any reason. These shelters don’t euthanize an animal even if it’s terminally ill or dangerous; these are considered “never-kill” shelters. And while, initially, never killing animals sounds like a good thing, animals housed in never-kill shelters are often left in cages for the remainder of their lives, which can be years in the case of dangerous animals. These dogs and cats are likely to suffer greatly due to a lack of animal or human socialization, and they might receive medication for pain or anxiety brought on due to their underlying illness or the shelter environment. For these reasons “never-kill” is not a realistic or humane solution.

Some shelters have responded to the public’s desire to see “no-kill” shelters in their neighborhoods by using “no-kill” language; however, they haven’t quite become “no-kill” themselves. So how can you tell if your local shelter or the rescue you want to support is legitimately “no-kill”?

Do They Call Themselves “No-Kill?”

If you ask your shelter if they are “no-kill,” and they say they are yet they avoid using the term, be wary. If a shelter is truly committed to running a “no-kill” facility they will be proud of that label and will be open to discussing the situations in which they will consider euthanasia. They will also reference the term “no-kill” in their literature/brochures and on their website. Kill shelters masquerading as “no-kill” will try to use clever phrasing but will generally not advertise themselves as “no-kill.” It is worth noting that transitioning a kill shelter into a “no-kill” shelter takes more than just changing the language used. Many shelters who legitimately work to make the change to “no-kill” will often have to completely overhaul their day-to-day operations and may even have to invest money to renovate their facility to handle animals that can and should be saved. Saving all treatable animals requires additional space, administrative coordination, medical services, and money.

Do They Publish Statistics?

Legitimate “no-kill” shelters keep and publish statistics on a regular basis. These might include the “Save Rate,” which is the number of animals saved through adoption, residence at the shelter, being reclaimed by the owner, or getting transferred to a “no-kill” shelter divided by the number of ALL animals that entered the shelter, which includes animals euthanized by the shelter (even if owner requested) and those who died of natural causes. If the rescue is saving more than 90% of the animals it takes in, it is safe to say they are a “no-kill” organization. (Leading “no-kill” shelters in the US consistently have a Save Rate of 95% or higher.) Some government-run shelters prefer to use population benchmarks to chart their Save Rate. This benchmark is the ratio of animals killed to the human population (the number of pets killed during one year divided by the number of 1,000 people in the population). For example, San Francisco is considered a “no-kill” city because it kills two animals for every 1,000 people in the city. When San Francisco first set out to be a “no-kill” city it was killing five animals per 1,000 people. Chicago has set a similar goal of killing fewer than 5,400 animals in one year in order to call itself “no-kill.”

The reasons shelters and rescues give for euthanasia should also be considered. Is the shelter putting down cats and dogs that have treatable illnesses or behavioral problems? Without proper training, or at least a consultation with a veterinarian, it may be hard to properly assess an animal’s illness, but if an animal is euthanized for conditions like ringworm; dental, ear, respiratory or urinary tract infections; heartworm; skin conditions like mange; broken limbs; or behavior problems like aggression, resource guarding, and chewing that shelter should not be considered “no-kill.”

Do They Use Volunteers?

Many shelters only survive because of their volunteer workforce. Volunteers are integral to day to day shelter operations, administrative coordination, fundraising, and animal care. But when shelters prohibit experienced, adult volunteers from specific areas of the facility or refuse to engage volunteers in certain work roles, that is a red flag. Transparency ensures that the shelter is proud of their efforts and is confident that they are doing everything above board. Refusing volunteers in certain aspects could signal that the shelter has something to hide.

Are They Fiscally Responsible?

If a shelter or rescue is a 501(c)(3) there are many sources for reviewing how a specific organization is using its financial resources. Charity Navigator, Guide Star, and the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance are a few such resources. Charity Navigator and Guide Star gather their financial data directly from the IRS, so they are accurate when it comes to financials, but they do not investigate charities for compliance with other regulations. Charity Navigator reviews 24 Financial and Accountability & Transparency metrics to calculate a rated organization’s score and then awards them 0 to 4 stars. The BBB tests 20 charity standards; nonprofit organizations that meet all 20 standards are deemed “Standards Met.” Those that miss even one standard are deemed “Standards Not Met.” It is best to use the BBB’s rating in conjunction with another source.

In summary, the term “no-kill” should not be taken literally, but should serve as a moral compass or ethical standard for shelters and rescues. When “no-kill” is the goal, shelters and rescues are driven to make decisions that are best for the animals in their care. Making those decisions requires innovative strategies to promote shelter animals for adoption, expand resources and volunteer numbers, increase housing space, enhance medical protocols, and lower the number of homeless animals entering the shelter system.

Contributed by Charlene Sloan

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