This is the second installment of a three series piece on “No-Kill” animal sheltering and what it means. You can read the entire piece in a PDF document here. You can see the first installment here. The final installment on the blog will post on Thursday, January 22.

Our hard working staff cares greatly for each animal that comes through our doors.

Our hard working staff cares greatly for each animal that comes through our doors.

Let’s look at shelter overcrowding. According to the Association of Shelter Veterinarian’s “Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters,” operating beyond a shelter’s capacity for care is an unacceptable practice. Further, that “operating beyond capacity for care will result in unwanted outcomes including: delays or failure to provide necessary care; use of substandard housing; increases in staff and animal stress; haphazard mixing of animals; increased risk of infectious disease exposure; and increases in negative interactions between animals.” (Hurley2008b; Newbury 2009a, 2009b)

Let’s say there is a shelter claiming to be “no kill.” Since it refuses to euthanize because it has to achieve a 90% minimum “save rate,” it very quickly becomes overcrowded. This is happening now in many communities across the country. What is truly best for the animals is now not so clear. Is it okay to crowd animals in cramped cages on top of each other, filling rooms for days and weeks and months? What kind of life is that for an animal? One could argue “at least they are alive” but then it becomes a quality of life debate and that is not so clear and one could counter with “at what cost”. Let’s even go a step further, and say we are only talking about healthy and treatable animals. There are instances of shelters attempting to entirely end the euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals, doing everything they can, and yet being overwhelmed with animals; their capacity in many instances is far exceeded. Do we maintain our belief that we must, without exception, save them all? If so, are we willing to operate our shelter in an “unacceptable” manner and risk, and in truth create inhumane conditions for the animals? Are we willing to turn away those animals most in need to ensure balance? If a shelter decides to euthanize and maintain humane conditions for the animals in their care rather than overcrowd their facility and operate under the excessive risk of stress, illness, injury and disease, are they “killers”? Are they disregarding the animals in their care, or are they making the emotionally challenging decision to maintain a positive environment? Once again, if we rationally put aside our feelings on “no-kill”, we can see that the decision is not one made from malice, and that both options have an impact, positive and negative, on individual animals and the entire shelter population.

Defining “no-kill” as simply a save rate is detrimental to the animals. One cannot hold the belief that “no-kill” means placing only healthy and treatable animals and simultaneously believe that it must lead to a 90% save rate. Those two things cannot coexist logically. Animals, regardless of our policies, are individuals. They should be evaluated individually. A shelter can be effective and committed to responsibly saving lives under definitions that aren’t constrained by a percentage.

The decision to euthanize some animals should not prevent shelters from being defined as a compassionate and humane. We have to consider the conditions of the animals entrusted to us individually and with respect to the well-being of all the animals. Balancing placements with the living conditions we provide the animals in our shelters is not as easy as it may seem. Animal shelters are much more than a save rate. Sometimes, a shelter’ s efforts and compassion are not defined by ANY number and, in fact, the percentage may be more of a reflection of their compassion in serving the entire community of animals in need. I challenge all of us to discard the notion of a 90% save rate as some arbitrary definition and get back to the saving of all healthy and treatable animals.

Having a full veterinary staff allows us to treat an extensive amount of injuries and illnesses in adoptable animals.

Having a full veterinary staff allows us to treat an extensive amount of injuries and illnesses in adoptable animals.

From the No-Kill Advocacy Center: “If every animal shelter in the United States embraced the No Kill philosophy and the programs and services that make it possible, we would save nearly four million dogs and cats who are scheduled to die in shelters this year, and the year after that. It is not an impossible dream.”

It is not an impossible dream. However, in that same vein: If everyone were more careful on the road, there would never be another traffic accident. Certainly, being careful helps reduce accidents, but what about the road conditions; the condition of your or someone else’s vehicle; distractions; weather … don’t all of these elements also play a role? My point is there are many critical factors as we make decisions in the best interests of animals, and it is imperative that we avoid the tendency to oversimply or turn a blind eye.

Now let’s explore the “services and programs that make it possible.” The “equation”, if you will.
The “no kill equation” is filled with absolutely vital programs that every shelter, to the extent possible, should undertake.

The principles are valid. Shelters should expend all efforts to save lives. No question. However, the idea that simply by taking part in these programs, all your problems will simply melt away is akin to a revolutionary diet pill that will have you in beach-body condition without any effort.

That may be worth exploring further. In 2011, an often-cited survey asked individuals about whether shelters should only be allowed to euthanize animals when they are too sick to be treated or too aggressive to be adopted. The inferred outcome is absolutely appropriate. 71% said “yes”. However, the question assumes you aren’t educated enough on the subject to know that you may not have all the information necessary to answer the question.

What you haven’t been told is that this could lead to animal “warehousing”: overcrowding, substandard conditions and the intense suffering of animals forced to live in the conditions your noble answer may have dictated. One should also ask, “Should animal shelters always maintain humane conditions and operate according to the guidelines of care for animal shelters?” People are likely to also answer “yes.” The public would agree that the capacity, quality of care and humane conditions should help dictate decisions. But in answering “yes”, you have, in many cases, rebutted the first question, however misleading it was. The more appropriate question is: “Should animal shelters exhaust measures to save lives while balancing the quality of life and standards of care in their facility?” Yes. Of course they should. The “no-kill” movement has, in large part, made its name by oversimplifying rather complex topics and providing simple, easy-to-get-behind solutions to issues that are complex and deserve more thought. Do you think we should have more police and firemen? Do you think our schools should have more money? Of course we do! Unfortunately, it is just not that simple.

Let’s get back to “the equation”. In this instance, we will see how “the equation” matches up against MHS and our programs.


Graphic from The No Kill Advocacy Center.

1. Rescue partnerships: MHS has extensive partnership programs. More than 100 organizations across the country partner with us on animal placement and adoption. Not only do we have rescue partnerships for the placement of MHS animals, but we act as a rescue partner for other organizations struggling with placing their animals.

2. Volunteers: MHS has, at any given time, between 1,500 and 2,000 active volunteers taking on numerous assignments and responsibilities, all of it contributing to our lifesaving work.

3. Foster care: At any given time, MHS has between 100-250 animals in foster care and can have as many as about 300 active foster care homes.

4. Trap, Neuter, Release: In 2014, MHS sterilized and released 526 cats as part of our Trap-Neuter –Return efforts in Southeast Michigan.

5. Pet retention: The MHS “Keeping Families Together” program is a collection of vital initiatives designed to keep thousands of area animals in good homes. This includes several programs designed to aid those families and individuals who love their pets but are struggling financially – a free pet food bank, free behavior resources and low-cost veterinary care. Furthermore, through our intake by appointment process, we are able to provide individual counsel and options to people looking to surrender an animal. This results in approximately half of the people who schedule an appointment either rehoming their pet themselves or opting to keep their animal with our guidance or assistance. The time between an appointment being made and occurring provides for multiple points of contact where we provide education and resources, or the access thereto, in efforts to keep the animal in the home. This is one of our core values. Finally, if the animal is surrendered to MHS, it is done so with the owner being an active and informed participant.

6. Comprehensive adoption program: MHS puts immense efforts into adoption and placement. Last year, MHS adopted more than 8,200 pets in our care into loving homes. In addition to our daily adoption programs, this past September, we hosted our fall Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo event, where 624 animals were adopted within 16 hours (over two days). More than 40 shelters and rescue groups worked collaboratively in the best interests of animals to achieve amazing outcomes – and we do this amazing event twice a year. MHS operates the highest-volume in-store adoption center within Petco stores in the country. We place 100% of our healthy dogs, 100% of our healthy cats, 100% of our treatable dogs and currently 68% of our treatable cats; and we are working to reach 100% placement of treatable cats with great fervor. In addition, MHS has a robust Adopter Support program to reach out to our adopters to offer assistance.

7. Public relations/community involvement: MHS has a significant social media and Internet presence in addition to great local media relationships that help us get our message out. We hold several significant community events (Mutt March, Mega March, Bow Wow Brunch, Telethon, etc.) and are constantly looking for ways to engage the public. Take Facebook for example; the MHS Facebook page has, as of today, more than 156,000 animal advocates.

8. Medical and behavior prevention and rehabilitation: MHS employs 22 veterinarians in our clinical and shelter veterinary programs. We offer services to the public through our three veterinary centers as well as care to the animals in our facilities through our shelter medicine program. We have behavioral resources to help pet owners deal with issues they are facing and also have programs to reinforce positive behavior prior to adoption.

9. High-volume, low-cost spay and neuter: In 2014, MHS, at either no- or low-cost, performed more than 5,200 subsidized sterilizations. This is in addition to the thousands of sterilizations MHS performs every year in conjunction with adoptions and placements.

10. Pro-active redemptions: Whenever possible, without question, we make every effort to reunite animals with their owners. If there is a way, we will do everything possible to find it.

11. Hard-working, compassionate shelter director: Let me offer a personal perspective here. First of all, I would argue that a Director is only one part of a team. The real heroes are the ones who make great things happen every day. This is sort of a subjective requirement, but I will take a stab at it. I have committed my life to animal welfare. I have moved my family literally back and forth across the country in efforts to understand the profession and be in a position to make a difference. I have personally invested my heart into many of the animals within organizations I have been a part of. I have smiled with them as they went out the door to new homes. I have rejoiced with them as they were removed from a neglectful and abusive situation. I have cried with them as I held them while they took their last breath. I have always taught people that in animal welfare, if you associate yourself with every animal you see, including their suffering, you will not be long for the profession. You will burn out. Easier said than done. I can tell you that every animal I have come across in my many years in animal welfare, every one, is in my heart.

To reiterate, the driving force behind “no-kill” is to save lives. That is an incredibly noble and needed goal and one that, without exception, every shelter should strive to attain. However, the issues are not as simple as they have been presented. Where is quality of life? What about public safety?

At MHS, we employ, literally, every program (and more) in the “no-kill equation”. We do it with conviction. Quite frankly, we define best practice in many instances, and we have been doing it for 137 years, before it became part of any “equation”. We do it with our hearts and with the best interest of the animals we are entrusted with in mind. Knowing this, does it change your perception of MHS?

If we wanted, the Michigan Humane Society could be one of the largest no-kill or limited admission shelters in the world. Right here in Detroit – under any definition. Our heart has to drive our decisions, but we have to think about what we are doing. What will have the most impact on the animals in our community? Let’s go to that point though: Could MHS become a no-kill shelter today?

Are we now anyways? We employ extensively all aspects of the “no-kill equation” and go much further. (See our “15 Steps to 100%”). Furthermore, we utilize a thorough evaluation system to determine which animals are healthy or treatable – a system that has been vetted by external experts. It is an incredibly important and valid system of evaluation that we employ equally to every animal that we are entrusted with. Every animal has a chance, an opportunity, at life. As stated above, today our save rates are 100% for healthy dogs, 100% for healthy cats, 100% for treatable dogs, and currently 68% for treatable cats.