When a Rescue Group or Shelter Claims it’s “No Kill,” What Does That Actually Mean? The Answer, it Turns Out, is Complicated.

ARDC Intern Rachel with her dog Dinho

An Original Thought-Piece by ARDC Intern, Rachel Vellanikaran

Recently, I had the opportunity to research the “No-Kill movement” and the implications it has on our current approach to animal rescue and welfare. This has been incredibly eye-opening and insightful to my understanding of the operations and values of shelters and rescue groups. 

The No-Kill movement originated in the 1980s and 1990s to combat the massive number of healthy cats and dogs being euthanized in shelters due to a lack of resources, space, and homes. The term “No-Kill” is defined as saving every animal within the physical and behavioral capacity of an organization. No-Kill shelters aim to provide treatment for aggressive temperament, and alleviate physical and mental suffering in animals, with the ultimate goal of providing the highest quality of life to the dogs and cats in their care. But does this mean that no animal is ever put down, under any circumstances? 

The simple answer is no. “No-Kill” implies treating all animals that can be treated, and providing for their optimal safety and care. But when an animal is suffering from what is considered “irremediable” behavioral or extreme medical conditions, No-Kill shelters must make the difficult decision to euthanize, which is deemed an “act of compassion” or mercy, and never as a result of overpopulation and/or lack of resources. But to be considered “No-Kill,” a shelter must have what is considered a 90% “live release” rate of the animals in their care — meaning fewer than 10% of pets can fall under this “irremediable” status. The other 90% of animals are adopted out, rehomed, returned to owners, or transferred to another rescue group.

What I found particularly interesting was that this “90% save rate” is simply an arbitrary designation. Depending on the specific programs and services a shelter has, this number can go slightly above or below the benchmark. In addition, since shelters aim to maintain a certain public reputation, this number can become a measure of marketability. Limited admission (also known as “managed intake”) shelters can choose the animals they accept, specifically based upon their own resources and space limitations, as well an animal’s health, behavior, breed, and adoptability. Puppies and kittens, for example, are considered highly adoptable compared to older pets or stereotypically “aggressive” breeds. Turning away animals, especially those deemed “less adoptable” could enhance a shelter’s ability to reduce euthanasia rates, maintain that 90% standard, and further obtain funding and support from the public.

But what about the unfortunate fate of the thousands of unwanted or “unadoptable” pets that are turned away, and end up on the streets or at open-admission shelters? Why were these pets deemed “unadoptable” and unworthy of a home at a shelter, while others were not? Doesn’t their inevitable suffering or death seem counterproductive to the ideals of the No-Kill movement? 

During the course of this research, I have come to appreciate the importance of not accepting widely agreed upon terms – like “No-Kill”- at face value, and to understand that there is more to the rhetoric and labels than one might think. For starters, where did the No-Kill designation come from? Every organization has a different definition, understanding, and implementation of the term, so who gets to decide if a specific organization is “No-Kill” or not? 

Most No-Kill shelters follow a list of 11 components, which include: 

  1. Effective leadership
  2. Community outreach programs 
  3. Medical and behavioral rehabilitation programs
  4. Comprehensive adoptions
  5. Foster care
  6. Volunteer programs
  7. Pet retention efforts
  8. Low-cost spay/neuter services
  9. Rescue partnerships
  10. Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) for free-roaming cats
  11. Proactive redemption

But how can we ensure that these efforts are enough to provide the best care and quality of life for an animal? How can we attach a standard of measurement and accountability to the items in this “checklist” that can genuinely distinguish a shelter as No-Kill? And why is “education” not specifically included in this list? 

To truly understand the types of organizations we support, we must look critically at the programs and the qualitative and quantitative impact they have made in their respective communities. My thoughts are in no way meant to diminish the massive efforts that shelters have made toward improving animal welfare and the state of rescue organizations. Over 6.5 million companion animals enter U.S. animal shelters annually, and approximately 3.2 million of those animals are adopted out each year. Many shelters have made immense efforts to reduce the number of unnecessary euthanizations of healthy animals, and adoption numbers have continuously been on the rise in just the last decade alone. But, we must rethink the current standards and practices we have set up today. How can we know that our ongoing efforts are enough and are the so-called “right way?” Why, for example, do we see a need for an increasing number of rescue groups in certain areas of the country?

Atlanta Rescue Dog Cafe (ARDC) is taking a unique approach to improving human-animal interactions, reducing animal cruelty, and ultimately, preventing animals from ever entering shelters in the first place – through humane education. Humane education plays a vital role in providing long-term holistic and integrated care for pets, but has yet to gain traction or become a standard “checklist” component in most No-Kill shelters and organizations today. 

Through my research, I’ve begun to consider such important questions as: Are we really doing all we can to tackle the root of the problem at hand? What other approaches are worth attempting as we seek a more impactful resolution to the high number of pets in shelters? Are there flaws and unintentional consequences in the current systems in place? During my internship with ARDC, I have come to appreciate the importance of thinking critically, asking the tough, beyond-the-surface questions, and ultimately, taking a closer look at the current approaches and systems that we have as we search for more comprehensive solutions in the future.


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