Establishing No-Kill Communities
The animal sheltering landscape is evolving. While it once centered on impounding loose livestock and companion animals, it now focuses on ensuring the wellbeing of a community’s animals and the safety of its citizens. The no-kill movement, which strives to ensure that healthy or treatable animals are never killed for the convenience of humans, is a major force shaping modern animal sheltering. As of a 2019 census by Best Friends Animal Society, 26% of communities in the United States have achieved no-kill status, and more communities are working toward it.
On its face, this seems an unequivocally virtuous goal, but it is not without controversy. Some players in the animal rights space, PETA prominent among them, share concerns that no-kill policies will lead to crowding, extended stays, and low quality of life for the animals a shelter takes in, and abandonment or neglect of the animals the shelter turns away due to spatial constraints. One thing nearly everyone can agree on is that no-kill initiatives cannot succeed without the cooperation and support of the community as a whole — something that positions shelter directors in a role of broader leadership they may not have sought out or anticipated.
This research, which brings together best practices from shelter directors in successful no-kill communities, can be seen as a sort of crash course for shelter directors, and can inform the curriculum of animal service education programs.
The researcher, who has first-hand experience as a shelter director, sought the answers to four questions:
- What successful strategies are used by animal shelter directors to develop and sustain no-kill communities?
- What challenges do animal shelter directors encounter while establishing and sustaining no-kill communities?
- How do animal shelter directors measure their success in no-kill communities?
- What recommendations would animal shelter directors provide to those who are aspiring to become a no-kill community?
Eleven interview questions stemming from the four research questions were put to 14 shelter directors in no-kill communities across the United States. A shelter or community is considered no-kill if its save rate is 90% or higher. Interviewees had at least two years’ experience, and worked in communities with at least two shelters and an annual intake of at least 4,000 animals. Participants were selected to represent diverse perspectives, rather than being randomly selected. Their responses were analysed and the following common themes were identified:
Research Question 1: What successful strategies are used by animal shelter directors to develop and sustain no-kill communities?
Teamwork & Compromise: Directors spoke about the importance of inviting others — workers and volunteers in their organizations, other animal care professionals in the community, legislators — into the decision-making process. They recommended engaging in generative conversations, where the focus is not determining who is right, but rather gaining insight by seeking to understand others’ perspectives.
Communication & Transparency: Interviewees spoke of the value of sharing their work and story with the community. Shelters need buy-in from the community for fundraising and volunteering and from local lawmakers for legislative support, so maintaining a positive presence in the community is essential.
Trust, Respect, & Integrity: Participants emphasized the need to establish trust between organizations and within the community in order to collaborate effectively. To this end, they recommended a willingness to take the first step toward transparency and vulnerability by sharing your information with other shelters in the community, which can create an environment of trust and inspire other organization leaders to follow suit.
Strategic Thinking & Implementation: When discussing strategy, shelter directors brought up the need to tailor efforts to the particular community. They encouraged implementing changes gradually, with adequate funding secured beforehand and timing carefully considered. They pointed out that a shelter should adapt its operations to fill specific gaps that are not yet being addressed.
Metrics & Data: Respondents reported that tracking metrics within their shelters had helped them to measure success and steer future improvements. Because of the unpredictable workflow and high stakes in an animal shelter setting, it can be difficult to prioritize data collection. However, several interviewees believed that consistent data collection yields big dividends.
Fundraising & Development Programs: Just managing to maintain operations day-to-day can be a challenge in the fast-paced environment of animal sheltering, but study participants were quick to point out that long-term budgeting and planning should not be allowed to fall through the cracks. Directors need to plan for future costs and secure funds.
Management Skills & Techniques: Many Interview subjects cited proper industry training as essential to a shelter director’s success. They also underscored the importance of hiring staff with compatible visions who can support an organization’s core mission.
Research Question 2: What challenges do animal shelter directors encounter while establishing and sustaining no-kill communities?
No-kill Language: In the past both killing for lack of shelter space and killing to end an animal’s incurable suffering have been referred to as euthanasia. Now, however, there is a push to use the term euthanasia only for mercy killings, and not for the killing of healthy or treatable animals. Thus no-kill shelters still euthanize hopelessly ill animals, but do not kill healthy animals. Interviewees noted that this can cause confusion within the community. Language poses a further problem when shelters that are not no-kill are referred to as kill shelters. This makes it difficult for these shelters to establish a positive presence in the community and causes strife within animal services.
Community Reputation / Presence: Shelters don’t often have room in their operational budgets to stage publicity campaigns, and participants spoke of shelters being invisible or misunderstood within their larger communities. No-kill language confusion can exacerbate this problem.
Resources: Whether relying on public or private funds, many of the shelter directors reported being short on staff and on funding. Because they are also often short on time, it can be a challenge to carry out the fundraising and recruitment efforts to correct these shortfalls.
Conflicts Within Animal Services: Shelter directors, veterinarians, companion animal store owners, and animal control departments have different goals and priorities for the animals in their communities. Conflict between and within these groups has proven to be a major hurdle for interviewees in trying to implement a community-wide no-kill approach.
Research Question 3: How do animal shelter directors measure their success in no-kill communities?
Community Impact: Shelter directors posited that the success of a shelter’s operation is not measured only in companion animals saved, but in public safety measures such as reported animal bites, in roadkill incidents, and in the intake of nearby shelters. A major source of controversy in the no-kill movement, and the reason it has to be a community undertaking, is that no-kill shelters do not have infinite capacity. To avoid overcrowding, they must turn away some animals. These animals then become the burden of other shelters nearby. So, while the no-kill shelter keeps its hand clean, it may not be saving the animals, but merely foisting the duty of putting them down onto other shelters. For this reason, no-kill status is most meaningful when reached by all shelters in a community.
Shelter Impact & Metrics: While saving lives is a high priority for the participants, they also measure their success in terms of an animal’s length of stay in the shelter, quality of life while in the shelter, and their rate of success in returning animals to their owners.
Supporting All Companion Animal Populations: Interviewees expressed the need not only to help as many animals as possible, but to help as many types of animals as possible. This includes animals other than cats and dogs, dogs with behaviour challenges, community cats, and animals with severe medical issues.
Supporting Other Communities: Once a community has reached no-kill status, directors felt the next step was to reach out and support other communities through mentorship and companion animal transfer programs, in which an overpopulated shelter can transfer some of its animals to a nearby community with extra room in its shelters.
90% Is Not A Comprehensive Benchmark: Many of the participants expressed the view that 90% no-kill is not a comprehensive benchmark, and that a more holistic approach to the wellbeing of animals in a community is necessary. They shared a concern that this single simplistic metric could lead to complacency once it has been reached.
Research Question 4: What recommendations would animal shelter directors provide to those who are aspiring to become a no-kill community?
Management Skills & Strategies: Respondents believed it was important for shelter directors to be involved in the daily operations of the shelter to keep in touch with the needs of animals, employees, and volunteers. They recommended pursuing continued professional development, developing strategies specific to their own community’s needs, and being transparent and accountable when they make mistakes.
Communication & Community Engagement: Interviewees would advise other directors to find support in the community from lawmakers, animal service stakeholders, volunteers, and others, and to be sure to share credit for accomplishments.
Pressure: Shelter directors warned of the dangers of succumbing to the pressure of the role. They recommended setting realistic goals to avoid becoming overwhelmed. They wished to remind other directors that they cannot be all things to all people. Rather than trying to please everyone, participants recommend identifying a core vision and sticking to it.
Mentoring or Colleague Support: Participants related how helpful it had been to them to be able to learn from other successful shelter directors about best practices, and to be able to commiserate with others able to relate. They recommended building a support system of colleagues and mentors.
Staffing: Interviewees saw value in hiring staff whose values already aligned with the organization’s core mission, and then supporting them through continued training. They believed that delegating responsibilities to staff and volunteers and encouraging and empowering them created a sense of ownership.
These interview response themes reveal that animal shelter directors, who may have entered the industry for the love of animals more than a desire to lead, sometimes find leadership thrust upon them. Not only must they manage the day-to-day business of sheltering animals, but also find ways to collaborate, innovate, fundraise, motivate, analyse, advocate, and mediate. To help identify gaps in the training of current and aspiring animal service leaders, the author used the themes from the interview responses to build an Animal Services Leadership Competency Model. It is a list of seven domains or skill sets that a shelter director needs to be successful, based on the best practices of the interviewees, whose communities have already met the 90% save threshold.
Animal Leadership Competency Domains: Leadership, Program Planning, Community Focus, Systems Thinking, Communication, Coalition Building, and Analytics.
This study — and the Animal Services Competency Model built from its findings — provides useful insights for shelter directors and the institutions that train them. It also provides valuable insight to legislators, animal advocates, and others working in the animal services space as they work together to fix the problems that lead to the killing of healthy companion animals in their communities.