Inspiration in Sheltering

Doris, an affectionate, people-loving, four-year-old Bulldog, was used as a breeding dog. She was in bad condition when she arrived the San Francisco SPCA (SF SPCA), when she was abandoned; Doris made a full recovery at the SF SPCA veterinary hospital, now living with her forever family, enjoying play, afternoon naps, and lots of cuddles. | Photo: Louisa Lew | Doris, Bulldog, Dog, Animal, Tongue, Love,

The no kill debate

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."'Mahatma Gandhi

The no kill movement was the "first inspirational thing in sheltering," observes Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, DVM, Co-President of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals (SF SPCA), the birthplace of the no kill movement. The SF SPCA has continued the tradition of keeping animals safe, since it was founded on April 18, 1868, as the nation's fourth humane society, and the first, west of the Mississippi, according to sfscpa.org.

San Francisco banker James Sloan Hutchinson had witnessed two men dragging a "terrified hog along the rough cobblestone street," and was appalled over the cruelty, rescuing the hog. Hutchinson's concern over the widespread abuse of animals was the catalyst in his rallying of 15 citizens, who shared his concerns, and founded the San Francisco SPCA. In 1884, the SF SPCA built the first horse ambulance in the West, rescuing hundreds of horses during the 1906 earthquake, also building water stations for workhorses in the burned-out areas of the city. The SF SPCA also established the "pensioners fund," where former Fire and Police Department horses could retire in country ranches. The SF SPCA is responsible in making San Francisco "the nation's safest city for homeless cats and dogs."

Safety of homeless animals is the primary concern for the SF SPCA, continuing that sentiment, through the no kill movement, which began for the SF SPCA during the early 1990s. The movement stemmed from two events: the SF SPCA was becoming more proficient in spay/neuter procedures, and reviewing the euthanasia rates, according to Dr. Scarlett; despite the fact the SF SPCA was making progress in other areas of animal welfare, they were not making progress in regards to the euthanasia rates. In efforts to remedy this predicament, the SF SPCA ceased their contract with the city animal control; without the burden, the SF SPCA was able to look into other avenues, such as outreach programs, high-volume spay/neuter, and fostering, addressing the question of what they could do to save the most animals, as this was the "intent and spirit" behind the movement.

There has been a continuing debate over the no kill movement, as one of the most polarizing issues in animal welfare. A major problem is the lack of uniformity in what a "no kill" shelter is defined as, and therefore, their practices; some define the term literally, where "no kill" is translated as no euthanization in any circumstances. However, the general consensus agrees with Dr. Scarlett's definition of no kill as "no healthy, adoptable animal is euthanized for space." Once an animal has entered their adoption program, who are medically treatable/manageable, and not in pain, and are capable of living in a shelter environment, the SF SPCA is committed to them. Those who are truly cannot be saved, due to aggression, or the inability to develop a bond with their potential families, are candidates for euthanasia.

With 20 years experience as a veterinarian in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, Dr. Scarlett was responsible for introducing visionary programs to further the no kill goal, such as Community Cares, a vaccine outreach program, and "Fospice," where foster homes care for the most medically-challenged shelter animals. Under Dr. Scarlett's leadership, the SF SPCA increased spay/neuter by 1,000 procedures per year, increased adoptions, increased surrender acceptance by 150 percent, as well as meeting the 25 percent increase in the demand for discounted and free care.

The SF SPCA is mainly a limited-admissions shelter, although it currently has a pact with the city shelter to take in animals, if it is overwhelmed. As a limited-admissions shelter, Dr. Scarlett describes, it has an x-amount of capacity (the number of kennels and the number of caring staff), as the imperative is the ability to address the needs of the animals, only taking in animals who they can properly provide care for.

Implementing the limited-admission policy was significant for several reasons. Not only does this practice ensure each animal is given the proper care by an attentive staff, it allows for guardians to become proactive in the welfare of their companion animals. Open-admissions shelters send the message there will be people there whenever, which could have an adverse effect on the animals. Dr. Scarlett uses the comparison of governmental agencies, operating on their capacity; many times, appointments must be made in order to resolve issues with that governmental agency. With a managed intake system, owners who intend on surrendering their animals must make an appointment. The shelter will inform the owners of the potential fate that animal will face once he or she has entered the shelter system, including immense stress (taken from a loving, familiar atmosphere to be placed in a new, strange environment). There is a 70 percent chance of euthanization for cats, where "most people are not okay" with that fact.

Dr. Scarlett asserts, many times, the owners are not comfortable with that situation, where they will take active steps to resolve the situation, in a positive way, such as finding a home for that animal, privately (which usually occurs with cats). Dr. Scarlett wants to offer comfort to the people who has had a catastrophic event (where the guardians cannot keep their companion animals), situations where the animal is in danger, or if a person is in danger, but wants to also place responsibility on owners who are not facing an emergency situation, sending the message, we "need you to be a partner in this." A major advantage to the limited-admission policy is that it allows this type of dialogue between the shelter and the owners, something that may not be found in an open-admission facility. A main goal for the SF SPCA is to provide guardians with resources, so that they can make an informed decision, and find a solution to create a positive outcome.

According to the California Sheltering Report, the shelters requiring appointments to surrender animals has prompted many of the owners to keep their animals, as the owners are responding to the information they receive in regards to available resources and support (spay/neuter, low-cost medical care); most California communities have these types of resources, but owners are unaware of them. Owners are more inclined to keep their companion animal, despite the issues they are experiencing, when learning how likely it is "'the animal will not be released alive." In addition, the owner is in a "better position" than a crowded shelter to rehome their animal privately, knowing the animal's positive attributes, and what type of home he or she is best suited.

The Animal Humane Society in Minneapolis and the Oregon Humane Society in Portland have implemented the appointment-based surrender system, resulting in the decrease of euthanasia rates, where many owners were able to find positive solutions to keep their animals, and the shelters were able to time the intakes of the relinquished animals "to match their capacity to place them." The Animal Humane Society experienced a 41 percent reduction of euthanasia within the first six months after implementing the program. Appointment-based facilities are able to achieve better outcomes when their intakes are timed; for example, when animals are surrendered at any given time, it can create staffing inefficiencies, and a "hurried process to manage [the surrendered animals which] stresses both pets and staff." The system also allows the shelter time to gather pertinent information about the animal entering the shelter (his/her history, the reason for the surrender), which increases the likelihood is the success of rehoming the animal.

Dr. Scarlett cites a study done by the Erie SPCA, tracking the outcome of people who were asked to wait for a surrender appointment. The outcome for cats entering California shelters illustrated: 71 percent were euthanized, 22 percent were adopted, 5 percent were rescued, and 2 percent of the owners returned to claim the cats. In comparison, when the owners were asked to wait for an appointment, 59 percent of the owners rehomed the cats privately (rehomed the cats themselves, resolved the problem and kept the cat), 32 percent were unreachable, 1 percent was hit by a car, 6 percent were taken to a rescue, and 2 percent found the owner.


Rusty and his sister, Amber, arrived at the SF SPCA with a "scrapbook of the travels." Rusty and Amber have found a new home, enjoying their golden years, and reminiscing about their travels. | Photo: | Rusty, Cat, Animal, Old,

The no kill movement is a polarizing issue, despite the fact that both proponents and opponents agree on prevention, rescue, and education as the solutions to end euthanization. Dr. Scarlett does understand opponents' point of view, where mismanaged shelters result in a stock pile of animals living an existence in kennels, where there is little to no chance of a good outcome, as those animals are enduring life-long suffering. However, Dr. Scarlett focuses on the possibility of a positive outcome, as that thought is the "heart and soul for [her]," in animal welfare. Dr. Scarlet also understands that success lies in the mathematics and logic behind the needs of the animals, as efficiently adopting animals out is critical; the more animals adopted out, the more resources for new animals, for them to be adopted; therefore, more lives are saved.

The SF SPCA is dedicated in furthering their inspiration of saving more lives, where the next phase is in preventing people from abandoning their animals, while still remaining a safety net. According to sfspca.org, the SF SPCA designed a plan to end animal abandonment in San Francisco by 2020, "Vision 2020," with the tenets of prevention, rescue, and education. The three primary reasons why animals are in the shelter system include overpopulation, barriers to veterinary care, and behavioral issues; in addressing these issues "aggressively through our programs and services, we will make San Francisco the first city in the nation to end the cycle of animal homelessness."

Amber and Rusty
Amber and Rusty

Amber and Rusty are 14-year-old siblings who spent most of their lives traveling in an RV. Their guardian enrolled them in SF SPCA'S Sido Program, which ensures companion animals will receive love and attention by the SF SPCA, if their guardians pass away, working to find them the best possible home. | Photo: Louisa Lew |
The SF SPCA holds the belief that preventing overpopulation and surrenders will help to ensure that animals will never have to enter a shelter, or face euthanization. Accomplishing this includes free and low-cost spay/neuter programs, charity veterinarian care, comprehensive behavior services and resources, as well as Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) expansion (in preventing cat overpopulation). As Dr. Scarlett observes, the goal is for shelters to not be overwhelmed with thousands of abandoned animals. She offers the comfort that if that animal is in a shelter, he or she will be okay, and looked after.

Sfspca.org continues, a part of the no kill model is in the rescue of every health, adoptable, and medically treatable/manageable animal, who has the potential to be adopted. An imperative part of the rescue plan is to expand fostering programs, as well as exposing puppy mills. As Dr. Scarlett states, "4 million dogs and cats are euthanized each year. 4 million dogs are also purchased from puppy mills each year." Sfspca.org continues, imperative consequences of rescue include high-volume adoptions (such as through adoption events), post-adoption support, comprehensive veterinary care, and an increase in foster and "fospice" programs. As significant, the practice behind puppy mills must be exposed to more people, and consequently, changing consumer attitudes to purchasing puppies (from pet stores, or online), rather, emphasizing adopting. As Dr. Scarlett asserts, if an animal is in a loving home, the SF SPCA will "do everything to keep them there."

As sfspca.org continues, the SF SPCA is "imbedded in the community' [as] a resource of information, support, and to encourage advocacy," as well as cultivating a new generation of animal advocates through a youth program. The SF SPCA has implemented Humane Education programs, reaching children at their schools, as well through after-school and summer programs at the SF SPCA. The SF SPCA's also offers Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) training and visits, reaching tens of thousands of people each year.

To Dr. Scarlett, the no kill movement is "an inspiration and call to action' [as] No healthy or treatable animal should lose his or her life because a shelter is out of space." The call to action is for the shelters to be a temporary safe haven for animals in need, as the ultimate goal is to find those animals a permanent, loving home, in an efficient way. Dr. Scarlett remains hopeful, as she believes the public has an impact. The SF SPCA views their work as a partnership with the public, reliant on people for the health and safety of animals. "We are making progress," getting closer to the inspiration of sheltering: no kill and the end of euthanasia.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:08 PM EDT | More details


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