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No Kill Firing Squad: Fun With Numbers

Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

It is with increasing amusement that I see the definition of No Kill sliding down the slope from what it sounds like it means, that you don’t kill animals, to what we probably suspect it always meant, you don’t kill healthy or treatable animals, to the newest definition:  you kill fewer than 10% of animals.

I know what you're thinking, Dog. You're thinking "did he save ten dogs or only nine?" Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. You've gotta ask yourself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, Dog?

I know what you’re thinking, Dog. You’re thinking “did he save ten dogs or only nine?” Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. You’ve gotta ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, Dog?

Or is that 10% of dogs?  Because often the righteous Facebook posts start with “animals” but then transform to dogs.  Which makes sense because we all know that cats are killed at double or more the rates of dogs in shelters and have a much harder row to hoe nationwide if they want to exit most shelters in a carrier rather than a bag.

Allow me to be clear on the fact that I have no problem with anyone defining terms as they see fit.  I believe our missions are defined by our organizations with the support of our boards, donors, and staff, and the approval of State and Federal regulators overseeing our work, claims and tax exemptions.  If you want to say you are No Kill at 90%, more power to you.  Just like I say we do not consider a 90% numeric value as counting as No Kill at our Lancaster shelter which has in practice much higher save rates as defining no kill.  Nor do we consider ourselves restricted access as opposed to open door at our Reading shelter just because we charge a $25 intake fee or require three hours of volunteer service to surrender a pet.  But some shelters do think that’s a substantive barrier. Que sera sera; you are what you is.

However, two things have come to mind as we integrate two shelter models, No Kill and Open Door, into our new organization in SE Pennsylvania.  First, we were getting so close to that 90% model in our open access shelters that if we were to combine the Berks numbers with the Lancaster numbers over the past year, it is likely that we would retroactively surpass a 90% save rate under our Asilomar reporting for dogs, and probably cats, too.  With one fell swoop of a spreadsheet cell, Berks will have become No Kill based on the more liberal “90% equation”, even if we didn’t actually improve at all.

We intend to reach that 90% mark independently within the Berks division of the organization either way, don’t worry.  But ain’t it fun what can be done with numbers?

The second thing that has struck me is how we use numbers to define acceptable levels of loss for others we’d never accept for ourselves.  90% saved.  That sounds pretty good in an industry where some shelters still barely break even on save rates- some because they face real hurdles, some because they just plain suck and deserve every sling and arrow thrown at them- and all shelters were historically terrible.  But apply that rate to you and me, and I bet it seems lacking.

The next time someone says that 90% or better equals “No Kill” numbers, ask him and nine similarly minded friends to line up against a wall and face a ten gun firing squad loaded with nine blanks and one live round of ammo.  I wonder if the one in ten on that wall is any more willing to accept themselves as proof of success when they catch the No Kill Bullet than the one in ten dogs who are “acceptable losses” in some people’s no kill model?

And don’t even get me started on the cats.  I think they get the same fun with numbers that blacks had being counted as 3/5 of a person in the new United States for over 100 years.

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6 Responses

  • Betty says:

    I think you are so wrong to charge someone to bring there pet to your shelter, if they can’t afford to feed them and care for them , how can they afford to pay you to take them. So the stray problem gets worse, the animals are starving , freezing and being abused on the streets while trying to fend for themselves. You closed your drop off area. You really should take the humane out of society., you are not humane, i no longer support you which i have done for many years.

    • Karel Minor says:

      Although I understand and support your choice to work with whatever group you think best fits your priorities for pets, I’ll correct a couple points. When HSBC dropped its dog catching and municipal euthanasia contracts in 2008, we did so for several reasons; largely to focus our efforts on preventing relinquishment and unnecessary euthanasia through direct intervention. We also did so when another group agreed to take on those contracts in our place voluntarily, so strays have always had a place to go in Berks, uninterrupted. The “overnight drop”, which had often simply been a place to dump owned pets without having to look even a friendly person in the eye, was closed when the City of Reading refused to allow for pick up of strays which were left there after our contracts had lapsed and another organization was being paid to pick up and house strays. Essentially the city and another organization’s prior management wanted to have the contract reside elsewhere but still more conveniently have animals dropped off at our facility, never to be picked up. Since the other group had agreed to pick up service and since we took animals willingly during business hours, we felt that closing this “convenience” was fair.

      About the relinquishment fees: That has been a topic of conversation for decades. Should a person be asked to give anything in return for the ability to relinquish a pet which will cost us hundreds or thousands of dollars to care for, treat medically, and adopt? We think yes. We had a concern about a fee impacting the poor more than the wealthy so we implemented the $25 fee, with an option to pay within 30 days (and we don’t chase people down if they don’t, we simply leave them with the nagging feeling that they are not ethical people), or to volunteer three hours at our facility or any other charity, church or government entity. We think that’s fair and it is substantially lower than the $100 or more other shelters, especially some No Kill shelters and breed rescues will charge for intake. However, at the same time we did some very important things which were quite unusual at the time, and still are. We ask what the person needs which would allow them to keep the pet instead of bringing it to us. No money for food? We will give you food- and before the recession this got us hate mail for “helping deadbeats”. Health problem? Our vets will treat the animal and for free if possible. Apartment condemned? What if we foster the animal through PetNet for a month instead, while you find a new house. These approaches are why we help animals before they need a new home, not just after they need one.

      Interestingly, one final note on fees. One of the most noted studies on pet relinquishment asked how likely a simple $25 fee would be to make a person not give up a pet. 34% said it would make it less likely. If as small a barrier as that keeps animals out of shelters, maybe we are making it too easy for people to end their relationships with their pets by taking them to a place where they are more likely to die than any other place they can be- America’s shelters. I’m sorry you disagree with our approach but given the reality of why we do what we do and the resources we put in to helping people keep their pets rather than kill their pets, I think our decisions have been both valid and time tested as effective and good for animals and people.

  • Terry Ward says:

    The issue of open vs limited admissions has always troubled me.
    And I understand all too personally the astronomical costs associated with rehabilitating rescued dogs.
    But I am new to Pennsylvania and my experience of shelters/rescuing comes from living in less civilized areas.
    Having had this conversation elsewhere and often, I made a list of the reasons-in my experience-why animals end up in shelters.
    I don’t understand how shelters in general can cope with or have the resources to address these occurrences.
    Possibly the number of people who can successfully be ‘counseled’ or assisted with keeping their pets in their homes is greater than the numbers for whom counseling and assistance is inapplicable.
    But I am no expert.
    Someone dies.
    Someone becomes ill.
    Someone becomes destitute.
    Someone moves overseas.

    Someone gets a divorce.
    Someone cannot afford massive vet bills.
    Someone refuses to pay any vet bills whatsoever.
    Someone wants a cute puppy is bored with the old dog
    Landlord/coop board allows no pets.
    Landlord says you or the dog.
    Dog grows up, bites a child. Twice.
    Cat becomes destructive/incontinent/not so cute anymore.
    Husband/wife/partner becomes abusive.
    Billy-Bob drops off 3 litters of kittens three times a year.
    Euliss drops off twice a year 4 hounds who no longer hunt.
    Nunzio goes to prison leaving 12 Pit puppies locked in his grandmother’s basement.
    Auntie Margaret finds a Chow on the street and lives in a rooming house.
    Uncle Henry finds a litter of 12 Dane/Boxer puppies out back the barn/on the side of the road/in an abandoned house and is living on food-stamps.
    I find an animal-aggressive Rottweiler on the street but already have 6 rescued cats and 3 rabbits in a two-room apartment.
    I suspect, but cannot prove, that many of these animals will end up on the street in the face of limited admissions.
    Or will be dropped off at the evil kill-shelter, which is in my opinion preferable to the streets.
    The skeptic in me is convinced that most of the ‘NoKlll Equation’ facilities maintain their no-kill rates by simply shutting their doors to the public.
    But again, I am no expert.

    • Karel Minor says:

      You may not be an expert, but that doesn’t mean you are wrong. I agree that when a community wide approach isn’t taken, No Kill is often just numbers shifting. There are some regional examples that seem to be working to get to much better numbers (Portland, OR area is one I’ve been watching). I do believe- and have some local data to back it up but only local- that the animals are not ending up on the street. Stray intakes don’t spike as far as I’ve been able to determine. I’d be interested in seeing any data anyone might have on that since it’s one of the contentious issues.

      • Terry Ward says:

        Stray animals are like homeless people…they’re basically invisible.
        Especially the ones who manage to stay stray.
        Shelters on the whole are not strong in the accountability area, for whatever reasons.
        Aside from the lesser ones not bothering, accountability takes resources, even from the best shelters.
        I fear attaching a number to dumped strays is like counting feral cats.
        We all know they’re there but can’t prove how many.
        And if we can’t prove how many then we will never know if limited admission policies are causing animals to be dumped.

        • Karel Minor says:

          I actually need to disagree on the “uncountability” of strays. If the decreases in admissions shown in no kill/quasi-no kill/barrier to entry shelters was exclusively due to strays being dumped there would be a visible and reported epidemic of strays in those communities. There is a (and I can’t quantify yet but we are working on it) slice of intake which never enter shelters with a very low barrier or support services because they are kept. The bulk are going to other rescue options ranging from open intake shelters to the explosion of small rescue operating in the margins but which combine to equal the “primary shelter” in an area. I will still submit that what we are actually seeing is the tipping point at which shelters are receiving low enough numbers that they can actually save more than they kill (we have data showing that happening in two area counties in 2008 simultaneously). I think we are seeing new and unique problems which are increasingly unrelated to the old paradigms.



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