Redefining Pet Overpopulation: The No-Kill Movement and the New Jet Setters

Redefining Pet Overpopulation: The No-Kill Movement and the New Jet Setters

By: Staff  Date: 12/17/2000 Category: | Canine Issues | Shelter Issues |

Fewer and fewer dogs are entering shelters every year, and shelter deaths are down and continuing to fall. This steady decline in intakes and deaths pays tribute to the tireless efforts of shelter employees, responsible dog breeders and rescue volunteers who have worked, prayed, and bullied their way to a future when the demand for pets would equal or exceed the supply and they would no longer be forced to euthanize healthy, adoptable animals.

That future is now! Nationwide, studies show that during the last 30 years shelter intakes and euthanasias have decreased by 70-90 percent or more in many cities, particularly those located on the east and west coasts. One consequence of this remarkable development is a steep decline in the number of shelter dogs available for adoption in many parts of the country. In order to deal with their newfound success, some shelters and rescue groups have had to realign their efforts, sometimes with surprising results.

Faced with fewer small dogs and puppies to offer the public, a handful of shelters and organizations have swapped their traditional mission for a new bottom line strategy aimed at filling consumer demands. Simply stated, they have become pet stores. Some are importing stray dogs across state lines and from foreign countries to maintain an inventory of adoptable dogs. Other shelters are misapplying no-kill shelter principles by adopting out seriously ill and bad-tempered dogs. These practices might be well motivated but they create significant new problems for the responsible sheltering community and the public. To name a few, they sustain rather than solve the "overpopulation" issue; they effect an end run around responsible breeders; they open a door to potentially devastating diseases and parasites not currently found in our country; and they ensure a future in which the supply of healthy, well-bred dogs and cats will be severely limited.

NAIA looked at the long road to success in overcoming America's surplus pet problem and observed some disturbing trends.


The old days

"We're working hard to put ourselves out of business" has always been the motto of shelter workers. Sally Bishop is an eminent breeder of Pembroke Welsh Corgis, AKC judge and NAIA supporter who worked at a busy Oregon shelter in the 1970's - some of the worst years of pet surplus.

"Back then, we were in the business of cleaning kennels and killing dogs," Bishop said."That's what we did all day, every day. We cleaned until one o'clock and then we killed until closing. There was no time to do anything else."

Her experience was typical of the period. In raw numbers, the two shelters located in Multnomah County (Portland, Oregon, area) received more than 34,000 live dogs in 1974 and killed 20,000 of them. At this pace, there was no time left over for long-term planning or innovating, no light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, it's hard to imagine such bleak circumstances now.

Today, 26 years later, Sharyn Middleton, shelter operating supervisor for Multnomah County Animal Control, said, "I haven't put an adoptable dog to sleep in months, and with all the volunteers and rescue people who work with us now, I may never have to again. People are spaying and neutering; they want to be responsible pet owners. It took a long time but they're starting to get it."



Breathing room

MCAC already had a strong spay and neuter program and good placement practices when Middleton joined the staff in 1980. As a result of the groundwork already in place, she was able to focus her attention on finding ways to increase adoptions and decrease incoming animals. She began working with rescue groups and other community volunteers and she created (and moderated) a cable TV show on responsible pet ownership. Finally, and with a lot of help and encouragement from community volunteers, she helped launch a satellite placement center for local shelters at one of the biggest malls in Oregon. By going the extra mile, thinking creatively and embracing the opportunity to work with volunteers, innovators like Middleton all over the US began reaching for goals they had not dreamed of just a few short years before.


"No-kill" plan to reduce shelter deaths

During roughly the same years that Middleton was launching new programs in Oregon, another innovator burst onto the scene in California as president of the San Francisco SPCA. From the very beginning, Richard Avanzino charted a positive course for his organization by building community support for animals and getting people to work together regardless of their backgrounds or differences. Avanzino is a good looking, charismatic leader with a gift for gab and great marketing skills. His programs and fundraising style represented a startling departure from the negative, pin-the-blame rhetoric used by some of the most prominent organizations of the time. His lack of conformity and enormous fundraising ability earned him sharp criticism from traditional humane organizations, especially those still invested in conflict-style fundraising. Avanzino blamed no one.

His most controversial and notable contribution to the animal protection movement is the coining of the idea and term "no-kill shelter" to designate shelters that no longer euthanize adoptable animals. No-kill shelters had been around for a long time but his concept differed substantially from the old save-them-all-no-matter-what model. Avanzino moved the SF SPCA to a no-kill position in 1989 and introduced the concept nationally through an Adoption Pact that he initiated with the city animal control agency in 1994. In the pact, the city's animal control agency agreed to offer any adoptable dog or cat that it could not place through its own adoption program to the SPCA instead of euthanizing it. In return the SPCA promised to take any adoptable dog or cat that the agency offered and find it a suitable home.

Using the pact as the centerpiece of a brilliant marketing campaign, Avanzino promoted the San Francisco SPCA's no-kill status and simultaneously launched the term and the movement. The old guard viewed his idea as blasphemy and attacked him immediately by alleging that he was misleading the public about a plan they believed had no real chance of success.  


Criticisms of no-kill

Criticisms leveled against no-kill shelters include assertions that no-kill means only that some other shelter will do the killing. Opponents warn that when some humane societies switch to no kill, they quit accepting all but the best, healthiest and easiest to adopt animals and turn away the less adoptable ones or refer them to publicly-funded shelters in the area. Hence, when a local humane society goes no-kill it may indicate that from then on the public shelter will get all the hard-to-place animals and all the public criticism.

By far the biggest criticism against the no-kill shelter movement is that the term is misleading on its face because it encourages the public to believe that the goal is to kill no shelter animals. Animal professionals know that for humane reasons alone, there will always be a need to euthanize some animals. The less affluent members of society often bring their sick, old and injured pets to shelters for euthanasia. It would be irresponsible for shelters to deny a humane death to any suffering animal. In addition, for reasons of public health and safety some animals should not be returned to the community.

Sadly, just as the critics warned, a few shelters have begun turning away all but the best candidates for adoption in order to achieve the no-kill image. Just as predicted, some of them are referring the poorer risks to other shelters or to rescue groups. Unfortunately, there are always a few bad apples to prove the critics right. Operating a shelter this way may improve a shelter's bottom line and euthanasia statistics, but it shows little compassion and even less integrity.


"No-kill" according to Avanzino

Richard Avanzino has stated repeatedly that saving every life is not the goal of the no-kill movement. From the San Francisco Adoption Pact forward, he has always spelled out that the goal is to prevent the euthanasia of adoptable, and eventually of treatable animals. The no-kill philosophy recognizes the need to euthanize animals that cannot be rehabilitated. The pact [1] describes non-rehabilitatable as, "cats and dogs for whom euthanasia is the most Humane alternative due to disease or injury.vicious cats and dogs, the placement of whom would constitute a danger to the public.cats and dogs who pose a public health hazard.Using the Adoption Pact as an example, no-kill also recognizes that shelters "shall have the right to define the terms 'adoptable,' 'treatable,' and 'non-rehabilitatable.'"

As administrator of Maddie's Fund, the $200 million no-kill fund donated by Cheryl and David Duffield (PeopleSoft), Avanzino explained the goal in a little more detail: ".when we reach the juncture where healthy, adoptable shelter animals can be guaranteed a home throughout the nation, Maddie's Fund will then focus its resources on funding programs to rehabilitate the sick, injured and poorly behaved." [2]


"No-kill" marketing

In yet another effort to clarify the term, Maddie's Fund offers the following perspective on their web site: "As much as anything, no-kill is a rallying cry; a slogan that defines a movement: The term clearly and powerfully protests the status quo, that being the killing of millions of savable animals in the nation's animal shelters every year."

Whether or not Avanzino's vision ultimately prevails, to his enormous credit he has already succeeded in reframing one of the most negative animal welfare issues of this century by focusing attention on finding solutions rather than problems. The term that no-kill replaces in the animal protection lexicon is "pet overpopulation," a term that has been detrimental to progress from the beginning because it defines the entire surplus animal problem in terms of breeding. It makes villains out of all breeders; no matter how responsible, no matter how great the demand for their carefully bred and reared puppies or kittens, and no matter how much they contribute to the welfare of animals. Pet overpopulation defined the problem simply as oversupply. It overlooked the demand side of the equation entirely; i.e. that people actually want well-bred, well-socialized puppies and kittens. It also made no distinctions among suppliers and thereby devalued the importance of responsible breeding, training and pet placement practices that are so critically important to successful pet ownership.

Maddie's Fund, however, focuses on supply and demand. On the supply side it promotes aggressive spay and neuter programs. On the demand side it recommends marketing shelter animals, keeping longer shelter hours, working with everyone who wants to help, and most importantly, it focuses efforts on a positive and attainable goal - saving adoptable and then treatable shelter animals. With that, Maddie's Fund and Avanzino have overcome decades of negativism and provided shelter workers and activists alike with their first real chance to succeed.

Virtually all successful marketing campaigns rely on abbreviated tag lines to convey complex ideas in simple terms. None are wholly satisfactory because they are all subject to misunderstanding and misuse. "No-kill" offers particularly fertile ground for being misused, but that does not mean that the concept as put forth by Maddie's Fund is flawed; only that some people are misusing it.


Shelters in transition

Thankfully, because of decades of effort and innovations, the surplus animal problem has entered a new epoch. Using Multnomah County as an example again, euthanasia for dogs has dropped to approximately 10 percent of its mid-1970's rate despite sizeable human population increases during the same period. Even more significant is the fact that as euthanasia totals decrease, the number of euthanized adoptable animals also decreases until it finally reaches zero. Personnel at both the private and the public shelters in Multnomah County indicate that they no longer euthanize adoptable dogs. This means that the number of puppies and dogs bred and placed each year in Multnomah County from all sources, dog breeders, rescues, shelters, pet stores, and giveaways, now approximates the demand for puppies and dogs.

Multnomah County is not alone. Many communities are reaching similar states of equilibrium in the supply and demand for dogs. In a few areas, the demand for dogs today actually outstrips the local supply while other areas continue to fight sizeable surpluses.

Unfortunately, neither the rate of decline nor the status of shelter populations is consistent from one city to another or from one region to another. Generally speaking, shelters on both coasts appear to be ahead of many central and southern states. The lack of uniformity from shelter to shelter and region to region among shelters spawns interesting and sometimes harmful practices.


Clear criteria for adoption

In the 1970's when people like Sally Bishop struggled against the overwhelming flood of stray and unwanted animals, shelters had only rudimentary criteria for selecting the animals that would be saved for adoption. Decisions rested on the need to make room for the next hundred animals dropped off by owners or brought in by humane agents or animal control officers. Kennel cough, flea infestations and timidity were valid euthanasia criteria. Decisions had to be based on something, and such conditions provided justification for selecting some animals over others in what was clearly a losing battle for everyone involved. That situation is rapidly on its way to becoming a thing of the past.

Most shelters now have clear criteria for euthanasia, based on illness or terminal infirmity, viciousness, and owner requests. However, as the total euthanasia rates continue to decline and people receive only a hazy notion of what "no-kill" means, shelters are getting pressure from the public and from their memberships to abandon responsible adoption placement practices and go no-kill. Pressure groups may not understand the progressive nature of no-kill and instead push shelters to stop euthanizing even non-rehabilitatable animals or to use limited resources to convert treatable animals to adoptable animals before they have reached a population level where that kind of effort makes sense. There is a growing tendency for private shelters that operate from a mission and depend on contributions, and for public shelters because of political pressure, to feel pushed into making poor decisions in accepting and placing animals.

As a result, a few shelters now place dogs with serious health and temperament problems instead of humanely euthanizing them as they once responsibly did. A number of breed rescuers tell us that their local shelters now offer them dogs for placement that should not be adopted. NAIA's experience in fielding calls from people with pet-related problems bears this out. Historically, the majority of calls came from people complaining about dogs they had purchased from irresponsible breeders, commonly called backyard breeders or puppy farms. They wanted information about how to stop puppy mills or how to file consumer complaints. Currently, NAIA also gets calls for help from people who have adopted bad tempered or chronically ill shelter dogs, a phenomenon that almost never occurred as recently as four years ago. Kind-hearted adopters now call NAIA members seeking advice on whether or not they should have their dog put to sleep; go to another dog behaviorist or trainer; risk lawsuit; continue paying veterinary bills that exceed the family's budget, etc.

Breeders and pet stores would be flogged in the press and crucified on tabloid TV shows for placing animals such as these. Placing problem dogs in private homes is irresponsible, no matter who does it. Shelters would be smart to educate their communities about adoptable, treatable and non-rehabilitatable shelter animals and to build consensus for what they believe to be responsible adoption criteria. As both euthanasia rates and adoptable animals decline and no-kill pressure builds, it becomes more important than ever before to have reasonable guidelines in place.


The vacant kennel panic

For decades overpopulation has been the number one fundraising issue for shelters everywhere. Now many shelters have empty kennel runs. Can a half-full shelter appeal to donors as effectively as one filled to capacity?

How do shelters ethically deal with the elimination of overpopulation as an issue? Wanting to put oneself out of business by solving the problem is not the same as wanting to close the shelter and leave animal protection work. But without the issue of overpopulation, how does a large metropolitan shelter fund the rest of its operation?

Humane societies faced with fewer dogs and under no mandate to accept all the animals that are brought to them can elect to keep a number of treatable dogs at their shelters for however long it takes to rehabilitate and place them. They can also raise or lower adoption criteria as physical space or operational needs dictate. Working in this way may be in line with the mission and membership's wishes as long as the public continues to contribute.

Animal control agencies operating on tax dollars and accountable to tax-paying citizens rather than to members, however, cannot keep animals indefinitely. Because public shelters must accept all the animals brought to them, using up finite taxpayer resources for weeks or months on one animal inevitably raises questions about fiscal responsibility. Most agencies would be censured if their taxpaying constituents discovered their dollars were being spent to keep kennels occupied.
Relocation to the rescue

To meet the demand created by having fewer adoptable dogs and to save dogs from euthanasia in areas where supply is still high, some shelters have begun the practice of moving dogs from areas of high supply to areas of low supply. As long as the receiving shelters publicly disclose what they are doing and why, the public may well accept this practice as a reasonable way to maximize adoptions and minimize shelter deaths. Citizens may even experience some local pride in being able to lend a helping hand. There are dilemmas for shelters to consider before initiating these practices, however.

  • Since the issue of overpopulation has been the number one shelter fundraiser for so many years, can a shelter disclose that it's importing dogs without losing support?
  • Will citizens in one locale knowingly subsidize shelter operations in another area or locales outside their state?
  • Another problem is that while dogs are rapidly declining in some areas, cats - especially free breeding, feral cats - are still a problem in many areas. Are resources better spent on dog shuffling, on treating and training dogs that could become adoptable, or on solving a local cat problem?


Typically, the importation of dogs occurs across state lines. When states are adjacent or located in the same region and the animals come from shelters in need, or the numbers involved are small, the public seems willing to go along with relocations if made aware of them. By contrast, however, when Northwesterners learned that 300 such dogs had been flown into their region from Hawaii, attitudes shifted dramatically. People realized that receiving imports of that magnitude would inevitably force shelters to euthanize local adoptable dogs again.

Assurances that these imports do not displace local dogs are counter-intuitive. It is unreasonable to believe that they don't. Yet some animal rights groups and shelters have begun importing animals from as far away as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Taiwan, Okinawa, and other distant locations.

When people first hear of these practices, they are often dumbstruck. If they know that shelter workers are still putting local adoptable animals to sleep, they become outraged. However, the practice of importing strays from other countries is quietly becoming commonplace. According to the March 2000 issue of The Animal Policy Report [3] from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Center for Animals and Public Policy, "In the Northeastern US, animal shelters are finding unique ways to address a problem they thought they would never see - a shortage of mixed breed, adoptable puppies and small adult dogs!.The creative solution to this dilemma was to begin an airlift of puppies and small dogs from areas where surpluses still existed - some small adult dogs from as far away as Puerto Rico.Over 6000 dogs have been flown in, without major problems."[4]

But the Tufts report unfortunately turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg. With only limited investigation NAIA uncovered the following indications of the degree of stray animal importation that is occurring.

The Taipei Abandoned Animal Rescue Foundation web site [5] says, "Thanks to the help of more people, places and groups than I ever even had known existed, I am thrilled to say that EVERY SINGLE DOG IN OUR SHELTER MADE THE TRIP TO THE USA!!!!" The regularly updated TAARF site shows that shelters and rescue groups from Maine to Washington, California and Colorado have already received the dogs mentioned on the site. TAARF advises, "We do overseas/long distance adoptions to good homes or rescue organizations through our 'Wings for Pets' program."

What is the likelihood that they will send more dogs to the US? Their web page claims that there are more than two million stray dogs in Taiwan.

Arranging transportation into the US is another area of quiet innovation. For overseas imports, the US shelter transferring organization commonly runs ads in local papers asking people who will be flying to one of these countries to consider bringing back a rescue dog as extra baggage. The animal rights group or shelter [6] may take the animals directly into their shelter or they may keep a list of potential adopters and simply act as an agent in putting the shipper and receiver together.

Another method for bringing strays into the US for adoption is to get Americans that are vacationing in Mexico to bring them back to particular shelters that have "no small dogs to adopt." People from the Northwest vacationing in Mexico this year have reported being asked to bring back dogs. The one who tipped us off had worked with purebred rescue groups and knew that the last thing we needed in the Northwest was imported homeless dogs. She was asked prior to checkout from her hotel to carry one or two dogs into the Northwest. The hotel had dog crates and offered to take care of the health certificate arrangements. Our contact said she knew better but the family staying in the next room brought back two dogs, no doubt believing they were performing a noble service.

If the shelter or one of the shelter's volunteers plans to temporarily house the dog or cat, then one of them will generally meet the plane and bring the dog to the shelter. Humane society booster groups such as Angel Escort [7] provide assistance to humane societies that are shipping dogs to the US mainland.

And finally, if you're wondering whether dogs are the only species being saved via airlift to the US, please consider visiting the web site for Okinawan Feline Rescue at:


Motivations for importing strays

When participating shelters are asked why they would import dogs into areas that are just now turning the tide on a problem they've fought for decades, their first reply is that overpopulation is still a big problem. Next, they uniformly assert that they need small mixed breed dogs to increase adopter traffic. Simultaneously, they maintain that the small dogs do not displace any of their other dogs. In effect, they're claiming that the foreign strays serve as loss leaders for their less desirable but still adoptable longer-term residents. This is not a compelling or convincing argument given the myriad responsible actions that could be taken locally to stir up interest in their current inventory. Moreover, it is disturbing to hear shelters justify importing strays because of the demand for small mixed breeds. When did it become the responsibility of humane societies and animal rights groups to fill consumer demands? If this continues, local humane societies may soon become the biggest pet stores in town.

The Humane Society of Snohomish County [8], a Seattle-area importer of dogs from Taiwan, puts the madness into perspective, "By saving Taiwan dogs, we do not feel this takes away from saving a dog at our own shelters. The majority of dogs from Taiwan are small and our own shelters do not have many small dogs. At this time we have over 38 people on our waiting list for small dogs. "We feel it is better to bring small dogs in from another part of the world than to have these people going to a breeder. Many people, sadly, still do after they have been on our waiting list for an extended period."

HSSC justifies its next shipment of Taiwan dogs because they have a waiting list. Is this a shelter operation or a pet store? Or is this effort related to the documented intent of animal rights interests to systematically displace breeders from the marketplace? The tenth plank of the animal rights agenda is to eliminate the purposeful breeding of companion animals. Please see: /articles/archives/aragenda.htm 


Thank heavens there are no stray animals on the moon

Responsible breeders get ready! The structure, system, attitude and motivation described above are out there and growing among the less ethical animal rights groups and sheltering organizations. A 135-page activist booklet entitled "How to stop euthanasias at all pet shelters" lays out the dogma for grassroots activists that justifies some of the looming insanity. The booklet's premise is that there are only so many available pet homes and that breeders must be displaced because they are walking off with the vast majority of available homes that should be going to shelter rescues. The booklet recommends that spaying and neutering of mixed breeds isn't always a good idea, the assumption being that their offspring could also displace deliberately bred purebred dogs.

There's no doubt that animal rescue and adoption are becoming big business. Four major web sites are now competing for the rescue/adoption "business" and grassroots rescue groups have begun professional canvassing to line up adoption candidates for their inventory of rescue dogs, present and future. For some of them, the importation of stray animals from foreign lands seems to fill the bill.  


Potential health risks

Beyond the issue of social irresponsibility that relates to importing stray animals into a country that has worked to solve its own stray animal problem for most of this century, a significant public health risk is posed by the mass importation of animals from countries where standards of veterinary medicine are not as high as they are in the US and where diseases and parasites that are not found here currently may be endemic. Significantly, the dogs that are being imported are not pets from private homes but strays from the streets, the most likely reservoirs for parasites and diseases. Worse, we're bringing them into communal shelters where they are most likely to pass on whatever diseases or parasites they have to other companion animals. Some diseases and parasites pose serious health risks for human health as well as for dogs.

Recent cases of leishmaniasis reported in the US signal the alert. 


A line in the sand

At NAIA we are not predisposed toward new legislation or regulation. In the case of organized international importation of strays, however, we believe that a potential threat to our own pets' health exists that is serious enough to warrant a review and tightening of the current laws, regulations and policies. Readers with similar concerns can help us initiate such action by investigating leads regarding importation of strays to their states and regions and by sharing what they learn with us. This will help us get a more complete picture of the extent of the problem so that we can share it with regulators. Anyone that can help us with our ongoing investigation should call NAIA at (503) 761-1139 or email us at

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