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It’s a dog’s life in America’s largest No Kill city

Mimi the chihuahua, who was fostered through Austin Pets Alive!, poses in Austin. Peter Tsai/Getty Images

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AUSTIN, Texas—When Amber Moon wanted a dog for a hiking partner, she strolled into the Austin Animal Center, a shelter with a bright, cavernous lobby and “suites” or “studios,” some as large as 50 feet square, for the animals.

Austin is an ideal place to find a shelter animal. The city recently celebrated five years as the largest “No Kill” city in the United States, meaning that it avoids euthanizing at least 9 out of 10 animals that enter its shelters each year. (Austin’s cat and dog average: 96 percent survival.) The city spends $6.9 million annually on its animal shelters, about what it spends to operate 51 public swimming pools.

Over the past decade, hundreds of cities and towns have joined the No Kill movement, signaling the growth of a new “animal rights ethic.” But some animal welfare groups oppose the No Kill movement, and some pro-lifers hope the animal rights push could lead to No Kill zones for unborn humans.

THE NO KILL MOVEMENT had its beginnings in San Francisco in the 1990s, when the city and the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) agreed that no healthy dog entering the city shelter would be euthanized. The movement took off when Nathan Winograd, a Stanford-educated lawyer and former criminal prosecutor, established the No Kill Advocacy Center (NKAC) in 2004. It has been instrumental in promoting a purist vision: “The right to live is every animal’s most basic and fundamental right; … life always takes precedence over expediency.”

NKAC believes the traditional shelter system is “tragically broken,” with many leaders of national groups refusing “to have standards and benchmarks that would hold them accountable.” NKAC accuses traditional shelters of making excuses—pet overpopulation, irresponsible breeding, too many unadoptable animals—for euthanasia. NKAC says, “No Kill policies and procedures are the only legitimate foundation for animal sheltering. … It is incumbent upon all shelters and animal groups to embrace the philosophy of No Kill.”

Austin’s transition to No Kill took time. In the late 1990s, the city killed around 85 percent of the animals it took in. By 2005, the euthanasia rate had dropped to 55 percent, but that still meant the city euthanized 14,304 animals. Austin attorney Ryan Clinton described the city’s shelter as still “a very dangerous place for lost and homeless pets. … There were just a lot of excuses and a lot of killing.”

Clinton founded FixAustin, a group that took on entrenched national organizations and local shelter leaders. It crafted a simple message: No Kill is righteous, and it works when communities recruit committed volunteers and animal foster homes, develop partnerships with rescue groups, become skillful marketers, and encourage adoption. In 2011 the city achieved No Kill status and official bragging rights.

GOWN AND GLOVES ON, veterinarian David Allman summarized the surgery he was about to start: “We’re giving Elsa Rose a leg to stand on … actually, two legs!” His patient—a Siberian husky mix—lay motionless on the operating table. Surgery to repair her two remaining legs, both injured from overuse, is her last hope for being able to move around independently.

The surgery took place at Austin Pets Alive! (APA), a nonprofit shelter that purposely takes in the hard cases—dogs and cats that would have been euthanized in the old days. Drawing from five counties, APA took in 7,500 animals last year—including 3,000 from the Austin Animal Center. APA director of community engagement Lisa Maxwell says few of the animals are ready for adoption when they arrive. Many are sick, injured, or orphaned: “If they got here, it’s because it was their last chance.”

APA serves as a safety net for animals often considered too labor-intensive to save: bottle babies (puppies and kittens not yet ready for solid food), abused animals needing special behavioral training, puppies with parvovirus, kittens with ringworm, and adult cats with feline leukemia. At traditional shelters, these animals would be euthanized, but APA even saves 90 percent of orphaned kittens. It places no limit on the time an animal can stay: The record stands at over 1,200 days.

Saving sick or behaviorally challenged animals takes volunteers—about 1,800 last year. It also takes money. APA pays minimal rent for use of the old city shelter, which sits on prime downtown real estate. Its funding comes from donations, adoption fees, and fundraisers. Finding homes for animals once considered unadoptable takes creativity and patience. Dogs with a “high prey drive” may end up training to be police dogs. Some feral cats are adopted out as barn cats: Maxwell calls them “environmentally friendly pest control.”

In its early days, APA had rocky relations with the more traditional city shelter, which balked at requests to share a list of animals slated for euthanasia. But APA, following the blueprint laid out by the No Kill Advocacy Center, took its case to the City Council, which mandated the two shelters work together. Now APA has cozy relations with the city—as many as four APA-affiliated persons serve on the city’s Animal Advisory Commission.

Mobile veterinary surgeons David Allman and Kelly Might come to APA twice a month to operate. Allman says working with APA has allowed them to see and treat neglected animals that often pose medical challenges that boost their skills.

NOT ALL ANIMAL RIGHTS ADVOCATES like No Kill policies. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says it is inhumane to keep certain animals alive. On its website, PETA suggests that No Kill policies lead to overcrowded shelters, debilitating confinements for animals, and still other animals being turned away to die more gruesome deaths. Its website recounts shelter horrors.

Local critics in Austin speak similarly. In a series of two-minute speeches at a City Council committee meeting last August, residents complained about problems they say have worsened since the city became No Kill: “roaming packs of dogs,” shelter overcrowding, skyrocketing costs, and a more than “40 percent increase in dog bites in just the last five years.”

These residents suggested that No Kill adversely affects poor areas because stray dogs and feral cats are more likely to be a problem there. Some testified that Austin can only claim to be No Kill because city-run facilities often turn away animals: “They may go to another shelter that’s a kill shelter. … When the shelter is full and you close intake, you put more animals back on the street.”

Despite criticism, Austin is unlikely to retract its No Kill promise. Protocols since 2015 mandate that the city can kill only dogs that have harmed a person or another dog—and even those get a seven-day reprieve. A bill of rights requires an elaborate protocol—layers of review, and checks and balances—before dogs can be euthanized.

NKAC and other advocates are right-to-live absolutists for all animals—from animals in utero to animals that may never be socialized. At a January meeting of the Animal Advisory Commission, the city official in charge of euthanasia protocols described one dangerous dog, Goowa. He couldn’t be safely placed in a home because he’d been trained as a “sic” dog (“I’m going to sic him on you …”) and had badly injured someone’s hand. Advocates raised $6,000 to send Goowa to a sanctuary in New York. The trip required two escorts, a volunteer and a city staff member.

The No Kill movement is spreading. Both NKAC and a relatively new group born in Austin, American Pets Alive!, hold annual conferences to train people in No Kill philosophy and practice. Last year, attendees at the American Pets Alive! conference came from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

We repeatedly asked No Kill advocates to connect the dots: Since you’re promoting the sanctity of animal life, what about the sanctity of human life? Kristen Auerbach, Austin’s deputy chief of animal services, like every other animal advocate we asked, declined to address the question directly: “I cannot make any comment on equating a pro-life standpoint with animal rights.”

—Ron Friedman, Laura Hendrickson, Charles Horton, and Tom Pfingsten are graduates of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course

Animal and human No Kill cities

No Kill founder Nathan Winograd has written about the common practice of spaying pregnant animals: “When we spay pregnant animals and the unborn kittens and puppies die, the fact that they are not yet born does not relieve our responsibility toward assuring their right to live. When we abort kittens and puppies, we are literally killing puppies and kittens.”

Are we literally killing human beings when we abort unborn children? Winograd writes, “Unlike the human context, the issue is not clouded by cases of rape or incest, and there is no question about the mother’s choice because a dog or cat cannot consent. Literally speaking, we are trapping a mother against her will, cutting her open, and killing her offspring, and we claim to do so for her and their own good.”

Jesus was clear on the value of human life. He asked, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” He told those following Him that God cared about sparrows, and, “You are of more value than many sparrows.” How does Austin value life? In 2015 a.d., 96 percent of the cats and dogs that entered its animal shelters survived. (Total intake: 10,255. Euthanized: 409.)

Austin’s record regarding humans was worse. Latest statistics are from 2014 and are county-by-county: Travis County—Austin is about four-fifths of it—had 16,386 births and 3,412 abortions. That adds up to 19,798, which makes Austin 83 percent human No Kill. (We’re not counting miscarriages, because only God knows that sad total.)

What this means for human life: If hearts in Travis County, like the Grinch’s, had only grown two sizes larger so we’d defend unborn human babies as we defend cats and dogs, 2,620 fewer babies would have been euthanized.

Texas as a whole did better than Austin in 2014: The state suffered 55,230 abortions and celebrated 399,482 births, for a total of 454,712 and a No Kill record of 88 percent. Going to 90 percent for the state would have saved nearly 10,000 lives.

The growing No Kill movement regarding animals has a 90 percent No Kill rate as its minimum goal. The United States has 95 No Kill communities according to Saving90.org. Among them: Huntsville, Ala.; Palm Springs, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Duluth, Minn.; and Kansas City, Mo.

Washtenaw County, Mich., which includes Ann Arbor, boasts “a save rate of 92 percent of dogs, 93 percent of cats, 96 percent of rabbits, 96 percent of rodents, and 100 percent of ferrets.” Most No Kill shelters aren’t as liberal concerning rodents and ferrets.

If we applied that baseline to human unborn babies in the United States on a state-by-state basis, 13 states would be No Kill. Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all hit the 90 percent mark.

The United States as a whole has a human No Kill rate of about 81 percent. At least that’s up from 70 percent during the worst years of the abortion plague, 1978-1986—and the rate has improved consistently since 1996. That still means hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved if we just hit 90 percent.

Some animal No Kill–unborn baby Kill people say the difference is that a human mother is choosing to have an abortion and animals do not choose. That makes choice our god—and if animal moms could bark for abortion, would that make it a right? How about treating unborn children at least as well as we treat cats and dogs? —Marvin Olasky

Ron Friedman Ron Friedman is a graduate of the WJI Mid-Career Course.

Laura Hendrickson Laura Hendrickson is a graduate of the WJI Mid-Career Course.

Tom Pfingsten Tom Pfingsten is a graduate of the WJI Mid-Career Course.

Susan Olasky

Susan is a former WORLD book reviewer, story coach, feature writer, and editor. She has authored eight historical novels for children and resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas.


Charles Horton, M.D. Charles is WORLD's medical correspondent. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a physician. Charles resides near Pittsburgh with his wife and four children.


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