Many pioneers contributed to developing the methods of today
The origins of no-kill dog and cat sheltering may be traced back as far as 1858, when Elizabeth Morris and Anne Waln cofounded the first animal shelter in the U.S. on the outskirts of Philadelphia.
The Morris/Waln collaboration has two surviving direct descendants, the Women’s Humane Society and the Morris Animal League, but their attempt to operate without killing animals failed soon after they and Carolyn Earle White took over the Philadelphia animal control contract in 1874.
Many other no-kill animal shelters were founded during the next century-plus, including the still extant Bide-A-Wee Home, begun by Florence Kibbe in New York City in 1903, and the Be Kind to Animals Rest Farm, operated by James P. Briggs at Potomac, Maryland, from 1920 to 1932, ancestral to the National Humane Education Society run by his widow and descendants since 1948.
Before there could be a successful no-kill movement, however, the techniques of combating dog and cat overpopulation without high-volume killing had to be perfected.
The basic components were high-volume, low-cost dog and cat sterilization; neuter/return, to help keep dogs and cats at large from breeding back up to the carrying capacity of their habitat as their numbers decline; and high-volume adoption, to find homes for the animals who still come to shelters or can be removed from feral colonies.
Slow going at first
The standard dog and cat sterilization surgeries were approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1923, but did not become affordable for most pet-keepers until Friends of Animals in 1957 opened the first low-cost sterilization clinic in the U.S., at Neptune, New Jersey.
Watching from across the Hudson River, the American SPCA in 1968 began sterilizing animals before adoption, at instigation of Lloyd Tait, DVM. Mercy Crusade, of Los Angeles, in 1973 opened a similar clinic that a year later would host the first city-subsidized sterilization program in the U.S.
Working for that clinic, Marvin Mackie, DVM, developed high-volume sterilization. The Animal Foundation of Nevada in 1989 opened a clinic in Las Vegas, using Mackie’s methods, which popularized high-volume sterilization by doing more than 10,000 surgeries per year.
Overseas organizations showed the way
Circa 1970, barely 10% of pet dogs in the U.S. and 1% of pet cats had been sterilized. More than two-thirds of all pet dogs and cats were sterilized by 1990.
That left homeless animal reproduction yet to deal with. Overseas organizations showed the way.
The Blue Cross of India introduced neuter/return control of street dogs in 1964. Concerned individuals throughout the world began quietly sterilizing both street dogs and feral cats, often opposed by mainstream humane societies.
Circa 1983 the British-based Cat Welfare Society and Universities Federation for Animal Welfare began openly promoting neuter/return of feral cats, soon followed by the Kenya SPCA, but neuter/return did not gain a strong voice in the U.S. until Alley Cat Allies formed in 1991.
Many other advances toward achieving no-kill took almost as long to catch on. Early-age sterilization advocate Leo Lieberman, DVM, for example, was only vindicated after decades of debate in 1993, when the Massachusetts SPCA endorsed his claims with a major peer-reviewed study conducted at Angel Memorial Hospital. The American Veterinary Medical Association approved early-age sterilization soon thereafter. It is now the standard approach to ensuring that adopted animals never breed.
Marianne H. Sanders
High-volume adoption was another hard sell. The Long Island-based North Shore Animal League and Petco Inc. showed the way, but had to find the way first.
Incorporated by Marianne H. Sanders on May 1, 1944, to bid for the Town of North Hempstead animal control contract, in competition with laboratory suppliers, North Shore won the job by subsidizing the work with thrift store proceeds. Sanders sought from the outset to maintain a no-kill policy for healthy dogs. Cats arrived only when North Hempstead residents brought them. The cats were killed, at first, but within a year Sanders started a cat adoption program.
North Shore rehomed 73 of 342 dogs handled in 1946, an outstanding rate by the standards of the era. By 1956, serving seven of the nine Great Neck villages, North Shore managed to return 250 dogs to their homes, adopting out 308.
Sanders stepped down in 1957 and retired to California, but returned to help the shelter in the early 1960s. As the Long Island human population grew, North Shore had to choose between being no-kill and doing animal control. It gave up the animal control contracts, at huge loss of revenue.
Alex & Babette Lewyt
A decade of leadership instability and struggling from crisis to crisis ended with the 1969 election to the North Shore board of Alex and Elisabeth (Babette) Lewyt.
Alex Lewyt was among the most prominent entrepreneurs in the U.S., featured on the cover of the March 1950 edition of the popular magazine Collier’s, and profiled in 1953 by the business publisher B.C. Forbes & Sons in a volume called America’s 12 Master Salesmen.
Jeffrey Gitomer, author of The Sales Bible, in 2003 summarized the Lewyt lessons as, “Believe in your product and love it-and so will the world. Lewyt was a engineer,” continued Gitomer, “who was convinced that he had built the world’s best vacuum cleaner. He advertised it before production was finished and created a demand in the market with no product, a market vacuum, if you will pardon the pun. When the cleaner finally emerged on the market, it was swept up, generating $4 million in sales in four years. Lewyt said having the best product is not enough. You must believe it is the best and share your passion through marketing and advertising.”
Wife Elisabeth Lewyt meanwhile demonstrated a keen eye for art purchases that appreciated in value, many of them later donated to major museums.
The Lewyts shocked the humane establishment with simple innovations.
One of their first realizations was that since a shelter could only house so many animals, saving the most lives dictated housing only those with the best adoption prospects. They stopped accepting animals from the public and instead began taking adoptable animals whose time was up from the local animal control agencies.
The Lewyts were also among the first to raise funds for humane work through high-volume direct mail. Soon after the U.S. Postal Service was privatized in 1969, introducing bulk mail presort discounts, Alex Lewyt brought in experienced direct mail help from Reader’s Digest, headquartered nearby on Long Island, and introduced a sweepstakes fundraising promotion modeled after Reader’s Digest‘s own.
Yet another Lewyt innovation was paid advertising. Starting in 1969, North Shore ads featuring celebrity spokesperson Perry Como appeared in both print and electronic media throughout the New York metropolitan area. Other celebrities eventually also lent their help.
Como was far from the first celebrity spokesperson for humane work. Author Jack London lent his name to the Massachusetts SPCA more than 60 years earlier. Baseball star Babe Ruth promoted dog adoptions for the American SPCA more than 40 years earlier. Shirley Temple made appearances for the American Humane Association in the 1930s. But never before had a humane organization paid to advertise adoptions, in competition with pet stores and breeders.
Discovering what works
Conventional humane societies fumed that North Shore was treating animals like commodities–and killed more than a quarter of a million dogs and cats in New York City per year, plus another quarter million in nearby suburbs.
Some North Shore experiments failed. Merchandise giveaways to lure the public into the shelter, for example, were a longtime winner in the retail sector that did not work well in pet promotion despite repeated attempts. The exception proved to be giveaways of items that new pet keepers would need, such as collars, bowls, leashes, and litter boxes.
North Shore in 1996 hired 10-year ASPCA humane officer Mike Arms as director of shelter operations. Now heading the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California, Arms in his 20 years at North Shore boosted adoptions from under 5,000 per year, which led the world, to a peak of 44,000.
Arms also introduced adoption co-promotion with other shelters, including the annual spring Pet Adoptathon, now celebrated worldwide. After moving to the Helen Woodward Animal Center, Arms started the also global Home 4 The Holidays program.
Arms extended North Shore animal acquisition outreach into the rural South. The idea was to out-compete breeders and puppy mills for puppy and kitten market share in New York City, help adopters to get those animals sterilized, save the lives of the animals who were taken north, and use some of the adoption revenues to subsidize sterilizing the mothers. The promotional pitch was “Bring us the litter and we’ll spay the mother for free.”
Thirty-one shelters participated in the shelter transport program by 1992.
Humane relocation was attacked by North Shore critics as “relocating pet overpopulation,” but the numbers were soon clear: cities whose shelters participated were soon killing far fewer animals. Shelter killing in the New York City area meanwhile fell faster than anywhere else in the U.S.
The Lewyts in 1976 co-founded the Northeast Animal Shelter, of Salem, Massachusetts. Operating two shelters so far apart proved impractical. An amicable separation followed. The Northeast Animal Shelter also pioneered adoption transport, beginning in 1990.
Petco & Petsmart
Compared to the Lewyt flamboyance, the Petco challenge to the established order was quiet. Starting in 1968, the San Diego-based pet supply chain displayed animals from local shelters, instead of animals from breeders. That approach was repeated in each Petco store as the company grew. There are now 740 Petco stores in 47 states, assisting as many as a million animal adoptions per year.
Rival Petsmart, begun in 1987, combined ideas pioneered by both Petco and North Shore.
Also operating more than 700 stores, Petsmart built miniature replicas of the North Shore adoption center at the front of each new franchise, and encouraged local rescue organizations to work together as a network in order to make maximum use of the store display opportunities.
PETsMART and Petco were just the right vehicle to help breed rescue take off.
Until the mid-1980s, dog fanciers often pretended that because most dogs who were killed were mongrels, dog overpopulation was chiefly the result of accidental or careless breeding, and secondarily the result of irresponsible pet-keepers, who neglected training. Only as the numbers of mongrels fell, with purebreds making up an ever-larger share of shelter intake, did “bad breeding” lapse from acceptability as an excuse for the deaths. Then, enthusiastically if belatedly, thousands of former breeders switched to breed rescue, redeeming their favorite breeds from death row, rehabilitating and retraining them as needed, and adopting them into homes in competition with the people who continued to breed.
Shirley Weber, of Germantown, Maryland, listed 1,500 breed rescue contacts in the 1990 first edition of her Project Breed Directory, for 72 breeds of dog. The 1993 second edition listed 2,900, for more than 125 breeds.
By then the American Kennel Club had begun coordinating rescues for all AKC-recognized breeds. That scarcely brought order to the growing chaos as the rise of the Internet enabled shelterless amateur rescue to expand from isolated individuals working in back yards into global networks of people doing all the work of no-kill shelters, including humane relocation, with no central coordination whatever.
The closest approach to coordination is Petfinder.com, founded by Betsy Saul in 1996. Saul began posting pets available for adoption from 13 New Jersey shelters. By mid-2005, just short of a decade later, Petfinder.com facilitated adoptions for more than 8,700 shelters and rescue groups, displaying more than 190,000 animals at a time, helping to arrange placement of more than 1.5 million animals per year.
With more than 159 million page “hits” per month, Petfinder had become the 84th most popular site on the Internet, according to publicist Kim Saunders, who cited data from the Hitwise web rating service.
Petfinder.com, Petco, and PETsMART together enable almost anyone to do high-volume adoption. Shelterless fostering and adoption projects may now handle and help to place more animals in homes than conventional shelters, albeit often working in partnership with shelters and often either rehoming dangerous dogs who should not be rehomed, or hoarding large numbers of animals who have not been placed and for various reasons probably never will be.