San Francisco has always been an incubator of radical ideas, and in 1994 it came up with another one. The city's pound would no longer kill healthy dogs and cats but, through a policy of sterilization and an aggressive outreach program, see that these so-called "shelter animals" found welcoming homes.
Since then, Lee Bowman of Scripps Howard News Service reports, the "no-kill" approach has gone mainstream. The idea is to euthanize only those animals too ill, too injured or too vicious to put up for adoption -- no more than 10 percent of a shelter's occupants.
Half of the estimated 8 million dogs and cats entering shelters last year were put down. The no-kill movement has the ambitious goal of finding adoptive homes for 90 percent of shelter animals.
The concept has worked, after a fashion. About 1,200 of the nation's 6,700 shelter and rescue groups identify themselves as no-kill. Bowman's examination of listings with the umbrella group NoKillNetwork.org shows that while the no-kill label signals good intentions, in practice it is a rather elastic term.
Limited shelter space may leave the operators no choice but to turn an animal over to the public pound and likely eventual euthanasia. And cases of animal hoarding often turn out to involve well-intentioned people who wanted to start a no-kill shelter and simply became overwhelmed.
Two-thirds of U.S. counties lack no-kill entities, and the communities that do have such shelters tend to be affluent. There are no uniform standards or reporting requirements for no-kill operations, but the good ones are not cheap. The affluent Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington -- one of roughly three-dozen no-kill communities -- has a paid staff of 35, a network of more than 700 volunteers and a $2.5-million budget. In 2011, it had a "live release" rate of 93 percent.
One hurdle is finding volunteers willing to transport an animal often several hundred miles to a new adoptive home. Steps are also necessary to educate the owners, if only to cut the 20 percent return rate of adopted animals.
Americans are notoriously pet-loving, and with that comes a certain moral responsibility: to ensure that when a pet loses one home, the animal has a humane chance at finding another, rather than simply being discarded at the point of a needle.
Dale McFeatters is a senior correspondent in Washington for the Scripps Howard News Service.