No Kill: Q&A with Robin Starr, Part Two
Today I bring you part two of a three-part interview with Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA, about her shelter's vigorous efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate the killing of healthy and treatable dogs and cats in the entire Richmond area. She’s demonstrating through her innovative leadership that a private humane society in a community can turn around the situation for homeless pets and help save an extraordinary number of lives. She’s smart and professional, and the emerging face of progressive community-based companion animal work in America.
Wayne Pacelle: There's a big difference between a single shelter going no-kill and a community achieving that status. Do you see partnerships between public and private shelters as vital in moving toward ending the euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals?
Robin Starr: Yes, public/private partnerships are very important, but they are not the only essential factor in reaching an end to the loss of life of healthy and treatable animals. Our experience has been that a public/private partnership in which both parties fully embrace the no-kill goal and share a fundamental belief system paves the way toward reducing the euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals. If one partner is private and another is public, it is very helpful if they observe a clear distinction between their respective roles and services so that duplication of use of resources is avoided.
In addition to a well functioning partnership, other factors must be present in order to achieve the goal. There must be a very accessible, high-volume and targeted spaying and neutering program, a user-friendly pet retention program, a creative and progressive adoption program and an active trap-neuter-return program for feral cats, among others, and all of the partners must fully embrace each of these. Probably most important is a good relationship between the partners whereby they work together cooperatively to avoid euthanasia during periods of stress and demand. We have now achieved success in saving all of the healthy homeless animals in both the City of Richmond and in Hanover County (a contiguous county to Richmond that we began a partnership with in 2008). The combined euthanasia rate in Richmond citywide in 2008 was 19 percent. The combined citywide euthanasia rate and that for Richmond Animal Care and Control alone have both declined steadily every year since we began our partnership in 2002.
WP: Most would agree that achieving no-kill status requires a multi-pronged, determined, creative effort. But it seems that in some communities humane organizations are very far indeed from the goal, and very poorly funded. Are there intermediate steps they can take?
RS: The first step is to be willing to embrace new ways of doing things and this can be quite challenging in some communities. For example, it costs very little to undertake creative adoption programs and more open adoption policies. A vastly increased volunteer foster care network can make an enormous difference in the numbers of companion animal lives saved and requires more energy and dedication of time than expense. Our first step, before we ever announced that we were becoming no-kill, was to start a behavior helpline and to ask people who came to relinquish a pet to us because of a behavioral problem to first work with us to see if the behavior problem could be resolved with our help through training efforts. It did not cost much, it worked and we reduced our intake by quite a lot.
Many humane organizations do not like the poor results that they are achieving in their communities, but they still resist any notion of changing old ways. No one ever said that this was easy. It is crucial to create a culture where you try new ideas and see if they work to save lives—even if they don’t, you still have made it clear that it is okay to try.
Also, no one ever said that you were not going to need to work hard to fundraise. In my experience, the problem of poor funding often arises from a discomfort with asking, rather than from an ungenerous community. There may be a great deal of new financial support in a community that could be tapped by an organization that is articulating a compelling message for change and a better prospect for homeless animals in the future. You have to explain why your concepts are innovative and valid and why they will work and then ask for your community’s help.
WP: Is substantial euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals in a community a sign of insufficient funding and a lack of community engagement, is it an issue of resolve, is it a reflection of a philosophical outlook, or is it a combination of these factors?
RS: I think it is all of the above. We need to be honest enough to acknowledge that people are not likely to give their money, or their support in other ways, to an approach that does not make any forward progress but rather returns ever more dismal results and offers a pessimistic outlook. When we provide an approach that promises great life saving progress and then delivers on those promises, we get funding, engagement, resolve and, best of all, we change the philosophical outlook of the community too. A paradigmatic shift is what a lot of communities need.