What No-Kill Means to Me

2006 by Joshua Frank

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

A few decades ago, I worked for a company that instituted a "Total Quality Management" (TQM) program. At the time, it was all the rage among management consultants. Years later, when I went to graduate business school, I was impressed when I learned all about the philosophy and tenets behind this new quality movement.

Nonetheless, when my company first instituted TQM, I was skeptical. The old-timers, especially the blue-collar workers who had been at the company for more than twenty years, were even more skeptical than I was about TQM. Here were these high-paid outsiders with MBAs, and little detailed knowledge of our particular business, coming in and telling us that we should make having "zero defects" our goal, that nothing less was acceptable, and having us waste all kinds of time attending workshops and doing exercises about how we could reach that goal. We all tried to make as few errors as possible, but of course, we knew that the concept of zero defects was impossible. To strive for an unrealistic goal, in the minds of many, (including me, initially) was ridiculous.

But, as I learned later, such a perspective is wrong on several fronts. First, sometimes zero defects is achievable. It may not happen every time, in all situations. But production plants can, and have, met this goal, and have gone on to celebrate their achievements for a certain week, month, or even year. Furthermore, even when it is not fully achieved, it is still the right target for employees to focus on. A focus on zero defects can lead to great improvements in quality, even when a perfect record is not achieved. And unless a firm is achieving zero defects, there is still room for improvement. Finally, and most importantly, the concept of achieving zero defects represents more than just a tangible goal - it represents a "paradigm shift." In other words, this quality management movement represented a total shift in thinking.

Previously, management assumed a certain level of defects was "optimal" - there was a balancing point between reducing the cost of defects to the company, and reducing the costs of conducting "quality control" work by the company. Have too many defects, and you paid in wasted product, but have "too few" defects, and you unnecessarily incurred high quality control costs. This philosophy dominated management for most of the 20th century. However, once you believe X number of defects per thousand units is acceptable, you tend not to look for opportunities to reduce errors, even when they come from improvements in the process that save money, rather than costing a penny. In short, seeing defects as acceptable leads to complacency.

In animal sheltering, many workers and managers, particularly those who have been in the field for years, scoff at the idea of saving the lives of every healthy or treatable animal. They say it is unrealistic in their community. There have always been too many animals, and not enough homes. Shelters try their best, after all, and should not be demoralized with unrealistic expectations.

But as with TQM, this thinking is faulty on several fronts. First, killing no healthy or treatable animals is not only achievable in theory, there are now cases where it has been done in shelters that do not have the luxury of "limited intake." Second, anybody working at a shelter should find the killing of animals that could be adopted or treated unacceptable - period. This is not meant to be a judgment of shelters that kill "excess" animals when they run out of space. What shelters do in the very short term, when they have more animals than space, is a difficult question and there are no easy answers. However, in the longer term, the answer is not difficult. Believe with all your heart that killing is unacceptable, then do whatever it takes to stop killing any animal that can be saved. There does not need to be any debate about "no-kill" versus traditional sheltering. Both sides should be able to agree that the ultimate goal for a community is to kill no animals (excluding those animals who are truly incurably ill or truly dangerous). And everybody in sheltering should care enough about animals' lives to have a sense of urgency in reaching this goal.

And as with TQM, the most important part of a change towards what I consider to be a "no-kill" viewpoint is a paradigm shift. This is not about changing shelter euthanasia or intake policy. It is about shifting perspectives. Shelters can no longer think that any level of killing of "excess" animals is acceptable. There can be no "business as usual" as long as killing is still occurring. There can be no complacency when it comes to the lives of animals. Period.

This shift in perspective has been shown to generate real improvements. A growing number of communities across the country have all experienced this paradigm shift to one extent or another. For example, FIREPAW works analyzing Maddie's Fund community programs across the country. It is true that often these communities fall short on some very aggressive program goals. Sometimes, opponents use these kinds of results to argue that they were right about "no-kill" all along. But this is just like arguing that TQM is a bad idea simply because one may not achieve zero defects. The fact is, that every Maddie's Fund program community (and quite possibly every place that has undergone this sort of animal sheltering "paradigm shift") has drastically reduced the killing of animals in their community. And this is success. Even when not every animal is saved, when the life of every animal is valued, any change that saves lives is a change for the better and worth the effort.

This article is reprinted from FIREPAW's Spring - Summer 2006 Newsletter.

Joshua Frank

Joshua Frank is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Foundation for Interdisciplinary Research & Education Promoting Animal Welfare (FIREPAW). His background is in economics and finance and his work focuses on a variety of animal issues.


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