Ranking the Nation’s Top No Kill Shelters – Part 2: Respect for Life

This blog is the second in a series on finding the nation’s best no kill animal control shelter. In Part 1, I described the shelters I’m comparing and the difficulty of their challenges. You can read that blog here. In this blog, we’ll examine each shelter’s commitment to respecting life and not killing animals.

Death Rates Reveal Some Shelters Value Life More Than Others

Most people consider a shelter no kill when the facility achieves a specific live release rate. The live release rate is the percentage live outcomes make up of total outcomes in a period. Personally, I prefer the inverse of that, the death rate, which is the percentage non-live outcomes comprise of total outcomes since it focuses on the animals still dying. Generally, most people consider a 90% live release rate (10% death rate) no kill under the assumption that 10% of animals are hopelessly suffering or seriously aggressive dogs that won’t respond to rehabilitation. Personally, I believe a 95% dog live release rate (5% death rate) and 92% cat live release rate (8% death rate) is more appropriate, but I do think the cat figure is a bit more flexible given cats are more susceptible to arriving at shelters in worse condition than dogs (i.e. cats hit by cars, very young kittens that can die from illness).

When calculating the shelters’ death rates, I decided to present alternative figures for both Williamson County Animal Shelter and Austin Animal Center. Unfortunately, Williamson County Animal Shelter did not break out breeds for most dogs in 2019. Therefore, I also presented the various dog death rates from 2015, when the shelter last broke out most dog breeds, since both the total dog intake and dog live release rate were similar to those in 2019. For Austin Animal Center, I included estimated dog death rates based on animals who potentially lost their lives at Austin Pets Alive as explained in the table below. Since Austin Animal Center transfers so many animals to Austin Pets Alive, its important to include these figures.

Overall, the shelters had significantly different dog death rates. As the table below shows, Lake County Animal Shelter had the lowest dog death rate for all types of dogs followed by Austin Animal Center, Williamson County Animal Shelter, Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project. However, after we revise Austin Animal Center’s death rates for estimates of transferred dogs who lost their lives at Austin Pets Alive, Williamson County Animal Shelter and Austin Animal Center swap positions. Most notably, Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project had much higher dog death rates than the other shelters. In fact, KC Pet Project’s pit bull death rate barely stayed within the lenient 10% no kill criteria.

The shelters’ nonreclaimed dog death rates followed the same pattern. Overall, Lake County Animal Shelter had the lowest nonreclaimed dog death rate for all types of dogs followed by Austin Animal Center, Williamson County Animal Shelter (the shelter’s 2015 pit bull nonreclaimed death rate of 4.6% is likely more reflective of the actual 2019 pit bull nonreclaimed death rate due to the small number of pit bulls broken out in 2019), Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project. As mentioned above, Williamson County Animal Shelter and Austin Animal Center swap positions when I add an estimate of the number of Austin Animal Center dogs who lost their lives at Austin Pets Alive. Once again, Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project had much higher nonreclaimed dog death rates than the other shelters.

As the table below shows, the shelters had different cat death rates. Overall, Austin Animal Center reported the lowest cat death rate followed by KC Pet Project, Lake County Animal Shelter, Williamson County Animal Shelter and Pima Animal Care Center. Most notably, Pima Animal Care Center’s cat death rate significantly exceeded both my and the the general no kill death rate thresholds. Lake County Animal Shelter’s cat death rate may have been slightly lower since I excluded all cats brought to the shelter by the public under its Operation Caturday sterilization program. Based on my discussion with the shelter director, Whitney Boylston, people brought some of these cats in as strays, but the shelter convinced the individuals to allow the facility to do shelter-neuter-return (i.e. should be counted in statistics as live releases). While I don’t have any information on Williamson County Animal Shelter, its possible some of their feral cat sterilizations could have been similar and its cat death rate may have been a bit lower.

Some of the cat death rates by age group may not be accurate due to large numbers of cats having no age classification. For example, KC Pet Project, Williamson County Animal Shelter and Pima Animal Care Center had high death rates in the No Age category. If these cats were included in the applicable cat age groups’ death rate calculations, these death rates (especially neonatal kittens) would likely be much higher.

As the table below explains, Lake County Animal Shelter’s neonatal kitten death rate is unusually high due to the shelter’s Wait-til-8 program that resulted in the shelter taking in a small number of very young kittens in extremely poor condition. In addition, the shelter’s use of cat ages at the outcome dates may result in the neonatal kitten death rate calculation omitting some young kittens who had live releases when they were older.

Austin Pets Alive’s Bottle Baby Program helped save many young kittens (i.e. less than six weeks old) from Austin Animal Center. Under this program, Austin Pets Alive operates a kitten nursery that provides around the clock care to very young kittens. Prior to Austin Pets Alive creating this program in 2009, Austin Animal Center killed nearly all these animals. Thus, Austin Pets Alive significantly lowered Austin Animal Center’s neonatal kitten death rate.

The nonreclaimed cat death rates follow the same pattern except for Austin Animal Center. These death rate calculations exclude cats returned to owners and cats shelter-neutered-returned. Overall, these death rates are a bit higher than the normal cat death rates. Due to Austin Animal Center’s large shelter-neuter-return program, the organization’s nonreclaimed cat death rate is higher relative to its cat death rate compared to the other facilities. When looking at this metric, both KC Pet Project and Lake County Animal Shelter moved above Austin Animal Center (Austin Pets Alive adjusted).

Behavior Killing Data Reveals Some Shelters Value Life More Than Others

To better understand how strongly each shelter respects life, I computed the percentage of dogs and cats each shelter euthanized for behavior and medical reasons in the tables below.

Overall, Austin Animal Center euthanized the fewest dogs for behavior followed by Lake County Animal Shelter, Williamson County Animal Shelter, Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project. KC Pet Project’s behavior euthanasia/killing figures were significantly higher than the other shelters. When we just look at pit bulls, Lake County Animal Shelter swaps positions with Austin Animal Center adjusted for Austin Pets Alive. Austin Animal Center, Lake County Animal Shelter and Williamson County Animal Shelter killed no small dogs for behavior while Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project killed a small percentage of these dogs for behavior.

The shelters’ pit bull results reveal a large divide among the shelters. Both Lake County Animal Shelter and the Austin Animal Center (adjusted for Austin Pets Alive) euthanized around 0.90% of their pit bulls for behavior while Williamson County Animal Shelter (2015 figure – see table for explanation), Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project killed/euthanized 1.93%, 2.11% and 4.87% of pit bulls for behavior. Clearly, this data indicates these three shelters did not have the same respect for pit bull lives as Lake County Animal Shelter and Austin Animal Center.

Williamson County Animal Shelter’s, Pima Animal Care Center’s and KC Pet Project’s detailed reasons for euthanizing/killing dogs revealed these shelters didn’t always have the highest levels of respect for life. While Williamson County Animal Shelter generally had good respect for life, it did kill two dogs for dog aggression which I believe is manageable. Similarly, Pima Animal Care Center killed nine dogs for animal aggression. KC Pet Project killed 19 dogs for animal aggression (17 were pit bulls), four dogs for extreme anxiety (three were pit bulls), five dogs for extreme arousal (four were pit bulls) and one dog for extreme resource guarding. Thus, these shelters, and KC Pet Project in particular, did not always uphold the most fundamental no kill principle of respecting life.

Lake County Animal Shelter euthanized the fewest dogs for medical reasons followed by Williamson County Animal Shelter, Austin Animal Center (adjusted for Austin Pets Alive), KC Pet Project and Pima Animal Care Center. Most notably, KC Pet Project and Pima Animal Care Center euthanized a much greater percentage of dogs for medical reasons than the other shelters.

On a very positive note, all five shelters did not kill a single cat for behavior. Given shelters should never kill cats for behavior since such animals are not a serious threat to people and lifesaving alternatives exist (i.e. TNR, shelter-neuter-return, barn and warehouse cat adoptions, etc.), this is an excellent result.

Austin Animal Center euthanized the fewest cats for medical reasons followed by Williamson County Animal Shelter, Lake County Animal Shelter, KC Pet Project and Pima Animal Care Center. However, when we look at the Austin Animal Center numbers adjusted for estimated Austin Pets Alive euthanasia, Austin Animal Center drops to fourth place. Overall, the top three shelters were very close with Austin Animal Center (adjusted for Austin Pets Alive) and Pima Animal Care Center in particular being further behind.

When looking at the cat age groups, we must consider two other things. The shelters with cats having no age would have had higher medical euthanasia rates if these organizations reported ages for these cats. As mentioned above, Lake County Animal Shelter’s neonatal kitten death rate is high due to the shelter’s Wait-til-8 program that resulted in the facility taking very few young kittens in who were likely in very bad shape. Therefore, this shelter’s percentage of neonatal kittens euthanized for medical reasons is abnormally high.

When we look at the percentage of cats who died and went missing, Austin Animal Center had the lowest figure followed by KC Pet Project, Lake County Animal Shelter, Williamson County Animal Shelter and Pima Animal Care Center. However, KC Pet Project switches positions with Austin Animal Center when we include the estimated number of Austin Animal Center cats who died at Austin Pets Alive. Overall, KC Pet Project, Austin Animal Center and Lake County Animal Shelter had similar results while both Williamson County Animal Shelter and Pima Animal Care Center had a much greater percentage of cats who died and went missing. As with the other metrics, KC Pet Project’s, Williamson County Animal Shelter’s and Pima Animal Care Center’s age class died and missing percentages would be higher if these facilities broke out the ages of all their cats.

All the shelters except for Pima Animal Care Center took a good amount of time before euthanizing dogs. As the table below shows, the shelters other than Pima Animal Care Center on average euthanized dogs after one month. Pima Animal Care Center euthanized dogs after just five days on average. However, the shelter took a bit longer (20.7 days) to euthanize dogs for behavior than for medical reasons (2.1 days). While Pima Animal Care Center did euthanize many very old dogs for medical reasons, it did euthanize a significant number of younger dogs for health reasons as well (average age of dogs euthanized for medical reasons was 9.0 years). Thus, the length of stay data indicates all the shelters except for Pima Animal Care Center made a strong effort to save their euthanized dogs.

The euthanized cats average length of stay data show the same pattern. Since the shelters euthanized all the cats for medical reasons, the average lengths of stay are a bit lower than those for dogs. However, Pima Animal Care Center stood out again for euthanizing cats much quicker than the other shelters.

Austin Animal Center’s and Austin Pets Alive’s combined respect for life data must be interpreted with caution. Since Austin Pets Alive is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act and does not disclose intake and disposition records for individual animals, I had to estimate the number of animals who lost their lives at Austin Pets Alive and the number of those euthanized for medical and behavior reasons. Specifically, these estimates assumed 1) the percentage of Austin Animal Center animals who lost their lives at Austin Pets Alive was the same as the death rate for other animals Austin Pets Alive took in and 2) the allocation of euthanized animals to the underlying behavior and medical reasons was the same as those for animals euthanized at Austin Animal Center. While I don’t have objective data on the types of animals Austin Pets Alive took from places other than Austin Animal Center, I suspect Austin Pets Alive took more difficult behavior case dogs from Austin Animal Center than from elsewhere. In other words, the combined Austin Animal Center and Austin Pets Alive dog death rates and percentage of dogs euthanized for behavior reasons could be higher than the amounts I estimated.

To stress test my estimates, I recalculated the dog death rates and percentages of dogs euthanized for behavior and medical reasons using the overly conservative assumption that all 45 over five month old dogs Austin Pets Alive euthanized were Austin Animal Center dogs and Austin Pets Alive euthanized every single one of these animals for behavior reasons. This assumption changes my Austin Animal Center-APA Estimate – No Born in Care results as follows (the Born in Care results change by similar amounts):

  • Death Rates: All Dogs: 2.2% to 2.5%, Pit Bulls: 3.4% to 3.8%, Small Dogs: 2.3% to 2.6% and Other Dogs: 1.7% to 1.9%
  • Percentage of Dogs Euthanized for Behavior: All Dogs: 0.28% to 0.65%, Pit Bulls: 0.92% to 2.14%, Small Dogs: Remains at 0% and Other Dogs: 0.22% to 0.51%
  • Percentage of Dogs Euthanized for Medical Reasons: All Dogs: 0.98% to 0.83%, Pit Bulls: 1.13% to 0.95%, Small Dogs: 1.21% to 1.02% and Other Dogs: 0.80% to 0.68%

Based on these overly conservative assumptions, Austin Animal Center-Austin Pets Alive would remain in third place for all dog death rates, drop from first to third place for the percentage of all dogs euthanized for behavior reasons and rise from third to second place for the percentage of all dogs euthanized for medical reasons. In reality, the actual figures are probably somewhere between the estimates above.

I strongly recommend Austin Pets Alive disclose their full intake and disposition records for each individual animal to allow the public to determine the exact death rates of Austin Animal Center animals and percentages of Austin Animal Center dogs and cats euthanized for behavior and medical reasons at the two shelters.

Lake County Animal Shelter’s Owner Surrender Policy Does Not Affect Results

Before we conclude this blog’s section on respect for life, we must determine whether Lake County Animal Shelter’s owner surrender policies made its figures look much better. Lake County Animal Shelter conducts an “adoptability assessment” before accepting owner surrenders. Based on my conversation with shelter director, Whitney Boylston, the only animals it won’t accept are the most severe medical and dog behavior cases where euthanasia is the only option. In other words, the shelter does not conduct owner requested euthanasia.

Lake County Animal Shelter’s intake data backs up the assertion that it does not accept very few animals. Overall, the shelter’s dog intake is similar to what it was before the facility went no kill. While owner surrenders in 2019 were a little lower than they were before the shelter went no kill, this could be due to data collection issues the facility had before it went no kill. Even so, the shelter had more owner surrenders in 2018 (when the shelter had a dog death rate of 2.0% compared to 1.1% in 2019) than it did in 2016 (when it was high kill). On the cat side, Lake County Animal Shelter had significantly more owner surrenders in 2019 than it did in both 2016 and 2015 when it was a high kill facility. While total cat intake was a little lower after the shelter went no kill, this was due to the shelter’s Operation Caturday TNR program that neutered and released cats rather than impounding them. Thus, Lake County Animal Shelter’s intake data indicates the shelter’s owner surrender policies were not artificially decreasing the facility’s death rate.

To evaluate whether Lake County Animal Shelter’s owner requested euthanasia policy impacted the results, I looked at owner requested euthanasia numbers at the other organizations. Unfortunately, KC Pet Project was the only shelter that broke this data out. KC Pet Project only euthanized 1.1% of its dogs and 0.1% of its cats for owner requested euthanasia. Clearly, this was not significant since 1) the 1.1% dog figure did not come close to making up the 6.8% dog death rate difference between KC Pet Project and Lake County Animal Shelter and 2) the cat owner requested euthanasia figure was tiny.

In order to evaluate whether Lake County Animal Shelter’s owner requested euthanasia policy altered the comparative results with the other organizations, I examined dog and cat death rates excluding owner surrendered animals. Since all the shelters take the most difficult stray animals and dangerous dog cases, we can compare each facility’s respect for life on an apples to apples basis.

The shelters’ comparative dog death rate results did not change after excluding owner surrenders. As you can see in the table below, the shelters’ dog death rate rankings excluding owner surrenders are exactly the same as the overall dog death rate rankings. In fact, all the shelters except for Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project had dog death rates excluding owner surrenders within 0.2% of their overall dog death rates. While these two shelters had lower dog death rates when excluding owner surrenders, both facilities still remained firmly in the last two places.

The organizations’ comparative cat death rates results did not change after excluding owner surrenders. Overall, all the shelters ranked the same as they did using the overall cat death rates. All the shelters’ cat death rates excluding owner surrenders were between 0.5% to 1.5% higher than their overall cat death rates. Given many stray cats come into shelters in very poor condition (i.e. hit by cars, extremely young kittens, etc.), this is not surprising.

Lake County Animal Shelter’s cat death rates excluding owner surrenders may be artificially high. Since the facility counts young kittens finders bring to the shelter after the animals become a bit older than when originally found, this death rate is higher than it would be if these cats were considered strays (which the cats originally were). If we counted these cats as strays rather than owner surrenders, Lake County Animal Shelter’s cat death rate and cat nonreclaimed death rate excluding owner surrenders would be 9.3% and 11.9%.

2020 Data Confirms Respect for Life Results

2020 was the most unusual year in the history of animal sheltering due to COVID-19. As a result of fewer people losing pets and more restrictive shelter intake policies during the pandemic, facilities across the country took in significantly fewer animals. On the one hand, shelters had to deal with a greater percentage of more challenging animals as facilities continued to take in emergency case animals (i.e. dangerous dogs, severely sick and injured animals, etc.) and impounded fewer healthy and treatable animals. On the other hand, shelters had far more funding, space, time and human resources available for each individual animal. Thus, shelters operated in conditions that could result in either less or more lifesaving depending on the organizations’ commitments to respecting life.

The shelters’ dog death rates in the three months after COVID-19 hit were remarkably similar to those from the same period in 2019. Overall, the death rate changes range from a 0.6% decrease at Lake County Animal Shelter to a 1.4% increase at Williamson County Animal Shelter. Also, the shelters ranked exactly the same in dog death rates as they did in 2019. Once again, both Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project had remarkably higher dog death rates than the other shelters.

Overall, the decrease in dog intake was nearly exactly the same at all the shelters except for Austin Animal Center. Therefore, these shelters except for Austin Animal Center likely faced a similar change in the more challenging types of dogs each facility took in. Given Lake County Animal Shelter already had the lowest dog death rate, its decrease was very impressive and is another fact supporting this facility’s great respect for life. Additionally, Austin Animal Center’s much larger decrease in dog intake supports local advocates’ claims of the shelter not taking pets in who needed help during this time period in 2020.

The shelters’ cat performances were vastly different over the three months after COVID-19 became prevalent in 2020. Both Williamson County Animal Shelter and Lake County Animal Shelter significantly lowered their cat death rates over the same period in 2019 and those death rates were at impressively low levels. While Williamson County Animal Shelter’s cat intake decreased by a much smaller percentage than the other shelters, Lake County Animal Shelter’s cat intake only decreased slightly less than KC Pet Project’s cat intake. Both Austin Animal Center and KC Pet Project had significantly higher cat death rates in April-June 2020 compared to April-June 2019. While Pima Animal Care Center’s cat death rate decreased slightly in April-June 2020 compared to April-June 2019, the overall cat death rate in April-June 2020 was shockingly high. In fact, all the shelters except for Williamson County Animal Shelter and Lake County Animal Shelter had high cat death rates in April-June 2020 despite these organizations having very good or state of the art facilities.

The full year 2020 dog death rates showed the same pattern as the 2019 results and the April 2020-June 2020 results. Once again, Lake County Animal Shelter, Austin Animal Center and Williamson County Animal Shelter had much lower dog death rates than Pima Animal Care Center and KC Pet Project. Lake County Animal Shelter, Austin Animal Center and Williamson County Animal Shelter had slightly higher dog death rates compared to 2019 while Pima Animal Care Center’s and KC Pet Project’s dog death rates decreased slightly. However, these changes did not come close to making up the gap in dog death rates.

Overall, the shelters took fewer animals in compared to 2019, but the decrease was less than the decrease during the spring months. This matches the national animal sheltering data trends that show animal sheltering intake gradually normalizing as 2020 went on. However, Austin Animal Center also stood out again for its much larger decrease in dog intake and suggests advocates’ claims of the shelter leaving animals on the streets may have validity.

Overall, the full year 2020 cat death rates showed almost all the shelters achieved no kill for cats. Williamson County Animal Shelter had the lowest cat death rate followed by Lake County Animal Shelter, Austin Animal Center (adjusted for Austin Pets Alive), KC Pet Project and Pima Animal Care Center. Once again, Pima Animal Care Center failed to achieve no kill for cats and had a much higher cat death rate than the other shelters. Interestingly, all the shelters except for Austin Animal Center (unadjusted for Austin Pets Alive) had lower cat death rates in 2020.

All the shelters except KC Pet Project reported lower cat intake in 2020 compared to 2019. As with dogs, the intake reduction (as measured by total outcomes) was not as much during the full year as it was in the spring months after COVID-19 first hit. In fact, KC Pet Project’s cat intake changed so much that it took in more cats in 2020 than it did in 2019. On the other hand, Austin Animal Center and Pima Animal Care Center still had very large decreases in cat intake during the entire year. As mentioned above, Austin Animal Center’s questionable intake policies may have caused its 55% decrease in cat intake. While Pima Animal Care Center’s sharp drop in cat intake could be due to programs designed to keep animals out of the shelter (the shelter’s director led the implementation of the Humane Animal Support Services shelter operating model in 2020), its possible the shelter may have been more strict in following the National Animal Care and Control guidelines to only take animals in on an emergency basis during the pandemic (the shelter’s director was on the board of this organization before she left Pima Animal Care Center).

In Part 3, I will analyze how effective each shelter’s live release programs are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s