I was touched and honored to receive  letters from administrators at several animal shelters in support of my recent post about the need for the rescue community to stay positive. I respected the desire of some of these letter writers to remain out of the public eye. Animal politics can get rancorous and shelters have important work to do; they don’t need the distraction and hassle. That said, I’m pleased that I got permission to share this powerful letter from the Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County.


Thank you for your Open Letter to Nathan Winograd. As someone who has been in the animal welfare movement for 16 years and has seen dramatic changes, I really appreciated your perspective. I loved the video you posted, and am pleased to say that our shelter is doing all of the things in the equation – we could do more and better at some of them, but we at least have them in place. But I just really, really hate the term “no kill.” Most of us who do the work of sheltering and caring for animals every day know that there is no such thing. Anyone who has ever operated a rescue or shelter has had to make the decision to euthanize an animal, even if just by sending it down the road to the animal control facility.

The real heroes in my world are the people who come to work every day, week after week, at animal shelters across the country. They have to euthanize pets that other people have abandoned, and they are vilified for it, and yet they continue to struggle thanklessly year after year to create a better world for animals.

Sixteen years ago, when I started working at this shelter, we took in 73 animals a day, six days a week. And every day, 46 animals were euthanized. Most of them were perfectly healthy, many of them were puppies and kittens. Let me tell you, that will give you some nightmares. But it also gives you a determination to make things better. And not by pointing fingers at other people.

We spayed and neutered like crazy – thousands of pets a year, then several thousand a year. We handed out free spay vouchers to people who brought in litters, we pushed for food bank donations, started a pet behavior helpline, fostered underaged litters, took carloads of cats to offsite adoption events, advocated for pet-friendly housing, worked with the military bases, partnered with rescue groups. We started feral cat programs, raised money to build a low-cost spay/neuter clinic, and started an enrichment program for the animals in the shelter. We kept learning, growing, taking risks, making changes. We took a lot of abuse and were called a lot of names by people who never had to do our jobs. Every animal adopted was a cause for celebration and every animal that died chipped away at our hearts. But we kept going.

Every year, it got better. Then much better. Fewer animals came through the door, fewer litters were left in the parking lot. And now, sixteen years later, we receive half the number of animals we used to. For the past three years, we have been able to find a home for every dog we receive, unless it is aggressive or has severe medical problems. We still euthanize healthy cats and kittens, but in far fewer numbers. It won’t be long before we will be able to find homes for all the adoptable cats we receive, too. And we will do it without turning away any animals. We will do it as a community, not by being a “no kill” shelter, but by having the integrity and courage to provide a painless, quick death for pets that no one wants, while we work tirelessly to create a world where it isn’t necessary.

Marguerite Richmond, Director of Development

29 thoughts on “Is “No Kill” a Misnomer? One Shelter Says Yes”

  1. An unfortunate consequence of the public’s perception of a ‘no kill’ vs a shelter which does not define itself as such is that people are more likely to give their money to the ‘no kill’ shelter as opposed to the ‘we really would prefer not to have to kill’ shelter. Even if the ‘no kill’ shelter is not in their community.

    It’s not that one shelter deserves the money more than the other, if both are using that money to care for animals, it’s that the ‘rather not kill’ shelter is seen as less worthy of support, when in fact they are often working their butts off to staunch the flow of pets into their facility through spay/neuter efforts and training programs to help good dogs with inappropriate behaviors, find and stay in homes.

    Seems that too much vilification is going on in general in the world.

    1. Thanks for this Debbie. It’s true, everyone wants to wrap things up in a neat little package, and “we would really prefer not to kill” doesn’t have the power of “no kill” — even if it’s more accurate. And yes, there’s definitely too much vilification going on, and it doesn’t help anyone.

  2. Thanks for sharing this letter. I wonder what sixteen years of struggling for a world that takes care of its animals, while having to do tough euthanization decisions along the way, does with a person. That Marguerite and her staff are still standing, full with hope, and can focus on the positive achievements, has my deepest respect.

    1. Yes, I agree. I am awed by the people who are able to carry on with their important work and make the tough decisions, especially in the face of criticism and misunderstanding. They make the world a better place for all of us.

  3. Yes indeed, the ‘no kill’ moniker has harmed the reputation of reputable shelters in our area. When some potential supporters discover that a shelter that bills itself as ‘no kill’ nonetheless does euthanize some animals, or refuse some animals that they know they will not be able to adopt out, all hell breaks loose.

    Shelter work is tough. I doubt I have the fortitude to do it. I’m grateful, GRATEFUL, for those who do.

    1. Hear, hear Deborah. I am extremely grateful too and more shelters need to know that much of the public feels that’s way. Criticism is easy; doing what shelter workers do is tough.

  4. When I was Director of Development for an animal welfare organization, the most common question I got from prospective donors was “Are you a ‘No-Kill'” shelter?” I always began my standard spiel about how “no-kill” was a misnomer and that we had a very high rate of live release (similar to Marguerite’s organization–all dogs deemed adoptable were able to be placed and cats were on the upswing) and so on. Educating people takes time and this is a very complex issue that is hard to reduce to a simple answer. Fortunately, only a few people demanded a “yes or no” answer. In retrospect, I wish I had been more inclined to say, “No, but with your help with can get closer to that goal.” Instead, we drafted a brief response (but still too long, IMO) which you can find at

    1. Thanks for this, Susan, and especially for the link to the Animal Rescue League of Boston’s response to the No Kill question. It would be nice if everything could be explained in a simple two word phrase and if life weren’t complex, but it is. I think the statement gives an excellent explanation of the issue.

  5. Edie, thank you very much for sharing the letter. I am going to be interviewed for a documentary on this very topic tomorrow. No kill is a goal to strive for — whether it is realistic or possible is yet to be seen. Surely it is heartbreaking for shelter administrators to make the decision to euthanize an animal, and I am extremely grateful to them for tackling such difficult work every day. I am trying to do my part. It has been my goal for 23 years to give dog owners management and training techniques so that dogs never have to be rehomed or brought back to shelters.

    1. Sounds like an interesting documentary. Is it something that will be in wide distribution — and if so, what is it and when will it be aired?

  6. This post goes back to my original point on your open letter to Nathon Winograd. People have a huge misconception as to what No-Kill means. I don’t even trust true no kill shelters- which animals are they not accepting or are they hoarding animals that are way passed the point of being humanely kept? Low Kill should be the motto.

    Like I said before, the HSSA is not a No Kill facility but I think it’s a very good shelter that is working towards becoming better all the time. I love that they have adoption centers at two malls in town. That is inspired policy and most shelters do not have such amazing outreach. But make to mistake, the HSSA misses out on thousands of dollars from donors because will not perpetuate the NO Kill myth.

  7. It sounds like Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County is doing a lot to save as many pets as they can. I wish this was true of all “shelters” across this county, but the true is it is NOT. Too many animal shelters want you to think they are doing all they can and that they hate killing pets, but they don’t have any of these special programs in place that actually work to cut the kill rate and they don’t plan on putting any of these programs in place.

    There are both good and bad shelters not matter what they call themselves. Help out at your local animal shelters and rescuers and discover the truth about them. Some are good and some or not — don’t go by what they tell you, go by what you see. Get the numbers monthly and see if they are working to reduce the killing or not.

  8. On one hand, it’s sad that it has taken 16 years for this shelter to get to where it is. On the other hand, what a testament to the persistence of this shelter to keep going. And count me among the misinformed … I thought a no-kill shelter meant no kill (except for medical issues). You learn something every day.

  9. Thank you for sharing the letter from Marguerite Richmond. I think they are doing a great job and addressing the problems from many different angles. I wish them, and the animals they care for, the very best.

  10. I have to agree with Joni’s comment. I’ve been in a lot of shelters and there are some bad ones – unfortunately. So, you really don’t know until you’ve spent some time there. I know how hard this work is – I did manage a “no-kill” shelter for a couple of years. I suppose we were lucky in that in those two years, we never had to turn an animal away. If our shelter didn’t have room, we found foster homes to help out. We never euthanized a healthy animal. We certainly did if one was suffering and couldn’t be helped. And our shelter always made sure the animals that were living there had the best life possible until they found permanent homes. We also started a ferral cat program. In any event, we could not have done what we did without wonderful committed volunteers. This kind of work is very, very difficult and you cannot do it for long unless you have the passion to help. I feel badly for any shelter that is truly trying to do everything in the best interest of the animals and for some reason is getting a bad reputation. It doesn’t help that you have county employees working for some of these shelters that really don’t care about animals and shelters that are hiring these types of people because that’s all they can get. The pay is never good. This whole debate/issue is extremely difficult.

  11. Wow.I am so glad you were able to share this letter. It clearly is not easy, nor is it a quick resolution to the pet problem, but how powerful to demonstrate that with time, effort, patience and education, success can be achieved. Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County is a shining example of what CAN be. So happy to be able to read this!

  12. I was so impressed with Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County that I forgot to say that it is often one of the frustrations of the term “no-kill”. There will always be animals who will need to be euthanized. The difference is between those shelters who are making an effort to make it a low amount (like this one) and those shelters who do not. Sadly, there will always be people who bring in their old and sick dogs because they can’t afford to euthanize their pet or can’t stand to be there to do it themselves (at a vet of course) and there will always be those dogs who are dangerous to others and must be euthanized. But, the ideal of “no kill” is always there. I just wish people understood that “no-kill” is not reality now – at any shelter.

  13. Thank you very much for sharing this letter.

    I think it is very easy to place the blame on the people who live the ins and outs of rescue every day- but really, the blame sits squarely on our own shoulders.

    We support puppy mills by buying pets at pet stores. We support ignorance by buying puppies from our neighbours/backyard breeders. When we get our dogs from rescue orgs we don’t encourage our family, friends and neighbours to do the same. We shy away from pointing out that a pet easily costs well over $1,000 a year to our friends interested in purchasing a pet because we don’t want things to be awkward.

    Millions of animals are put down every year because we (ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbours) keep on supporting the processes that send animals to this end.

    I can only imagine how tough your job is, Marguerite. Thank you again for sharing your letter.

  14. Thanks Edie, I didn’t know that. I’m discovering that many issues are actually more complex than they seem at first glance. I’m grateful to the dedicated and caring bloggers who can help do some of the research and help educate us.

  15. I am so happy you got permission to post that letter. I had read about that shelter when sorting through a tragedy in our life. I became committed to helping animals and people. I volunteer at a county shelter and we have many animals that are not adopted, I am impressed with all that staff do to make them comfortable and, see the pain on their faces when the morning list is made up. I would also encourage people whether adopting or buying to know the breed. We get people often admiring a JRT, I didn’t know what that was two years ago, but I am learning. We tell people these dogs are not good with children and if a dog was surrendered for nipping, it goes to adults only. Same with terriers. I am a dog walker and that teaches me about the different breeds. The headstrong and the submissive are all part of a bigger plan. About 90% of our dogs are pits or pit mixes, that narrows our field of placement. I see that is a trend in shelters throughout the country. Some are quite plesant and some need to be put down at once. It is hard work for those who do it.

  16. No Kill has always been an objectionable term to open admission shelters. But without that easily remembered sound bite, we would not be seeing the major shift to creating solutions to euthanasia that we are seeing today.

    The simple truth is the competition for dollars drove the open admission organizations to take a look at their accepted method of operation. Boards took note of lost donors. Having been an executive on the board of a no kill for 13 years with a hands on role in shelter operations, I can say No kill was never a religious movement, and never meant “never kill.” It was short for “no-kill due to lack of space”. It was a slogan that shook people awake, resonated with the public – until eventually many saw that what was happening was wrong, and the general public was wrong to ignore it. So after wasted years of name calling, and fighting about it, finally solutions crept in when groups began cooperating with each other. The slogan was right for the times – change doesn’t happen without a push, or a shove, to create lasting momentum.

    People who villify others for doing the very hard work at a shelter whose mandate requires they put down animals to make room for more animals are just wrong. And the opposite is also true. “Low kill” is actually considered to be a slur of “no kill” facilities. What’s been lost is the original intent of the phrase, and the fact that it was key to getting today’s results. Where would we be now, I wonder, had we not had a slogan that captured people’s imagination?

    1. Thanks for providing historical context for this complex issue, Mary. I was looking forward to getting your perspective because of your vast experience. As usual, I was not disappointed.

  17. I think that people are not aware of the no-kill organizations that are truly, and utterly, “no-kill”. Last Hope, in MN, is a completely foster-based organization that does not euthanize animals, nor turn them away. My mom has been fostering cats for 4 years, and in that time, she has adopted out all of the cats in her foster group. She has had a couple that were not “adoptable”, and she just kept the cat and it lived out her days, and died a natural death. (she was a senior cat)
    I have volunteered for the SPCALA, and I understand that shelters simply do not have the space for all of these animals. They do not euthanize unless they really have to, although there are some city shelters that will euthanize after a couple of months. (overcrowding) It is really frustrating to see/hear people talk about breeding their pet, when there are several out there in dire need of a home. I think all shelters, kill or no kill, need to be supported.

  18. I have adopted from the Tacoma Humane Society and I have fostered for other local groups. The testing done to determine if a dog is unadoptable at Tacoma Humane Society is too rigid if you ask me. Dogs that are scared will be euthanized even if they aren’t truly “vicious”. Pit bulls are held to higher standards it seems. They are “getting there” but they are still not there yet.

  19. Hear hear! Good on you for doing what *has* to be done; You have literally no choice in this matter.

    It’s these bleeding heart pie-in-the-sky dreamers that are the villains here. It’s disgusting that they would make you feel bad just for unquestioningly doing your job. Every time a kitten is killed, I think “What a tragedy, for the person that did it! They’re the real victim.”

    As you state, anyone who finds you ethically repugnant must simply not understand. After all, if animal populations were to get out of control, then we might have to do something about the actual problem! We might have to take a hard look at our values, or spend tax dollars that could go toward more pleasant things. It’s much easier (or “humane” as I like to say) to just end the ones that become sufficiently inconvenient.

    Your arguments for euthanasia are so sound that I believe they apply perfectly to society’s homeless problem. A quick, painless death is a far more merciful alternative to a life on the street. These people are suffering, is there really any value left in their existence? Think big picture. You’re really working for the benefit of all humans by doing away with the undesirables.

    Remember, it’s not about what is “ethical”. It’s about what is humane. And humane is, fortunately, a much more flexible word.

  20. Tacoma Humane is doing exactly what Nathan Winograd used to become No Kill when he was the director of animal services in Tompkins county. I don’t see why they are criticizing him.

    1. This was posted a long time ago; I think Nathan Winograd’s tone has changed. No one questioned that he was doing good things. It was just the way he was going about it that I had trouble with. I don’t feel that way any more.

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