Not even no-kill shelters can keep from killing some animals.
But there's no beating the no-kill moniker. Many people adopt cats and dogs exclusively from no-kill shelters. And advocacy efforts surrounding the no-kill movement are only growing as some 200 communities across the country have been deemed no-kill by the national No Kill Advocacy Center. That organization labels shelters no-kill if they save more than 90 percent of their animals and fewer than 10 percent are euthanized.
And the movement is gaining steam. Ten years ago, only a handful of communities had been designated as no-kill.
But making the switch is costly and complex. If one shelter operates as a no-kill, it can shift the burden to municipal shelters that must maintain an open-door policy. And critics claim that no-kill shelters are exclusive and limit which animals and how many animals they accept.
In Bradley County, the movement to a no-kill shelter has divided animal rights activists and has seen the shelter's leadership turn over twice since it opened in March.
The city of Austin, Texas, celebrated its no-kill status in 2012, but in the same year started euthanizing some animals to make space in its overcrowded shelter.
And nationally, millions of animals are still being killed each year. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that animal shelters take in 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats each year and euthanize about half.
It's clear that it would take more resources to move away from a system that kills unwanted pets. But it also requires more education about animal adoption and spaying and neutering animals. Adoption must be advertised aggressively. Shelters need an extensive fostering network.
It can take years for a shelter to fully transition to no-kill.
"No-kill is a real catch phrase to people," said Jamie McAloon Lampman, executive director of the McKamey Animal Center. "But I don't think people understand the consequences."
"Who doesn't want to be no-kill?" she said.
McKamey provides animal control for Chattanooga and accepts strays and surrendered pets from within the city limits. In 2013, the shelter brought in 6,024 animals. It adopted out 2,434 pets and euthanized 2,215. The rest were transferred to rescue organizations or reclaimed by their owners.
Lampman said the shelter has worked to reduce the number of animals it puts down. But, she said, the entire idea of a no-kill shelter is a misnomer. All shelters have sick pets or those who are too aggressive to be adopted. A better term would be low-kill, she said.
She said McKamey doesn't kill animals for space reasons. And the shelter lets animals stay in the shelter as long as it takes, she said, provided they can be treated or rehabilitated.
"I believe we go to some pretty extreme measures," she said. "But they are practical."
To go no-kill, she said, would take a communitywide effort. Residents and politicians alike would have to invest in more education, fostering and adoption programs.
That kind of groundswell has allowed other communities large and small to transition to no-kill, said Nathan Winograd, founder of the California-based No Kill Advocacy Center and grandfather of the no-kill movement. The ideal shelter, he said, takes in all animals for its community and saves all the healthy and treatable ones.
"The goal of no-kill sheltering is to have shelters make the same kind of decisions for animals in their care as you and I make for animals in our care," Winograd said.
He said shelters must aggressively compete with pet stores, breeders and puppy mills. That might mean better advertising or moving shelters away from industrial or secluded locations into residential and retail centers. He said the demand for pets is always growing, as about 30 million people bring home a new animal each year.
"It's a question of market share," Winograd said. "Where are people getting their animals from?"
Last year, a new community announced its no-kill status about every week, he said. But no one regulates shelters' no-kill status and some shelters will falsely claim they are no-kill.
And in any shelter, opinions differ on which animals can be saved.
"You get into the issue of who declares who's adoptable and who isn't," said Britt Schaffeld, a veterinarian in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. "If this dog is ugly, you might say it's not adoptable."
Schaffeld is on the board of Catoosa Citizens for Animal Care, a shelter in Ringgold that is not no-kill. He said some no-kill shelters are only successful because they can limit the number of animals they accept, while a county or city shelter must take in all animals.
"There are only so many animals we can save. It's true," said Fran Geier, board president of the Pet Placement Center, Hamilton County's oldest no-kill shelter. "Because if you overload your facility, you're going to put the other animals at risk."
The Pet Placement Center can house about 25 dogs and 80 cats. It doesn't accept strays. And its voice mail makes it clear that the organization won't return calls about surrendering animals. To turn over a pet, you must email a photo, information about its age, personality, gender and whether it has been spayed or neutered. Because of space constraints, some animals must be turned away.
"People are afraid," Geier said. "They call and say, 'I don't want my dog to be put down. I just want him to go to a good home.'"
But Geier said the responsibility rests with the animal-owning population. Some people bring in boxes of kittens year after year. Even when the shelter offers to pay for sterilizing an animal, owners refuse.
"People are still not getting their pets spayed or neutered," she said. "We're not aggressive enough about it."
East Ridge's municipal shelter has been no-kill for about two years. It euthanizes about 5 percent of animals, said interim shelter supervisor Andrea Dillard. In summer, the shelter is at maximum capacity. But it has built a faithful following online to help advertise animals in need of a home. And sometimes it will waive adoption fees to move animals.
"You have to be willing to do whatever it takes," Dillard said. "You have to be completely committed."
Bradley County opened its no-kill shelter in March after months of organizing. In recent months, the shelter has been fraught with political infighting and has divided the local animal advocacy community. The board and shelter management have changed and one county commissioner called the organization "ineffective, inefficient and dysfunctional."
Beth Foster, a local no-kill activist, said the controversy shouldn't cast doubt on the concept of no-kill shelters. She previously worked at the shelter but resigned in July.
"It is two separate issues," she said. "The local politics made it difficult here."
Despite the infighting, Foster said, the shelter is already working because animals aren't being killed for space. But animals are coming in quickly, and she's not sure the shelter will be able to move them on quickly enough.
"I don't think they can keep up with current intake," she said. "There's got to be some changes in the community for it to work."
Lindsey Bell said those changes need to happen at the shelter itself. Bell, a critic of Foster's, said the debacle with the shelter's leadership has made her reconsider whether no-kill will ever work in Bradley County.
Bell, who previously pushed for the shelter's opening, now says it lacks accountability and transparency and skipped important measures like foster programs and education.
"We don't know if it's achievable here," she said. "We have not seen a legitimate attempt at it."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.