Fourth-century philosopher St. Augustine once said that hope has two ingredients—anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and the courage to make a change.
It’s okay to be angry about unnecessary killing at animal shelters. In fact, someone getting angry is, quite often, the spark that begins the necessary process of shining light on what’s wrong with traditional, high-kill animal shelters.
Twenty years ago in Ithaca, New York, biologist and shelter volunteer Valerie Hayes brought five foster kittens back to her local animal shelter to be placed into the shelter’s adoption program. Three of the kittens were quickly adopted, and Valerie anxiously awaited news about the last two. But when she logged into the shelter’s computer system, she discovered that they had been killed.
Not because they were sick; the kittens were perfectly healthy. And not because the shelter was out of room either; Valerie had promised to pick them up if the shelter ever became full. Valerie’s kittens were killed for no reason at all, and Valerie didn’t even receive the courtesy of a phone call. Valerie said:
I’m ashamed to say that my kittens died without names. I’d deliberately resisted naming them, because I knew I’d be giving them up, and I thought it would be easier. I now consider that a mistake. They should be known by names, not numbers."
Valerie left the shelter in tears, went home, and wrote a letter to her local newspaper, the Ithaca Journal, about her experience. A week later, it was published as an op-ed.
She was flooded with support from the Ithaca community—who didn’t know what had been happening at the animal shelter. And she was supported by the other shelter volunteers too—who knew all along. The shelter director resigned, and after a few stumbles, a former California prosecutor named Nathan Winograd was hired to take over.
On Nathan’s first day, he told the staff that the shelter wouldn’t be killing anymore. When they asked him which animals they should kill when the shelter got full that morning, he answered, “None of them. What is plan B?” They quickly got the hang of it, finding ways around obstacles that previously would have been used to justify killing. That day, Ithaca, New York, became the first true “No Kill” community in America for lost and homeless pets.
This pattern of advocacy has repeated itself across the country. Something terrible happens; someone steps up to shine a light into the darkness; and then, with hope and courage, dramatic changes get made.
It happened in Ithaca thanks to Valerie Hayes.
It happened in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, after Jeff Daniels’s dog Bella was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy who “didn’t have time” to round her up.
It happened in Williamson County, Texas, after shelter volunteer Ruthann Panipinto and her friends found the body of a feral cat left to die on the back porch of the county shelter.
And it happened in Austin, Texas too, where animal advocates—not shelter management or employees—led the primary charge for “No Kill” programs and reforms.
Without Valerie Hayes, there might never have been an American “No Kill” community. And without activists across the country, there absolutely wouldn’t be a “No Kill” movement.
“No Kill” takes someone willing to light a match in a sea of darkness.