The Cape Ann Animal Aid in Gloucester, with about 100 cats and dogs, is a place where the once-controversial “no-kill” shelter movement has taken root, part of the transformation in the treatment of unwanted animals in Massachusetts and across the country.
The shelter does not euthanize its dogs or cats, unless they are gravely ill or overly aggressive. It tries to get them all adopted.
The organization is a small part of the no-kill movement, which started as a reaction to common shelter practices years ago, when large numbers of saveable, adoptable animals were euthanized by shelters, often after a short time, for space reasons.
Most no-kill shelters say that at least 90 percent of the animals taken in are adopted.
The Cape Ann shelter, which recently moved into a new, 7,500-square-foot building, handles 700 to 800 adoptions a year, said executive director Sunniva Buck.
“We don’t euthanize for age, space, or length of stay,” said Buck. They do euthanize for aggressive behavior or health, like other shelters.
Buck said people are more ready to adopt from a shelter than in years past. People understand that shelter pets don’t necessarily have special needs; sometimes they’re just victims of a breadwinner who lost his or her job, or an owner who became sick.
Since the no-kill shelter movement began increasing in popularity, the number of euthanizations nationally has dropped dramatically — by one estimate, from about 15 million in 1970 to 3.4 million. The dropoff was aided by aggressive programs to educate the public about spaying or neutering and sophisticated animal adoption marketing.
Renewed interest in animal welfare comes as the state revealed the success of a public financing program that has raised about $250,000 for the spaying, neutering, and vaccinations of homeless animals by private and public organizations. Michael Cahill, the director of the state’s Division of Animal Health, said the money was raised between February and June through a tax checkoff on last year’s state income tax returns. The money also will be used to train community animal control officers.
A committee is expected to meet for the first time on Sept. 25 to begin deciding how the funds will be distributed, Cahill said.
Spaying and neutering homeless animals has helped reduce the number of euthanizations, said animal advocates.
Massachusetts has about 270 animal shelters registered with the state, although it’s not clear how many call themselves no-kill shelters or how many animals they take in or adopt out. Data in Massachusetts is scarce because it’s not collected by the state.
About 39 shelters are in the Globe North circulation area. Most appear to be no-kill shelters, and many are small and run on tiny budgets.
They support themselves with donations, small grants, and fees for adoptions. The organizations say the adoption fees, which can range from $150 on up, do not cover all their costs, which can include vaccinations, medical care, spaying or neutering, and even microchips.
Forgotten Angels Shelter, which serves the Westford area, is a no-kill foster agency that places cats in homes until they are adopted.
Julie Porter-Brooks, the founder and president, said they have about 30 cats in about 10 foster homes, with another 10 cats on a waiting list. It can take as long as a year for a cat to get adopted.
She understands the role of shelters that are not no-kill, but couldn’t work for one herself. “I completely understand what they do,” said Porter-Brooks, who has four foster cats and two of her own. “The bottom line is there are too many animals out there.”
She euthanizes only if the cat is dying. She finds homes for about 70 to 100 cats a year, she said.
Even with the popularity of no-kill shelters, some tension remains between the no-kill advocates and those who run what are known as “open-admission’’ shelters, which take in all animals, but also have a much higher rate of euthanasia.
Workers in open-admission shelters point out that they take in all animals, including the young and old, healthy and sick. They sometimes point out that no-kill shelters turn away more animals than they take in because of lack of space.
That leaves open admission shelters to sometimes euthanize ill or aggressive animals turned away by no-kill shelters.
But most on both sides emphasize they have common ground because they share the same goal: finding good homes for all animals.
Jean Weber, the director of the animal protection division of the Boston-based Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, agrees.
“We may have different philosophies, but we’re working in the same direction,” she said. “We are working toward a goal that every animal that comes in to us finds a home.”
In 2012, the MSPCA took in 10,500 animals and 8,200 were adopted, close to 80 percent. That’s a rate that has been steadily improving, she said. It was about 71 percent in 2011.
The organization, which is the state’s largest shelter by some measures, has facilities in Boston, Centerville, and Methuen.
The state’s range of animals taken in is breathtaking — cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, ferrets, horses, and other farm animals. Nearly 70 percent are cats.
The MSPCA does not euthanize dogs because of a lack of space, but it does euthanize cats for space and health issues, typically in the spring through early fall. “They are really challenging for us. They are prolific breeders,” she said.
The MSPCA is very active in spaying and neutering feral cats, which has reduced their population, and led to fewer euthanizations.
The group also has 600 foster homes that last year fostered 2,300 animals. Nine out of 10 were cats and kittens.
The Lowell Humane Society is also an open admissions shelter, said manager Crystal Arnott.
She doesn’t like the term no-kill. “It’s a lot more gray than black and white,” she said, noting that most no-kills do in fact euthanize some of the time.
The society takes in all animals, no matter their age, medical condition, or behavior. That means they take in some very old, very sick, or very aggressive animals, some of which get euthanized. The shelter does not euthanize based on space or length of time an animal has been there.
About 85 percent of cats and dogs, which is the vast majority of the shelter’s 1,200 animals a year, are adopted, she said.
Some shelters take a nuanced approach to how they describe themselves.
The Animal Rescue League, which rescued and treated about 4,500 animals last year, does not consider itself a no-kill shelter, but rather a limited- or flexible-admission shelter, said Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, vice president of animal welfare. “We do euthanize” animals that are terribly sick, she said. The organization decided not to call itself a no-kill, she said, because it’s insulting to colleagues and other organizations that don’t have the financial luxury to “save all the saveables.”
Shelters, if they deal with adopting animals from within Massachusetts, are required to be an IRS nonprofit, to register with the attorney general as a charity, and to register with the state Department of Agriculture as a shelter or rescue organization, said the state’s Cahill.
No inspections are required. However, a possible new regulation would require adopted animals to be certified as healthy by a veterinarian.
Shelters did not have to register as recently as 2005, he said. But that changed after complaints from people who adopted animals that turned out to be ill or to have behavioral problems they were not aware of.
Nathan Winograd, a nationally known activist who has helped set up no-kill shelters across the country, is delighted at how the movement has spread.
“It is extremely exciting to see a movement that 15 years ago was seen as radical, or fringe or hopelessly optimistic, turned into a movement that is not just gaining traction but is becoming mainstream,” said Winograd, who is the director of the No Kill Advocacy Center, a San Francisco nonprofit.