No dog left behind

More animals are finding homes as the ‘no-kill’ shelter movement spreads

Jeni Mather, founder and director of Blue Dog Shelter, stands in one of the many outdoor play areas at her facility.
George Rizer for The Boston Globe
Jeni Mather, founder and director of Blue Dog Shelter, stands in one of the many outdoor play areas at her facility.

At a small building in Brockton swarming with dogs inside and out, 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 Blue Dog Shelter, a nonprofit animal shelter, does not euthanize its dogs unless they are gravely ill or their aggressive behavior cannot be changed. The shelter operator said she tries to get all its dogs adopted; one has even stayed for years.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe
Blueberry, a pit bull, was rescued by the shelter in July 2012.

Blue Dog 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.

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Jeni Mather, the founder and director of Blue Dog Shelter, estimated she euthanizes about 10 dogs a year. She has had about 1,300 dogs adopted since 2000, she said.

The average dog stays about three months, but others stay a year or longer before they are adopted.

“When we make a really good adoption,” said Mather, “it is like magic. . . . It makes me feel really good.”

Since the no-kill shelter movement began increasing in popularity, the number of animals euthanized nationally has dropped dramatically — by one estimate, from about 15 million in 1970 to 3.4 million. The drop-off 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 program financed by the public that has raised about $250,000 for the spaying, neutering,

George Rizer for the Boston Globe
Groomer Kelli Ann Licano gives 'Rocket' a bath.

and vaccination 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 will also 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.

Massachusetts has about 270 animal shelters registered with the state, although it is 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 is not collected by the state.

About 44 shelters are in the Globe South 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 and up, do not cover all their costs, which can include vaccinations, medical care, spaying or neutering, and even a microchip.

Chrissy Tomkiewicz, the founder of A Helping Paw in Wareham, said her no-kill shelter, which takes in cats and small dogs, is barely surviving financially.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe
Mikey, a boxer/pit bull mix, sits by a mural of Blue, the dog that gave the shelter its name.

“Right now, we need to raise $30,000 for Oct. 31, or we may be forced to close, it’s that bad,” she said.

With the popularity of no-kill shelters, some tension exists 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.

“We don’t like what [open-admission shelters] do,” said Barbara Finney, president of Hilltop Humane Society in Randolph, which shelters about 40 to 50 cats in a rambling house. “But we can work together for the good of the animals.”

Jean Weber, the director of the animal protection division of the Boston-based Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, agreed.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe
Blue Dog is a no-kill shelter for abandoned or abused dogs.

“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 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,” Weber said.

The MSPCA is very active in spaying and neutering feral cats, which has reduced their population and led to fewer animals being euthanized.

The group also has 600 foster homes, which last year housed 2,300 animals — nine of 10 were cats and kittens.

Some shelters take a nuanced approach to how they describe themselves.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe
Most of the animals all are available for placement once rehabilitated and judged for suitability.

The Animal Rescue League, which took in and treated about 4,500 animals last year, does not consider itself a “no-kill shelter” but rather a limited-admission or flexible-admission shelter, said Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, vice president of animal welfare.

“We do euthanize,” she said, animals that are terribly sick. The organization decided not to call itself a no-kill, she said, because it’s insulting to colleagues and other organizations that do not 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 state attorney general as a charity, and to register with the state Department of Agriculture as a shelter or rescue organization, said Cahill, of the Division of Animal Health.

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, Cahill 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 no-kill activist who has helped set up no-kill shelters across the country, said he 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, the director of the No Kill Advocacy Center, a San Francisco-nonprofit.

Matt Carroll can be reached at or follow @GlobeMattC.