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What’s a ‘no-kill’ animal shelter? The answer is more complicated than it seems.

Matt Van Vranken owned Boni for 17 years before the dog was euthanized by Manatee County Animal Services after one day at its shelter. (Photo by Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald)

In late December, a well-loved 17-year-old dog named Boni escaped his southwest Florida house and landed himself in the municipal shelter, Manatee County Animal Services.

At various times in the past five years, this shelter has been described as having achieved no-kill status, or aiming for it. But within one day, Boni had been euthanized.

The shelter’s then-veterinarian, who has since left the position, said in examination notes obtained by the Bradenton Herald that she thought ending Boni’s life quickly was appropriate, because he was a “geriatric patient with numerous problems and poor quality of life. Patient seems to be in pain and suffering.”

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Boni’s owner, Matt Van Vranken, was heartbroken. He told the Herald that his dog had the usual aches and pains associated with being older, but was comfortable and happy. But in any case, Van Vranken asked, how could his dog have been euthanized so quickly at a shelter that identifies itself as being a no-kill institution?

“There has to be a method to the madness,” he told the newspaper. “It’s not about my grieving. It’s about the next dog that goes up there. The other places in this town don’t take them down like that.”

Van Vranken’s understandable confusion was rooted in a question that is surprisingly complicated to answer: What does “no-kill shelter” actually mean?

There is no certifying body that bestows the no-kill label, and there is no universally held definition for it. There isn’t even consensus in animal welfare circles about whether the term or its aim are good.

That said, the most common understanding of a no-kill shelter isn’t that it never kills, though that’s clearly what it implies. Instead, it’s a shelter with a 90 percent “live release rate” — meaning that nine of every 10 animals admitted leaves alive.

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This is the standard that Manatee County’s Board of County Commissioners adopted in 2011, when it first approved a resolution stating the intention for the county shelter to become no-kill. The board then released an action plan, describing how it intended to reach its goal. That plan’s title couldn’t have been more straightforward: “No Kill = 90% Saved, Actionable Implementation Plan for Manatee County.”

The blog Out The Front Door has a good write-up on no-kill’s start. Nathan Winograd, founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center, says he developed the 90 percent target more than a decade ago, then popularized it in his 2007 book “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.”

“I wrote: ‘A shelter succeeds at saving all healthy and treatable dogs and cats, including feral cats, when it is saving roughly 90 to 95 percent of all impounded animals,’ ” Winograd said in an email. “I had not heard anyone speaking about target live release rates before that.”

Many in the no-kill movement, including Winograd, no longer consider the 90 percent benchmark to be gospel. (To the extent that they, collectively, ever did; one thing you learn quickly in the animal welfare world is that trying to get people to agree is like herding cats.)

Advances in veterinary care, widespread availability of low-cost spay/neuter programs reducing the number of unwanted pets, and hundreds of shelters — and communities — meeting the 90 percent target, have raised the bar. Now, many are embracing the principle that euthanasia should be used only in cases in which it advances the word’s true meaning: a merciful end.

Under this definition, healthy animals will not be killed and sick animals will be treated or given palliative care. Animals with behavioral issues work with trainers. Old animals, too, are given the chance to be adopted. Those too elderly or sick for standard adoption may be placed into foster hospice homes. Animals will be euthanized if their pain cannot be managed, if they aren’t enjoying their lives, or if they are deemed too dangerous to live safely in society and no safe place can be found for them.

These increasingly popular policies are not just for small nonprofit shelters that are not responsible for accepting any and all of their community’s homeless or unwanted animals. They now apply to a growing number of municipal shelters as well, including some that don’t use the term no-kill.

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Tawny Hammond is the chief animal services officer for Austin, the country’s largest no-kill community. The shelter Hammond runs — the Austin Animal Center — is the county’s largest no-kill municipal shelter and last year had a save rate of 96.4 percent.

But Hammond said she thinks her shelter can do better. She views her shelter’s treatment of animals as part of a larger social justice mission — advocating for society’s most vulnerable members, human or not.

“We treat the pets as individuals,” Hammond said. “This is about looking at how we approach, as a society, homeless pets vs. owned pets and how decisions are made in animal shelters.”

Mary Smith, a member of the executive leadership team of Maddie’s Fund — a nonprofit organization that has given out more than $180 million in the past two decades to help save shelter animals — said in an interview that a shelter calling itself no-kill should have no less than a 90 percent save rate, along with a robust foster-care program, public-friendly adoption hours and savvy marketing.

Beyond that, she sees the term no-kill as aspirational, “a call-to-action, to end unnecessary shelter killing,” Smith said. “I think that the American people just so embrace the term because they like what it stands for. They love the idea that we’re promoting lifesaving over death.”

But none of this makes clear how any individual animal or class of animals will be treated at a shelter that calls itself no-kill. It’s up to shelters to make public how their euthanasia decisions are made, and up to the public to demand that information.

So what about Boni?

Manatee County officials say his death should not have happened, regardless of the shelter’s no-kill reputation. County law provides for what’s known as a five-day “stray hold” for dogs that aren’t admitted by their owners, meaning they’re kept alive for at least five days, so their owners will have chance to retrieve them. Cats get three days.

Sarah Brown, chief of the county’s animal services division, said Boni’s killing was a violation not only of the stray-hold ordinance, but also an “unacceptable” breach of shelter protocol.

The county shelter’s save rate in 2016 was just under 90 percent. Brown said she has plans to raise that figure.

“We’re going to keep charging forward and working toward 90 percent,” Brown said in an interview. “I can’t bring his dog back, but I can do whatever I can to make sure we’re doing the right things here going forward.”

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