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Guest blog: How we got to 20 Years No Kill, part two with Robin Starr

Posted on Thursday, May 26, 2022
Throwback Thursday graphic with 2001 news story from Richmond Free Press

This is part two of a series, find the first installment here.

In 2000, when the Richmond SPCA’s Board made the decision to become a no-kill organization and to devote its resources to making our community no-kill, I expected that this change would be embraced by the community and that the Richmond City administration would welcome a partnership with us after many years of little to no communication or cooperation. That expectation was wildly optimistic and naive. 

The Richmond SPCA was determined that it would stop killing any healthy homeless animals by 2002 (a commitment that was later broadened to sick and injured animals) and work in partnership with the city and the surrounding counties to transfer animals from their shelters to ours. Our plan was to involve other private animal groups in a partnership with the municipalities in which we all would cooperate to save animals’ lives, educate our community and announce our statistics together, sharing credit and responsibility for our successes (or failures). This plan was met with sluggish resistance and skepticism from the City of Richmond and outright hostility and belligerence from most of the other animal rescue groups. The exceptions were Goochland County, which welcomed a partnership with us, and Richmond Animal League which was itself no-kill and supported our decision to do the same.

Our Board of Directors made the case before Richmond City Council for a partnership to end the killing of homeless animals, as covered in the Richmond Free Press in 2001.

Newspaper articles from the time now remind me of how disappointed and frustrated I was with the resistance we faced. The objections from other rescue groups were based on a refusal to believe that anything better than the status quo and its massive loss of animal life could ever be achieved ― a reflection of how terribly normalized the massive amount of killing in shelters had become. Employees and volunteers in private shelters nationwide had acquiesced to the idea that the killing of huge numbers of innocent animals was a “necessary evil.” They facilitated this horrible approach by complying with the idea that private shelters should actively perform the killing. It seemed to me and other no-kill advocates that this notion that it was the proper job of private humane organizations to give the animals a “gentle death” amounted to a failure in their crucial role as the animals’ protectors and defenders. 

However, the period was brightened by the courageous support I felt. First, Em Hughes and others of our Board members were convinced that what we were doing was right and they backed me up publicly and privately without question. In addition, support came from my colleagues in the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies and from Rich Avanzino of the San Francisco SPCA and his successor Ed Sayres. Lastly, we had the strong support of Tim Kaine, who was then the Mayor of Richmond (now, of course, our United States Senator). After many hours of meetings with city administration and numerous presentations to City Council, and despite constant resistance from a few vocal animal rescue organizations, Mayor Kaine helped us to finalize a partnership agreement with the city which was adopted July 9, 2021 by City Council. I will always remember our opponents arguing at length before City Council that it was the Richmond SPCA’s job to do the killing of homeless animals and Councilman Sa’ad El Amin finally saying to them “You just aren’t listening; they clearly are not going to do it any more.” 

In the first year that Richmond SPCA operated as a no-kill humane society and established a partnership with the city’s shelter, 41.5% fewer animals were killed in Richmond.

The process of announcing our no-kill plan for the future and getting the city on board with it was long, hard and messy. It was in no way the joyous public embrace I had naively expected. But, it got done and we were on our way. With each passing year, the negativity from some in the local animal welfare community lessened. Soon, the constantly improving lifesaving statistics vindicated our decision and quieted their voices. The Richmond SPCA stopped taking the life of any healthy homeless animal at the beginning of 2002. The intake and death numbers at the City Shelter did not increase when we became no-kill, as the fear mongers had claimed it would. Consistently, each year following 2002, the total numbers and percentages of homeless animals losing their lives in our community declined dramatically (by more than half city-wide in seven years time). This made the initial hardship totally worth it for us. As years passed, the Richmond SPCA expanded its no-kill commitment to include animals that were sick or injured but treatable and provided ever more of the necessary programs and services to our community to stop the killing – more on that in the next post in this series. 

John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” So much of the public was sickened by the loss of animal lives that was happening in animal shelters in the 20th century, and yet many people in our own field of work resisted changing old ways and argued for the status quo. At the turn of the millennium, it was clear to a few of us that the no-kill model was the way of the future. There is much to celebrate about the fact that our organization was on the cutting edge of that change. There is even more to celebrate about the fact that the change took hold and spread nationally.

Throughout 2022, we are celebrating 20 years of being a no-kill humane society.

Robin Robertson Starr is a current member of the Richmond SPCA Board of Directors. She served as the organization’s chief executive officer from 1997 to 2019. Robin is now enjoying retirement along with her husband Ed and a home filled with Richmond SPCA alumni dogs and cats.

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