Delaware is the first no-kill state for shelter animals in US

In a watershed moment for animal lovers, America has its first no-kill state: Delaware.

The nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society, which is working with shelters, animal welfare organizations and government agencies across the country to make America a no-kill country by 2025, announced the news at their annual conference in Dallas, Texas.

Linda Torelli, director of marketing for the Brandywine Valley SPCA, which has three locations in Delaware and cares for more than 14,000 animals each year, credited a multipronged approach with helping the First State achieve no-kill status — and its citizens.

“The community in Delaware is very oriented to pet advocacy, so we had their support,” she told TODAY.

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Brandywine Valley SPCA implemented numerous programs so that 95% of animals that enter the open-admission shelter find homes. Torelli said because cats are euthanized at twice the rate of dogs, the nonprofit instituted the practice called trap, neuter and return, aka TNR, to save the lives of feral or “community” cats that would otherwise be euthanized. In TNR, advocates humanely trap the felines, and veterinarians spay or neuter them before they are released back into the community.

Open adoptions — which don’t require time-intensive applications that involve things like home inspections but instead focus on matching a pet with a potential adopter’s lifestyle — help move animals more quickly through the shelters.

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Like Sophia, 95% of dogs who enter Brandywine Valley SPCA find homes.Photo courtesy of Brandywine Valley SPCA

Reduced fee adoption events have been particularly successful. Brandywine hosts two “mega-adoption events” each year.

“They are weekendlong events where we adopt out over a thousand animals in two days,” Torelli said. “It’s an amazing experience. It’s really something to see.”

No-kill efforts also involve keeping animals out of shelters in the first place. So Brandywine offers free vaccine clinics, a pet pantry and an emergency veterinary fund for families facing financial difficulties. A mobile wellness clinic reaches far-flung folks who might not be able to come to the shelter or a veterinary clinic.

The nonprofit also encourages the next generation to learn about pet care and how to be compassionate with animals by visiting schools and hosting a “Critter Camp” for kids.

Brandywine Valley SPCA hosts a "Critter Camp" for children to cultivate compassion for animals.Photo courtesy of Brandywine Valley SPCA

Torelli noted a myth persists that shelter pets are broken in some way. But often animals wind up in shelters through no fault of their own: an owner dies and no one in the family can take the pet, someone with allergies moves into the home, or the owner gets sick and moves to a facility that doesn’t allow pets .

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Brandywine Valley SPCA cares for more than 14,000 pets like Daisy each year.Photo courtesy of Brandywine Valley SPCA

“There’s a long list of reasons why great pets end up in shelters,” she said. “I’d encourage people to have an open mind of the kind of animals you’re going to find in a shelter. In most cases, you’re going to find what you’re looking for.”

Holly Sizemore, chief mission officer for Best Friends Animal Society, said Delaware’s achievement is the big step toward creating a no-kill America by 2025 to save the life of every animal who can be saved.

“Back in 2016, Julie Castle, who is now our CEO, put Best Friends’ stake in the ground to lead the country to no-kill by the year 2025, and it was a pretty bold, brave stake to put out there,” she told TODAY.

One reason why it was so bold is that the organization — and the country as a whole — needed more data to understand the size and scope of the problem: how many shelters there were, how many animals were coming in, how many were being saved and how many were still dying.

The nonprofit created a master list and spent nearly three years collecting data from every U.S. brick-and-mortar shelter to assess the life-saving status of every shelter, community and state.

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Now members of the public have free access to the findings through Best Friends Animal Society’s “community lifesaving dashboard,” a digital tool to quickly check local and national save rates.

Best Friends Animal Society's new community lifesaving dashboard is a free digital tool with "save rate" data about every shelter, community and state in the United States.Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society

“We’ve done testing on this, and if the public knows that animals are still dying in their community, it motivates them to want to help,” Sizemore said.

A community is considered no-kill when every brick-and-mortar shelter serving and/or located in that community has reached a save rate of 90% or higher. There are more than 4,000 no-kill communities across the U.S.

Five states need strong community support to achieve no-kill status. Texas, California, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida account for half of all the animals being killed in the U.S.

Sizemore hopes animal lovers will support their local shelters by fostering, adopting, donating, volunteering, supporting spay/neuter organizations and holding elected officials accountable to make sure shelters get the help they need.

The work of staff and volunteers at rescue organizations across the country and public support have already helped drastically reduce the number of pets dying each year in shelters from an estimated 17 million in the 1980s to now around 733,000 dogs and cats.Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society

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Though the goal of making America no-kill by 2025 is ambitious, Sizemore believes it can be done. For instance, in 1984 — when Best Friends was founded — an estimated 17 million animals were dying in shelters. In recent years, the figure dropped to 4 million. Now, 733,000 dogs and cats die each year.

“We absolutely have been able to track the catalyst of change and the speeding up of life saving that’s happening in shelters all across the U.S.,” she said. “I believe the public wants to be a positive part of the solution.”

Best Friends Animal Society works with rescue organizations, government agencies and animal lovers around the country to "save them all" by 2025.Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society

The heart of the no-kill movement is the golden rule, according to Sizemore. Being kind to animals is a kindness to shelter workers (who, of course, do not want to have to euthanize animals) and to communities as a whole by generating compassion.

“The beautiful thing about this movement is that it is such a nonpartisan issue. It doesn’t matter where you may fall in your political views — everybody loves animals and most everyone understands how valuable the human-animal bond is,” she said. “So I do believe this movement is not only about saving animals’ lives, but it’s kind of redeeming us as people, and showing what kindness does to elevate us all and to just make a better world.”

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To find out whether you live in a no-kill community, visit: https://bestfriends.org/2025-goal