Last week, a speckled brown kitten was rescued by Charleston County animal control from the south side of the Ravenel Bridge.

“We get calls every spring where people say someone threw a kitten on the bridge,” says Kay Hyman, the director of community engagement for the Charleston Animal Society. “No one’s ever seen it actually happening really. Kittens are born all the time under that bridge, and what happens is they get spooked … and they start moving.”

When CAS took the kitten in, they decided to call her “Nell,” after the bridge. Nell is what Hyman likes to call a “hissin’ popper” — she’s a little feral, but not too much.

By the time you read this, Nell should be comfortably placed in a foster home. In recent years, the Charleston Animal Society has made great strides in finding homes for animals like Nell. And the recently launched No Kill Charleston 2015 initiative is designed to spare more and more animals from being put down just to save space at the shelter. Hopefully, they’ll potentially be able to lead happy and healthy lives in Charleston homes instead.

While Pet Helpers has been known as the city’s no-kill organization for more than 30 years, it’s taken a lot of work for the Charleston Animal Society to become an active player in the movement. In 2007, the CAS’s live release rate — which, according to the ASPCA, is the percent of animals that leave shelter facilities alive through adoption, return-to-owner, or transfer to another non-profit agency that can guarantee a home for all of the animals it receives — was at 34 percent. That number was on par with areas in the rest of the state, but far from the overall threshold for a no-kill shelter, which is set at 90 percent. This rate accounts for humane euthanasia, which happens at both the Charleston Animal Society and Pet Helpers, usually when the medical situation goes beyond an organization’s reach. This form of euthanasia is not used as a means of population control within the shelter. Instead, animals are put down only if they’re terminally sick, critically injured, or dangerously aggressive.

CAS’s live release rate finally started to rise in 2008, when Charleston was chosen by the ASPCA as one of 10 sites to launch “Mission Orange,” an effort to help turn these places into “humane communities.” Over the last five years, the national organization teamed up with CAS to commit funding, staff, and training to the Charleston area, with the hopes of getting the live release rate up to 75 percent. The local initiative was spearheaded by the ASPCA’s director of community initiatives Joe Elmore, who relocated to Charleston last year. He is currently the CEO of CAS, and he’s leading the charge for No Kill Charleston 2015.

During Mission Orange, the ASPCA implemented its best practices locally, like high-volume spay and neuter practices and research-based adoption. Now the city spays and neuters and adopts animals more than anywhere else in the state. Additionally, a third program, a free-roaming cat initiative, was enacted in 2010. It identifies community cats, those without a recognizable caretaker, that would have been put down in the past. Today, if such cats come into CAS and they’re in stable health — meaning they’re getting their food, water, and shelter from somewhere even if they have no real owner — they’ll be returned to the community once they’re sterilized and vaccinated.

“That’s brought down the free-roaming cat population significantly in our area,” Elmore says. “We’re one of the few areas in the nation where the population of animals is going down.”

Mission Orange came to an end on March 31, surpassing its 75 percent goal by two points. In the last 12 months, 8,789 animals came into CAS, whether through local animal control services (who deliver 90 percent of their animals to CAS), owner surrender, or other methods. Of those, 6,803 were released alive. Now that Charleston has reached this threshold, it’s time to get that number even higher, to the full 90-percent threshold needed for the Lowcountry to be considered a no-kill community.

When the no-kill movement started gaining traction in the 1980s, one of its earliest proponents was the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society. The organization started as a grassroots group that soon opened the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a massive no-kill shelter. “Within a few years, the idea of a no-kill sanctuary really caught the public’s imagination, and not just in our local area, but pretty much wherever people were exposed to it,” says Francis Battista, a founder of the organization and the national spokesman for the Best Friends-affiliated No Kill Los Angeles. “Within a few years, we had a national following.”

By the early ’90s, Best Friends shaped up into a proper animal welfare organization by developing its support base and other tools and resources. At close to 40,000 acres, the Utah property is currently the largest no-kill sanctuary in the country, and Best Friends is a major national voice for the movement with programs set up in a number of metropolitan areas. It champions the principle that the life of every animal has intrinsic value — and that human beings should do everything they can to protect and save the lives of animals in our care. “We’ve grown with the movement, and the movement has grown with us, and now Best Friends is an international organization with a $64 million budget that we put into the sanctuary and into programs like we’re doing in L.A., San Antonio, Austin, Albuquerque, Jacksonville, New York, and Salt Lake,” Battista says.

As Battista explains, a no-kill society comes down to a noses-in, noses-out formula. The goal is to try to reduce the amount of noses coming into a shelter (like through targeted spay and neuter efforts, public education, or financial assistance) while increasing the amount of noses going out (by adopting out animals proactively and creatively). It doesn’t happen that easily.

“Here’s an animal whose life depends on us, however that might be,” Battista says. “What are we going to do to make that difference and how can we be smart, use our resources, pull teams together, work with the community, work with coalitions, work with government to change this relationship of neglect that we’ve had as a society to our companion animals? They’re not throw-away. They have value. They’re living creatures who want to live as much as you or I do, and we need to honor that and work hard to come up with new ideas and new strategies.”

As Best Friends applies its practices to other metro areas, its driving principles are the same, although the applications may be different. The strategies that apply to Utah and L.A. may or may not work in Charleston, and Best Friends does not have a branch based locally. Basically, it boils down to mobilizing and engaging the community, because communities can make small, targeted investments that pay off with big dividends. That includes targeting resources to areas that need them, keeping up a public profile, hosting creative events, and providing good customer service at shelters.

Battista doesn’t have direct knowledge of the no-kill community in Charleston, but from what he’s heard of the city’s animal-loving reputation, he thinks CAS’s 2015 goal is doable.

“If they’ve gotten to 75 percent, they’re thinking right, and if they’re committed to no-kill and they’re working with their best practices and really thinking out of the box and developing new programs, particularly with these vulnerable populations … absolutely they can do it, and everybody should be thinking like they’re thinking,” he adds. “I applaud them and I think what they’re doing is great. It’s just a matter of sticking with it and being committed.”

 Right now, with CAS’s live-release rate percentage being so high, it’s important for the organization and others like it to continue to work to save every healthy and treatable animal in Charleston. The goal isn’t to make CAS a no-kill shelter — it’s to make Charleston a no-kill community as a whole.

“At some point, you really need to make the transition from quantitative measure to qualitative measures,” Elmore says. As a result, CAS has come up with a 10-point plan for reaching the 90 percent no-kill threshold. The strategies deal with finding homes for pets, encouraging education, fighting animal cruelty, and more; you can see the full plan on page 25.

The problems faced by Charleston’s animal community are not necessarily unique to the city, but that doesn’t make them any less important. A lot of pet ownership issues come down to affordability. If an owner can no longer pay to feed their dog, cat, rabbit, or what have you, they often surrender the animal to places like CAS, despite the food donation services the organization offers. Vet care is also very expensive, and Elmore estimates that the only time many pets see a veterinarian is when their owner brings them to one of CAS’s community clinics.

Pet owners will also surrender their animals because they can’t or won’t pay for heartworm medicine or for the treatment that comes once their animal is infected. That means that the majority of dogs coming into CAS are heartworm positive.

“We’re just hemorrhaging with expenses on treating these things,” Elmore says. “We spend over $1,000 every week just on the pharmaceuticals for heartworm.”

CAS also takes on a lot of pets that come from “backyard breeders,” who are defined by the ASPCA as “individual[s] whose pet either gets bred by accident, or who breeds on purpose for a variety of reasons, [like] a desire to make extra money.” These are dogs that aren’t tested for genetic or health problems before they’re bred, and if their offspring ends up with behavioral issues, they end up at CAS.

Another major issue is registration. Obviously, that makes it easier for animal control to identify pets and get them back to their owners. The City of Charleston requires pet registration, but the little-known law is almost 200 years old, and places like Mt. Pleasant, North Charleston, and Summerville don’t have ones of their own. Meanwhile, if a stray pet is caught and the owners are located, CAS will waive animal control fees as long as they get their pet spayed or neutered. But plenty will turn down the option because they want to be able to use the animal for breeding. And some never bother to look for their animal in the first place.

But the biggest problem faced by No Kill Charleston might be importation. There are more than 11,000 unwanted animals in Charleston, yet people will travel outside of the area for the cute puppy that they find on Craigslist. Elmore points out that even some local rescues will go out of town to save animals. “When I hear about animal organizations going right by us on I-26 up into Dorchester County, Columbia, Greenville, when we have hundreds, hundreds of unwanted animals here, and they go right by us to bring puppies back into our community,” Elmore says, “it just drives me nuts.”

At the opposite end of Charleston County, Pet Helpers has helped set a no-kill standard since the organization was founded in 1976. Their operations, from spay/neuter clinics to their adoption center, are entirely funded by private donations. Pet Helpers manages to raise $1.8 million every year to cover costs, and it often exceeds that goal. Executive Director Kevin Ryan thinks it’s because the people of Charleston value the no-kill concept.

“We all want to live in a place that values companion animals,” he says. “I think in Charleston especially but all over the world, companion animals enrich our lives and enhance our communities and families.”

The most obvious way to help reach the No Kill Charleston 2015 goal is by adopting animals from the local organizations working to save local pets. Without Pet Helpers and HumaneNet, a local coalition of over 20 animal care and control organizations working with CAS, No Kill 2015 might not be possible. But it’ll take a little bit more effort than that. As Elmore says, it’s about looking outward, not inward. The community has to drive this plan, and the community is a major part of the holistic 10-point approach. It’s going to start with in-depth conversations, and CAS plans to start hosting forums in different areas of the community soon to address topics like affordable vet care and the importation of animals from outside of the community. And Elmore says CAS isn’t afraid to put pressure on local organizations that may be working outside of the scope of the plan.

“The only way this works is if we all row together and we’re all focused on that idea of reaching that no-kill goal,” Ryan says. “But it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You take all of the organizations, not just Pet Helpers, not just Charleston Animal Society, but the legions of others who toil … and the general public in continuing to choose adoption over purchase.”

Ryan is confident that the No Kill 2015 goal can be achieved. Still, it won’t happen overnight. “It’s going to be incredibly hard,” Ryan says. “It’s like compounding interest, it’s going to be infinitely harder each step of the way.” It’ll be more difficult to sustain No Kill Charleston every year, but with collaboration, commitment, and community support, it can happen.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Elmore says. “It’s like we’ve come 80 yards, but we still have 20 yards to go and that’s the red zone and that’s the toughest area of the field to try to score in, and that’s where we are. And the end zone for us is a no-kill community.”

Charleston Animal Society’s 10-point Plan

1. Find homes for homeless animals through adoptions and foster homes.

2. Fight animal cruelty wherever it exists through assisting law enforcement and advocating for stronger laws.

3. Help youth understand science through a nationally recognized veterinary science initiative.

4. Contain outbreaks of deadly diseases through a community-wide rabies vaccination strategy.

5. Reunite loved ones with their families through an in-depth lost and found program.

6. Save the lives of abused and abandoned animals through individually customized treatment.

7. Prevent births of unwanted animals through a high-volume, high-quality, affordable spay/neuter strategy.

8. Guide children to grow into humanitarians through a comprehensive humane education initiative.

9. Fight hunger when food is unaffordable through a nonjudgmental pet-focused food bank.

10. Reduce the number of free-roaming cats through a trap-vaccinate-alter and return-to-habitat plan.

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