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A new twist on an old challenge

Project aims to save a million feline lives

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2015

An online map tracks the organizations joining the Million Cat Challenge, and veterinarian Kate Hurley says checking the pins that have been added can be addictive.

Veterinarian Kate Hurley had a story rattling around in her brain: She had read about a campaign to reduce mistakes resulting in death and harm, not in veterinary hospitals, but in human hospitals. At an industry conference, the CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement had challenged a roomful of hospital administrators to reach a specific goal—100,000 lives saved over 18 months.

The story resonated with Hurley, director of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. So in December 2012, while speaking to a small group of shelter workers in Chico, Calif., about innovative approaches for decreasing cat euthanasia, Hurley tried something new. At the end of her talk, she passed around a legal pad and asked the audience to record how many fewer cats would be euthanized at their shelters over the next year because of what they’d discussed. The numbers she added up blew her away. “It was 1,308 cats, and I was like, ‘This is awesome!’ Eight little shelters that were at the talk.”

The following spring, Hurley joined Jon Cicirelli (deputy director of San Jose Animal Care & Services) and Julie Levy (a veterinarian and director of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida) at the annual HSUS Animal Care Expo to present a workshop titled “The Tipping Point—Radically Rethinking Our Response to Cats.”

Hurley again asked audience members to write down the number of cats they believed they could save with new strategies. Those strategies included implementing return-to-field programs for community cats; limiting intake to only those cats who can be released alive or for whom death is the appropriate alternative; and investing the resources not spent on euthanizing healthy cats in programs to benefit cats, wildlife and communities. By the end of the session, participants had pledged to save the lives of over 130,000 additional cats.

Shelter professionals left the talk ready to begin implementing big changes, but they soon hit some snags. Hurley and Levy received a barrage of emails with questions ranging from where to find partnering rescue groups to how to interpret laws. “Nobody really [had] the bandwidth to put them all together and answer them,” Hurley says. Months after the conference, Hurley and Levy were talking over their frustrations when they had an idea. Hurley recalls them saying, “You know what? Let’s go big.”

They created a proposal for the Million Cat Challenge, and Maddie’s Fund provided the financial support needed to launch the shelter-based campaign. Officially started in December 2014, the campaign aims to save the lives of 1 million cats in North America over the next five years.

The core strategy rests on five key initiatives: providing positive alternatives to intake; managing admissions to match organizational ability to provide humane care; guaranteeing the Five Freedoms for all cats; removing barriers to adoption; and reducing euthanasia by returning healthy, sterilized, unowned cats to the field.

Any shelter is welcome to join, says Hurley. “There is something that every kind of shelter, in every kind of funky building, with every kind of staff, every kind of policy and every kind of philosophy can do to work toward one of the initiatives.” (Rescue groups that partner with shelters can register as a supporting group.)

“Challengers” only have to pick one initiative that will work best for them, but Levy says the initiatives tend to overlap, which can open doors for others to be added over time. For example, if a shelter begins by removing barriers to adoption (discarding old, unnecessary and difficult adoption procedures), cats will move into homes faster, which in turn improves flow and decreases length of stay. This puts the goal of balancing the number of intakes with the shelter’s capacity for care well within reach. “Part of the strength of this campaign,” Levy says, “is that a lot of the key strategies do integrate very well and are more powerful when they’re used together.”

Shelters can register online and pledge to increase their cat lifesaving. Using feline intake, outcome and euthanasia data collected for 2012 as a baseline, participants are asked to estimate the number of cats they’ll be able to move into positive outcomes each year up to 2018.

The project plans to include an interactive forum on its website where participants can call on the experiences of their peers to overcome any hurdles. “That’s probably the greatest strength of this campaign,” says Hurley. “It’s not just a static website where you go online, watch a webinar and try to follow it. … There will be lots of opportunity for dialogue.”

Users can view the growing list of organizations joining the campaign by visiting the “Million Cat Challengers” section of the website. “It’s fun to see all the different states light up,” says Hurley, who admits she is a little addicted to checking the site. With each new pin added to the map, the counter goes up, inching that much closer to 1 million.

For more information on the project, go to

About the Author

Sarah Matisak is the former Senior Shelter Services Coordinator at The Humane Society of the United States, where she worked to develop and connect shelter professionals with the types of resources that shift perspectives and inspire positive change from the ground up.