November 06, 2006 12:00 PM

It is as sleek and serene as an executive retreat. But at Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center in San Francisco, the four-star pampering is strictly for the four-legged. Dogs have spacious rooms filled with natural light, toys and soft beds. Cats have their own glassed condos, complete with cozy perches and televisions that show DVDs of birds and squirrels at play. But the best perk, by far, is that at this shelter, none of the healthy animals are at risk of being euthanized. Ever. Ella, a playful 5-year-old Siberian husky mix with the disconcerting habit of lunging at other dogs when she is on a leash, was allowed to spend five months at the shelter, welcome to stay until she could find a home. “If you’re a dog or cat and you have to go to a shelter,” says Rich Avanzino, the head of Maddie’s Fund charity, which helped build the center, “you want to live in San Francisco.”

Increasingly, advocates are spreading the no-kill gospel across the country. Last year New York City embarked on an ambitious plan to emulate San Francisco and make the five boroughs a no-kill zone, meaning that no healthy or treatable animal would be euthanized simply because it didn’t have a home. In June the new head of Animal Regulation and Care in Houston came into office with an explicit goal of making the transition to no-kill animal shelters. Although the movement has gathered steam, it has also come in for a fair amount of criticism, with some of the harshest coming from a startling source. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the hard-line animal-rights group, has argued that euthanasia is the most humane way to deal with unwanted animals. “It’s not a popular position, because to the average person, no-kill does sound like such a good idea,” says Daphna Nachminovitch, the director of PETA’s domestic-animal department. “But it’s a sad sham.”

The number of no-kill facilities is still relatively small. Of the roughly 5,000 shelters in the country, no more than 800 are considered no-kill. But the financial resources of the movement are impressive. Seven years ago Dave Duffield, the billionaire founder of PeopleSoft, set up a charity to focus on the creation of a no-kill nation; today his Maddie’s Fund alone has a war chest of nearly $300 million. (The charity is named after the Duffield family’s late, beloved miniature schnauzer.) In New York, which received a $15 million pledge from Maddie’s Fund, the efforts are bearing fruit. Four years ago 76 percent of the animals entering the New York shelter system were euthanized; this year it will be less than 50 percent, largely by promoting adoption and spaying and neutering. “This is doable,” says Jane Hoffman, president of the Mayor’s Alliance for New York City’s Animals. “And we’re doing it in one of the most difficult cities in America.”

Even skeptics agree that a no-kill system is a wonderful ideal. The problem, in their view, is the reality. Among the worries: that some animals, particularly older ones, are less likely to be adopted, and end up getting warehoused. “If they’re not being adopted and they’re not being euthanized, they’re just sitting there,” says Kim Intino, director of animal-sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “I’ve visited shelters where the animals have been there upwards of a year or more.”

There’s another catch with no-kill shelters: Many don’t have room to take every cat or dog brought to their door; those turned away can sometimes face a grim fate. In September, for example, sheriff’s deputies and humane officials raided a no-kill sanctuary near Blanchard, Idaho, where more than 400 cats, most of them sick or emaciated, were being kept in nine deplorably unsanitary trailers. (Two people have been charged with animal cruelty in the case and have pleaded not guilty.) “It was like a concentration camp,” says Dr. Jeff Rosenthal, executive director of the Idaho Humane Society, who points out that other shelters in the area converted to a no-kill format, helping produce the glut of animals. “We have to realize that sometimes the no-kill philosophy runs into problems when you have animals suffering.”

The no-kill camp decries any animal hoarding or abuse in its name, pointing out that reaching its goal will take considerable planning. “If someone just announces overnight that they want to become no-kill, they’re deluding themselves,” says Hoffman of the Mayor’s Alliance in New York. But they also insist that the life of every cat and dog should be treated as precious. At the Maddie center in San Francisco, Ella the Siberian husky mix finally got adopted on Oct. 22, by a family with 17 acres of land. Says Avanzino of Maddie’s Fund: “Everybody deserves a chance.”

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