May 14, 2013 by Nathan J. Winograd
The myth of pet overpopulation is the lie at the heart of shelter killing in America. It is the excuse that every shelter director who kills animals uses to rationalize that killing as a necessity, in spite of the fact that it is unsupported by both the data and the experiences of those communities that have achieved what was once regarded as impossible: an end to their killing of animals. And yet as self-evident as this truth is to me today, there was a time when I, too, believed in pet overpopulation and would have been both stunned and confused to learn that I would someday argue against its existence. Indeed, it is not as though I woke up one day and thought “Hey, I think pet overpopulation is a myth!” Nor did I think that someday I would champion the notion that it was. I did not even set out to prove it. It unfolded as part of my journey in the humane movement and the facts began to compel further analysis. In fact, at one time, I too drank of the pet overpopulation Kool Aid. The dedication of my book, Redemption, says it all:
To my wife, Jennifer. Who believed long before I did.
Once, on a date before we were married, we debated the issue. I insisted that, “There were too many animals and not enough homes” and asked her, “What were shelters supposed to do with them?” She correctly argued that even if it were true, killing animals was still unethical and that as animal activists, it was our job to find alternatives, not to blindly accept that the killing was a fait accompli about which we could do nothing to change. She argued that if we took killing off the table, human ingenuity and human compassion would find a way to make it work. But, more importantly, she asked me how I knew it was true that pet overpopulation was real and that killing animals was therefore inevitable.
How did I know? Because I had heard it repeated a thousand times. Because I took the fact of killing in shelters and then rationalized the reason backward. But I was too embarrassed to admit so. Here I was: a Stanford Law student who wore my 4.0 department GPA, my highest honors in Political Science, my Phi Beta Kappa, and my Summa Cum Laude, as a badge of my smarts and I came face to face with my own sloppy logic and slipshod thinking about the issue. “It just is,” I said (lamely).
But therein began a journey that started in San Francisco, then Tompkins County (NY), then visiting hundreds of shelters across the country only to find animals being killed in the face of alternatives, only to find animals being killed despite empty cages, sometimes banks and banks of them. And so I began reviewing data. I reviewed statistics on animal intakes and studies on available homes. I studied the data reported by over 1,000 shelters nationwide. I reviewed the data from the states that mandate shelter reporting. And the conclusion became not just inescapable, but unassailable: pet overpopulation does not exist not only because the number of homes in America vastly exceed the number of shelter animals in need of a home; but also because my experience creating a No Kill community and now the hundreds of cities and towns which have also done so since prove it. In those communities which have ended the killing, they did so through adoptions and the vast majority did so in six months or less. In my case, it was literally overnight.
And since that time, other studies have not only proved I was right, they show I was conservative. To be sure, millions of animals are being killed in our nation’s shelters every year, and that is nothing short of a national tragedy. But they are not being killed because of the reasons we have been historically given to blame. They are not dying because of a lack of homes. They are dying because of a lack of innovation, a failure to embrace of proven methods of lifesaving. As I state at the end of Redemption, animals are dying in shelters for primarily one reason: because the people in shelters choose to kill them in the face of readily-available lifesaving alternatives.
Yet simply because I say pet overpopulation is a myth, I’m continually accused by champions of shelter killing of having nefarious intent: of being in league with puppy mills and commercial breeders. But understanding that the facts do not support the notion of pet overpopulation and saying so publicly has nothing whatsoever to do with supporting breeding or being in league with puppy or kitten mills. In fact, advocacy for animals requires that we expose the lie that is the primary excuse shelters use to kill for the same reason we should oppose puppy and kitten mills: both harm animals. Puppy mills, like poorly performing shelters, provide minimal to no veterinary care, lack of adequate food and shelter, lack of human socialization, and cause neglect, abuse, and the killing of animals when they are no longer profitable.
And that is why my organization, the No Kill Advocacy Center, has held workshops on closing down puppy mills and has supported laws banning the sale of commercially bred animals in pet stores. And it is why I believe that regardless of why animals are being killed, they are being killed, and as long as they are, it is incumbent on everyone seeking to bring an animal into their life to either rescue or adopt from a shelter. Adoption and rescue are ethical imperatives. In short, one does not have to believe in or perpetuate the lie of pet overpopulation to want to close down puppy mills. Nor does recognizing that pet overpopulation is a myth somehow grant a license to commercially or purposely breed animals. Before I ever suggested that pet overpopulation did not exist, the puppy mill industry was alive and thriving. Given the lack of concern those who operate such mills show for animals, what does it matter to them if there is pet overpopulation or not? They couldn’t care less what happens to the animals they sell. But I do. In fact, I am opposed to the commodification of animals, of having the law regard them as property to produce, buy and sell. Animals are not property; they are autonomous individuals, individuals who should be given legal rights, chief among them the right to live.
Acknowledging the truth—that both the data and experience disprove the existence of pet overpopulation—does not mean a person therefore subscribes to a whole host of anti-animal positions. Quite the opposite. It means, simply and thankfully, that we do not have to kill the animals entering our shelters under the disproven notion that there are too few homes. There are not; in fact, there are plenty. To save rather than end the lives of half of all animals who currently enter shelters only to die, we do not have to reform the 310,000,000 Americans apologists for shelter killing consider “irresponsible” and to blame for that killing. We just have to reform those who are truly at fault: the 3,000 irresponsible shelter directors who kill when they don’t have to and the four individuals running the national organizations which defend and protect them: Ingrid Newkirk of PETA, Wayne Pacelle of HSUS, Matt Bershadker of the ASPCA and Robin Ganzert of the American Humane Association. U.S. shelters kill not only because killing is easier, but because, historically, they have enjoyed the political cover of pet overpopulation which allowed them to continue doing so, political cover that comes courtesy of the animal protection movement itself.
To save lives, shelters must begin doing a better job of competing for the market share of the abundantly available homes in America, and, just as important, they must begin keeping animals alive long enough for them to get into those homes. And when I realized this for the first time, rather than bury it, ignore it or downplay it, I did what anyone who truly loves animals would have done. I celebrated it. Why? Because it meant that we had the power to end the killing, today. And that is what I wanted to happen because I love animals.
And yet here’s the irony: the very supporters of the very groups who have made these spurious allegations against me are actually the ones who benefit puppy mills, not me. As my colleague Ryan Clinton recently wrote,
By fighting lifesaving shelter reform, PETA and other regressive animal organizations are effectively aiding and abetting the commercial breeding of animals. By arguing that all pit bulls in shelters should be killed, PETA and others are necessarily driving those who aim to adopt a pit bull to breeders who will gladly meet the demand. By killing nearly every animal that comes in its front door (and lobbying against No Kill reforms throughout the country), PETA is, in reality, aiding and abetting the continuation of the large-scale animal-production industry.
He’s right. But there’s actually more to it than that. By fighting shelter reform and both defending and promoting killing—which groups like HSUS, the ASPCA and PETA do—they discourage the adoption of shelter animals. By embracing draconian adoption policies, they drive good homes to breeders and pet stores. When they fight efforts to increase rescue partnerships, they lessen the supply of available shelter/rescue animals, again, driving people into the arms of breeders. Moreover, traditional kill shelters discourage adopters by the very fact that they kill.
Many people do not want to visit a shelter where they have to meet animals who face possible execution. This hit home for me one day when I answered the telephone at the shelter. The person who called asked me when our next offsite adoption was. After I gave her the information, I told her she should come down to the shelter because we had hundreds of animals, compared to the ten or so who would be at the offsite. Not knowing we were No Kill, she replied she could never do so and explained why: she couldn’t bear to see the hundreds of animals who might be killed if she didn’t choose them.
As No Kill advocates, we may not like the fact that people won’t face such a discomforting scenario to save a life, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. Kill shelters are disturbing, unsettling places to visit for those who care about animals, not to mention the fact that the more a shelter kills, the more dirty and neglectful it is likely to be, and the more hostile and poor its customer service—all driving the public away from shelters and into the arms of the commercial pet trade.
On the other hand, when we reform shelters, we not only make them safe for animal lovers to work at, but we make them safe for adopters, too. During the height of the San Francisco SPCA’s lifesaving success in the late-1990s, when we had seven offsite adoption venues every day throughout the city in addition to our main shelter, there was not a single store selling dogs left in the city. We had out-competed them and they all went out of the animal selling business. When I was running the Tompkins County SPCA, potential adopters in our community faced two main choices: they could buy a kitten at a pet store for $50 or they could adopt one from us (in the same mall) for $30.
Unlike the pet store, our adoptions included sterilization, vaccinations, a free bag of cat food, a free visit to the veterinarian of the adopter’s choice, a free identification tag, a discount at the local pet supply, free grooming, a free guide to caring for their new kitten, free behavior advice for life, a discount on their next cup of coffee, the satisfaction of knowing they saved a life, and, during Christmas, Santa would deliver the kitten to their door. The pet store eventually approached us about working together by having us do cat adoptions in their store. Instead of selling animals, they began helping us find homes for ours.
The same thing is beginning to happen in central Texas, where No Kill reform efforts in various shelters are reducing the demand for purposely bred animals, as Ryan Clinton further explains:
If more Americans adopt dogs and cats from shelters rather than acquiring them from alternative sources like pet stores and on-line sellers, demand for commercially bred animals will necessarily decline. In fact, we’ve seen this come true in Central Texas: at least one large-scale breeder gave up in the face of increased competition from progressive area animal shelters and turned over his keys to a shelter to find homes for his animals… By saving shelter pets’ lives, No Kill policies and programs eat into commercial breeders’ profits.
If we reform our shelters, this could also be the story of every American community. Widespread No Kill success in our nation’s shelters would not only save the lives of almost four million animals every year, it—combined with legislative efforts to regulate, reform, close down, and eliminate their markets—would drive a dagger to the heart of the puppy and kitten mill industries. And yet HSUS, the ASPCA and PETA fight our efforts to reform shelters.
Worse, groups like HSUS, the ASPCA, and PETA act like puppy and kitten mills themselves. True animal lovers embrace the No Kill philosophy because they want to prevent harm to animals, such as their systematic slaughter in shelters. True animal lovers also want to shut down the commercial mill trade in animals because they want to prevent harm to these animals, such as their systematic abuse. That is ethically consistent. But PETA, HSUS, the ASPCA and their defenders ignore or fight reform efforts to stop shelter neglect, abuse, and killing which is the same type of harm that animals face in large-scale, commercial breeding operations for the pet store market.
PETA claims to want to stop puppy mill abuse but will defend the exact conduct if it occurs in a shelter. HSUS claims to want to stop puppy mill abuse but will give awards to shelters that sadistically abuse animals. The ASPCA not only fights shelter reform that would eliminate some of the worst abuses of the draconian shelter system we now have, but sends animals to be killed in those shelters. Neglect is neglect, abuse is abuse, killing is killing regardless of by whose hand that neglect, abuse, and killing is done. To look the other way at one because that neglect, abuse, and killing is done by “friends,” “colleagues,” or simply because the perpetrators call themselves a “humane society” is indefensible.
In the final analysis, it is HSUS, the ASPCA, and PETA which benefit puppy and kitten mills and the commercial breeding of animals, not No Kill advocates who refuse to subscribe to the lie of pet overpopulation which enables systematic killing. It is HSUS, the ASPCA, and PETA which benefit commercial breeding when they fight efforts to reform shelters and make them safe for animal lovers to both work at and adopt from. It is HSUS, the ASPCA, and PETA who act like puppy and kitten mills when they defend abuse and killing in shelters. And by extension, the people who defend these actions by HSUS, ASPCA, and PETA also benefit puppy and kitten mills, in spite of whatever disproven dogma—such as the myth of pet overpopulation—they may cling to in order to defend such a deadly and unethical position.
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March 12, 2013 by Nathan J. Winograd
By Nathan & Jennifer Winograd
Today, an animal entering an average American animal shelter has a 50 percent chance of being killed, and in some communities it is as high as 99 percent, with shelters blaming a lack of available homes as the cause of death. But is pet overpopulation real? And are shelters doing all they can to save lives? If you believe the Humane Society of the United States, the American Humane Association, the ASPCA and PETA the answer to both those questions is “yes,” even though that answer flies in the face of the data and experience. It is simply “received” rather than substantiated wisdom. To adherents of the “we have no choice but to kill because of pet overpopulation” school, pet overpopulation is real because animals are being killed, a logical fallacy based on backwards reasoning and circular illogic. In other words, data, analysis and experience—in short, evidence—have no place. Neither do ethics.
In truth, and at the heart of the No Kill philosophy, is the understanding that the reasons we have historically been given for why animals are being killed in shelters—there are too many for too few homes available, and that the American public is uncaring and irresponsible—have been proven wrong in the face of data and communities that are achieving No Kill level save rates not by changing the habits of the people within a community, but by changing the culture, policies and procedures of the shelter itself. In other words, we know pet overpopulation is a myth because both the statistics and the experience of progressive shelters prove it is.
Some eight million animals enter shelters every year and while apologists for shelter killing will tell you that we cannot adopt our way out of eight million animals, the truth is that we can. That is good news. But the even better news is that adopting out eight million animals isn’t what we have to do. The actual number of animals needing homes is much less. Some animals entering shelters need adoption, but others do not. Some animals, like free-living, unsocialized (“feral”) cats, need neuter and release. Others will be—and many more can be with greater effort—reclaimed by their families. Others are irremediably suffering or hopelessly ill. And many more can be kept out of the shelter through a comprehensive pet retention effort. While about four million dogs and cats will be killed in pounds and shelters this year, roughly three million will be killed for lack of a new home. Can we find homes for three million animals? Yes.
Using the most successful adoption communities as a benchmark and adjusting for population, U.S. shelters combined have the potential to adopt almost nine million animals a year. That is almost three times the number being killed for lack of a home. In fact, it is more than total impounds; and of those, almost half do not need a new home. But the news gets even better because the number of people looking to get an animal is so much larger than the shelter “supply.”
There are over 23 million people who are going to get an animal next year. Some are already committed to adopting from a shelter. Some are already committed to getting one from a breeder or other commercial source. But 17 million have not decided where that animal will come from and research shows they can be influenced to adopt from a shelter. That’s 17 million people vying for roughly three million animals. So even if 80% of those people got their animal from somewhere other than a shelter (or were denied the ability to adopt from a shelter for whatever reason), we could still zero out the killing. And many communities are proving it.
A before and after snapshot of the nearly 100 communities which now have save rates between 90% and 99% show that their shelters achieved that rate of lifesaving by changing the way they operated. Contrary to what conventional wisdom has prescribed for decades, they did not change the public. That’s because animals are not and have never been killed in shelters because of the choices made by the public. Instead, they are being killed because of the choices made by the people overseeing our shelters.
In traditional U.S. animal shelters and despite decades of public assurances to the contrary by our nation’s shelter directors and animal protection organizations, animals are killed primarily out of habit and convenience. Visit an animal shelter run in line with traditional sheltering protocols, and this will become evident in a variety of ways. You will see animals killed rather than placed in available cages so staff doesn’t have to clean those cages or feed the animals inside them. Not only do sheltering policies promoted by large animal protection groups such as HSUS recommend keeping cages and kennels empty, but I have visited shelter after shelter where animals were being killed allegedly “for space” while at the same time those shelters had plenty of empty cages, sometimes entire rooms of them. On a day I visited the Carson shelter of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Care & Control, a shelter where roughly eight out of 10 cats are put to death, 80% of the cages were intentionally kept empty. When I visited Shreveport, Louisiana’s shelter, only one cat was available for adoption despite a 92% death rate for cats. In Eugene, Oregon, at a time it was killing 72% of cats and claiming to do so for lack of space caused by of pet overpopulation, only six cats were available for adoption. The rest of the cages were empty.
At a traditional animal shelter, you will find animals being killed despite offers from other non-profits and rescue groups to save those very animals. In fact, 71% of New York rescue groups and 63% of Florida rescue groups reported shelters killing the very animals they had offered to save. And both HSUS and the ASPCA believe this is as it should be as both have fought to defeat legislation which would have made it illegal for shelters to kill animals who qualified rescue groups are willing to save—legislation that has already saved hundreds of thousands of lives in other states. Since California passed such a law over the opposition of HSUS, the number of animals transferred to rescue groups rather than killed went from 12,526 to 58,939–a 370% increase because shelters were now required to work with rescue groups.
Animals in shelters are also killed because the shelter director refuses to implement a comprehensive foster care program for neonatal puppies and kittens, choosing to kill those animals instead. At one such shelter, the director fired staff and volunteers who were bottle feeding orphaned baby animals on their own time and at their own expense. And at traditional shelters animals are killed because shelter directors do not want to make the effort to implement all the other alternatives that already exist (programs and services collectively known as the No Kill Equation): neuter and release, offsite adoptions, pet retention and field service programs to reduce impounds, as well as medical and behavior rehabilitation programs, to name just a few.
In the end, killing is occurring in our nation’s shelters not because there are too many animals, but because killing is easier than doing what is necessary to stop it, and because as heartless as that reason is, shelter directors have been allowed to do it anyway. Why? Because the people who should be their fiercest critics—those within the animal protection movement itself—have provided them political cover by falsely portraying the killing that they do as a necessity born of pet overpopulation. In fact, the lie of pet overpopulation is at the heart of the killing paradigm. It is the primary excuse that allows shelter directors to shift the blame from their own failure to save lives to someone else. And it is the excuse that has, for decades, kept the animal protection movement wringing its hands, spinning in endless, hopeless circles, trying to “solve” the problem of shelter killing by attacking a phantom cause, rather than the one that is truly to blame.
There are now No Kill communities across the U.S. and abroad: in New York and in California, in Colorado and Virginia, in Utah, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky, in Nevada, and across the globe, including areas suffering from high rates of unemployment and foreclosure. Washoe County, Nevada, for example, has been very hard hit by the economic downturn. Loss of jobs and loss of homes are at all-time highs. In fact, the state of Nevada has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. As a result, the two major shelters (Washoe County Regional Animal Services and the Nevada Humane Society) together take in four times the per capita rate of Los Angeles, five times the rate of San Francisco, 10 times the rate of New York City, and over two times the national average. If there was ever a community which, according to conventional wisdom, could not adopt its way out of killing, it is Washoe County. But they are doing just that. And it didn’t take them five years to do it. All these communities did it virtually overnight, by implementing proven strategies to lower impounds and relinquishments, increase redemptions, return animals to their responsible caretakers and free living cats to their habitats, while adopting out the remainder.
From both the perspective of animals and the perspective of the true animal lover, the fact that pet overpopulation turns out not to exist can only be described as welcome news. That the main excuse historically used to justify the need to systematically poison or gas to death millions of dogs and cats turns out to be a fabrication should be cause for celebration. One would expect that the leadership of the animal protection movement and those within the grassroots who defer to them would not just embrace this news but would shout it from the rooftops. Tragically, that has not been the case. Rather than accept and then evolve their approach to this issue in light of new information (a study conducted by HSUS itself proved that demand for animals vastly exceeds the number of animals being killed in shelters), they have instead tenaciously clung to and even jealously guarded the idea of pet overpopulation, working to stall its rapidly diminishing sway over animal lovers by repackaging pet overpopulation with “new and improved” labels such as “Regional Pet Overpopulation, “Shelter Overpopulation” or reasserting the efficacy of pet overpopulation by redefining the terms of the debate in a specious manner.
REGIONAL PET OVERPOPULATION: SAME ARGUMENT, SAME INESCAPABLE CONCLUSION
According to these groups, while pet overpopulation might not exist nationally, it does exist regionally in areas with higher rates of poverty, particularly the South. Yet the rationale for this argument is as convoluted as that for the one they now have been left with no choice but to admit is insupportable. Not only does it ignore the experience of economically distressed areas like Washoe County; it ignores the fact that each of the communities that have succeeded were also once steeped in killing, claiming at one time they had no choice but to kill by using the same excuses that have been proven false by virtue of their own success (almost always after a regressive shelter director was replaced with a progressive one). It ignores the growing number of communities with save rates between 90% and 99% in the South. And it ignores that while each of our nation’s successful communities are demographically and geographically diverse, the one thing they do share is that their success was neither a fluke nor the result of a very specific set of circumstances which set them apart from other American communities. Each of those shelters is succeeding for one reason and one reason alone: the shelter itself changed the way it operated, rejecting killing in favor of existing alternatives and by rejecting the false premise that they can’t save them all because of pet overpopulation.
In the end, the regional pet overpopulation argument has the same flaws as the traditional pet overpopulation problem which its proponents increasingly, though grudgingly, admit does not exist. With no statistical analysis to support it and the experience of communities with extremely high per capita intake rates proving that No Kill can succeed in spite of such challenges (today there are No Kill communities with per capita intake rates 20 times higher than New York City, the most densely populated city in America), regional pet overpopulation is the same argument with a new label and every bit as devoid of verifiable, concrete data to back it up.
Let’s look at it another way. There are roughly 165 million animals in people’s homes and the numbers are not just holding; they are growing. If shelters increase the number of animals who come from shelters by a few percentage points, we would be a No Kill nation today. A two percent increase would replace all killing with adoption. And because some of that would be replacement “markets” (a pet dies or runs away) and not just new “markets” (someone doesn’t have a pet but decides to get one or has one and decides to get another), what statisticians call a combination of “stock” and “flow,” it is actually less. Take a state like Michigan, where some claim that regional pet overpopulation exists because of economic distress and high rates of unemployment. Today, roughly 85,000 animals statewide are losing their lives annually. Of those, just over 80,000 animals are healthy and treatable. Of those, at least another 4,000 can and should be reunited with their families (on average, Michigan shelters have 10% reclaim rates, a figure that is not only far below the national average, and a fraction of the most successful communities in the nation, but a statistic that could be dramatically improved if the reclaim protocols of the No Kill Equation were followed). If “feral” cats were neutered and released rather than killed as the No Kill Equation also mandates, then under a worst-case scenario, about 70,000 additional homes need to be found for Michigan to become a No Kill state. That amounts to just over ½ of one percent of Michigan’s 10,000,000 residents. Even if one is looking at the number of households instead of the number of people, it’s less than two percent. How is that evidence of a “regional pet overpopulation” problem? It isn’t. In fact, the evidence reveals that the opposite is actually true, which is the case in communities nationwide, too.
SHELTER OVERPOPULATION: IT’S DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN
One proponent of the pet overpopulation argument has gone so far as to admit there is neither national pet overpopulation, nor regional pet overpopulation, but instead claims we have “shelter overpopulation.” Under this argument, if a shelter has 100 cages, when the 101st animal comes in, there is “shelter overpopulation” which makes killing the 101st animal justified. To begin with, the argument lacks any threshold or standards to ensure protections for animals of any kind. Indeed, by this logic, there is no killing that cannot be justified. If this same community dismantled 95 of the 100 cages, they would be morally justified in killing the 6th animal who came in. Moreover, it does not take into account foster homes, temporary cages and kennels, doubling up animals, pet retention programs and adoption campaigns—all the alternatives to killing that successful communities use to replace killing when cages get full. It presupposes that No Kill communities never have more animals than cage space when it is a given that, at some point, every shelter will face such a scenario, especially during peak intake times such as spring and summer.
The argument also ignores the fact that a shelter can always add more cages to accommodate population. As director of the shelter in Tompkins County, New York, I converted the garage, which housed two vans, into two rooms: an overflow infirmary and a nursery for kittens. Prior to my arrival, our vans, tools to help us in our mission, enjoyed protection from the elements while sick animals and kittens, who were our mission, were being killed for “lack of space.”
There was nothing preventing my predecessor from doing what I did. But by the “shelter overpopulation” argument, his killing of kittens rather than sending them into foster care or adding more cage space was entirely justified. Is that really the standard of care we want our nation’s shelters to follow—in essence, no standards at all? Anything goes if the alternative to killing is having to embrace an alternative to killing? In the end, the proponents of “shelter overpopulation” have simply taken the excuses used to justify killing on a macro-scale and reduced it to the micro. But it is the exact same argument, flawed for the same reasons and equally as unethical.
MAKING THE NUMBERS FIT THE CONCLUSION
In the face of this irrefutable evidence, some apologists—mostly supporters of PETA’s campaign of dog and cat extermination (killing as they do roughly 97% of all the animals they seek out)—have started to cook the books. No longer able to rationalize a supply and demand imbalance given both the data and experience of successful communities, they are packing the numbers on the supply side to make their case appear more plausible. While tacitly admitting that the data and experience do not lend themselves to the notion of a supply-demand imbalance and thus, a “need” to kill animals (itself a logical and unethical fallacy even if true as will be discussed below), they argue that when calculating the number of animals in need of homes nationally, we must include all the animals living on the street as well, not just the ones being killed in shelters. When you include all the animals living on the street, they argue, pet overpopulation is real.
There are many flaws inherent in this argument as well, the first being that it introduces into the equation a whole category of animals who, while their well-being is important, are not relevant to the very specific discussion of shelter killing for the simple fact that they are not in shelters. In other words, while adding the number of animals in shelters combined with the number of animals living on the street would provide a statistic of how many animals in America might not have a human address, that number would not reflect how many animals are under an immediate death threat at their local shelter which is, after all, the killing pet overpopulation has always been used to justify. Nor does the existence of such animals impact the demand side of the equation which, as already explained, so vastly exceeds the supply of animals in shelters that it can even accommodate homes lost to commercially-sourced animals such as those from breeders and pet stores, as well as those adopted from the streets. In short, while expanding the supply side of the pet overpopulation argument in this way is an attempt to obscure and confuse the issue, it does not change the conclusion supported by both fact and experience: every year, there are more homes available than there are animals being killed in shelters.
Nor does the implied corollary to their argument stand up, either. Are those who make this argument implying that all free-living animals should be brought into shelters and therefore, if they were, pet overpopulation would in fact exist? That, after all, is the inference of their argument. First and most significantly, arguing that pet overpopulation would be real if all free-living animals were admitted to shelters is to introduce a hypothetical and irrelevant scenario into a discussion about a very real problem. For four million animals every year, shelter killing is a grave and immediate danger. To argue for the existence of the disproven but primary excuse used to justify that killing based not on what is happening but what might happen were all free-living animals to be admitted into shelters reduces a serious and weighty discussion to the realm of make believe.
A genuine commitment to animal welfare requires an honest assessment of reality and the genuine threats which animals entering shelters face. Admitting extraneous, unrelated issues into the discussion is an attempt not to illuminate, but to obscure. And analyzing the validity of historical claims used to justify the systematic killing of millions of animals should not be a sophomoric exercise in rhetoric or debate, but a serious discussion that seeks to inform and influence our positions and actions on behalf of animals in a responsible, thoughtful and fact-based way.
Moreover, those who advocate for animals should oppose any suggestion that animals on the streets would be better off in those places that present the greatest threat to their lives: the local animal shelter. Nor would loss of life, though the greatest harm, be the only one such animals would likely face if admitted to shelters. Although the animal protection movement has perpetuated the fiction that our nation’s shelters provide a humane and compassionate safety net of care for our nation’s homeless animals, the facts tell a very different, very tragic, story. In truth, the first time many companion animals experience neglect or abuse is when they enter a shelter.
As the movement to end shelter killing has grown in size and sophistication, the networking made possible through the internet and social media has allowed animal lovers to connect the dots between individual cases of animal cruelty and neglect in shelters nationwide. These incidents reveal a distinct pattern. Animal abuse at local shelters is not an isolated anomaly caused by “a few bad apples.” The stunning number and severity of these cases nationwide lead to one disturbing and inescapable conclusion: our shelters are in crisis. Frequently overseen by ineffective and incompetent directors who fail to hold their staff accountable to the most basic standards of humane care, animal shelters in this country are not the safe havens they should and can be. Instead, they are often poorly managed houses of horror, places where animals are denied basic medical care, food, water, socialization and are then killed, sometimes cruelly.
Until we reform our shelters, the last place an animal advocate should wish an animal to end up, including those animals who live on the streets, is the local shelter. Not only is life on the street safer than a stay in an animal shelter, but the very thing animal shelters are supposed to provide to homeless and stray animals—reunion with their home or adoption into a new one—are more likely to happen to an animal on the street than one entering a shelter. The likelihood of an animal being reunited with their human caretakers is greater for cats, for example, if they are allowed to remain where they are rather than being impounded. In one study, cats were 13 times more likely to be returned home by non-shelter means (such as returning home on their own) than through the pound. While another study found that people are up to three times more likely to adopt cats as neighborhood strays than from a shelter.
Nor is life outside a human home the tragedy it is so often painted to be by shelter killing apologists seeking to justify killing by falsely portraying the alternative as even worse. The risk of an untimely death for street cats is extremely low, with outdoor cats living roughly the same lifespan as indoor pet cats. In a study of over 100,000 free-living cats, less than one percent of those cats were suffering from debilitating conditions. In other words, the risk of death is lower and the chance of adoption higher for cats on the street than cats in the shelter. And in countries outside the U.S., neuter and release of dogs is not uncommon and regarded, as it should be, as an infinitely better alternative than impound and potential death.
Like pet overpopulation, the argument that animals are better off dead than living on the street flies in the face of actual evidence. And just as significant, it also flies in the face of our common experience as living beings who, if given the choice between death at a shelter and survival by our wit, instinct and the chance of benefiting from the kindness of strangers, would choose the latter without a moment’s hesitation. Not only would this choice be our natural impulse, the facts show it would be the smart one, too.
With shelter killing being the leading cause of death for healthy animals in America (and therefore the cause of the greatest possible harm to befall homeless animals), the No Kill movement is focused on bringing this very specific harm to an end. We do not need to keep killing shelter animals because there are other animals living on the street. That is a non sequitur that groups like PETA conveniently ignore when they perpetuate this false choice and fallacy in order to justify the killing of those they theoretically exist to protect.*
But even if we ignored the illogic, their argument also falls apart in the absence of any concrete data to support their case that when the number of animals living on the streets is factored into the supply side, pet overpopulation exists. No one knows for sure the number of animals living on the street. If those who continue to claim pet overpopulation is real because the number of animals exceeds demand for animals and that this supply-demand imbalance requires shelters to kill animals, the burden is on them to prove it: what is the supply side of the equation? When you are preaching death, when you are promoting death, when you are excusing death, and when—in the case of PETA and its supporters—you are paying for and actually doing the killing, the burden to prove its “necessity” is on you.** In short, one better know the supply side of the equation before using use an argument dependent upon it to justify a mass slaughter, and, predictably, just as is true with the traditional notion of pet overpopulation which they have perpetuated for decades, they do not.
Moreover, the best estimate (and it is still largely a guess) is that about 12 million cats and far fewer dogs are living on U.S. streets, parks, and alleyways. Of course, feral cats and in some inner cities feral dogs, make up some percentage of those animals and they are not homeless. The outdoors is their home and the same is true of friendly community cats, too: those cats who are not “feral” because they are tame, but are nonetheless cared for by a person or as is often the case several people, but—as recent studies from the veterinary community confirm—are in no way suffering because of it, as proponents of round up and kill campaigns like PETA and its adherents falsely claim.*** Nonetheless, when you remove “feral” cats and dogs from the total numbers, we’re still dealing with a figure that is less than total demand, so the math still does not hold up. Even so, as noted above, it is irrelevant. For those who do actually enter shelters—an estimated three million animals a year who are dying but for a home—there are plenty of homes available if, instead of killing them out of convenience, shelters better promoted the animals and then actually kept them alive long enough to find homes through comprehensive adoption campaigns.
ACCEPTED ON FAITH
So given that there is so much information and experience working against the notion of pet overpopulation and given that to believe in pet overpopulation is to condone the excuse that allows for the killing of four million animals every year, why do people who claim to be animal lovers not only to cling to it, but work so hard to maintain it or to try to revive its fading supremacy through rebranding? There are three primary reasons.
First, until very recently, pet overpopulation was an unquestioned gospel within the animal protection movement. Repeated ad infinitum within the animal protection community as means of explaining shelter killing and distinguishing it from other forms of killing by virtue of its “necessity,” (especially since this form of killing was being done by those who claimed to be a part of the animal protection movement itself) its prevalence and undisputed authority for so many decades gave it the appearance of truth rather than what it was all along: a mere hypothesis, and one that, when subjected to scrutiny and weighed against the evidence, collapses like a house of cards. Nonetheless, the universal acceptance of pet overpopulation that dominated the animal protection movement at one time–a groupthink mentality that accepted it as an a priori truth outside the bounds of investigation or analysis—meant that to ultimately question its precepts was regarded as heresy, opening up those who exposed its fallacies to condemnation, scorn and allegations of fraud.
The motives of those who seek to expose the lie at the heart of the killing, the myth of pet overpopulation, have been maligned and misrepresented, creating a climate of suspicion within the animal protection movement not only about those who question the doctrine, but the very act of questioning it at all. Why? Because if pet overpopulation is a myth, then the killing being done in shelters is immoral, and those who do that killing—friends and colleagues within the animal protection community itself—are behaving unethically and irresponsibly towards animals, a troubling and deeply unsettling conclusion that for many people within the animal protection community is better left unreached. Sadly, for many people who know and support organizations and individuals doing the killing or which provide it political cover, such allegiance is more important than the lives of the animals they are supposed to represent. To them, pet overpopulation, the historical narrative which has shielded those people from accountability, must not be exposed as a lie, and anyone who tries to do so is the enemy.****
SPAY/NEUTER: A FALSE IDOL
The second—and probably more ubiquitous—reason that some animal activists are resistant to the idea that pet overpopulation is a myth is because they irrationally fear that if the public finds out the truth, the public will no longer spay/neuter their animals, which they continue to view as critically important. Why do they believe sterilization is so critically important? Because, like the pet overpopulation, they have been told over and over again, and for years on end, that it is.
In fact, spay/neuter has been the cornerstone of companion animal advocacy for decades. Why? Because it does not threaten those running shelters. Whereas the other programs of the No Kill Equation such as foster care, comprehensive adoption programs and proactive redemptions which are vitally important—even more essential—to saving lives than spay/neuter place the responsibility for lifesaving on the shelter; spay and neuter places the responsibility on the public. And, therefore, unlike those other programs, spay and neuter has been and continues to be the one program of the No Kill Equation to which every shelter director and every large national group pays homage. And that is also why so many animal activists argue, as they have they have been schooled to do and despite no evidence to prove it, that spay and neuter alone is the key to ending the killing. But is it true? In fact, it is not.
Yes, spay and neuter is important. It is program of the No Kill Equation and I, along with other No Kill advocates, promote it. Because even though pet overpopulation is a myth, continued promotion and availability of high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter is a means to reach stasis in shelters where adoptions equal intakes, making the achievement of a No Kill nation even easier to achieve. This is important because the lower the intake, the easier it is for even unmotivated, ineffective and uncaring directors (in short, your average kill shelter director) to run a No Kill shelter. In other words, we want to eliminate those communities with high intake rates (like Washoe County) needing thoroughly committed and hardworking leadership to stop killing. Moreover, if spay/neuter allows a community to drop intakes significantly enough that they are unable to meet adoption demand, they can begin importing animals from high-kill rate jurisdictions and save those lives, too. Until all communities are No Kill communities, this is a very good thing to have happen.
But despite the role spay and neuter plays in helping a community more easily achieve and sustain No Kill, the fact remains that despite the privileged position spay/neuter has historically enjoyed within the animal protection movement, it alone has never—never—created a single No Kill community. In fact, communities with very high per capita intake rates have achieved No Kill without a comprehensive public spay/neuter program. We cannot neuter our way out of killing and no U.S. community ever has. That honor belongs to the No Kill Equation as a whole, a series of programs and services which require a shelter to harness a community’s compassion and which therefore also prove that in order to succeed, a shelter must embrace rather than alienate the people it serves.
The No Kill philosophy recognizes that far from being the cause of shelter killing, the community is the key to ending it. It recognizes that while some people are irresponsible, most people are trustworthy and will do right by companion animals if we explain how they can do so. To the extent that spay and neuter is one of the programs that helps a shelter more easily achieve No Kill, that positive outcome is enough to encourage most people to do right not just by the animals, but by the shelter which shares their values and which they want to support and enable in its success. We need not fear monger with pet overpopulation and by extension, the threat that we will kill animals—or even actually kill animals—to get people to do the right thing. When we make it easy for them to do so—such as making spay/neuter affordable—they will. And studies and experience prove it.
Finally, believing that spay/neuter alone holds the key to ending the killing fails to recognize the most essential and tragic truth about animal sheltering in America today: we already have alternatives to killing, alternatives that the vast majority of shelter directors simply refuse to implement. And how can you save animals in a shelter run by a director who simply refuses to stop killing? Moreover, lamenting that we would be finally able to end the killing if only everyone sterilized their animals or could be forced to do so is like wishing that a historically popular but ineffective remedy for a particular disease would work when a cure has already been found. Not only does such an attitude perpetuate ignorance and helplessness by failing to acknowledge a genuine solution that already exists, but it siphons energy that should be directed towards implementing the real remedy into mourning the failure of a hopeless one. How does that help animals?
It doesn’t. Indeed, the notion that we must continue to promote the myth of pet overpopulation—which condones and enables killing—in order to encourage people to spay and neuter—which has only ever been important because it is a means to prevent killing—is an inversion of priorities. It is to encourage the disease and forsake the cure, in favor of the medicine.
Every animal lover has a responsibility to recognize that we don’t need to figure out how to end the killing anymore. It is no longer a mystery—the No Kill Equation provides the answer. Our job now is to make sure the roadmap we already have is implemented in every shelter in America.
PET OVERPOPULATION AS POLITICAL COVER
The third and final reason that people cling to the myth of pet overpopulation is because they have a vested interested in killing. This includes directors who run poorly performing shelters. It includes government bureaucrats in these communities who are supposed to oversee these shelter directors but refuse to hold them accountable. It includes national organizations like the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA and PETA whose companion animal divisions are staffed with former shelter directors and employees who themselves failed to save lives when they worked in shelters and are therefore not only threatened by No Kill success, but are committed to shielding their friends and colleagues still working in shelters from greater accountability. It includes the supporters of those groups whose identity is so wrapped up in that support that they not only reject any criticism of the groups no matter what the evidence, but take such criticisms as a personal affront, thus willfully enabling killing through an unhealthy, codependent relationship that puts their own narrow self-interest before the lives and well-being of animals. And lastly, it includes the heads of organizations who claim to support No Kill, even claim to be striving toward No Kill, but who rely on the myth of pet overpopulation to justify their five and ten year No Kill plans in light of communities which have achieved it virtually overnight.
For such groups, pet overpopulation is a tool used to distinguish their community from those that are already successful, a means of obscuring the truth by portraying their community as more challenging than those that have already succeeded, even though, in truth, the thing that sets successful communities apart from theirs is a greater commitment to implement alternatives to killing and a greater determination to overcome the resistance of those who stood in the way.
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
But let’s ignore all the reasons why pet overpopulation is in fact a myth and all the reasons why people who claim to love animals so vehemently defend it. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that “pet overpopulation” is real. Does that change the ethical calculus? It does not. Shelter killing would still be immoral. Advancing a practical over an ethical argument has long been the safe haven for those who want to justify untoward practices. Even accepting the sincerity of the claim, even if the practical calculus was correct, protecting life that is not suffering is a timeless and absolute principle upon which responsible advocates must tailor their practices.
Indeed, the underpinning of the No Kill movement is that it goes beyond what is commonly assumed to be a practical necessity. It is, first and foremost, a movement of beliefs, of morality and ethics, of what our vision of compassion is now and for the future. Its success is a result of the philosophy dictating our actions and thereby prompting us to do better; to embrace more progressive, life-affirming methods of sheltering. Before many of us within the No Kill movement felt comfortable with the answer to questions of whether or not “feral” cats suffered on the street and whether or not No Kill was possible, we had already rejected mass killing. We had rejected practical explanations based on a “too many animals, not enough homes” calculus, or that a humane death was preferable to potential future suffering. Even though early in the No Kill movement’s history, though the practical alternative of the No Kill Equation was yet unknown, the movement still recognized that whatever practical explanations there were to “justify” it, the killing was still wrong and must be rejected.*****
No Kill is, at its core, about the rights of, and responsibilities we have to individual animals. This tenet is summarized by one of the Guiding Principles of the U.S. No Kill Declaration:
Every animal in a shelter receives individual consideration, regardless of how many animals a shelter takes in, or whether such animals are healthy, underaged, elderly, sick, injured, traumatized, or feral.
More often, however, the practical calculus is wrong and at least historically, has been used to excuse atrocities. Ethics will always trump the practical and the two are seldom so inexorably linked that an untoward action must follow some fixed practical imperative. Every action taken by animal advocates must be subservient to preserving life, a principle that not only puts our movement in line and on par with the successful rights-based movements that have come before ours, but is a philosophy that fosters the motivation necessary for us to figure out how we can bring our aspirations into reality. That is the job and duty of the animal protection movement, not—as it has historically done—justifying or enabling the killing of animals.
We can end the killing and we can do it today. And in roughly 300 cities and towns across America, we’ve done exactly that. That is the good news that comes from the understanding that “pet overpopulation” doesn’t exist. It means the killing is not a “necessary” evil. It is, quite simply, evil. It means animals don’t have to die as we have been told for so long.
If you truly love animals, if you are a person who claims to be their advocate, you do not respond to that news with indignation, scorn, anger, apoplexy, by shooting the messenger or by attempting to obscure the issue for others with irrelevant and unrelated tangents. You celebrate, and then you share that good news with everyone you know who loves animals, too, so that the pernicious and persistent myth at the heart of the killing—the lie that is responsible for violent atrocities against millions of animals every year—will finally die. Anything else is unethical. It is enabling shelter killing. And it is turning a blind eye to a solution that will spare millions of animals from losing the one thing that is, as is true for each of us, more precious to them than anything else: their lives.
* They also ignore the fact that PETA believes those animals should be killed, too, even if they are not suffering. In the last 11 years, PETA has killed 29,426 animals, including those they themselves have called “healthy,” “adoptable,” “adorable,” and “perfect” and even after promising that they would find the animals a home. They do not have adoption hours, they do not have an adoption floor, they do not market their animals, and most are killed within 24 hours. They have called for the automatic killing of all dogs who look like “pit bulls” in shelters. They have called for the round up and killing of even healthy feral cats. They have defended poorly performing and even violently abusive shelters. And they fight shelter reform legislation to mandate the common sense programs of the No Kill Equation, such as TNR and rescue rights. Whatever methods PETA uses to justify shelter killing should be approached with the understanding that PETA is motivated by a very different set of priorities than the vast majority of people, and a set of priorities that are in fact the opposite of that which is generally ascribed to them given their name and reputation. Although they try to obscure their true agenda by working to convince their supporters and animal lovers that they believe killing is a regrettable necessity, in truth, their more candid statements and most significantly, their actions, reveal that those who work at PETA believe that life is suffering, the living want to die and killing them is, as Ingrid Newkirk herself stated, a “gift.”
** Although, in truth and from an animal rights perspective, there is no information or practical argument in defense of shelter killing that supersedes every animals’ inherent rights, chief among them the right to live.
*** It is never ethical to kill an individual animal based on a group dynamic. Even if it could be proven that most free-living cats die prematurely due to disease or injury (which is by no means true, but postulated for the sake of argument), it would still be unethical to kill any individual cat because not only do that cat’s inherent rights ethically prohibit it, but there is no way to know if that particular cat will ever succumb to such a fate, let alone when. In fact, even if it was known that a particular cat would get hit by a car two years from now, it isn’t ethical to rob him of those two years by killing him now. Furthermore, those are not the facts; free-living cats are not disproportionately suffering. In fact, the largest study of “feral” cats conducted in the U.S. showed baselines of health and longevity almost identical to pet cats.
**** Because of my efforts to expose the lie of pet overpopulation, I have been maligned and repeatedly misrepresented in a variety of ways. Rumors about me abound, stating that I do not represent the animals, but industries that harm them. One of the most pervasive lies about me is that I am a front for puppy mills—an entirely baseless accusation intended to scare animal lovers away from listening to what I have to say. Puppy mills cause horrible animal suffering and death—two things I have committed my life to opposing. I support laws banning the sale of purposely bred animals from pet stores. I’ve written articles and held workshops on closing down puppy mills. I do not get money from groups that oppose the rights of animals. And regardless of why animals are being killed, they are being killed, and as long as they are, I believe that it is incumbent on everyone seeking to bring an animal into their life to either rescue or adopt from a shelter. In short, adoption and rescue are ethical imperatives.
***** Indeed, the very fact that the myth of pet overpopulation to rationalize the killing and the euphemisms used to describe it such as “euthaniasia,” putting them to sleep,” and “humane death” came into existence are proof that even those doing the killing understood that it was so perverse it needed masking, an artifice to shield its ugly reality from the public.
About the data: When I wrote Redemption in 2007, I was very conservative. HSUS’ own numbers prove that the number of people who will bring a new animal into their home far exceeds the number being killed in shelters but for a home. And HSUS is not alone. The data for this analysis came from a number of sources, including national surveys done by Maddie’s Fund, HSUS, Mintel, and Petsmart Charities. It includes data from shelters that have statewide reporting such as Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina and California, among others, and a database of about 1,100 organizations, almost one-third of the U.S. shelter total.
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February 15, 2013 by Nathan J. Winograd
Welcome Huffington Post readers!
It may come as a shock to those who follow me on Facebook that I was a reluctant convert to the social media. Although I now consider the time I spend monitoring my page and personally responding to comments to be well worth the effort, there was a time when I was conflicted as to whether or not I should join. I am a rather private person by nature, and that, combined with my belief that the No Kill movement should first and foremost be a movement of ideals and not of personalities all added to my reluctance. But the more I researched the issue, the more I understood the value of having such a wide-reaching, democratic tool to not only educate people about the No Kill movement, but to personally respond to many of the myths and misperceptions that exist about the movement, too. What I didn’t anticipate was the window it would give me into how I am often misperceived, as well.
It has become a pattern that whenever I post a blog about PETA’s killing, or how the ASPCA or the Humane Society of the United States have betrayed the cause they theoretically exist to promote, individuals uninformed about the No Kill movement or my history within it will respond to what is often shocking news about groups they have historically admired by questioning my motives and my allegiances. Often, these accusations are no doubt the result of a brief internet search of my name, searches that turn up fabrications about who I am, what I am trying to accomplish, and whose interests I really represent. I have been associated with industries and interest groups that harm animals, such as the meat industry and the Center for Consumer Freedom. I have been accused of being in league with breeders, such as the American Kennel Club. Self-identified animal “activists” have responded to my reports about PETA killing animals, or condemning HSUS’ sordid role in the Michael Vick case, by accusing me of trying to destroy the animal rights movement or not caring about animals beyond cats and dogs. To my bewilderment, I have even been accused of hating rabbits and deaf animals. I am grateful to have the opportunity through the social media to set the record straight. For in every way except the truth, those who oppose No Kill have a competitive advantage.
The organizations I criticize are large. They are powerful and well-known to many people. Their public image, often so at odds with the practices in which they engage behind closed doors, such as PETA’s deliberate poisoning of thousands of animals every year or the ASPCA and HSUS’ efforts to derail progressive shelter reform legislation in states across the country, shields them from accountability. The No Kill movement is relatively new, the traditional sheltering establishment and the national organizations that provide them political cover are just that: established. They are old organizations with pedigreed names and reputations while the No Kill movement and my organization, the No Kill Advocacy Center are, by comparison, relatively young. Basic human nature tends to jealously guard the familiar and the status quo, and so when it comes to winning the battle of the first impression, I face an uphill battle. People, upon first encountering news regarding the true nature of our nation’s animal protection organizations, are inclined to assign the groups I criticize the benefit of the doubt, and me, the burden of it.
Although most of the comments on my Facebook page come from No Kill supporters who share my heartbreak and dissatisfaction with the state of our nation’s shelters and the leadership of the large, national groups that enable their abuse and killing, there are enough comments of a particular nature from incredulous people who have never encountered me or the No Kill message before to warrant a response. To those who read my Facebook posts and blogs for the first time and become so upset that—rather than research, accept as verifiable facts and then assimilate the information I report as a true commitment to the well-being of animals demands—choose instead to shoot the messenger, I would like to answer the charge either stated or so often implied by their hostile comments: Just who in the hell do I think I am?
I want to answer this question because although, as I stated, the No Kill movement should be first and foremost a movement of ideals and not of personalities, there are too many people who find solace in dismissing the No Kill message based on misinformation about me that my duty to the animals demands clarification. Although, in the end, it should not matter who is right, but what is right, and although an idea should be judged not by the person who is delivering the message but by its own merits, that, sadly, is not the way some humans are inclined to work. Too often, people seeking to be lulled back into a complacency that does not threaten their view of the animal protection movement and organizations and individuals they have historically lionized seize on criticisms of me as justification to dismiss the message I advocate. I don’t want that. I don’t want lies about me to get in the way of the needs of animals. Nor do I need to accept it, either, because I am not and never have been what my detractors claim I am.
For although I and the message I advocate may be new to many people, I am not new to the animal rights movement, and have, in fact, been active in it for the past 20 years. How it is I came to be the most vocal and outspoken critic of its hypocrisy is the result of my experiences within the movement, experiences that left me no choice but to publicly expose the groups for what they repeatedly demonstrated to me over and over again they really were. If some people are disinclined to believe what I report about PETA, HSUS or the ASPCA, are inclined to believe rumors that they have heard that I am a front for animal abusers or that I seek to destroy the animal protection movement, here is my story, the back story that places my efforts into an historical context. It is my hope that by recounting my journey in the animal protection movement, they will gain a perspective that not only leads them to view my opposition to the national groups as they now exist as not only understandable, but morally obligatory as well.
From a 1993 article in Parade magazine, on the emerging field of animal law.
The Early Years
When I arrived at Stanford Law School in 1991, I was already a vegan, a long time rescuer and TNR advocate. I knew that when I graduated, I wanted to devote my life to helping animals through the law. It was, in fact, the reason I went to law school. Anxious to begin furthering the cause of animal rights even as a student, I founded a campus animal rights group, the Stanford Animal Protection and Education Society, or Stanford APES for short. We leafleted in the quad, urging other students to embrace a more humane diet. We leafleted in front of zoos and aquariums, urging patrons to oppose animals kept in captivity. And we were a thorn in the side of the vivisectors at Stanford, exposing not only the cruel experiments that were taking place there, but the deplorable housing conditions for the animals as well. We requested, researched then publicly exposed damning USDA inspection reports of Stanford animal research facilities to the faculty and media.
I also served on the Board of Directors of the No Kill Palo Alto Humane Society, helped found CatWorks, an organization that provided care for 2,000 feral cats across the Bay Area, worked with the National Greyhound Protection League not only to end the scourge of greyhound racing, but to find homes for retired greyhounds, and I was a member of the Stanford Cat Network, a group of Stanford advocates who cared for the free-living cats on campus, cats and their offspring who had been abandoned by the transient student population. It was through this affiliation that I was first introduced to the dysfunction of the animal protection movement itself, and, by extension, the cause that would come to define my efforts on behalf of animals for the next two decades. When Stanford announced plans to round up and kill the cats living on the campus and cat lovers turned to the local Santa Clara Humane Society and then HSUS for help, these groups supported Stanford’s extermination campaign. They agreed that killing the cats was the right thing to do, and urged the school to trap the animals and inject them with a fatal dose of poison. That these groups would advocate such a position stunned me. I didn’t understand. Little did I know that this was the first of many, many times I would be bewildered, shell-shocked in fact, by the pro-killing positions that groups which claimed to be the leading voice for animal protection in the nation would take, over and over again.
My work with the Cat Network introduced me to the No Kill movement, and by extension, the San Francisco SPCA. Just 30 miles from the Stanford campus, the San Francisco SPCA was, at that time, the leading voice of the No Kill movement and I wanted to be a part of its success. Although I was also a full time law student, I took a job working in its Law and Advocacy Department. It was my job to defend the animals being threatened with killing within San Francisco’s borders, to expand the safety net so we could save more, and to promote the new and innovative programs the San Francisco SPCA was creating, programs that were transforming San Francisco into the safest community for homeless animals in America—which, paradoxically, made it the target of criticism by local shelters and, once again the large, national animal protection organizations, too.
As an animal lover and animal rights advocate, my experiences working at the SF/SPCA were life altering. I felt privileged to be witnessing history in the making, to be a part of an organization that was redefining animal sheltering and that was successfully tackling one of the many ways in which animals were losing their lives by the millions in America. I understood that the SF/SPCA was starting a revolution, and I was honored to be a part of it. But few others within the larger animal protection movement at that time grasped or appreciated its seminal achievements. Rather than celebrate the SF/ SPCA’s lifesaving success, virtually every animal protection group either ignored it or openly condemned it. They criticized each program the SF/SPCA experimented with that provided an alternative to killing, programs that have since moved beyond controversy, calling TNR “subsidized abandonment,” calling offsite adoption venues “sidewalk giveaways,” calling foster care “a sham that delayed killing,” and calling No Kill itself “smoke and mirrors.” The leaders of the large national groups such as the ASPCA and HSUS argued that any talk of saving the lives of animals in shelters was pure nonsense, that “the only solution” to animals in shelters “is the blue solution,” referring to the blue color of the barbiturate, sodium pentobarbital, that shelters use to kill animals. HSUS sought to undermine the spread of the SF/SPCA model by publishing false and misleading information about the SF/SPCA in its national publications, information they refused to retract when confronted with their misinformation and asked by SF/SPCA leadership to do so. Local Bay Area humane societies, likewise threatened by the success of the SF/SPCA, also mercilessly attacked it for saving, rather than ending lives, suggesting that the SF/SPCA was lying about its success, calling it derelict in its duties for refusing to kill, and vowing to prevent what was happening in San Francisco from spreading to their community.
To say that these experiences left me disillusioned with the animal protection movement would be an understatement. But it was nothing compared to the shock I experienced when I learned that not only did the group that up until that point I had naively revered as the most stalwart defender of animal rights in the nation, PETA, share these disturbing views, but was, in fact, its most vocal and outspoken mouthpiece. During the first of two summers I would serve as the law student intern for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, I would learn this lesson up close and personal.
With an office located in the greater Washington, D.C. metro area, the ALDF office where I worked was not far from PETA headquarters. My roommate, in fact, was a former PETA employee, a member of PETA’s inner circle, someone who spearheaded the campaign against Revlon’s animal testing that would introduce millions of Americans to the ugly LD50 test and put PETA on the national map. She was also a close acquaintance, if not personal friend, of Ingrid Newkirk, the founder and President of PETA. Together, we would volunteer at PETA one night a week, stuffing envelopes for mailings (she leading the volunteers; me stuffing envelopes with the others).
One day, she rescued a dog we named Ray. He was a wonderful dog, a young and healthy German Shepherd, with a playful disposition. When I suggested that we take Ray to PETA, certain that with their vast resources and ability to communicate with hundreds of thousands of animal lovers nationwide that they could easily find Ray a new and loving home, she explained that that was a bad idea because Newkirk would kill him. Come again? Did I hear her right?
And that is when she explained to me what had been going on within PETA at that point for many years already—activities that for the next 20 years I would watch continue unabated. She explained that PETA routinely killed the animals that are brought to them, and equally egregious and perhaps even more disturbing in the blood thirst it revealed, that PETA also actively sought out animals to kill, thousands of them every year.
Another bombshell to my innocence, another piece of information that helped me to more fully grasp the level of dysfunction and perversion within the animal protection movement, for I learned then and was to discover in the coming years that not only does PETA kill animals, but that they advocate for the immediate destruction of all feral cats and dogs who looked like Pit Bulls, too. I learned that Newkirk considers life suffering, that animals want to die and that to kill them is to give them, in her own words, “a gift.” I learned that she does not believe that animals have a right to live (once sending me a postcard which read, “We do not advocate right to life for animals”) even though the right to live is in fact the most basic and fundamental right of every animal and serves as the basis for the entire animal rights philosophy.
I learned that she recruits legions of activists to her insidious cause, people who drive around the Eastern seaboard in donor-funded vans, acquiring animals from various sources—free to good home ads, rescue groups uninformed of their real agenda, and animals displaced by natural disaster—only to kill some of those animals immediately in the back of those vans, stocked to the hilt with tackle boxes full of bottles of poison, syringes to inject that poison into animals, and garbage bags to hold their corpses after they take their last breath. I learned that animals who are not killed on the road are taken back to PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia where they are killed, their furry bodies then stacked high in a freezer PETA has installed for this very purpose—a place to store the piles of dead bodies they accumulate between donor-funded visits from the renderer who takes their bodies away for incineration.
I learned that dogs and cats weren’t the only animals to fall victim to PETA, that they killed wild animals, chickens, and rabbits, too. Indeed, in their thirst to kill, PETA employees do not discriminate on the basis of species, that for all their talk about the veganism they would not hesitate to kill a chicken if they had the opportunity to do so.
And I learned that killing animals themselves was not the only way PETA sought to end their lives; they encouraged others to kill them, too. When I approached Georgetown University about starting a TNR program modeled on Stanford’s, they refused, indicating that PETA—urging them to reject TNR—gave them their blessing and encouragement to kill. In the end, PETA succeeded in having the cats rounded up and killed, a move that resulted in cat lovers finding neonatal kittens left to slowly starve to death throughout the campus after their mothers had been trapped and taken away. And I would spend the next 20 years watching PETA repeatedly come to the defense of regressive, cruel shelters under attack by No Kill reformers, watch PETA track No Kill reform efforts nationwide, efforts they would try to undermine with local letters to the editor and to political bodies which were debating shelter reform efforts, letters that equated No Kill with hoarding and animal suffering and which called No Kill reformers “fanatics,” urging them to oppose lifesaving measures in favor of the status quo of killing.
To find that what I had believed PETA represented was in fact the opposite of how it behaved was a bitter pill to swallow. It not only broke my heart, it filled me with anger and resolve. What choice was there but to refuse to tolerate such treatment of animals? What response was there but to reject such perversion, to speak out against it, to try to bring such a cruel and deliberate slaughter of innocent animals to an end? That, after all, was why I became involved in animal rights in the first place: to protect animals, regardless of the context in which they were exploited and killed and irrespective of who it was that was doing the killing. But I was to learn another sad truth that summer, and that was that in my condemnation of PETA, I was in the smallest minority.
I learned that the truth about PETA was common knowledge among those who worked in the animal rights movement. I learned that the leader of every other self-professed “animal rights” group knew what was really going on at PETA, but never spoke out against it or against Ingrid Newkirk herself. In fact, they took Newkirk’s telephone calls, they would shake Newkirk’s hand when they met her and they would all make excuses for her, granting her absolution to kill with the tortured logic that since she had seen so much animal suffering she should be allowed to kill animals herself. In other words, that her efforts to protect animals had earned her the right to harm them. These people, who worked in jobs that were supposed to eliminate animal killing, condoned and enabled it simply because they knew the person doing it, even going so far as to celebrate Newkirk by inducting her into the “Animal Rights Hall of Fame.” In the early 1990s, this attitude towards PETA’s killing was held by virtually everyone I met who worked in or volunteered at an animal rights group, with rare exception. One of those rare exceptions was the woman I would eventually marry, my wife of 17 years, Jennifer.
Jennifer worked at the ALDF main office near San Francisco, and as the D.C. office’s law student intern, I had spoken to her on the telephone several times. But it was not until a meeting of a small, grassroots group we both joined to defeat two pieces of deadly anti-cat legislation pending in the California State Assembly that we first met face to face: A law introduced at the behest of Wayne Pacelle’s Fund for Animals, an organization that has since merged with Pacelle’s HSUS, which would have authorized the round up and killing of homeless cats. And another, introduced with the support of Pacelle’s organization, which gave animal control officers the power to kill cats immediately in the field if they did not have proof of a rabies vaccination. Since cats can’t provide this information themselves and many do not wear a collar and rabies tag, the law would have led to a bloodbath of feral cats, of pet cats, of any cat an animal control officer found outdoors without a rabies tag. Determined to protect cats by defeating these deadly bills, a small group of us banded together to successfully fight them, a group which included Jennifer, who not only did cat rescue in her spare time, but volunteered at the San Francisco SPCA, too. A vegan, an animal rights advocate and No Kill supporter just like me, we hit it off immediately, and have been together ever since.
When I met Jennifer, she had been working for ALDF for several years. Prior to that, she had worked at In Defense of Animals, and not long after we met, she also went to work, though briefly, for Farm Sanctuary, primarily as an investigator. I, too, would later do work for Farm Sanctuary, as a volunteer pro bono attorney. Although we recognize that our prior involvement with well-known animal rights groups would establish our connection to the animal rights movement and thereby help to dispel some of the criticism and conspiracy that we are “outsiders” trying to undermine animal rights, the truth is we rarely mention these groups or our historical association with them for a reason. They, like virtually every other self-professed animal rights group in the nation, have ignored the plight of animals in shelters, failed to celebrate the No Kill model, and have continued to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by animal shelters across the nation and by PETA.
Although our early history in this cause clearly demonstrates that we come to No Kill not as breeders,* as shills for the meat industry or any interest group which represents those who harm animals but, rather through the cause of animal rights itself, we do not wish to be associated with groups that do not embrace an authentic animal rights agenda—one that includes rights for companion animals, too. Sadly, though our once personal association with these groups has meant that their failure to champion No Kill or to speak out against PETA’s atrocities has been particularly disappointing, in truth their failure to do so is not surprising. It is, in fact, the norm among animal rights groups, a tragic and paradoxical position born of the nature of the founding of the animal rights movement itself.
The Animal Rights Movement’s Original Sin
Like Ingrid Newkirk who, prior to founding PETA, had a job killing animals at the Washington Humane Society, many of the founders and employees working at our nation’s animal rights organizations came to animal rights by way of sheltering. This meant that they not only brought to the cause the historical excuses used to justify the killing of animals in shelters, but having had many animals die at their very hands, they needed a way to justify such behavior in light of their competing beliefs. To champion a cause that claims that animals have rights while at the same time having killed thousands of animals themselves required them to adopt an inconsistent philosophy to reconcile what in reality are diametrically opposing values. This view became firmly cemented within the animal rights movement when other animal right leaders, deferring to the “expertise” of their friends and colleagues who had worked in shelters, bought into the rationalizations and failed to challenge them. And so a deadly philosophical dichotomy emerged within the animal rights movement: one that held that all animals have a right to life, except those who enter shelters. This killing, it was argued, was necessary where the other kinds were not and those doing the killing were not to blame, but rather unsung heroes courageously performing the public’s dirty work; or, in Newkirk’s words, “Dark Angels.”
In fact, to this day, efforts that focus on dogs and cats are often viewed with disdain in the animal rights movement and somehow “less animal rights” than other issues. Many animal rights activists erroneously believe the thousands of shelters across this country are in fact meeting the needs of these animals who therefore require no further advocacy or attention on their part when nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is shelter killing the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the United States, but our shelters are in crisis, plagued with animal abuse and neglect as well. But few in the animal rights movement are aware of these tragic facts because the people and organizations they trust to keep them informed about important issues affecting animals refuse to do so when the victims are not on farms or in laboratories, but inside our nation’s animal shelters.
Today, healthy debate within the animal rights movement is discouraged in favor of “movement unity” and deference to the agendas promoted by large, powerful organizations. It is a top-heavy movement—and therefore intolerant of dissent, suspicious of change and prone to censorship (just try to get a vegan cookbook critical of PETA reviewed by VegNews or popular vegan bloggers, they won’t do it in deference to PETA and its killing agenda.) While many animal rights activists, lacking a sophisticated understanding of the pressing need for No Kill reform, underestimate and dismiss the cause as a mere “animal welfare” issue, leadership of animal rights organizations are not so naive and are far more calculating. They willfully ignore the No Kill movement and fail to champion its more widespread implementation precisely because it challenges the historical narrative and those who have perpetuated it that has explained and condoned shelter killing since the movement’s inception. In the animal rights movement today, innovations that threaten the prevailing paradigm and those in power are rejected in favor of the status quo.
Consequently, there is no mention of No Kill in the newsletters of large animal rights organizations. It is unlikely to be found on their websites, on their Facebook pages, or any of the other ways these organizations regularly communicate with their members or the grassroots, except—in the case of PETA—to denigrate it. Likewise, because the guidelines of animal rights conferences mandate that speakers not criticize other animal protection organizations—even when doing so is required to expose their actions which harm animals and deny them their rights—No Kill advocates are under a gag order that prevents them from sharing the true causes of shelter killing as well as its proven cure—rejecting old philosophies and those who embody them. Within the animal rights community today, it is not what is right that matters, but who is right—even when they are clearly wrong. As a result, many animal rights activists continue to parrot the charade that the killing of innocent dogs and cats is acceptable, consistent with their beliefs that one should never kill pigs, cows or chickens.
This conspiracy of silence combined with an historical embrace of both the excuses used to rationalize the killing and those who promote them have coalesced to render the No Kill movement essentially invisible to most animal rights activists, except when it is being bashed and misrepresented by PETA. The so-called leaders of the animal rights movement keep grassroots activists ignorant and impotent, denying them the information necessary to see through PETA’s nefarious agenda and the tools they could use to assure lifesaving success at the shelters in their own communities. That is why, although the No Kill movement is having tremendous success tackling one the ways in which millions of animals lose their lives in this country every year, most animal rights activists are unaware of this success. It is why, though savvy No Kill advocates understand that pet overpopulation is in fact a myth, open-admission animal control facilities now exist throughout the nation, and that there is proven cure to shelter killing, many animal rights activists do not.
Indeed, although most animal rights activists consider themselves on the cutting edge of animal protection, when it comes to companion animals, they are, in truth, regressive, perpetuating antiquated and disproven dogmas that defend and enable, rather than challenge, the wholesale slaughter of certain species of animals. And it is also why, when they encounter me and my message for the first time, they so often respond with incredulity, disdain and personal attacks.
I am often called divisive, unreasonable, and a liar. I am accused of being a shill for puppy mills and agribusiness. Ingrid Newkirk has accused me of being out to destroy the animal rights movement. One of the most common criticisms I hear is that we are all a part of the same cause, should work together, and best serve the animals by getting along rather than fighting. In fact, whenever No Kill advocates expose the many ways in which HSUS, the ASPCA or PETA undermine efforts to save lives, betray the mission they ostensibly exist to promote, kill or cause animals to be killed, there are invariably those who come to their defense by stating that these organizations should not be criticized because they “do so much good for animals.” It is a tragically commonplace argument, but no less indefensible because of it. In effect, they are arguing that because some of the money donated to these organizations may actually be used for its intended purpose, that they have earned the right to cause harm to other animals themselves—terrible, irreversible, life-ending harm.
The fact that those who most commonly make these arguments are people who support these organizations because of their professed missions and would therefore likely self-identify as “animal lovers” is as troubling and paradoxical as the argument itself. Sadly, for such people, a misplaced trust and need to identify with such groups or the people who work at them at some point became more important than the professed values that presumably led them to support these organizations in the first place. The ideals that animals have rights and interests independent of humans—including the right to be free of suffering and the right to live—are casually discarded so long as those causing the suffering or death are self-proclaimed members of the animal protection movement.
Indeed, this argument is problematic precisely because it promotes the harmful idea that under the right circumstances, animal abuse or killing are acceptable. That is, as long as the harm is being done by the right people or balanced by a counterweight of good, there is no harm that is in and of itself inherently wrong or unacceptable, effectively eviscerating the philosophical foundation of the cause. Moreover, by arguing that we should ignore or overlook certain forms of animal abuse or killing as “payment” for some perceived “good,” the door is opened to condone all manner of animal cruelty and exploitation. By this same logic, were a slaughterhouse owner to donate a percentage of his profits to a vegan advocacy organization, or a dog fighter to donate some of his winnings to a companion animal rescue group, the killing and cruelty they inflict upon animals would therefore be rendered acceptable, the harm being cancelled out by the good. Though an obvious absurdity, time and again self-professed animal lovers and animal rights activists postulate this exact scenario, but in the reverse.
And not only does this argument capriciously surrender the welfare of animals and the principles which should guide all advocacy on their behalf, but it also hinders the cause by setting the bar for these organizations at a dismally low—in fact, counterproductive—level. In condoning behavior that is the antithesis of the cause such organizations are supposed to be advocating, this argument promotes the defeatist mentality that we have no right to expect or demand that our animal protection organizations be what they claim to be in practice as well as rhetoric, when of course we absolutely do. For although those who make this argument seemingly lack the vision or passion for the cause necessary to imagine a future in which animal protection organizations are authentic and unadulterated forces for good, we do not need to accept nor tolerate some harm of animals in one sphere in order to promote their well-being in another.
The corruption at these organizations is neither inherent, nor inevitable. It has been fostered by various historical, financial and sociological factors that the leadership of these groups would be forced to address and overcome if animal lovers stopped making excuses for the betrayals and funding them with their donations. Some animal suffering and some animal killing are not and never have been the price we must pay to end other animal suffering and killing. In fact, as the faulty logic of that statement clearly demonstrates, to believe so is to surrender to a self-defeating, hopeless tautology that can never succeed in eliminating that which it also perpetuates. Indeed, how can a rights-based movement ever hope to win the rights that the very people leading the cause have admitted they do not believe in and even actively oppose? How can the animal rights movement in its current manifestation claim to authentically speak for animals when it is advocating the opposite of what some animals could say if they could speak for themselves?
Moreover, the criticism that No Kill advocates should never speak out against those in position of power misses the mark for other reasons as well. Such comments are deeply misinformed about the level of abuse—the slanders and ad hominem attacks—No Kill advocates have suffered at the hands of the large national animal protection groups for nearly 20 years, a hostility I have personally witnessed and been the recipient of again and again. PETA calls No Kill advocates “dangerous,” “fanatics,” and “slow kill hoarders.” The ASPCA says we are “hoarders” and “dog fighters” in disguise. And HSUS says we are “crazy,” “mean-spirited,” and “divisive.” Sadly, what I have realized people often mean when they admonish No Kill advocates for telling the truth about the large national groups or the people who work at them is not that no one should criticize, they are in fact criticizing by making such comments, but that no one should question those in positions of “authority”—a notion which my early and ultimately futile attempts to work within the movement to foster change taught me is a recipe for stagnation and continued killing.
The Middle Years
When I graduated from law school in 1995, I was soon to discover that making a living as an animal rights attorney was difficult. Given my heavy law school debt, economic necessity compelled me to take a job as a Deputy District Attorney, where I satisfied my longing to help animals by becoming the “Dog D.A.,” taking on animal cruelty cases to ensure that they were treated with the gravity they deserved while doing part-time consulting work for the SF/SPCA as needed. At a time when most courts were giving cat and dog killers a slap on the wrist, I found ways to charge them with special circumstances (such as the use of a deadly weapon when an individual killed a dog using a guitar string, thus mandating state prison) or charging someone with arson of property, rather than just animal cruelty, for burning a cat to death, a violent felony which would have given him eight years in state prison and his second strike. But after several years working as a criminal prosecutor, when the opportunity to return to SF/SCPA full-time presented itself, I took it.
I returned to the SF/SPCA just as it had acquired new leadership, a man named Ed Sayres who last year finished a disastrous tenure as President of the ASPCA. His legacy at the SF/SPCA was no less tragic or controversial. When I began, San Francisco was a whisper away from becoming the nation’s first No Kill community, already saving almost every healthy animal entering San Francisco shelters. As Director of the Law and Advocacy Department and later both the Director of Operations and Vice President, I implored Sayres to push the envelope, to seize the historic opportunity of becoming the nation’s first and only No Kill community by not only saving every healthy animal, but all the treatable animals, too. Tragically, he refused, choosing to take the organization in the opposite direction. My protests were in vain as one by one he began to dismantle the lifesaving infrastructure that was responsible for San Francisco’s success until, after two years of trying to fight these changes, I could no longer justify remaining with the organization and left. As I write in Redemption,
Moving away from the programs that had made it so successful, the San Francisco SPCA replaced nuts-and-bolts programs that were the underpinning of the SPCA’s lifesaving efforts at an astonishing clip. In their place, partnerships with the University of California at Davis for fee-for-service behavior counseling, as well as architectural plans for a twenty million dollar fee-for-service specialty veterinary hospital were drawn up. And esoteric conferences on animal spirituality and telepathically communicating with animals, which catered to a more affluent, “new age” San Francisco crowd, were held at great expense—in luxury hotels or in posh vacation places like Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Within a few short years, the SPCA’s feral cat program was virtually abolished. The spay/neuter clinic … restricted its hours, significantly raised fees and, at one point, even closed its doors. On a day that came to be called “Black Monday,” the legions of feral cat caretakers who made their regular pilgrimage to use the services of the spay/neuter clinic were turned away… Plans to phase out programs in the animal hospital for indigent clients and homeless animals were in full swing. Entire departments, including those which protected the city’s wildlife, worked to find apartments for renters with pets, and advocated for stronger protections of animals, were eliminated. The crown jewel of the No Kill movement quietly passed into obscurity.
At that point, Jennifer and I faced a choice. I could return to the law, sacrificing the cause that gave our lives such purpose and direction, or we could take a bold step and leave our beloved Bay Area, sell our house and move our two dogs, 26 cats, four year old daughter and infant son to whatever community was willing to take a gamble on my determination to create the nation’s first No Kill community through the model that the SF/SPCA had forsaken. We chose the latter when the upstate New York community of Tompkins County offered me the job as Executive Director of the local SPCA which ran animal control for all 10 towns and cities of the county. On June 11, 2001, literally the day I started, the killing came to end in Tompkins County and that historic milestone was crossed. From day one of my job as Executive Director, the TC/SPCA began saving rather than ending the lives of the animals in its care, using, then expanding, on the San Francisco model of sheltering.
It was not without its challenges. No one had ever taken a full-service open admission shelter and operated it as a No Kill shelter. How do you rehabilitate a dog who has been chained her whole life and is globally under-socialized and resource aggressive? How do you operate beyond capacity and prevent the spread of disease? How do you save all the motherless neonatals coming through the doors? How do your provide lifesaving surgery for emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week? And how do you save them all when in addition to dogs and cats, puppies and kittens, you are also getting hundreds of rabbits, birds, mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, lizards, chickens, horses, even a stray cow, while running an inherited $124,000 per year structural deficit in a shelter built decades earlier to warehouse and kill animals? There was no model in existence; even San Francisco did not go that far, the field of dog rehabilitation was in its infancy and every veterinary college was telling shelters it could not be done. But I was determined to do it anyway.
I impaneled a committee of some of the most respected veterinarians in the nation: a Cornell epidemiologist, the head of the Cornell Feline Health Center, and a veterinary behaviorist. I told them I was going to double up dogs and cats, I was going to mix litters, I was going to operate at well beyond capacity, and I needed them to help me do it. “It can’t be done,” they said. “It will cause stress and disease.” I told them it was their job to help me figure out how to do so without stress and disease. “It can’t be done,” they said. I told them to figure it out, anyway. Together, we did. We reduced killing by 75% while reducing disease rates and deaths in kennel by over 90% from the model I inherited. At the same time, we went from a $124,000 a year deficit to a $23,000 surplus as the animal lovers of Tompkins County rewarded our efforts with tremendous financial generosity.
I served as the Executive Director of that agency for three years, helping to build a firm and lasting infrastructure, including building the nation’s first green-certified animal shelter, and solidifying a shelter culture which I hoped would allow No Kill to continue even after I left. For I was determined to eventually focus my time and energy on a singular mission: spread the No Kill model to shelters across the nation.
In this effort, I was again alone, because in spite of the success of the TC/SPCA and my efforts to promote it nationwide through my newly formed organization the No Kill Advocacy Center, the national organizations behaved as though No Kill did not exist in Tompkins County. They continued on as before, mired in disproven dogma that justified killing, blind to existing No Kill success and the valuable lessons it held for every shelter in America. My pleas went unheeded, and I never received even the courtesy of a response to my communications introducing this new form of animal sheltering (a model I call the No Kill Equation) or to my letters protesting their regressive policies and philosophies which were the backbone of the traditional kill-oriented sheltering paradigm. After years of futilely trying to appeal to their better natures only to have my overtures ignored and my reputation repeatedly degraded (I’ve been quietly writing to Wayne Pacelle for 15 years), I realized my efforts were in vain. I realized that these organizations weren’t interested in changing.
Staffed with former animal shelter directors and employees who themselves failed to save lives, they were threatened by the success of the No Kill Equation, and were dedicated not to ending the killing of animals in shelters, but to protecting their friends and colleagues currently running shelters who were likewise failing to do the work necessary to save rather than end the lives of the animals in their care. This awareness helped me to understand that in the absence of a personal conviction to end the killing, there was simply no motivation for the people working at these groups to try to do so. As long as the American public was ignorant that a life-saving alternative existed, the failure of these organizations to embrace the No Kill Equation did not matter. Unaware of evidence to the contrary, people believed them when they portrayed the problem of shelter killing as insurmountable, inevitable, and necessary and therefore donated to them in spite of the killing. That is when I realized that in my continued and failed attempts to appeal to these groups for change, I was acting in vain as animals needlessly died. I came to understand that if I wanted to reform an industry and a movement that had no interest in reforming themselves, I would have to do it from the outside, in.
The Later Years
I resolved to take my message directly to the animal loving American people who would then force their local shelters and these groups to embrace the change they so stalwartly opposed. In 2007, I released my first book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America. It tells not only the story of the early founding of the humane movement in North America by the great Henry Bergh and how his noble legacy was betrayed when SPCAs and humane societies took over the job of killing animals they were founded to protect, but the story of San Francisco’s success, then Tompkins County’s. Challenging the myths and dogmas that had built up over the years to justify and excuse shelter killing, Redemption, and its follow up Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America’s Animal Shelters, spoke to the experiences of shelter volunteers and rescuers throughout the country who were weary of the killing and weary of the hostility they, too, experienced when trying to reform deplorable practices at their local shelters. Providing hope and a road map for lifesaving, grassroots companion animal advocates embraced the message of Redemption and Irreconcilable Differences, and the No Kill movement gained new life.
At the same time, as a consultant I worked with shelters across the country, helping others achieve the same level of success, first Charlottesville, Virginia, then Reno, Nevada, and then several others, including Austin, Texas. Today, there are nearly 100 shelters across the nation representing about 300 cities and towns across America which, in spite of resistance and push back from the national organizations, have embraced the No Kill Equation, and, like Tompkins County, are saving between 90 and 99% of all the animals they take in. The No Kill movement is rapidly growing, gaining converts across the nation who are pushing for change in their own hometowns. But as welcome as this effort over the last six years has been, it has also been heartbreaking, revealing an even deeper layer of dysfunction within the animal sheltering industry.
As the movement to end shelter killing has grown in size and sophistication, the networking made possible through the internet and social media has allowed animal lovers to connect the dots between individual cases of animal cruelty and neglect in shelters nationwide. These incidents reveal a distinct pattern. Animal abuse at local shelters is not an isolated anomaly caused by “a few bad apples.” The stunning number and severity of these cases nationwide lead to one disturbing and inescapable conclusion: our shelters are in crisis.
Frequently overseen by ineffective and incompetent directors who fail to hold their staff accountable to the most basic standards of humane care, animal shelters in this country are not the safe havens they should and can be. Instead, they are often poorly managed houses of horror, places where animals are denied basic medical care, food, water, socialization and are then killed, sometimes cruelly. The first time many companion animals experience neglect and abuse is when they enter the very place that is supposed to deliver them from it: the local animal shelter.
It is a tragic story true to cities and towns across this nation. And the large national animal protection organizations are as much to blame as the individual shelter directors themselves for not only have they fought lifesaving innovation at shelters, they have enabled the neglect and abuse of animals in shelters, too. For decades they have perpetuated the fiction that all is well in our nation’s shelters. They have assured us that they are overseeing these organizations, providing guidance and assistance to make sure they are run humanely and effectively: through their shelter assessments, their national conferences and their publications for sheltering professionals. In reality, they have ignored abuse, failed to create substantive standards by which to measure success and hold directors accountable and remained deafeningly silent regarding the cases of abuse occurring at shelters nationwide. In short, they have failed the public. Over the past 100 years, Americans have trusted these groups to oversee our shelters, writing them checks to do the job while looking the other way because the “experts” were in charge, and in so doing, have allowed our shelters to remain virtually unsupervised and unregulated for decades, with devastating results.
In fact, excluding laws imposed by health departments regarding the use of controlled substances, the disposition of rabid and “aggressive” animals and mandated holding periods, shelter directors in this country have essentially unlimited discretion as to how they operate their facilities. If a shelter director decides to kill each and every animal even if there are empty cages, it is legal for him to do so. In fact, many shelters routinely keep banks of cages intentionally empty so that their staff does not have to clean those cages or feed the animals inside them. If a non-profit rescue organization wants to save an animal on death row at a shelter, the shelter director has the authority in every state but two to deny the group the ability to do so, and they frequently do. Likewise, shelter directors can kill orphaned kittens and puppies rather than work with volunteers who want to provide foster care. They can ban volunteers from walking dogs and socializing cats. And they can limit the number of hours they are open to the public for adoptions, or have hours that make it difficult for working people to reclaim their lost animals or adopt new ones.
There are no checks and balances to ensure that our shelters are run in line with the most up-to-date sheltering policies and procedures. Instead, our shelters are run on the honor system, and it is a discretion shelter directors abuse time and again by failing to ensure the humane and compassionate care of animals in their charge, to implement readily available lifesaving alternatives or to work cooperatively with those who want to help them save lives. And almost without exception, whenever animal lovers have questioned this arrangement, developed innovative and compassionate alternatives to killing or have brought the need for greater regulation to light, the large national animal protection groups have opposed them. They argue that such reforms are unnecessary, and that, paradoxically, any alternative to killing or any form of regulating shelters to ensure that animals are treated with compassion and are not needlessly killed is not only unnecessary, but will actually put animals in harm’s way.
When a statewide survey found that 71 percent of rescue organizations reported that they were turned away from New York State shelters and then those shelters killed the very animals those groups offered to save, the ASPCA fought to maintain the status quo, defeating legislation that would have given rescue groups the right to save at private expense, the animals shelters are killing at taxpayer expense. When animal lovers in Texas tried to end the practice of gassing animals, a slow and exceedingly cruel way for animals in shelters to be killed, a coalition of animal control groups led by HSUS defeated the bill. Even though the Virginia Animal Control Association defeated legislation to end the statewide practice of killing animals when there are empty cages, when rescue groups are willing to save them and in the case of feral cats, when they can be neutered and released, PETA supported their cause and the National Animal Control Association (NACA) gave them an award for “Outstanding State Association.” When a Louisiana shelter killed every single animal in its facility, including cats, because a handful of dogs contracted a mild illness which clears up on its own, HSUS defended them. In Hillsborough County, Florida, despite the fact that the shelter’s then-director killed animals in order to keep cages empty, the ASPCA stepped in not to encourage reform, but to buy them a new “euthanasia table” on which to kill animals. And when a shelter in Reno, Nevada, finished the year saving a higher percentage of animals than virtually every other community in the nation, the American Humane Association encouraged them to take a giant step backward and enact a punitive cat licensing scheme which could have led to the round up and killing of cats.
Whether by coming to the defense of regressive shelter directors, working to defeat progressive shelter reform legislation, fighting new and innovative programs to save lives, or calling for the wholesale slaughter of entire groups of animals in shelters, HSUS, the ASPCA, PETA and other animal protection groups are the biggest barrier to ensuring the survival of animals in shelters today.
The No Kill movement seeks to change this tragic reality by bringing standards and accountability to a field that has historically lacked it, by exposing the truth about our shelters, by calling for the replacement of poorly performing shelter directors and by seeking legislation that legally mandates common sense procedures that shelters should already be following. Where laws mandating lifesaving policies and procedures have passed, greater lifesaving has immediately followed. Legally requiring shelters to do what they refuse to do is the quickest and most effective means animal lovers have to reform our nation’s shelters, and to orient them toward lifesaving and away from killing. Yet, as I document in detail in my most recent book, Friendly Fire, whenever and wherever animal lovers mount campaigns for reform or seek legislation, the opposition of HSUS, PETA and the ASPCA hinders their efforts. Too often, animal lovers, the media and legislators become confused and cannot see beyond the names and reputations of these organizations to discern their true motives. Too often, the opposition of animal protection organizations sows seeds of doubt regarding the need or nature of common sense reform and efforts falter or fail.
We are a nation of animal lovers, and we, and the animals we love, deserve better. We deserve shelters that reflect our progressive and compassionate values, not thwart them. We now have a solution to shelter killing and it is not difficult, expensive, or beyond practical means to achieve. Only one thing stands in the way of its widespread implementation: a deeply troubled and dysfunctional animal protection movement that undermines the effort at every turn. If we are to prevail, we need to neutralize its harmful and deadly effect. By explaining the nature of this opposition, by exposing the history of these groups and the actions they take which undermine the cause of No Kill–I hope to inspire in others—animal lovers, public officials, legislators, the media—the confidence and courage necessary to see through, and stand up to, those who seek to delay and derail urgently needed shelter reform.
Through the No Kill movement, we can create a country in which it is illegal to kill animals who enter shelters. We can create a country in which children are raised with higher expectations for the treatment of animals—and an understanding and acceptance that animals have legal rights. And we can establish powerful advocates for the well-being of animals in every community by reclaiming the thousands of shelters across our nation, and reorienting them away from killing and back to their founding missions: to advocate for and save animals.
In failing to exploit this potential, we are failing all animals who would benefit from the powerful legal, philosophical and societal precedents the animal protection movement could realize through the achievement of a No Kill nation. Yet we are prevented from harvesting this low-hanging fruit by the very groups who should be leading the charge to reap it, a betrayal that I cannot ignore, downplay or allow to continue without a fight that is, to quote the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, “as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.”
That there are those who choose to portray my efforts to reform the animal protection movement as an effort to sabotage it is regrettable, though predictable. My hope is that anyone inclined to believe those who seek to undermine my efforts by disparaging my character and my motives will read my story and not only reject their baseless accusations, but join me in my fight as well.
* I’ve never bred an animal and I’ve never promoted the breeding of animals. I support laws banning the sale of purposely bred animals from pet stores. I’ve held workshops on closing down puppy mills. I’ve written articles about it. I do NOT support mandatory spay/neuter laws because they do not work. They cause animals to be impounded and killed. My opposition is not philosophical. If they did work, I would support them. That said, I do not believe in the myth of pet overpopulation and neither should any true animal lover. Not only is the evidence not there, but the fact that it is a myth means we have the ability to end the killing today. That is news we should all celebrate. But, regardless of why animals are being killed, they are being killed, and as long as they are, people should adopt from a shelter.
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December 3, 2012 by Nathan J. Winograd
Excerpted from Friendly Fire by Nathan & Jennifer Winograd.
In 1998, California legislators held hearings on whether to make it illegal for shelters to kill animals when non-profit organizations were offering to save them. Some legislators were confused, asking why shelters would want to kill animals who have an immediate place to go. The answer, of course, was power. The legislation threatened to open up shelter killing and other atrocities to public scrutiny. As frequent visitors to the shelters, rescuers saw systemic problems and inhumane treatment, but their access to animals was tenuous and many times hinged on not publicly disclosing concerns. Under the pending legislation, their right to rescue would no longer be legally premised on silence as to inhumane shelter practices. The law, in effect, would create a desperately needed whistleblower provision and allow rescuers to go public without fears of retribution, as evidenced by what one rescuer faced before the law went into effect:
I went to the shelter because I was told they had a mother cat and four kittens that they had scheduled to be killed even though they were healthy. When I arrived to pick up the cat and kittens, the shelter manager asked to see me. She told me that a member of our rescue group wrote a letter complaining about the shelter to the Board of Supervisors and that they didn’t appreciate it. She told me I could therefore only have one kitten. I begged her to let me take them all, but she said that I couldn’t. She told me to pick one and she was going to euthanize the rest, including the mother cat. I didn’t know what to do. And so I picked. My hand was shaking as I filled out the paper work. After I got the kitten, I went outside and sat in the car. Then I threw up all over myself.
Had the California law which has since saved hundreds of thousands of lives been in effect when this rescuer arrived at the shelter she described, its manager would not have been allowed to deny her the right to adopt those animals nor would she have had the ability to emotionally torment the rescuer by forcing her to make a choice that would haunt her for the rest of her life. Stories like these are, in reality, tragically commonplace. When rescue access legislation was pending in New York and Florida, studies found that roughly half of all rescuers routinely look the other way at animal neglect and abuse in shelters for fear of losing their ability to rescue should they ever express their concerns. Other rescuers who did go public told of shelter employees retaliating by killing animals they had offered to save.
These actions were intended to wound people who have expressed concern for the animal victims of shelter neglect, abuse and killing. Day in and day out, these rescuers show tremendous courage and compassion—visiting a place that is hard for animal lovers to go: their local shelter. And yet they go back, again and again. They endure the hostile treatment. They endure the heartbreak of seeing the animals destined for the needle. They endure having to jump through unnecessary and arbitrary hurdles set by shelter directors who are holding hostage the animals they want to save. They endure having to look the other way at abuse of other animals, because if they don’t, if they speak out, they will be barred from saving any animals. And yet efforts to protect rescuers, to empower them to save animals, remain the exception nationwide and many recent efforts to pass legislation mandating rescue access rights have been defeated.
Of course, it is the animals who pay the ultimate price when cruel and vindictive shelter workers retaliate against rescuers, but they are not the only ones who suffer. Retaliatory killing of animals is an effective punishment of rescuers because it hits them where it hurts the most. Rescuers do what they do out of sheer love and concern for the well-being of animals. When a particular animal a rescuer has requested is needlessly killed, it can take a heavy emotional toll on that rescuer, leading to feelings of anger, helplessness and despair. And not only does retaliatory killing deny the rescuer what he or she wants—to save a particular animal—the rescuer is often haunted by guilt, left to contemplate whether in singling out a particular animal or openly criticizing the shelter for neglect or abuse, they are somehow culpable in that animal’s death.
Before Tompkins County, New York, became a No Kill community, the volunteers at that shelter had complained to an inattentive Board of Directors about poor care, dirty facilities and rampant killing only to have those complaints dismissed and ignored. For years, volunteers had to endure the knowledge that animals in their community shelter were being routinely neglected, needlessly killed and at the mercy of a shelter manager so lacking in compassion that she once killed a puppy with muddy paws who jumped up to greet her and soiled her skirt. Another volunteer told of how she had stopped volunteering after two motherless kittens whom she had fostered for the shelter were killed when she returned them to be adopted. Although she had tenderly cared for each of the kittens over the course of several weeks, and though she had told the shelter to let her know if they were ever in any danger so that she could take them back, they were killed without anyone ever calling her:
I checked the logbook to see when they were adopted. Instead, I was stunned to learn that two of them had been killed. I never even received a telephone call or an email asking that I take them back. They had been perfectly healthy and loved and wanted, and they had a place to go if the shelter ran out of room. I felt sick. The room began spinning. I was in tears. I’ll never forget the looks of shock on the faces of the other volunteers. The staff didn’t budge. One other volunteer was concerned and tried to stop me from leaving, but I fled the building and somehow managed to bike the several miles home, even though I could barely see for crying.
Nor was her experience out of the ordinary. Many of the volunteers at the shelter were forced to endure emotional hardship in order to help animals. Although these were individuals who volunteered their free time out of love, they were treated with neither gratitude nor respect, but rather resentment and contempt. While lazy, uncaring employees smoked cigarettes and socialized, it was the volunteers who cleaned the cages, fed the animals, counseled potential adopters and, when staff members who had forbidden them to enter the isolation ward weren’t looking, administered medication to sick animals who otherwise would have never received it. With their expectation that animals should be kept in clean cages, be given fresh food and water, be socialized, walked, given every opportunity to find a home and be otherwise well-cared for, volunteers found themselves at odds with an organization that resented their “interference.”
These attitudes expressed themselves through petty vindictiveness and arbitrary displays of power that not only caused needless animal suffering, but created a climate of fear and intimidation that caused volunteers stress and anxiety not just for the animals, but for themselves and each other as well. “Volunteers are more trouble than they are worth,” said the shelter manager to Nathan shortly after he arrived (a shelter manager he would soon terminate), even though it was the volunteers who did the lion’s share of the work that she and her lazy, uncaring staff refused to. And all of this abuse—to animals, to people and to the citizens of every community whose tax dollars fund local shelters that are run neither humanely nor professionally—comes down to one root cause: corruption fostered by an imbalance of power.
Right now, shelters are the fiefdoms of their directors who can kill almost any animal, almost any time and for any reason. They can exclude members of the community from volunteering. They can prevent other non-profits, such as rescue groups and other shelters, from saving the lives of animals in their custody. And when volunteers or rescuers go public with their concerns, they are terminated. It doesn’t have to be this way.
As a society, we owe a particular debt of gratitude to people who voluntarily offer a helping hand to the needy and that includes our nation’s homeless animals. Animal rescuers and shelter volunteers are compassionate people who open their hearts and homes to provide a safety-net for animals others may have abandoned and whom our dysfunctional shelters betray even further by killing. And yet those who should be celebrating them as heroes—our nation’s animal protection groups—instead denigrate and malign them, paradoxically equating them with some of the cruelest people there are—hoarders and dog fighters—in order to fight legislation that would empower them to overcome shelter directors in community after community who make it impossible to do what should be simple and straightforward—partnering with others to save lives.
Rescue rights and shelter reform laws not only save lives, they foster fairness, respect and consideration for people who both need and deserve it. Animal rescuers and shelter volunteers are already donating their time, their energy, their resources and their love to make our world a better place. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their emotional well-being, too.
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October 9, 2012 by Nathan J. Winograd
Why Believing In People Helps Animals (by Nathan & Jennifer Winograd)
For decades, groups like the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, PETA and local shelters have schooled us in the belief that the American public is irresponsible and uncaring, both by allowing the birth of unwanted dogs and cats and by abandoning animals in shelters in epidemic numbers. In fact, when animal lovers question the killing, they are given a narrative that places the blame for it squarely on the shoulders of a callous American public. But is it true? Although I no longer believe so, there was a time, roughly 20 years ago, when I would not have hesitated to answer that question with an emphatic “yes!”
In the early 1990s, I was a young law school student at Stanford University, fighting animal abuse on many fronts with the student animal protection group I had founded, the Stanford APES (Animal Protection and Education Society). I opposed animals in captivity by doing educational leafleting in front of zoos and aquariums. I fought animal research by exposing the cruel experiments and poor conditions animals were forced to endure on the Stanford campus and even rescued and then found homes for former research animals. I encouraged others to adopt a more humane diet by distributing information about veganism. And I worked to promote an end to shelter killing as a Board Member of the Palo Alto Humane Society and by working at the San Francisco SPCA Law and Advocacy Department when that organization was (though no longer is) the leading voice in the No Kill movement.
Working to overcome the abuse of animals on so many fronts, I believed the world to be a cruel, dark place filled with cruel, dark people. I was not alone. During my second year of law school, I met my future wife, Jennifer, when we both joined a grassroots organization that was formed to defeat legislation introduced in California at the behest of the Fund for Animals (an organization which eventually merged with HSUS), legislation that not only called for the round up and killing of cats, but would have authorized animal control to kill cats right in the field.
Jennifer had already worked for several animal protection organizations and spent most of her free time doing animal advocacy and animal rescue. Like me, she was happy to have met a kindred spirit—another person who shared her love and concern for animals, a quality which traditional animal protection movement dogma had schooled us both to believe were in tragically short supply. So while we complemented each other’s strengths, we also unfortunately fed each other’s disdain for the public.
Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
When we noticed that a local photography studio which left spotlights on the photographs in the window also put a spotlight on their pet bird every night, we were reminded of the cruelty of factory farms where constant lighting is used to trick hens’ bodies into greater egg production. In response, Jennifer sent an angry letter to the owner of the studio, asserting that birds were not artwork to be put on display, and condemning him for jeopardizing the birds’ health and well-being. When we found a skinny, sickly, stray dog wandering the streets, we decided not to return him to his family, certain that his poor health was a result of neglect and abuse. And when, after news of Nathan’s rescue of a tiny, terrified kitten who had become trapped inside an abandoned bank vault became a media sensation and offers of adoption came pouring in, we recalled the cruel building superintendent who had determined to let the kitten die, surmised that no one could be trusted, and raised him ourselves.
While trying to make the world a better place for animals was gratifying, being immersed in work designed to combat animal abuse meant that we were reminded of it constantly. Living in the trenches, we became myopic, believing that most people didn’t care about animals or their suffering. We focused primarily on the bad things people did to animals, and we became blind to the good. Most regrettably, we lost the ability to perceive how most people really felt about animals.
Suspicious of everyone and always anticipating the worst, we became blind to any evidence that countered those expectations. When the owner of the photography studio, graciously ignoring the hostile tone of our letter, wrote us a thank you note for letting him know that the spotlight was harmful to the bird, assuring us he dearly loved “Tony” and promising to keep the light off so Tony could sleep, it should have made an impression. When we began to see “Missing Dog” signs for the stray we had found, and a fellow rescuer informed us that the dog was suffering from cancer and his heartsick, worried family desperately wanted him back, we returned the dog, but ignored the lesson. When the media got wind of Nathan’s kitten rescue, and three television networks showed up at our door to tell his story on the evening news, we were blind to the concern and gratitude expressed by everyone who heard the kitten’s tragic tale, and focused instead on the heartlessness of one person—the man who had condemned him to starvation, but in so doing had become the subject of public scorn and derision.
Our glass was half empty, and we took what should have been cause for rejoicing—the fact that a bird and a dog we had assumed were neglected were actually cherished family members, and the public’s interest and concern in the fate of a helpless kitten—and we turned their meaning upside down.
Admittedly, our suspicion often bordered on the absurd. Whenever we drove by empty boxes on the side of the road, we always doubled back to peer inside, worried they might contain an abandoned litter of kittens. And when we saw dogs in cars, we worried they were on the way to the pound, rather than what was the far more likely explanation—they were out for a ride with a family who enjoyed their company. But then, thankfully, we woke up. When we moved to Ithaca, New York so that I could take over, and transform, that community’s animal shelter, the blinders came off completely.
An Army of Compassion
Before we arrived, the shelter in Tompkins County was typical of most in the country: it had a poor public image; it killed a lot of animals; and it blamed the community for doing so. Once there, however, I announced my lifesaving goal to the community and asked the community for help. The response was overwhelming. People from all walks of life volunteered, inspired by the goal and eager to assist. Many people adopted animals. Some walked dogs. Others socialized cats. Veterinarians offered their services at reduced rates or free of charge. Business owners offered free products as incentives to adopt. I was not timid about asking for help, and most people were incredibly generous and eager to assist.
The goal of ending the killing of animals in the shelter became a communitywide effort. The people of Tompkins County opened their hearts, homes, and wallets. And overnight, by harnessing that compassion and changing the way the shelter operated, Tompkins County, New York, became the first No Kill community in U.S. history, saving not only healthy animals but all treatable sick and injured animals as well. It didn’t matter whether they were “cute and cuddly” or blind, deaf, or missing limbs. They were all guaranteed a home, and they all found one.
For us, one of the most amazing things about the experience was that the people of Ithaca didn’t need to be convinced that this was a good idea or a worthy goal (in fact, they had been clamoring for it for years). They were ready and willing to make it a reality as soon as we got there. They just needed someone to tell them it was possible and to show them how to do it. And the achievement became a source of community pride, with bumper stickers throughout the county proclaiming “The Safest Community for Homeless Animals in the U.S.”
We lived in Tompkins County for several years and then returned to California to start the No Kill Advocacy Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading this new model of sheltering—what has since become known as the No Kill Equation—to shelters nationwide. And it is spreading—to every part of the country. In some communities, shelter leadership has led the charge. In others, grassroots activists have forced the replacement of regressive leadership, hostile to their calls for reform with new leaders who are passionate about No Kill and dedicated to making it a reality. But everywhere it is succeeding, it is succeeding because people in these communities overwhelming rise to the occasion. Why? As we finally came to realize, Americans truly love dogs and cats.
These positive experiences made us question our long-held assumption that we were in the minority regarding our concern for animals. We realized, thankfully, that we weren’t so unique after all. And once the blinders were off, we saw evidence of the American public’s love of dogs and cats everywhere we looked:
- The people who cross our paths on their morning dog walks;
- The stories, care, and embraces at our veterinarian’s office (the waiting rooms never devoid of people, the faces of scared people wondering what is wrong with their animal companions, and the tears as they emerge from the exam room after saying good-bye for the last time);
- The bestselling books about animals that are written in ever increasing numbers because they touch people very deeply and very personally;
- The widespread popularity of movies about animals;
- The increase in specialty stores and services for animal companions;
- The steady increase in spending on our animals, even as other economic sectors may decline; and,
- The millions of dollars we give annually to humane societies and animal protection groups, making animal causes the fastest-growing sector in American philanthropy.
And the conclusion became inescapable: the animal protection movement had gotten it wrong. My experience in Tompkins County proved that the story of the eight million animals entering shelters in this nation does not have to be a tragedy. Shelters can respond humanely and compassionately without resorting to killing. These shelters can be temporary way stations for animals, providing good care and plenty of comfort until they find loving homes. We also came to realize that the old excuse of rampant human uncaring and irresponsibility toward dogs and cats was simply not true. Because in order to make that case, one had to ignore the bigger, more optimistic picture of the 165 million animals in homes across the country cared for by people who go to great lengths to ensure their happiness and well-being. In short, we learned that there was enough love and compassion for animals in every community to overcome the irresponsibility of the few. Our hearts swelled. And then, and most important of all, our minds opened.
An Unstoppable Force for Good
The day before we arrived in Ithaca, the shelter was killing animals. The day I started my new job, the killing came to an end. During the night that straddled those two days, nothing changed in that community other than the potential that already existed was finally being harnessed to the animals’ benefit. For us, this led to an obvious and exciting question: What other potential to help animals now exists but is not being leveraged because the animal protection movement refuses to recognize its existence? Refuses to recognize that, in fact, people do care and will help us build a better world for animals if we give them the information and opportunities to do so?
This is not to say that that there are no uncaring people in the world. Of course there are. As with any social justice movement, there are enemies with vested interest in exploitation who must be overcome. This is especially true within the animal protection movement, plagued as it is with people like Wayne Pacelle of HSUS, Ed Sayres of the ASPCA and Ingrid Newkirk of PETA—people who have so thoroughly bastardized the mission of those organizations that in practice they actually undermine the cause they theoretically exist to promote. But most people—the average American—value animals. And that genuine compassion can and must be leveraged and harnessed because what may seem to us to be overwhelming “support” for the status quo that harms animals is in reality, people acting in blind accordance with inherited mores that have yet to be effectively challenged in the court of public opinion.
Humans are creatures of habit. Most of us go with the grain without ever taking the time to consider if the way of life we have inherited from our parents and ancestors is the right or ethical way to live. Out of habit, we have continued to exploit animals long past the time we should have abandoned it as a cruel anachronism. Yet history shows that as a species, we are far from hopeless. When we are compelled to examine our collective behavior by a few, rogue voices who champion a better way, we vindicate ourselves. It may take time and effort, but in the end, when someone comes along who compels us to see things differently—to see the disconnect between our common shared values of empathy and compassion and the ways in which the world we have inherited works against those values, most of us rise to the occasion, while those who don’t are forced, by the larger collective will, to change their behavior, too. But to realize that potential, we first have to believe it is possible.
All Good Christians, Disembark
When I began writing Redemption and researching Henry Bergh, the founder of the humane movement in the United States, I was deeply inspired. Bergh was such an unlikely hero—a wealthy aristocrat in Old New York who could have spent his time at lavish parties and lawn bowling in Newport but chose instead to spend his days and nights patrolling the streets for animals in need of his protection. His foresight and dedication were remarkable, as was the brilliant way he often approached his activism.
True to his upbringing, Bergh was a gentleman, ever polite, and always arrayed in tails and a top hat. Although Bergh would do whatever it ultimately took to protect an animal from abuse—once famously chucking a trolley car driver in the snow for refusing to unload an overladen cart beyond a horse’s ability to pull—he always approached a situation by assuming the best of people, and by giving them the opportunity to rise to his expectation of their decency. He understood that people wanted to think of themselves as good, and cleverly leveraged this to the animals’ advantage.
When, during rush hour traffic in crowded Manhattan he would come across a horse straining to pull a trolley filled beyond capacity, he would stop the car dead on its tracks, and loudly announce, “All good Christians, disembark!” And many people, wanting to identify themselves as just such a person, would willingly exit the train. While his act of stopping the trolley and telling people to get off inherently implicated them in the abuse he was trying to end, he allowed people to save face. And he gave them the opportunity to choose to be a part of the solution, so they could own that act of compassion, wear it with pride and hopefully do better next time, even when he wasn’t around to request it.
Nearly 150 years ago, when there was literally no animal protection movement in the U.S. but that which he himself was creating, Henry Bergh had the vision to believe in people, and transformed a nation. In 2012, in a society that has ended slavery and child labor, passed universal suffrage, given handicapped people equal access, mandated civil rights, elected an African-American president, smashed the glass ceiling, is on the verge of granting marriage equality and has created 70 No Kill communities, we have no excuse to give in to pessimism and defeatism. If, unlike the great Henry Bergh, we cannot see the immense potential offered by basic human decency and the love of animals most people have, then we will not attempt to leverage those things—to reform the local shelter, to work for the passage of laws that will protect animals, to provide people the information that will help them make better choices. As a result, efforts to help animals will not be attempted, and animals will continue to be harmed long past the point when we could have brought such harm to an end.
The High Road
As anyone involved in animal protection can attest, opportunities for advocacy on behalf of animals present themselves constantly. After learning about Bergh’s approach, we began to emulate it in our daily interactions with people, and to great effect. We stopped assuming people didn’t care and gave them the benefit of the doubt. Seeing this approach work again and again, we began to see that our job as animal activists was to help people understand how certain actions, choices or beliefs undermine the inherent concern for animals they already have. We came to see that ignorance, and not ill will, accounted for so much of the explanation behind harmful choices, and that, when armed with the truth by someone who believed in them to do the right thing, that a great many people will do just that, and actually become the change we want to see in the world. Most important of all, we came to understand that misanthropy, as righteous and as justified as it may sometimes feel, harms rather than helps animals by blinding us to the potential for change.
Today, there are 70 communities representing hundreds of cities and towns across America with save rates of greater than 90%. And there are dozens more on the cusp. Everywhere there is killing, there are activists working for reform and there are animal lovers in their communities who will rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to do so. A few months ago, Austin’s animal shelter got jammed. When it told the community it was in trouble and stayed open until 10 pm, people adopted in droves. When a shelter in Florida which has a capacity of 375 found itself with 750 animals due to a hoarding bust (including a bust of 300 dogs), it asked the public for help. “After a rush of adoptions on Friday, [the shelter] announced Friday it had no more animals available for adoption. ‘It was like Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving.’” When a shelter in Australia made the decision to save every single baby kitten, it found a public ready, willing and able to help. And when I asked a community which was clamoring for change in Ithaca, New York, to help me achieve it, they did. All good Christians, disembark.
Admittedly, sometimes we still have to catch ourselves. Sometimes, old patterns of thinking are our knee-jerk reaction. Not long ago, as we were searching under a BMW in a parking lot for an injured bird, the owner of the car asked us what we were doing. We said we were looking for a crow who looked like he might be injured. He looked confused for a moment, and we braced ourselves for his dismissal or a sarcastic laugh. Worse, we expected him to tell us to get away from his pristine, expensive car. But it never came. Instead, he began searching with us, literally offering the shirt of his back to catch the crow should it be needed.
It’s been 20 years since Jennifer and I first met, and believed, naively, that no one cared as much as we did. How grateful we both are to have been proven wrong.
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August 29, 2012 by Nathan J. Winograd
“I hate to think what will befall this Society when I am gone.” — Henry Bergh.
Henry Bergh, the great founder of the humane movement in North America, once said,
The chief obstacle to success of movements like this [is] that they almost invariably gravitate into questions of money or politics. Such questions are repudiated here completely… If I were paid a large salary… I should lose that enthusiasm which has been my strength and my safeguard.
In 2010, the ASPCA paid its president over half a million dollars—$555,824—in salary and other compensation. It raised nearly $150 million dollars, but only found homes for 3,389 animals at its one and only shelter located in New York City—roughly $41,000 per animal adopted. And it sent the neediest of animals to the NYC pound to be killed. It is no surprise that it also has spent the better part of the last 50 years defending killing and fighting reform efforts. By contrast, when Henry Bergh founded the ASPCA, he fitted it with what he called “the very plainest kind” of furniture. When the Governor of New York visited the ASPCA, he stumbled over a hole in the old carpet and said: “Mr. Bergh, buy yourself a better carpet and send the bill to me.” To which Bergh replied, “No, thank you, Governor. But send me the money, and I will put it to better use for the animals.”
Near the end of his life, Bergh often worried about the future of the ASPCA, stating, “I hate to think what will befall this Society when I am gone.” It didn’t take long for Bergh’s worst fears to come true. Shortly after his death, and against his express instructions, the ASPCA traded in its mission of protecting animals from harm for the role of killing them by agreeing to run the dog pound—something that Bergh rejected during his lifetime: “This Society,” he once wrote, “could not stultify its principles so far as to encourage the tortures which the proposed give rise to.” He would not allow his ASPCA to do the city’s bidding in killing dogs they deemed “unwanted.” In fact, Bergh’s answer was the opposite: “Let us abolish the pound!” he proclaimed. But after his death, the ASPCA capitulated and took over the pound, becoming New York City’s leading killer of dogs (and later cats). It was a terrible mistake, one emulated by humane societies and SPCAs nationwide, with devastating results.
Unwilling to harm the animals they were supposed to be protecting, animal lovers fled from these organizations, and bureaucrats and opportunists with no passion for animals or for saving their lives took them over, paving the way for the crisis of uncaring and killing we have inherited today. What began as a nationwide network of animal protection organizations devolved into dog and cat shelters whose primary purpose became, and in too many communities remains, killing animals, even when those animals are not suffering. And the mighty ASPCA, once a stalwart defender of animals, became a stalwart defender of killing them, beholden not to animals or furthering their best interest, but to a ruthless fundraising machine enriching itself and its leadership at the expense of its founding mission.
But there is hope: With no allegiance to the status quo or faith in conventional “wisdom,” new leaders are causing dog and cat deaths to plummet in cities and counties across the country by rejecting the “adopt some and kill the rest” inertia of the past one hundred years. There is renewed hope for the future. A No Kill nation is now within our reach. We have the power to build a new consensus, which rejects killing as a method for achieving results. And we can look forward to a time when the wholesale slaughter of animals in shelters is viewed as a cruel aberration of the past. To get to that point, we must learn from history and reject our failures.
When the early founders of the animal protection movement died and their organizations took over the job of killing those they had been formed to protect, a fiery zeal was replaced with a smoldering ember that gave little light or warmth and the humane movement went to sleep. People like the tirelessly devoted ASPCA founder, Henry Bergh, were replaced with individuals who care so little for animals as to allow tremendous cruelty and killing to continue unabated, even when they could use the power their positions afford to stop it. After over 100 years of this antiquated and deadly paradigm, the grassroots of the animal protection movement is finally waking up.
Today is Henry Bergh’s birthday. Next year, we will celebrate the bicentennial of his birth. In honor of the great Mr. Bergh’s 200th birthday, on behalf of the No Kill Advocacy Center, in partnership with No Kill Nation and Sagacity Productions, I am happy to announce that we will release a feature-length documentary that will tell his story—and ours. Watch the trailer:
To be notified of its release in early 2013 and for more information, click here.
Have a comment? Join the discussion on my Facebook page by clicking here.
May 17, 2012 by Nathan J. Winograd
Today, there are dozens of communities representing roughly 200 towns and cities across the U.S. saving better than 90% of the animals at their “open admission” animal shelters. There is, quite simply, no excuse for others not to do the same.
Williamson County, TX, is made up of many towns and cities. There’s Anderson Mill, Bartlett, Bushy Creek, Cedar Park, Florence, Georgetown, Granger, Hutto, Jarrell, Jollyville, Leaner, Liberty Hill, Round Rock, Serenada, Sun City, Taylor, Thrall, and Weir. Georgetown and Taylor have their own shelter, of which the former also claims save rates of 90% or better. Other than those and Sun City which sends its animals to Georgetown, Williamson County’s animal shelter takes dogs and cats from all of them.
Washoe County, NV, is also made up of many towns and cities, too. Seventeen to be exact, including Reno and Sparks. When Washoe County created a joint powers agreement for animal services and merged into one large entity, it was an agreement with three separate municipal governments: the City of Sparks, the City of Reno, and Washoe County, representing all the unincorporated towns including Empire, Sun Valley, and others. As a result, Washoe County Animal Services became Washoe County Regional Animal Services servicing all of them and the others ceased doing their own animal control. Granted some of those communities are really small. Empire, NV, was a company town and the company shut down. It has just a few hundred residents, so maybe it is misleading to call that its own No Kill community. Maybe. But Washoe County is certainly not one No Kill community, it is at least three—Reno, Sparks, and the County—and as many as 17!
Berkeley, CA, not only has maintained a roughly 93% save rate, but it also takes in animals from outside the city under contract: for the cities of Piedmont and Emeryville.
But when we talk about the number of communities with save rates greater than 90%, we treat Williamson County as one. And when we talk about Washoe County, we also treat it as one. And when we talk about Berkeley, should that count as one community or three?
Of the roughly 70-plus “communities” we know of with save rates better than 90%, some of them are individual city shelters, like Seagoville, TX, which only services that one city in Dallas County. That is appropriately considered one No Kill community, because other cities in Dallas County, TX, have their own shelters and they are most definitely not No Kill. But that is not true in Williamson County and that is not true in Washoe County and that is not true in Berkeley. Those three “communities” actually represent as many as 35 cities and towns.
In some cases, a town or city within a county might have different policies. For example, one such city might only impound dogs, but not cats. Another town may only accept strays, but not animals relinquished by their families. We need to be careful as not all towns and cities within a county might have the same policies. But when I spoke to Cheryl Schneider, the director of the Williamson County shelter, she explained to me that while each town has their own animal control officer, they all take them to her shelter, and she takes dogs and cats from all. In Washoe County, all those towns and cities are serviced the same: they are “open admission” as to all of them.
So how many communities are there with save rates exceeding 90%? It all depends on what your definition of “community” is. To compare Williamson or Washoe to Seagoville, the former two servicing over 30 cities and towns and the latter just one, perhaps we are doing ourselves a disservice. Perhaps we shouldn’t sell ourselves short in terms of how far we have truly come. Rather than talk about the 40 or so communities which are saving more than 90%, maybe we should be talking about what potentially are hundreds of cities and towns across America. Hundreds!
That is, after all, the truth.
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December 16, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
I just received a call from a dog lover across the country. She has a 16-year-old dog who has nerve damage and has no ability to use his back legs or hind quarters. For the last year or so, she had him going on walks with a doggy wheelchair, but he no longer has the strength. She can’t leave the house for long periods because he can’t be left alone. She hasn’t gone on a vacation in years. Every other week, he gets blocked and she has to help him defecate, an ordeal that keeps her up all night with him and causes him to howl (scream?) in pain. But most days, he just goes. Sounding embarrassed, she told me her house smells like pee. But… he has a good appetite, has more good days than bad, and is genuinely excited and happy to see her. He still has the spark. But the day when he doesn’t may come. The day when he has lots of bad days. The day when he no longer finds comfort in her gaze or caress. Is that when you know for sure it is time, she asked me? It is the one question I don’t know I’ll ever have an answer to. And as she told me her story, I told her mine.
This essay first appeared in Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America’s Animal Shelters. To learn more and/or purchase a copy, click here.
Two members of our family died this year of cancer. We lost our cat, Gina, to squamous cell carcinoma. And my wife lost an uncle, Steve,* to lung cancer. Both were surrounded by people committed to minimizing any pain or discomfort during the last weeks of their life. Both were surrounded by the people they loved and who loved them when they died. But their deaths could not have been more different. We “euthanized” Gina. Steve was allowed to die naturally. And this difference has raised significant ethical issues, which I am trying to sort out.
In the past, I’ve never had an ethical dilemma with euthanasia for end of life in my irremediably suffering animal companions. I never hastily made the decision and have always waited until the very end, using “euthanasia” to prevent my companion animals from experiencing what I hope are only the last hours or, at most, day or two of suffering before they would die naturally. I do not believe it is acceptable to kill an animal at the point of a grave diagnosis or when death is not imminent; the open question is at the end-stages of a terminal disease when the animal deeply suffers. Only under those circumstances have I ever believed in the morality of such a decision. In other words, it is only when I have been certain that death was truly imminent that I have chosen to “euthanize”—to spare my animals the last, painful moments of their bodies shutting down.
And in my advocacy for a No Kill nation, I have often said that our goal in sheltering is to bring “euthanasia” back to its dictionary definition: “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.” I’ve tended to focus on the first part: “the act of killing” as opposed to the second, “permitting the death.” But the vivid contrast between the deaths of two members of my family, from the same disease simultaneously, has sharpened this issue for me.
That doesn’t mean that I am second guessing the goals of the No Kill movement at this time in history. Today, the No Kill movement seeks to save all healthy and treatable animals, including ferals. Together, they comprise roughly 95 percent of shelter intakes in the United States. But the fact that the others are hopelessly ill, irremediably suffering, or vicious dogs doesn’t mean their killing isn’t ethically problematic. Truth be told, some of those in the remaining small percent are not suffering, so their killing raises a host of ethical issues. Some of these animals are living without pain, and can continue to do so, at least for a time.
Right now, our great challenge in sheltering is between No Kill advocates who seek to modernize shelters and the archaic voices of tradition that say “killing is kindness.” Once those latter voices are silenced and No Kill’s hegemony is established, we will have to confront ethical quandaries within our own philosophy. These ethical quandaries include: killing dogs who are aggressive but can lead happy lives in sanctuaries where they cannot harm the public; and killing hopelessly ill animals rather than giving them hospice care. At the end of the day, we deceive ourselves when we think our ethical analysis will not change as our society offers greater compassion and rights for animals.
I believe one of the debates we must have on a larger scale is the issue of “euthanasia,” even when it meets the dictionary definition. The question being: Is the idea of mercy killing always ethical? That it is not may be difficult to grasp when healthy animals are killed under the notion of “euthanasia” with the full support of groups like the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the United States, and even self-proclaimed animal lovers and animal activists. But the question should be proposed and evaluated thoughtfully, without a knee-jerk dismissal, or the regurgitation of platitudes that obscure more than they illuminate and provide apologia before real reflection begins.
When Gina was nearing the end of her life, I faced a new dilemma that we haven’t really fully debated as a society or as a movement, although compassionate people are asking those questions more often—and some people have been asking them for a very long time. When human medicine determined that nothing more could be done for Steve, they turned to hospice care: to keeping Steve pain-free, as comfortable as possible, and in his home, surrounded by people he loved and who loved him. His hospice care nurse was well-trained and compassionate, and when she knew death was near, she asked that family come to say good-bye. Steve died peacefully, and without pain, surrounded by the people he loved.
As they did when Steve learned he had cancer, we were very aggressive with treatment when Gina was diagnosed, including chemotherapy, steroids, antibiotics for the secondary infections, and fluid therapy. And as they did with Steve, when the disease progressed and Gina stopped eating altogether, we sought comfort measures only, including pain killers. In fact, in doing research about how people make the decision to take humans off of life-support to see if there was an analog for Gina, I found the decision making process in that context lacked rigor. We are clumsy in terms of making the decision for people; I shouldn’t have been surprised to find we are even clumsier in making these decisions for our animal companions. Platitudes about “quality of life versus quantity of life” lack integrity when they replace critical and scientific analysis. And that—along with pre-emptive absolution that end-of-life euthanasia was a “gift”—is all I seemed to find. I was unprepared to make the call to end her life, as I had with other companion animals. Part of the dilemma was that Gina was the most resolute cat I’ve ever known. She was adamant. No, she would not use a litter box. No, she would not stay upstairs. No, she would not stay downstairs. No, she would not stay indoors. No, she would not stay outdoors. No, she would not stop using the couch to sharpen her claws. Gina was the ultimate in personality and mischief: an individual with a set beliefs and practices that made her uniquely Gina. And that made her full of life. How can you take that away? But the best laid plans…
On a day when she looked really bad, when she had not eaten in a week, when she stumbled while walking, when she urinated and defecated on herself, when she no longer wanted to get up, when she no longer took comfort in being petted or held, and with a fear raging that we were prolonged her suffering by keeping her alive with fluids, long after she would have died on her own of dehydration (though no such concerns were presented about Steve despite the fact that he stopped eating weeks earlier), our determination to let her die naturally slipped away. There would be no “permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.” We would follow the traditional “act or practice of killing,” although for the same reason.
The veterinarian was compassionate in our taking of what remained of Gina’s life, as she had been during her entire illness. And as we held her, and told her how much we loved her, and thanked her for sharing her life with us, we watched as her veterinarian administered the fatal dose. And she drifted away from us. And I felt like I not only left my beautiful cat in that room, but a little part of my humanity.
It has been said that rare is the individual who can see beyond the mores of his or her own time. I’ve always admired such people and try to emulate them. Even if I never get there, I strive to. I struggle to. That is why I read history; to remind myself that those in our past who have moved us forward were those who continually questioned the accepted values and beliefs of their time, and never let custom or the pervasiveness of a practice deter them from championing what they deduced to be right . In doing so, they laid out a vision for a more compassionate and ethical future for all of us. And so I continually question, and will continue to question, regardless of what may seem like a practical imperative, whether we go far enough in our actions for and in defense of our companion animal friends and family. It is a tremendous responsibility to speak for the interests of someone else—especially when that someone else cannot speak for themselves, especially when it involves life and death, and especially when it is someone you love, relying on you to champion their best interests.
I continue to struggle about the decision to end Gina’s life, and hope I did the right thing. I have been assured by others that I did, but, for the first time in my life, I am not so sure. And I also can’t help but think of larger implications; that if hospice care were the norm and people no longer killed their companion animals even at the end-stages of their lives, or at the very least, if doing so was not the common choice, the ramifications for the sanctity of animal life would be tremendous. If the discussion were to unfold as a movement, as a society, within the veterinary community, and carried the same weight and gravity that it evokes when the topic relates to the same issue, but concerns our human family members, the impact on society’s tolerance for the mass killing in what we euphemistically call “shelters” (but are often little more than death camps) would be sea-changing. I believe that is what we owe the Ginas who allow us to share our lives with them.
If only she could have answered me that day when I whispered in her ear as we said goodbye to her for the last time, “Sweetheart, is this what you would have wanted?”
* Steve’s name has been changed to protect the privacy of his immediate family.
September 13, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
For too many years, the killing of millions of animals every year in our nation’s pounds has been justified on the basis of a supply-demand imbalance. We’ve been told that there are just “too many animals, not enough homes.” In other words, pet overpopulation. It is true that when it comes to animals needing homes in “shelters,” there is a supply-demand imbalance, but it runs in the other direction. With roughly three million animals killed every year but for a home and with over 23 million available homes available annually, the calculus isn’t even close. And there are plenty of No Kill communities to prove it.
The data and experience notwithstanding, some people continue to cling to the fiction that pet overpopulation is real. They do not have evidence to support it. They do not have data or analysis. They have no idea how many available homes there are (the demand side of the equation) as opposed to how many animals are killed but for a home (the supply side). Aside from a hopeless tautology (Because shelters kill, there is pet overpopulation; there is pet overpopulation because shelters kill), it is received wisdom, where data, analysis, experience, evidence have no place.
There are three million dogs and cats killed but for a home. There are 23.5 million people who are looking to get a new dog or cat every year. What do they make of this? They ignore it.
There are roughly 70 known No Kill communities representing about 200 cities and towns across the U.S., many that achieved it overnight. How did this happen if there is pet overpopulation? Aren’t those two things mutually exclusive? They ignore it.
There are communities with per capita intake rates four times higher than Los Angeles, seven times higher than New York City that are No Kill, higher even than the intake rates in their own communities. How do they explain that in light of pet overpopulation claims? Ignored.
Since puppy mills and pet stores that sell milled animals are only in it for the money, they wouldn’t exist if they weren’t making money by selling animals. And given that they wouldn’t be selling animals if there weren’t plenty of homes available, if pet overpopulation is real, why do puppy mills and pet stores exist? Also ignored.
Instead, we get “I know what I know,” “I see what I see,” “I know what I see,” “It is what it is,” and other mind-numbing, stagnating tautologies that allow for the killing to continue because they portray that killing as necessary and unavoidable, even when it is not. To believe in pet overpopulation is to condone and excuse the killing of four million innocent animals every year.
The good news is that we do not need to convince everyone, just the right people. And here, too, the news is good: Given the growing success of the No Kill movement around the country, we are clearly doing that.
To understand why people who claim to love animals continue to believe in pet overpopulation based on a “I know what I see” mentality, click here.*
Learn more about the myth of pet overpopulation by clicking here.
* For organizations like PETA, HSUS, the ASPCA, and killing shelters nationwide, the myth of pet overpopulation is nothing more than an excuse to kill or embrace killing.
September 12, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
In 1998, the California legislature enacted a comprehensive shelter reform package that, among other things, increased holding periods, incentivized adoptions, made it illegal for public and private “shelters” to kill animals who rescue groups were willing to save, and made it the policy of the state of California to end the killing of healthy and treatable animals. The legislation passed 96 to 12, as close to unanimity as possible in a state as large and as diverse as California.
As part of the reform, it defined “treatable” animals as those who could be rehabilitated with reasonable efforts. The goal was to increase the number of animals being saved. But increasing the number of animals being saved was not the goal of the leadership of those pounds, especially since their budgets were determined by how many animals they killed. The higher the kill rate, the more dollars flowing into their departments from taxpayer coffers. So they did what unethical people who have no regard for the lives of animals do, they sought ways to exploit loopholes in the language of the state law to continue killing. The fact that the people overwhelming demanded a commitment to lifesaving was of no moment. They were accountable to no one, least of all those who paid their salaries with their tax and philanthropic dollars.
Never mind that they were running institutions that were supposed to reflect the values of their constituents, that the killing was being done in the name of the people of the State of California, and that the people were being blamed for it. Never mind that the very same people, through their elected representatives, provided a framework for lifesaving. Directors who killed with impunity before the law was enacted were committed to killing afterward by flouting the law, both in letter and spirit.
Some shelters simply ignored the law, ignored the holding periods, ignored the rescue and other mandates and defiantly continued doing what they always did. (Kern County was sued six years after enactment and had no choice but to admit “guilt”.) Other directors throughout the state employed, with the blessing of their superiors, definitions and protocols to twist the meaning of statutory language beyond recognition. Despite the fact that the new law required shelters to provide dogs with regular exercise, the high killing pounds of San Bernardino County claimed that walking a dog from the front desk to his kennel during impound and from his kennel to the killing room four days later constituted the exercise demanded by the people. As part of a reform law, why would the state legislature pass a requirement that only restated what these pounds had already been doing? It wouldn’t. And San Bernardino officials knew it. It was dishonest, dishonorable, illegal, and immoral to be sure. But for scofflaws in agencies committed to a paradigm of neglect, abuse, and killing, it was par for the course.
In order to ignore the legislative policy that no treatable animals be put to death in California, these and other pound directors employed equally Orwellian definitions and policies. For example, many California pounds defined a “treatable” animal as only those conditions that could be fully cured within the state mandated holding period of four days. In one fell swoop, kittens with conjunctivitis, diarrhea, or simple colds, side by side with dogs who had kennel cough and other objectively and easily treatable medical and behavior conditions were now considered “unadoptable” and “untreatable,” an excuse to continue putting them to death with impunity. In fact, the American Humane Association, seeking to provide these killing pounds with the political cover they needed to ensure that their killing paradigm was not upended, even held a workshop where they told shelters that if they do not budget any money for medical care, they could say the animals were not treatable because they had no money to treat them. In one fell swoop, a pound could claim they had no treatable animals simply by refusing to buy antibiotics. It was not what drafters or supporters of the law intended.
But with organizations like Maddie’s Fund telling communities that they were each permitted to define for themselves which animals were healthy or treatable, that each community must determine for itself the lifesaving commitment, shelters were claiming or alluding to the fact that they were No Kill by defining the animals away (the County of Los Angeles, for example, claimed it was saving 91% of all “adoptable” animals despite putting to death 80% of the cats and half of all dogs).
In response, the No Kill Advocacy Center sought a more rational, objective, and honest standard. By looking at save rates of the best performing shelters in the country, it found that shelters were zeroing out the killing of healthy and treatable animals at roughly between 91% and at the time 93% of all the animals. Rather than allow pounds and killing shelters to define “healthy” and “treatable” or “adoptable” and “unadoptable” which they proved they could not be trusted to do so with integrity, the No Kill Advocacy Center promulgated the 90% rule, arguing that roughly 7-9% of the animals entering shelters were either hopelessly ill or injured, irremediably suffering, and in the case of dogs, truly vicious with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation. Except for a small handful of communities, given that almost all communities were killing the majority of all impounded animals, the goal was to increase between 40% and in some cases 80% of the number of animals saved in “shelters.”
Since that time, the number of known communities that have exceeded a 90% rate of lifesaving has grown to well over twenty—a monumental milestone and a cause for celebration. Admittedly, it may seem both premature and an exercise in minutiae to complain about killing in communities with 90% save rates, when some communities still embrace the policies of the pre-Henry Bergh 1860s by killing almost every animal, save for those lucky few reclaimed by their families, such as the regressive and evil (is there any other word for it?) Vermillion Parish, LA pound that refuses to allow adoptions. Or when communities like Memphis, TN not only slaughter seven out of ten animals, but neglect and abuse them in the process, including letting them die of starvation. But, as more and more communities are setting and achieving 90% target save rates, it is worth remembering and perhaps reminding people that the fundamental tenet of the No Kill philosophy is that our commitment is to each individual animal and that each individual animal is entitled to individual consideration. For the healthy feral cat who is killed in a community boasting 90% save rates, the safety net has failed. For the healthy dog who may be untrained, the fact that nine out of ten other dogs are being saved is meaningless. It is not meaningless per se. Indeed, far from it. But it is meaningless to him or her. He is entitled to his very life, a right that is not being honored. The 90% goal was never intended to be an excuse to kill either healthy or treatable animals, including healthy and treatable “feral” free-living cats, so long as the 90% threshold remains intact.
It is also worth remembering and reminding people that veterinary medicine and behavior medicine are not static fields. In fact, over the last few years, we’ve learned a lot, and since the rehabilitation of Michael Vick’s victims, we’ve redefined everything we thought we knew about behavior. Moreover, with the work of behaviorists like Aimee Sadler in Longmont, Colorado, we are now finding that we can save upwards of 98% of all dogs, and with shelters saving 95% and more of the cats, especially when they mandate TNR for unsocial ones, the notion of a 90% rule is worth revisiting. We must change with the changing times.
It is also worth noting that while the focus on dogs and cats has preoccupied the movement (they are, after all, being slaughtered by the millions), there are other species of sheltered animals still being killed in larger numbers, even in some communities that boast of 90% save rates for dogs and cats. Those communities are certainly not No Kill from the standpoint of rabbits and rabbit lovers, or guinea pigs and guinea pig advocates.
Of course, we must have a language for progress and I am thrilled that there are so many communities nationwide with better than 90% save rates for dogs and cats. Just over a decade ago, we had none. These communities have much to be proud of and much to celebrate, especially given where they’ve come from. But the No Kill journey remains as much a journey in those communities (albeit a shorter one), and not a destination to be used to excuse killing of those who are not being caught by the safety net they’ve established. As animal lovers whose creed is the sanctity of life, who consistently remind those pro-killing shelter administrators in places like Memphis, TN, Fresno, CA, Cincinnati, OH, and elsewhere that “all life is precious,” we can’t ultimately sit back and allow the 90% rule to be limited to dogs and cats or to be used as an excuse to kill animals, so long as we do not fall below the magical 90% threshold. That is not what the No Kill Advocacy Center intended when it promulgated the 90% standard. Otherwise, we become what we claim to abhor, people who twist meanings to fit our own agendas. Like California’s killing directors of the late 1990s, we defend an unethical status quo (though one much closer to the goal line and certainly with a much lowered body count).
Austin, Texas, has the highest save rate of any urban community in the United States today. Despite over 20,000 impounds annually, Austin is on pace for a better than 90% save rates for dogs and cats this year, a monumental achievement and a beacon of hope for advocates in darker parts of the country. But it is certainly not No Kill from the standpoint of other species of animals and it continues to kill large, healthy, but “ill-mannered” dogs. Charlottesville, Virginia has saved roughly 90% of dogs and cats every year for five years, but it is still killing healthy and treatable “feral” cats. Tompkins County, New York, has saved at least 92% of the animals every year for the last 10 years. But, while it used to save 100% of healthy animals (including non-dog and cat species such as rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, hamsters, and others), 100% of treatable animals, and 100% of healthy and treatable feral cats, it has killed “feral” cats since my departure.
Are 90-93% save rates in these and similar communities commendable in light of the mass slaughter occurring in places like Memphis? Absolutely. Should other communities aspire to similar success? Absolutely. Should they proudly promote their success? Absolutely. Are they saving all healthy and treatable animals (or, looking at it from the other side, only killing hopelessly ill or injured animals, irremediably suffering animals, and in the case of dogs, those who are truly vicious with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation)? Some are; some are not. Are they killing healthy and treatable rabbits, guinea pigs, or other species of animals who are just as entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as a dog or cat? They might be. In other words, should they sit back and announce mission accomplished? Absolutely not. There is still work to be done, programs to improve upon, and lives to be saved.
In fact, even if a community is truly saving all healthy and treatable animals, even if a community is saving healthy and treatable animals of all species, and even if they refuse to spay pregnant animals and kill kittens and puppies just because they are deemed “unborn,” they still have not finished their work. As I’ve said before and as I wrote in Irreconcilable Differences,
Indeed, it does not follow that killing of any hopelessly ill, injured or vicious animal is actually ethical. Most animal advocates are not calling for hopelessly ill or injured sheltered animals to be put up for adoption while irremediably suffering because that is cruel. And few, if any, are calling for truly vicious dogs to be adopted into homes in the community because that is dangerous. While over 90 percent of dogs and cats entering shelters would fall outside this limited range of exceptions, it does not follow that the remainder should be killed. While fewer than 10 percent of shelter animals may not be healthy or treatable, the vast majority of those are not suffering. This might include a dog with cancer whose prognosis is grave, but who still has a good quality of life for a limited time. It might include a cat with renal disease in its early stages. In fact, these animals live without pain, at least until they succumb to their illness.
Today, the great challenge in sheltering is between No Kill advocates working to ensure that healthy animals, animals with treatable medical conditions, and feral animals, are no longer killed in shelters and the defenders of tradition who claim that killing animals under the guise of “euthanasia” is necessary and proper. As the No Kill paradigm becomes more established, however, the humane movement will have to confront other ethical quandaries within our philosophy.
These ethical quandaries include: killing dogs who are aggressive but can lead happy lives in sanctuaries where they cannot harm the public; and killing hopelessly ill animals rather than giving them hospice care. Even today, the idea of killing at all is challenged by a small but growing movement of sanctuaries and hospice care groups. They argue for a “third door” between adoption and killing. That these issues have not yet been rigorously debated within the No Kill movement does not mean they shouldn’t be. They should. Compassion must be embraced whenever it presents itself, especially when it furthers an animal’s right to live.
Every social movement that grows quickly, becomes successful, and replaces the status quo is subject to disagreements and factions. We are naïve if we believe, contrary to the experiences of other social movements in history, that the No Kill movement will be the sole exception. Indeed, we are already starting to see those tensions. And some day, those who are currently fighting side-by-side with us will turn their “guns” on those of us who join the next generation of lifesaving advocates who aren’t satisfied with 95% save rates and want to push the envelope even further. And ironically, they will call us the same thing they were called for carrying the banner of saving lives: “unreasonable.” The next generation of No Kill advocates who challenge the killing of even 5% of the animals will ask our generation to end the killing, and having become the status quo (admittedly a better status quo than we are fighting), many in the No Kill movement will draw a line in the sand and say, as we’ve been told by the current traditionalists, “that goes too far.”
We can see it even today. There are shelter directors saving 90% of animals who oppose rights of rescue access, claiming they alone have the authority to determine which groups are responsible and which groups are not. In their view, what makes them different from killing directors is that they believe their standards are reasonable, while the ones used by killing directors are not. There are No Kill shelter directors who recoil at the thought that the people can and should, through their elected representatives, determine which animals go to rescue and which animals should not be entitled to that safety net of care, because they alone claim to hold the expertise to weigh risk and benefit. There are No Kill shelter directors who do not believe in the right of transparency by giving the public access to their killing rates, because they do not trust the people enough with the information and fear that even with 90% save rates, they will be accused of too much killing.
Should we honor them for achieving “No Kill-level” save rates, when butchers in Memphis and Cincinnati are operating assembly lines of death? We should. At the same time, are we heading for conflict as we try to codify those successes by passing laws mandating transparency, rescue access, and the other needed policies? We are. That appears inevitable, as their progressive tendencies have the kinds of limits that those of us who believe in the principles of full transparency and legislative rights do not share. In other words, they, too, have their blind spots.
Of course, we should support and embrace any community pushing toward 90%-level save rates and we should continue to celebrate when they actually achieve them. When Cincinnati is putting to death seven out of ten animals despite only 15,000 intakes a year, while Reno is saving nine out of ten with the same intakes but half the population, Reno is a shining light, a Camelot on the hill. We must demand that the SPCA of Cincinnati do the job it was entrusted to do but which it is not doing, as the Nevada Humane Society has done theirs. That shouldn’t change. But we must also continue to challenge our own assumptions so that we not become complacent in our own thinking, unable to see that the avant garde of today can become the entrenched dogmatic excuses of tomorrow. Again, I turn to Irreconcilable Differences,
It has been said that rare is the individual who can see beyond the mores of his or her own time. I’ve always admired such people and try to emulate them. Even if I never get there, I strive to. I struggle to. That is why I read history; to remind myself that those in our past who have moved us forward were those who continually questioned the accepted values and beliefs of their time, and never let custom or the pervasiveness of a practice deter them from championing what they deduced to be right. In doing so, they laid out a vision for a more compassionate and ethical future for all of us. And so I continually question, and will continue to question, regardless of what may seem like a practical imperative, whether we go far enough in our actions for and in defense of our companion animal friends and family. It is a tremendous responsibility to speak for the interests of someone else—especially when that someone else cannot speak for themselves, especially when it involves life and death…
With that in mind, we should offer hearty congratulations to the people of Austin, Texas for their monumental achievement in saving a higher percentage of dogs and cats than any urban community in the nation. They have much to be proud of. At the same time, we should urge them to climb higher, to work diligently and with all deliberate speed to expand that success to other species of sheltered animals and to bring into their protective lifesaving embrace all healthy, but large, ill-mannered dogs who are still losing their lives.
We should also offer hearty congratulations to the people of Charlottesville, Virginia for their monumental achievement in saving roughly 90% of dogs and cats every year for the last five years, as we offer the same to the people of Tompkins for doing so for ten years. They, too, have much to be proud of. At the same time, we should urge them to climb higher, to work diligently and with all deliberate speed to expand that success to all healthy and treatable “feral” cats who are still being killed. They are equally deserving of the right to live guaranteed to other animals in those shelters
Indeed, we should offer our hearty congratulations to the roughly two-dozen known communities who are saving better than 90% of the animals and the large numbers of others that are very nearly there. At the same time, I urge them to climb higher, to work diligently and with all deliberate speed to catch up to those communities saving upwards of 95% of cats and 98% of dogs. And I urge them to be as committed to rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, hamsters, rats, and birds, as they are to dogs and cats.
Given that a 90% save rate remains out of reach for most communities because of pro-killing directors, union-protected shirkers on staff, and bureaucratic indifference within local government, I will continue to focus my energies on working to getting those communities to higher rates of lifesaving and to assisting advocates and activists fighting for No Kill in their hometowns. But I will also lend my voice and my influence to those advocates out there working to ensure that the 90% threshold isn’t used as an excuse to kill those who the “90% rule” was intended to protect (namely, all healthy and treatable animals, including healthy and treatable feral cats). I will also lend my voice to those who want to push the envelope even further, by making hospice care and sanctuary the right for those who fall outside an even expanded definition of “savable”: the cat with advanced kidney disease; the dog who can’t be around people but who loves other dogs.
And I urge my colleagues in the No Kill movement not to call them what the current status quo calls us. I urge my colleagues in the No Kill movement to check their own “traditional” thinking at the door, even if that traditional thinking is “new” relative to who and what we are fighting. We must welcome the debate. We must strive onward and upward because while 90% is a monumental milestone and a goal worth celebrating, it is simply that, one milestone. When I was the director in Tompkins County, our save rate was 93% As some communities have since proved, we can push past even that—to 96%, 97%, and higher. But even then, given not just continual advances in veterinary and behavior medicine and the more widespread opportunities for sanctuary and hospice care, as well as our own moral evolution, until we save each and every animal who enters a shelter, there is no finish line.
Even as we succeed in more and more communities, we must not simply sit back and wait for the others to catch up. We must update our efforts to reflect the changing nature of the No Kill debate within our own movement. We must upgrade to No Kill 2.0 with open and loving arms. The animals who are currently falling through the cracks that continue to exist also deserve our protective embrace.