Courage & Cowardice in the Fight for a No Kill Nation

September 30, 2011 by  

I spend a fair part of my day on the telephone. And when I can help someone reform their local pound or when I can help a shelter manager improve their rate of lifesaving, I find it rewarding. But there is one type of telephone call (and e-mail) that fills me with dread. And that is the person who calls about inhumane treatment or other unethical behavior of a local “shelter” or animal welfare organization, but wants to remain anonymous.

I understand there are strategic reasons for not going public at a particular time. When Best Friends Animal Society stabbed the rescuers of New York State in the back by refusing to support Oreo’s Law because of their relationship with Oreo’s killer, I did not go public during the debate on the bill in the Assembly because I feared it would hurt its chances for passage. It was a strategic decision based on what, in the end, I determined to be in the best interest of animals.

In one city where the pound is a haven of neglect and abuse, given that there are already quite a few voices calling for reform, I counseled one person on the inside not to go public him/herself, but to feed the inside information to others. Since they were the only person committed to the animals allowed on the inside, and without them the animals would on some days not even get fed, I felt that since there was already a strong movement for reform, the animals needed what care that person could provide.

When I did assessments of “shelters,” I would meet with the rescuers and volunteers privately. In order to get them to come and speak candidly, I had to promise them confidentiality, though I encouraged them to speak up and go on record. I always asked them:

Do you look the other way at inhumane treatment of animals in the shelter for fear you will lose your ability to rescue/volunteer?

And the answer, invariably, was “Yes.” They described how other rescuers were barred from saving animals as retaliation for complaining about the shelter, even if they first offered suggestions and when those were ignored, went public. And so rather than see the animals killed, rescuers have learned to keep quiet. To see the dog bleeding in his cage but not complain. To see staff playing cards in a back room or socializing up front while the animals languish in their own waste, fail to get treatment for their medical condition, or see cruelty calls ignored by officers who are not being held accountable. In some communities, rescuers who complained about conditions in the “shelter” found that the animals they called about and stated they were en route to pick up would be dead, killed out of spite, by the time they arrived. And although it is illegal, they have nonetheless had their ability to volunteer or rescue terminated. In a statewide survey of New York State rescue groups, 43% of groups that complained about inhumane conditions have been subject to retaliation, while over half—52%—that have witnessed inhumane treatment of animals have looked the other way because of fear of retaliation.

It is a “Sophie’s Choice,” as one rescuer faced in California before the Hayden Law gave rescuers legal rights:

I went to the shelter because I was told they had a mother cat and three 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 [name deleted], 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.

Although I understand what is at stake, and my heart aches for them, if this is to change, people must speak out (or, conversely, as Edmund Burke famously said, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’). If volunteers did not stand up and publicly fight in Tompkins County, it would not have become the first No Kill community in U.S. history. If activists did not wage a campaign for reform in Austin, it would not have had a 96% save rate for August. Wherever there is No Kill, there was once a shelter steeped in killing. And what made the difference between the shelter then and the shelter now was the courage of a few individuals who stood up, at their own peril, and spoke the truth.

Yet, too often, I encounter people who are unwilling to do this, even though by their own admission, they support No Kill and know reform is necessary. Tragically, their reluctance to speak out has nothing to do with strategy. It has nothing to do with a decision that saving some animals requires them to look the other way at the killing or neglect of others. They choose to remain anonymous because they do not want to “make waves.” They do not want to “get involved.” They do not want to be ostracized or to take the heat. Or they have something to lose. They want someone else—usually me—to do “something about it.” But then they shackle me by saying I can’t use their name and I can’t use the information because it will lead back to them. It happens to my regularly. And this week, it occurred on three occasions.

In one case, a rescuer found out that a high kill shelter was transferring animals from outside their jurisdiction from other rescuers, promising to find those animals homes. The rescuers (some of them No Kill) thought they were saving the animals and many of those animals were in no danger of being killed in the first place. But seven out of ten of those animals were put to death. I had a reporter willing to write a story in the daily paper if the person agreed to speak to them. She refused, choosing to remain anonymous because she did not want to be “ostracized” by the group.

In other case, a reporter was willing to do an expose in the local newspaper about misuse of funds and possibly illegal conduct at a major humane society with a 70% rate of killing. But the group with direct evidence of the fraud did not want to get involved because they had something to lose. Instead, they issued a “no comment” and the story—though it would have revealed the level of corruption at the agency to the public—never appeared.

In yet another case, a former Board Member of an animal protection organization has evidence of misuse of donor funds and possibly illegal conduct on the part of the leadership of that organization, but fears legal retribution because of a “non-disclosure agreement” s/he was required to sign, even though such agreements are designed to protect “trade secrets” or other information exempt from disclosure such as member names, not to keep secret morally reprehensible or possible criminal conduct.

Over the last several months, I’ve had others. A pit bull advocacy and rescue organization refuses to come forward about a shelter manager who kills older Pit Bulls with no holding period (in violation of the law). The group has a “good” relationship with this “shelter” and does not want to make waves.

In another case, a former employee of an animal rights group came to me with evidence of how that group misleads people by promising to find their animals a home, only to put them to death as a matter of policy. She wanted to remain “anonymous,” making the information useless.

In all of these cases, people with information about harmful, abusive, and potentially illegal activities being committed had the power to do the one thing necessary to put these actions under the cleansing light of public scrutiny and thus, bring them to an end: speak out. But in each of these cases, they refused to do so, virtually assuring that they continue.

It isn’t always easy to stand up and speak truth to power. They will smear you for it, they will assassinate your character, they will accuse you of the very things you are trying to fight. I’ve been accused by killing apologists, killers, and killing advocates of being in league with puppy mills, of profiting off of the deaths and suffering of animals, of being “for hoarding.” Admittedly, this is no fun. But it comes with the territory. And, more importantly, it pales in comparison with what the animals have to endure: neglect, abuse, killing, even starvation at the hands of those who are supposed to be their protectors. Against the backdrop of that, personal attacks are of little consequence. Against the horrifying conditions and staggering levels of killing animals face, they matter for naught.

In addition, they are short-lived. The great Henry Bergh was not immune to the “vexatious difficulties that were heaped his way.” In spite of his sensitivity to the attacks, he did not let it interfere with his crusade. He once said:

Two or three years of ridicule and abuse have thickened the epidermis of my sensibilities, and I have acquired the habit of doing the thing I think right, regardless of public clamor.

In other words, you get used to it. And you overcome the fear. Soon, it is even forgotten.

In a worst-case scenario, someone will call you names; dragging your name through the mud. But our lives are not on the line. Unlike other social movements, we’re not facing fire hoses, or the baton, or jail, or lynching. All the voiceless animals need from us is to speak out and, at most, have our names trampled. It is they who face the lynch mob. Not to speak out on their behalf because we don’t want to be ostracized or to make waves or because we have something to lose is simple cowardice.

When you speak the truth, when you stand up to bullies and expose them for who and what they really are, there may be some hardships, but there are also plenty of rewards. That the neglect and abuse ends and that the animals live instead of die goes without saying. Moreover, when you show courage, it inspires courage in others and you find you are not alone. A movement grows. History vindicates you. And you become a leader. At one time, Ryan Clinton was the target of relentless attacks by the ASPCA and its acolytes in his fight for a No Kill Austin. Today, despite the “vexatious difficulties” heaped his way, he can be proud of the fact that Austin’s better than 90% rate of lifesaving is a direct result of his fight for No Kill.

How will things change unless we make waves? How will we end the killing? How will we stop the abuse unless we expose it? As a young man, when local activists approached Dr. Martin Luther King to lead the fight against segregation, he was reluctant. The newly minted Ph.D. did not want to make waves. And he declined. But on December 5, 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested and a boycott of Montgomery buses was called, King watched one bus, then another, and another, usually filled with African American workers, pass by him empty. Instead, he saw masses of people walking, hitchhiking and even driving farm equipment to work. And he realized a miracle had taken place:

I knew that there is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.

Though possessed by fear and plagued by feelings of inadequacy, the sacrifices of others inspired him to sacrifice as well. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Martin Luther King Jr. is a man who needs no introduction. Today, no one speaks his name without awe and reverence for his tremendous courage. Because of him, we have the Civil Rights Act. Because of him, we have legal equality. Because of him, we live in a nation where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

But if I may be given the liberty to differ from the great man in one small respect, and without a desire to underplay the threats African Americans have faced and what they were fighting for, I would say this: The most majestic thing of all is the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for the freedom and dignity of others. Especially when those others have no voice of their own.

Stand up. Speak out. Fight the power. Without you, the animals don’t stand a chance.

The Fight for Patrick Continues…

September 25, 2011 by  

“[T]rademark registration number 23699” is a “very valuable brand for commercial exploitation and fundraising.” —Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey, describing Patrick in their lawsuit against the City of Newark and the veterinarians who saved his life.

To caring and compassionate people everywhere, he is known as “Patrick,” the horrifically abused dog who was discarded and left for dead in Newark, New Jersey. But to the Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey, the anti-No Kill organization with a history of neglect, abuse, and corruption that is seeking custody of Patrick, he is “trademark registration number 23699” which they describe as a “very valuable brand for commercial exploitation and fundraising.” And they are suing both the City of Newark and the veterinarian that saved Patrick’s life to protect it.

In its recently filed civil lawsuit, AHS claims the City of Newark and Garden State Veterinary Specialists (GSVS) conspired to deprive AHS of its property rights in Patrick and thus cost them vast fundraising potential when the City argued that Patrick should stay with the veterinarians who were treating him pending resolution of the criminal case against his former abuser. Instead of seeing the City and GSVS’s desire to give Patrick the life and love he deserves by having him stay with the veterinarians who saved him until he fully recovers and then being adopted by the nurse with whom he has bonded, AHS can only see dollar signs, a conspiracy to “deprive AHS of its property interest in Patrick.” And they want to get paid. They’ve asked the superior court of Essex County, New Jersey to award them money damages because apparently, the $9,000,000 in annual revenues apparently isn’t enough.

According to AHS, saving Patrick’s life, raising money to pay for his care, trying to keep him in perhaps the only loving environment he has ever known, and trying to give him a loving home away from further exploitation is not the right thing to do because, regardless of what might be in the best interests of Patrick, it amounts to “interference with [AHS] business activities” and its “economic advantage” resulting in “significant losses.” They’ve not only asked for all the money they could have potentially raised off of him, they’ve even asked the court to award them the money people donated directly to the veterinarian which went to pay for Patrick’s medical care, with interest.

For those who are familiar with AHS sordid history, the latest move may be shocking, but it is not surprising. AHS has a long history of corruption, neglect, inhumane treatment, and a refusal to put the best interests of animals above its own. In 2003, the State Commission of Investigation,

[R]eleased the results of a wide-ranging investigation into waste and abuse by one of New Jersey’s leading nonprofit animal-shelter organizations, Associated Humane Societies (AHS). The Commission found that AHS officials over the years have engaged in questionable financial practices, conflicts of interest, mismanagement and negligent animal care to the extent that the organization effectively lost sight of its core mission. Despite huge and highly successful fund-raising campaigns, the Commission found, “the history of AHS’s shelter operation has been dominated by deplorable kennel conditions, inhumane treatment of animals by workers, mismanagement and nonexistent or inadequate medical care.”

The Commission’s findings, going back to the 1980s, included: “Accountability so lax that millions of dollars accumulated in AHS cash and investment accounts while the care and feeding of sick and injured animals went begging” and “Deplorable shelter conditions and inadequate or absent veterinary care for shelter animals.”

Despite the 2003 findings, state animal welfare inspectors found even more deplorable conditions for animals in 2009, including “severe fly and maggot infestation,” “overwhelming malodorous smell,” “large amount of blood was found splattered on the floor, walls, and viewing window,” sick and injured animals “not being treated.” Animals “exhibiting signs of severe bloody, watery diarrhea and lethargy … not separated or receiving treatment.” Of the 4,296 cats taken in, 2,721 were put to death. Another 616 either died or are missing. Of the 3,423 dogs taken in, 806 were killed. Another 60 either died or are missing.

And while AHS takes great pains to say that these conditions are all in the past, this year, given the widespread and abusive problems going back to the 1980s as documented in the State Commission of Investigation inspection of 2003 and the 2009 inspection, state investigators should have found a pristine shelter. They did not. Even in 2011, kennel staff were still hosing down the kennel hallway with chemicals and water with the dogs still inside their cages, “further exposing them to contaminates and spray from the hoses.”

Even in 2011, there is evidence that they do not clean or disinfect the automatic feeders because there are layers of caked on food. Even in 2011, “Some animals displaying signs of illness are not being provided with prompt medical care.”

Even in 2011, “[S]ick shelter animals [are] intermixed with owned animals in the public medical room.” In addition, some of those who were in charge in 2003, who were in charge of 2009, and who allowed those conditions to occur, are still in charge in 2011.

Even in 2011, while communities across the country have invested in modern housing facilities, AHS continues to house the animals in dilapidated, even dangerous, conditions. You do not wait for a roof to collapse to replace it. You do not wait for a state inspection report to tell you rotted food in the automatic dispensers is bad to discard it.

But caring for those animals properly and giving them the resources they need to be housed in modern conditions conducive to their physical and mental well-being as well as to be saved (rather than killed), has not been a priority for AHS because those animals are apparently not worthy of it. They don’t matter because they cost AHS money, requiring it to spend some of the millions they raise every year, even though they raise it by promising to provide for those animals. They are not even worthy of foster homes, even if it means their lives are spared. AHS refuses to allow it.

The one that matters, however, is Patrick—or, as AHS calls him, “trademark registration number 23699.” Because Patrick has the potential to make AHS money—a lot of money. Patrick is, in the words of AHS in its civil lawsuit, a “very valuable brand for commercial exploitation and fundraising.” And they want the taxpayers of New Jersey and the veterinary clinic that saved Patrick’s life to pay up.

This isn’t the first time AHS has filed a court action to protect their “property” interests in “trademark registration number 23699.” They filed a motion in the underlying criminal case currently pending against his abuser to get custody of Patrick in order to stick him on display in their “Popcorn Zoo,” where they could continue to fundraise off of him. That motion was denied. The court argued that Patrick should stay with the veterinarian and the caregivers he has bonded with pending the resolution of the criminal case. That may have been what was in Patrick’s best interest, but it was not in the best interest of AHS’ pocket book. They subsequently filed an appeal of the court’s ruling. Thankfully, the appeal was also denied. And while well-wishers for Patrick around the country let out a collective sigh of relief, the celebration was premature. There is little doubt that when the criminal case is concluded, AHS will be back demanding full custody of Patrick, whom they see as their “valuable” “property.”

In the meantime, however, they aren’t content to simply wait for the criminal case to conclude so they can seek custody in order to fundraise off of him. They want the money they believe they could have “commercially exploit[ed]” off of Patrick now. And they want lots of it. They’ve asked the court for money damages, consequential damages, interest on any damages, and punitive damages.

Despite a campaign of intimidation, fear-mongering about No Kill, a lawsuit and threats of lawsuits by AHS, the Mayor of Newark fought back once before ordering AHS to take no further action with regards to Patrick. And thankfully, there is no evidence that the Mayor will back down now.

And so while those of us who want what is best for Patrick see him as a dog who deserves what all dogs deserve, a loving home and the care of a loving family, AHS sees him as a “very valuable brand for commercial exploitation and fundraising.” And while those of us who want what is best for Patrick have hoped for the fairy tale ending he deserves, that is incompatible with AHS’ belief he is their “trademark” for “fundraising purposes.” And while those of us who want what is best for Patrick believe he has rights, independent of his relationship to humans, AHS believes he is the “property of AHS.” And while those of us who want what is best for Patrick see him as a beautiful dog who deserves a beautiful life, AHS argues that he is “trademark registration number 23699” which will make them a lot of money.

The question is: Will AHS succeed in destroying Patrick’s happiness to get it?

For further reading:

The Fight for Patrick

A photograph from the 2009 state inspection of AHS in Newark: a dead dog, bleeding, whose body and floor is teeming with maggots. To view the rest of the photographs, including state inspection reports in 2003, 2009, and 2011, click here. (Warning: Very graphic.)

All You Need is Love…

September 21, 2011 by  

… And hard work.

Pam & Michael have a lot to smile about. What started out as two people who loved animals and wanted to help them has turned into a growing army of compassion that has completely revolutionized sheltering in Rockwall, Texas. And last month, thanks to the hard work of those they called to duty, their efforts culminated in a unanimous City Council No Kill declaration and a stunning 97% save rate.

In August, the City Council in Rockwall, Texas voted unanimously to become a No Kill community. To top it off, the shelter had a stunning 97% rate of lifesaving for one of the busiest months of the year, an August to remember. I spoke to Michael Kitkoski, who along with his wife, Pam, is the founder of Rockwall Pets, the volunteer-based organization spearheading the No Kill initiative. His prescription for No Kill success? All you need is love. And hard work. And to reject excuses. Fight when you have to. And believe in yourself. Given how far Rockwall has come, it is advice worth heeding.

Nathan Winograd: What was the shelter like when you started?

Michael Kitkoski: Rockwall has always killed more animals than it saved. Things were better in 2009, after the city built a new shelter, since adoptions were up when people flocked to see the new building. But even with a much-improved facility, the shelter was still killing over half of the animals, about 51%. Unfortunately, by June 2010, the shelter’s adoption rate was plummeting again. And most animals continued losing their lives.

NW: You and your wife started Rockwall Pets and are leading the No Kill initiative. Were you always No Kill advocates?

MK: When we first began, we were incredibly naive. We were insiders of a sort. I’d been taking a “shelter pet of the week” photo for a local newspaper. I’d also been writing a monthly pet column in the Rockwall edition of the Dallas Morning News for a couple of years. And my wife sat on the Parks board. Even though the City Council had to force the shelter to make changes, we still defended them.

After the Rockwall City Council required the shelter to begin a volunteer program, we asked to help by establishing a weekly offsite adoption event. During the events, people in the community kept asking us, “Are you a No Kill shelter?” Of course, we parroted the shelter’s standard line that No Kill was impossible for an open-admission municipal shelter like ours. But our defense of the shelter changed over time.

For example, we heavily marketed each weekly offsite adoption event. We made it convenient by taking the shelter pets to where the people were. And we provided friendly and helpful customer service, so people began not just coming the offsite events, but to the  shelter as well. I would have thought this would have pleased staff, but I was told that they were angry with me.

NW: For someone who defended the shelter, that must have been both disappointing and surprising to learn that saving lives was not the goal of shelter staff. Did you continue despite the realization that the staff just didn’t want to work hard?

MK: Yes. Our steadily-growing team of volunteers was definitely not afraid of hard work. We began expanding by doing offsite adoptions at various Rockwall events. I also took over the photography and marketing duties for the shelter, managing the on-line databases of all the shelter pets. We began reading books, attending seminars and webinars and studying what other successful shelters were doing. In short, we made ourselves into the shelter’s adoption experts.

We were so successful at increasing adoptions that the shelter was half-empty by November 2010. But our celebration turned out to be premature and we discovered how naïve we were. It took us until March 2011 to realize shelter staff was keeping the shelter empty by killing as many animals as we were adopting out. In March, we had an adoption rate of 42% and a kill rate of 36%. When I complained about all the empty kennels, one shelter staffer told me, “Isn’t this great? We’re so empty that there isn’t much work to do!” It was the first time we realized shelter staff was killing for convenience. It was my “light bulb” moment.

NW: Was that the tipping point for Rockwall Pets?

MK: It happened shortly afterwards. First, staff was threatening to kill a yellow lab named Hunter, who had been in the shelter for months. He was hardly looked at because he was considered “wild.” Faced with Hunter’s impending death, volunteers took immediate action, seeking any help for the dog, from obedience classes to law enforcement work. Staff immediately cast doubt on these ideas, claiming he’d be useless for law enforcement work. We fought for him anyway. Today, Hunter is a certified drug detection dog. It was the first time we challenged them on killing an animal and won.

The second turning point was when the department’s manager called me in to tell me most of his staff disliked me. They complained that they had to work harder. They took offense when I complained to the city council about poor customer service. Some of them, I was told, left the building when they saw me arrive. I was floored. I thought we had been helping the staff, but instead, they saw us as the enemy.

NW: Did that cause you to change your strategy?

MK: That and one other thing: Austin, Texas. After the Austin City Council voted to require the shelter in their community to save at least 90% of all animals, Austin announced it had achieved success in March 2011. We knew there were other open-admission municipal shelters saving better than 90%, but not in Texas. And the excuse that it could not be done here went right out the window.

NW: So what did you do differently?

MK: Emboldened by the Austin victory, we went to the department’s manager and requested that the shelter return to full capacity. If staff would stop killing so many animals, we told him, we would take personal responsibility for getting the additional animals adopted. To our surprise, we entered the shelter about a week later and found the “adoption row” filled. It was time to double our efforts!

By the next month, live outcomes soared to 86%. We hit 86% again in May. We were adopting our way to No Kill! Since this was a volunteer-driven effort, however, staff remained committed to killing. They panicked when the usual influx of cats and kittens began in June. While my wife and I were out of town on a business trip, the staff killed upwards of 30 cats. We flew back into high gear, including incorporating Rockwall Pets as a nonprofit organization, so we could begin accepting donations. And we turned around and put that money to use saving lives.

One of the things we did was a no fee adoption campaign for adult cats. Rockwall Pets reimbursed the city for every cat adopted during June without an adoption fee. Within a couple of weeks, shelter capacity returned to normal capacity, and we did it without killing.

NW: Did the shelter staff see the light?

MK: Incredibly, even though we were saving almost nine out of 10 animals, many of the staff were and still are hostile to the progress. We scheduled a meeting with city management to try to get some relief from the constant battles. To our surprise, the city manager opted to put the matter in front of the city council, and the rest is history.

NW: What happens now?

MK: We’ll keep working and we’ll keep fighting. And we’ll do it with our eyes wide open. Shelter personnel are unchanged. Since the city council’s No Kill vote, we’ve not seen even a glimmer of change at the shelter. Volunteers have to clean filthy kennels while the shelter is open to visitors due to lack of work ethic and the uncaring attitudes amongst many of the staff. But the bottom line is we’re getting it done. We’re going to follow in Austin’s footsteps as a No Kill Community. And it’s all due to volunteers, the army of compassion.

But we also know that for this to succeed in the long term, we need to change the culture at the shelter and that means changing policies. That is the next phase of our campaign.

NW: Any words of wisdom to share with people who still live in high-kill communities?

MK: We started with two naive people who just wanted to help the animals. We’ve ended up with an army of volunteers who are helping animals in ways we never could have imagined when we began. In other words, anyone can do it. And that anyone can be you!

To learn more about Rockwall Pets, click here.

To make the story of Rockwall or Austin, the story of your community, click here.

Feed the Birds

September 13, 2011 by  

Meet Jenny, a little blind pigeon from San Francisco. Jenny was a low-flying bird who was caught by some kids and beaten. She suffered head trauma and now cannot see. She was saved by a neighbor and is now in the safe hands of Mickacoo Rescue, a No Kill bird rescue group that also pulls birds off of death row in “shelters.” Jenny was one of the potential suitors of Commander Seymour Higgins, the pigeon we found injured and nursed back to health. Although it did not work out between them, Jenny was a sweetheart and is still looking for a home. Mickaboo also brought us Eileen, a one-legged beauty who is now the companion of the Commander.

Eileen’s adoption fee was $10, a pittance. We gave them $100 to help feed the birds. Please join me in doing the same, even just a couple of bucks. As I wrote in the blog post, No Kill 2.0, all sheltered animals have a right to live, not just dogs and cats. To do so, and for more information, click here.

They Know What They Know

September 13, 2011 by  


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.

No Kill 2.0

September 12, 2011 by  

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.

Redemption “Cliff Notes”

September 7, 2011 by  

The No Kill Advocacy Center has released a “cliff notes”-like version of Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America. It is a No Kill primer for those who want a refresher or have not read the book. It covers the No Kill philosophy, the No Kill Equation, the myth of pet overpopulation, and more in just a few pages. It also addresses public health/safety and cost issues, and the myth that open admission shelters cannot be No Kill. And it shows that No Kill is a humane, effective, sustainable, cost-effective model that works hand in hand with public health and safety, while fulfilling a fiscal responsibility to taxpayers.

Download or print a free copy by clicking here.

A False Debate

September 6, 2011 by  

A No Kill shelter can be public or private, run by a humane society or by a municipal government. But the ASPCA and others have misled people by claiming that, “A no-kill shelter really can’t have an open admission policy. It must limit its intake if it wants to adopt out animals and not kill them” and by implying that “open admission” is better. This is false. A No Kill shelter can be either “limited admission” or “open admission.” No Kill only means that no savable animals are put to death, roughly 95% of all intakes. And there are plenty of No Kill animal control shelters and thus No Kill communities to prove it.

By contrast, an “open admission” shelter does not have to, and should not, be an open door to the killing of animals. In fact, using the term “open admission” for killing shelters is misleading as they are CLOSED to people who love animals. They are CLOSED to people who might have lost their job or lost their home but do not want their animals to die. They are CLOSED to Good Samaritans who find animals but do not want them killed. They are CLOSED to animal lovers who want to help save lives but will not be silent in the face of needless killing. And so they turn these people and their animals away.

It is also ironic that killing pounds are so enmeshed in their so-called “open door” philosophy that they are blind to any proactive steps that might limit the numbers of animals coming in through those doors through pet retention programs or increase the numbers of animals adopted through comprehensive marketing and placement. But even if the ASPCA was honest (they are not), “open door” does not mean “more humane” when the end result is mass killing.

Learn more by clicking here.

Building a No Kill Ohio

September 3, 2011 by  

Join me this Saturday, September 10, 2011 for the “Great Shelters Conference” in Cincinnati, OH, followed by a book signing for both Redemption and Irreconcilable Differences. In addition to other speakers, I will be giving three workshops including Building a No Kill Community, High-Volume Adoptions, and Leadership. The workshops have been called,

A prerequisite for rescue groups and organizations that are serious about changing their communities to No Kill.

For more information and to register, click here.

The Fallacy of “Fates Worse Than Death”

September 1, 2011 by  

This little dog is most likely feeling the warmth of the sun for the very last time. In all likelihood, he was put to death within minutes of being surrendered to Memphis Animal Services, a badly mismanaged house of horrors where animals are neglected, abused, and systematically put to death, the vast majority without ever being offered for adoption. Sadly, too many people who should know better defend the killing, arguing that they have no choice, that if they do not impound and kill, the dog would suffer; that there are fates worse than death. Even if those were the only two choices (they are not as the No Kill communities throughout the country have proven), there are no fates worse than death. And it is an arrogant abuse of our power over defenseless animals to think it is our right to make such a determination for them.

The following is from the chapter “The Fallacy of ‘Fates Worse Than Death'” in Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America’s Animal Shelters

Recently, I received a letter from a woman who has spent half a century doing animal rescue work. Her description of the experiences she has had over the years, including the heartbreaking rescue of a near-dead kitten abandoned by a dumpster, demonstrates that she cares deeply about animals. And yet, she opposes the No Kill philosophy because she believes that “there are fates worse than death.” And she cannot conceive of a No Kill nation because she sees a crisis of uncaring in the United States, a conclusion drawn from decades of seeing abandoned, neglected, and abused animals. She knows this, she says, not from “percentages, data, and studies,” but from “what she has seen with her own eyes.”

Sadly, she and other animal rescuers who share these views have been in the trenches of rescue work so long, that they have become myopic; consequently, they have concluded that the lives of animals are filled with little more than pain and suffering. They believe in the inevitability of certain outcomes, and what they witness seems to confirm this point of view. In addition, the large national animal protection organizations which they turn to for guidance reaffirm their beliefs: people don’t care, irresponsibility is rampant, there are too many unwanted animals, and the only choices for most of these animals are a quick death in a shelter or suffering on the streets. Because they lack experience at progressive shelters that would challenge these views and they have trained themselves not to see evidence to the contrary all around them, they believe that “killing is kindness” and the alternative is worse.

What is driving these misplaced perceptions is a lack of perspective—perspective which comes from a larger view they cannot see and which the animal protection movement has failed to provide. If they took a step back, if they allowed themselves to see what is happening nationally, if they kept an open mind and stayed informed about the successes of the No Kill movement, they would see something else entirely. They would see the “big picture”—which reveals that there is not an epidemic of uncaring in the population-at-large, but in fact, quite the opposite. That there is a way out of killing and that a No Kill nation is not only possible, it is happening in communities all over the United States and it is well within our reach on a national scale.

Roughly eight million dogs and cats enter shelters every year, a small fraction compared to the 165 million in people’s homes. Of those entering shelters, only four percent are seized because of cruelty and neglect. Some people surrender their animals because they are irresponsible, but others do so because they have nowhere else to turn—a person dies, they lose their job, their home is foreclosed. In theory, that is why shelters exist—to be a safety net for animals whose caretakers no longer can or want to care for them. And the majority of animals who enter these shelters can, and should, be saved.

Imagine if shelters provided good care, comfort, and plenty of affection to the animals during their stay at these way stations funded through tax and philanthropic dollars by a dog- and cat-loving culture. And imagine if all shelters embraced the No Kill philosophy and the programs and services which make it possible. We would be a No Kill nation today.

Already, there are many No Kill cities and counties. Several of these communities doubled adoptions and cut killing by over 75 percent—and it did not take them five years to do so. They did it virtually overnight. But what happened in these places is not happening in most communities. Not because it isn’t possible, but because it has not been a priority for shelter managers and bureaucrats. In these shelters, unmotivated and uncaring employees shirk their duties: they fail to feed the dogs and cats; make them sick by cutting corners on cleaning protocols; leave them in squalor; and show open hostility to volunteers who could help by socializing, grooming, and giving the animals the love and attention they deserve. These shelters refuse to make adoptions a priority, choosing to kill the animals out of expediency.

Tragically, many animals experience neglect or abuse for the first time after they enter shelters. The sick and fearful animals rescuers often see are the victims of the shelter’s abuse. They see new animals coming in and the old ones leaving in body bags. And they blame the public, although the shelters refuse to implement simple, common-sense alternatives to killing. What they don’t see, unless they live in a community whose shelter has embraced a culture of caring and lifesaving is a shelter filled with adopters, volunteers, well-cared-for animals, feral cats at sterilization clinics, puppies and kittens at offsite adoptions, clean cages, and kind, welcoming staff.

The contrast between a regressive, kill shelter and a fully functioning No Kill shelter could not be starker. But because they don’t see the latter and have been repeatedly told that the former is the “best we can do,” they ignore plainly inhumane treatment and accept a system of sheltering that is nothing short of medieval. If they had a larger perspective—a progressively run, lifesaving shelter to compare to the one they are familiar with—they would see that the tragedy is actually the nation’s sheltering system, run by uncaring directors, civil-service and union protected shirkers, and politicians who have abdicated their fiduciary duty to ensure that these institutions mirror the public’s values, which are, in reality, incredibly humane.

The sad fact is that our perceptions do not always reflect the truth because we can misconstrue what we experience. For instance, I recently met a veterinarian who was convinced that feral cats are suffering horribly. I explained that after twenty years of feral cat advocacy and work in the animal sheltering field, I found little evidence to support such an assertion and that, in fact, several studies reveal that they are by and large happy and healthy and enjoy a good quality of life. I asked if her perception might be obscured: Since she does not participate in feral cat spay/neuter clinics, she sees only sick or injured feral cats and never encounters the vast majority, who are thriving. “I never thought of that,” she said, leaving me with the hope that I had planted a seed that would blossom into a new, more positive, and more accurate perspective.

Many in the humane movement suffer from a similarly limited perspective because of the work they do and where and how they spend their time. The problem appears larger and more pervasive than it is. Visiting poorly performing shelters on a regular basis, they lose sight of a broader, more accurate perspective of how most people really feel about animals.

They fail to realize that there are more people who care than do not care and that most people are decent to animals, concerned about their welfare, and can be trusted with their guardianship. They ignore that people spend $48 billion every year on their animals, a number that grows even as most other economic sectors are plummeting. They ignore that people miss work when their pets get sick. They ignore that people cut back their own needs during difficult economic times because they can’t bear to cut back on the needs of their animal companions. And they don’t recognize that No Kill success throughout the country is a result of people—people who care deeply.

People who volunteer at the shelter, who foster needy animals, who donate money even in times of economic uncertainty, who adopt from the shelter because their shelter welcomes them—by being clean, encouraging volunteerism, asking them to foster, treating them politely, and making it easy for them to adopt. Communities where shelters have boldly and sincerely proclaimed their desire to become No Kill have found an eager public ready to help make it a reality.

In fact, evidence of caring is often all around those who believe that others don’t care enough about animals, but they can’t recognize it as such or dismiss it as the “exception.” Though they constantly encounter “exceptions,” they don’t assimilate what it means. They fail to reach the proper conclusions even when the people who adopt the animals they rescue send letters and photographs, and thank them repeatedly for enriching their lives. They fail to recognize this when they see people at the dog park, or crossing their paths on their morning dog walks around the neighborhood. They even fail to recognize them in the stories, the care, and the embraces at their own veterinarian’s office—the waiting rooms never devoid of people,  the faces of scared people wondering what ails their animal companions, and the tears as they emerge from the exam rooms after saying good-bye for the last time.

They don’t see that books about animals that have touched people’s lives are not only written in ever-increasing numbers but are best sellers because people do care, and the stories touch them profoundly. They don’t see that the success of movies about animals is also a reflection of the love people have for them.

They fail to see how people were terrified as news spread of the pet food recall in 2007, when tainted pet food from China made their companion animals sick. And while animals were killed by tainted food, they were not the only ones to get hurt. Their caretakers suffered too: thousands of caring, helpless people witnessed the anguish of their pets because their government and a government overseas betrayed them for industry profits.

If they would only open their eyes, these animal rescuers would see that shelters that have fully embraced the public and implemented the necessary lifesaving programs, have proved that there is enough of this love and compassion in every community to achieve No Kill despite the irresponsibility of the few.

If those who rescue animals but remain opposed to No Kill took genuine stock of what was around them, they would see that while any case of an individual animal suffering abuse or neglect at the hands of a human is unacceptable and tragic, the number of these incidents is small compared to the number of dogs and cats loved, pampered, and cared for by the American public. To therefore use the plight of a tragic few to legitimize and endorse the systematic killing of millions by our nation’s corrupt and broken animal shelter system is not merely misguided; it is egregious. And it institutionalizes abuse and neglect by failing to challenge the actual causes of the horrible situation they encounter in regressive shelters. Ultimately, by supporting these shelters, albeit naïvely, they grant absolution to those truly responsible for animal suffering and killing, and help perpetuate these tragic outcomes. In short, they make things worse by failing to demand better, and by failing to support those who are.

Ironically, though they see themselves as loving and caring, their hearts are closed. Blinded by dogma, they filter everything they see and everything they experience through the belief that animals are victims of uncaring and cruel people—and their belief that it is a problem of such scope and magnitude that the only way out is killing. As a result, they condone a real problem—mass killing—as a “solution” to a phantom one.

What makes this point of view especially disturbing is the illogical leap it causes people to make from a false assumption (animals are suffering in overwhelming numbers) to a violent conclusion: mass killing is acceptable, indeed desirable. Because even if the first assumption were true (it is not), the conclusion simply does not follow. There are many, many possibilities in between to combat it—education, adoption, redemption, sanctuary, rescue, rehabilitation—that are ignored simply because the notion that killing is the “logical” outcome has dominated the sheltering dialogue for so long and so completely. It is regarded as acceptable and inevitable even though it is the most unnecessary, extreme, and inhumane of all responses.

Even if a case could be made that the public does not care, embracing death for these animals remains a non-sequitur. While these rescuers work to stop animals from suffering, they inadvertently champion the same attitude towards them that allows for such abuse—indeed, that perpetuates it: the idea that animals do not matter, that their lives are of little value and are easily expendable. Their assumption that animals must be killed in shelters undermines the entire principle which should be motivating their rescue efforts. Animal cruelty is horrible not only because of the pain and suffering of animals but because it often kills them. And killing animals is the ultimate betrayal. To “rescue” them from abuse and potential killing only to advocate for killing makes no sense whatsoever. Even if they are not convinced of the viability of No Kill alternatives, to be responsible advocates, they are nonetheless obligated to try, especially since it works in many communities.

In the end, their argument comes down to the belief that there are fates worse than death. And, sadly, too many people in rescue work accept this notion, even though it is patently false, and incorrectly assumes only three choices are available: killing at the pound, killing at the hands of abusers, or being killed on the streets. Working hard to end the scourge of abuse and neglect—and to punish the abusers—is not mutually exclusive with saving the lives of the innocent victims. In fact, the moral imperative to do one goes hand in hand with the other.

Yet in rescue work, some argue that death for the animals is a way out of suffering, forgetting that the right to live is inviolate. These people ignore that what they seek for animals they would never seek for themselves or other people. They ignore that no matter what the context and all through history—in Cambodia, Germany, under the Taliban, in Serbia-Croatia, in Rwanda, as in Darfur—despite the savagery, people cling to life, they cling to hope, and none of the survivors (and none of their rescuers) would suggest they should have been “humanely euthanized” by their liberators. To suggest such would perpetuate the violence and abuse.

While cruelty and suffering are abhorrent, while cruelty and suffering are painful, while cruelty and suffering should be condemned and rooted out, there is nothing worse than death, because death is final. An animal subjected to pain and suffering can be rescued. An animal subjected to savage cruelty can even become a therapy dog, bringing comfort to cancer patients, as the dog fighting case against football player Michael Vick shows. There is still hope, but death is hope’s total antithesis. It is the eclipse of hope because they never wake up, ever. It is the worst of the worst—a fact each and every one of us would recognize if we were the ones being threatened with death. And it is an arrogant abuse of our power over defenseless animals to think it is our right to make such a determination for them.

I am not naïve. I understand that the method of killing is important, and if we lived in a two dimensional world of shadows—if we lived in Plato’s cave—where the choice truly was nothing more than to be killed inhumanely or to be killed in a less brutal way, we would pick the latter. Although I have called repeatedly for the end of shelter killing, I have also supported efforts to abolish cruel methods of doing so—which too many shelters have refused to do. But that is not the choice presented. The choice is not, as rescuers contend, a choice between continued suffering and death at the pound. This is not what the animals face. Once they are rescued from abuse, more suffering should no longer be an option.

No one argues that shelters should leave animals to their abusers or that we adopt animals out to them. Everyone agrees that abuse is terrible, something no animal should endure. Of course, they must be rescued from these horrible fates. But once rescued and taken into protective custody, the question becomes: Do we give them a second chance and find them homes? Or, do we allow them to become victims yet again by killing them? Why the leap to arguing that because they experienced abuse in the past, they should be killed now? Or that all the other animals entering shelters should be killed? It is patently illogical.

In essence, champions of the “fates worse than death” argument advocate a “solution” of the mass killing of millions of animals as a response to the abuse or neglect suffered by some animals, which does absolutely nothing to erase the abuse that has already been done. How is killing some animals a prescriptive against future abuse, when we cannot know nor predict when or where it is about to occur, unless we exterminate all animals, everywhere, to guard against the possibility of it ever occurring again? Taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean killing every dog and cat in every shelter. This is not only an obvious obscenity; it is to propose a slaughter with no end.

Yet despite these disturbing and misguided views, I do not believe that such people are necessarily beyond rehabilitation. Certainly, I do not legitimize their point of view, nor do I believe that future generations will look back kindly on their support of killing, even in light of their false perceptions. Ultimately, it does not matter to the dog or cat being injected with poison by a shelter worker whether the motivation is lack of caring, laziness, cowardice, politics, or a real belief in the need to do so. The consequences are the same—death—and equally tragicirrespective of who is doing the killing and why it is being done. Yet even though they are absolutely wrong, we should not give up trying to rehabilitate them, because, in the end, they can become allies.

What they need is perspective—a larger view they cannot see from the trenches about the incredible success all around them: That the four million killed in shelters do not tell the full story. That the story is also about the 165 million dogs and cats in homes. That the kitten abandoned in a dumpster is overshadowed—though no less tragic for it—by the great lengths people go to when their animals are sick or by the compassion of those who inevitably come forward to give that kitten a second chance. That while the shelter in their community is killing at an astonishing pace, shelters in other communities have stopped when they embraced, rather than condemned, the larger public, and committed themselves to ending the killing by asking the public for help.

It is incumbent on No Kill advocates to help them see the bigger, more accurate, and more optimistic picture. Because unlike the lazy shelter manager or the uncaring shirker or the self-serving politician, these people care about animals and can change in earnest. They can become believers. And when they do, they become a further force for change. We must continue to expose the fallacy of their beliefs—that the choice is between an expedient shelter death or slow suffering on the streets or in the hands of abusers; that in order to be No Kill, shelters must warehouse animals because there are too many for the too few available homes; and that, even if those were the choices, it is acceptable for activists who claim to speak on behalf of animals to accept or champion for those animals that which neither they, nor the animals if they could speak, would accept: death.

And so we come back to the primary principle of the humane movement: Animal shelters must be the safety net, not an extension of the neglect and abuse animals face elsewhere. And like other service agencies that deal with human irresponsibility, shelters should not use that as an excuse to negate their own responsibility to put in place necessary programs and services to respond humanely, and therefore, appropriately.

This is the perspective they need. And with enough of it, they’ll eventually see. Eventually, they, too, will be liberated from pessimism and share in the optimism, the hope, and the tremendous potential this truth offers our animal friends. They’ll have their epiphany when they finally see through the fog under which they have lived: the condemnation of the public that has been ringing out so deafeningly for decades that is has drowned out the truth and legitimized the killing. It may take some time—time and perspective—but it is our solemn duty as No Kill advocates to give it to them until they do, even while we vociferously oppose the deadly policies they currently champion.

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