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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 PETAWayne Pacelle of HSUSMatt 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.

For further reading:

The Lie at the Heart of the Killing

The Enemy of Your Enemy

What’s In a Name?

Ethical Consistency for True Dog Lovers

Adopting Your Way Out of Killing

Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America

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Here is my story: www.nathanwinograd.com/?p=11902

And this is my vision: http://vimeo.com/48445902

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