What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

October 27, 2009 by  

Last weekend, Best Friends held their annual No More Homeless Pets conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Roughly 650 people attended, of which 80% were new to the national No Kill movement. The conference was exciting, well executed, and included some remarkable and forward-thinking presenters and workshops. Bonney Brown, who is leading a successful No Kill initiative in Reno, NV gave two workshops on Building a No Kill Community. Jon Dunn, Social Marketing Manager for Best Friends, and Scott Goodstein, who led President Obama’s social marketing campaign, taught seminars on utilizing social media to save lives. There were presentations on non-lethal feral cat programs and much more. It was a great step forward for the movement, and I am grateful to have participated in the event.

Admittedly, I did not see all the workshops. Admittedly, there will always be some things No Kill advocates will disagree on. But there were three statements made by “experts” that were not simple disagreements between No Kill advocates. These three statements were not something on which No Kill advocates can reasonably differ. The claims were simply regressive, antiquated, and harmful for our goals of a No Kill nation. Without detracting from the assessment above, without detracting from the kudos Best Friends deserves for the event (none of the statements were made by anyone from Best Friends and, based on numerous communications with them in the past, I am sure Best Friends was as shocked by them as I was), I address those here.

Like most advocates working to reform our nation’s broken animal shelter system, I am accused of being “divisive,” though the claim only goes in one direction. Apologists for shelter killing are free to call No Kill and No Kill advocates “cruel” and a “delusion” (National Animal Control Association), “warehousing” and “glorified collectors” (Humane Society of the United States), “No Clue” (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and worse; but when you stand up for the animals, you are the “divisive” and “unreasonable” one.

I don’t enjoy conflict and I don’t seek out conflict. I’ve tried to meet with Wayne Pacelle in order to work out our differences, only to be rebuffed (he ignored my letters for 15 years and then finally responded to say he won’t meet with anyone he doesn’t trust, and he doesn’t trust me. Ironically, he was more than willing to trust, meet, and finally embrace Michael Vick, a convicted felon and dog killing psychotic monster). I’ve met in the past with the American Humane Association, only to watch them continue to promote arcane policies that harm animals. I’ve actually tried to establish a dialog with Ingrid Newkirk. And for two years, I tried to keep Ed Sayres focused on saving homeless animals at the San Francisco SPCA, rather than promoting his own aggrandizement. All, to no avail.

And I’ve said it before and I will say it again: when any one of these groups embraces the No Kill paradigm unequivocally, I will be the first to line up behind them. I’d even go away. Believe it or not, there are other animal related causes that I am passionate about and want to further before my time here on this Earth is finished. When they are ready to move on, so am I.

But their commitment to the mass killing of animals entrusted to their care and to the care of the shelters they provide political cover to, is entrenched beyond the bounds of reason. As I wrote in the new 2009 second edition of Redemption:

The only thing standing between the system of mass killing we are living under today and the No Kill nation we can immediately achieve is that the leaders of the large national organizations refuse to seize the opportunity to act. Instead they are determined to fail—to ensure that the paradigm they have championed for so long is not upended—by blocking reform efforts which challenge their hegemony; by protecting and defending draconian shelter practices, uncaring shelter directors; and by squandering the potential represented by the great love people have for companion animals.

How can I ignore the fact that the 3,600,000 savable dogs and cats killed every year in our nation’s shelters can in fact actually be saved today but for the policies championed, defended, and promoted by groups such as HSUS, NACA, AHA, ASPCA, and PETA? I cannot. And so I am left with no choice but to engage them directly. I am left with no choice but to counter their deadly policies. I am left with no choice but to stand up for the animals, even as I am called “radical,” “enemy seeking,” “unreasonable,” and “divisive.”

It comes with the territory. As I told Best Friends conference attendees in a series of slides at my workshop on “Reforming Animal Control,”

They’ll tell you No Kill is impossible (even though it has already been achieved!). They’ll use that as an excuse to continue killing. And to whitewash their failures to hold staff accountable. Or their failure to implement lifesaving programs. To keep customer service poor and the shelter dirty. To allow this to continue: algae covered water bowls and filthy kennels. And this: cruel methods of killing and dirty litter boxes. To fill body bags, despite empty cages. It is truly time for change.

But when you call it into question.  They’ll call you “divisive.”  They’ll give you one excuse after another:

  • “It’s pet overpopulation.”
  • “It’s the public’s fault.”
  • “We need more laws.”
  • “The animals are not adoptable.”
  • “Wait five years.”

Even though none of these are true.

Being called “divisive” is not something I— or other No Kill advocates such as the good folks at FixAustin who were recently accused of the same in a newspaper editorial—relish.  I suppose, however, that since this is the mantel that people often bear who challenge vested interests intent on harm, we might as well wear it as a badge of honor. After all, we are in good company: Harriet Beecher Stowe was considered “divisive” not just for being an abolitionist, but for refusing to compromise by challenging the liberal concept of “humane slavery.” Alice Paul was considered “divisive” within the suffrage movement for not being civil with the two-faced Woodrow Wilson. As were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. was “divisive” not just for challenging segregation, but liberal “supporters” in Chicago who allowed the “ghetto” and Lyndon Johnson for sending black and poor people to fight his dirty war against poor people in Viet Nam. Cesar Chavez, Rachel Carson, Harvey Milk, Thomas Clarkson, and everyone else—great or small; remembered or forgotten—who ever said “enough is enough” in their respective social movements. All of them were “unreasonable.” All of them were “divisive.” All of them were “radical.” I suppose we should be grateful that being labeled a “communist” is no longer in vogue, though it is just a matter of time before we are called “terrorists.” Thankfully, history always vindicates those who champion compassion, those who aspire to do the right thing in spite of the consequences in the here and now—because progress depends on it.

And so I stand up in spite of the personal attacks. And while the conference itself was exciting; while the vast majority of speakers were terrific and trailblazing; while the venue and process was flawless; while the end result was a positive step forward in our efforts to achieve a No Kill nation; while 80% of attendees were either new to conferences or new to the movement, showing that the No Kill movement is growing by leaps and bounds; while I came away energized and excited and grateful that Best Friends gave me and others an opportunity to reach a whole new set of activists with the No Kill message—activists who have joined our army of compassion and will spread out across the county to their respective communities and help burn down every last vestige of the “catch and kill” paradigm that HSUS and others champion and protect—I also felt nervous and angry and once again forced to stand up and defend the animals against potentially deadly misinformation.

Only this time, the misinformation that allows killing to continue came not from my enemies (such as Pacelle, Sayres, and Newkirk), but from my friends. It came from other presenters who claim to be allies in the fight for a No Kill nation. (One panelist in another session actually claimed the City of Los Angeles is a national model because of its mandatory spay/neuter law which has caused killing rates to increase for the first time in a decade! Another panelist is a poster child for killing apologists and killing enablers like Judy Mancuso who want to spread this warped version of “success” statewide.) And I could not, and I cannot, allow that to go unanswered. It would be a betrayal to my good sense. It would be a betrayal to my conscience. But most of all, it would be a betrayal to the animals.

As I write in my upcoming book Irreconcilable Differences,

While it is always more difficult and uncomfortable to stand up to one’s so-called “friends” than to stand up to one’s “enemies,” stand up we must. For if we are ever to achieve a No Kill nation—and end the wholly unnecessary killing of millions of animals every year in U.S. shelters—we must respond strategically to the actual problems that cause animal suffering and prevent greater lifesaving…

Nationwide lifesaving success will be achieved only when all shelters and all animal protection groups embrace the No Kill paradigm that says that the killing in our nation’s shelters must end—and not when we “respect” opposing views that accept and legitimize that killing.

And so at the risk of being again (and unfairly) labeled “divisive,” I feel duty bound to clear up the false claims made by some of the “experts” at the Best Friends No More Homeless Pets Conference. During my involvement on a panel on adoptions, my fellow panelists made several statements that are quite simply wrong and indefensible.

One panelist defended leash laws for cats and “indoor only” adoption policies. Another panelist claimed that cat killing in shelters is currently inevitable because of “pet overpopulation.” And yet another stated that with the growth of adoptions, their “return” rate (adopted animals who are returned to the shelter within one year) also increased significantly.

When measured against seminars showing shelters and rescue groups how to embrace social media to save lives; when measured against workshops on increasing adoptions, embracing Trap-Neuter-Release, foster care, and other programs to achieve No Kill; when measured against all the wonderful outcomes and presentations of the conference, some may be tempted to say that I protest too much. But I don’t think so.

There were 650 people in the room, eight out of ten of who are new to the national No Kill movement. And if they walk away with lowered expectations, if they walk away with lowered demands, if they embrace cat leash laws or “indoor only” adoption policies while cats are being killed in their local shelters, if they give animal control more power to turn away good homes and kill the animals well meaning Americans are willing to adopt, if they do not embrace high volume adoptions because they think it comes with high return rates, if they wait five years when they shouldn’t have to wait any, if they embrace punitive laws as “reform” even though these are often part of the problem, animals needlessly die. And how can we—as animal lovers and No Kill advocates—allow that?

This is not theoretical. In Ohio, the Lucas County dog warden is under fire for an astronomically high kill rate. Roughly eight out of ten dogs are being put to death, even as rescue groups are turned away, even as owners are calling to try and find their missing dogs he has already killed, even as the dogs are getting sick because he refuses to vaccinate them, even though his response is always “kill, kill, kill” despite readily available lifesaving alternatives, and even though he is an incompetent hack who was given the job due to nepotism (he is related to a county commissioner). And so while a Committee overseeing problems at the shelter uncovered a pattern of neglect and incompetence, they also recommended door-to-door canvassing for dog license violators as the first step towards a solution. That’s correct: they want to give the Lucas County dog killer and his animal control thugs more power to cite, impound, and kill animals not in compliance. And they are not alone.

Los Angeles activists complain about the killing going at Los Angeles Animal Services. And what did they seek and ultimately enact into law? A punitive ordinance that gave uncaring animal control officers more power to cite, impound, and kill animals. And the officers have done exactly that: the first increase in killing in a decade.

How is that approach a path to No Kill? And who is championing it? Sadly, a minority of “experts” at the recent conference. Leash laws, license laws, arbitrary adoption policies, mandatory spay/neuter laws, and myths about overpopulation and the “need” to kill. Even though this approach has never worked and too often, has the opposite results.

Imagine this. Imagine it was a conference sometime in the future: a “No More Cancer” conference. And let’s say a cure for cancer has been discovered. It has a 100% rate of success in every patient to whom it was given as long as they follow the prescription. And let’s say one physician is championing that cure and has demonstrated time and time again, in patients all over the country and in all types of cancer, how it has worked. But the other panelists are championing old treatments that don’t work. Imagine what that first physician would feel like; what he would feel compelled to scream: “There is a cure people! What the hell are you talking about? Patients are dying and it is unnecessary.”

That is exactly how I felt listening to the panelists on adoptions advance outdated, antiquated, and downright regressive approaches to ending the systematic killing of animals in shelters. Don’t get me wrong; I do not want to overstate the case. For the most part, the panelists agreed on the many issues surrounding adoption programs, as they should have. There is only one model that has achieved No Kill success and it is the model we should all be championing: high volume, thoughtful but not overly bureaucratic screening, incentives and promotions, offsite events, evening and weekend hours, public relations, good customer service, and a fun and inviting shelter where people can interact with the animals. But this isn’t some minor process disagreement.

For example, comprehensive adoption programs are crucial to ending the killing of healthy and treatable animals. But while daily offsite adoption events were central to the strategy in San Francisco (we did offsite events seven days a week, at seven different locations every day) and they accounted for roughly 25% of overall adoptions, Bonney Brown of the Nevada Humane Society will tell you that while they have embraced every other aspect of a comprehensive adoption effort, including periodic offsite adoptions, given their centrally located facility, offsite adoptions aren’t a daily necessity for them, and the results prove it (adoptions for dogs are up over 50% and adoptions for cats are up over 80% since she took over). This is a difference of degree, which is community specific, even while we both agree that only the No Kill Equation model of adoptions achieves success.

The statements made by the panelists are not a difference of degree. They are a difference in kind. It is tempting to suggest they simply do not know better. This is bad enough. As self-proclaimed experts, they have a higher duty to stay on top of their field and only give the most relevant and modern advice—a  duty they fundamentally abdicated by giving bad advice and drawing the wrong conclusions. But I believe there is something deeper at work. And regardless of the motivations, all of these claims are simply wrong. They are not wrong in my opinion. They are wrong, in fact. And while I was not on the particular panel when the City of Los Angeles was promoted as a model of success (I did debunk this claim in my conference seminar on “Reforming Animal Control”), I did challenge the rest during the panel discussion I was a part of. And I must challenge them here, too. [In many ways, the blog “Lessons from an Andy Warhol Tote Bag” is apropos here also. I recommend people read it again with an eye to what was championed by a minority at the recent Las Vegas conference.]

I won’t address the issue of mandatory spay/neuter. I’ve written about it too many times to go into again, as have many, many other animal lovers who correctly oppose: giving animal control more power to divert resources from lifesaving programs to enforcement; increasing the power of the catch and kill bureaucracy; and punishing the public for the shelter’s failures, especially as this punitive approach leads to more killing. For this, you can read Redemption, or go to nokilladvocacycenter.org, petconnection.com, kcdogblog.com, among many others. Even the ASPCA—the flagship for the Eastern “catch and kill” establishment—has finally, finally, finally, woken up and come out against them because they don’t work (though they don’t mention they also kill more animals).

But as for the rest:

Myth: Shelters should have “indoor only” adoption policies for cats/shelters should embrace cat leash laws.

Analysis of Claims: Instead of taking a pragmatic approach which itself is questionable (indoor-only policies might make sense in Manhattan, but not in rural America, and case-by-case in between these two extremes); the idea that cats belong only indoors and adoption policies should reflect that, requires shelters to accept an ethical contradiction: it is acceptable to kill cats today because some may be killed later if allowed outdoors. In addition, the risks of being outdoors are thoroughly exaggerated. A comprehensive 11-year study of outdoor cats found that they had similar baselines in health, disease rates, and longevity as indoor cats. A subsequent study gave feral cats “A+” grades across a wide range of physical and health characteristics. In yet another study, less than one percent of over 100,000 feral cats admitted to seven major TNR programs across the United States were killed for debilitating conditions; while a fourth survey across 132 colonies in north central Florida showed that 96 percent of feral cats had a “good” or “great” quality of life.

Moreover, as I write in Irreconcilable Differences:

In the end, however, the “risks” associated with being outdoors—disease, malicious humans, and even predation—are not the primary killers of cats. (A study on the diet of urban coyotes in an area filled with outdoor cats showed that domestic cats were found in only 1.3 percent of the scats). People in shelters are the number one killer of cats. If we care about cats, we should put programs in place that prevent them from entering these facilities and that provide an opportunity for them to get out alive when they do.

And that includes not putting in place arbitrary barriers to their adoption. We should not turn away good homes just because the potential adopters indicate the cat will be let outside, especially while shelters are killing savable cats.

Myth: Shelters cannot adopt their way out of killing cats and have no choice but to kill cats because of overpopulation.

Analysis of Claim: There are four reasons to reject this claim. First of all, the argument that it is impossible to end the killing of savable cats because there are too many ignores that it has already been achieved in many communities. In addition, it has been achieved in communities with per capita intake rates that exceed this claimant’s community several-fold. The fact that the claimant’s community has failed to end the killing of healthy and treatable cats is because of the practices (or lack of appropriate practices) by the animal control shelter in that specific community. It cannot be universalized.

Second, the data proves pet overpopulation is a myth. Several studies from a number of sources confirm that there are more people looking to bring a new cat into their homes than the total number of cats entering shelters, and most of these people can be influenced to adopt from a shelter. On top of that, not all cats entering shelters need adoption.

Third, there is consensus on this issue among the national groups including the No Kill Advocacy Center, Maddie’s Fund, HSUS, the ASPCA, and others. Given that these groups agree on very little, the fact that they all acknowledge that a small percentage increase of market share—roughly 3%—will eliminate the population control killing of all healthy and treatable cats and dogs indicates a high degree of confidence.

Finally, the claimant has no direct control over the practices of the community’s animal control shelter, the shelter has a long history of bureaucratic inertia and underperformance, it kills—rather than TNR—most feral cats, the large TNR group in the community has repeatedly failed to rescue notched ear cats in the animal control facility, there is a lack of full scale commitment to ending the killing of savable cats by the large shelters in the community, resources are misallocated, and shirkers on staff are not held accountable.

In summary, it cannot be called impossible since it has already been achieved, the data proves it, as does the consensus of groups who normally agree on very little. There are many reasons shelters kill cats. But “pet overpopulation” is not one of them. And there is ample evidence animal control in the claimant’s community is not doing nearly enough to save the lives of cats.

In the end, the real motivation behind this claim may be to provide political cover for the failure to achieve success by trying to universalize it. But, in the end, this amounts to nothing more than the age-old diversionary tactic of avoiding responsibility by pointing the finger of blame to others.

Myth: High volume adoptions results in high rates of returns (as high as 20%).

Analysis of Claim: The underpinning of this claim is that in order to increase quantity, you have to reduce quality. And because of these lower quality adoptions, this line of thinking goes, more animals are being returned. Increasing adoptions involves:

  • Public access adoption hours
  • Beating the competition (commercial sources of animals)
  • Offsite adoptions
  • Special events
  • Adoption incentives
  • Foster care
  • Utilizing rescue groups
  • Alternative placements
  • Thoughtful but not overly bureaucratic screening
  • A fun and friendly shelter environment
  • Setting specific goals
  • Encouraging the public to interact with the animals
  • Turning challenges into opportunities

It has nothing whatsoever to do with reducing quality. That is why some of the most successful shelters in the country have return rates of less than 5%. In Tompkins County, New York, for example, it was closer to 2% despite a 93% save rate, the best in the nation.

In the end, however, even if it did involve a 20% rate of return and even if we accepted for the sake of argument, that this figure could never be lowered, what would be the significance of that? Sure, it would put more pressure on resources, but as long as the shelter was No Kill, no animals have to die as a result. And why focus on the 20% rather than the 80% who are still both alive and in their homes?

In the end, I’d rather have a lifetime home than a six-month home, but I’d treat the latter no different than an animal returning from foster care and simply find that animal another home six months from now. Our goal may be a lifetime home, but our greater goal is no more killing. And if the home falls through, while not the ideal, as long as the lifesaving guarantee is in place, there is no permanent harm.

When you release yourself from this (and other) conventional shelter dogma, all kinds of lifesaving possibilities open up: leasing animals to military families who are stationed for a defined period of time, trial run adoptions, and other creative alternatives to traditional shelter practices that result in killing far too many animals. In fact, during my recent trip to Australia, a rescue group recounted saving dozens of animals immediately threatened with death at the pound by placing them (“leasing them” she called them) in fixed-term homes for people from other countries on a temporary work related visa.

To be fair, the claimant on the panel admitted to be struggling with their own relatively new program and therefore was simply offering results before they have ironed out the “bugs” and achieved success. The claimant also admitted they had no control over the specific adoption policies of some of the groups involved in their multi-agency adoption efforts. The miscue here was clearly not intentional, but merely a relaying of preliminary data as it was. I’ve debated simply leaving it out, because it was not an effort to universalize their results, but I include it because it is worth clarifying misconceptions about high volume adoptions, especially since this misconception feeds into the dark vision promoted by people like Ingrid Newkirk, Wayne Pacelle, and others who advocate continued killing of animals.

And while the latter claim was not made with the dogmatic pronouncement of the first two, what the entire claimants share in common is that none of them have ever achieved a No Kill community. A priori, that makes their advice on how to achieve No Kill open to immediate challenge. Having achieved a No Kill community and having assisted other communities to do the same, I told the attendees at my conference workshop what they needed to hear and what should be their uncompromising mantra: no more excuses, no more killing. In the end, that will earn them the label “divisive,” but in the light of history, it will be seen for what it truly is: the mark of compassion.

For further reading:

Lessons from an Andy Warhol Tote Bag

Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America (2nd Edition)

Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America’s Animal Shelters

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