Can We Find Homes for 2.4 Billion Animals A Year? Ask the “Experts” at AHA

Early this morning, I did an interview with WABC 77 in New York City, the most popular talk radio station in the country about shelter killing under the guise of “pet overpopulation.” It was 3:30 am for me and so I am not sure I was at my best, but I can say this for sure: the guest promoting the idea that pet overpopulation was real was even worse. Before I was on, they talked with Dori Villalon, Vice President of Animal Protection for the American Humane Association, the oldest national organization focused on companion animals in the United States.

Villalon’s assertions about the existence of pet overpopulation were stunning; and in light of the changing landscape as a result of the No Kill movement, displayed such incredible ignorance that she revealed even further how truly little we have to learn from groups like AHA.

The Vice-President of AHA argued that pet overpopulation was responsible for the killing of “four to six million animals” by shelters every year. But when asked how many people were looking to get a dog or cat this year, the “demand” side, she said “Gosh, um, I don’t know that number.” And when further asked how she could be so adamant that pet overpopulation was real given that she didn’t know, she said that it was because we are killing four million, a hopeless tautology. But she went further, claiming that for us to end the killing “every person in America right now [would have to] adopt eight animals” and they would have to do so every year. My jaw hit the floor. (You can listen by clicking here.)

Today, the human population in the U.S. is just over 300,000,000. If everyone adopted eight animals, that would be 2.4 billion animals—six hundred times the number of animals being killed in shelters every year. Here was a leader of the first national companion animal advocacy organization in the U.S. which has claimed a leadership position since 1877, and not only did she demonstrate a profound ignorance on the core issue of the humane movement which is used to justify the needless slaughter of almost four million animals a year, but she was willing to go on the radio and do so, apparently unaware of just how ignorant she was.

She doesn’t know the demand side: “I don’t know that number.” The fact of killing is rationalized backward: We kill animals, therefore there is pet overpopulation. Wildly exaggerated numbers are thrown out: to end killing we have to adopt out 2.4 billion animals a year in the U.S. How can a so-called “professional” in her field be so out of touch? And how is it possible that she is so out of touch, she doesn’t even know that she is out of touch?

The answer is rather obvious. Our nation’s large national animal protection organizations have had a free ride for over a century. Until recently, no one challenged AHA, or for that matter, HSUS and the ASPCA, on their positions and sloppy logic, on their wildly exaggerated claims and false assurances, on their myths and their lies. That is why the Vice-President of AHA can claim pet overpopulation is real without knowing the demand side of the equation, by ignoring the fact that many communities across the U.S. have proved it is a myth, and by suggesting without embarrassment that every person in America has to adopt 8 animals a year to end killing! (I’ve tried to find a way to make this more rational. It was early, maybe she meant each household? That would still be over 900 million animals. Maybe she meant they had to adopt one animal, not eight. That would still be 300 million. There is simply no way to salvage this.)

In reality, if 4,000,000 are being killed (2010 preliminary figures actually put the killing closer to 3.5 million) and roughly 90% are healthy or treatable, that is 3.6 million that need to be saved. We could bump that number down if shelters did a better job of matching lost with found animals, thereby increasing owner-reclaims and if they sterilized rather than killed cats identified as “feral.” And it would drop even more if shelters had pet retention programs that kept many of those animals out of the shelter in the first place or worked fully with rescue organizations. But even with the 3 million who remain, it means we only need to find homes for an additional 1 million dogs and 2 million cats at the high end. And with roughly 23.5 million homes becoming available each year for dogs and cats, that is eminently doable. In fact, it is already being done in many communities.

Elsewhere, I’ve discussed those communities across the country that have proved we can adopt our way out of killing; some of which were hard hit by the economic downturn and which take in seven times the per capita rate of animals than New York City. I’ve discussed how if there really weren’t enough homes, pet stores and puppy mills wouldn’t be in business. I’ve discussed the role of programs, accountability, and even more basic considerations like how the number of kennels and cages in a shelter impact lifesaving. I’ve even discussed how basic caring—such as in comparing Austin to Dallas, TX—play a part in whether animals live or die.

But none of that played a role in Villalon’s calculations as she claimed boldly that pet overpopulation is real even as she did not know the data, was blind to actual experience, and claimed that to save 3 million animals we have to find homes for 2.4 billion of them every year. And when asked how the performance of shelter directors should be gauged in light of their killing millions of animals every year, she, likewise, had no answer. As scandals unfold nationwide underscoring a crisis of cruelty and uncaring at our nation’s pounds and “shelters,” the Vice-President of AHA could respond only with anecdotal evidence that most shelter directors she knows “care.” (How about judging them in light of their performance?)

Sadly, rather than advocate for the animals being killed by these shelter directors as is their duty, leaders at national animal protection organizations like Villalon defend the massacre with circular reasoning, fuzzy math, and their regressive, antiquated dogmas. This ignorance is a betrayal, and this ignorance kills. But if there is a silver lining, it is that its depth—revealed in instances like Villalon’s absurd claims—reveals just how vulnerable they actually are. They reveal how ill equipped and unprepared they are to defend their positions, which, when challenged by data, and the experience of communities which have already proved them wrong, slip like sand through their fingers.

Today, the American public and media regard these organizations as “experts” because of their long and illustrious reputations. Yet they are reputations earned not through the tireless devotion to furthering the cause they exist to promote, but through the largesse of an animal loving culture which for decades has naively believed their slick solicitations and their heart-wrenching but dishonest commercials which exploit the public’s goodwill and compassion and have made them rich and powerful as a result.

As we continue to call them out and they are publicly forced to defend their positions, they cannot effectively do so. And as Villalon’s performance today reveals, they have yet to even realize that they are expected to. Armed with facts, logic, and the experience proving unequivocally that pet overpopulation is a myth, No Kill activists are rapidly redefining the movement which AHA, HSUS, ASPCA and other organizations claim to lead.   Believing their leadership positions to be solid and secure, Dori Villalon, Ed Sayres, and Wayne Pacelle sit idle and ignorant, blithely unaware that we are dismantling, brick-by-brick, the very foundation beneath their feet.

For further reading: Lessons from an Andy Warhol Tote Bag