Houston, We Have a Problem

A recent article by reporter Craig Malisow in Houston takes on the quality of care and level of killing in the City animal control shelter. Although the article is critical of the agency, it also includes some unfortunate characterizations about my career as a lawyer, my experience in sheltering, and the success of Tompkins County which are factually wrong. So that they are not repeated in an effort to undermine No Kill in Houston or elsewhere, I want to clarify the inaccuracies.

False Claim: I have limited experience

Specifically, Malisow claims in the article that—according to Ed Sayres, my former boss—I was the “Director of Operations” at the San Francisco SPCA for only “two weeks” creating the impression that I only worked there for two weeks. I previously worked for and then consulted with Richard Avanzino, left, and came back a second time for two more years under Sayres. As I indicated to him by e-mail:

That was my title for a few weeks, but it is very misleading. During my second tenure [under Ed Sayres, I also worked for Rich Avanzino] in San Francisco, I had several titles: Director of Law & Advocacy, General Counsel, Vice President, and Director of Operations. [Ed Sayres] even flirted with Executive Director. He hired organizational consultants who came in prior to my leaving and changed my title, but my duties were the same at the time. That is what makes it misleading.

Sayres put me in charge of accounting, human resources, the animal hospital, dog behavior, cat behavior, adoptions, spay/neuter, medical care, and more. The titles changed frequently because of Sayres’ predilection for organizational chart revisions, but the duties stayed the same. When describing myself, it would have been silly to say I was the former “Director of Ethical Studies, Director of Law & Advocacy, General Counsel, Vice-President, and Director of Operations” so I choose the one that is most generic for the industry because it accurately described my duties.

He also claims I was only an attorney for a short time. I practiced law as a criminal and then corporate attorney for a total of six years. I have also been involved in writing laws at the state and federal level and use litigation as a strategy for No Kill success. I’m only 42 years old, how many years does he want?

Moreover, I not only worked in San Francisco and Tompkins County, I was the Board President of the Palo Alto Humane Society, worked with the Stanford Cat Network, the Greyhound Protection League, and assisted Charlottesville VA, Reno NV, Philadelphia PA, and many other communities achieve tremendous lifesaving success. I’ve even created an entire municipal animal control department for a municipality.

Malisow also talked about my assessment of Montgomery County (TX) Animal Control but not the impressive results: the significant decline in killing as a result of their following my recommendations. Here was an agency that killed the vast majority of animals, near 80%, entering their facility that now saves the vast majority. Last month it was around 20%, according to a volunteer. This is certainly worth mentioning.

False Claim: The success in Tompkins was due to Maddie’s Fund and deficit spending

Malisow insinuates that Tompkins County’s lifesaving success was a result of a Maddie’s Fund grant and because of deficit spending on my part. Neither of these claims are true. A simple check of Guidestar and IRS 990 filings would have shown a surplus of income to expenses. The fact that directors before and after me ran deficits should not be attributable to me. I did not.

Moreover, if Malisow had checked the dates of the Maddie’s Fund grant to Tompkins County, he would have learned it came after I left, and only after the county was already No Kill for three years. During my tenure, their total contribution was a one time gift of $6,000 to help pay for a new animal control van.

He also chose not to mention that despite the difference in size, Tompkins County takes in more animal per capita than Houston, and that its success has been replicated in communities which take in tens of thousands of animals, with a per capita rate vastly higher than Houston.

Most significantly, the article insinuated that No Kill requires lots of money and a fancy facility to be successful. While foster homes, volunteers, and veterinary support are needed, none of these things existed when I began in Tompkins County and immediately put an end to the killing. When I started, the Tompkins County SPCA was a typical American animal control shelter geared to overkill. It was running a deficit, had a much too-small, dilapidated and filthy facility, and banned volunteers because they refused to remain silent about inhumane care. But from day one, I took killing off the table and began to implement the infrastructure needed to save lives. To this day, while Naysayers continue to try to disparage the Tompkins County initiative, it just finished its seventh continuous year of No Kill. It is nothing short of a success story.

The article also ignores other community successes which have followed Tompkins. The municipal shelter in Porter County Indiana used to kill roughly 115 dogs and cats per month, young and old, healthy and sick, friendly and aggressive. There were even allegations of cruelty. After firing the long term director and staff, they now kill about 7 hopelessly ill animals or aggressive dogs a month. They did it overnight.

In Portsmouth Virginia, a new director took over the humane society which contracts for animal control services and committed herself to implementing the No Kill paradigm. Killing is down 63% since she took over operations. Contradicting those who say that No Kill leads to overcrowding and animals dying in kennel, the number of animals found dead is down 75% due to better cleaning practices, staff that is better able to assess medical needs, and increased veterinary care. Defying those who say there are too many animals for too few homes, adoptions are up, while rescue transfers have more than doubled. They did it overnight.

In Reno, Nevada, the Nevada Humane Society led an incredible renaissance in 2007 that saw adoptions increase as much as 80 percent and deaths decline by 51 percent, despite taking in a combined 16,000 dogs and cats a year with Washoe County Animal Services. Reno’s success occurred immediately after the hiring of a new shelter director committed to No Kill and passionate about saving lives. They did it overnight.

That is similar to success in mid-1990s San Francisco, Charlottesville, and many, many others.

Despite my request that he do so, Malisow did not talk to shelter directors in communities which were succeeding including:

  • Bonney Brown at the Nevada Humane Society
  • Mitch Schneider at Washoe County Animal Services
  • Susan Cosby of the Animal Welfare Association of New Jersey and former Chief Operating Officer of the Philadelphia Animal Care & Control Association
  • Suzanne Kogut in Charlottesville
  • Doug Rae at Indianapolis Animal Care & Control
  • Tereza Marks in Portsmouth, VA, and,
  • The director of the municipal shelter in Porter County, Indiana

False Claim: I do not believe in public irresponsibility

In the article, Malisow claims I do not believe in public irresponsibility, a fact I contradicted during his interview of me. As a former criminal prosecutor—who helped prosecute everything from drunk driving cases to a capital murder case—and chief of animal control, I would never deny human irresponsibility. In fact, he questioned me about a raid we participated in to try to stop an abusive backyard breeder while I was in Tompkins County.

As a Deputy District Attorney, I also prosecuted cruelty cases under the Three Strikes Law. I was even criticized for being too tough, when I charged someone with arson in addition to animal cruelty after they burned a cat because arson was a “strike” and would have led to a maximum six-year sentence, rather than three years for the cruelty. (As a strike case, it also required the defendant to serve at least 80% of that sentence, rather than the 50% for non-strike felonies.) I also succeeded in changing the policy in Riverside County which allowed defendants to be given their animals back pending trial because it was cheaper than boarding them, even though it meant putting the victim back into the hands of his or her abuser.

I have long stated that while irresponsibility sends animals to the shelters, what happens when they get there depends on the shelter. The fact that someone allows a pet to give birth to a litter doesn’t mean a shelter doesn’t have to put in place a foster care program to avoid killing those little ones. It doesn’t give the shelter the moral absolution to order their killing because they refuse to put in place a targeted program to stop it. Shelters exist to be a safety net for animals who are victims of irresponsible people, for homeless animals, and for animals when people have no where else to turn. But too many kill, rather than save animals. In fact, too many shelter directors refuse to implement alternatives to killing, acting irresponsibly themselves. And that is what I am critical of. While people surrender animals to shelters, it is shelters that kill them and one does not necessarily follow or excuse the other.

False Claim: I care “too much” and am “romantic” rather than practical

First of all, I don’t know what caring “too much” means. Compassion and love are not limited. But to make that claim, he makes much of an adoption incentive we offered in Tompkins for a discount pet massage. When someone adopted a dog or cat from our agency, they received:

1.       Free health exam at any local vet
2.       Free dog grooming at local pet salon
3.       10% discount at pet supply store
4.       Free dog behavior advice for life
5.       Free month of dog doodoo pick up
6.       Free engraved pet I.D. tag
7.       Free bag of pet food
8.       10% discount at puppy class
9.       10% discount for pet massage
10.       Pet Lover’s Guide to New Pet
11.       Free bag of goodies
12.       Discount on latte at local coffee shop
13.       Periodically: free video, free Kong, free collars/leashes, etc.

We paid nothing for these services. I succeeded in getting local pet related businesses to donate them in order to incentivize adoptions, encourage the integration of pets in our community, promote good pet care by new owners, and to promote pet related businesses. How is that an example of “caring too much” and being “romantic”?

In addition, it allowed us to effectively compete with local pet stores. Someone could pay $50 for an unspayed kitten from a pet store or they could adopt one from us for the same price, and not only get a kitten fully vetted and sterilized, but all those freebies and services, and they could adopt him or her at the very same mall during our regular offsite adoption events.

The pet massages were offered by a local business run by an animal loving member of our community, and I graciously accepted the donation. The insinuation is much ado about nothing.

My request to Craig Malisow

Finally, after spending several hours on the telephone with Malisow answering numerous questions which had absolutely nothing to do with the situation in Houston, the success of No Kill elsewhere, and what needs to be done to improve the plight of homeless animals in Houston, I sent him the following:

We talked more about attacks and rumors about my character than about what it takes to reduce killing, and that makes me a bit wary. My whole life has been dedicated to ending the killing of animals, and in the process, I’ve come to realize, as have many others, that often it is bureaucratic inertia and politics or even lack of caring that keeps animal care poor and killing high. It’s also the thinking that they are “just animals.” I can’t imagine a human hospital keeping a doctor whose license was suspended in another state for substandard care, but this is the status quo in sheltering, and it appears to be happening in Houston with their veterinarian (if the allegations reported in the [Houston] Chronicle are true). Given your questioning, which I accept as you doing your job, all I ask is that “controversy” and “shock value” don’t replace fundamental fairness. It’s not fair to me and it is not fair to the animals.

There are far too many animals being killed, and I would hate this to sidetrack about whether reducing the killing is a good idea or not a good idea. Even the Humane Society of the United States can no longer argue with the facts and in language that was excitingly similar to statements throughout my book, in late 2008 they stated that the public does care and is not to blame for their killing, that killing animals in shelters is “needless,” that we can be a No Kill nation today, and that “pet overpopulation” is more myth than fact. According to HSUS, “By increasing the percentage of people who obtain their pets through adoption-by just a few percentage points-we can solve the problem of euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats.”

They also stated that:

  • “The needless loss of life in animal shelters is deplored by the American public. People deeply love their dogs and cats and feel that killing pets who are homeless through no fault of their own is a problem we must work harder to prevent. They want animals to have a second chance at life, not death by injection.”
  • The needless killing of pets by animal shelters and animal control agencies comes at an enormous economic and moral cost.”

This comes after announcing that staunch No Kill advocates Suzanne Kogut and Bonney Brown will be speaking at Expo 2009, HSUS’ animal sheltering conference. Kogut runs an open admission No Kill animal control shelter, while Brown has led a No Kill initiative now saving 90% of dogs and 83% of all cats in Washoe County, Nevada.

It is not pet overpopulation if kittens are being killed in shelters because the shelter refuses to put in place a foster care program which would eliminate the “need” to kill kittens, as too many shelters in this country do. It is the lack of that program which is causing the kittens to be killed. It is not pet overpopulation if Pit Bull-type dogs are being killed because the shelter kills dogs based on arbitrary criteria, even if the individual dogs are healthy and friendly. It is the arbitrary policy that is killing those dogs. Just like it is not pet overpopulation if feral cats are killed, or puppies, or shy animals or any of the other categories of shelter animals which can be saved with a targeted program to save their lives, which shelters simply refuse to implement, even as implementation will provide a lifesaving alternative to systematic killing.

The reality is that short of leaving them alone or outlawing their trapping, you cannot save feral cats in shelters without a Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) program, just like you cannot save kittens or puppies without a foster care program. This is why opposition to No Kill is a non-starter. How do you save animals without these programs? You can’t. But while any level of lifesaving is not possible without these programs, No Kill is precluded unless they are comprehensively implemented to the point that they replace killing entirely.

But let’s assume for the moment that you can never reach No Kill. Today, shelters nationally are killing roughly half or more of all incoming animals. If I can borrow from an overused sports analogy, that puts us at the 50-yard line. And although the evidence is fairly overwhelming to the contrary, let’s say that we can never cross the goal line because of “pet overpopulation.” What is wrong with getting to the 20 yard line or 10 yard line? If all shelters put in place the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, the model which brought rates of shelter killing in communities from San Francisco, CA to Ithaca, NY; from Reno, NV to Charlottesville VA, and points in between to all time lows, we can save millions of lives nationally, regardless of whether we ever achieve a No Kill nation. Even if people do not believe that a No Kill nation is inevitable as I do, that is worth doing and worth doing without delay. Because every year we delay, indeed every day we delay, the body count increases.

The promise which the No Kill model offers to end the killing of animals in our nation’s shelters is a very real fact in several communities. And it is a fact only because leaders of the shelter and the community have stopped the excuses and worked to build the infrastructure needed to save lives.

Despite his inaccuracies about me, I am grateful Mr. Malisow is critical of government institutions which use tax money to kill, rather than save animals. I am grateful that his article reflected the desires of animal lovers in Houston who have long called for reforms of the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care. But I am hopeful that in the future he would not be so dismissive of programs with a documented, track record of lifesaving success. Without viable solutions, the problem can never be solved. And the animals of Houston and the Houstonites who care about them deserve an accountable, progressive, innovative, well run animal control agency serving their community which reflects their values.

In the meantime, I encourage all Houston animal lovers to find out how they can help create a No Kill Houston by visiting

A note to rescue groups with a Houston mailing address: Judge for yourselves. Read my book Redemption. Contact me by February 2, and I will send you a free copy.