Is More Killing On the Way to the Twin Cities?

Protests erupted in front of the Animal Humane Society (AHS) in Minneapolis and a petition by animal lovers is calling for the ouster of their director. This followed the mass killing of some 120 cats, despite pleas from rescuers and local shelters willing to help save them.

But this does not seem to have made an impact on the AHS Board of Directors. Not only did AHS sanction the action of AHS in a letter parroting staff arguments about the “need” to kill the cats, but according to a subsequent letter from Nic Pifer, Chair of the Board of Directors, the AHS is not only already doing a good job but has hired Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Sandra Newbury from the UC Davis Veterinary School to guide them into the future. “No doubt you are familiar with their work and reputation,” Mr. Pifer writes.

Yes, Mr. Pifer, I am “familiar with their work and reputation.” They are the ones who came into Las Vegas guns blazing and suggested that the shelter kill animals after a paltry 72 hours. They are the ones responsible for a 2007 increase in the number of cats killed in Dane County Humane Society by eviscerating the foster care program and recommending that the shelter keep every other cat cage empty (thereby cutting capacity in half and forcing the killing of cats already on the adoption floor). They are the ones who go into communities which are embracing No Kill to peddle the defunct “No Kill equals hoarding” argument designed to thwart those reform efforts by painting the lifesaving alternative to their 19th Century brand of catch and kill animal sheltering as even darker. They are the ones who equate No Kill with every known social evil, including “poor record keeping,” a laughable proposition if the outcome (the deaths of animals) weren’t the tragic result.

To make her point, Dr. Hurley even shows policy makers slides of messy cereal box aisles in a supermarket to “show” what happens when you put too many animals/cereal boxes on a shelf arguing that we have to “respect our animals just like we respect our cereal.” She also uses the feeble analogy to impart the apparent importance of limiting consumer choice. While showing shelves jammed with cereal boxes, she explained why offering people too many choices resulted in no sales at all, although I think Kellogg’s would take umbrage at her point.

According to a No Kill advocate, “I like my cereal, but I don’t respect it. I do, however, respect precious lives enough not to reduce them to merchandise.” But apparently, Dr. Hurley believes that if you have too many animals/cereal boxes, you should just throw them away. Only, you don’t have to kill cereal before doing so, and that is the crucial difference.

In one case, after seeing Kate Hurley speak, the former director of the Animal Welfare Association of New Jersey followed her advice by reducing the number of cages in the cat adoption room by half. She noted an increase in the number of cats adopted. Animal Sheltering, HSUS’ flagship magazine for the “catch and kill” establishment, promoted the success of this “less is more” approach. When a new director abandoned the approach and began following the No Kill Equation model of sheltering, cat adoptions nearly doubled and the agency became the most successful adoption agency in the entire state of New Jersey. Although the new director followed up with a letter to the editor, the subsequent and outstanding success was ignored.

And so you too will become familiar with their work and reputation, I am rerunning a December 2007 blog called “Can You Kill Your Way to No Kill?” about the team you claim so “eager to begin our work with:”

Once again, a Board of Directors abdicates its responsibility, a shelter director finds killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it, Dr. Hurley will likely provide the legitimacy to do so, and animals will continue to needlessly lose their lives. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Can You Kill Your Way to No Kill?

Dr. Hurley, Dr. Newbury, Dr. Semmelweis, and Death at a Midwest Humane Society
In February 2007, the Lied Animal Shelter in Las Vegas was forcibly closed down due to filthy conditions and dreadful treatment of animals. According to reports, sick animals were left to die in their cages, disease was rampant, and dogs were starving because of lack of food. The animals were not vaccinated on intake, sick animals were not treated, healthy animals were subsequently made sick, there was no isolation for sick animals, and there was a complete breakdown of basic principles of animal care and husbandry. The Lied Animal Shelter is a story of incompetent leadership, uncaring staff, a board of directors which failed to meet its oversight mandate, and a system which refused to put in place the programs and services that save the lives of animals. What happened at Lied Animal Shelter is one side of the worst kinds of animal sheltering.

The other side of the same coin (uncaring, incompetent shelter directors who oversee an equally uncaring and incompetent staff) are shelters that recklessly kill the vast majority of animals in their care in the face of responsible, proven lifesaving alternatives which they refuse to implement—In other words, run-of-the-mill high kill shelters such as those that can be found in many cities and towns across America. While the mechanics are different—Lied didn’t kill but left the animals to suffer and die on their own, the others simply kill them out of expediency—the underlying dynamic is the same: both shelters are outdated relics that refuse to modernize and put into place progressive programs and services which allow sheltering to be done humanely, responsibly, while saving the vast majority of dogs and cats. That the Lied Animal Shelter claimed it was “No Kill” is irrelevant. In the final analysis, it had more in common with high kill shelters and the leadership and staff who run them.

The Lied Animal Shelter—comprised of starving dogs, rampant disease, filth, animals suffering with no care—is not what the No Kill movement represents. In fact, No Kill is the opposite of hoarding, filth, and lack of veterinary care. The philosophical underpinning of the No Kill movement is to put actions behind the words of every shelter’s mission statement: “All life is precious.” No Kill is about valuing animals, which not only means saving their lives, but means good quality care. It means vaccination on intake, nutritious food, daily socialization and exercise, fresh and clean water, medical care, and a system built to find them all loving, new homes as soon as possible.

No Kill does not mean business as usual (poor care, hostile and abusive treatment of animals, warehousing) minus the intentional killing. It means modernizing shelter operations so that animals are well cared for and keep moving through the system efficiently and effectively and into loving, new homes. At the open admission No Kill shelter I ran, the average length of stay for animals was eight days, we had a return rate of approximately 2%, we reduced the disease rate by nearly 90% from the prior administration, we reduced the intentional killing rate by 75%, no animal ever celebrated an anniversary in the facility, and we saved 93% of all impounded animals. In short, from 2001-2004, we brought sheltering into the 21st Century.

Personal Agendas
But there are those who have seized upon the Lied Animal Shelter fiasco to promote their own agenda of defending an antiquated model of sheltering developed in the 19th Century which is based on killing, sweeping animals under the rug (more accurately, into the back room to be killed), based on archaic notions of “adoptability,” turning volunteers away and other regressive and obsolete practices. They are using the Lied Animal Shelter to denounce the No Kill paradigm by intimating—sometimes directly, more often indirectly—that Lied is the natural outcome of trying to end the killing of savable dogs and cats in shelters today. And two of the leading voices of this point of view are Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Sandra Newbury, veterinarians for the University of California at Davis Shelter Medicine program.

This is a betrayal of the worst kind. Even the Humane Society of the United States called Lied “one of the worst its ever seen.” It was extreme even in the eyes of an agency which accepts staggering high levels of killing as the norm. Therefore, using such an extreme situation as an example of No Kill, of what the natural alternative to ending the killing today would be, is egregious.

By denigrating No Kill as akin to warehousing and ignoring the protocols of shelters which have truly achieved No Kill, Drs. Hurley and Newbury appear to be arguing for nothing more than a nation of shelters firmly grounded in killing—a defeatist mentality that is inherently unethical and antithetical to animal welfare. To imply that No Kill means warehousing, therefore, is a cynicism which has only one purpose: to defend those who are failing at saving lives from public criticism and public accountability by painting a picture of the alternative as even darker.

At the Las Vegas shelter, a wholly incompetent and uncaring shelter director refused to vaccinate animals on intake, failed to practice basic husbandry, refused to treat sick animals, failed to isolate sick from healthy animals, failed to clean and sanitize, allowed animals to languish with illnesses and injuries, and failed to put in place the programs and procedures which vastly increase adoptions and lifesaving. This is not No Kill. This is animal cruelty, but HSUS—with Drs. Hurley and Newbury in tow—came in with needles blazing and oversaw the killing of 1,000 animals. (The Lied Animal Shelter is now killing dogs and cats after only 72 hours and officials there claim they are doing so based on the recommendation of the HSUS team. This not only replaces one “evil” with another, it even violates HSUS’ own longstanding recommendation that shelters should hold animals for at least five days.)

But if the No Kill model should be rejected, what do they recommend? For Dr. Newbury, the answer is simple and can be found right in the shelter of her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin—at the Dane County Humane Society (where both she and Dr. Hurley used to work, a shelter she currently consults with, and where her own model of sheltering is currently being practiced). Let’s see what the Newbury model means for the cats of the Dane County Humane Society.

Life and Death at the Dane County Humane Society
This year, over a period of several weeks, one by one, seventy-three cats were taken off of the adoption floor of the Dane County Humane Society in Madison, WI, to a room outside of public view. One by one, each was injected with poison from a bottle marked “fatal-plus” (or similar barbiturate). One by one, their bodies went limp and slumped to the table. One by one, each was put to death. Why were these 73 cats killed?

They were killed, according to recent reports, because the shelter decided it was going to keep every other cage empty and curtail other lifesaving programs, reducing the number of cages on its adoption floor by half. But since cats occupied those cages or were under the “care” of those other programs, they needed to be slaughtered first. This was necessary in order to “save more cats.” That’s right. According to shelter bureaucrats, by killing cats, by cutting the capacity of the shelter in half, they were professing the Orwellian logic that more cats would be saved:

At this shelter, every other cage is intentionally kept empty despite the fact that disease can be reduced by fostering sick animals, by isolating sick animals, by reducing disease rates through vaccination, proper handling, good cleaning and sanitizing protocols, and by reducing animal stress through daily interaction and socialization by volunteers. At the same time that the number of cages was reduced by half, however, the shelter restricted adoption hours and eviscerated its foster care program.

In response to a public backlash, the architect of this mass carnage claimed: “I am not in any way advocating for more euthanasia,” which is more double-speak since this is exactly what is being advocated. What else is the option when the number of cages is reduced by half, while the shelter is scaling back other opportunities—like adoption days and foster care programs—to save them?

According to Dr. Newbury, by killing the cats and then intentionally cutting shelter capacity in half, more animals will be saved over the course of the year or the next. If your head is spinning from the lack of logic, you are not alone. This argument was also lost on a reporter who noted that in fact, by killing more cats and cutting shelter capacity in half, more cats are likely to die, a fact confirmed by the rising death toll for cats at Dane County Humane Society. Since Dr. Newbury started with the Dane County Humane Society in 2003, the death toll for cats has been steadily rising. In 2003, the year she began, the cat save rate was on a mult-year rise culminating at about 80%. It has been declining every year since. Even while the Society is getting richer (its revenue is growing by the millions), it is killing more cats than in recent history.

According to a recently published report, the Dane County Humane Society’s “[killing] rate for cats reached 40% in October of this year, up from 29% in October 2006,” and this, despite falling intake rates. Despite the promise of more lifesaving, in fact:

The [kill] rate has not gone down. The shelter still kills about one-third of the nearly 7,000 animals it receives annually. And the numbers for cats are the worst. The shelter is actually taking in fewer felines – 3,000 so far this year, compared to 3,800 in 2006 – but is killing more of them. In 2003, the Humane Society [killed] 600 cats a year. By 2006, it was killing more than 1,200. And it’s on track to kill an even higher number this year.

On top of this, the Dane County Humane Society’s new rules:

Decreed that old or sick cats-even those with treatable conditions-would be [killed]. Kittens that arrive needing to be bottle fed would also generally be killed, since the Humane Society limited the number of foster families available to care for them to just 10.

: As more progressive shelters have demonstrated, disease can be reduced by more adoptions (which is undermined when Dane County cuts back adoption hours), sending animals to foster care (which is undermined when Dane County emasculates the program), using volunteers to socialize the animals (which is undermined when volunteers are turned away or leave in frustration), and practicing good husbandry (vaccination on intake, careful handling, thorough sanitizing and cleaning protocols).

This has not been lost on the cat loving public. According to volunteers, any respiratory infections at the shelter were not the result of having cats in all the cages, it was the result of shelter staff “ignoring basic protocols, like washing their hands in-between handling animals.” Moreover, the shelter’s director publicly admitted under a reporter’s questioning that they have never had an epidemic of a serious disease!

Rejecting the Status Quo
While Drs. Hurley and Newbury continue to dig trenches to the past, the rest of us are building bridges to our inevitable No Kill future—A future that promises more life, more compassion, more success, more programs to save the lives of animals. In doing so, we are rejecting the consensus of killing and rejecting the “model” of empty cages, lack of foster care, and killing because the animals do not meet draconian definitions of objective beauty or based on regressive and obsolete notions of “adoptability.”

For in the end, our movement is about more than seeking shelters which simply label themselves as “No Kill” and proceed with business as usual, as the Lied Animal Shelter did. Our movement is about action and results, not mere words and promises. What we seek is a modernization and transformation of our shelters, exchanging century-old obsolete forms of doing business which recklessly embrace killing as a morally ethical means to an end, with shelters that uphold the life and welfare of animals as paramount, and adjust their operations accordingly.

What we demand, and what the animals deserve, are shelter directors and shelter “experts” who value life, and keep pace with progress and innovation, and with the new and exciting methods of animal shelter protocols developed over the last decade to keep animals clean, healthy, and well cared for, while finding homes for all but hopelessly vicious dogs and irremediably suffering animals. These are the only models which veterinarians at one of the nation’s most prestigious veterinary college should be using to train the next generation of veterinarians and to guide the current generation of shelter directors forward.

As a university and as a training ground for new veterinarians, the U.C. Davis program should be at the forefront of progressive shelter practices and of the dynamic and exciting changes occurring in the field of animal sheltering as a result of the No Kill movement. Instead, Drs. Hurley and Newbury irresponsibly cling to the past by promoting methods of sheltering that are antiquated, inhumane, and lead to unnecessary killing. This would be the equivalent of a medical school continuing to teach its students that leeches, bloodletting and magical incantations are a valid treatment for pneumonia, in the face of proven alternatives like antibiotics, fluid therapy and rest. It is nothing short of bad medicine—and a textbook example of the “Semmelweis Reflex,” the reaction so-called “experts” often exhibit when the status quo, which they represent, is challenged.

The Semmelweis Reflex
Historians have coined the term the “Semmelweis Reflex” to describe “mob behavior in which a discovery of important scientific fact is punished rather than rewarded.” In the nineteenth century, Dr. Ignac Semmelweis observed a higher incidence of deaths due to puerperal fever in maternity wards associated with teaching hospitals than in births attended by midwives. In trying to figure out why puerperal fever was a hazard of giving birth in a hospital rather than at home, Semmelweis opined that students and doctors might be carrying the diseases from autopsies they performed, while midwives who did not perform such procedures were not. Semmelweis also found that rigorous instrument cleaning and hand washing could bring the fever rate down to zero. Had doctors known at the time that germs caused disease, this finding would have been unremarkable.

Unfortunately, Semmelweis’ discovery predated the germ theory of disease. At the time, no one knew that asepsis was important. According to Semmelweis’ critics, hand washing wasn’t needed when they could clearly see that their hands had nothing on them. And, tragically, they ignored his recommendations and continued with business as usual, with deadly results for their patients. Once germ theory became known and established, however, Semmelweis was vindicated for his foresight. Of course, sterility through instrument cleaning and hand washing has since become the norm.

The housing, socialization, adoption, foster care, cleaning and vaccination protocols, medical and behavior rehabilitation and other efforts pioneered in communities like San Francisco and copied elsewhere provide a life-affirming model of sheltering which provides high quality care, reduced disease rates, even while keeping cages and kennels full as necessary and in foster care, while finding the vast majority of shelter animals loving new homes. These models were developed by caring and compassionate individuals, professionals, and in conjunction with veterinary institutions like Cornell University.

Rather than attack Semmelweis, doctors should have simply washed their hands, since Semmelweis pointed out that this eliminated deaths, even though, at the time, no one could explain why. Similarly, rather than attack the methods of sheltering which allow the vast majority of animals to be saved, even while operating at capacity-plus fostering, shelter administrators likewise should copy its precepts because it has been shown to work in other communities. But the vast majority of shelter directors refuse to innovate in this way.

But something more nefarious was at work in Semmelweis’ time than a failure of understanding about germs, and it is the same “Reflex” which is at work in sheltering today. In fact, what occurred was that Semmelweis was fired because doctors felt he was criticizing the superiority of hospital births over home births, something that threatened their position in the social hierarchy. And therein lies the rub. The archaic voices of tradition in sheltering are acting the same way as the doctors who put their own positions above their patients. They refuse to innovate and modernize precisely because they are threatened by the growing hegemony of the No Kill movement and what this means for their own stature in this movement.

As a movement and as a nation, we have a choice. We can embrace the No Kill philosophy, and the programs and services which make it possible, and end the unnecessary killing of 4.5 of the five million dogs and cats slaughtered each year in our nation’s dog and cat pounds. Or we can adopt the model that will perpetuate it. The same model that caused 73 cats at the Dane County Humane Society to be killed for one reason and one reason only: They happened to enter a shelter, run by a director, who erroneously believed that sheltering “experts” like Dr. Hurley and Dr. Newbury actually had something to teach her.