On the One Hand; On the Other


A few days ago, I posted an article that the pound in Hillsborough County, FL, went from killing two out of three animals to saving over 80% on the Facebook page of the No Kill Advocacy Center. According to the article, in 2015, they saved 89% and are setting their sights on 90%. When they do so, they will be only the second community in Florida with a 90% rate of lifesaving for dogs and cats.

After I posted a link to the article, I got some criticism for two reasons. First, the director of the shelter fought lifesaving legislation in Florida that would have made it illegal for shelters to kill animals when qualified rescue groups were willing to save them. A survey done at the time showed that 63% of rescue groups in Florida reported being turned away by a shelter and the shelter then killing the very animals they offered to save. Moreover, a similar law in California increased rescue lifesaving by 370%–roughly 50,000 animals a year. Tragically, he and his acolytes were successful, effectively condemning these animals to death.

Second, the shelter had a recent scandal where staff not only killed animals needlessly, they killed them cruelly. And so I understand why the post would have made some people cringe and why I accepted the criticism in the spirit in which it was offered.

In fact, I’ll go further and add two more criticisms. One, much of the lifesaving on the cat side in Hillsborough County is a result of simply sterilizing and returning cats to the field, not adoptions. Indeed, adoptions have gone down. When I ran shelters, sterilization and release was reserved for cats who were not social with people. When friendly cats were not reclaimed, we didn’t release them to the streets as Hillsborough does; we found them homes. All of them.

Two, Hillsborough’s increase in the save rate is for dogs and for cats only and are combined statistics. Not only do we have to look at each species individually to really gauge the level of progress (and as the recent scandal shows, there is a lot to be desired) but we also have to look at individual animals. In 2015, Hillsborough saved 87% of dogs, 81% of cats, and 71% of other animals. Clearly, Hillsborough is not No Kill, they won’t be No Kill at 90%, and they are killing animals who can and should be saved.

In my defense, however, I did not mean to imply full endorsement of the shelter, its practices, or its leadership by posting that article. In fact, quite the contrary. My purpose in posting the increase in lifesaving was four-fold. First, we have to have a language for progress. And going from killing two of three to saving almost nine of 10 is progress. For the animals who live instead of die, that is good news.

Second, we can tackle evils one at a time. And so while I have mixed feelings about return to field, it is keeping cats alive in Hillsborough and, in some cases, it is a good alternative since many of these cats are not lost and don’t need intervention. Stopping the shelter from killing cats is priority number one. Fixing the underperforming adoption program comes in at a distant second.

Third, if Hillsborough proves anything, it is that achieving a 90% save rate for cats is easy. Any half-hearted or even hard-hearted shelter director can do it. You do not have to work harder. You do not have to hire dedicated and passionate staff. You do not have to market animals for adoptions. You do not even have to do more adoptions. All you have to do is sterilize and return to field. In other words, you can work less and save more lives, which is appealing to your average, lazy, run-of-the-mill shelter director. And when the alternative is killing, that is what they should do. If you are not going to increase adoptions and do a better job, better to sterilize and release then impound and kill.

Fourth, achieving a 90% save rate for cats can be done quickly. It can be done well before implementing robust programs such as adoption and foster care. And it can be done in facilities built and designed at the lowest possible cost to warehouse and kill animals at cheaply as possible. As such, if there is a central lesson from Hillsborough, it is that achieving a 90% save rate is the start of shelter reform and modernization, not the realization of it. Anyone who tells you that a 90% save rate is the achievement of No Kill not only refuses to learn from history, not only refuses to acknowledge progress, but is attempting to declare victory before victory is achieved and, as such, sweep animals under the rug.

I faced a similar dilemma when I reported about the decline in killing in Miami-Dade from over 20,000 animals a year to about 4,000. In doing so,  I hadn’t forgotten that Miami-Dade still bans dogs by the way they look, nor do I intend, in any way, to minimize the nefariousness of breed bans. Likewise,  my Facebook posting yesterday of Arizona becoming the 40th state in the U.S. to ban greyhound racing.  In signing the legislation to close the remaining dog track in the state, Arizona’s governor stated that,

Greyhound racing has run its course in Arizona. It’s heartening that these beautiful greyhounds will soon be off the track and in loving homes. For any families looking to adopt a new canine companion this summer, I encourage you to consider one of these gentle and intelligent dogs.

But in celebrating the closure of the remaining Arizona dog track, I did not mean to imply endorsement of the governor. Indeed, far from it.

The governor, for example, also signed legislation this year preempting local cities from banning the retail sales of commercially-bred animals. Phoenix and Tempe recently outlawed those sales not only to increase the number of rescued animals in need of homes who find them, but to strike to the heart of so much animal suffering: their commodification. When there is profit to be made on the backs of animals, history shows that those backs are often strained and broken. “Puppy mills” and “kitten mills” fuel inbreeding, provide minimal to no veterinary care, lack of adequate food and shelter, lack of human socialization, overcrowded cages, and cause neglect, abuse, and the killing of animals when they are no longer profitable. So much for “gentle and intelligent dogs.” But that does not mean that when he does take a positive action for animals, it should not be celebrated. We should. It is also important to consider the lesson politicians take away from the good publicity that ensues when they do take positive action for animals; lessons that might influence them to be more humane in their calculations going forward.

More importantly, I want to have a language for progress because acknowledging progress is the key to inspiring more of it. In a world that can be cynical, at times monomaniacally focused on bad news at the expense of the good, people can and often do lose sight of hope and existing potential; potential that should and can and must be harnessed for the good of animals.

And therein lies my dilemma.


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