Redemption Turns 3

Today marks the third anniversary of the publication of  Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America. At the time of its publication, the religion of pet overpopulation was beyond question and the notion of killing as unavoidable was firmly entrenched. Today, the voices that defend that point of view are on the retreat and some are falling all over themselves to embrace the new paradigm.

When I first submitted Redemption to a literary agent, I received my fair share of offer letters. I also received my fair share of rejection letters. Most of the latter were form letters:   very short, very polite, variations of “It’s not the right fit for us” and wishing me the best of luck. But one I can remember almost verbatim. He suggested I ask myself how many people would pay $20 to read it. “Very few,” he said. And I “should probably rethink my desire to publish it.” But I did not write Redemption to make money. In fact, I was prepared to print out copies of Redemption myself and hand them out on the street for free, if need be. But I did not believe that would be necessary. I had faith in people.

When I think back about that rejection letter, I hold no animus. I realized then that the literary agent was not trying to hurt me for the sake of hurting me or to be mean-spirited. In his mind, he was probably trying to save me from disappointment. He could not conceive of anyone spending a few bucks to read Redemption. Of all the letters I received, that was the only one I’ve kept for posterity. I sometimes think about it, and sometimes think about writing him. I never will, but it is fun to fantasize about it.

A successful non-fiction book sells 5,000 to 7,500 copies. Redemption has sold ten times that amount, and is on pace to surpass 100,000 copies in print. But more than that, that little book has saved tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of lives, and has completely redefined animal sheltering in the U.S. and abroad.

I originally began writing Redemption in Ithaca, New York. I wanted to tell the story of San Francisco and Tompkins County in order to replicate the model nationwide. But it became a radically different book based on my experiences after leaving Ithaca. When I first founded the No Kill Advocacy Center, I embarked on several efforts to spread the No Kill Equation. Not only was I going to do assessments for shelters, I was going to hold national conferences and a training academy for shelter managers and directors on No Kill sheltering. But I quickly found out the extent to which the status quo was not interested in changing.

Today, the No Kill Conference sells out in a matter of weeks and brings together people from nearly every state in the union and across the world, from as far away as Switzerland, Thailand, France, Australia, and New Zealand. Today, we could fill a hall with nearly 1,000 people based on the numbers turned away every year for lack of space. But it wasn’t like that, pre-Redemption. Even if Facebook was as popular then as it is now, it is unlikely a page like the No Kill Nation which was “founded on the principles and inspiration found in the book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America” would have 75,000 fans like it does today.

When I talk about the No Kill Advocacy Center’s No Kill Conference, it is generally assumed that we had our first one in Washington D.C. in 2009. That is not entirely accurate. In fact, I had two in San Diego back in 2005 and 2006. I specifically marketed it to shelter directors, those in power. I had a unique experience, having created the nation’s first—and at the time only—No Kill community, and I wanted to share it with them so they too could achieve success. The schedule and workshops were ambitious. And it included one-on-one time for community-specific private consultations. But hardly anyone showed up. That first year, we had less than 50 people. The second one, even less than that. I canceled the Executive Director Training Academy due to a lack of interest.

But I did begin visiting “shelters” nationwide, not at the request of shelter directors, but by grassroots activists and over the opposition of the establishment. And though I was familiar with the realities of killing in U.S. sheltering, having experienced it firsthand through my work as a rescuer, doing TNR, with the Stanford Cat Network, Palo Alto Humane Society, San Francisco SPCA, and Tompkins County, I was literally blown away. I knew much of the killing was needless, but I was not adequately prepared for what else I found: the rampant neglect and abuse in shelters across the country that precedes that killing. I could go into a very cosmopolitan city, a progressive city, a city that likes to think of itself as ahead of the curve culturally, socially, politically, and institutionally, a city like Los Angeles, and the pound system would be medieval in its barbarity. Across the country, it was largely the same: filth, animals wallowing in their own waste, untreated medical conditions, lazy and inept managers, and neglectful and abusive staff. The mythology that no one wants to kill was not only off the mark, it was a wholesale lie. And the numbers started to make sense; all the pieces began to fall into place until the light-bulb moment: the number of available homes exceeded the number of animals in shelters. The movement had gotten it backward. We could be a No Kill nation today.

I wrote Wayne Pacelle. I spoke to people at the ASPCA. I wanted to dialog about changing the status quo. Polite, private letters asking for their help. And I never received the courtesy of a reply. I think about that when people say I am divisive, when they say we should work together. I’ve tried. In fact, I’ve been writing to Pacelle for over 15 years trying to work together before I finally, thick-headedly realized he was not interested in saving lives. But I knew that the grassroots would be.

I knew what had happened in San Francisco and I knew what had happened in Tompkins County and I was committed to spreading the model that the “leadership” of the movement had no interest in, even though it held the key to ending the tragic and wholly unnecessary killing of millions of animals every year.

I wrote the book because I looked around and saw a movement devoid of true leaders. Wayne Pacelle was making a fortune on the backs of animals his organization was condemning to death. Ed Sayres had destroyed the San Francisco SPCA and appeared committed to mediocrity at the ASPCA. No one at Best Friends had a plan for actual No Kill success and refused to acknowledge our ability to end it today (they still speak the old and dead language of “pet overpopulation”). And even Richard Avanzino who experienced firsthand during his tenure at the SF/SPCA how dishonest and enemy-seeking the status quo was and how they refused to collaborate with rescue groups and animal advocates to effect change in our communities; even he had embraced the Asilomar Accords, agreeing to sacrifice the term “No Kill”—the powerful, revolutionary, life-affirming term No Kill—for vague promises of transparency in return (which ultimately, and predictably, never materialized).

I realized that the No Kill movement had to be waged by the grassroots and if I could not appeal to leaders, I would try to change the climate of public opinion in which they had to operate. Immediately after Redemption was published, I went on the road. Borrowing $20,000, I went on a 20-plus city coast-to-coast book tour, appearing in Boston, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Indianapolis, Portland, and more. At the time, there were a small number of people I could have a knowing conversation with about the myth of pet overpopulation, about how utterly needless the killing was, about the very real ability to end it today. And so as I prepared to stand up in front of people, I was not sure how people would respond to my telling them that the God of Pet Overpopulation did not exist. That we were living in Plato’s cave, convincing ourselves that killing was a necessary evil, when it was simply evil, period.

The first city I visited (outside of the friendly turf in Ithaca) was just outside of Boston in Lexington. I spoke at a museum that stood on the very site of the first battle of the American Revolution. I was nervous about how they would react to what I had to say. I was going to tell them that everything they thought was true was a lie. I stood up in front of a crowd and I told them they should stop using the term “euthanasia” to describe shelter killing, that they should stop using the term “pet overpopulation” when it does not exist, that they should stop portraying the problem as the fault of the public, stop seeking laws that empower animal control to impound and kill more animals, and stop portraying the problem as insurmountable and not in the direct control of shelter managers. My faith in my fellow rescuers was not misplaced. They responded like they did in Indianapolis, in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Austin, San Antonio, Naples, and more: with enthusiasm. And the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger. By the end of the tour, I was speaking to standing room only crowds.

But I also knew the ASPCA, HSUS, PETA, and others I called to account in Redemption would attack back, calling me divisive, corrupt, shrill, harmful to the cause. In fact, I have been called all of those things by them and more. But the response I received during that six-week book tour showed me the mood of the nation had shifted and that even if they did not know it, Pacelle and company were speaking a now dead language. And despite the attacks from the so-called “leaders” of the movement, mail and e-mail brought something very important to me: the proof of Redemption‘s impact on my true constituency, the everyday animal lover with a troubled heart, the rescuer who has to pretend to be friends with the cruel and corrupt shelter manager because they hold animals hostage, the shelter volunteer forced to look away from abuse for fear of being barred from the facility. It kept me going. It still keeps me going in moments of exhaustion.

When I recently called out Best Friends Animal Society for betraying the animals of New York for corporate profit, the rescue community condemned them with a ferocity that has them reeling to this day. And when they tried to attack me, using pages from the Wayne Pacelle playbook (No Kill equals hoarding, rescue groups can’t be trusted, saving lives is a burden on shelters, Nathan is divisive), they got attacked even more. Redemption changed the movement landscape, an allegiance not to institutions, but to ideals. The killing of animals that Best Friends joined the ASPCA in defending was—as my friends at No Kill Nation clearly articulate—”immoral, unacceptable, and unnecessary” and anyone who championed it, as Best Friends is doing, was an enemy of the animals, regardless of their tired, cliché-ridden rhetoric.

When it was first published, nearly 100 copies of Redemption were being sold every day. It climbed to the top 500 at Barnes & Noble and became the best selling animal rights book in the country. And then came something else. The letters and e-mails from shelter directors and government administrators who wrote that Redemption turned them around. And they, in turn, turned their shelters around. One spoke of how she used to look for reasons to kill animals in her shelter and, after Redemption, she now finds ways to save them. Another spoke of taking a shelter with a 20-year reign of killing under his watch to No Kill overnight. To be sure, many are still digging in their heels, but there were some who, as one shelter manager wrote, “were brainwashed” to believe that killing was the only way.

As I wrote in the foreword of the second edition,

The Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) favorite misnomer “euthanasia” has lost its cache. Rescue groups and animal advocates have stopped using it and other HSUS euphemisms such as “putting them to sleep” to describe the abhorrent practice of systematic shelter killing. People are more aware of widespread mistreatment of animals in shelters. And they are less tolerant of the poor care and the killing, the excuses built up over the decades to justify it, and the legitimacy that groups like HSUS give to it. This has put the large national humane groups on the defensive, trying to take credit for the decline in killing nationally even as they opposed and in some cases continue to oppose the programs responsible for it, and by softening their anti-No Kill positions.

Redemption debunks the myth of pet overpopulation and puts the blame for the killing where it belongs: on the shoulders of the very shelter directors who find killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it, on the local governments who continue to underfund their shelters or place them under the regressive oversight of health and police departments (and even under sanitation!), and on shelter managers who protect uncaring and even cruel staff members at the expense of the animals.

More than all of that, average people are now aware that shelters kill. And they are aware that there are some shelters and communities that do not kill. After reading the book, one animal lover in Los Angeles, California, told me: “At least now we know what—or more accurately, who—the problem is.” We also know how to make them stop. And in more communities nationwide, we have.

The No Kill movement in New Zealand is born of that book. It is the basis for emerging success in Australia. From North America to Europe, Redemption is saving lives and putting No Kill on the agenda of communities around the world. Not only did it spark a worldwide movement, it is directly responsible for the achievement of No Kill communities across the globe.

By contrast, Maddie’s Fund has not created a single No Kill community despite 12 years and $300,000,000. The ASPCA with its $120,000,000 a year has none. The Humane Society of the United States with its $100,000,000+ per year budget: none. Best Friends Animal Society which raises $40,000,000 a year and only takes in about 600 or so animals a year: zero. It is not the absence of money that prevents No Kill communities from flourishing. It is the absence of integrity. All the money in the world will not change the status quo in shelters without people committed to a culture of lifesaving. In other words, the biggest factor in achieving No Kill success is not the size of the coffers, but the decisions made by those who run shelters and, quite simply, how big their hearts are.

That is why New York City, despite having the richest SPCA in the country, and over $20,000,000 in Maddie’s Fund support, promised the City would be No Kill by 2008, but failed; promised it would be No Kill by 2012, and realized it wasn’t going to happen; and has now, for the third time, set a new date of 2015. Five years. It is always five years away, as if five is a magic number which will make all the neglect, abuse, rampant uncaring, and self-serving power grabs somehow vanish on December 31. Lack of integrity doesn’t disappear at the stroke of midnight.

On the other hand, when truly caring people read Redemption, it gives them hope. They follow the model it advocates. And they achieve No Kill overnight. The lives saved rather than killed in places as diverse as Kentucky, Indiana, Nevada, Minnesota, and elsewhere are a living testament to the power of the pen, and the compassion of most people.

Three years later, we are now harvesting the seeds it planted. Killing shelters and the national organizations that legitimize them are on the defensive. Governments are passing laws demanding reform. Communities are increasingly embracing the No Kill paradigm. And it comes down to all of you.

On Redemption‘s third anniversary, I want to thank all the animal lovers, all the true and uncompromising animal advocates, all the shelter reformers, and animal rescuers, those running shelters with integrity and heart, for believing in the message of Redemption and vindicating what we all knew in our hearts to be true even before its publication, but perhaps did not have the words or experience to articulate.

I’ve not done much blogging lately as I have been focused on writing another book. And it doesn’t matter because you are carrying the torch: bloggers, reformers, and activists across the globe. You are calling killing killing, challenging the status quo, championing lifesaving, and holding the opposition’s feet to the fire. For me, it is a dream come true.

They may call you “divisive.” They may accuse you of “bash and trash.” They may say you are “harming the cause.” They may libel you as “hoarders in disguise.” But the No Kill movement’s success is your success. You are doing it without their millions, without their media reach, without their political power and you are doing it in spite of them—in spite of HSUS’ cowardly neutrality, in spite of the ASPCA’s opposition, in spite of Best Friends putting one arm around you and stabbing you in the back with the other. You are succeeding and the animals increasingly going out the front door in the loving arms of families, instead of out the back in body bags, are a living testament to your ideals.

It seems everywhere I turn; there is yet another reason to celebrate. Austin embraces the No Kill Equation in a 7-0 vote by the City Council. Delaware unanimously passes shelter reform legislation. A Kentucky community celebrates its second No Kill year. A Canadian community reduces killing by 70%. A New Zealand animal control shelter finishes the year with a 96% rate of lifesaving. Another in Australia surpasses even that. Unthinkable, a few short years ago. And it is now happening all the time, all over the world.  

No Kill is within our reach.

In celebration of Redemption‘s anniversary, The No Kill Nation and I will be giving out one free copy every day of September. Go to the No Kill Nation’s Facebook page to find out more.