Articles PETA

Said the killing apologist to the killer

A writer for PETA gives a shelter director on the defensive for staggering levels of killing advice on how to attack No Kill generally, and me specifically.

I recently uncovered an e-mail exchange, dated June 2008, between Ed Boks, the then-General Manger of the brutal Los Angeles Animal Shelter system, and Lisa Towell, a writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It provides a rare glimpse into the desperate lengths “catch and kill” apologists will go to reject that which does not fit their preconceived point of view that the killing of animals in shelters is both necessary and acceptable, even in the face of overwhelming—and personal—experience to the contrary.

During his tenure in Los Angeles, Boks oversaw a shelter system that killed roughly 20,000 dogs and cats a year, and thousands of other species of animals. In fact, during the period that marked his disastrous leadership, the number of animals impounded and killed increased for the first time in better than a decade. Not only did his draconian policies cause more animals to be intentionally put to death, but the number of animals missing and who simply died in kennel—a reflection of poor care—also skyrocketed. Due to one scandal after another, the City Council finally gave him a unanimous vote of “No Confidence” and he resigned shortly thereafter. The results caused even his initial supporters to bolt, but they were easily anticipated. Boks came to Los Angeles by way of both Maricopa County in Arizona and New York City, both agencies he left under tenures that were marked by high rates of killing that put the lie to his public claims of success. While running the Maricopa County animal shelter system into financial ruin (opening up a $600,000 a year structural deficit), Boks never achieved better than a 50% save rate—the national average—that saw tens of thousands of animals lose their lives annually. In New York City, independent audits found poor and hostile treatment of animals, as well as increasing rates of animals dying in kennels that culminated in a unanimous vote by his Board not to renew his contract. To the dismay of No Kill advocates, the Mayor of Los Angeles hired him anyway.

Towell is a writer for PETA, an organization which seeks out thousands of animals every year to kill. In fact, from 2000-2008, PETA killed 19,328 animals. Once the 2009 figures are released, it will put the total body count well in excess of 20,000 for the decade. In some years, PETA’s rate of killing was as high as 97%, and 2009 promises to be another bloodbath despite over $30 million in revenues annually and millions of animal loving supporters. The rate of killing has led to calls to reclassify PETA from a shelter under Virginia regulations to a slaughterhouse, since its death rates are so far above even the worst performing shelters in the state. In 2006, for example, of 1,997 animals they sought out, only seven dogs and cats were adopted into homes and another 34 were transferred to a kill shelter whose fates are unknown. The rest were put to death. In some cases, PETA has killed animals in the back of a van within minutes of being taken in, despite promises of finding the animals a home to those relinquishing them. Not content with their own mass killing, PETA also advocates policies around the country to encourage the killing of even more animals, including a call to slaughter every dog someone labels a “Pit Bull” who enters a shelter, calls for the continued killing of free-living unsocialized (i.e. feral) cats, and coming to the defense of some of the most abusive shelters in the country. Indeed, PETA supported a Pit Bull ban even in Ontario, which mandates the pound seizure of animals from shelters by companies who use them for animal experimentation—the fate that ostensibly awaited some of the family pets seized under the PETA-supported breed ban. Those policies have earned PETA’s founder, Ingrid Newkirk, who directs PETA’s assembly line of killing and who freely admits that that PETA kills “healthy” and “adoptable” animals, the nickname the “Butcher of Norfolk.”

Towell opens her e-mail to Boks by saying she was glad to have met him at a legislative hearing in Sacramento in support of AB 1634, the mandatory spay/neuter law which would have given Boks’ shelter, and others like it throughout the state, the power and authority to impound and kill even more animals. But giving shelters this power was not the only topic of conversation between Boks and Towell. The e-mail suggests they spent time at their meeting talking about me, too. In the e-mail, Towell embraces the PETA position that No Kill is to be opposed, rather than embraced. She talks openly about how “great” their views are in this regard and, in fact, offers additional strategies to combat No Kill generally and me specifically: “Here is the information I wrote up on problems with no-kill,” she writes to Boks. “You’ll see that I quoted from your blog posts!” She then writes how she is also sending her comments to Daphna Nachminovich, PETA’s Minister of Killing Propaganda, who routinely defends abusive killing shelters and equates No Kill with hoarding. The rest of the e-mail is an attack against my book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America.

Apparently, Boks—a man who was chased out of Maricopa County, removed from New York City when his Board unanimously voted not to renew his contract, and who resigned in Los Angeles after a unanimous vote of “No Confidence” from the City Council—and Nachminovich—a killing apologist who lies about PETA’s killing and then justifies it by disparaging the No Kill alternative—are worthy of quoting and trusting, but Redemption, a book which champions a philosophy that says we can and should end the killing, which asks for a more compassionate shelter system, is not to be believed or trusted.

Ironically, even though Towell calls PETA’s attacks against me “great,” she realizes after reading Redemption that their attacks are dishonest. In the end, she admits that she agrees with much of what I brought to light in Redemption: “many shelters would benefit greatly from implementing policies and programs that Winograd advocates in the book,” she writes. Programs, ironically, that the organization she holds out as the standard bearer on how society should relate to animals, opposes.

Towell nonetheless does take a break from drinking the Ingrid Newkirk Kool-Aid by admitting that “there is room for improvement at many shelters (even those short on money and resources), and as a volunteer at one of those shelters, I found parts of Winograd’s book quite compelling.”

Towell gives the following example:

At my own shelter, I and other volunteers tried to work with the staff to implement more aggressive adoption outreach for the cats: Problems we tried to fix: unwillingness to use volunteers more extensively (foster, adoption outreach, etc.), insufficient use of media and internet to promote cats, poor customer service, poor proactivity in managing the less adoptable cats. (As it happens, all of these programs/policies are discussed in Winograd’s book).

We had very little long-term success, despite a positive reception from staff for our proposals. I became convinced that you’d have to fire the supervisor and most of the staff to get a different attitude. So, this part of Winograd’s message really resonated for me—some of the cat killings in the last year were the direct outcome of the shelter staff not making straightforward changes that could have saved their lives.

She then openly acknowledged that she “doesn’t know how common this is across the country” even though a simple Google search would have provided the answer. In fact, it is endemic to animal control. In addition to killing in the face of alternatives, the last year alone has seen a significant amount of nationwide media coverage revealing widespread animal neglect and outright abuse at these very institutions. These exposés show a strikingly different reality than the mythical description of heroic shelters portrayed by PETA for whom Towell writes for:

  • In Memphis, TN, shelter workers not only intentionally starved animals to death, they took animals who were still alive to the incinerator.
  • In King County, WA, an animal control officer turned whistleblower not only confirmed the neglect and abuse uncovered in three independent assessments of the shelter, but indicated that things are worse than ever for the animals, despite the denials of the guild/union that blindly defends itself and its members.   The whistleblower described “cats dying in their cage for lack of treatment, a dog so sick [he] nearly drowned in a stream of water in its kennel and animals of all types in need of veterinary attention, but not getting it.” This is a shelter PETA defended and, in an effort to sabotage reform, painted concerned animal lovers as “radicals” in a letter to the Council.
  • In Lucas County, OH, the local dog warden—an incompetent hack given the job out of nepotism—routinely allowed dogs to get sick and then killed them, despite rescue groups offering to save them.
  • In Los Angeles County, a news investigation team uncovered officers physically abusing animals.

The list goes on and on and on and on.

These and other cases show shelter workers and Animal Control Officers (ACOs) who kick, beat, baton, and kill puppies. ACOs who cause animals to suffer and die. ACOs who cause animals to cannibalize other animals in their cages because they go unfed. And the very animal control officers who cause these travesties suffer no repercussions because they are “supervised” by their fellow union and bureaucracy-protected shirkers.

But despite evidence of this pervasive and troubling reality nationwide, and after admitting that the shelter she volunteers for finds killing cats easier than doing what is necessary to stop killing, after admitting that for changes to occur, leadership must be replaced with people who care, and after admitting her ignorance about how truly pervasive and endemic this is in shelters across the country, Towell turns around and suggests that Boks, she, and PETA must work together to “discredit Winograd’s philosophy” by painting me as “well-intentioned but naïve,” because trying to paint me as a liar as PETA has done has fallen on deaf ears.

But who is naïve? Towell herself admits she is ignorant of trends in shelter policy, even as the one experience she has—that of a volunteer at her local shelter—confirms what I write in Redemption. And her claims about how wrong I supposedly am are not based on data, analysis, or experience, but her own wild speculation: always prefaced with “I think,” and “as far as I know,” which she later freely admits later not so much.

Towell also admits that the “open admission” shelters I cite in my book as evidence of the potential we have to achieve a No Kill nation are “among the best-performing shelters in the country.” She further writes that they “must be doing something right” and what she “thinks” they are doing right is implementing the programs and services of the No Kill Equation—”all programs that Winograd advocates.” But she then follows-up with the mother of all non-sequiturs: disparaging the No Kill Equation as “naïve.” It is naïve she writes, because even with the comprehensive implementation of those programs, shelters would still be forced to kill because pet overpopulation is real.

Barfing out sheltering dogma before real reflection begins, ignoring the success of communities nationwide even in communities with high intake rates, and thoroughly ignorant of the data, she avers that shelters can’t “adopt their way out of killing” as I claim in Redemption. Ironically, she comes to this conclusion by doing her own back of the envelope calculations. The only problem is that even her own (inaccurate) statistics prove my point.

Towell says that her “own calculations …. suggest” there are homes for 12 million dogs and cats every year. She then admits that “in theory that’s enough to absorb the 3.7 [million] killed in shelters each year.” In other words, she proves that the issue is not one of “too many animals, not enough homes,” but of market share, exactly as I argued in Redemption. But then concludes from that data that her own calculations “topple Winograd’s overpopulation argument.” The basis of this non-sequitur is a profound ignorance of statistical analysis and trends in sheltering to suggest we can never expect 3.7 million of those 12 million to adopt rather than buy.

First of all, national data show that every year over 21 million homes become available and the trend is toward increasing numbers. Some are already committed to adopting from shelters and they will do so, even with poor customer service, dirty facilities, and other endemic problems. Others got their last animal from a commercial or other source and are committed to getting their next animal from the same or similar source. But the data also shows that roughly 17 million are open to adopting from shelters and can be convinced to do so. These are the people shelters need to reach with proactive marketing and public relations, and by modifying policies and procedures in line with those of the No Kill Equation to successfully adopt more animals to them.

In addition, of the roughly 4 million killed, not all of those need new homes. After backing out free-living unsocialized (feral) cats who need neuter and release or should not be allowed to enter shelters in the first place, after switching from passive to proactive redemption efforts thereby increasing by three-fold the number of stray dogs who are reclaimed by their families, and seven-fold the stray cats who are reclaimed by their families, after removing—at this time in history—those animals who are truly and tragically hopelessly ill, irremediably suffering, and vicious dogs with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation, we can cut the number of animals entering shelters who actually need new homes significantly. What that means is that even if roughly 90% of that 17 million got their animal from somewhere other than a shelter, we could still zero out the killing of savable animals. Or put another way, if shelters increased the market of new and replacement homes (a combination of what statisticians call “stock” and “flow”) over the existing pool of homes by 3%, we would empty all the shelters.

Despite this, she then goes on to downplay adoptions, dismissing their importance in ending the killing, and creating a false “either-or” by stating we must focus—indeed deify—spay/neuter. But this ignores four crucial issues devastating to the overly simplistic, indefensible, and ultimately unethical argument she makes. To begin with, adoptions and spay/neuter are not mutually exclusive. Second, communities that have achieved No Kill success did so despite some of the highest intake rates in the nation before a fully functioning sterilization program was even in place (with the exception of feral cats). Spay/neuter is important to reduce the numbers of animals entering shelters, but it is not a prerequisite before the lifesaving endeavor begins or No Kill is achieved (though it certainly makes it easier and easier to sustain). And third, working solely to prevent future killing through spay/neuter but ignoring the animals alive today and condemning them to death is inhumane and unethical. But what is most devastating to her case, even while high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter is a central tenet of the No Kill Equation, even though I am an advocate for low-cost, no-cost and high-volume sterilization, and even while I offered free sterilization at the shelters I oversaw is this: It is naïve to assume that draconian shelter directors will stop killing even when spay/neuter efforts pay off in the form of lower impounds.

Shelter directors kill because it is easier to kill than do what is necessary to stop it. They kill despite rescue groups willing to save those animals. They kill despite empty cages. They kill while turning away adopters with regressive policies, poor customer service, and lack of public access shelter hours. In fact, too many of them neglect or abuse the animals in the process before killing them, some in the most inhumane manner imaginable. In short, as long as they are allowed to stay in their leadership positions, as long as uncaring government bureaucrats treat municipal shelters as nothing more than “jobs programs” for equally uncaring and incompetent staff who are not employable in the private sector or other government agencies deemed more important, and as long as groups like PETA provide them political cover by falsely painting them as “heroic despite pet overpopulation,” they will continue to kill indefinitely. Towell naively and ignorantly assumes that killing is always the result of supposed “space” issues—when the evidence reveals that most of the killing is a result of shelter directors willfully ignoring readily available lifesaving alternatives.

The organization she writes for proves it, an organization with a global reach, tens of millions in annual revenues, and a support base of millions of animal lovers, that kills over 90% of animals they seek out. The shelter she volunteers for whose staff kills cats because they refuse to implement what she acknowledges are simple, straightforward, common sense alternatives to killing which already exist. Ed Boks, the man she admires and quotes, the recipient of her e-mail, also proves it. As head of the Los Angeles pound, he oversaw the killing of roughly 20,000 animals annually despite a per capita intake rate a fraction of No Kill communities and despite one of the best funded shelter systems in the nation.

Towell ends her attack against me by saying that “Winograd disparages the traditional approach of LES (legislation, education, and [mandatory] sterilization).” And then goes on to conclude that the decline in killing nationally—which she fails to realize coincides with the introduction of the programs and services of the No Kill Equation—is, in her words, a result of LES: “I think at least some of it is due to the very LES he dislikes (e.g., differential licensing fees, mandatory S/N, etc.)” But once again, Towell’s conclusion is betrayed by her ignorance and failure to do the most rudimentary of research on the issue.

In the U.S., these approaches have always been and continue to be a failure. In fact, the irresponsible and disastrous legislative foray she supported for the entire State of California, but was passed only in Los Angeles is responsible for the first increase in killing there in a decade. At a time when other communities were seeing death rates plummet—Towell championed and Boks ushered in a legislative scheme that resulted in a 24% increase in dog killing and a 35% increase in cat killing. That is the standard to which Towell aspires. But it is not compassionate, humane, nor effective. In fact, despite calling me naïve a number of times, it is Towell who deserves the moniker—both in terms of buying into Newkirk’s and Nachminovich’s dark, twisted embrace of killing and her lack of understanding as to what happens when the types of laws she champions are passed.

In the end, however, what Towell does prove in her determination to undermine the No Kill philosophy as championed in Redemption, is how very Orwellian this movement has become. That two individuals—one with a sordid history of killing, and the other a writer for an organization whose leader freely admits to rounding up and killing thousands of animals every year—are capable of a communication implying to one another that they are championing the animals’ best interest by seeking to undermine the message of hope and promise in Redemption shows the level of self-delusion the old party line of the “catch and kill” movement both sanctions and encourages.

Likewise, I found it fascinating to glimpse a communication about me between two individuals who, judging from the tone and content of the e-mail, labor under the illusion that Redemption is a slick, carefully crafted attempt at subterfuge, rather than what it is—a sincere and heartfelt plea for greater compassion towards the animals entering our nation’s abysmal and broken sheltering system. But judging by both Boks’ sordid history of killing animals and Lisa Towell’s association with PETA, perhaps it is no surprise that they cannot conceive of honest dedication to the cause they are, by the nature of their jobs, pledged to promote, but which through their actions, they actively seek to undermine.

Of course, given their reaction to Redemption, there is obviously nothing I can say or do which will change their minds. Their opposition is not born of genuine, though misguided, concern.   In Boks’ case, it is nothing more than naked self-preservation, and in Towell’s, a blind devotion to the murderous vision of the Butcher of Norfolk. In this case, proving them wrong—and laying their true motivations bare—is a job best left to the workings of time and its eventual realization of a No Kill nation. And when that day arrives—as it invariably will—I’d love another insider glimpse such as that afforded by this e-mail. I predict that the self-delusion Boks and Towell will need to employ then in order to reconcile their historical desire to undermine No Kill with a society that has fully embraced—and realized—its tremendous promise, will be equally, if not more, fascinating and fantastical.