Sheltering News Around the Country

Four Paws for “Hotel for Dogs”


Normally, I don’t do movie reviews. And the whole point of movie reviews is to review them when they are first released. But I have to make an exception on both counts. First, while my review may be a little late, I just saw the movie for the first time on DVD with my kids. Second, I’ve no choice but to mention it as the movie goes to the heart of the No Kill movement. The film is “Hotel for Dogs,” and it is too good, too on point, not to discuss.

It pits animal control—the “Central City Dog Pound”—against the rescue community. It paints a poignant picture of the sad reality of animal sheltering in too many American cities. But, in the end, it is a movie about the triumph of the underdog. A group (of kids) with limited resources but a deep and committed love for animals take on the establishment by showing there is an innovative, kinder, better way and win.
Like its all-too-common real counterparts across the country, the Central City dog pound of the movie is a place where:

  • Animals are killed after a paltry 72 hours and despite empty cages by hostile, uncaring animal control officers;
  • Animals are not treated as cherished beings worthy of compassion at the shelters which are supposed to be their protectors, but rather, they are viewed—as one of the officers in the movie described—as nothing more than “mangy strays” who should be rounded up and killed;
  • Staff socialize in the back and then getting excited about the overtime they will accrue, even when that overtime comes because they are going to kill dogs;
  • There is even the unnecessary and cruel misuse and abuse of the “catch pole.” Instead of handling dogs humanely and kindly, the pole is wrapped around their necks as they are taken to their death;
  • The dog rescuers in the movie spend their time trying to save the dogs from the shelter. Not surprisingly, the staff at the pound treats them as adversaries, rather than partners.

In the movie, the contrast between what the kids do and what the pound does is stark. The rescuers love the dogs and have a “can do” attitude. Some dogs have special needs. But the rescuers don’t classify them as “unadoptable” and kill them. Instead, the dogs are accommodated and helped to flourish because the information is used to better their life; to meet their needs as individuals. These issues are not seen as obstacles, but as challenges to be overcome. In one case, a dog who chews on everything is given, well, lots of things to chew. A collie with an ultra high energy level is given fake “sheep” to herd. A dog who does not like to be confined in dark places is given a picture window with a view of the city. Talk about refusing to accept the status quo.

At one point, pursued and undermined by an entrenched animal control establishment bent on killing, the children feel overwhelmed and one says to the group that “we are out-dogged,” to which the plucky inventor of the group reminds them that in the trenches, the task looks more pervasive and daunting than it really is. He tells them that if they bring to the task a commitment to the dogs, a passion for the goal, and a belief in themselves, they can succeed. Never give up, never give up, never give up.

Even the title of the movie speaks volumes to our cause. The animal control shelter is aptly named the “pound.” The No Kill alternative, run out of an abandoned hotel, is the “Hotel for Dogs.” It is what a shelter should be, a temporary way station where comfort and caring are the twin pillars, and where “guests” are pampered by people who care deeply about them. And it shows that what separates the pound from the No Kill Hotel for Dogs comes down simply to the attitudes of those who run them. It also doesn’t hurt that the tag line “no stray gets turned away” debunks the myth perpetuated by “catch and kill” defenders that an open admission shelter cannot be No Kill.

In the run-up to the final scene, animal control seizes the dogs, the kids turn around and break them out of the pound and race them to the county-line: “There’s a No Kill shelter outside the City,” says one. “If we get them over the county line, they’re free.” In the movie, like in our country, dogs are saved depending on their zip code. Depending on which side of an imaginary line drawn on a map they are found. Depending on whether the shelter on one side of that imaginary line has embraced a culture of lifesaving, or whether—like “Central City” in the movie—they have not.

In Tompkins County, New York, savable dogs are guaranteed a home. In Schuyler County, next door, they face an almost certain death. In the mid-1990s, in the city of San Francisco, dogs were being saved while just next door, in neighboring San Mateo County, dogs were—and continue to be—killed in appalling numbers. Today, dogs are being saved in Reno, NV, right next door to Carson City which is slaughtering them en masse. All depending on which side of the street they are found.

And in the end, like most movies for children, the underdog wins. Normally, I would dismiss this as   typical Hollywood Pollyanna. But as art does imitate life, the grand finale was a foreshadowing of things to come. In the end, a city employee (in this case, a social worker) admonishes himself for having lost the will and determination to succeed that characterizes the actions of the rescuers determined to save the dogs. He explains how they refused to compromise, refused to accept defeat. They saw what needed to be done—to save the dogs from death—and they did it, overcoming challenges with imagination, compassion, and perseverance.

After a fog of deceit is lifted and the people of Central City could see the truth before them, they rise up and demand that the dogs be saved. The dog rescuers are vindicated. Animal control is seen for what they are in too many communities, simply because that is how they choose to be. And the dogs are saved. I felt like I was reading Redemption.

For that is what this movie is. It is our story—the story of the No Kill movement. The story of the underdog who wins the day through ingenuity and determination. The story of those who reject the status quo by standing up to those in power and by building an alternative to the antiquated, cruel paradigm based on killing. The story of believing in the community and trusting in the power of the public’s compassion. The story of believing in ourselves.

And so kudos to DreamWorks. Kids or not, you must see this movie.

A Mandatory Spay/Neuter Nightmare
Last year at this time, one of the nation’s strictest mandatory sterilization laws went into effect in Los Angeles. It passed to great fanfare. “This ordinance, which contains clear guidelines and enforceable penalties, creates a valuable tool to take this city another step closer toward eliminating the unnecessary euthanasia of animals,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a February news conference attended by animal rights supporter Bob Barker and Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

“This spay and neuter law will move Los Angeles towards being the most humane city in America by educating pet owners to be more responsible, making our streets safer, reducing the number of animals killed each year in our shelters, and allowing us to more effectively use our resources,” said Richard Alarcón, the city council member who introduced the ordinance.

They also promised it would be a national model. But you won’t find mention of the “success” of the Los Angeles law on Wayne Pacelle’s blog and you won’t find it on HSUS’ website. Bob Barker won’t be promoting it as an example of success. And while cities like Reno (NV) are saving record numbers of animals, Los Angeles’ claim that it wants to be “the most humane city in America” has been shown to be empty rhetoric. It isn’t even in the running. It is actually getting worse than it already is. And the answer as to why is not hard to figure out.

I have long argued that these types of laws merely increase the power of the animal control bureaucracy to divert resources to punitive enforcement, increase their power to impound and kill more animals, all the while doing precious little to actually promote and encourage spay/neuter or save lives. Giving shelters the power to impound and kill even more animals is no way to lower the death rate, as has been shown time and time again. I wish I was wrong. I want to be wrong. But tragically for the animals, I was not wrong.

Even the ASPCA which–like HSUS–has taken the role of defending poorly performing shelters, has come out against them:

  • “To the knowledge of the ASPCA, the only method of population control that has demonstrated long-term efficacy in significantly reducing the number of animals entering animal shelters is the voluntary sterilization of owned pets.”
  • “In contrast, the ASPCA is not aware of any credible evidence demonstrating a statistically significant enhancement in the reduction of shelter intake or [killing] as a result of the implementation of a mandatory spay/neuter law.”

Animal activists who supported the mandatory spay/neuter law in Los Angeles should be doing some deep soul searching for what they have wrought. What they have accomplished is the worst year for cat killing at Los Angeles Animal Services in nearly a decade, and the reversal of a decade long trend of declining impounds and killing. According to LA Animal Watch,

During the past 12 months, 3,029 more cats were killed compared to the year before, an increase of almost 33%.

What they have wrought is a dog kill rate that is also up for the first time in a decade, and up rather significantly.

Not content to causing a needless slaughter in their own hometown, they are also trying once again to mandate it across the state, which promises equally appalling outcomes.

Why? I’ll answer that in an upcoming blog.

Where was HSUS?
No Kill Conference 2009 has come and gone, but the revolution continues. If you were not able to attend, you can still read the keynote presentation, listen to the archived live broadcast from Animal Wise radio featuring interviews with speakers and attendees, see photographs, and watch a montage set to music at by clicking on “What’s New.”

Ironically, the No Kill Conference was held about three blocks from HSUS headquarters in Washington D.C. Of all the national groups, HSUS is the one that had the most to learn. It is the one which keeps getting it wrong. Sadly, while American Humane Association sent a representative, none of the staff at HSUS could see fit to leave their luxurious offices to learn how to end the killing of animals in U.S. shelters. For an agency which is primarily responsible for the paradigm of killing we live with today, and for an agency which continues to advocate for mass killing in the face of alternatives, their absence is simply inexcusable.

I must admit, in a moment inspired by the success of the conference and the excitement of being around hundreds of committed animal lovers, I had to resist the “Martin Luther-esqe” urge to nail a copy of the U.S. No Kill Declaration to the door of HSUS headquarters. But alas, the moment passed and I continued on my journey.

Building a No Kill Michigan
Join me for a free three-hour seminar on Building a No Kill Community. The event is sponsored by Friends of Animals.

Saturday June 6th from 6 pm – 9 pm in Greenville, Michigan.

For more information, click here.

Another Award for Redemption
Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & The No Kill Revolution in America has already won several national book awards, including USA Book News Best Book, Silver Medal from the Independent Publishers Association, a Muse Medallion from the Cat Writers Association of America, and a Certificate of Excellence from the Dog Writers Association of America. It has just picked up another.

Redemption has been named the First Runner-Up for the Eric Hoffer award for excellence in publishing. As a Hoffer Award Finalist, Redemption reached the upper 10% of entrees for the 2009 award year. It came in second to the overall winner.

In late May, Redemption goes into a second edition printing, which includes a new foreword, an expanded discussion of the No Kill Equation, and a new Appendix III on the need to legislate No Kill through shelter reform legislation. The foreword covers changes in the movement since Redemption was first released in 2007, responds to critics of the book, and talks about the further successes in the No Kill revolution.

The No Kill Advocacy Center is already giving out personally signed advanced copies with a gift of $25 or more. Go to