Articles ASPCA

The Empire Strikes Back

A recent article describes the “desperate last stand of Austin’s status quo,” a dishonest effort to undermine the recently enacted No Kill plan in Austin which has led to a significant increase in adoptions and a corresponding decline in killing at Town Lake Animal Center, Austin’s pound. The most recent salvo was fired this week when the Austin Humane Society announced that “No Kill” is responsible for killing kittens, a malicious and false claim that is contradicted by the facts: 48% more cats and kittens are being adopted and 59% more are going to rescue groups. In fact, Austin is safer now for kittens than it has been in its history.

The second salvo is expected to come later this week, and was put into motion during the last few months of Dorinda Pulliam’s tenure as the director of TLAC. Although the writing on the wall was clear—that the killing paradigm she embraced was coming to an end—Pulliam was not going down without a fight. And she enlisted the help of the ASPCA to do so. At the behest of Pulliam, the ASPCA has hired Dr. Sandra Newbury to do an assessment of TLAC. As much as Austin’s animal lovers want to forget Pulliam, it is hard to do so. Pulliam is the disgraced, forcibly-removed director who:

After the City Council had had enough and voted unanimously to put a moratorium on killing healthy and treatable animals when there were empty cages available for them, she failed to provide care to sick cats causing them to suffer, and thus allow her and the ASPCA to falsely claim that No Kill equals hoarding. It was that final act that cost Pulliam her job, a loss that has meant a world of difference for the animals: Adoptions are increasing and deaths are declining.

Austin has never been safer for homeless dogs and cats than it is today. So why does the ASPCA appear intent on undermining that? After all, even if ASPCA leadership doesn’t care about the animals, they can (and mark my words, will) take credit for that success by claiming it was their dysfunctional “Mission: Orange” program that is responsible, even as they fought those reforms every step of the way.

Long Standing Problems

For years, the ASPCA refused to do an assessment of the shelter when requested (naively) by No Kill advocates saying they did not do them. In reality, to do so would have—to the extent they were honest—led to findings of poor and hostile treatment of the animals by the Pulliam team, along with dilapidated conditions and needless killing. But now that Pulliam is gone, the ASPCA is “assessing” the shelter and they apparently have contacted the press to set up a discussion of their “findings” even before the “findings” are completed or presented to the City for review. Some reform advocates are concerned that Newbury’s “assessment” is part of a larger game plan of attack concocted by her employer, the ASPCA. The target: the No Kill plan which includes a moratorium on convenience killing. And they have a right to be concerned: Aside from Pulliam, the biggest roadblock to No Kill in Austin has been the ASPCA. And Newbury’s history suggests she is philosophically aligned with their way of thinking.

There is little doubt that there are problems at TLAC; they have been festering for as long as Pulliam was the director. The physical shelter is in a state of disrepair, disinfection is difficult due to crumbling infrastructure, and staff is both ignorant of and fails to follow proper medical protocols, leading to disease and killing. In fact, these are exactly the conditions shelter reformers have long complained about. But as long as Pulliam was in charge, the ASPCA was content to look the other way and, in fact, attacked anyone who criticized those conditions. Any talk of poor care, of needless killing, of criticism of the status quo got you kicked out of the coalition and barred you from receiving the ASPCA’s largesse.

There is also little doubt that Pulliam’s legacy of poor and hostile treatment and dilapidated conditions will take some time to undo, unless a new director (the search continues) is given the authority and latitude to fix the problems which includes firing any holdouts from the underperforming, kill-oriented team she left behind.

But to blame the No Kill plan, which seeks to ensure that animals are vaccinated on intake, that rescue groups are given full access to the animals, that prohibits convenience killing, that puts a premium on adoption, and after being given an additional $800,000 in funding to an already generous budget by comparative standards (when most cities in America are looking to cut expenses) to further save lives, is not only dishonest, it is nothing short of reprehensible. But that has not stopped Pulliam, the Austin Humane Society, and of course, the ASPCA from doing so.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

As I said, there is no doubt that there are long-standing problems at the shelter and they need to be fixed. The million dollar question is whether Newbury will state what the problems inherited from Pulliam are in an objective manner; Or, as she has done in other places, whether she will use those long-standing problems to attack the No Kill philosophy, thus blaming years-old problems in Austin on a No Kill plan that was recently approved by the City Council and which was designed to fix those problems.

And that depends on which Newbury emerges. The one who recommends that:

  • Foster care programs be curtailed by suggesting that it needlessly turns shelters into sanctuaries (decrying what she calls a “sanctuary rate”);
  • Every other cage be kept empty (arguing in the past that this was necessary for disease control in a shelter that had never experienced a serious disease outbreak);
  • The number of animals who should be made available for adoption be limited (fear mongering about too much consumer choice and a “market saturation index”);
  • Healthy and treatable animals be killed by blaming the “irresponsible public” (her “community overpopulation index”); and,
  • No Kill leads to suffering in shelters (“hoarding”).

Or, the one who sticks to medicine and identifies problems in an objective manner and suggests medical protocols to fix them, without getting into large policy and philosophical discussions she is grossly biased against? In other words, will we get a report from Mr. Hyde or from Dr. Jekyll?

She is capable of both. Her assessment of the neglectful and abusive King County Animal Care & Control was an example of the latter, focusing on medicine and medical protocols, a welcome departure from other shelters and other cities where her “analysis and recommendations” were more policy driven by an anti-No Kill political agenda with disastrous outcomes.

Read an expose called “Better Off Dead?” by a Madison newspaper about her regressive recommendations which caused cats to lose their lives at the Dane County Humane Society and reversed a multi-year decline in killing by clicking here.

Then read my 2007 blog that describes her other attacks against No Kill which appears below.

The ASPCA’s Last Stand?

Regardless of which Newbury emerges, the third and most vicious salvo by the ASPCA may yet be to come. And that one involves the influence on city officials by the ASPCA’s Karen Medicus, an anti-No Kill crusader who has been one of the biggest roadblocks to the emerging success in Austin. Medicus is the former director of the Austin Humane Society who once promised Austinites lifesaving success but failed miserably, despite a multi-million dollar Maddie’s Fund grant. Since that time, she has argued for the relocation of TLAC away from its central location conducive to adoptions to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind remote location in order to give shelter administrators bigger offices, even while curtailing available kennel and cage space for the animals.

Medicus claimed the shelter’s location did not matter, and that having adequate cages and kennels was irrelevent, arguing that “the problem is not getting adopters to the shelter, but rather, having enough desirable and placeable animals to choose from.” According to Medicus, why would you need more cages and kennels when the animals are not desirable? In other words, Pulliam’s failure to save more lives was not because TLAC failed to utilize the proven programs of the No Kill Equation, but because the animals themselves were not “desirable” or “placeable.” Unfortunately, Medicus’ relationship with city officials responsible for hiring TLAC’s next director has the potential to derail efforts to make Austin a model City of caring and compassion.

Leadership is the most important element of the No Kill Equation, without which all other efforts may fail. What TLAC needs is a hard working, passionate animal control director who is not content to continue killing, while regurgitating tired clichés about public irresponsibility and/or the myth of too many animals and not enough homes. It is the defining issue which largely determines whether lifesaving succeeds or fails in a community.

Will the ASPCA allow the will of the people determined to end the killing in Austin to reign supreme? Or will they try to use their influence to sabotage the hiring of a progressive director committed to saving lives and in the process sacrifice the animals to their own nefarious political agenda of power, greed, and control?

If history is any guide, the Austin Humane Society’s despicable claim that No Kill is killing kittens and the Newbury report may be nothing more than an effort by the ASPCA to soften the ground for the real fight over the next director that they seem determined to bring to Austin; compassion, democracy, good government, taxpayer accountability, and the lives of the animals be damned.


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.