Winners and Losers of 2008


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Here are the highlights and lowlights of 2008, and what we can look forward to in 2009.

Winners & Losers in 2008

Winner: Pit Bulls

After the arrest of former national football league quarterback Michael Vick and the seizure of almost 60 pit bull-type dogs raised for fighting, many animal protection organizations called for the dogs to be killed, arguing that these dogs were vicious and beyond our ability to help them. None made this argument after evaluating the dogs, but based on assumptions about pit bull-type dogs, dog aggression, and dog fighting. After deceptively fundraising off of the dogs, for example, the Humane Society of the United States lobbied to have them killed. Because they believe all Pit Bulls who enter shelters should be slaughtered, it was no surprise that PETA also asked the court to put them to death.

In 2008, the court thankfully said “No.” Only one dog was actually killed for aggression after evaluation, and the remaining dogs were placed in either sanctuaries or in loving new homes. Two of the dogs are now even therapy animals, providing comfort to cancer patients.

The results forced even dog lovers-but more importantly the humane movement-to question their most basic assumptions about dogs, pit bull-type dogs, and dog aggression. In short, it showed we can save virtually all dogs in shelters.

Secondly, it showed that there is a real, practical, and potentially widespread “third door” between adoption and killing-the network of foster homes, sanctuaries and long term care facilities to provide for animals who may not necessarily be immediate adoption candidates, but can enjoy a good quality of life which would make their killing neither merciful nor ethical.

Winner: No Kill

In 2008, HSUS stated that the public does care about companion animals and is not to blame for their killing in shelters, that killing animals in shelters is “needless,” that we can be a No Kill nation today, and that “pet overpopulation” is more myth than fact. In language that is eerily (though excitingly) familiar to language in my book, Redemption, HSUS stated:

  • “By increasing the percentage of people who obtain their pets through adoption-by just a few percentage points-we can solve the problem of euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats.”
  • “The needless loss of life in animal shelters is deplored by the American public. People deeply love their dogs and cats and feel that killing pets who are homeless through no fault of their own is a problem we must work harder to prevent. They want animals to have a second chance at life, not death by injection.”
  • “The needless killing of pets by animal shelters and animal control agencies comes at an enormous economic and moral cost.”

This comes after announcing that staunch and unapologetic pro-No Kill advocates Susanne Kogut and Bonney Brown will be speaking at Expo 2009, HSUS’ animal sheltering conference. Kogut runs an open admission No Kill animal control shelter, while Brown has led a No Kill initiative now saving 90% of dogs and 83% of all cats in Washoe County, Nevada.

This language is like nothing that has ever come out of HSUS on the companion animal issue, and it is my most fervent hope that it will signal a permanent shift away from HSUS’ historical role of legitimizing and providing political cover for shelters mired in killing. And while it is still much too early to uncork the champagne (see Loser: HSUS, below); there is some reason for hope.

After announcing that shelters should not adopt animals until after New Year’s Eve-effectively condemning these animals to death-HSUS apologized and removed the recommendation from their website. They also turned around and lent their support to the Home for the Holidays campaign, which is a national adoption campaign in which thousands of shelters nationwide participate, whose goal was to adopt out 1 million shelter animals between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Winner: Washoe County, (Reno) Nevada

Despite taking in over two times the number of animals per capita than the national average, over four times the rate of San Francisco, and over three times the rate of Los Angeles, the Nevada Humane Society led Washoe County (Reno) NV past all of these cities in terms of rates of lifesaving.

In 2008, the percentage of cats saved increased despite the fact that with an economy reliant on gaming and tourism, which is often one of the the hardest hit sectors during economic downturns, loss of jobs and foreclosures impacted the community. Preliminary numbers for 2008 show 90% of all dogs and 83% of cats (up from 78% in 2007) will have been saved.

Winner: Porter County Indiana Commissioner Robert P. Harper

Porter County Indiana’s County Executive proved that being a bureaucrat doesn’t necessarily mean being a bureaucrat. The Porter County Commissioner was given a copy of my book Redemption by an animal lover who saw my presentation in Chicago and bought him one. After reading it, he fired the shelter director and most of the staff and demanded a No Kill policy. The result: lifesaving is at all-time highs, deaths are at all-time lows, neonatal kittens are being sent into foster care, dogs are being walked, and animals are being adopted in record numbers.

Winner: Maddie’s Fund

Rich Avanzino announced a media initiative with the Ad Council (and the Humane Society of the United States) to encourage more shelter adoptions. By focusing on increasing adoptions, Maddie’s Fund gets it right. We only need to increase the market for shelter pets by a couple of percentage points in order to eliminate all population control killing of animals who can be adopted. Some of the market will be replacement life (someone has a pet die or run away and they want another one), some of that will be expanding markets (someone doesn’t have a pet but wants one, or they have pets but want another one). But it all comes down to increasing marketshare (where they get their pets from).

These same demographics also tell us that every year about twice as many people are looking to bring a new dog into their home than the total number of dogs entering shelters, and every year more people are looking to bring a new cat into their home than the total number of cats entering shelters. On top of that, not all animals entering shelters need adoption: some will be lost strays who will be reclaimed, others are feral cats who need neuter and release, some are sick or injured who first need foster care, and some will be vicious dogs or hopelessly ill/injured. When the needs of these animals are addressed their alternatives to killing such as TNR, foster care, rehabilitation, redemptions, and the like, then the remaining population of animals entering shelters who require adoption is actually much smaller. From the perspective of achievability, the prognosis is very good.

The challenge: will shelters respond to anticipated increased public demand with good customer service, family friendly hours, and clean facilities? And while welcome and necessary, the adoption campaign still puts the entire onus on the public: focusing on what they need to do to end the killing. To effectively adopt our way out of killing does not just require more people willing to adopt from a shelter, it requires the implementation of a comprehensive adoption program which includes public access hours (in the evening and on weekends) when working people and families with children, our most sought after adopter demographics, can visit the shelter; it requires daily offsite adoption locations throughout community centers where people live, work, and play, especially if shelters are located in remote parts of a community, as indeed many of them are; it requires good responsive customer service; fair, but not overly bureaucratic, adoption screening; clean facilities (a dog wallowing in his own waste undermines a smile and hello at the door); a good socialization and care program so that animals are happy and healthy, and more.

When all these programs are comprehensively and rigorously in place, the shelter makes it easy to do the right thing, and experience has shown that the public does. Only then can the advertising campaign leverage people’s love of animals, and their desire to bring about an end to the killing, to its full potential.

Nonetheless, more people willing to adopt will mean more adoptions. And contrary to  conventional wisdom, we can adopt our way out of killing.

Winner: Anything with a dog or cat on the cover

Authors, movie studios, magazines have discovered the secret of success. “Sex sells” has been unseated by neutered animals. Marley & Me, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Dewey, if it was a story about animals, it reached the best seller list or broke box office projections. Even cartoon animals, like Bolt, carried the day. And if Naysayers tried to attack it, their voices were drowned out by an even louder chorus of animal loving people.

In 2008, PETA, shelters, and even rescue groups attacked Disney for celebrating our love of dogs with the release of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Ironically, the actual Beverly Hills Chihuahua was a dog saved from death row at a shelter and the movie included a disclaimer asking people to adopt from shelters. These groups ended up being attacked themselves by No Kill advocates for threatening to kill Chihuahuas.

Winner: Redemption

Over the last year, the book climbed to the top 500 titles at Barnes & Noble and cracked the top 1,000 titles (out of 2 million) at Amazon. For its first six months, it was the Number 1 animal rights book in America. Redemption won five national book awards including Best Book from USA Book News and a Silver Medal from the Independent Publishers Association. Midwest Book Reviews called it “a passionate advocacy for ending the killing of homeless dogs and cats in shelters.” Animal People called it “[T]he most provocative and best-informed overview of animal sheltering ever written.” The Bark said it was an “important work: The world owes much to those rare individuals who see things differently-and who then devote themselves to vindicating their maverick conclusions.”

The book has also been favorably reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, Pet Connection, and others. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Endorsements have also come from dog lovers, cat lovers, rabbit lovers, and others who were moved by it and either bought copies of the book to give to their local shelter directors and city council members or have blogged about it in order to help spread the word that we can build a brighter world for animals.

Redemption is changing the way animal sheltering is conducted-and talked about-in the U.S.

Loser: California Assembly Bill 1634

At a California State Senate hearing on AB 1634 just before it died a well deserved death, the bill that started out as mandatory spay/neuter law but devolved and was amended into oblivion, a Senator asked Ed Boks, the General Manager of Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS) and one of the bill’s chief proponents: “Mr. Boks, this bill doesn’t even pretend to be about saving animals, does it?”

To which Boks responded: “No Senator, this is not about saving dogs and cats.” Ed Boks should know. Since passage of his local version of AB 1634, impounds and killing have skyrocketed at the Los Angeles pound he oversees, exactly as concerned animal lovers feared. In fact, the increased killing was the first at LAAS in years.

Since “this is not about saving dogs and cats,” what is it about? For shelter directors who oversee mass killing, it is about taking the pressure off of their own failures by providing a distraction and a target of blame: the “irresponsible public.” As the chorus of voices about the killing in California shelters and their own inability or unwillingness to do anything substantive about it grows, so do their attempts to divert attention elsewhere.

But regardless of underlying beliefs and motivations, the end result of mandatory spay/neuter legislation is tragically the same: power to kill increases and animals die. That is why true animal lovers should dedicate themselves to restricting the state’s killing apparatus, reducing the power of the pounds to involuntarily (or under the threat of citation) take in-and potentially kill-animals when those animals are not being neglected or subject to cruelty. They should not seek to increase that power at the expense of the lives of animals.

And in 2008, they didn’t.

Loser: Author Jon Katz

The author of A Good Dog gave an interview with HSUS entitled “I chose a child’s face over my dog.” The question and answer format with Katz did nothing to illuminate the truth about aggression or dangerous dogs, and in fact, only served to heighten stereotypes and perpetuate myths. That Katz killed his dog because of what he considered severe aggression is not what one takes from the article. That would have been a very different piece, a tragedy for all involved-Jon Katz, his dog, and the people his dog hurt. And maybe, just maybe, our hearts would have hurt for all of them.

Instead, HSUS asks a series of very deliberate questions which not only globalize the tragedy that occurred in the Katz family, but appear to assume the worst in dogs, and the worst in people who want to see less of them killed. Opposition is dismissed as irresponsible. Dog lovers are pitted against children. It’s the type of either-or, you-are-with-us-or-against-us, your-dog-or-your-child hysteria most of us, especially those of us who love both our dogs and our kids, dismissed long ago.

And the tenor of the article results in the following conclusions:

  • Killing dogs becomes unacceptable only when people inappropriately “humaniz[e] dogs.”
  • “Millions of people are bitten by dogs every year, many tens of thousands of children.”
  • If you do not believe in killing dogs, you have made them “quasi-religious objects of veneration.”
  • “Millions of Americans seek medical attention every year for animal bites or attacks.”
  • “[F]or every troubled or aggressive animal kept alive for months or years, healthy and adoptable animals go wanting for homes and often lose their lives.”
  • “Insurance companies are paying out billions of dollars to people bitten by dogs.”
  • As a result of dog bites, “lawyers [are] injected into the human-animal relationship” and this is exacerbated by people who want to see dog killing end.
  • Adopting a Pit Bull appears to be more trouble than it is worth.

Every one of these conclusions is deeply flawed and deeply offensive.

Loser: King County Washington County Executive Ron Sims

If Robert Harper is the ideal County Executive, Ron Sims is the evil twin from King County, WA. Under his watch, staff members of King County Animal Control who were involved in animal neglect are still employed; and, supervisors who allowed it to continue and/or then subsequently covered it up have received promotions. Meanwhile, those who sought to report it have been threatened with termination; and citizens who have answered the call to help the Council fix the broken shelter system have been smeared.

In the end, however, this malfeasance pales in comparison to what the animals have had to endure under his (lack of) leadership. Report after report, audit after audit, complaint after complaint shows rampant neglect, uncaring, and cruelty. Given that animals have not only suffered terribly, they have literally lost their lives because of it, can anyone say impeachment?

Loser: Mission Orange

In 2008, the ASPCA program ostensibly to reduce shelter killing fell apart in its three main cities: Austin, Tampa and Philadelphia. In Austin, shelter leadership refused to comprehensively implement foster care and other programs, choosing to kill the animals instead. The coalition splintered in Tampa when rescue groups refused to remain silent at the ASPCA’s request about the kill-oriented shelter system. And in Philadelphia, its main beneficiary ceased to exist as the health department fired the animal control provider.

Primarily, “Mission: Orange” failed (and continues to fail) to address the fundamental problems that lead to killing; and, it fails to demand accountability of those receiving the money to put into place the programs and services which would end it. Instead, it demands silence as to shelter atrocities under the guise of collaboration and allows shelters to continue with programs that represent the status quo, and to reject those programs necessary for lifesaving success. At the same time, these flawed efforts seek to walk the political tightrope of trying to demonstrate support for No Kill to the general public without offending entrenched shelter directors who are hostile to calls for true reform. As a result, while the ASPCA can put out press releases that it supports No Kill, it falls short of what is needed-in fact, makes things worse-as it props up failed shelter directors whose interests are put above those of the animals, while providing them money and political support without demanding accountability in return.

Despite intense public pressure and desire for reform, Austin’s animal control director refuses to fully implement the programs and services which save lives including a comprehensive foster care program, offsite adoptions, and Trap-Neuter-Return for feral cats, choosing instead to kill the animals whose lives could be saved with these programs. Despite public calls from the Austin rescue community for her resignation, ASPCA President Ed Sayres announced his support of her, calling her “a very effective leader.” Since she was hired, 97,000 animals have been put to death. That’s over 12,000 each year, 1,000 each month, 34 each day, 1 every 12 minutes the shelter has been open to the public.

Loser: PACCA

Philadelphia Animal Care & Control Association (PACCA) promised a No Kill community. But Philly PAWS’ leadership, which ran PACCA, did not do enough to save animals, strayed from their core mission of achieving a No Kill Philadelphia by hiding behind half-truths, becoming complacent about problems, and engaged in only a half-hearted No Kill program implementation.

A Pet Adoption Center, which should have opened within a few months, took over two years to finally open in 2008 because it was not prioritized, and systems to ensure proper care of the animals or that helped animals move expeditiously through the system and into loving homes during peak summer intake seasons were not fully implemented. Management responsible for massive declines in killing in 2005-06 left the organization in disgust, and new management which worked hard to overcome the Director’s intransigence, finally left in 2008 after trying futilely to keep the organization on track.

As a result, the Pennsylvania SPCA moved in and took the animal control contract away from them mid-contract year. PACCA is gone, along with its failed leadership. But will the animals win or lose more? Unfortunately, we cannot look at the change in Philadelphia shelter leadership as either necessarily good or necessarily bad. We have to move past the players and focus on institutionalizing No Kill by giving shelter animals the rights and protections afforded by law. The answer lies in passing and enforcing the Companion Animal Protection Act.

In this way, shelter leadership is forced to embrace No Kill and operate their shelters in a progressive, life-affirming way, removing the discretion which has for too long allowed shelter leaders to ignore what is in the best interests of the animals and kill them needlessly.

Loser: HSUS

Despite new language at the end of 2008, the Humane Society of the United States defended the wholly unnecessary extermination of every shelter animal at Tangipahoa Parish in Louisiana (see below), invited PETA killing apologists who equated No Kill with hoarding at their national conference, legitimized the killing of dogs in shelters, deceptively fundraised off of the Michael Vick dogs telling people they were caring for them (they were not) and that money was needed to help them while they were asking the court to kill them, claimed No Kill was impossible, told Des Moines, Iowa legislators that they didn’t have a problem with killing stray cats after the town announced a $5 bounty on each cat, and bashed No Kill supporters by dismissing us as “mean spirited” and “naïve.”

Loser: Tangipahoa Parish (Louisiana) President Gordon Burgess

In August of 2008, the Tangipahoa Parish President ordered the killing of every animal in the Hammond, Louisiana animal shelter when a few dogs came down with diarrhea. When it was over, more than 170 dogs and cats lay dead. A former shelter employee says she’ll never forget the image: “I did walk back there at one point and they were all piled on top of each other, just lying there dead.”

Ignoring the question of why virtually all animals (including cats) were killed when only some of them were sick (and with minor, treatable illnesses than only afflicts dogs), HSUS blamed the mass killing of 170 animals on the public. The most criticism it can muster-which stretches reality to the breaking point in order to label it as “criticism,” is its use of the impotent word “unusual” to describe the unnecessary slaughter of almost every single animal in the facility; but HSUS then immediately follows it up by blaming under-funding and under-staffing as if these were the culprits in the decision to kill all the animals, or as if the Parish president has no role in funding and staffing. In fact, former staff members decried a pattern by local leadership of deliberately cutting corners on staffing when it came to animal care and cleaning and using mass killing as an ongoing strategy. The mass slaughter was not “unusual,” Mr. Pacelle. It was abhorrent, abysmal, intolerable and outrageous.

Loser: PETA

PETA lost what little remaining clout as a voice of authority relating to companion animals among the rescue community it still had. In 2008, PETA wrote King County, WA officials and asked them not to give in to shelter reform advocates who want to reduce shelter killing, which the Council thankfully deemed not worthy of a reply. They then did a series of robo-calls asking supporters in the Seattle area to call the County Council in support of the cruel and barbaric King County Animal Control, despite reports of animal neglect and cruelty. They also called for continued killing of feral cats in Pittsburgh after a TNR initiative was launched by Pittsburgh officials who dismissed PETA’s position as cruel. Houstonites attack PETA’s pro-kill position after PETA attacked a plan to review the shelter which would help lower shelter death rates. The Michael Vick court ignored PETA’s call for the deaths of the dogs. And because PETA routinely kills over 90% of all animals it impounds, including adoptable animals, a petition is filed with the Virginia Department of Agriculture to recategorize PETA as a slaughterhouse.

Is anyone still listening to PETA?

Loser: The term “euthanasia”

The favorite misnomer of regressive shelters, the term “euthanasia” to describe shelter killing increasingly lost its cache with rescue groups and the public in 2008. In 2008, a critical consensus of rescue groups finally realized the euphemism used to describe shelter killing cannot provide a thick enough gloss to conceal the disturbing, awful truth. The more descriptive-and deadly accurate-“kill” is now used more commonly, much to the chagrin of signatories to the Asilomar Accords who wanted to prevent its usage, as well as its antithesis: “No Kill.” By 2008, only two communities embraced the Accords, rendering it dead on arrival. Good riddance.

Loser: Belief in pet overpopulation

The religion of those who defend shelter killing falls by the wayside in 2008 as more and more people point the finger of blame for killing not on a lack of homes, but on the very shelters doing the killing.

The nail on the coffin comes in late 2008 as even the architect of the killing paradigm, HSUS, finally admits it is more myth than fact in a stunning statement in November. More than that, HSUS concedes that killing is “needless,” and that shelters can adopt their way out of it. (See Winner: No Kill, above.)

Loser: The humane movement’s own “Bradley Effect”

The biggest loser is also the biggest winner for the animals. The animal movement has been living with its own “Bradley effect,” the notion that despite all the evidence to the contrary-the people we see at the dog park, the people we talk to in the lobby of our veterinarian’s office, the best selling books and top box office movies about animals, how much we spend on our pets, how many of us share our homes with animal companions, the demographics that show the immense compassion of a pet loving nation-that Americans are irresponsible and somehow don’t care enough about animals. And, the corollary which flows from this uncaring is that shelters in this country have no choice but to put to death roughly four million dogs and cats every year.

But that was proved wrong when Californians overwhelmingly pass Proposition 2. The vote to outlaw battery cages for chickens, where hens are crammed into confined spaces the size of a desk drawer, may have had as its focus protecting animals on farms from what many see as the worst abuses of the factory farming system, but its resounding success at the polls has a far greater significance for all animals. The victory of Proposition 2-specifically its margin of victory-should not only shatter every notion we hold about people’s view of animals, but it also illustrates the ease with which we could end the pound killing of dogs, cats, and all the other companion animals currently being slaughtered by the millions.

What makes the Proposition 2 vote especially significant is that Americans not only care about dogs and cats; they also care about animals with which they do not have a personal relationship. And if they none-the-less care so much about them, despite all the forces telling them voting for Proposition 2 was a bad idea, we need to put to bed, once and for all, the idea that dogs and cats need to die in U.S. shelters because people are irresponsible and don’t care enough about them.

In fact, a recent study showed that 81 percent of people said they would buy holiday gifts for their dogs, and 69 percent would sooner tighten their belts on friends and extended family than tighten the collars on their dogs. And 65 percent would rather eat ramen noodles than make their dogs eat on the cheap.

We are truly a national of animal lovers. And we deserve animal shelters which reflect our values, rather than the kill-oriented system in place in far too many communities. This is a breach of the public trust, a gross deviation from their responsibility to protect animals, and a point of view that we, as caring people and a humane community, can no longer accept or tolerate.

Looking to 2009

Winner: Reno, NV

The New Year opened in Reno, Nevada on January 1, 2009 as it did all over the country with one exception. Unlike most shelters which close on holidays, the Nevada Humane Society opened its doors on New Year’s Day and saved 49 animals: 35 cats, 13 dogs, and 1 bird in the first six adoption hours of 2009.

By contrast, the shelters of the City of Los Angeles “are closed for adoptions on : Holidays.” In other words, they are closed when working people and families with children in school-the two most sought after demographics-are available to adopt animals.

Is it any surprise that despite taking in three times the number of animals per capita, and despite the fact that Los Angeles is one of the best funded shelter systems in the nation, that Reno is saving more lives? It all comes down to leadership.

Winner: Indianapolis, IN

Just six months ago, I held a two day seminar on Building a No Kill community in Indianapolis, attended by virtually all the rescue groups in the City and shelter administrators from surrounding states. But even though it was in Indianapolis, no one from the private Humane Society of Indianapolis came and only one person from Indianapolis animal control showed up, who privately told me “s/he” would get fired if the boss found out they were there-fired for trying to learn how to save lives.

I also made unannounced visits to the two shelters. The Humane Society was keeping over 40 empty cages to reduce costs and was importing animals from outside Indianapolis while animals were being killed at animal control. In 2008, the director resigned. Meanwhile, Indianapolis Animal Control was filthy and 2008 saw a series of scandals of poor care and unnecessary killing that forced the resignation of its own shelter director.

The humane society hired a newcomer who is now taking animals from animal control rather than importing them and is keeping cages and kennels full. As part of his management team, he has also hired former critics of the shelter who have claimed support for No Kill. And animal control recently hired Doug Rae, a pro-No Kill shelter administrator who was responsible for massive declines in killing in Arizona, Maryland and most recently Pennsylvania. The two have set a goal of reducing the death rate by 75%.

Coin Toss: HSUS

HSUS started the year championing killing (See Loser: HSUS, above) but ended it proclaiming the moral superiority of and easy attainability of No Kill (See Winner: No Kill, above).

Which Wayne Pacelle will emerge in 2009?