My interest in reading Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America by Nathan J. Winograd (Jun 16, 2009) was fueled not only by my commitment to helping homeless dogs (and cats), but by the flurry of charged reviews and comments it generated–for or against, some with great emotion, frustration, and defensiveness. I knew the author must have hit a nerve to elicit such responses, and I wanted to find out what that nerve was. It turns out there are two – his position on pet overpopulation and his indictment against shelters and national associations (think ASPCA, PETA, and the Humane Society), which in our shared opinion should be devoted to preventing animal cruelty and saving as many lives as possible. Instead, they have a long history of laying blame on the public while promoting mass killings as the way to control homeless pet populations. As badly as dogs suffer with this mindset and policy, feral cats fare worse.
As Winograd states, much of this book is about history, beginning with Henry Berg’s founding of the ASPCA in 1866 and his commitment to stopping the cruel treatment of city work horses and other animals, to the atrocious policies and conditions of so-called “shelters”, to the challenges and successes of the No-Kill movement (through 2005). This history is laced with the good, the bad, and the ugly of animal control, legislation, and sheltering, which unfortunately even today is still more often than not bent on killing than saving animals.
If I were to boil down my most important take away from of Redemption, it would be that instead of laying blame and setting up a punitive system (which doesn’t work) against the public as a primary strategy for opting out of lifesaving in favor of killing, shelters have a responsibility to do right by the animals they take in as their first priority. This means implementing a multi-pronged approach of providing good care, fair, reliable behavior testing, rehabilitation if needed, and a commitment to making adoption an appealing option to the public by way of education, a foster home network, cooperation with rescue groups, good customer service, clean facilities, spay/neuter before adoption, and liberal adoption hours. Only animals that are hopelessly ill or vicious are euthanized (about 10% of incoming animals) and all others, most of whom are young, healthy and friendly, are candidates for adoption. As for unadoptable feral cats, trap-neuter-release and vaccinate. Allow people to feed and care for them instead of legislating against them.
The most heated discussion among reviewers and people commenting was caused by Winograd’s stand that pet overpopulation is a myth. One would think that with 4-5 million dogs and cats killed in shelters every year (down from almost 18 million in the 1980s), and facilities inundated with more animals than they can handle, that overpopulation surely is a problem. Not so. Winograd maintains that while overpopulation in shelters may be problematic at times, the use of foster homes and space in facilities is often not maximized, which contributes to the problem. Seeking convenience and maintaining the status quo trumps change and life. He claims there are more than enough homes available for adoptable dogs and cats. The US Humane Society backs up this claim. So where are these people? They are getting their pets from pet stores (think puppy mills), breeders, friends, anywhere but shelters. Why? Because of the misperception that homeless animals are damaged goods and facilities are often perceived as dirty, unfriendly killing places where the public is not really welcome.
Today in 2014, in northern NY where I live, I thankfully see a somewhat different picture than Winograd paints. I say somewhat, because our SPCA has a disturbing policy of not taking dogs over 5 years old or animals that are sick, even with easily treated conditions. On the more positive side, they have a foster program, support TNR, and have liberal adoption hours. They maintain a satellite site at PETCO (cat adoptions are way up because of that), a committed staff, lots of volunteers, a play area and dog park, and they spay/neuter/vaccinate before adoption. Our dog pound (renamed dog shelter), where dogs once had seven days to live if not adopted, now has a 90 day policy. I know for a fact that the staff goes above and beyond to keep them alive longer. Several residents, many of them pit bull breeds, live there over six months before the happy adoption announcements are posted. Unfortunately, they do not allow volunteers, but they do welcome donators, including me with my gifts of cushions for the seniors and bones and toys for all.
I wish I could say this shift toward No Kill and decency were widespread nationwide, but I know it is not. Winograd’s point and indictment of many facilities still stands valid. Although the tide is surely turning since Redemption was published and before, mostly due to public pressure, we as a nation have a lot of work to do. Since writing Rescue Me, and becoming more connected with rescuers, I see daily post after post pleading for the lives of dogs in shelters, many with 72 hour policies or less. I read of dogs being injured while their cages are pressure washed, sick and injured animals receiving little to no treatment, animals living in deplorable conditions, and shelters with a no-adoption policy (REALLY?!!). I read of corruption and animals killed cruelly and too soon, sometimes to spite advocates. I see videos of animals being neglected and abused in places where they should find refuge.That’s what the word shelter means, but in some places, it is nothing more than a word that covers up what they really are – horrible places where their number one mission is disposing of animals, including healthy, friendly adoptable ones, primarily by murdering them.
Recently, this unfortunate realization personally hit home with me. A plea went out by Julia Buie, one of Rescue Me’s contributors, for vetting and transport funds for several dogs. I donated the $95 needed to gain freedom for a young coonhound named Wesley, only to learn that he was killed shortly before his rescuers arrived. It may have been a mix-up, but for Wesley it was still death. How sad to be in such a hurry to kill. And what’s even sadder is that some staff members have been brainwashed to believe they are doing a good deed for the dogs and society by killing. How sad.
The truth is, No-Kill is achievable with committed shelter leadership and a well-functioning network in place. When the organizations do their part, and the public does theirs, very few animals will ever have to die for no good reason. Isn’t that what you would want for you and yours? Should it be any different for them?
Do you want to know how to bring No-Kill to your shelter? Download the No Kill Advocacy Center’s FREE No Kill Advocate’s Toolkit, 13 step by step guides to help you reform your local shelter.
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