From the archive: Interview with Nathan Winograd, part 1

Valerie Hayes

I’ve been meaning to move some of my favorite articles from over to this blog for a while. With the Atlanta screening of Redemption just a week away, I thought I’d start with the two-part interview I did with Nathan Winograd back in 2010, when he gave a Building No Kill Communities workshop in Douglasville.  Some things have changed in that time, some have not.  Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this new documentary is that it will reach an audience that loves animals, but doesn’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about animal shelters, and will reframe the issues for a lot of people.  Change starts with looking at a problem differently, from another angle, with thinking about it differently.  Tickets to the Atlanta premiere of Redemption are only $5 and must be purchased in advance here. There will not be ticket sales at the event.

The No Kill is Love tour comes to Atlanta's Midtown Art Cinema on August 21 at 7pm.

The No Kill is Love tour comes to Atlanta’s Midtown Art Cinema on August 21 at 7pm.

Last month, internationally respected No Kill advocate Nathan Winograd visited Georgia and gave a free seminar entitled‘Building No Kill Communities’ to an audience of almost 300 animal advocates from across Georgia and from five neighboring states.  He kindly answered a series of questions from the AtlantaAnimal WelfareExaminer about the No Kill movement in general, and about what it means for Georgia in particular.

Redemption: the Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No kill Revolution in America—that’s a pretty provocative title. When did you first realize that ‘pet overpopulation’ was a myth? Did you find it difficult to believe? I mean, 4 million animals are killed in American shelters annually. That’s a large number of animals. I talk about this in my new book, Irreconcilable Differences. I did not wake up one day and say, “Pet overpopulation is a myth.” Nor did I think that someday I would champion the notion that it was. I did not even set out to prove it. It unfolded as part of my work in the humane movement and the facts began to compel further analysis. In fact, many years ago, I too believed the opposite. I once argued with my wife that “There were too many animals and not enough homes.” I am ashamed of having done so, but I did. She correctly argued that even if it were true, killing remained unethical. She also correctly argued that if we took killing off the table, human ingenuity and human compassion would find a way to make it work. But, more importantly, she asked me how I knew it was true.

How did I know? Because I’ve heard it repeated a thousand times. Because I took the fact of killing in shelters and then rationalized the reason backward. I was too embarrassed to admit so. But therein began a journey that started in San Francisco, then Tompkins County, New York, then Charlottesville, Virginia, followed by dozens of shelters in communities across the country. I reviewed data from over 1,000 shelters nationwide, and reviewed several national studies. And the conclusion became not just inescapable, but unassailable. Rather than bury it, ignore it or downplay it, I did what anyone who truly loves animals would have done. I celebrated it. Why? Because it meant that we had the power to end the killing, today.

And since that time, other studies and the increase in the number of No Kill communities have proven I was right; indeed, they show I was being conservative. While four million animals are being killed, it is not because of a lack of homes that they are being killed. Of these four million, roughly 3.6 million are not suffering, hopelessly ill, or truly vicious dogs with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation. If shelters did a better job returning lost animals home, they could, for example, increase the percentage of dog reclaims from an average of about 25% to 60%. If shelters embraced TNR, they could release these cats to their habitat, rather than kill them. If they had pet retention programs to help people overcome the behavior, medical, and environmental conditions which cause them to surrender animals, they could reduce by as much as 30% the number of animals coming in to the shelter. If they utilized foster care programs, such a program would provide an alternative to killing the underaged animals entering their facility. And if they had good customer service, employed basic marketing principles, and comprehensively implemented an adoption program, they’d have little trouble finding homes for the 2 to 3 million animals being killed in U.S. pounds and shelters who need adoption. That’s potentially 2 million dogs and cats competing for the 17 million people who are looking to bring a new dog or cat into their homes, have not decided where that animal will come from, and can be influenced to adopt from a shelter.

Contrary to what many shelters falsely claim are the primary hurdles to lifesaving (e.g., public irresponsibility or lack of homes), the biggest impediments are actually in shelter management’s hands. Effectiveness in shelter goals and operations begins with caring and competent leadership, staff accountability, effective programs, and good relations with the community—which do not currently exist in most shelters. It means putting actions behind the words of every shelter’s mission statement that “All life is precious.” And it is abundantly clear that the practices of most shelters violate this principle.

Shelter killing is not the result of pet overpopulation; it is the result of shelter managers who find it easier to kill animals than save them. And not only do they kill animals they should be saving, too many of them neglect and abuse them in the process. The bottom line is that shelter killing is unnecessary and unethical. And pet overpopulation is merely an excuse for poorly performing shelter managers who want to blame others for their own failures and keep on with business as usual. Instead of challenging the data, however, they attack me. But I could go away tomorrow and that wouldn’t change the facts, or the inescapable conclusion. The cat is out of the bag, and is never going back in.

When did things go wrong in the American animal sheltering system? It was always wrong. In the 19th Century, the modern pound system was established to rid cities of stray dogs by putting them to death. This was done in a variety of cruel ways: shooting, poisoning, drowning, even beating them to death. By contrast, the animal protection movement was founded on compassion, to combat those efforts. What I argue in Redemption is that the humane movement lost its way when it moved from advocacy on behalf of those stray dogs to operating the majority of kill shelters. It was a great betrayal of Henry Bergh’s founding vision for an SPCA. As a result, an agency founded to save lives, in fact founded on the highest ideals of compassion, was replaced by a network of thousands of them all across the country whose primary mission became killing animals, even when those animals were not suffering.

In the mid-1970s, a lot of these agencies, along with the leaders of the national animal protection organizations like the ASPCA, Humane Society of the United States, and American Humane Association, met for the first time to discuss shelter killing. But by this time, the view that killing was both necessary and proper, indeed the right and kind thing to do, had become so entrenched that any effort to change the status quo—to save feral cats, to work with dogs who might have behavior challenges, to save neonatal animals, to partner with rescue groups—was met with recrimination and open hostility. Groups like HSUS gave shelters a new enemy: the American public, even though the public held the keys to ending the killing through adoption, fostering, volunteering, and rescue. And, sadly, the American public had one more reason to avoid their shelter, aside from the fact that they killed the bulk of their occupants.

When did they go right? Well, they started to go right when Rich Avanzino changed the course of the San Francisco SPCA’s history and put it on a path toward lifesaving. In total contravention of HSUS’ conventional wisdom, Avanzino embraced the public and asked them to help him save lives. And they did, opening up their hearts, homes, and wallets and in the process—through a series of programs and services that made it easy for the public to do the right thing; to adopt, rather than buy, to spay/neuter because cost was no longer an issue—made San Francisco the first to end the killing of healthy dogs and cats.

I took those lessons, and that philosophy, with me when I took over in Tompkins County, NY, radicalizing and expanding the programs to the point that they replaced killing entirely. Together, I, the volunteers, a new staff with a “can do” attitude, and all the animal lovers of Tompkins County, created the nation’s first—and at the time only—No Kill community. We took a concept from the theoretical and made it real. And we not only proved it was possible, but that it could happen overnight.

Moreover, we didn’t just save all healthy dogs and cats the way San Francisco did. We also saved all the sick, injured, unweaned, and traumatized treatable ones. We saved all the feral cats. And we saved other shelter animals including bunnies, mice, hamsters, iguanas, even the occasional chicken, goose, and horse who came through our doors. It electrified the nation. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The No Kill Equation is the 11-point plan for reforming animal shelters. When was it first articulated? How has it evolved?

Most of the programs that are articulated in the No Kill Equation came from the vision of Richard Avanzino. But after Avanzino left San Francisco, I put together a document called, “Mission: Possible.” At the time, it was a description of the 10-point plan. That is what I set out to implement in Tompkins, with the help of the volunteers who always, always rose to the occasion.

But over time, it has expanded. We added an important 11th program, which I call “proactive redemption efforts” to increase the percentage of lost animals who get back home. That has made a crucial lifesaving difference in places with higher than average impounds, allowing them to rehome over 60% of stray dogs and increasing seven-fold the percentage of cats reclaimed by their families; thus freeing up shelter kennel space and allowing them to save more lives.

At the No Kill Advocacy Center, we needed to name the programs and services, since “Mission: Possible” was associated with the San Francisco SPCA. It was actually my wife who coined the term the “No Kill Equation” and since then, it has taken on a life of its own. What does the NKE mean for the South? Is it even possible in the land of red clay? In Georgia, about 50 of the 159 counties have no form of animal control and no animal shelters. What does the NKE mean for them?

Historically—and to this very day—animal control in this country is an institution that is designed to warehouse and kill animals at the lowest possible cost. That is the status quo that HSUS and other national organizations have championed for so long.

Given the success of the No Kill philosophy, these agencies can and should be temporary way stations for animals, a place where they go for a new life, rather than what they too often find—the end of the line. So we need to be careful we are not striving to create institutions of killing. That is never the better choice.

The good news is, of course, that this isn’t the only choice faced. It is not “no animal control” vs. “animal control based on killing.” The third choice is No Kill animal control.

And the even better news is that some of the most successful communities in the country in terms of saving lives are in the South, in historically poorer states. Right now, there are No Kill communities in the North and in the South, in urban areas and in rural areas, in politically liberal states and in very conservative ones. What I have learned is that it is not where the shelter is located that matters, it is who runs it and whether they implement the programs and services of the No Kill Equation.

Traditionally, the blame for shelter killing has been directed at two targets—one amorphous and the other, defenseless—the “irresponsible public” and the animals themselves. If ‘pet overpopulation’ is a myth and there really are enough homes for the animals killed in shelters, and shelters like the Tompkins county SPCA, Reno, NV and Charlottesville, VA have demonstrated for years that it is possible for communities to be No Kill, then why do we have so much shelter killing today? According to a recent report compiled by the Georgia Voters for Animal Welfare, Georgia’s shelters kill about 260,000 dogs and cats annually.

Why, indeed? Just the other day I got an e-mail from a shelter volunteer whose director told her No Kill was impossible, even though it has already been achieved and has been a reality for almost a decade. She also wrote to tell me that their local shelter director said a shelter had to turn animals away in order to be No Kill, another falsehood given the proliferation of No Kill animal control shelters.

The term No Kill means that a shelter does not kill savable animals, roughly 90-95% of all shelter intakes. It has nothing to do with whether the shelter is public or private, municipal or SPCA, open admission or one that only takes in animals it can do so without killing. There are No Kill shelters that fit all of these categories.

The reality is that shelters continue to kill because killing is easier than doing what is necessary to stop it. Shelters kill because they are run by uncaring, inept, and lazy managers, and equally uncaring, inept, and lazy staff. Shelters kill because they refuse to accept responsibility, while they point the finger of blame elsewhere: the public and the animals themselves. And shelters kill because national organizations like the ASPCA and HSUS that should be holding them accountable, instead provide them political cover to continue killing.

Also according to that report, the percentage of animals killed varies greatly from county to county and is even 100% in some places. What are usually the most important determinants for variation in the percentage of animals killed in one shelter versus another?

In 2009, the No Kill Advocacy Center commissioned a study to look at this very question. The study looked at funding rates, location, a host of factors. But none of those could explain the differences in lifesaving rates between shelters. For example, one shelter spent $6.00 per capita on animal control but only saved 40% of the animals. A shelter in a neighboring community with similar demographics only spent $1.50 per capita, ¼ the rate of the former, but saved 90%.

What did explain the difference in lifesaving—in fact, the only thing that accounted for the differences—was who was running them. In other words, the difference between high rates of lifesaving and high rates of killing came down to the choices made by the people running those shelters. It came down to leadership and how committed those leaders were to embracing the No Kill philosophy and implementing the programs which make it possible.

That is why San Francisco went from slaughtering most animals to saving most. That is why Tompkins County went from killing to No Kill. And the same is true of every community that has achieved No Kill thereafter. Leadership is the single most important aspect of the No Kill Equation. Because all the money in the world, all the offers by rescue groups and volunteers, won’t save animals at a shelter run by an uncaring director who refuses to hold his or her staff accountable, or refuses to give animals to rescue groups rather than kill them, or refuses to use foster parent volunteers, or refuses to implement any of the other alternatives to killing. Quite simply, No Kill starts as an act of will.

The buck stops with the shelter’s director. Yes, there are other factors: if a shelter is overseen by regressive health department bureaucrats, if they are hamstrung by an inept Board of Directors, if they inherit a shelter in disarray, all of these will impact how quickly a director can cross the No Kill goal line. But at the end of the day, all of them can and should. And, so it is fair to say that in the vast majority of cases, the ultimate responsibility for whether animals live or die under their watch lies with them. The buck stops with the shelter’s director. And no amount of posturing or protesting will ever change that fact.

Why do some people oppose No Kill? It seems obvious that lives should be saved. What is all the fuss about?

That is the question I tackled in Part I of Redemption called “The Controversy over Saving Lives.” The difference comes down to the fact that “we” (meaning SPCAs, humane societies, animal protection groups) are doing the killing. And it is always harder to stand up to one’s so-called “friends” than one’s clear cut enemies. But stand up we must. For if we are ever to achieve a No Kill nation, we must always do what is in the best interests of animals even when it means that we must fight against someone who claims to be part of our movement, but whose actions in killing defenseless animals belie that claim.

In the end, the people who oppose No Kill do not care enough about the animals. Because I’ll tell you one thing you can engrave in stone: no one—and I mean absolutely no one—would be an advocate for killing if they were the ones facing the needle.

How does the current economic situation in Georgia pose challenges and opportunities for No Kill?

Economic downturns are always a challenge for organizations. Especially if bureaucrats down prioritize lifesaving, the downturn gives them an excuse to continue underfunding and underprioritizing shelter services. But here’s the flipside: those shelters which have embraced No Kill have seen donations continue to increase during the recent economic recession, and some of these are seeing donations hit all-time highs. They also continue to save record numbers of lives, despite the recession.

In order to achieve success in this difficult economic environment, a shelter must be run for innovative, optimistic, passionate people who see challenges as opportunities, rather than just one more in a long litany of excuses they use in order to justify their needless killing.

History has proven that there is enough love and compassion in every community if shelters do good things for animals and ask for the public’s help. Even while virtually every other sector of the economy was plummeting, per capita spending on companion animals continued its meteoric rise and hit $50 billion in the U.S. And giving to animal related causes remains the fastest growing segment in American philanthropy.

What the public won’t do with their hard earned dollars, especially in times of economic stress, is finance a shelter that kills animals. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to No Kill in Georgia? And what are important assets?

The biggest obstacles to lifesaving success in Georgia are the same obstacles faced in communities in other states where killing is the norm: shelter directors content with killing who refuse to change, uncaring bureaucrats who fail to hold those directors accountable, and the built in excuse of pet overpopulation. That is why any effort to reform these shelters must attack the root cause of shelter killing, by removing these directors, electing animal lovers to positions of power, and exposing the myth of pet overpopulation.

What is going to overcome this is the same thing that has overcome it in communities across the country: the people. A few months ago, the head of the pro-killing Humane Society of the United States came to San Francisco to defend their anti-animal positions including the embrace of Michael Vick, the most notorious animal abuser of our generation even while HSUS lobbied to have the dogs he abused killed, and their abhorrent record on advocating killing in shelters. Barely two dozen people showed up.

When I went to rural Georgia, in Douglasville, to talk about how Georgia can become a No Kill state, almost 300 people showed up. Why? Because people love animals and want to help build a better world for them. Experiences like that, which I encounter frequently, remind me just how widespread our love for companion animals is as a society. And it is that love that gives me faith that we will fix our broken animal shelter system.

Read part two of the Atlanta Animal Welfare Examiner’s interview with Nathan Winograd.

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.