I’ve been meaning to move some of my favorite articles from Examiner.com 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. I re-published Part 1 yesterday. Some things have changed in the past few years, 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 who do spend a lot of time thinking about them. Change starts with looking at a problem differently, from another angle, with thinking about it differently. Tickets to the Atlanta premiere ofRedemption are only $5 and must be purchased in advance here. There will not be ticket sales at the event.
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 Atlanta Animal Welfare Examiner about the No Kill movement in general, and about what it means for Georgia in particular.
Georgia recently passed Grace’s Law, which bans the use of the gas chamber to kill shelter pets, effective December 31, 2010. This will end one particularly tortuous way of killing dogs and cats in shelters, but Georgia still kills a lot of shelter pets—260,000 a year, according to the GVAW report. Is there anything we can do legislatively that would stem this tide? Anything we should definitely not do?
The ideal animal control law would ban the killing of dogs and cats, and would prohibit the impounding of feral cats except for purposes of spay/neuter and release. But at this time in history, it is unlikely that local governments would pass such sweeping laws. The answer, therefore, lies in passing and enforcing shelter reform legislation that mandates how all shelters must operate. We need to regulate shelters in the same way we regulate hospitals and other agencies which hold the power over life and death.
We know how to end the killing and have for over a decade. But Georgia shelters are not voluntarily implementing the programs and services that make No Kill possible. As a result, animals continue to be needlessly killed. So we need to force them to. We need to force them to operate their shelters in a progressive, life-affirming way—removing the discretion which allows shelter leaders to ignore the best interests of the animals and kill them needlessly. We need to move beyond a system of shelters and pounds in which the lives of animals are subject to the discretion and whims of shelter leaders or health department bureaucrats. In short, we need to codify the programs and services of the No Kill Equation.
One of the programs is working with rescue groups. But it is clear too many shelters are not doing that voluntarily. The No Kill Advocacy Center, for example, surveyed rescue groups throughout New York State and found that almost three out four had tried to rescue animals from shelters and had been turned away. Worse, the shelters then turned around and killed those animals. I heard similar complaints from rescue groups when I was in Georgia. Thankfully, the New York State legislature is considering a law to make it illegal for a shelter in that state to kill an animal if a qualified rescue group is willing to save that animal’s life. Laws like that are needed in Georgia too.
We are also going to see legislation introduced in another state that would make it illegal for a shelter to kill an animal unless of the following criteria is met: there are no empty cages, kennels, or other living environments in the shelter that are suitable for the animal; the animal cannot share a cage or kennel with another animal; a foster home is not available; rescue groups have been notified and are not willing to accept the animal; and the shelter manager certifies that the above conditions are met and that he/she has no other reasonable alternative.
In fact, that law is modeled after the No Kill Advocacy Center’s model legislation, which would be a good place for Georgia animal lovers to start crafting their own shelter reform law. But what they should not do, what I hope they don’t do, is seek punitive legislation aimed at the public. Because when we seek laws to punish the public, we just end up punishing the animals. Animal shelters have proven that they are not responsible with the lives of animals. Animal shelters have proven that they find killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it. We should not pass laws giving them even more power to cite, impound, and kill animals. Because if Georgia shelters have proven anything, it is that they are more than willing to do just that.
Some people have called for mandatory spay-neuter laws (MSN), possibly on a temporary (5 year) basis as a means of reducing the number of animals killed in Georgia’s shelters. Is that a good idea?
If they worked, I would say “Yes.” If they worked, I would be mandatory spay/neuter’s biggest advocate. I would be going around the country seeing to it that every community passed one. I am not philosophically opposed to them, and I would never put a human-centric interest (breeding, breed enthusiasts, perpetuation of a breed) over the life of an animal. I know that is going to get a lot of people who support my work very upset. But I’ve never claimed otherwise. I’ve never written anything against mandatory spay/neuter on the basis of those other interests. I’ve been very clear from day one: I oppose them because they lead to more killing. And ending killing is my only goal.
It is not that I don’t support spay/neuter. I do. And when I was in charge of shelters, I supported it more than most shelter directors do. Spay/Neuter is one of the cornerstones of the No Kill Equation and a program I offered for free in both San Francisco and Tompkins County. My opposition to mandatory spay/neuter laws is because they increase the power of the animal control bureaucracy to impound and kill animals for violations, and that is what has occurred in municipalities which pass them. They exacerbate rather than decrease killing. This is not an anomaly. It has happened time and time again. It also causes animal control to divert scarce resources from programs which save lives to enforcement of ordinances that result in higher rates of killing. Now, the ASPCA has come out against them for the same reason, so even an organization that supports killing shelters and backs killing directors could no longer ignore the overwhelming evidence that they do not work. In fact, the evidence is so overwhelming that even the former head of animal control in Los Angeles, one of the chief proponents of such laws, admitted that his mandatory spay/neuter law was a failure.
These laws are not about saving lives. They are about more power for animal control departments, more officers, more sweeps of stray animals, more citations written, more animals impounded, and more animals killed. (They also feed the backyard breeder market as people then find other unaltered animals.) That groups which claim to be concerned with high levels of shelter killing would actually seek legislation to empower a dysfunctional animal control bureaucracy to impound—and thus kill—even more animals, is a contradiction they conveniently ignore.
When was the last time a mandatory sterilization law reduced killing 50% or 75% as has occurred in communities using the No Kill Equation model of sheltering? It has never happened. Ever. And more often, the opposite results. Los Angeles City shelters saw the first increase in impounds and killing in a decade after passing their spay/neuter law—a 24% increase in dog killing and a 35% increase in cat killing, at a time when other California communities were seeing killing decline.
That is why I’ve asked supporters that if they are going to push for these, despite all the evidence to the contrary, to add protections for animals in these laws, such as no impound provisions, free spay/neuter in lieu of a citation, and automatic repeal if killing goes up. They always refuse to do so. If they believe in these laws, despite all the evidence about how harmful to animals they actually are, why not put in these protections?
What about anti-tethering laws?
I support them because it is in a different category than the law above. Anti-tethering laws are aimed at stopping cruelty—and chaining dogs in the backyard 24/7 is cruelty. But they need to be well crafted so they do not result in the round up and killing of dogs. ‘Pit Bulls’ often fare even worse than other animals in Georgia’s shelters. For example, DeKalb County kills about 90% of the ‘pit bulls’ it takes in (almost 35 per week), as opposed to 65 % of all animals considered together. This leads some to see the ‘pit bull’ situation as hopeless. What can be done?
First of all, it is important to realize that shelter workers misidentify breeds over 70% of the time. So they are killing dogs by calling them “Pit Bulls” even when they have no real “Pit Bull” in them. But that aside, when I was in Tompkins, we saved 9 out of 10 dogs classified as “Pit Bulls.” Charlottesville has been No Kill for four years despite a 50% “Pit Bull” intake. And Reno is saving 92% of all dogs, despite a significant “Pit Bull” intake. To say it is hopeless when shelters across the country are living proof that is not is indefensible naysaying. That doesn’t mean it is not without its challenges. It most certainly is. We have to overcome stereotyping that is, in some ways, of the animal protection movement’s own creation. Every time organizations like HSUS or PETA call for Pit Bulls to be killed en masse, as they have in certain contexts, we reinforce the stereotype that they are different. But, as Karen Delise, who I consider the nation’s foremost Pit Bull advocate likes to say, Pit Bulls are just dogs. Two eyes, four legs, one heart.
Do you think it is possible to implement the No Kill Equation in a shelter staffed by prison inmates?’
Well, you are asking a former prosecutor who spent years sending people to prison, so I would guess I may be a little biased in my perceptions here. But given widespread No Kill success, and the fact that not a single one has been run with prison labor, my beliefs are on firm ground. So with those caveats, the short answer is that yes, it can be implemented. And yes, it will save some lives. But will it achieve No Kill? I doubt it.
Achieving No Kill is hard work, which is why many shelters are not No Kill. Killing is easier because they have a built in excuse for their own failures: pet overpopulation. But, if shelters are going to succeed, they need a professional staff. A modern shelter interested in reducing killing to the maximum extent practicable must meet certain mandatory minimums. These are:
1. Providing nourishment, medical care and social enrichment/behavioral rehabilitation for all domestic animals in its care; 2. Providing basic health screening for all animals; 3. Providing a preventative disease control program; 4. Providing a comprehensive adoption program; 5. Providing a volunteer and foster care program through which members of the community can get actively involved in helping the animals; 6. Providing lost and found services; 7. Providing information and access to subsidized spay/neuter services for low income pet owners in a community and for unowned feral cats; 8. Maintaining accurate and thorough records on all animal-related activities;
To reach its goals, these duties translate into several key program areas including working with rescue groups, providing access to low cost spaying and neutering, developing a community-based volunteer, foster care and offsite adoption program, providing options and solutions to overcome medical, behavioral and environmental issues that may cause caretakers to relinquish their pets, medical and behavioral programs and rehabilitation, disease control and socialization, and a proactive and positive public relations and marketing campaign. All these programs are essential to a well run shelter. And a well run shelter requires an ethical, highly motivated team with an emphasis on accountability, responsibility, and good judgment. People don’t get into prison by exercising those characteristics.
You’ve said that it is possible to transition shelters from high-kill to No Kill without additional funding or staff. How would that work in Georgia shelters, which are often staffed by prison inmates? What about spay-neuter before adoption in shelters that do not yet do that? How would that be funded?
In Tompkins, we actually reduced the number of staff despite a 75% decline in killing. In Reno, they’ve actually cut costs despite almost doubling the adoption rate. And as the 2009 leadership study showed, funding levels don’t really account for the differences between No Kill and killing shelters. In fact, when we became the first No Kill community in the country, municipalities were only paying us about $1.50 per capita for animal control. Is it right to do that? It isn’t. And part of the current director’s priority is to make the arrangement more equitable. What we did was subsidize that through our own fundraising. And despite that, we were still able to balance the budget. In fact, in 2003, my last full year, we finished with a $23,000 surplus to expenses. But, it is not a long term strategy and shelters must have an adequate level of funding.
So, that study should not be used to eviscerate shelter funding. But rather than wait around until more money flows from taxpayer coffers, using that as an excuse to kill, shelter directors can be doing a lot while they lobby for fair funding levels by cutting inefficiencies and firing underperforming staff. In addition, any increases in costs can be offset by more revenue from adoptions and donations from the community.
Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that while saving lives costs money, it is often more cost effective than killing. Adoptions bring in revenues, while killing costs money. Transfers to rescue groups also transfer the cost of care from taxpayer to private philanthropy, while saving money associated with killing. Foster parents augment services at little to no cost while the adoption revenue goes to the facility. And it is certainly less expensive to sterilize a feral cat than take that cat in, kill the cat, and dispose of her body, or that of her offspring. And the savings are exponential. Thanks to an investment in free and subsidized spay/neuter, San Francisco shelters are only taking in 7,000 dogs and cats per year, down from over 20,000 in the 1980s: a rate five times less than Reno and one of the lowest of any municipality in the nation. That’s a huge savings.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly, most expenses in an animal shelter are fixed costs, so saving the animals won’t increase the bulk of those.
How long does it take to transition a shelter from a place of killing to a place of safety? What if a shelter director wants to implement the No Kill Equation gradually, on a small scale or only partially?
We turned Tompkins County around overnight. Charlottesville became No Kill overnight. As did shelters in Kentucky, Utah, Indiana, Kansas and elsewhere. Some communities took a little longer, but there were real obstacles such as a shelter director hostile to calls for reform. But once committed, they also achieved success virtually overnight when those directors were replaced. And these communities take in more animals per capita than the national average. Reno takes in 39 animals for every 1,000 residents, five times the rate of San Francisco, three times the rate of Los Angeles, over twice the national average. In fact, their per capita intake rate is higher than New York City and other communities still killing healthy animals. But Reno is saving 90% of all animals, while these communities are not. Tompkins took in 26 animals per 1,000 residents when I was there, well above the national average of about 14. And not only do these communities prove it, the national data does to.
What needs to happen is that directors must implement all of the programs of the No Kill Equation comprehensively so that they replace killing entirely. In other words, every neonatal kitten should go into foster care, not just a precious few.
Of course, I would rather see shelter directors implement some of them rather than none of them, and I’d rather see them do them even at a token level rather than none at all, but that isn’t really the choice presented. Historically in Austin, Texas, for example, the pound director boasted that they had a foster care program. But she only allowed staff to foster. In other words, she was willing to kill kittens and puppies while turning away thousands of people in the community who would have been willing and able to help foster animals. The ASPCA backed her, saying she was doing a “good” job. I take issue with the ASPCA’s definition of what constitutes a good job, in fact, it should be categorized as a resounding failure. And thankfully, despite the ASPCA’s endorsement, she was removed because of her hostility to saving lives. But that aside, even if she were doing a “good” job compared to other shelters, good enough is never good enough when the lives of animals are at stake.
When Tompkins County, NY became the first No Kill community in the entire country back in 2001, how did shelter directors across the country react? Was it what you expected? It certainly electrified rescue groups and animal lovers all over the country, and I believe it played a pivotal role to the widespread success of the No Kill movement since then. In fact, a national magazine called it one of the top achievements in the nation. Because of Tompkins County’s seminal achievement, No Kill is taking the country by storm. And, thankfully, some shelter directors sought to replicate our success, with similar success. The success in Charlottesville is a direct result of the success in Tompkins. In fact, the future director of Charlottesville came to visit us in Tompkins to learn about our success so she could implement it back home. But, tragically and unethically, that is not how most directors responded. Most shelter directors sought to denigrate, downplay, ignore, and dismiss our success.
They came up with excuse after excuse. I was accused of killing animals in the middle of the night so no one would notice. I was accused of meeting people surrendering animals in our parking lot and killing them out there so they wouldn’t count in our statistics. I was accused of taking friendly animals and dumping them on the side of the road and claiming they were adopted. But you were there, hundreds of volunteers were there and all of us were part of a vast lifesaving initiative. So the attacks against me and our success denigrated the work of thousands of people who were working very hard to make a lifesaving difference in Tompkins County. And all of their malicious and false attacks were motivated by a desire to avoid accountability—to avoid having to answer the question, “if they can achieve No Kill in Tompkins County, why can’t we do it here?”—here, being in the community where shelter directors were still butchering animals by the hundreds or thousands in the face of readily available lifesaving alternatives they simply refused to implement.
But they aren’t making those claims anymore. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. It was easier to dismiss and ignore No Kill when Tompkins was the only No Kill community. But I’ve not been in Tompkins since 2004 and they are still saving over 90% of the animals (at least 92% each year for the last eight years). And Tompkins is not alone. There are now No Kill communities all over the U.S., and abroad—in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And our numbers continue to grow. Unless there is a mass conspiracy of parking lot killing, middle of the night killing, and dumping animals on the side of the road, there are simply no excuses left. As a result, shelter directors mired in killing are increasingly being seen for who and what they are.
We visited a local taxpayer-funded shelter while you were in Georgia—the Carroll County Animal Shelter. Would you comment on what you saw there?
I was met at the door by an incredibly hostile shelter director. When I asked him if he would give me a tour, he told me I could take one myself. He then proceeded to stand around chatting with lazy staff congregating at the front desk. I also saw lots of empty cages. In fact, banks and banks of empty cages, in spite of a high kill rate. I wish I could say it was an aberration, but I can’t. That is the paradigm built and maintained by HSUS and it is the status quo. In other words, it was typical of a do nothing, killing shelter run by uncaring staff who have no business having the power of life and death over defenseless animals.
What are the most important things concerned animal-lovers should do to reform their community’s shelter?
Fight hard and fight smart. Learn from the success of others. There are good resources out there to help you including the No Kill Advocacy Center, Fix Austin, and KCACCexposed. But if there is one piece of advice I can give animal lovers working for shelter reform is to remember that while we can achieve a No Kill nation overnight, regime change in shelters like the one I visited in Georgia may take time. Activists have to remember that killing is entrenched in this country and they will be ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, and attacked for challenging the status quo. But they need to look at the silver lining: the dialog was never occurring before, the killing was never challenged. If they keep fighting and fight smart, they will wear the opposition down, they will educate the public that there is another way, they will educate candidates for city council who will eventually campaign on a pro-No Kill platform as they have in other communities, they will eventually strip away the excuses.
In other words, no matter how many times they knock you down, you will win if you remember the golden rule: dust off, stand up, and fight back. In short, never give up, never give up, never give up.