Oct 4 2012

Free adoptions: Much better than televised killing

Valerie Hayes
Animal Services of Mesilla Valley will do free pit bull adoptions in October

Animal Services of Mesilla Valley will do free pit bull adoptions in October

The first post I wrote on this blog was about the televised killing of a dog by a “shelter” in New Mexico, a depraved publicity stunt that echoed a depraved publicity stunt by a “shelter” in California twenty years previously–the one which was recounted in the opening paragraphs of Redemption.

Many people were outraged by Dr. Beth Vesco-Mock’s televised killing of the golden-haired dog (which was apparently the second such stunt for her) and her blaming of the public:

“I’m sure the public is tired of hearing this problem but unfortunately, it is a community problem – it is not a shelter problem, Vesco-Mock said.

It also came out that she’d briefly directed a Georgia shelter, but was fired after a dog was left in a hot animal control vehicle and died.

At the time of the televised killing the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley had a 70% kill rate–significantly higher than the national average of about 50%.  Appalling, when you consider that we have known how to achieve 90+% save rates for over 10 years.

The Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley and Dr. Beth Vesco-Mock are in the news again today, this time for doing a free pit bull adoption event for the month of October.  According to the news article, the shelter will still use its usual screening procedures, the only difference being that there will be no charge to adopt pit bulls.  In addition, the dogs will be neutered already.

Now, I have a natural tendency to be skeptical, and I don’t think that this shelter director suddenly turned into adoption promo queen Bonney Brown, but, could this be progress?  Is she really going to do it and do it right?  I sure hope so.  The fifty-six pit bulls currently at the facility, the other dogs, and the cats and other animals, are depending on progress.

A couple of things are pretty clear to me, based on comments I’ve seen about this article on the article itself, and on Facebook:

  1. A lot of people don’t read past the headline of an article, and
  2. A lot of people have misconceptions about what free and reduced-price adoption promotions are all about.
The response so far has been overwhelmingly negative, with people assuming that this event will lead to animals just being given away willy-nilly to anyone who shows up, that it will be a terrible disaster for the dogs, when the article clearly states that adopters will be screened and dogs neutered prior to adoption.  Actually, the evidence is that the presence or absence of an adoption fee has NO influence on the quality of the adoption.  Even the ASPCA, which has a long history of fighting No Kill reforms, acknowledges that peer-reviewed research indicates that free cats are just as valued by their families as those who came with a price tag attached.
Now, these are pit bulls, not pussycats we’re talking about, so every rumor has to be bigger, louder and more vicious.  The rumors are essentially the same, though, recycled over the years.  It used to be taboo to adopt out black cats around Halloween or to adopt out any pets around the holidays.  Thanks to many successful adoption programs, those notions which were once so pervasive have fallen by the wayside.  If your screening process is sound January through September, then it will still work just fine October through December.  If it isn’t, adoption fees won’t make it so.  In the past few years, we’ve seen many clever adoption promotions, mostly involving greatly reduced adoption fees.
As Christie Keith put it:
Free pet adoptions are not aimed at people who otherwise couldn’t afford a pet, and that’s not primarily who they attract. Just as Nordstrom holds special sales only for its best and, presumably, wealthiest customers, just as car dealers and appliance stores and luxury hotels have special promotions, shelters and rescue groups who do free adoptions know that the “free” part is a marketing strategy, not a hand-out.

Free and special price promotions are designed to be attention grabbers. They also serve to focus people on pet adoption not in a “someday when I get around to it” kind of way, but in a “better go this weekend because it’s exciting, fun, and I’ll save money!” kind of way.

And just as wealthy people look forward to the Nordstrom annual sale because it’s an event, because it makes them feel special, and because they enjoy the idea of saving money, pet adopters respond the exact same way.

These days, people like to brag about having a rescued pet.  Adopting a pet is a good deed and becomes a positive part of someone’s identity, and adoption promotions make more people into adopters of rescued pets because they combine a good deed with saving a few bucks.

I doubt that most of the people who are so upset at the prospect of pit bulls being adopted out for free know that the last time this facility made headlines, it was for killing a dog on television.  I doubt that most know that at that time, its kill rate was 70%.  And wherever kill rates are high, they are generally even worse for dogs labeled ‘pit bulls’.

Shelter killing creates a toxic climate of fear, leading to a willingness to believe the worst about people, and the long tradition of blaming the public means that the people whose support is essential to saving lives–”the public”, is, after all, your pool of potential adopters–is viewed with suspicion rather than courted.  Innovation is suspect.

Is this shelter director committed to making this event a success?  I don’t know.  I sure hope that she is.  What I do know is that the animals deserve a successful adoption event, and many more in the future.  Animal advocates should do what they can to make this event a success, because we need to leave the bad old days behind.

If you were a pit bull, which would you choose: 15 minutes of fame for getting killed on the evening news or 15 years of life with a family who adopted you for free?



Jul 11 2011

The same river twice

Valerie Hayes

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

Redemption,  the book that kicked the No Kill movement into high gear when it was published in 2007, opens with a description of a public execution of animals by a shelter director in California in the early 1990s.  Over twenty years after that dark day, just over ten years after the birth of the first No Kill community, and almost four years after the publication of Redemption, a New Mexico shelter director pulled the same despicable publicity stunt.*

Redemption begins:

As director of the little known Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo, California, Kim Sturla oversaw an animal shelter that took in thousands of dogs and cats every year, the majority of whom were put to death.  Her record was hardly impressive.  But on October 27, 1990, reporters from across the nation converged upon a small room in her shelter, and she had their full and rapt attention.

While cameras clicked and onlookers gasped, Sturla took a tan-and-gray calico cat and her four tiger-striped kittens–all healthy, adoptable animals–and injected them in the stomach with poison from a bottle marked “Fatal Plus.”  One by one, their tiny bodies went limp and they slumped on the table.  By the time she had finished, Sturla had killed eight animals, five cats and three dogs on television.  Dubbed a “public execution,” the first-of-its-kind public relations ploy was an instant sensation.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and organization whose hard-line advocacy on behalf of animals is legendary, should have decried the killings.  At least, that is the reaction one would expect–and hope for–when animals are killed as a public relations gimmick.  But it didn’t happen.  PETA, in fact, labeled the acts “courageous.”

I remember reading about that incident in the New York Times when I was in college.  I remember feeling sick and speechless that anyone would do that, and that people would take pictures rather than intervene.  It was just so warped, so creepy.  How could anyone feel good about this?  How could anyone celebrate it?  How could anyone not feel some combination of dirty and angry that this was allowed to happen, that it was endorsed by even one organization that was supposed to protect animals?  Some things cross the line.  Some things don’t make you a bigger journalist, though they lessen your humanity.  There was a room full of people who could have adopted those animals on the spot.  Why didn’t they?

That same article I read all those years ago is now available on the internet.   “San Mateo Journal; A Crusade to Save Unwanted Lives” starts with:

The dog in her arms was shaking, its rheumy eyes wide with fear.

“Just relax, sweetheart, it’s O.K.,” crooned Chris Powell, the manager of the Peninsula Humane Society animal shelter, where 10,000 unwanted pets are put to death each year.

And ends:

Last week, the shelter bought advertising inserts in three local newspapers, and 178,000 families on the peninsula south of San Francisco looked at pictures of trash barrels full of dead cats along with their morning coffee.

Then, reporters and television crews were invited to witness what one newspaper called a “public execution” of four kittens, a cat and three dogs. One reporter cried, another began adoption proceedings and a third left the room because the dog being killed resembled one he once owned.

The shelter has received many “How dare you!” telephone calls, but Ms. Sturla said she was unrepentant.

“You have to see it to experience the immorality of it,” she said. “We tried to tell the public with numbers, but it didn’t work. It’s time to take a 2-by-4 and hit them over the head.”

In between is quite the irony sandwich.  I’ll just take a deep breath and think of the “Crusade to Save Unwanted Lives” line as one of those frilly toothpicks.

This golden-haired dog, a new mother was killed on camera by a shelter in NM.

This golden-haired dog, a new mother was killed on camera by a shelter in NM.  Remember her.  She was an individual and her life had meaning.   It was all she had and the people who were supposed to protect her took it away out of ego and incompetence.

I suppose that  if  your only tools are syringe full of “Fatal Plus” and the proverbial “2-by-4″, then animals and people all start to look like they should either be getting an injection or getting whacked over the head.  Those of us who fought for change in Tompkins County got beaten bloody with that 2-by-4.  We’ll never forget that.  We’re not the same people we once were.

The July 6, 2011 article from New Mexico, titled “Too Many Animals Crowding Shelter”, starts:

Too expensive, unwanted or forgotten are among endless excuses contributing to the highest intake a Las Cruces animal shelter has ever seen.

Dr. Beth Vesco-Mock, director of the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley, says the euthanasia rate is skyrocketing.

And, in the spirit of fighting fire with fire  straw men with lame excuses while proclaiming your inability to do even a halfway decent  job, ends:

Inside a small room with a metal table, Herring shaved the fur off part of her paw. Another man, held her in his arms. For this brief moment, she is not alone. Then there is a quick injection, and her final breath. Her final resting place is a black garbage bag stuffed in a freezer.

“It’s heartbreaking, definitely, when you think about your own animals that you have at home that you love and you’re caring for, and then you see the way people throw these away like garbage,” Herring said. “They throw it on us, saying, ‘Well we’re leaving the dog with you, it’s your decision,’ and it’s not our decision because you’re the one who is burdening our shelter with this animal knowing we don’t have the space for it.”

Vesco-Mock says she does believe this could change, but says it will not change until the community takes a serious look at education for how to responsibly care for a pet.

“I’m sure the public is tired of hearing this problem but unfortunately, it is a community problem – it is not a shelter problem,” Vesco-Mock said.

And they say that with a straight face, a 70% kill rate, and this as their mission statement:

The Mission of the Animal Service Center of the Mesilla Valley is to provide safe shelter for all lost, mistreated, and abandoned animals of the Mesilla Valley and surrounding communities. The Center utilizes all avenues available to it in placing each animal into a safe, loving, and permanent home whenever possible. We strive to meet the highest standards of humane animal care and husbandry, and to promote responsible pet ownership through public education and outreach.

It is a bit old, this use of public killing, ostensibly to sell ideas that have never gotten lifesaving results.  And, under the circumstances, the statements they make about the public are of questionable credibility. The pound staff can be reached here.  The mayor can be reached here.

But is it the New Mexico public execution the same despicable publicity stunt after all that has happened in the intervening years?  How could it be? Have the people running ‘shelters’ learned anything in the past 20 years?


Ed Duvin published “In the name of mercy” in 1989.  Many believe that this article marks the start of the No Kill movement.  It set off such a firestorm of controversy that shelter directors everywhere, including Kim Sturla, must certainly have been aware of it when she orchestrated her 1990 publicity stunt.

The San Francisco SPCA, under the leadership of Richard Avanzino began spearheading the practical application of No Kill ideals, including foster care and offsite adoptions.  These things which are familiar were once, incredibly, controversial.  In 1989, it got rid of its costly animal control contract.  In 1994, with the Adoption Pact, it began saving all of the city’s healthy animals and dramatically reduced the killing of treatable animals, but, after a disastrous change in leadership, the SFSPCA went from inspiration to cautionary tale.

Tompkins County, NY became the first No Kill community in the United States in 2001.  It recently celebrated 10 years of saving every healthy or treatable homeless pet that came through its open doors.  Nobody could truthfully say that No Kill communities were an impossible dream anymore.

Charlottesville, VA became the second No Kill community in the US in 2006 under the leadership of Susanne Kogut.

Reno, NV  followed in 2007, under the leadership of Bonney Brown and Mitch Schneider.

Redemption was published in 2007, providing many people with the knowledge and inspiration they needed.  The word is out.  It’s been out for years.  Anyone who hasn’t read it and taken its message to heart has no business running an animal shelter.

The ’90% Club’ continues to grow, and each new member has its own inspiring story.

No Kill advocacy groups are proliferating, and they’re using social media to further accelerate change.  Among them is New Mexico Pets Alive, which invites concerned citizens to their meeting next week.

Thanks to social media, the word is out. We’re not so isolated any more.   Times have changed.  Where Kim Sturla had the luxury of remaining unrepentant and keeping her job 20 years ago, her counterpart, Dr. Beth Vesco-Mock will face an increasingly organized and savvy force of No Kill advocates, people who are constantly learning, and who will do more than just annoy her with a few “‘how dare you’ phone calls.”  They will fight until she is replaced with a shelter director committed to the No Kill Equation.

Think about it:   they don’t kill pets on camera in Tompkins County, NY; or Charlottesville, VA; or Reno, NV; or at UPAWS in Michigan; and they don’t do it anymore in Austin, TX.

This river’s not slowing down anytime soon.

Sink or swim.

UPDATE, 7/11/11:  New Mexico Pets Alive! has issued a formal response to the televised killing of a shelter dog last week.  You can read it here.  The letter (which is excellent)  includes contact information for the mayor (who is apparently sympathetic to NMPA’s position) and to others in authority.  It also reveals that this is the second time this ‘shelter’ director has killed an animal as a publicity stunt.  Argh!  Hint:  when you’re doing stuff like this, the third time is not the charm.

UPDATE, 7/13/11:  Apparently Dr. Vesco-Mock once directed a Georgia shelter, but was fired after 6 months, on the heels of an incident in which an impounded dog was kept in a hot animal control vehicle and died as a result.  Article here.

*Note that this link goes to a video which depicts the killing of the dog pictured here and an accompanying article.  I do not recommend watching the video.  Unlike Ms. Sturla,  I believe that the immorality of this whole sordid story is quite evident to any normal person.