Monday, November 10, 2008

Are there too many dogs and cats being born?

Is there an epidemic of pet overpopulation? Or is that a myth?

The title of Nathan Winograd's book is - "Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution of Ameria" - so I guess you can intuit my answer from that.

I'm writing this post because someone was asking the question, and I also found a couple paragraphs in his book and a fabulous article about the subject today.

First I'll start with the paragraphs -

Nathan talks about the fact that the average person and "potential adopters refused to go into a shelter that poor customer service, limited hours, a remote location and, more importantly, did little more than kill the bulk of its occupants. Instead people went other places to get animals - friends, neighbours, newspaper advertisements, breeders, pet stores and rescue groups.

While pet lovers understood the reluctance to visit the shelter, many within the shelter did not, and in fact sill don't today.

The strategy for saving lives - a strategy that became the cornerstone of a revolutionary new approach to animal sheltering - was to make it easy for people to do the right thing".

And that is how no kill shelters are successful - they bring the animals to the people - and how they can empty their cages so quickly without having to kill anything and people don't have to go to pet stores or newspaper ads or Gail Benoit. They are innovative, fast thinking, and use tools that other shelters have shown to be successful.

So on to the article that I found this morning that is fabulous -

Is pet overpopulation a myth? Inside Nathan Winograd's "Redemption"

In the still-heated debate over reducing shelters deaths in California, there is probably no more polarizing figure than Nathan Winograd, former director of operations for the San Francisco SPCA.

At first glance, Winograd has all the credentials any animal rights activist or shelter professional could ask for. He's a vegan. He left a lucrative career as a prosecuting attorney to devote himself to helping animals. Last year, his income was only $35,000. He has spearheaded the No Kill Advocacy Center, a national organization aimed at ending the killing of pets in animal shelters. While director of operations at the San Francisco SPCA, he worked with then-president Richard Avanzino to implement a wide variety of animal livesaving programs, and then went on to achieve similar success as director of a rural shelter in upstate New York.

But Winograd isn't making a lot of friends in the shelter industry these days. That's because he authored a book called "Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America" that challenges the very foundation of nearly every theory and principle of shelter management in this country: The idea that there are more pets dying in shelters each year than homes available for those pets.

In fact, with between 4 and 5 million dogs and cats being killed in shelters nationwide every year, denying the existence of pet overpopulation seems ridiculous. If there aren't more pets than homes, why are so many animals ending up in shelters in the first place?

Conventional wisdom tells us it's because of irresponsible pet owners who aren't willing to work to keep their pets in their homes. It's a failure of commitment, of caring, and of the human/animal bond. If fewer pets were born, there would be fewer coming into shelters. If people cared more about their pets, they wouldn't give them up so easily, would spay and neuter them so they wouldn't reproduce, and wouldn't let them stray.

That is exactly what I always believed, too, for the nearly 17 years I've been writing about pets. And yet, after reading "Redemption," I don't believe it anymore.

Winograd's argument is simply this: Based on data from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, and the latest census, there are more than enough homes for every dog and cat being killed in shelters every year. In fact, when I spoke to him for this article, he told me that there aren't just enough homes for the dogs and cats being killed in shelters. There are more homes for cats and dogs opening each year than there are cats and dogs even entering shelters.

He's not suggesting this is really nothing but a numbers game, though. "When I argue that pet overpopulation is a myth, I'm not saying that we can all go home," he said. "And I'm not saying that there aren't certain people who are irresponsible with their animals. And I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of animals entering shelters. Again, I'm not saying that it wouldn't be better if there were fewer of them being impounded. But it does mean that the problem is not insurmountable and it does mean that we can do something short of killing for all savable animals today."

There is probably nothing Winograd could say that would more inflame the shelter and humane society establishment than calling pet overpopulation a myth. But Winograd doesn't just stop there. In "Redemption," Winograd lays the lion's share of the blame for shelter deaths not on pet owners and communities, but on the management, staff, and boards of directors of the shelters themselves.

"If a community is still killing the majority of shelter animals, it is because the local SPCA, humane society, or animal control shelter has fundamentally failed in its mission," he writes. "And this failure is nothing more than a failure of leadership. The buck stops with the shelter's director."

Redemption makes the case that bad shelter management leads to overcrowding, which is then confused with pet overpopulation. Instead of warehousing and killing animals, shelters, he says, should be using proven, innovative programs to find those homes he says are out there. They should wholeheartedly adopt the movement known as No Kill, and stop using killing as a form of population control.

Mike Fry, the executive director of Animal Ark Shelter in the Minneapolis area, was one of those who had a problem with Winograd's analysis. Interviewing Winograd on his radio show, he said, "I was one of those people, when I saw the title "The Myth of Pet Overpopulation ..." the hackles kind of went up on the back of my neck. This is a problem we're struggling and fighting with literally day in day out in the animal welfare community."

Winograd, who has been in the same trenches himself, responded with some specific examples of the buck stopping at the shelter director's desk. "Let's just look at various animals dying in shelters around the nation today," he said on Fry's radio show. "If ... motherless kittens are killed because the shelter doesn't have a comprehensive foster care program, that's not pet overpopulation. That's the lack of a foster care program.

"If adoptions are low because people are getting those dogs and cats from other places, because the shelter isn't doing outside adoptions (adoptions done off the shelter premises), that's a failure to do outside adoptions, not pet overpopulation.

"And you can go down the list. If animals are killed because working with rescue groups is discouraged, again, that's not pet overpopulation. If dogs are going cage-crazy because volunteers and staff aren't allowed to socialize them, and then those dogs are killed because they're quote-unquote "cage crazy," because the shelter doesn't have a behavior rehabilitation program in place, once again, that's not pet overpopulation; that's the lack of programs and services that save lives.

"And you can say that about feral cats being killed because a shelter doesn't have a trap-neuter-return program. You can say that about shy or scared dogs because the shelter is doing this bogus temperament testing that's killing shy dogs and claiming they are unadoptable. It goes on and on and on."

Winograd's not just talking about something that could happen, but something that has already happened many times in a number of American communities — including San Francisco, which in 1994 became the first city in the United States to end the killing of healthy dogs and cats.

Of course, the San Francisco SPCA was not the first no-kill shelter in the United States. There have always been individual shelters and rescue groups that have not used population control killing. What San Francisco did was to institutionalize No Kill on a county-wide basis, guaranteeing that animals would not be killed simply for lack of shelter space. The SFSPCA promised to take all adoptable, treatable, and rehabilitatable pets that came into San Francisco's municipal shelter, and find homes for them if the city shelter could not.

"If you look at what San Francisco did between 1993 and 1994, the number of deaths didn't decline by one percent or two percent," Winograd said. "In the case of healthy animals it declined 100 percent. In the case of sick and injured animals it declined by about 50 percent." Nonetheless, instead of adopting similar programs for their own communities, most observers of the time shrugged it off, saying that it wouldn't work anywhere else. San Francisco, they said, is special.

As a fourth-generation native, I'm the first to admit my city is special. But the reality is that No Kill has worked in a wide variety of communities. Winograd later left California and took over the SPCA in Tompkins County, N.Y., which held the animal control contract for the region and has an open admissions policy. One of the most compelling sections of "Redemption" tells how Winograd walked into the shelter and, literally overnight, ended the practice of killing for shelter space:

"The day after my arrival, my staff informed me that our dog kennels were full and since a litter of six puppies had come in, I needed to decide who was going to be killed in order to make space. I asked for 'Plan B'; there was none. I asked for suggestions; there were none."

He spoke directly to his staff, saying, "Volunteers who work with animals do so out of sheer love. They don't bring home a paycheck. So if a volunteer says, 'I can't do it,' I can accept that from her. But staff members are paid to save lives. If a paid member of staff throws up her hands and says, 'There's nothing that can be done,' I may as well eliminate her position and use the money that goes for her salary in a more constructive manner. So what are we going to do with the puppies that doesn't involve killing?"

The story of how Tompkins County stopped killing for population control and started sending more than 90 percent of the animals that come into its animal control system out alive may be one of the greatest success stories of the humane movement. It's certainly one of the most compelling parts of the argument laid out in "Redemption."

Because, although it wasn't always easy, these programs worked, and not only in San Francisco or Tompkins County. "In Tompkins County, we reduced the death rate 75 percent in two years. In Charlottesville, Va., they reduced it by over 50 percent in one year. And Reno, Nev. ... has reduced the death rate by over 50 percent," Winograd said.

"If all shelters not only have the desire and embrace the No Kill philosophy, but comprehensively put into play all those programs and services that ... I ... collectively call the no-kill equation, then we would achieve success."

The issue of pet overpopulation is only one piece of the story told in "Redemption." Within its pages, readers and animal lovers can find the blueprint not so much for our failure to save the animals in our communities, but for our ability to start doing so today. It challenges us to demand more of our shelters than the status quo, to insist on an end to the use of killing as a form of animal population control, and tells us to stop allowing our tax dollars and donations to support shelters and animal control agencies that refuse to implement programs that have been proven in communities across America to work to end the killing.


  1. Anonymous10:53 AM

    It looks to me that this book should be required reading for anyone who is an board member or shelter manager.

    I'm looking at you Cape Breton.

  2. Anonymous12:39 PM

    CB SPCA does their own thing and contrary to how "the staff" present themselves at the AGM (free motel rooms, food and a good weekend party), you go to the shelter and ask them about Metro or Provincial office and they have no problem telling you that they want NOTHING to do with "up there."
    Patsy R says "they are in their own world up there and we are in ours here and we want nothing to do with them." LOL seems to be bullshit to me; when they needed a new floor at the shelter in Sydney, the $$$$ from Metro/Provincial was good enough to take and spend. They do not abide by any mission statement, do what they want, when they want and KILL EVERYTHING THEY WANT. There will be some come on the blog and say what great work they do, maybe they do BUT the shortcuts they are taking are KILLING far more than they try to save or move with other rescues. They get good money from the CBRM for the shelter and even CBRM doesn't haven't a clue on the numbers. They put on the good show at the AGM and make me puke. People don't want to deal with Sydney SPCA because they know there is a only a 1 in 4 chance the animal will ever make it out alive. Therefore, that puts the squeeze on other shelters and rescues and still doesn't do anything to hold the OWNERS of the animals accountable. You really have to live in CB to see what actually goes on in the animal population. PATHETIC and I agree with the first poster. Provincial office has to do something about Sydney SPCA. Sean Kelly has been quoted as saying he knows that people won't take any animals to Sydney - then why don't they take a look at WHY and what can be done. If the bus keeps going off in the ditch, then change the driver - maybe it's time some of the "original" Sydney staff take a long leave of absence!!!!!!!

  3. Anonymous5:16 PM

    has anyone looked at the CB SPCA website? they use their own logos and misrpresent facts to look like they do more than Metro. Metro may have its faults but at least they dont kill for space, which is how ALL should be.

  4. Anonymous6:02 PM

    So- would it be reasonable to say that the Sydney SPCA branch is guilty of cruelty? And who has the job of investigating and enforcing the anti-cruelty law in Cape Breton?

    Oh, I forgot - THEY do. How convenient!

  5. Anonymous6:12 PM

    Joan, I so wish you would send this post to the Herald, and with it, propse that you write a regular column!!

  6. Anonymous11:18 AM

    well said joan, excellent points