Sunday, January 25, 2009

Redemption, by Nathan J. Winograd

The primary message of this book is that animal shelters and humane organizations in the U.S. have lost their way. They have become killers of animals. The author takes an approach to the killing that I had never considered, that the shelters themselves are responsible for the killing, not the general public.

Winograd indicts the leaders of several major animal protection societies, including those that have never maintained shelters of their own, because these societies set standards and make pronouncements that support the killing. The reasons these leaders have not embraced “no-kill” are varied but do not stand up to scrutiny. Over the years leaders of shelters and humane organizations have resisted change to the status quo to protect the profits of veterinarians and breeders, because they don’t want to accept responsibility for their previous wrongheadedness, because they “have always done it this way”, because they simply don’t believe true no-kill is possible. Along the way they have forgotten why they were formed - for the protection of animals.

Early in the book he notes that the head of the SPCA in San Mateo, CA went public with the killing of animals. She chose to show the killing on television. To many, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) this was a courageous act. I happen to agree with this position in one respect: I believe that whenever our society condones the killing of people or other animals such killing should be in our face. We should know about it, no mistake. When such acts are hidden from the public people can forget it happens and convince themselves they have nothing to do with it. A friend of mine, for example, tells herself that the meat she eats comes from cows who died of old age. Such fabrications may make people feel better but they certainly do not advance any animal cause.

So I believe when animal shelters kill they should do so openly so that we can see our failure. I have been persuaded, however, by Winograd, that the failure is not ours alone. Winograd's objection to the publicized killings is that it appeared to condone the killing, to suggest that it is inevitable, and that the citizens, not the shelter, are ultimately responsible.

I honestly believe that the intent of the shelter leaders who performed these executions live was to raise awareness, in the hope that the actions would bring about behavioral change in the public. The error in their ways was in ignoring the part the shelters themselves play. Blaming us instead. By doing so they not only attacked the very people who would be their most likely supporters, financially and otherwise, but they managed to give some of us a sense of guilt that it is impossible to overcome alone. I have lived for years with the sense that I have not done enough to save the animals in shelters, yet I have believed that only a change in attitude by the public could possibly make a difference. I did not see a way that I could bring about that change, except on an individual level, and that never seems to be enough.

Winograd says that the shelters have been blaming the citizens for what they consider to be the overpopulation of companion animals and what they consider the necessary killing of many healthy animals while in fact the shelters themselves deserve the blame. My personal position is that the killing is a shared responsibility. However, the examples of a few committed shelters make it clear that shelters can end the killing without needing to rely on some vague time in the future when "the public" becomes "more responsible". Shelters can end it right now. Even in parts of the country where the public is supposedly too ignorant or poor to get their animals neutered or to provide veterinary care to them.

The further I got into the book the more I came around to Winograd's position. And the more I came to the sickening conclusion that the organizations that are supposed to be protecting our animals are not only needlessly killing them, but are at the same time attacking those shelters that have indeed achieved a real no-kill status. It is this resistance that forms the core of the message, because the means are available to make this a no-kill country. Now. Virtually overnight.

Paramount to understanding why this can be done is knowing that in fact that pet overpopulation is a myth. This simple fact, illustrated in this book, knocks all other arguments on their heads.

Winograd's method, which he calls the No-Kill Equation, includes several actions that any shelter can take:

* Neuter all animals that enter the shelter except those that are incurably and painfully ill and must be euthanized for that reason.
* Support and even operate Trap-Neuter-Release programs for feral cats in the community.
* Use volunteers to socialize and foster animals to make them more readily adoptable and to create additional space in the shelter.
* Provide medical care and isolation as needed for sick animals
* Use the media to bring the animals and their needs to the public
* Expand shelter hours and offer off-site adoptions to meet the needs of the public
* Allow animal protection groups to take healthy animals for adoption at their shelters or off-site adoptions
* Get rid of employees who can’t get with the program and bring in those who can.

Winograd currently accepts the killing of dogs that are considered irretrievably vicious, because to date there are not enough sanctuaries for these dogs. I have difficulty with this position because these are innocent dogs who deserve to live. They may not be suitable companion animals but there are not a lot of them (by his own calculations) and I suspect there are enough sanctuaries who can accommodate them. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary always finds a way to keep animals alive, including those with behavior problems. This one issue is a type of quibble, though, in the face of the astonishing success Winograd outlines here.

In the cases Winograd outlines in this book, media attention on the activities of true no-kill shelters (those that are not selective in the animals they take in) quickly brought in the money needed to undertake all of the above actions, and eventually the aggressive actions reduced the number of animals brought into the shelters. It's a win-win all around. But it only works, Winograd reminds us again and again, if the shelter is absolutely committed. His three-step program:

* Stop the killing
* Stop the killing
* Stop the killing

Unless shelter directors and staff are fully committed to stopping the killing it will go on. It is unfortunate that at this time it takes special directors to achieve no-kill status, but even this situation can and likely will change. Winograd sees a change in the public perception of animal shelters based on greater visibility, and accordingly the public will no longer accept the standard operating procedures that are so common today.

I don't feel as hopeless now. I know what tools can be used at the shelters and I know I can demand that these tools be used.

Every shelter should have this book. Every governing board that regulates these shelters should read this book. And every humane society leadership should read this book. And honestly pay attention to it.

book rating: 10 out of 10