Issue 456 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


We’ve received a great deal of mail in response to our September 2013 interview with Nathan J. Winograd on reforming animal shelters [“Inhumane,” by Lisa Sandberg]. The fate of unwanted pets is an issue that raises strong feelings. Winograd is critical of shelters that euthanize more than 10 percent of their animals. Some of our readers find fault with Winograd’s No Kill approach. We believe both sides want what is best for homeless dogs and cats, though they disagree passionately about what that might be. To include as many views as we can, we have extended this month’s Correspondence.

— Ed.

While 6 to 8 million animals end up in shelters each year, millions more die without our notice because of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. The lives of abandoned animals are filled with fear and confusion: they dodge traffic (until they get hit), sustain injuries, endure untreated infections, and are sometimes poisoned, shot, or otherwise abused. And the list of horrors goes on.

Imprisoned in cages and crates for the long term at so-called “no-kill” shelters, many animals sink into depression and mental collapse, just as humans in isolation do. But animals aren’t little humans in fur coats. They have no way of anticipating the day when they might be adopted into homes — homes that simply don’t exist for so many of them. All they know is that they’ve been sentenced to solitary confinement. And the longer they are caged, the less adoptable they become. To suggest that warehousing animals indefinitely is acceptable shows no understanding of — nor respect and consideration for — animals’ individuality, emotional needs, and right to a decent quality of life. It may make humans feel better to manipulate “live-release” rates and euthanasia statistics, but it does not help animals, and it misleads the public into believing they needn’t do anything to help solve this overpopulation and homelessness crisis.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is proud to be a shelter of last resort for suffering and aged animals whose guardians can’t afford to pay a veterinarian for expensive treatment or euthanasia, and for other animals who are often turned away by “no-kill” shelters and referred to PETA instead. Everyone who surrenders an animal to PETA signs a release and is informed that euthanasia may be the kindest option.

“No-kill” proponents place the blame on open-admission shelters — those that never turn animals away — for the unrelenting flow of unwanted animals through their doors, while fighting laws that PETA works to get passed that have proven effective at reducing the number of unwanted animals: breeding-permit and registration requirements and bans on pet-shop sales.

The dog-and-cat overpopulation crisis is real and getting worse because “no-kill” shelters slam their doors in animals’ faces and scare people away from taking their unwanted animals to open-admission shelters. If people really want to make a difference, they should work to end animal homelessness at its roots, by spaying and neutering and lobbying to stop breeding, instead of attacking those working on the front lines.

Daphna Nachminovitch Senior Vice President
Cruelty Investigations Department
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Norfolk, Virginia

Lisa Sandberg’s interview with “no-kill” guru Nathan J. Winograd omitted facts that are frequently ignored when proponents of no-kill policies advance their agenda.

Winograd claims there are far more people looking to acquire a pet every year than there are animals in shelters who never get adopted. That is true. His simple math, however, fails to take into account the many cats and dogs being born each year in the U.S. — so many that people can easily pick one up from a yard sale, a coworker, or just on the street. They don’t need to go to a shelter. This is why low-cost spaying and neutering still needs to be a focus, not an afterthought, as Winograd seems to make it.

As anyone who has walked into his or her local animal shelter in the past five years knows, pit bulls account for the majority of dogs available there. The no-kill movement pretends that the public can be wooed into adopting a breed that is believed to be dangerous or, at best, hard to handle. I wonder how many Labrador or poodle owners will choose a pit bull when they are getting their next dog.

In the Southern states, where spaying and neutering programs are few and far between, overpopulation of dogs and cats is severe, and animals are still being rounded up and shot or gassed. But by the no-kill logic, all we have to do is keep those animals out of shelters, and all will be well. And for the animals that do find themselves in a no-kill shelter, a long incarceration awaits them. Some such shelters keep animals behind bars for years or even until they die.

San Antonio, Austin, and Corpus Christi, Texas, are just three examples of cities where no-kill policies mean animals are being turned away from shelters for lack of room. Dogs are attacking people in the streets and being run over, and in Corpus Christi someone was seen throwing a puppy from a moving car. Is this what Winograd calls “progress”?

The misinformation campaign needs to stop. Animals are suffering fates worse than a humane death by injection.

Liz Marsden Chaplin, Connecticut

Millions of animals are euthanized in shelters every year because there simply are not homes for them all. I’ve volunteered for several shelters and rescue groups, and I know that sticking animals in cages or warehousing them is not a humane solution. They need loving families and room to run and play. Euthanasia isn’t popular, but until more people spay and neuter their pets and adopt animals from shelters, rather than getting them from breeders and pet stores, euthanasia is the only merciful — and realistic — solution. I support PETA’s position, and I’m appalled that any animal-welfare advocate would spend his time criticizing those who are trying to help homeless animals.

Elaine Sloan New York, New York

Though Nathan J. Winograd’s effort to limit the suffering and euthanasia of animals is laudable, he shows a rather nearsighted view of the issues. He seems to be thinking only of domesticated animals while ignoring the massive and real suffering imposed on wild animals by our pets.

Cats’ slaughter of birds and other creatures (our now-deceased cat used to regularly bring in dead lizards, snakes, squirrels, and mice) is well documented, and a serious problem for migratory songbird populations. Western pond turtles are threatened in Oregon in part due to predation by wandering dogs.

Direct killing of wild animals may not even be the biggest impact pets have on wildlife. Most pets eat some combination of factory-farmed, genetically modified corn and soybeans mixed with meat and meat byproducts. To produce this pet food, more and more forests and wildlands are converted to agriculture each year in the U.S. as well as Central and South America. Wild animals do not simply move next door when such conversions happen. They are killed, just as surely as if you shot them with a gun. The main difference is that their suffering and death are unseen by humans, whereas the fate of pets is right in our faces.

The adoption of ever more cats and dogs may be a success for the pets and the humans who love them, but to the largely unseen wildlife, it is likely just more disaster. There is no such thing as a “no-kill” policy. It’s just a matter of what gets killed and whether we see it.

Mark Kelz and Beth Peterson Takilma, Oregon

I agree the world needs to find a more humane way to deal with unwanted animals, but I’m surprised that The Sun did not offer a more balanced point of view on the issue. I would have liked more information about what Nathan J. Winograd’s critics have to say. He claims to refuse to work with existing animal-rights organizations but also says that “despite all the disagreements that separate Americans, people of all walks of life want to build a better world for animals.” Can he not see that he would probably have more success if he worked to build alliances rather than view everything as a battle?

John Bridges Chicago, Illinois

Nathan J. Winograd uses dangerous rhetoric to make his case for no-kill shelters. By denying pet overpopulation he encourages people not to spay and neuter their pets. It’s estimated that there are more than 70 million strays in the U.S., mostly cats. And people who think there’s no overpopulation problem will be more likely to buy from a breeder instead of from a shelter.

The odds against shelter animals are already steep. The majority of the 3 to 4 million animals killed at shelters each year are the hardest to place in homes: 2.3 million adult cats and eight hundred thousand pit-bull-type dogs. Every day more than seven hundred thousand puppies are advertised online by breeders. It’s very hard for older cats and pit-bull-type dogs to compete. You can’t force the public to adopt these animals.

Julie Wall Rochester, Minnesota

As a veterinarian, I was pleased to see the homeless-pet problem addressed by Nathan J. Winograd. Eliminating euthanasia of homeless pets is a worthy goal. Anytime an unwanted pet is euthanized, we, as a developed nation, have failed in our duty to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves.

And I was impressed to hear that 160 No Kill communities are achieving a greater than 90 percent success rate of saving animals. But I noticed a glaring omission: the adoption rate of the facilities that are held up as successful examples.

The adoption rate is the percentage of animals that are adopted into homes. Some No Kill shelters achieve the coveted 90 percent save rate by transferring less-adoptable animals — the old, the sick, the stigmatized breeds — to other facilities, usually out of state. Surely Winograd is aware of this. If transferring the problem to other communities is an integral part of his “No Kill Equation,” it should be clearly stated.

Certainly any pet that has an increased chance for adoption elsewhere should be transferred. But the public deserves transparency and honesty. The omission of pertinent facts and the manipulation of statistics diminish the integrity of an otherwise worthy cause. And let’s give credit where credit’s due: kudos to those organizations that accept less-adoptable pets from No Kill shelters and do the hard work of finding them homes. These are people who rise to the occasion instead of diverting the problem to appease the gods of statistics.

Kimberly May Denver, Colorado

I greatly enjoyed Lisa Sandberg’s interview with Nathan J. Winograd. It’s good to read about someone who is as enthusiastic about No Kill animal shelters as I am. There is just one process that Winograd did not mention. The county-run shelter where I volunteer charges for recovering a lost pet after it has been impounded. Most times the price is exorbitant and prevents many families from taking their pet home. The reason for the fee, I guess, is that people have to be punished for violations, but the practice seems only to increase the population at the shelter — and, of course, the euthanasia rates.

Elizabeth O’Hara Anaheim, California

I first heard of Nathan J. Winograd when I posted a quote by him on an animal-welfare Facebook group. One immediate response was a sharp personal attack trying to discredit him and his mission. I figured he must be effective in getting his message out. Then, just days later, I read the interview in The Sun.

I am still not sure what the best way to prevent animal suffering is, but for years I have questioned the idea of behemoth organizations amassing vast wealth using tragic photos and ghastly stories. For example, in Massachusetts the collective net assets of only two of the largest animal-protection organizations were more than $150 million in 2011. Meanwhile many smaller organizations — including local humane societies, rescue networks, and individual activists — operating on shoestring budgets and with a clear sense of purpose, are saving countless animal lives every year and educating the public on animal care, rescue, and protection.

Simply questioning the beloved institutions risks scorn. I tend to agree with Winograd that the animal-welfare giants are not interested in changing the status quo in any meaningful way and that they may actually benefit from it. Winograd’s message obviously appeals to an increasing number of people who are willing to challenge entrenched leaders whose vision does not see beyond killing “unloved” animals.

Barry L. Adams Boston, Massachusetts

When I was about halfway through reading “Inhumane” in the September 2013 issue, I put the magazine down and went to my desk to compose a letter to the editor. I planned to express my support for Nathan J. Winograd’s work but also to point out where I think he’s in error. For instance, I don’t think it’s automatically abusive to decide to euthanize an animal rather than risk sending it to an unknown home. What matters is that the person making the decision is doing what he or she thinks is best for the animal. It’s our responsibility as humans to take care of the earth and its creatures. If we were never to exercise any power, then we would never take in an animal that needed protection, never put down an animal in agony, and never feed a starving animal.

But I didn’t write that letter. Instead I looked up my local shelter and went and adopted two elderly cats.

Gillian Kendall Holmes Beach, Florida

Every social-justice movement in history has had to counter the incredulity of those who abhor challenges to the prevailing dogma, and the No Kill movement is no exception. The fact remains, however, that there is a better way, a proven way, and, thankfully, it is spreading to communities nationwide in spite of those who find comfort in continuity, even when that continuity has a body count. While those vested in the status quo cry foul, the good news is that we in the No Kill movement do not have to win hearts and minds, because we already have them: three out of four people believe it should be illegal to kill animals when those animals are not suffering.

To the critics: The choice is neither between killing and “warehousing animals indefinitely,” nor between killing and either turning animals away or transferring them to someone else to kill. The choice is between killing and not killing. Moreover, No Kill is about valuing animals, which means not only saving their lives but also giving them quality care. It means vaccination on intake, nutritious food, daily socialization and exercise, medical care, and a system that finds loving new homes quickly and efficiently.

At the open-admission No Kill shelter I oversaw, the average length of stay for an animal was eight days. We reduced disease rates by 90 percent and killing by 75 percent. No animal ever spent as much as a year in the facility, and we saved 93 percent of animals. There are now hundreds of cities across the country with similar results. The argument that an open-admission No Kill shelter is not possible, that for animals it means an indefinite stay coupled with neglect, and that people will not adopt certain animals is demonstrably false.

To those who take umbrage at my argument that pet overpopulation is a myth: Not only is the evidence unassailable, but it has been proven by the hundreds of communities that have adopted their way out of killing. It is also news we should all celebrate, because it means we have the ability to end the killing today. It is unethical and counterproductive to suggest we need to keep killing or keep lying to the public to scare people into sterilizing or adopting animals. Make it easy for people to do the right thing, and they will.

The No Kill philosophy works. It saves lives. It provides hope. Death, on the other hand, is hope’s total antithesis. It is the worst of the worst — a fact each and every one of us would recognize if we were the ones being threatened with it. And it is an abuse of our power over defenseless animals to think it is our right to make such a determination for them. Killing an animal is not an act of love; it is an act of violence.

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