Skip to content

Nathan J. Winograd Interview

January 8, 2011

Nathan J. Winograd

8 January 2011

Nathan J. Winograd is a graduate of Stanford Law School, a former criminal prosecutor and corporate attorney, has spoken nationally and internationally on animal sheltering issues, has written animal protection legislation at the state and national level, has created successful No Kill programs in both urban and rural communities, and has consulted with a wide range of animal protection groups including some of the largest and best known in the nation. Although Nathan focuses on companion animal issues, specifically ending the systematic killing of animals in shelters, his background is in animal rights, and has been vegan for 20 years. Nathan considers “No Kill” to be an animal rights issue, and is concerned that many animal protection groups work against the “No Kill” approach.

Nathan has lectured on animal sheltering ethics to students at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the nation’s number one ranked veterinary school, and has lectured at the U.C.L.A. School of Law on animal law issues. His book, Redemption, is the most critically acclaimed book on the topic of animal shelters in the United States and the winner of five national book awards. He is also the author of Irreconcilable Differences, a collection of essays that follows up where Redemption left off and asks – and answers – the question of whether we can do better as a society when it comes to our stewardship of companion animals His third book, All American Vegan, co-written with his wife Jennifer, will be published in 2011.

ARZone: The concept of “no kill” has been around for many years, why do you think many people credit you with its inception?

Nathan Winograd: Thank you for having me. I am very excited about this opportunity. I’ve long believed that the No Kill movement and the animal rights movement are natural allies. In fact, I believe that No Kill is an animal rights issue in that the right to life is the most fundamental of all rights. Once dead, all other rights are irrelevant. You can’t be animal rights and believe in the right of humans to kill animals, regardless of the justification or just because our “friends” (PETA, shelters… animal protection organizations) are doing the killing, rather than our enemies. That aside, you are right Brooke, No Kill has been around for a very long time. In fact, better than a century. Since we started sheltering animals, there have been No Kill shelters. I am not sure I am credited with its inception and have never sought to be. But I was the first to create a No Kill community. I was the first to create a No Kill open admission animal-control shelter.

And since that time, I’ve worked with communities all over the country and in Australia and New Zealand, to replicate that success. In the process, I took a series of programs and services that were pioneered in San Francisco radicalized and expanded in Tompkins County, to create a replicable model that has also created not just No Kill shelters, but No Kill communities in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

You’ve written about long-distance rescues in the United States. How do you feel about international rescues? For example, my foster dog was easy to place in Toronto because he’s tiny and cute, but here in Korea he was competing with a very large p pool of cute tiny dogs sorry, question got cut off Your writing focuses almost exclusively on the United States, although you’ve mentioned no-kill efforts in Australia and New Zealand as well. Do you have any advice for people in other countries such as the Republic of Korea, where animal rescue is more of a grassroots endeavour and there aren’t many (if any) large, well-funded animal charities?

I don’t begin to pretend that I know the culture of South Korea. But I also cannot deny that the world is a lot smaller than it once was because of technology and human mobility. I also cannot deny shared human experience. We are people and despite the ugly things that people are capable of, we are also capable of great compassion. I agree with abolitionist Theodore Parker that the arc of history may be long but it bends toward greater compassion. So, my initial caveat aside I do not see why a model that works in the U.S. and works in Canada and works in Australia and works in New Zealand cannot work elsewhere. It is also hard for me to see how the absence of “large, well-funded animal charities” in South Korea would be a bar to No Kill success.

In the U.S., No Kill began and continues as a completely grassroots effort. In fact, in the U.S., the “large, well-funded animal charities” have been a roadblock to success. Without exception, the large national organizations like the Humane Society of the United States, the American Humane Association, the ASPCA, and PETA have been hostile to No Kill, championing killing and fighting reform efforts. Today, the biggest barrier to more widespread No Kill success in the U.S. is not “pet overpopulation.” It is not an absence of spay/neuter. It is not the “irresponsible public.” It is not a lack of funding. The single biggest barrier to No Kill is the fact that 3,500 shelter directors are mired in killing and they are legitimized, protected, and promoted by the large national organizations. PETA seeks out and kills over 2,000 animals a year—roughly 97% of all animals they take in. They admittedly kill healthy animals They admit they could be No Kill overnight. But they refuse. More than that, they actively fight reform efforts, choosing to back some of the most regressive, dirty, neglectful and even abusive shelters in the country. They advocate that all dogs who look like “pit bulls” be killed. And they call for the mass extermination of unsocial cats. The Humane Society of the United States has lobbied to have victims of cruelty killed. They have lobbied for puppies to be killed. They have also fought efforts to reform abusive shelters. And they went so far as to lobby the City of San Francisco which was considering shelter reform legislation not to pass it, insisting on the “right” of shelters to kill animals The ASPCA fought reformers trying to replace a draconian shelter director, a director who killed over 100,000 animals during her tenure—one every 12 minutes the shelter is open to the public. This is a director who refused to implement common sense alternatives to killing such as foster care or offsite adoption programs. She was finally removed after it came to light that she was committing animal cruelty—intentionally withholding medical treatment from sick and injured cats Even then, the ASPCA called her firing “horrible.” Last year, the ASPCA successfully killed legislation which would have saved 25,000 animals a year at no cost to taxpayers, a law which would have made it illegal for a shelter to kill an animal if a qualified rescue group was willing and able to save that animal’s life. On the issue of No Kill, the lack of an HSUS, ASPCA, or PETA equivalent in South Korea is actually a good thing. It just means one less organization you have to fight for animals to be treated with decency and compassion.

Some would say Tompkins County has been a success; some would say a failure. Would you please give us your interpretation and explain why?

I don’t know anyone who truly loves animals who would say it is a failure. We ended the killing of healthy animals, including rabbits, hamsters, rats, gerbils, and others. We ended the killing of sick and injured animals who were medically savable We ended the killing of traumatized animals and motherless neonatals. We ended the killing of unsocial cats. In the process, we reduced the death rate by over 75%. During my tenure, every dog was required to get out of kennel exercise and socialization four times a day. And every cat was required to get out of cage exercise and socialization two times a day. And, during my tenure, we also ended up eliminating cages and kennels and replacing them with home-like environments. Our average length of stay was eight days. The percentage of animals who died in their kennels dropped by over 90%. No animal every celebrated an anniversary there. Our failed adoption rate was less than 2 percent. And we had the lowest death rate of any community in the U.S. In fact, we became what all shelters should be—a temporary way station for animals until they can be reunited with their families or a new home is found. By what criteria can anyone claim that as a failure?

What naysayers and those vested in killing have seized on is that four years after I left, despite the fact that they were still saving at least 92% of all animals every year, the shelter got jammed for a few weeks during the summer. Rather than kill the animals, the shelter set up temporary cages in a laundry room. The cats there were still kept clean. They were fed nutritious food. They were given access to clean water. And they were socialized regularly. In fact, the cats who were in that room did not have any conception that they were in a different cage in a different room than the other cats. And after a couple weeks, they were adopted into loving homes. The only group that had the audacity to complain, to actually suggest that the cats should have instead been killed, was of course PETA. But this is a group with a 97% rate of killing, despite $30 million in annual revenues and millions of animal loving members around the world. A group that calls killing a “gift” to the animals. A group that supports forced seizure and killing of dogs who look like Pit Bulls even if the dogs are friendly and even in communities that have pound seizure—meaning these loving, family dogs are forcibly taken from their families and sold to laboratories for vivisection. A group who advocates for the mass slaughter of animals, even if they are healthy. A group that actually fought the reform of a shelter where cats were not fed for days where animals were left sitting in their own waste for extended periods of time, where injured animals were left to bleed out in their kennels, where employees were told to let sick animals die because then they wouldn’t count in “euthanasia” rates. And, in fact, a shelter where an employee punished a traumatized cat who would not allow himself to be picked up by drowning the cat in a bucket of bleach. That is PETA And they had the audacity to complain that Tompkins County refused to kill cats during a busy summer.

Given that you are vegan, and you state in your no kill declaration “Whereas, the right to live is every animal’s most basic and fundamental right”, does it follow that you do not condone the feeding of other animals to the animals in no kill shelters?

Our nation’s humane organizations, our nation’s SPCAs, were founded by people who were passionately dedicated to furthering the rights of all animals. Henry Bergh, the great founder of the ASPCA, fought against hunting and vivisection and fought for all animals, including those some humans unfortunately regard as “food.” These were animal rights advocates. When New York City asked the ASPCA to run the dog pound, Bergh replied that the ASPCA could not “stultify its principles so much as to encourage the torture to which the proposed gives rise to.” In other words, he saw his ASPCA as a tool to save lives, a tool to further the rights of animals, not to end lives and to subvert the animal’s most fundamental and basic of all rights —the right to live. It was not until these passionate and dedicated founders died and subsequent leadership took over these agencies that they abandoned their animal rights platforms to take over running dog pounds for the municipalities in which they were located. In the process, a movement founded on the highest ideals was replaced in nearly total with national organizations and thousands of SPCAs who not only became champions of killing, but the leading killers of dogs and cats themselves. And good, caring people were driven out of these organizations, people who refused to kill animals. What is left is this false notion that these agencies are for “animal welfare” under the Orwellian concept that killing is kindness. Working at the ASPCA or HSUS or a local humane society is no longer a mission for many people, it is a job.

My goal, and the goal of the No Kill movement, is to reclaim these organizations and to bring them back to their roots, back to the vision of the movement’s early founders. Animal control derailed our movement and rather than have thousands of animal protection organizations saving animals in their communities and being progressive, stalwart, rights-oriented advocates for… all animals, these organizations have become agents of maintaining the status quo, of killing. Right now, these individuals won’t even save the dogs and cats who are already alive. While I do not believe it is ethical to feed animals to animals, given that these individuals won’t even save the dogs and cats who are already alive, trying to convince them that they should not feed animals to animals would be a non-starter. By contrast, the No Kill movement seeks to replace the regressive leadership at these agencies and in the large national organizations like the ASPCA, HSUS, and PETA which are hostile to the call that they save the very animals in their immediate care, with progressive, passionate animal lovers who would save them. And in doing so, we would be creating a new generation of leaders who would be open-minded about such discussions. And all species of animals will regain advocates in their communities including animals historically raised to be eaten. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, the most effective thing we can do to address these issues is to ensure that these shelters are operated by people who actually care about animals. And I believe that this is just one more example of why it is so vital to support the reform of our nation’s broken animal shelter system. Doing so is an avenue through we can begin to more effectively advocate for all species As to No Kill shelters, I would support any campaign to encourage them to feed vegan food to the animals in their care.

You must be aware of the scandals in Canada involving two of the most powerful animal charities in the country–namely, the Ontario SPCA (which killed 99 animals to stop the spread of ringworm and killed another three the same day for alleged “behaviour problems and the Toronto Humane Society (where mismanagement apparently led to severe animal neglect, but many people used the case to attack no-kill policies in general). Can you comment on these two cases–and in particular, on whether the leadership of organization can ever regain the public’s trust? Where do they go from here?

I felt I had to own up for the organization even though I wasn’t there. The next step was to rebuild our relationship with the community by making a demonstrative change in our operations. The first thing I did was announce that we would no longer be a place that killed animals. I also invited the community to participate in our lifesaving efforts. I promised them transparency and I gave it to them. Every decision we made was made in the light of public scrutiny. In order to regain the trust of the community you need to own up to the problems and then show real and sincere change. When I first started, the Tompkins County SPCA was hated by its own community. Today it is beloved I did not give them excuses. I gave them a commitment to change and I followed through on it. I promised that we would no longer kill healthy and treatable animals, and we never did.

You’ve been quoted as saying there are sufficient homes to accommodate all animals who enter shelters. Does this take into account human behaviour. For example, some humans refuse to take a shelter animal into their lives, opting instead for a “cute” puppy or kitten, or a pre-determined breed. These people make up a significant portion of those bringing a dog or cat into their homes, yet I’ve not heard you address this problem. Do you see this as a problem? Why or why not?

I have addressed it, numerous times. Roughly 8 million animals enter shelters every year. Can we find homes for that many shelter animals? The good news is that we don’t have to. Some animals need adoption, but others do not. Some animals like unsocialized cats need neuter and release. Others will be reclaimed by their families. Some animals will go to rescue groups. Others are irremediably suffering or hopelessly ill. And many more can be kept out of the shelter through a comprehensive pet retention effort. While about four million dogs and cats will be killed in pounds and shelters this year, roughly three million will be killed for lack of a new home. Can we find homes for those animals? Yes we can.

Using the most successful adoption communities as a benchmark and adjusting for population, U.S. shelters combined should be adopting almost nine million animals a year. That is almost three times the number being killed for lack of a home. In fact, it is more than total impounds, and of those, almost half do not need a new home. But the news gets even better. There are over 23 million people who are going to get an animal next year. Some are already committed to adopting from a shelter. Some are already committed to getting one from a breeder or other commercial source. But 17 million have not decided where that animal will come from and research shows they can be influenced to adopt from a shelter. That’s 17 million people vying for roughly 3 million animals. So even if 80% of those people got their animal from somewhere other than a shelter, we could still zero out the killing. And many communities are proving it. There are communities with extremely high per capita intake rates who have done it. There are now No Kill communities across the U.S. and abroad: in the North and in the South. In urban communities and in rural ones. In states we classify as liberal or progressive and even in the reddest part of the reddest state. Washoe County, Nevada, for example, has been very hard hit by the economic downturn. Loss of jobs and loss of homes are at all-time highs. In fact, the state of Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. As a result, the two major shelters (Washoe County Regional Animal Services and the Nevada Humane Society) together take in four times the per capita rate of Los Angeles, five times the rate of San Francisco seven times the rate of New York City, and over two times the national average. If there was ever a community which could not adopt its way out of killing, it is Washoe County. But they are doing just that. And it didn’t take them five years to do it. All these communities did it virtually overnight, by adopting their way out of killing. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the other programs and services of the No Kill Equation aren’t crucial. They are. Some, like foster care keep animals alive long enough to be adopted because, quite simply, some animals are not ready for adoption when they first arrive at the shelter. But, in the end, all these animals found loving homes.

You mention on your blog that despite the no-kill policy at Tompkins County, no animal ever celebrated an anniversary there. That is really amazing and I wonder if you have any ideas that could help a handful of long-term shelter dogs who are still waiting after three, four or more years at the small private shelter where I adopted my dog almost three years ago. They’re Korean Jindo dogs–not purebreds, but at least part “National Treasure.” Some are skittish, but I have no doubt that they’ll make wonderful companions for the right humans. Two of them are known to be dog-aggressive and will need very responsible guardians homes to make sure they don’t get into fights. I’ve asked some Canadian rescuers if they can help me, and they want to help, but it’s going to be a real struggle. We’ll also have to be VERY sure about the adoption or foster placement if we pursue an international adoption.

There are a number of things that reduce length of stay and maximize the number of adoptions. And sadly, too many shelters are not doing those things. These include making the shelter fun and inviting, utilizing social networks like Facebook and Twitter, getting the right people on board, offering incentives to adopt especially with animals who have impediments or special challenges, marketing and promotion, and more. Rather than go into a long explanation, I will refer you to the adoption guide from the No Kill Advocacy Center called “Adopting Your Way Out of Killing.” You can find it on their website at under “Reforming Animal Control.”

I think the more interesting part of the question involves the idea of what constitutes a good home. One of the arguments that Naysayers have made to denigrate No Kill success is the idea that in order to increase adoption quantity you have to decrease the quality of the adoptive home. This claim has been used to justify either high kill and low adoption rates, or long-term placements. But nothing could be further from the truth. Increasing adoptions means public access adoption hours when working people and families with children (two important adopter demographics) can visit the shelter. It means greater visibility in the community, working with rescue groups, competing with pet stores and puppy mills, marketing, offsite adoptions, special events, adoption incentives, foster care, alternative placements, a fun and friendly shelter environment, setting and meeting goals, and a good public image. It has nothing to do with reducing quality. But a word of caution. While some shelters have no qualms about killing animals even after they turn people away, some shelters on the other side have no qualms about keeping animals for months and even years after turning people away. Not just any people, good people, caring people, people who would provide that animal a lovely home. They believe that no one is good enough and would rather keep them in a cage for three years or put them to death. Unfortunately, too many shelters go too far with fixed, arbitrary rules—dictated by national organizations—that turn away good homes under the theory that people aren’t trustworthy, that few people are good enough, and that animals are better off dead. Unfortunately, rescue groups sometimes share this mindset. People who do rescue love animals, but they have been schooled by HSUS to be unreasonably—indeed, absurdly—suspicious of the public. Consequently, they make it difficult, if not downright impossible, to adopt their rescued animals. I recently read the newsletter from a local cat rescue group. There was a story about two cats, Ruby and Alex, in their “happy endings” section. Under the title, “Good things come to those who wait,” the story explained that Ruby and Alex were in foster care for 7½ years before they found the “right” home. I wondered what was wrong with the cats. If it took seven years to find them a home, surely they must have had some serious impediments to adoption. But I couldn’t find anything in the story. Under another section in the newsletter listing the cats in their care that still needed to find “loving homes,” I found the answer. The first one I looked at was Billy. Billy was a kitten when he was rescued in 2001. He was still in a “foster” home in 2009. Does it really take 8 years to find the “right” home? Surely, I thought again, something is wrong with this cat. But Billy is described as “easy going, playful, bouncy.” It goes on to say that “Billy loves attention and loves to be with his person. Mild-mannered and gentle with new people, he’s also a drop-and-roll kitty who will throw himself at your feet to be petted.” They also note that he likes dogs. In other words, Billy is perfect. Clearly, the pertinent question wasn’t “What’s wrong with the cats?” The real question was: “What’s wrong with these people?” Not surprisingly, the rescue group does not believe families with young children should adopt. They claim that if you have children who are under six years old, you should wait a few years. In reality, this rule is very common in animal sheltering. But it is a mistake nonetheless. Families with children are generally more stable, so they are a highly desirable adoption demographic. They also provide animals with plenty of stimulation, which the animals crave. Children and pets are a match made in heaven. So if families with children shouldn’t adopt, who does that leave? Unfortunately, this group also states that kittens ‘require constant supervision like human babies do.’ My family frequently fosters kittens for our local shelter. When fostering, we live our lives like we always do: we visit friends, take walks, dine out. We often leave home for hours at a time. Obviously, I would have never done that with my kids when they were babies. That isn’t a statement on loving children more than animals. A kitten can sleep, eat, drink, use the litter box, play with a toy, and more at only six weeks of age. A human baby would starve to death surrounded by food if left alone at that age. Kittens are not “like human babies.” They are more advanced, skilled, smarter, and cleaner. But that’s not the point. The point is that the “constant supervision” rule eliminates potential adopters who go to work, too, but would otherwise provide excellent, loving, nurturing homes. That leaves the two minority extremes: unemployed people and millionaires—although my guess is the former would be ruled out, too. Having eliminated the two most important adopter demographics (working people and families with children), is it any wonder that Billy—an easy going, playful, cuddly, gentle, drop-and-roll kitty—has been in foster care for eight years?

Shelter animals already face formidable obstacles to getting out alive: customer service is often poor, a shelter’s location may be remote, adoption hours may be limited, policies may limit the number of days they are held, they can get sick in a shelter, and shelter directors often reject common-sense alternatives to killing. One-third to one-half of all dogs and roughly 60 percent of cats are killed because of these obstacles. Since the animals already face enormous problems, including the constant threat of execution, shelters and rescue groups shouldn’t add arbitrary roadblocks. When kind hearted people come to help, shelter bureaucrats shouldn’t start out with a presumption that they can’t be trusted. In fact, most of the evidence suggests that the public can be trusted. While roughly eight million dogs and cats enter shelters every year, that is a small fraction compared to the 165 million thriving in people’s homes. Of those entering shelters, only four percent are seized because of cruelty and neglect. Some people surrender their animals because they are irresponsible, but others do so because they have nowhere else to turn—a person dies, they lose their job, their home is foreclosed. In theory, that is why shelters exist—to be a safety net for animals whose caretakers no longer can or want to care for them. When people decide to adopt from a shelter —despite having more convenient options such as buying from a pet store or responding to a newspaper ad—they should be rewarded. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we should be treated with gratitude, not suspicion. More importantly the animals facing death deserve the second chance that many well intentioned adopters are eager to give them, but in too many cases, are senselessly prevented from doing so.

Thanks for the information but I feel as if it doesn’t address this specific situation. This shelter isn’t run by a bureaucracy. Just a compassionate older woman who lives off public assistance. Many volunteers have had great success in making her old shelter friendly and inviting. And they succeeded in getting quite a lot of fosters and adoptions. So the dogs are better off than they were before, but things are still not idea. She’s had to move to a not-very-nice place. And many of the volunteers who were helping her have left the country or started helping other shelters instead. I don’t think they’ve turned many adopters away.

I ran an open admission animal control shelter. We took in animals of every background, including sick, injured, unweaned, and traumatized. Our average length of stay was 8 days. In fact, animals with impediments were easier to adopt… many cases… If dogs are sitting for years, you need to look at the policies of the organization. You need to change the way the organization operates. I’ve worked with shelters all over the world. If dogs are sitting for years, you need to change the way this rescue is operating.

In Irreconcilable Differences you suggest that rescuers may be turning perfectly acceptable adopters away because their requirements are too strict. I see your point, but when I had to find a home for my foster cat recently I felt as if I had the opposite problem. I asked several experienced rescuers for help in screening applications, but even with their help the cat came back *three times* for various reasons that struck me as incredibly flaky. What kind of procedures do you suggest to get animals adopted into trustworthy homes *without* driving potentially good applicants away? Another issue to consider is that most potential adopters who use the adoption website I use are foreigners in Korea so if the adoption didn’t work out and the animal needed a new home several years later, the adopter and I could very well be living on different continents. Of course we always ask people about their travel plans, requirements to take animals back to their countries, anticipated costs, etc., but some people have proved unreliable. I’m hesitant to take on more foster animals now because I’m not a professional and don’t know if I can handle the consequences of any more failed adoptions.

I would again point you to the NKAC’s guide on adoptions. Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes the animal comes back. That is going to happen. But while you want to minimize it, you shouldn’t fear it. I would rather the animal come back to me where I can find him or home a home he/she deserves, than stay in a marginal situation where he/she doesn’t get the love and attention that is his/her birthright. But if you are doing the job, that number will be low. In Tompkins County, it was less than 2 percent of all adoptions. And while broken bonds are never good, in the end, we found those animals other homes, so no one was killed. (Done)

It appears that advocating no-kill shelters is a “bandaid solution” only to a much larger problem. what about registered and backyard breeders, what about society’s commodification of nonhumans?

I disagree wholeheartedly that it is a “bandaid” solution. We are talking about ending the killing of millions of animals every year. Regardless of any other issues, that is an important and worthy goal in and of itself. In fact, far from being a bandaid solution, it is also key to achieving larger animal rights goals. It is the public’s love and compassion for companion animals that could support laws banning killing in animal shelters altogether right now. The legally guaranteed right to life for a species of non-human animals will be a crossing of the Rubicon from which our society will never return. History and the human rights movement indicate that the door, once opened, will with time be opened ever wider to accommodate other species of animals currently being exploited or killed in other contexts.

It is also through people’s relationships with dogs and cats that, with the right message and the right information, we can get them to see that other animals also have individual personalities, are also capable of great joy and sadness, and are also not only worthy of our protection, but of individual rights. Some theorize that the first animals to be given legal rights will be great apes, specifically bonobos. I disagree. I believe it will be dogs and cats. How can you convince the American public that we shouldn’t kill chickens, when we are telling them it is ok to kill dogs and cats, those animals who are members of their family. We animal rights people like to often say, “why is one called a pet, and the other is called dinner?” It is a good question. I would also add that the converse, “it is wrong to kill chickens or pigs, but it is ok to kill dogs and cats,” also shows hypocrisy. No Kill is the bridge to the larger animal rights platform.

You say in Irreconcilable Differences that you hope nonhuman animals will some day have the legal right to live. (Or something close to that.) Is this possible while they’re still the property of humans?

Yes, I do. In the 19th Century, you could abuse or kill a dog and it would not be illegal so long as the dog was “your property.” That, of course, is now illegal. Laws and mores are changing all the time, and while not fast enough or comprehensive enough as we would like, we are making progress toward that goal. Today, we have laws governing a companion animal’s legal right to food, shelter, and veterinary care. It is just a matter of time before we have laws that focus on the psychological well-being of animals, and in fact, we are passing those today, such as anti-continuous confinement or tethering provisions. So it is hardly impossible to add the right to live, to make it illegal for shelters to kill them, for veterinarians to kill them, for people to kill them. And, in fact, as to the latter, in some ways it already is short of going to a shelter or veterinarian. Does that mean they should always be considered legal property? Is that the ideal? Of course not. Every gain makes the ultimate goal more attainable. Every evil we overcome not only has immediate impact on animals, but helps make the other and larger goals closer within reach. We can tackle evil one at a time. Some people would suggest that unless we gain complete animal liberation today, we are compromising our principles. I disagree. I believe that while we keep our eye on the goal, pragmatism bent on success must also be considered, rather than unyielding dogma that might do a lot to make us feel superior to others, but has no language for progress or success and gets us nowhere closer to the ultimate goal.

You argue against the existence of an over population of “companion” animals and use statistics from American Veterinary Medical Association and the Pet Food Manufacturers Association. Do you think it might be possible that these organizations have a financial interest and strong motive in denying the existence of an over population?

As far as I know, those organizations never claimed pet overpopulation as a myth, nor do I believe they say so now. So I do not know what their motivation could be in this regard. But it doesn’t matter since I had multiple sources and I only used their data for the number of animals in homes, the surveys they did on how many people were thinking about adding an animal to their home, life expectancy and other rates of attrition (an animal disappears or runs off) to determine how many households were opening up for animals every year. I was looking for what statisticians call “stock” and “flow” to compare to the number of animals being killed in shelters but for a home and I collated it from these and other sources to make sure I could eliminate as much variability in the data as possible. In layman’s terms, I was looking at how many homes open up which are “replacement” homes (a dog or cat dies or runs away) and how many homes are a result of “expanding” homes (someone doesn’t live with a dog or cat but wants to, or someone lives with a dog or cat but wants to live with another one).

But that is old information. Since that time, I’ve had access to a database of 1,100 shelters, a sampling size of about 1/3 of all shelters in the U.S. I’ve used peer reviewed journals, I’ve used the data of groups who actually have a motivation in maintaining the myth of pet overpopulation because it gives them an excuse to kill. I’ve looked at national surveys. If anything, the data from the sources you named showed I was being conservative. In fact, using the logic of motivations, who says pet overpopulation is real? Shelters that kill animals because it gives them an excuse. In fact, the idea of pet overpopulation did not come from analyses of data or study. It came from backward rationalization. The fact of killing was rationalized backward to suggest there are too many animals not enough homes (if that were true, we wouldn’t have a puppy mill problem to begin with because there’d be no money in it, we wouldn’t have pet stores which sell animals, and we wouldn’t have No Kill communities.) Look, I did not wake up one day and say “Pet overpopulation is a myth.” Nor did I think that someday I would champion the notion that it was. I did not even set out to prove it. It unfolded as part of my journey in the humane movement and the facts began to compel further analysis. In fact, at one time, I too drank of the Kool Aid. The dedication of my book, Redemption, says it all: “To my wife, Jennifer. Who believed long before I did.”. I once actually argued with her on a date, before we were married, that “There were too many animals and not enough homes” and “What were shelters supposed to do with them?” I am ashamed of having done so, but I did. She correctly argued that even… if it were true, killing them was still unethical. She also correctly argued that if we took killing off the table, human ingenuity and human compassion would find a way to make it work. But, more importantly, she asked me how I knew it was true. How did I know? Because I’ve heard it repeated a thousand times. Because I took the fact of killing in shelters and then rationalized the reason backward. But I was too embarrassed to admit so. Here I was: a Stanford Law student who wore my 4.0 department GPA, my highest honors in Political Science, my Phi Beta Kappa, and my Summa Cum Laude, as a badge of my smarts and I came face to face with my own sloppy logic and slipshod thinking about the issue. “It just is,” I said (lamely). But therein began a journey that started in San Francisco, then Tompkins County (NY), then Charlottesville (VA), then visiting hundreds of shelters across the country, reviewing data from the ASPCA, HSUS, the AVMA, and others, and then the data of over 1,000 shelters nationwide, and more research and crunching of numbers, and several national studies. And the conclusion became not just inescapable, but unassailable. And rather than bury it ignore it, or downplay it, I did what anyone who truly loves animals would have done. I celebrated it. Why? Because it meant that we had the power to end the killing, today. And that is what I wanted to happen because I love animals. And since that time, other studies have come out which not only prove I was right, they show I was conservative. What that means is that contrary to what many shelters falsely claim are the primary hurdles to lifesaving (e.g., public irresponsibility), the biggest impediments are actually in shelter management’s hands.

Effectiveness in shelter goals and operations begins with caring and competent leadership, staff accountability, effective programs, and good relations with the community—which most shelters refuse to do. It means putting actions behind the words of every shelter’s mission statement that “All life is precious.” And it is abundantly clear that the practices of most shelters are not aligned with this principle. What that means is that shelter killing is not the result of pet overpopulation; it is the result of shelter managers who find killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it. And not only do they kill animals they should be saving, too many of them neglect and abuse them in the process. The bottom line is that shelter killing is unnecessary and unethical. And pet overpopulation is nothing more than an excuse for poorly performing shelter managers who want to blame others for their own failures.

Recently I sent my little foster dog to Toronto because I was unsuccessful in placing him locally … (Pedro has a disability that limits his mobility.) Some would say Toronto has its own problems and that Canada should become no-kill first–before Canadian rescuers agree to accept dogs from Korea or anywhere else. Is that a legitimate position?

I have always supported transport programs. As director of Tompkins County’s animal control shelter, and as a No Kill community, we imported animals from killing shelters outside our jurisdiction rather than allow the cages to sit empty during off-peak periods. We also worked with out-of-county breed-specific rescue groups and No Kill organizations to transport some of our animals. When exporting animals, we never sent them to killing organizations. In fact, I always asked the rescue groups we worked with why they didn’t just take animals from their own community shelters. Some were very breed-specific and had greater care capacity than supply. Others had tried to work with their own shelters, but were rebuffed. In No Kill communities where the demand for animals truly does outstrip supply, it is a non-issue and a welcome effort. It is also a non-issue and welcome effort when breed rescue groups in other areas are involved and capacity once again exceeds local supply. But, even beyond these, we may be missing the bigger picture when we ask if transferring animals from killing jurisdictions to other killing jurisdictions is ethical—without considering the context of transports.

If shelter managers were passionate about saving lives and implemented the programs and services that make it possible, there would be little debate about high-volume transports. They would make sense, as some parts of the country (and some countries) are more populated and naturally have a higher demand for animals. And if local governments were committed to a high level of service in animal care and sheltering, again, there would be little debate about transports. Everyone would support it, though the need would not be so great. It would simply become what it should be: part of a flexible strategy dedicated to saving the lives of animals. The reality is that too many shelters in too many communities are not doing their jobs. Consequently, they are unnecessarily killing a large number of animals. In addition, it is never entirely cut and dried whether one particular rescue animal will result in the killing of another (local) animal. When the transported animals face certain death because they are in the hands of shelter managers who aren’t interested in saving them, it would be wrong to say they shouldn’t be saved by transport. Our first duty is to the animals who face certain death today.

There can be no blame, therefore, for the rescue groups in high kill rate jurisdictions that are sending these dogs across the country or to other countries. While they are working to save animals by transport, however, they and others should be working equally hard to reform their local shelters or those shelters will be killing or threatening to kill animals in perpetuity. As long as animals are regarded by shelter managers as cheap and expendable; and as long as rescuers ship them elsewhere, there is no incentive to change. That doesn’t mean the transports should stop. They shouldn’t. An animal’s life is not a bargaining chip. But the problem is not inevitable; it can be fixed. From a larger No Kill perspective, however, Canadian rescue groups should be saving animals from their own communities. Taking the long view, if they focused on creating a No Kill community, they would save animals beyond their borders by increasing the pressure for neighboring communities to do the same. The old environmental slogan of the 1970s—think globally, act locally—is apt. San Francisco’s success in the mid-1990s was the catalyst for the entire No Kill movement. Tompkins County’s success a few years later forced surrounding communities to reevaluate leadership and practices and aspire to more lifesaving. It also ended the fiction that animal control could not be No Kill, and therefore increased the pressure on other animal control shelters to do the same. Once one community achieves No Kill, people in surrounding communities begin to ask the question: “If they can do it there, why can’t we do it here?” And the pressure to do so begins to mount. But the long view is difficult to reconcile with animals facing mass extermination today.

So what is the solution? What ended the need for the “Underground Railroad” in the Antebellum South here was the elimination of the problem: the elimination of slavery. While No Kill advocates work to save the victims of a broken animal shelter system, they must also replace their broken system with one equal to the task with which it has been entrusted. If Canadians demanded and received passionate leadership committed to saving lives, they could have it all. They could save local animals. They could also help animals from other places and even other countries. If South Koreans did the same, there would be less pressure to transport because they’d be saved at home. At the same time, they could transport to their heart’s content, without displacing animals in some receiving communities. In the end, the answer to both problems, and to all the previous questions, is two-fold: Regime change in the leadership of shelters. And shelter reform legislation that removes the discretion shelter managers have to needlessly kill animals. We need to regulate shelters the same way we regulate other agencies that hold —and in this case, abuse—their power over life and death. Sadly, because of built in excuses like pet overpopulation, the irresponsible public, and the economy; because of weak and even hostile leadership on the issue from the large, influential national animal protection organizations; because of underperformance at shelters and rampant uncaring in government bureaucracies, that may be easier said than done. But while these interests may be entrenched, they are not insurmountable. It is a battle we are capable of winning—and will ultimately win. And the sooner we do so, the quicker we can end this needless killing.

By claiming there is no overpopulation, despite over 8 million dogs and cats entering shelters across the US each year, is it possible you’re sending a message that breeding dogs and cats is acceptable, and allowing humans an excuse not to spey/neuter?

What has made the No Kill movement so successful is the rejection of old dogmas that once defined the paradigm under which we all operated. We have rejected the excuses. We have accepted —not always without heartbreak—the bitter reality that many of the emperors in the humane movement have no clothes. And after decades of killing and decades of spin to justify it, all of this became possible only when the truth came to light. It is the truth, after all, and not our wishful thinking, that determines the course of history. Without it, we are groping in the dark, fighting phantoms, and, as history as shown, misplacing our faith and allegiance in those who abuse that trust by undermining and misrepresenting our cause, its solution, our urgency, and our unequivocal determination.

I believe in telling the truth. Truth is a weapon and truth is armor. And given the strong, moneyed, and entrenched forces we must battle to achieve success, we need all the power and protection we can get. I think if you were to turn this question into a statement, it would be suggesting that we should lie to people in order to get them to act in ways we want them to. I am not saying you want that, but that would be the implication of taking it to its logical conclusion. In addition, if you look at the data from a number of sources, if you look at the actual experience of communities which have achieved success, the idea that the availability of homes far exceeds the number of animals being killed is unassailable. Regardless of how much mileage someone feels they can get by continuing to perpetuate fiction, it is dishonest and dishonorable to do so. The idea that the threat of killing is necessary to get people to spay/neuter has also has not been borne out by experience. In those communities which have ended killing of healthy and treatable animals, people still spay/neuter and in fact, impounds are declining, not increasing. That stands in sharp contrast to those communities still killing, who continue to rely on the fiction of pet overpopulation. It is not lying to the public or threatening to kill animals, a violent and ugly thing to do in and of itself, that gets them to spay/neuter, it is making spay/neuter services affordable and widely available and appealing to their often inherent desire to do right by animals by explaining why spay/neuter is important using the good and truthful reasons for doing so. Make it easy for people to do the right thing, and most people will. We have to stop perpetuating this idea that people are inherently bad and cannot be trusted. In fact, quite the opposite is true when it comes to companion animals. Most people love them.

When I first began my work in the animal rights movement some 20 years ago, I was overwhelmed when I learned about the widespread killing and abuse of animals in various contexts. I was bitter and tended to believe that people were uncaring and cruel. My indignation was fueled by the daily dose of bad news I received through my work in animal rights. I lived in the trenches, and as can often happen when your vision is hindered in such a way, I became myopic. I focused primarily on the bad things people did to animals, and became blind to the good. As a result, I lost an accurate perspective. I lost the ability to perceive how most people really feel about animals, and with that, a sense of the animal protection movement’s potential for success. But then something happened that changed me. When I began to focus my efforts on ending shelter killing, I began to see a different side of the story —a more positive, hopeful, and I now believe, accurate measure of humanity. Through my work in the No Kill movement, I have encountered people from all walks of life—every demographic imaginable: every age, class, culture, and political leaning —united, in spite of their other differences, by their love and concern for animals. I have witnessed, time and time again, how the public rallies to the call for reform of their local shelter, and how, with their assistance, No Kill is now succeeding in various and diverse communities across this country. I also came to see how this transcends companion animals as well: the passage of Proposition 2 in California to ban some of the cruelest conditions in factory farms, and the growth and mainstreaming of vegetarian restaurants, vegetarian foods, and cruelty-free and environmentally-friendly products. In fact, as I said earlier, while roughly eight million dogs and cats enter shelters every year, that pales to the 1 to the 165 million in people’s homes who are loved and cared for. And as to the former, some people surrender their animals because they are irresponsible, but others do so because they have nowhere else to turn —a person dies, they lose their job, their home is foreclosed. In theory that is why shelters exist—to be a safety net for animals whose caretakers no longer can or want to care for them. And the majority of animals who enter these shelters can, and should, be saved. Their story does not have to be a tragedy. Imagine if shelters provided good care, comfort, and plenty of affection to the animals during their stay at these way stations funded through tax and philanthropic dollars by a dog- and cat-loving culture. And imagine if all shelters embraced the No Kill philosophy and the programs and services which make it possible. We would be a No Kill nation today. And in more and more communities, we are.

These experiences have combined to erode my despair and replace it with great optimism. They have helped me understand that when it comes to protecting animals, the battle is against the few who have a vested interest in the status quo; rather than the many, who will reject cruelty and killing and embrace compassion when they are given the information which allows them to see it clearly for what it is, and when a path to a more humane future is cleared before them. Sadly, the leadership of today’s animal protection movement refuses to recognize this potential and therefore, refuses to act upon it. But, more tragically, they are threatened when others do. Quoting historian John Barry, I wrote in Redemption that “institutions reflect the cumulative personalities of those within them, especially their leadership. They tend, unfortunately, to mirror less admirable human traits, developing and protecting self-interest and even ambition.” They try to create order, not by learning from others or the past, but “by closing off and isolating themselves from that which does not fit. They become bureaucratic.” One of the fundamental downsides of bureaucracies is their focus on self-preservation at the expense of their mission. And in the case of animal shelters and the national allies who support them, this bureaucracy kills animals. And while these organizations, like HSUS and the ASPCA, have become very big and very powerful, they have also become bureaucratic, with none of the zeal and passion that characterized the movement’s early founders.

It is perhaps worth noting that this is not unique to the animal rights movement. Every social movement in history had to fight institutional inertia from the large, established organizations. This is exactly what Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail was arguing against. It is what the great Alice Paul had to contend with in her movement. What William Lloyd Garrison had to overcome to create an abolitionist movement. And while PETA is a special case, because I actually think that its leadership has some deeply disturbing dark impulses, as to the leaders of HSUS, the ASPCA, and others, like their predecessors in other social movements, they are fighting a losing battle to stop the No Kill revolution from destroying every last vestige of the “catch and kill” paradigm they protect, because we have the hearts and minds of the public on our side. And I am constantly reminded of how much people truly love animals: From donating tens of millions of dollars when animals are impacted by a disaster to the great lengths taken to care for their own companion animals; from rising to the challenge when their local shelter commits itself to a No Kill goal, to voting for animal protection legislation even when all the powers-that-be tell them doing so will hurt their own economic interests; and, in countless other ways. And it is that love that gives me faith that we will fix our broken animal shelter system. Ultimately, not only will we save lives; but we will also create a future where every animal will be respected and cherished, and where every individual life will be protected and revered.

The City of Los Angeles was sued by six environment groups because the City was doing TNR (trap, neuter, return of cats to outdoor colonies) without first doing the necessary environmental review. To put cats above all other species is speciesism. The City lost the case. Again where are the rights of the native animals that these environmental groups protect? How does “Whereas, the right to live is every animal’s most basic and fundamental right” apply to these native species?

The belief that some animals are more worthy than others because they were here first is the basis of this native species philosophy. And it has no place in a moral or rights oriented philosophy. It is to propose a slaughter of cats with no end. Where does it end? What species deserve to live and what species deserve to die? The ones you like? The ones the bird groups like? The fact is the cats are there. And once there, killing them is not ethical. The goal of the environmental movement should be to create a peaceful and harmonious relationship between humans and the environment. Not to propose a mass slaughter because they value one species more than the other. The lawsuit was not about saving birds. It was about scapegoating and killing cats. If they really wanted to reduce cat numbers, they would support their sterilization. They have misled the court about the extent of bird predation by cats. And they have caused mass killing of cats without helping birds. The nativist philosophy you promote is not animal rights, it is not environmental, it is not humane, It is not compassionate. It is about valuring one animal more than another, and killing one because you claim to want to protect the other. It is violent, and it should be called what it is: Biological xenophobia.

Do you think that the “business” of rendering the animals’ bodies is a source of income that many shelters are not willing to give up, or at least giving them an excuse not to change to no kill?

I’ve not spent much time thinking about what happens to animals after they are dead. My goal has been to keep them alive. So, I do not feel I can adequately answer the question without speculation. The shelters I’ve worked with actually paid for disposal. So I just can’t say. I am sorry.

Why can’t we set up our own sanctuaries or shelters to have a no kill revolution?

We can, we have, and we should. But the reality is that there are 3,500 “shelters” in the U.S. which are killing 4,000,000 animals. We need to reclaim those institutions and have them run in a way that reflects our values. Also many won’t give animals to sanctuaries. So until we reform those shelters, we will still have killing.

Setting aside the environmentalist concerns with TNR, it seems to me that there might be AR concerns that releasing predators into the wild will cause the death of many small animals. How do we reconcile protecting the members of a predatory species? Can you comment on the trade off?

I do not buy into the position that killing predators is an animal rights position. They are there. That is the world we live in. It is to propose a slaughter without end. The nativist philosophy is unscientific and inhumane. Here is a blog I wrote about it:

Thank you, Nathan, for your considered responses.

Thank you for the opportunity. If you have follow up, please feel free to contact me through my website at


Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) is a voluntary, grassroots, abolitionist animal rights social network created in December 2009 with the aim of encouraging rational dialogue in the animal protection movement.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: