Nathan Winograd, author of Redemption and passionate no-kill activist, is a busy man. When he is not touring in support of his book, he might be writing shelter manuals, giving workshops, or answering emails and phone calls from all over. Nathan was recently kind enough to give up some of his time and grant me an interview. I appreciate the time he took. His passion for no-kill is palpable.
Jennifer Moore: Was there a defining moment for you, where you decided animal welfare was where you belonged, or was it a gradual transition from law into animal rescue? In other words, did you just suddenly decide to leave law, or did it take some time for you to change careers?
Nathan Winograd: I was a first year law student living on campus and one morning I heard a woman calling to cats in that high pitched baby voice we often use when talking to animals. I looked out my window and saw all these cats coming out of the bushes, and as a cat lover, I went downstairs to find out what she was doing. She told me about the work faculty, staff, and students were doing to protect the campus cats and the history of how they fought the Universityâ€™s plans to have the cats killed. Naturally, they turned to the local humane society naively thinking that saving these cats was within their humane mission, but sadly the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley sided with the University.
Their argument was that since the cats were â€œwildâ€ or â€œunsocialized,â€ they were better off dead, even though they lived in a largely wooded campus, in a good climate, with plenty of shelter, and people willing to care for them. So the group turned to the Humane Society of the United States, the nationâ€™s largest animal welfare group for support. And this organization also concluded that despite the care, the cats should be killed. For cat lovers, these views were patently inhumane and out of step with the â€œhumaneâ€ mission of these organizations. So they banded together, began trapping, sterilizing and releasing the cats back to their habitats on campus, set up feeding stations around the University and built make-shift shelters and the Stanford Cat Network was born. From a population of 1,500 estimated by the University, there are less than 50 cats remaining and none were killed. The friendly ones were adopted into homes, and the feral ones lived out their lives. And they died old, when conventional wisdom said they should have died young and died tragically.
It was then that I learned that sheltering in the U.S. was a misnomer, that the vast majority of shelters did little more than kill animals, and did so even when the animals were not suffering. I started working with the Cat Network, then other organizations, and despite working as a prosecutor and in a corporate law firm, I never left animal work until I decided to devote all my time to it and left the law.
JM: Can you please tell us more about your background working with animals?
NW: I have been involved in animal rescue my whole life, as my mother was an avid cat rescuer. Iâ€™ve volunteered with local shelters, have fostered hundreds of kittens, served on the Board of Directors of a humane society, was Director of Operations for one of the largest and most successful shelters in the nation, was Executive Director of an open admission animal control shelter which created the nationâ€™s first (and at the time only) No Kill community, and have consulted with dozens more, including some of the largest and best known in the nation. I currently run the national No Kill Advocacy Center, the only national organization dedicated to ending the systematic killing of animals in shelters which is run by staff who have actually worked in and created No Kill communities. My book, Redemption, is widely considered the seminal work on animal sheltering in the U.S.
JM: Did you ever work in animal rights law? Do you think you would?
NW: I was an intern during law school for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and I did pro bono work for Farm Sanctuary early in my career, but I have not worked with those groups in over a decade. I consider No Kill an animal rights issue, as the right to life is the most fundamental of all rights. Beside writing legislation and being involved in litigation against shelters who illegally kill animals and mistreat them, most of my work is in reforming animal shelters without resort to the legal system.
JM: Tell me what a typical day is like for you, when you are not doing work related to the book.
NW: I donâ€™t know that I have had a typical day yet. I might answer about 100 or so e-mails from shelters, rescuers, or activists across the country who need advice or guidance. I spend a lot of time on the telephone in that capacity as well. I do a weekly national radio spot. I write a blog, I am working on a shelter operations manual, I might review legislation or pleadings from a lawsuit, I might review documents from a shelter, and I might do interviews for a shelter assessment, or be writing a report to a shelter or an article for distribution. On average of once a month, I am at a shelter somewhere in the U.S. helping them save lives or giving a seminar about how to achieve No Kill. It varies, but always involves long hours. I work seven days a week, sometimes as much as 10 hours a day.
JM: Why is there such resistance to the no kill movement?
NW: There are several possible reasons. One possibility is fear. Whenever a shelter kills a homeless animal entrusted to its care, it has profoundly failed. And animal shelters fail, as a general rule, fifty to eighty percent of the time. Put another way, animal sheltering is an industry whose leadership mostly fails. Unlike any other industry, however, these directors still retain their positions, are pillars of their communities, and are tapped as â€œexpertsâ€ by the large national groups. That credibility, and esteem, has been seriously threatened by the No Kill movement. In other words, animal control directorsâ€”fearful of being held accountable for failureâ€”are putting their own interests ahead of the lives of the animals.
The second possible reason is guilt. Having killed hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of dogs and cats, convinced there was no other way, shelter administrators are not able to face the fact that the vast majority of the killing they do is unnecessary.
Another possibilityâ€”and perhaps the most likelyâ€”is the most disturbing of all: some shelter directors donâ€™t care enough about the animals. Killing in the face of alternatives of which you are not aware, but should be, is unforgivable. It would be like a doctor who refuses to keep pace with the changing field of medicine, treating pneumonia with leeches instead of rest, antibiotics and fluid therapy. Killing in the face of alternatives you simply refuse to implement, or about which you remain willfully ignorant, is nothing short of obscene.
JM: What did folks like Kim Surla hope to achieve by publicly euthanizing animals? What was the point of that exercise?
NW: It was nothing less than a shameless, public relations gimmick. The idea was to stick it to the public and put it in their face to get them to keep their animals or flock to shelters to adopt, but it only ended up hurting the animals. As I argue in the book Redemption, it was also unnecessary and an ugly chapter in our movementâ€™s history.
JM: How do organizations like PETA and other kill organizations think euthanasia helps or benefits animals?
NW: I went to a Humane Society of the United States conference a year or so ago. They held a workshop on shelter killing, where the expert giving the seminar stated that:
What we have done on ours is â€œhumanely destroyâ€ rather than the word â€œkill.â€ Weâ€™re not, weâ€™re not killing themâ€¦ â€œkillâ€ is such a negative connotation. Itâ€™sâ€¦ weâ€™re not KILLING them. We are taking their life, we are ending their life, we are giving them a good death, weâ€™re humanely destr â€” whatever. But weâ€™re NOT KILLING.
How did we come to be a movement that embraces the Orwellian logic that killing is not killing, that killing is kindness? They can offer all kinds of excuses, justifications, arguments. None of it is true. None of it has integrity. None of it should be acceptable to animal lovers across the U.S. When you deny responsibility for the killing, when you in fact deny that you are even killing, choosing to hide behind euphemisms like â€œputting them to sleepâ€ or â€œeuthanasia,â€ the impetus to change your own behavior which might impact that killing disappears, and the task of killing is made easier.
JM: Are there any of the large animal welfare organizations who support the No Kill Equation?
NW: The Humane Society of the United States has never written a single article saying No Kill has been achieved. The American Humane Association has ignored it. The ASPCA has ignored it. Right now, except for the No Kill Advocacy Center, there is not a single national organization that focuses on companion animals that is aggressively promoting implementation of the No Kill Equation, the only proven way to end the killing of animals in shelters, It is like No Kill has not been achieved. It is like the key to ending the killing has not been discovered. The nationâ€™s animal welfare organizations are not promoting the only effective model at ending the killing of savable animals in shelters There are some like Alley Cat Allies and Best Friends, which agree with all the programs, but only the No Kill Advocacy Center is promoting it nationally as the key to ending the systematic killing of five million dogs and cats in U.S. shelters every year.
JM: Why did you leave the shelters you worked with? Are they still successfully using the model you introduced?
NW: I left San Francisco because new shelter leadership abandoned the nuts and bolts programs which made the city the most successful in the nation. I wanted to prove No Kill was possible. And after succeeding in Tompkins County, and surpassing San Francisco as the safest community for homeless animals in the nation (and creating the nationâ€™s first No Kill community), I wanted to help other communities replicate that success. And so I started the national No Kill Advocacy Center, a non-profit dedicated to ending the systematic killing of animals in shelters. Running a shelter effectively and well is a full time responsibility. I could not do national advocacy work and run a shelter at the same time. There are simply not enough hours in the day.
In 2007, Tompkins County NY saved over 91% of all dogs, and over eight out of ten cats (87%). Tompkins has had three directors since my tenure, and many staff members I worked with including the animal control officers, dog trainers, cat team, veterinary technicians, kennel staff, and even some Board members are no longer involved. I have not been involved with the agency since August 2004. Nonetheless, Tompkins County NY has now saved 90% - 93% of dogs since 2001 despite its animal control contracts, a record of achievement unmatched anywhere, providing powerful proof of No Killâ€™s sustainability. While the cat save rate fell below 90% for the first time in six years, it still represents almost nine out of ten cats being saved.
JM: Are you running or working with any shelters at this time?
NW: Although I do not run shelters any more, I work closely with many of them. My latest project was in Reno, NV with the Nevada Humane Society. I spent about six months reviewing operations, writing protocols and recommendations, hiring staff, and recruiting a new director. In just one year, the kill rate for dogs and cats declined by over 50% and adoption increased by as much as 84%. They are now the safest community in the United States for homeless dogs and right up there with cats.
I am also working with the King County Council trying to bring a No Kill orientation to animal sheltering in that community. I am very busy with the No Kill Advocacy Center and a recent lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Control for unlawfully killing animals, refusing to work with rescue groups, and inhumane treatment of animals in its facilities. But mostly, Iâ€™ve spent the last four months on a national Building a No Kill Community tour, giving free workshops and seminars in over twenty cities nationwide.
JM: Do you now, or do you have plans to, work with shelters in poorer and/or more rural communities?
NW: I have. I’ve traveled to rural Georgia, Mississippi, and elsewhere working with shelters to improve operations. I’ve done free training in similar places, including the Gulf States after Hurricane Katrina. I’ve also brought a free two day conference around the country to make it easy for people all over the country to attend. The next one is in Lafayette, LA in March. And I’ve made free resources available: including a model how to law, guides and factsheets (on the nokilladvocacycenter.org website), and will soon launch a series of online seminars so that anyone with access to a computer can attend.
JM: How can the average person start to implement this in his/her own community? How can he/she educate others about it and garner support?
NW: The power to change the status quo is in our hands. No Kill will be achieved when citizens demand that their shelters fully and rigorously implement the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, because the No Kill Equation is the only model that has achieved No Kill in the U.S. If people want to make a difference, they can do the following:
* Get informed: Read Building a No Kill Community.
* Be thorough: Follow the step-by-step guide Reforming Animal Control.
* Be successful: Use the proven model of the No Kill Equation.
* Donâ€™t settle: Demand endorsement of the U.S. No Kill Declaration.
* Require accountability: Seek passage of the Companion Animal Protection Act.
All of these documents are available for free on the No Kill Advocacy Centerâ€™s website in the â€œReforming Animal Controlâ€ section: http://www.nokilladvocacycenter.org
JM: How do you feel about breed-specific legislation? What would you say to the people responsible for enacting it to try and get them to change their thinking?
NW: Despite an explosion in the number of dogs in the U.S. and their greater integration in society, the number of fatal dog attacks has remained relatively constant for decades. You are â€œfive times more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightningâ€ and â€œfour times more likely to be killed by a forklift, even though a very small number of people come into contact with these machines.â€ [Bradley, Janis, Dogs Bite (2005: James & Kenneth Publishers)] In other words, comparatively speaking, it is exceedingly rare.
Despite this, dogs remain heavily regulated: they must be licensed with local authorities, they cannot go in public places without a leash (if at all), they must be vaccinated against rabies, you canâ€™t live with more than a small number of them, animal control officers can seize and destroy them if they determine that they are a nuisance, and the threshold of making a determination that they are dangerous and subject to extermination puts dogs at a disadvantage, even when the facts show otherwise. Together, license laws, leash laws, vaccination laws, pet limit laws, nuisance laws, health codes, property laws, and dangerous dog laws control dogs, in concert with an animal sheltering system built on overkill, that there is little justification to tighten the noose even further.
We will never eliminate risk in society. We can minimize it, but in the case of dogs, there is little more that can and should be done. And, in many ways, we need to undo some of the laws and regulations because they allow friendly dogs to be killed without making anyone safer (such as breed bans).
Banning Pit Bulls or any breed of dog is geared to overkill by definition becauseâ€”media hysteria to the contraryâ€”the vast majority of dog bites occur within the home by many breeds, with the dog biting a member of the family after some provocation, a different causal mechanism than the false image presented: an epidemic of free roaming Pit Bulls attacking unknown children or the elderly. As a result, a breed ban wonâ€™t stop the vast majority of dog bites. On top of that, roughly 20% of those bites are a result of the dog defending him or her-self from being attacked.
And although breed specific legislation proponents like to say that millions of Americans are bitten every year (a dubious proposition), what they donâ€™t say is that, even if that were true (it is not), over 92% of dog bites result in no injuries. Let me repeat, over nine out of ten bites that do occur result in no one getting hurt. And of those which do result in injury, 7.5% are minor. In fact, they are less severe than any other class of injury. That leaves less than 1% (0.08% to be exact) of all bites ranking at moderate or above. I am not downplaying even the death or maiming of a single person. It is tragic. And as an animal control director, I had no tolerance for the adoption of aggressive dogs. But creating public policyâ€”and shelter standardsâ€”needs careful and thoughtful deliberation, not incendiary fanaticism that reduces everything to a meaningless debate about the value of dogs vs. children.
I think the facts speak for themselves.
JM: Do you think this will ultimately catch on? Do you think there will be a change in the fundamentals of animal control/rescue/sheltering?
NW: The average American is far more progressive about dogs and cats than every animal welfare and animal rights organization in the United States, with rare exception. Collectively, we spend over 40 billion dollars on our animals, giving to animal related charities is the fastest growing segment of American philanthropy, and No Kill is on the agenda of local governments nationwide because people are demanding it. But at the end of the day, it is not about how much we spend, how many animals share our homes, or even about what we seek. In the battle over the hearts and minds of our citizenry, gaining support for No Kill among the American public is a non-sequitur, because we already have it. While animal shelters defend shelter killing of even healthy and friendly animals, most dog and cat lovers, armed with the facts, find it abhorrent.
The achievement of No Kill requires forcing shelters to reflect our values and battling their campaigns of misinformation and distortion. Most Americans love animals but unfortunately many had been led to believe that killing is a necessary evil and that there is no other way. Until recently, the large, wealthy, and entrenched animal welfare organizations have successfully dominated the national discussion on companion animals, and they have misused that power to falsely claim that animals are being killed because of the public, despite shelters trying their very best. In reality, nine out of ten dogs and cats can be saved in shelters if they innovate, modernize, and being accountable by rigorously implementing the programs and services which save lives.
But until recently, there has been little pressure to do so, as the organizations which are supposed to be holding these agencies accountable, instead are complacent about killing and, in fact, defend it even when it is not necessary. The reality is that we already know how to end the killing, we already have the hearts and minds (and homes and wallets) of the American public in order to achieve a better world for dogs and cats. To speed progress, we need to educate the public that there is a better way, so that they demand better of their local shelter and stop accepting the excuses that have been used over the years to justify the killing.
We have the power to build a new consensus, which rejects killing as a method for achieving results. And we can look forward to a time when the wholesale slaughter of animals in shelters is viewed as a cruel aberration of the past. To get to that point, we must learn from history and reject our failures. Whether we realize, appreciate, or believe it, as history marches toward greater compassion toward non-human animals, No Killâ€™s conquest of the status quo is inevitable.
JM: I–and I’m sure many other people–really appreciate all you and the No Kill Advocacy Center are doing.
NW: Thanks so much. I am happy to do this and really appreciate your help in spreading the word.
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