A puppy IS for Christmas

One man’s battle to stop the casual slaughter of unwanted pets

December 23, 2008

Every year, five million cats and dogs are gassed to death or lethally injected with sodium pentobarbital in American animal shelters. The word “euthanasia” is a grotesque euphemism. There is no mercy in these deaths. Most of the animals are healthy, rambunctious, and young. They die terrified, and they die pointlessly: very few are vicious; most are capable of forming deep affectionate bonds with humans.

Some are sick or injured, but could be saved with little effort. Some are feral cats who before their detention were enjoying or enduring lives no better, perhaps, but certainly no worse than that of any other wild animal.

Until recently, the public was generally unaware of the extent of the slaughter; those who knew were told by shelter authorities that there was no choice: America was suffering from a “pet overpopulation” crisis, the consequence of the public’s irresponsibility in permitting their animals to reproduce without restraint and their propensity to abandon puppies and kittens that had outgrown their initial fey charm.

Enter Nathan Winograd, attorney for the condemned. In 1994, Winograd, a graduate of Stanford law school and former criminal prosecutor, abandoned his lucrative career as a corporate attorney to begin a campaign against the killing, and doing so, started a revolution in American animal shelter practices. There were more than enough Americans who would be willing to adopt these animals if they knew about them, Winograd argued, and there was always an alternative to killing them. The problem was not the irresponsibility of the American public; it was the shocking unwillingness of shelter workers to exercise the slightest bit of imagination, practical or moral, to find alternatives to killing. Case in point: shelters that campaigned to discourage people from adopting puppies and kittens at Christmas time.

In 2001, Winograd was appointed executive director of the Tompkins County SPCA in upstate New York. Upon his arrival, he told his employees that there would be no more killing–period. If they could not figure out a way to find homes for the animals in their care, they would be fired. “Staff,” he told them, “are paid to save lives. If they throw up their hands and say ‘there is nothing we can do,’ I may as well eliminate their position and use the money more constructively to either hire someone who will find a solution or for something else like temporary boarding space at a local kennel.”

Within a year, half the staff were fired and 93 percent of the animals were saved. The shelter’s budget deficit was transformed into a surplus.

In 2005, Winograd found the No Kill Advocacy Center, a national organization aimed at ending the killing of pets in animal shelters. Thanks largely to Winograd, shelters throughout America have begun to implement the No Kill model, with dramatic results. Cities such as Philadelphia and Charlottesville have ceased to be animal-extermination machines.

The No Kill model involves trapping, vaccinating, neutering and releasing feral cats–not least because killing the animals simply doesn’t control their numbers. Cats will keep breeding until their population reaches the limits of what the local rat and garbage population will support. Unless they are exterminated to the very last kitten, they will keep replenishing themselves. Winograd rejects as ludicrous the argument that the lives of feral cats are so miserable that it is a kindness to kill them. We hardly feel obliged to kill every hedgehog and beaver, after all, to save them from the hardships of life in the wild. How is a cat different?

No Kill shelters promote high volume, low-cost spay and neuter programs. They hector local veterinarians until they agree to volunteer their services; they go to veterinary colleges and recruit students who need to practice their skills. They search for volunteers who will foster the animals temporarily, freeing up kennel space and reducing feeding expenses. This also promotes the socialization of the animals, making them more adorable and thus more adoptable — and many of the volunteers end up adopting them permanently. When shelters refuse to kill, volunteers are easy to find; few people, after all, have the stomach to work with healthy puppies and kittens who are about to be put to death, but many are more than happy to foster a litter of kittens if they believe their charges will go on to a live long, happy natural lives. When Winograd announced that Tompkins County would no longer kill, for example, the number of volunteers swiftly increased from a few dozen to nearly a thousand.

Don’t charge high fees to people who want to adopt, says Winograd. Don’t make the adoption process bureaucratic and arduous. Extend the shelter’s visiting hours so that people with jobs can visit in the evenings and on weekends. Make sure the shelter looks nice, not depressing. Don’t put the animals in cages; animals allowed to play in open runs will be less neurotic and friendlier, encouraging people to take them home.

Above all, Winograd insists, bring the animals to places where potential adopters can see them. Show them off outside pet stores, at shopping malls, in office buildings with high foot traffic. Advertise ceaselessly in local papers, radio and television; show fetching photos of the animals with whimsical descriptions of their personalities. Work with local and national breed rescue groups to target adopters who are looking for a specific breed.

Once people have adopted the animals, make sure they keep them. Turn the shelter into a resource for pet owners who need information about how to reduce behavior problems. Advertise everywhere: We can solve your problem with that cat who scratches the furniture or that puppy who won’t stop barking. We’ll send a volunteer animal-trainer right to your home. Growing to old to care for your pet? We’ll send you a volunteer dog-walker.

And the idea that you shouldn’t give pets for Christmas? Outrageous, says Winograd. The holidays are a perfect opportunity for adoption drives: “We have to stop focusing our policies under the false premise that the public can’t be trusted, that the animals are better off dead than in the homes of those who believe that there is no better display of holiday spirit than to open their home to an animal in need.”

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