On a sunny morning in California, animal advocate Nathan J. Winograd sat across from me in a coffee shop and refuted nearly everything I’d grown up hearing about U.S. animal shelters. Pet overpopulation is a myth, he said. Between 3 and 4 million cats and dogs are killed every year in the very places that should protect them — not because too few homes exist, he claims, but because shelter directors fail to find people to adopt those animals.
Winograd has spent more than twenty years working to end the killing of dogs and cats in shelters. Less than a decade after forming his No Kill Advocacy Center, he is the most vocal and identifiable member of the burgeoning No Kill movement. He wrote the manual used by activists across the nation to establish “No Kill communities” — counties and municipalities whose shelters find homes for at least 90 percent of their animals.
You can see Winograd’s influence at big-box pet stores and malls across the country, where many shelters now display homeless animals, or in the presence of shelters on social media. Creating opportunities for adoption where people “live, work, and play” is a big component of Winograd’s “No Kill Equation.” So is working with volunteers, rescue groups, foster families, and the general public. He didn’t invent these strategies — he learned many of them while working for the San Francisco SPCA in the 1990s — but he has promoted them nationally.
His critics say his zeal to save every animal blinds him to the suffering some endure in No Kill shelters that become overcrowded, or in homes with unfit owners whom shelters didn’t adequately screen. Others see him as a divisive figure who uses his bully pulpit to attack animal-control workers whose thankless job it is to put down animals no one wants.
A Stanford Law School graduate and former prosecutor, Winograd does not deny being confrontational in his quest to bring No Kill policies to the entire country. He doesn’t hesitate to criticize shelters and their staff, but he saves his strongest critiques for the leaders of the nation’s two largest humane organizations — the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) — and for the leaders of the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Winograd operates out of his home office in Oakland, California. He’s a frequent speaker, a prolific blogger, and the author of four books: Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America; Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters; Friendly Fire; and a vegan cookbook. (He co-wrote the last two with his wife.) He pushes for legislation on the state level that would codify legal protections for shelter animals. California and Delaware have both passed versions of bills that he championed.
Born into a family of animal lovers in suburban Los Angeles, Winograd says his mother was a quintessential “cat lady.” When he went to college in San Diego, he began feeding stray cats there. “I thought that’s just what you did,” he says. In the early 1990s he went to Stanford Law School and fell in with the Stanford Cat Network , a group that cared for stray felines on campus and battled administrators who wanted to round up the animals and kill them. (The cat lovers prevailed.)
By his third year of law school, Winograd was working full time as a supervisor for the San Francisco SPCA shelter, which had worked tirelessly to limit killing. Though he had stopped attending classes, he passed his finals and managed to graduate. Between stints as a prosecutor and a corporate lawyer, he continued to work at the animal shelter until he had a falling-out with new management. He landed a job running his own shelter three thousand miles away in Tompkins County, New York. Building on policies that the San Francisco shelters had developed, Winograd succeeded in making Tompkins County the first community in the nation where more than 90 percent of cats and dogs entering the shelter made it out alive.
Figuring he could do more good working with multiple communities, he left Tompkins County in 2004 to start his advocacy group. His biggest successes have been in Reno, Nevada; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Austin, Texas, where I live and volunteer as a dog walker at the municipal shelter.
For all the barbs he directs at his opponents, with me Winograd was amiable and businesslike, optimistic about the future, and generous with his time. (We spoke for more than four hours.) I would have talked longer, but he declined my lunch invitation, saying his thirteen-year-old dog was in a wheelchair, and he had to get back home to care for him. Winograd lives with his wife, their two teenage kids, and a menagerie of animals. The humans in the household are all vegans.
Sandberg: How many No Kill communities are there today in the United States?
Winograd: We’re up to about 160, but some of those are counties that serve a number of municipalities. So, in all, well over four hundred cities and towns have ended the killing of healthy and treatable animals.
Sandberg: You say the first to do so was Tompkins County, New York, where you took over as head of the animal shelter in 2001.
Winograd: After I left the San Francisco SPCA, I had trouble finding another job in sheltering because I had a reputation as a maverick. San Francisco was then the safest community in the U.S. for dogs and cats, but no shelter wanted to emulate what was happening there. In Tompkins County, however, volunteers were already fighting to save lives. The shelter was the subject of intense public debate, and there was a burgeoning No Kill movement in the community. The day after I got to Tompkins County, there was a front-page article on how horrible the shelter was. So there was active unrest, and three of the board members wanted to make a change.
I hadn’t known exactly what to expect. I was taking an urban No Kill model from an SPCA shelter to a rural animal-control facility that had to accept any animals who were brought to it. But I was determined to do the best I could and to save more animals than the former director.
In Tompkins County there was no change in the public — they were the same after I got there as they’d been before. What changed was how the shelter operated. I didn’t get any resistance from the community. The local residents were ready, willing, and able to help end the killing. All they needed was for someone to give them permission rather than block their efforts, and to show them how to do it. Local businesses were willing to help; local veterinarians were willing to help; local volunteers were willing to help. People were ready to adopt not just kittens and puppies but also older animals, compromised animals, animals with impediments to adoption. By harnessing the public’s compassion and changing the way the shelter operated, Tompkins County, New York, became the first No Kill community in U.S. history.
Sandberg: What strategies do you believe are fundamental to No Kill?
Winograd: The No Kill communities across the U.S. today have little in common. Some are in conservative parts of the country, and some are in liberal enclaves. Some are large and urban; others, small and rural. Some are affluent; some have high rates of poverty. But they all share the model they used to end the killing of healthy and treatable animals. It’s a series of cost-effective programs and services that I call the “No Kill Equation.” These shelters encourage high-volume adoptions. They work with volunteers, foster families, and rescuers. They treat medical and behavioral problems. They neuter and release, rather than kill, feral cats. Perhaps the most important characteristic they all share is that they embrace the public rather than blame it. By reaching out to community groups, by treating each life as precious, we can transform any shelter.
Sandberg: Can you expand upon the premise that traditional shelters hold a largely dim view of the public?
Winograd: For many years we’ve been told that the “irresponsible” public is to blame for the killing, but no one really analyzed that to see if it was true. At first I, too, was guilty of that view. I worked as a criminal prosecutor and saw the ugly things that people do to one another, to their spouses, to their kids, to their pets. I tried domestic-violence cases; I tried child-sexual-assault cases; I tried animal-cruelty cases. I know that there are irresponsible people out there. And when I ran a shelter, I saw the ridiculous reasons why some people surrendered their animals to us. For a while I let that experience color my idea of what human beings are like. But my time in Tompkins County changed that. When I first started working there and announced the goal of a No Kill community, I didn’t have to convince anyone that this was a worthy goal. The people of Tompkins County were ready to make it a reality as soon as I got there. And that has proved true in communities across the country. Yes, some people are irresponsible, but most are not. They love animals and want to help save them.
Sandberg: You’ve said that animals at some of the worst shelters might be better off being given to the first people who come along.
Winograd: I’m not suggesting that we just hand dogs and cats to anyone who comes in the door. But my critics are making the argument that it’s better to commit the ultimate form of violence — to kill the animal — than to put him or her in a home where there’s a slim chance the animal may be subjected to violence. Yet there’s a 100 percent chance we’re going to kill the animal if we don’t adopt the animal out. How is that ethical? The one thing we fear most is the very thing we are doing to that animal. People have lots of choices as to where they can get a dog or cat. The person who wants to adopt has come to a facility in an out-of-the-way location, with inconvenient hours and poor customer service, where the cages aren’t always clean, and where they will have to look into the eyes of the animals they don’t take home and know that there’s a chance those animals will be killed. We should not start with the presumption that this person can’t be trusted.
Sandberg: Some would say that a humane death in a shelter is better than an uncertain fate that may involve suffering.
Winograd: It is an arrogant use of our power over defenseless animals to make that choice for them, to kill animals because there is the remote possibility that they might suffer. There’s a higher likelihood that the animal won’t suffer and will be deeply loved and will get to live out his or her life. To suggest that we should kill the animal ourselves to avoid the possibility of abuse is an ethical contradiction.
All throughout history, regardless of the situation — in Rwanda or Darfur or Cambodia — no one ever suggested euthanizing the human victims of abuse and violence. The focus has always been on remedying the abuse and violence. You don’t kill the victims; you punish the killers. Animals deserve nothing less. Even animals subjected to abuse can still be rehabilitated. I can think of no better example than the dogfighting case against NFL quarterback Michael Vick. All those dogs, or most of them, no matter how horrifically they were abused, are now deeply loved and experiencing the joys of life. To suggest that they should have been killed is perpetuating the abuse rather than alleviating it.
I once had an argument with a PETA employee who said it was ethical to kill an animal because of the faint possibility that the animal might suffer in the future, as long as the killing was done “humanely.” I put humanely in quotes because I think killing a healthy animal is patently inhumane. But PETA claims it’s just like being put under anesthesia, the only difference being that the animals don’t wake up. And because the animals aren’t aware they are being killed, they say, it’s not unethical. In other words: let’s commit the very offense now that we fear may happen to the animal sometime in the future. It makes no sense.
In criminal law we punish murder more harshly than other crimes because it is a harm that is not just of degree but of kind. Killing is the “worst of the worst,” a fact each of us would recognize if we were the ones facing the needle.
It is an arrogant use of our power over defenseless animals . . . to kill animals because there is the remote possibility that they might suffer.
Sandberg: What would appropriate screening of adopters look like to you?
Winograd: I think the presumption should be that people can be trusted, and they shouldn’t be rejected because of arbitrary rules. Some shelters, for example, turn down cat adoptions if the person says he or she will allow the cat to go outside, because the shelter workers think the cat might get killed outside. But, in turning down the adoption, they then turn around and kill the cat themselves. One day, when I had just gotten to Tompkins County, an elderly couple was denied an adoption because they had stated on their adoption application that they were going to let the cat outside. The couple couldn’t believe it. They had adopted their last cat from the shelter fifteen years earlier, and the animal had lived a long life as an outdoor cat and ended up dying of cancer in the man’s arms. And as the man was crying and walking away, his wife asked me to forgive him and explained that their previous cat had died a year earlier, and her husband had waited exactly one year to adopt a new one because he’d thought it would be unfair to the memory of his deceased cat to fall in love with another too soon. He’d wanted a “period of mourning.” Why would you not put an animal in this guy’s home?
Most shelters that I’ve worked with do reasonable screening. They talk to the people and get to know them. They counsel them rather than reject them out of hand. Many people aren’t experts and might need some education on what it means to properly care for an animal companion. The vast majority of the time I encourage and welcome screening, and I did so at the shelters I oversaw. But not always.
I actually cautioned against implementing any screening at a shelter in Houston, Texas, saying they could do it down the road but not now. And the reason is that it was a terrible shelter. Animals were getting sick, suffering, and dying. There were abusive employees. The place was dirty. Animals went long periods of time without food and care. The last thing I wanted was to give that shelter any power to keep animals away from the public, because I trusted the public a lot more than I did that facility. In some communities there is an 80 percent chance that a dog or cat will be killed in a shelter. There are communities in North Carolina with a 100 percent chance, because they have no adoption program. In those situations there’s no question what the right thing to do is: get the animals the hell out of there. Not only are they going to be killed, but there’s a good chance they’ll be abused and neglected in the process.
Sandberg: What happens when a No Kill shelter can’t raise its adoption rate fast enough and becomes overcrowded?
Winograd: Even if it were true that a shelter couldn’t raise its adoption rate fast enough, you can never get to a point where you say death is the humane solution to temporary overcrowding. You sort of muscle your way through those problems by reaching out to the community.
But let’s say I had to make the choice — and I’m only saying this for the sake of argument, ignoring all the strategies you can use to avoid that choice, such as off-site adoption programs, expanding foster care, staggering intakes, helping people overcome the challenges that might cause them to surrender an animal, and working with community groups to expand the safety net. But if it really came down to a choice between killing and not taking the animal in, then the ethical choice would be not to take in the animal.
Sandberg: If shelters turn away animals, won’t some of those animals likely be killed by their owners in less-humane ways?
Winograd: If people are going to be brutal to their animals, there is no reason for them to bring them to the shelter. They can dump the animals on the side of the road. People bring cats and dogs to shelters because they think, rightly or wrongly — in many cases wrongly — that these places are filled with animal lovers who will do everything in their power to save the animal. I think if you just tell those people, “Look, we can’t take your animal right now. There’s no room, and we don’t want to kill him. Can you hold on to him for a couple of days or weeks until we have space?” the vast majority of people will agree to do that. If one doesn’t, then you take that animal. But most people will keep the animal rather than see him die, and this allows you to stagger the intake and address any concerns about overcrowding.
Sandberg: For someone who talks so much of death, you often sound incredibly optimistic about how far we’ve come in accepting companion animals into our homes and the prospects for No Kill.
Winograd: We’re spending more than $50 billion a year on our dogs and cats in this country, even when the economy is in a financial tailspin. We give hundreds of millions to animal-related charities. The HSUS and the ASPCA are among the largest charities in the U.S. In fact, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, giving to animal-related causes is the fastest-growing segment in American philanthropy.
Once you get rid of the myths and take stock of the resources around us, it’s an incredibly optimistic picture of a culture that is crazy about animals, that spends an enormous sum of money on them. When a shelter director is truly passionate about saving lives and committed to implementing the programs and services that make lifesaving possible, it doesn’t take ten years to get to No Kill; it doesn’t take five years to get to No Kill. You succeed overnight. Of the approximately 160 communities out there saving between 90 and 99 percent of all animals, the vast majority did so in six months or less because the public was willing to help. If anything, the general public is more humane, more responsible, and more passionate about animals than the people who work in these organizations that are supposed to set the standard for our relationship with animals.
Sandberg: What is your overarching philosophy regarding animals?
Winograd: My wife and I always ask ourselves, “If I were an animal, what would I want?” It sounds silly, but that really is our golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” applies to animals as well as humans. If you were a dog in the shelter, and somebody told you, “I’m either going to stick you in this gas chamber, where you are going to suffer horrifically for the next twenty or thirty minutes and then die, or we’re going to adopt you out to the next person who comes in, and you’re going to take your chances with the quality of the home that person provides,” each and every one of us would say, “I’ll take my chances with the adoption.” Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t screen for adoptions. We can and should. It just means we need to take killing off the table. It shouldn’t even be an option.
Sandberg: How did you arrive at the 90-percent-or-better figure that’s become the baseline used to define No Kill?
Winograd: When the San Francisco SPCA ended the killing of healthy dogs and cats, it coined a term that I’ve since come to reject, which is “adoptable.” As we got more publicity for No Kill, as more communities began to achieve success, a lot of shelters that were still killing animals became the target of criticism. In order to deflect the criticism, they claimed they were now No Kill, too, but instead of saving the lives of the animals, they simply narrowed the definition of “adoptable.” They could claim to be No Kill but continue killing the same number of animals as they always had by classifying those they killed as “unadoptable.” So I decided to switch from labels to numeric standards by looking at the results from the best-performing shelters in the country. And that’s where I got the 90 percent figure.
It was a big step forward, but yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s status quo. Now 90 percent has become dogma all its own, which I never intended it to be. There are shelters that are killing healthy feral cats or animals with treatable conditions, and they call themselves “No Kill” because they are saving 90 percent. They think they are allowed to kill some animals as long as they stay above that threshold. Given how far the movement has come and the advances in both veterinary medicine and behavioral medicine, the percentage of savable animals is higher. There are communities that are saving 99 percent of their animals, killing only those who are truly suffering.
While we should celebrate those that are reaching 90 percent, the 90 percent communities should not rest on their laurels. They should reach higher. For one thing, No Kill shouldn’t apply just to dogs and cats but to all species that enter shelters, including hamsters and bunnies and wild animals like pigeons. We should widen the safety net.
And the programs and services that help eliminate the killing of healthy and treatable companion animals should be constantly reevaluated. I wrote in my book Redemption that aggressive dogs should be killed, but is that really true? What about sanctuary care? I wrote that hopelessly ill animals should be killed, but what about those who aren’t suffering? If they have a good quality of life, why not put them into hospice care rather than kill them?
There was a time when I would have agreed with the notion that you can’t adopt out a sick animal. When I was running the Tompkins County shelter, I’d have said that sick animals should be put in an infirmary or in foster care until they’re healthy — and then you adopt them out. It never occurred to me that I could give the adopter the medicine and let him or her treat the animal at home. If you do proper screening and you trust the person, getting the animal out of the inherently stressful shelter environment will actually aid the healing process.
Right now No Kill shelters can still perform euthanasia, but we follow the strict dictionary definition of that term, which is to put to death someone who is irredeemably suffering. I believe, however, that we are going to get to a point where No Kill will literally mean “no animal is put to death.” I think that’s the direction we’re moving in. Even if we don’t believe we can get there, we can strive to get as close as possible.
We often look back at the practices of previous generations and call them “dinosaurs.” We should be striving not to be called that ourselves by the next generation, but we shouldn’t be surprised if we are. In fact, I would welcome it. If they call me a dinosaur, it means they’ve pushed the envelope of lifesaving even farther than I could imagine.
Sandberg: Earlier you called the idea that there are too many animals and not enough homes a “myth.” What is the source of that myth?
Winograd: That has been the excuse for many decades, but in the 1970s the HSUS, the American Humane Association, and the ASPCA all got together for the first time in Chicago and promulgated that view to shelters across the country. They claimed that there were too many animals and not enough homes, and they said the solution was to kill the excess. Local shelters operated under the same belief. At the end of every day, when they closed their doors, they would tally the number of animals who had come in and the number of animals who had gone out, and if more animals had come in than had gone out, they concluded that there were more animals than homes, and they killed the differential. It wasn’t something that was subject to proof, because they accepted the need for killing and rationalized it backward.
These were animal-welfare organizations. The assumption was that all the people who worked for them loved animals, or else why would they choose that line of work? If there were an alternative available, surely they would take it, and they would leave no stone unturned if it might mean a different outcome for the animal. So if they were killing animals, the conventional wisdom was that there was no alternative. That’s how we’d been operating, until San Francisco ended the killing of healthy dogs and cats, and then Tompkins County went one step further and achieved No Kill.
We never actually looked at all the data. We knew what the supply of animals was because we saw the number coming into shelters, but nobody ever asked what the demand for animals was. And if you are going to argue a supply-demand imbalance and kill animals because of it, you had better know the demand side of the equation. Now we do. Studies show that roughly 23.5 million Americans get a new animal every year. Of those 23.5 million, we know that roughly 6 to 7 million are already committed to adopting from a shelter, rescuing from the streets, or buying from a breeder or other nonshelter source. That leaves roughly 17 million people who have not decided where their next pet will come from, and studies show they can be influenced to adopt from a shelter. So we just need to convince some of those 17 million undecided future pet owners to adopt the 3 million animals who are dying in shelters annually. In other words, the homes are out there. Shelters that actively market their animals, and keep the animals alive long enough to get them into those homes, are able to adopt their way out of killing.
If anything, the general public is more humane, more responsible, and more passionate about animals than the people who work in these organizations that are supposed to set the standard for our relationship with animals.
Sandberg: If people rescue more animals from shelters, great, but what about the pets those 3 million people would have bought elsewhere? Aren’t they still being bred? So isn’t there at least some overpopulation now?
Winograd: You’re essentially saying that as long as there is a market for commercially bred animals, we should continue to kill shelter animals, because if we get people to adopt from shelters, then where will these other animals go? The question ignores the fact that the market for animals is not just holding steady: it’s growing every year. It also ignores the fact that the demand for animals exceeds supply. Both shelter animals and animals from other sources can be absorbed without making a trade-off between killing one or the other. As we comprehensively put new strategies into place, we can save them both. In addition, as the market demand for shelter animals goes up, the supply of commercially bred animals will go down. We saw that in San Francisco during the height of our success there, when stores that sold commercially bred animals declined in number and then disappeared. As San Francisco moved away from its No Kill initiative, the trend reversed.
There’s a shelter in Davidson County, North Carolina, with a 96 percent rate of killing cats. On top of that, it puts animals of different species into the gas chamber together. Despite this, the HSUS gave it an award in 2012, calling it a “Shelter We Love.”
Sandberg: So you’re focusing on increasing demand for pets, whereas animal-protection agencies have focused more on decreasing supply. Would you say that is part of the conflict between yourself and those agencies?
Winograd: The difference comes down to the fact that they want to continue killing in the interim while promising that, by spaying and neutering, we’ll achieve No Kill at some point in the mythical future. The No Kill movement has proven that we don’t need to do that. We can save them all right now, even while we work to reduce supply in order to make it easier to save them in perpetuity. If you look at the communities that have ended the killing, they’ve done it through increased adoptions, and the vast majority achieved No Kill even before a comprehensive spay-and-neuter program was in place.
Having said all that, the model I advocate does include lowering the supply through low-cost, high-volume spaying and neutering. It would be better if fewer animals were entering shelters, because that would make the lifesaving endeavor easier and more sustainable, and it would mean more resources could be directed toward bettering the lives of shelter animals.
Sandberg: Some say we face a regional overpopulation problem: too many animals in the South. Do you disagree?
Winograd: Initially the shelters that kill claimed there were too many animals and not enough homes. Now that we’ve proven that to be false, they’ve switched to calling it a “regional problem,” saying you can do No Kill only in the North and West. But we have No Kill communities in Southern states as well, such as Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, and Virginia. We’re seeing them in both urban and rural areas, liberal and conservative ones. In the face of that, the claim that No Kill requires a discrete set of geographical circumstances falls apart.
Sandberg: You say the biggest obstacles to No Kill are the two largest humane organizations, the ASPCA and HSUS.
Winograd: The real roadblock to widespread implementation of No Kill is shelter directors who have dug in their heels and who are legitimized and defended by the ASPCA and HSUS. There’s a shelter in Davidson County, North Carolina, with a 96 percent rate of killing cats. On top of that, it puts animals of different species into the gas chamber together. Despite this, the HSUS gave it an award in 2012, calling it a “Shelter We Love.” The HSUS will tell you that No Kill is their goal, but their actions betray that goal, and their regional offices betray it. The same is true of the ASPCA. These organizations may tell you they want No Kill. They may tell you they’ve changed. But what they say and what they do are very different.
Sandberg: You’re unapologetic about widening the divisions in the animal-welfare movement.
Winograd: I often hear that we should all get along, that we’d do better if we fought our common enemy rather than fighting each other. But my goal, and the goal of the No Kill movement, is to end the killing of animals in shelters. You can’t say that I’m even in the same movement as a shelter director who kills in the face of alternatives, or the organizations that fight our efforts to end killing and reform abusive shelters. If we’re going to end the killing, then we have to oppose those who are perpetuating the killing.
Twenty years ago we were killing 17 million dogs and cats in shelters a year, and last year we killed 3.75 million, the lowest number ever. If you interview the humane groups today, they will tell you that it’s because of all the work they’ve done. But if you actually look at the declines in killing, you’ll see that they were the result of programs that the HSUS and ASPCA fought every step of the way. I still have a letter from the director of sheltering at the HSUS telling a shelter to kill animals rather than give them to rescue groups, which are nonprofits that adopt animals and try to find permanent homes for them. The HSUS opposed “TNR” — trap, neuter, and return — for feral cats, calling it “subsidized abandonment.” It once said that mass killing will always be the only “practical and humane” solution. It fought foster-care programs. It fought off-site adoption programs, calling them “sidewalk giveaways.” Two years ago it said shelters shouldn’t adopt out any animals in the fourth quarter of the year, to prevent impulse holiday adoptions. That one directive would have effectively condemned 1 million animals to death. Both organizations have fought against all the innovations that have saved lives, and now they take credit for the decline in killing. I have no doubt that when we achieve a No Kill nation, they’ll claim it was their idea all along, but at that point, with no animals being killed in shelters, I won’t care. They can have the credit.
Sandberg: What about shutting down puppy mills? Isn’t that something that you and the ASPCA and the rest can agree upon? Why not focus more effort there?
Winograd: If there is a bill pending in a state legislature or a city council that bans the sale of commercially bred animals, I will support that, and I’ve worked on legislation to ban the sale of commercially bred animals in pet stores, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also focus on shelter reform. Indeed, if we want to end the killing, we must. Regardless of whether puppy mills exist in the U.S., shelters will still kill animals unless we directly address that.
Sandberg: In your blog you have attacked your detractors as having personality disorders, addictions, and criminal records. You’ve accused the heads of animal-welfare organizations of suffering from mental illnesses that cause them to want to hurt animals, and you’ve said that people who work at shelters that kill animals are uncaring and lazy. Don’t you worry that this rhetoric divides you from many potential supporters of your work?
Winograd: I’ve never said all people who don’t support No Kill are butchers. I’ve never said they’re all drug addicts. I’ve never said they’re all lazy. I’ve noted that some individuals were. In one community the chief opponent of the No Kill initiative was arrested with a thousand drug pipes and drugs in his car, and I pointed that out in my blog. In another community one of the chief opponents to No Kill had three felony convictions. I noted that. In the case of PETA, this is an organization that seeks out and kills roughly two thousand animals a year; that promises to find animals homes only to kill those animals within minutes; that fights efforts to reform abusive shelters. I find those behaviors truly baffling unless you consider psychological causes. I’ve presented that case not for the sake of being controversial, and not for the purpose of making ad hominem attacks, but in an attempt to truly understand the mind of PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, who has called killing a dog or cat a “gift” to that animal. [Her exact statement is “PETA believes euthanasia is the kindest gift to a dog or cat unwanted and unloved.” — Ed.]
I tried to work with leaders of the large national groups for years before I came to the inescapable conclusion that they’re not interested in changing the status quo. In fact, they benefit from it. And if we’re ever going to change it ourselves, we need to understand what is motivating it, even if we don’t like the answer.
We have No Kill communities in both blue-leaning and red-leaning states. We have them in counties dominated by the Republican Party, as well as ones dominated by the Democrats. It’s as close to bipartisan as any issue in the U.S. today.
Sandberg: One of your heroes is Henry Bergh, the man who founded the ASPCA in the 1860s.
Winograd: Bergh is widely considered the father of the humane movement in North America. While on a carriage ride in St. Petersburg, Russia, he saw a peasant beating his draft horse, and, after ordering the man to stop, Bergh had an epiphany. He returned to New York City — a city that was built on the backs of suffering animals and in desperate need of reform — and in 1866 he founded the ASPCA. He was also instrumental in passing an anticruelty law, and his new organization was given the power to enforce it. In one year alone he prosecuted twelve cases of cruelty by city dogcatchers. Indeed, Bergh wanted to “abolish the pound.” He was a thorn in the side of the pound keepers, who, like shelter directors in many American cities today, found it easier to kill animals than to save them.
After Bergh’s death, the ASPCA accepted the pound contract, and it became the city’s leading killer of dogs and cats. Unfortunately a lot of humane societies and SPCAs around the country followed suit. By the mid-twentieth century, all the organization’s original anticruelty platforms — advocating for individual animals, trying to reform the pound — disappeared as they took over the pound work.
Sandberg: Didn’t these organizations at least use more-humane methods to kill animals than the old dog pounds?
Winograd: To an extent. The thinking was that if they ran the pound, they would do it more humanely and reduce the killing as much as possible. And maybe that was true in the short term. Maybe. But what ended up happening was that animal lovers fled those organizations, because they didn’t want to kill animals, and they were replaced by bureaucrats, with none of the zeal for innovation that had characterized the movement’s early founders. Instead working at an SPCA became a job, rather than a mission.
Sandberg: Does No Kill have much support among conservatives who favor limited government?
Winograd: Fiscal conservatives should approve, because shelters that save more lives don’t need bigger budgets. Giving animals to rescue groups rather than killing them saves California taxpayers $1.8 million every year. The more adoptions you do, the more income you bring in, and the less money you spend on killing animals and disposing of their bodies. Working with volunteers and rescue groups allows you to stretch your dollars even farther. In other words, the programs of the No Kill Equation are not only effective at saving lives; they are cost-effective, too.
The most common mistake advocates make when they go to their city council or mayor is to talk only about saving lives. We need to talk about reduced costs and increased revenue, too. Reno, Nevada, went from five thousand adoptions to ten thousand. Let’s look at the economic impact of those additional five thousand adoptions. Each new pet owner will spend an average of $1,100 a year on his or her pet, and that means more tax revenue for the community. It’s an economic boost to local pet stores, groomers, veterinarians, and boarding kennels. No Kill is also consistent with public health and safety, because owning pets improves the quality of people’s lives and their interactions with one another. We win on so many issues beyond saving the lives of dogs and cats.
We have No Kill communities in both blue-leaning and red-leaning states. We have them in counties dominated by the Republican Party, as well as ones dominated by the Democrats. It’s as close to bipartisan as any issue in the U.S. today, and it proves that, despite all the disagreements that separate Americans, people of all walks of life want to build a better world for animals.
Sandberg: Do you feel that people who operate shelters that do kill animals should be held accountable for their actions? If so, what would that look like?
Winograd: To the extent that animals in shelters are being abused, absolutely. Abuse is abuse, regardless of whether it is happening in a private home or a public shelter. But with regard to killing, our goal has never been to have accountability so we can punish people. Our goal has been to have accountability for the purpose of changing the system. Animal sheltering is a field where directors can fail 60 percent of the time, 70 percent of the time, 80 percent of the time, even 90 percent of the time and still keep their jobs. There are shelters out there that are failing 99 percent of the time — meaning they kill 99 percent of animals rather than implement lifesaving alternatives. Can you imagine any other field where directors fail that often and are not removed from their positions? We wouldn’t allow it in the private sector, and we shouldn’t allow it in government. It is ethically wrong to say it is OK when it comes to animals.
Right now shelters are the fiefdoms of those who run them. If shelter directors want to kill animals rather than work with rescue groups, it’s legal for them to do so. If shelter directors want to kill animals just so they don’t have to feed them, it’s legal for them to do so. If shelter directors want to kill owner-surrendered animals literally within minutes of arrival, without ever making them available for adoption, it’s perfectly legal in all states but one — California. There are basic neglect and anticruelty laws, and there are laws governing the holding periods for strays (which are minimal), and there are laws governing the handling of the drugs used to poison animals in shelters. Aside from that, there are no regulations. Shelters can be run in any way the directors want. That’s why you might see a shelter saving 99 percent of its animals while one in a neighboring community is killing 99 percent of its animals. We want our hospitals to meet minimum requirements of quality care; why shouldn’t we want that for shelters, which are another type of agency that holds the power over life and death? Why should animal shelters not be geared toward saving lives?
Sandberg: You’re fighting to institutionalize No Kill through legislation.
Winograd: First we need to get the uncaring people out of shelters and put the right people in there. But even that isn’t enough. Ultimately the goal is to eliminate the discretion that shelter directors have. Why is Austin saving 92 percent of its animals now when a few years ago it was killing more animals than it was saving? Because shelter directors have discretion. We need to pass legislation that forces those directors to implement No Kill programs, which are reasonable, cost-effective, and save lives. If we give No Kill the force of law, we’ll sustain it no matter who’s running the shelters.
Sandberg: In how many states is your legislation pending?
Winograd: In 2011, it was introduced in New York, Florida, West Virginia, Virginia, Minnesota, Texas, and Georgia. I draft these model laws and then give activists guidance on how to pass them.
Sandberg: You and your wife, Jennifer, recently coauthored a cookbook titled All American Vegan. Are you broadening your advocacy to include farm animals?
Winograd: I’ve been a vegan for twenty-plus years, but I mostly keep my No Kill advocacy and my vegan advocacy separate, because I’m a firm believer that you can tackle only one evil at a time. If someone asks me about being a vegan, I’m forthright with him or her, but I will take animal lovers as they are and ask them to help me as far as they want to go. Hopefully I will encourage a more humane diet by example, and I believe the relationship between Americans and their animal companions can open the door to larger animal-rights issues. In their daily interactions with their dogs and cats, people experience an animal’s personality, emotions, and capacity for both great joy and great suffering. They learn empathy for animals. Someone who is compassionate — and passionate — about their companion animals can, over time and with the right information, become supportive of efforts to help animals who are exploited and abused on farms, in circuses, in research facilities, and elsewhere.
Sandberg: Lately you’ve been consulting with No Kill supporters in other countries.
Winograd: At last year’s No Kill conference in Washington, DC, we had shelter directors from Turkey, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, Germany, France, and Japan. So we’re making an impact globally. Given our fifteen-year head start, it’s no surprise the U.S. is ahead of other countries on this issue. Nonetheless the race is on to see who will be the first No Kill nation, and the outcome is far from clear.
Sandberg: As social movements go, No Kill has brought some pretty fundamental change in a relatively brief period.
Winograd: This is a movement that was conceived, implemented, and accomplished in one generation: we’re the generation that questioned the killing, we’re the generation that figured out how to stop it, and we will be the generation that ends it for good. They’ve been killing animals for 150 years. We’ve been saving them for fifteen. But in those fifteen years we have completely redefined the agenda in sheltering.
We also have other factors working in our favor. Most social movements throughout history, for example, have had to overcome public prejudice to convince people of the rightness of their cause. That’s an obstacle we don’t face. We already have the hearts and minds of the population on our side. Once we eliminate the obstacles to success — namely, rampant lack of caring in shelters and a dysfunctional sheltering system — we’ve got 100 million animal lovers in our corner. Victory is inevitable.
I recently went to Lansing, Michigan, to deliver the keynote address at a No Kill conference there, and I met directors whose shelters have been No Kill for a year or two. Some were animal lovers who’d never before considered taking a job in a shelter, because they didn’t want to kill animals, but then they read my book and said, “I can do this!”
One woman told me she had just saved her seven thousandth life. She’d never before worked with animals, but somebody had handed her a copy of Redemption, and she’d started a rescue group that has adopted seven thousand animals from kill shelters. That’s the reason I do this work. I make no money. My wife and I have one car. We share a cellphone. We never go on vacation. We hardly ever eat out. My father-in-law says I’m the only person he’s ever met whose goal seems to be to earn a smaller paycheck each year. I don’t care. Sure, I like money and wish I had more of it, but to hear that there are seven thousand animals alive because of a book I wrote is priceless.