Finding the Moral Courage to Stop Killing

Finding the Moral Courage to Stop Killing

Submitted by TNKN contributor Nathan Winograd

Over the past five years, several animal control shelters in communities across the United States have embraced not only the No Kill philosophy, but the programs and services which make it possible. As a result, they are achieving unprecedented lifesaving success, saving in excess of 90% of all impounded animals. Not only are death rates plummeting and adoptions skyrocketing in these communities, but these results have been achieved in a very short period of time-virtually overnight-proving that saving lives is less a function of any perceived pet overpopulation, but rather of a shelter’s leadership and practices.

In the history of animal protection, this news is seminal, as it harkens the fulfillment of the chief goal of the companion animal movement-ending the killing of savable animals in U.S. shelters. The formula for saving lives of over four million dogs and cats, and hundreds of thousands of other animals, has been discovered. And we should be working feverishly to ensure that this formula is replicated in every community across the country.

Instead, this No Kill success has not been met by celebration by those vested in killing, but by an entrenched defeatism. The response by bureaucrats who oversee the national infrastructure that is responsible for the killing of over four million dogs and cats, and hundreds of thousands of other animals annually in shelters is disturbing, but less surprising. Their “leadership,” their positions, their salaries, their fundraising, and their failures are being directly challenged by No Kill success and they are lashing out in order to protect themselves.

Unfortunately, many people in this movement have no language for success and remain steadfastly determined to find excuses for why present No Kill success cannot be replicated in their own community. No matter what information is offered, no matter how successful No Kill becomes, the answer for them remains: “It can’t happen here.” These people like to point to something unique, something peculiar about either the successful community or their own to downplay success elsewhere and claim that it holds no promise for animals entering shelters in their own community. Not only does that stop progress toward No Kill before it even starts, it is undeniably false.

When San Francisco achieved success by saving all healthy dogs and cats city and countywide in the mid-1990s, shelter directors and large national organizations across the country complacent with the status quo and threatened by emerging No Kill success said it could only be done in an urban community, not a rural one because of what they claimed were antiquated views of animals and poverty. When No Kill was achieved in rural Tompkins County, NY at an open door animal control shelter (93% save rate), they said it could not be done in the South for similar reasons. When it was achieved in the South in Charlottesville, VA at an open door animal control shelter (92% save rate), they said it could not be done in developing communities that are seeing tremendous population growth and urban sprawl because of the influx of new people and animals. The developing success in Reno, Nevada (one of the fastest growing counties in one of the fastest growing states)-a more than 50% drop in killing and doubling of the adoption rate in less than one year-despite 16,000 dogs and cats entering the system annually disproves that, too.

Yet these cities have either achieved No Kill, are a whisper away from doing so, or have begun moving aggressively in that direction by implementing the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. And they are not the only ones. Building the capacity to save lives, after years of failing to do so, may take time, but that does not obviate the fact that shelter killing is a result of shelter practices and not “pet overpopulation.” Furthermore, the argument that success in the South is precluded by some peculiarity of lack of caring is not only wrong, elitist and mean-spirited; it is simply another example of excuse making. It ignores success in rural Tompkins County. It ignores tremendous success being experienced in Charlottesville, Virginia, a community in the South. It goes against a study by a South Mississippi humane society that found 69 percent of people with unsterilized pets would get them spayed/neutered if it was free, a fact which is not surprising for a state with some of the lowest per capita income levels in the United States.

That is ultimately why the question of public vs. private shelter, urban vs. rural, or South vs. North is not relevant. The only relevant inquiry is whether the shelters are staffed by truly compassionate staff who are working tirelessly to rigorously implement the programs and services that save lives. And that is why any argument that “every community is unique” or its residents are particularly-or peculiarly-”irresponsible” is simply excuse making. The only relevant inquiry is whether the shelters are rigorously implementing the only national model which has achieved success-The No Kill Equation.

The time has come for animal advocates to broaden their understanding of why animals are really being killed in shelters, to stop accepting the excuses which rationalize the killing, and to adjust their advocacy accordingly. The animal protection movement must find the moral courage to stand up not only to shelters directors who refuse to change the way their shelters operate and to national organizations which legitimize the killing, but also to the Naysayers in our midst who ignore facts (or else choose to remain willfully ignorant of them) and champion defeatism by repeating the “it can’t happen here” mantra which provides regressive shelter directors the political cover they need to continue killing.

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