This article is from Nathan J. Winograd is the director of the national No Kill Advocacy Center and the author of three books on animal shelters. Learn more at nathanwinograd.com.
Several years ago, my wife was given a tote bag purchased at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) gift shop in New York City. The bag has an “Andy Warhol” theme, and, therefore, not surprisingly, it also has a sense of humor. It’s made of pink and green striped canvas with a large Campbell’s Tomato Soup can–arguably Warhol’s most iconic work–printed on its front and back. Running up the straps is the famous Warhol quote, “I am a deeply superficial person.” Inside, at the end of a long, silver chain is a soup can shaped coin purse. But the real gem–the pièce de résistance–is what was tucked discreetly inside an inner pocket of the bag: a photocopy of a 1956 letter written to Andy Warhol by the then Director of MOMA Collections, rejecting the donation of one of his drawings.
It’s a masterfully written letter, gracious in actual word choice, but dripping in sarcasm. You can infer just how audacious the Committee considered Warhol to be for daring to suggest that his art belonged in their venerable institution. Little did they know the joke was on them; as Warhol’s paintings have recently sold for as high as $100 million, and MOMA now boasts over 130 Warhol pieces in its collection.
“Last week our Committee… held its first meeting of the fall season and had a chance to study your drawing entitled Shoe which you so generously offered as a gift to our museum,” begins the letter. “I regret that I must report to you that the Committee decided, after careful consideration, that they ought not to accept it for our Collection.” It then goes on to explain that because storage space is limited, they had to decline a work that, in their words, would be “shown only infrequently.” The letter ends with the most ironic post script in the history of letter writing: “P.S. The drawing may be picked up from the Museum at your convenience.” At his convenience?! Where? At coat check?
Given the perspective afforded by hindsight, the letter is, of course, comical. And kudos to MOMA for being able to laugh at, indeed, fess up to, what in the end was a monumental blunder on their part. As art lovers, we can laugh along with the Museum and even appreciate their self-deprecating humor. We can forgive, forget, and move on, because in the world of art, when non-profits such as the Museum of Modern Art screw up, when they become insular, short-sighted, or fail to keep informed or open minded about the evolving field in which they are supposed to be the “experts,” no one dies as a result. Egos are bruised, money is lost, perhaps careers are stalled, but no one dies. And true genius lives on to vindicate itself–and even settle the score–at a later date.
The same, however, cannot be said about all non-profits. For some, the stakes in which they engage are so high, that their advocacy–when ill informed, antiquated and regressive–can have harmful, even deadly results. They, therefore, have a greater responsibility to stay informed and on top of the innovations within their field. They deserve to be–and must be–held to a higher standard. This is why the recent recommendation by the Humane Society of the United States telling animal shelters that whether they choose to implement lifesaving programs or not is entirely within their discretion, is such a betrayal not only of their mission, but, more importantly, the animals on whose behalf they claim to speak.
It is especially intolerable because it has been almost two decades since the cure for the “disease” of shelter killing has been discovered and successfully implemented. Animals enter shelters for a variety of reasons and with a variety of needs, but for over 100 years, the “solution” has been the same: adopt a few and kill the rest. The “No Kill Equation” model of sheltering provides a humane, life-affirming means of responding to every type of animal entering a shelter, and every type of need those animals might have. Some animals entering shelters are free-living cats who are not socialized to humans. At traditional shelters, they are killed, but at a No Kill shelter, they are neutered and released back to their habitats. Some animals entering shelters are motherless puppies and kittens. At traditional shelters, these animals are killed as well. At a No Kill shelter, they are sent into a foster home to provide around-the-clock care until they are eating on their own and old enough to be adopted. Some animals have medical or behavior issues. At a traditional shelter, they are killed. At a No Kill shelter, they are provided with rehabilitative care and then adopted. Whatever the situation, the No Kill Equation provides a lifesaving alternative that replaces killing. And when a shelter puts them all together, and implements them comprehensively, they achieve No Kill.
Through the No Kill Equation, every healthy and treatable animal entering a shelter can have a new beginning instead of the end of the line they face, if those shelters commit themselves wholeheartedly to building the infrastructure necessary to create and sustain a No Kill nation. We do that by institutionalizing the series of programs and services which replace killing and which have allowed for overnight success in the many shelters across the country that have already dedicated themselves to that end; programs like foster care, offsite adoptions, socialization and behavior rehabilitation, thorough cleaning and care standards, medical care both as prevention and for rehabilitation, working with rescue groups, neuter and release, pet retention, progressive field services/proactive redemption, marketing and adoptions, and of course, progressive and imaginative leadership.
Today, hundreds of cities and towns across America are serviced by shelters saving between 90% and 99% of all animals because they are doing so, while some shelters are killing as many as 99% of the animals because they are not. Can anyone with even a hint of compassion actually say it is better to kill baby kittens than bottle feed them? Kill animals rather than promote adoptions? Kill animals rather than work with rescue groups? Of course not, especially since implementing alternatives to killing is more cost-effective, and in many cases, cheaper than killing animals. Tragically, however, many shelter directors have decided that it is better to kill baby kittens, to kill animals despite rescue groups ready, willing and able to save them, and to kill animals rather than keeping them alive long enough to find homes. In fact, some shelters have no adoption hours, are not open to the public for adoptions, and refuse to do any adoptions, choosing to kill the animals instead.
We now have a proven solution to shelter killing and it is not difficult, expensive nor beyond practical means to achieve. And the large national animal protection groups should be working feverishly to ensure that the model is replicated in every community in the country. But they are not. Instead, after admitting that these programs are crucial to save lives, they tell shelters that not only do they “remain at the discretion of each community to choose whether and how to implement” but that they should not be criticized for refusing to do so, while millions of animals continue to lose their lives in shelters every year precisely because those shelters have chosen not to. Worse, they tell activists that they should not try to force shelters to implement those programs, even though doing so would save the lives of the animals they are currently killing. In other words, HSUS is telling shelters that these programs are necessary to save lives, but they do not have to do them and can choose to kill the animals instead.
Today, thanks to activists who succeeded in introducing and passing a law, it is illegal for a California shelter to kill animals when non-profit rescue groups are willing to save them. Before the California law went into effect, only 12,526 animals were being transferred from shelters to rescue groups statewide in a given year. The rest were being killed at largely public expense because many shelters were openly hostile to rescue groups. That number now stands at 58,939–a 370% increase in annual lifesaving, all at no cost to taxpayers. In fact, it saves taxpayers the cost of killing animals and discarding their remains. And since shelters are permitted to charge an adoption fee, it brings in badly needed revenues: potentially millions of dollars annually to shelter coffers across the state. Ironically, this is a law that HSUS opposed and lambasted, in effect telling legislators that over 40,000 additional animals every year were better off dead.
They continue to oppose similar legislation in other states, including Florida and New York, despite surveys showing that 63% and 71% of rescue groups respectively have reported being turned away from shelters in those states, which then turned around and killed the very animals the rescue groups offered to save. When activists sought a San Francisco ordinance to require local shelters to implement alternatives to the killing of dogs and cats for reasons that included being shy, scared, or too fat, HSUS sided with the shelter, explicitly stating that shelters should not be regulated as they are the “experts” who know best. When California sought to roll back protections for animals, HSUS agreed with the decision. And just this month, HSUS and other groups released a report telling California shelters that despite the fact that the programs of the No Kill Equation save lives, they need not implement them, and cautioning activists not to seek legislation that would force them to do so. In short, the decision as to whether or not animals should be saved remains, according to HSUS, a voluntary one.
Why? Having been given a free ride to continue killing in the face of readily-available, common sense and reasonable lifesaving alternatives for so long and to blame others (i.e., the “irresponsible public”) for the killing that they do, shelters do not want to be held accountable. Tragically, they have been allowed to get away with this intransigence because groups like HSUS which should be their fiercest critics for failing to do so, have instead chosen to provide them political cover, revealing a muddled understanding of what should be their mission: acting as lobbyists for the animals who are being killed in shelters instead of lobbyists for the shelters which are killing them.
We cannot achieve nor sustain a No Kill nation unless shelters implement the No Kill Equation, and that means mandating how shelters operate. For No Kill success to be achieved, widespread and long lasting, we must give shelter animals the rights and protections afforded by law. Every successful social movement results in legal protections that codify expected conduct and provide protection against future conduct that violates normative values. We need to regulate shelters in the same way we regulate hospitals and other agencies which hold the power over life and death.
It is time for the animal protection groups to move beyond the stymieing fiction that the entrenchment within the animal sheltering industry to innovation and improvement can be overcome through voluntary, rather than mandated means. Doing so is premised under the most tenacious lie that continues to allow for the killing of millions of animals every year: that all of those working in animal protection will willingly do what is necessary to stop killing, without being forced, by law, to do so if we just educate them on what to do. Not only are the programs of the No Kill Equation well-known and largely obvious, this approach has never worked, and the result has been the needless deaths of millions of companion animals every year. Nonetheless, HSUS and its acolytes pretend otherwise; clinging to their regressive, “deeply superficial” policies, to the animals’ continued peril.