The No Kill Movement and Pet Population

This is not so much a commentary piece as it is a collection of excerpts designed to explore certain aspects of the No Kill movement. I hope it will inspire some readers to read and learn more about this important issue.

The Myth of Pet Overpopulation:

[Nathan Winograd] authored a book called “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America” that challenges the very foundation of nearly every theory and principle of shelter management in this country: The idea that there are more pets dying in shelters each year than homes available for those pets.

In fact, with between 4 and 5 million dogs and cats being killed in shelters nationwide every year, denying the existence of pet overpopulation seems ridiculous. If there aren’t more pets than homes, why are so many animals ending up in shelters in the first place?

Conventional wisdom tells us it’s because of irresponsible pet owners who aren’t willing to work to keep their pets in their homes. It’s a failure of commitment, of caring, and of the human/animal bond. If fewer pets were born, there would be fewer coming into shelters. If people cared more about their pets, they wouldn’t give them up so easily, would spay and neuter them so they wouldn’t reproduce, and wouldn’t let them stray.

But Nathan Winograd asks us to take a fresh look at these issues while keeping in mind one fundamental premise:

Winograd’s argument is simply this: Based on data from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, and the latest census, there are more than enough homes for every dog and cat being killed in shelters every year.

He breaks down the numbers further in the comments section here:

Current estimates from a wide range of groups indicate that between 4 million and 5 million dogs and cats are killed in shelters every year. Of these, given data on the prevalence of aggression in dogs in society (based on dog bite extrapolation) and save rates at the best performing shelters in the country from diverse regions and demographics, about 90% of all shelter animals are “savable.” The remainder are either hopelessly ill or injured or vicious dogs whose prognosis for rehabilitation is poor or grave. That would put the number of savable dogs and cats at roughly 3.6 on the low end and 4.5 on the high end of the spectrum.

But even at the high end, it means that we only need to increase the market for shelter pets by 2-3% in order to eliminate all population control killing. Today, there are about 165 million dogs and cats in homes. Of those, about 20 percent come from shelters. Three percent of 165 million equates to 4.9 million, more than all the savable animals being killed in shelters. This is a combination of what statisticians call “stock” and “flow.” In layman’s terms, some of the market will be replacement life (someone has a pet die or run away and they want another one), some of that will be expanding markets (someone doesn’t have a pet but wants one, or they have pets but want another one). But it all comes down to increasing marketshare (where they get their pets from).

These same demographics also tell us that every year about twice as many people are looking to bring a new dog into their home than the total number of dogs entering shelters, and every year more people are looking to bring a new cat into their home than the total number of cats entering shelters. On top of that, not all animals entering shelters need adoption: some will be lost strays who will be reclaimed, others are feral cats who need neuter and release, some will be vicious dogs or hopelessly ill/injured and will be killed, and so on.

Specifically addressing Southern shelters with our notoriously high kill rates, Winograd has this to say:

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.

And for those who remain unconvinced, something:

But let’s put this aside. Let’s assume “pet overpopulation” is real and insurmountable. To do that, we have to ignore the data. We have to assume that groups as diverse as the AVMA, AAHA, APPMA, Animal People, the No Kill Advocacy Center, even HSUS who fundamentally agree on the range of numbers are all wrong. This is a stretch given that we disagree about most everything else. We also have to ignore the experiences of successful communities. We have to pretend they do not exist. How does this change the calculus?

Shelters nationally are killing roughly half or more of all incoming animals. That puts us at the 50 yard line. And although the evidence is fairly overwhelming to the contrary, let’s say the Naysayers are right and we can never cross the goal line because of “pet overpopulation.” What is wrong with getting, say, to the 20 yard line or 10 yard line? If all shelters put in place the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, the model which brought rates of shelter to killing to communities from San Francisco, CA to Ithaca, NY; from Reno, NV to Charlottesville VA, and points in between to all time lows, we can save millions of lives nationally, regardless if we ever achieve a No Kill nation. Even if you do not believe that a No Kill nation is inevitable as I do, that is worth doing and worth doing without delay. Because every year we delay, indeed every day we delay, the body count increases.

Additional reading:

Nathan Winograd’s book “Redemption

NAIA’s “Redefining Pet Overpopulation

Pet Underpopulation” by Loretta Baughan

What are animal shelters for?” on Pet Connection

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