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Pet Overpopulation: Myth, Meme and Zeitgeist

Updated: Jun 7, 2019

Myth: Noun - A fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology Meme: Noun - A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another Zeitgeist: Noun - The spirit of the time; the taste and outlook characteristic of a period or generation

In 2005 a grotesque news story broke about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Two employees for the national animal rights group were charged with 31 counts each of felony animal cruelty after authorities found the bodies of 18 animals just “rescued” by PETA in a dumpster. Thirteen more dead animals were found in a “euthanasia van” registered to the organization. As this disturbing story unfolded, more shocking information came to light: the animals killed by PETA staff were generally healthy and some were in no danger at the time they were killed. One group of animals, a mother cat and her kittens, were turned over to PETA by a veterinary clinic where they were available for adoption. The felines were healthy and well cared for by all accounts. To get the vet clinic to release the cats PETA told the veterinary staff they planned to find homes for the felines. However, the kitties were killed in one of PETA’s mobile euthanasia vans moments later -- right there in the parking lot. The bodies of the cats were some of those found in dumpsters. More shocking still: this was apparently not an isolated case of fringe employees going off-script. USDA documents were uncovered showing that PETA consistently kills between 88% and 97% of the animals it “rescues” each year. When all was said and done cruelty charges against the PETA employees were dropped. Because they used lethal injection to kill the critters, and because lethal injection is classified as an appropriate means to dispatch unwanted pets, prosecutors could not make cruelty charges stick. Ultimately, the only convictions that resulted from this case were trespassing and illegal disposal of animal carcasses in dumpsters. Rather than distancing themselves from the horrendous acts of these employees PETA called the deaths compassionate and necessary. PETA blamed the deaths of these animals on “pet overpopulation,” a national tragedy that many animal welfare advocates say results in deaths of about 4 million healthy dogs and cats in animal shelters every year. “Pet overpopulation” is a phrase repeated with much regularity by those who work and volunteer in animal shelters and rescue groups, so much so that the notion that there are too many animals and not enough homes has generally not been questioned. The single piece of data used to define the problem has been the numbers of animals killed in shelters. Rarely has the question been asked, “what if these deaths are caused by something else?” Data from a variety of sources has been pointing to the fact that deaths in animal shelters are not due to a problem of animal overpopulation. It suggests the actual problem may be more insidious. The most compelling information suggesting that pet overpopulation is a myth comes out of a study jointly commissioned by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Maddie’s Fund and the Ad Council. It concluded that every year about 21 million families bring a new dog or cat into their homes. To put that number into perspective, the total number of dogs and cats that enter animal shelters is around 8 million. Because not all animals that enter animal shelters need new homes - some need to be reunited with their families and a small percentage (around 5%) need to be humanely euthanized due to terminal illness or severe behavior problems - the actual number of animals entering shelters that need new homes each year is estimated to be between 4 million and 5 million. In other words, there are about four times as many homes looking to acquire a new dog or cat than there are dogs and cats needing new homes. While those figures are compelling, they are not the end of the story. The same study found that there are reasons people do not adopt animals from shelters or rescue groups. These reasons include, but are not limited to the following:

• Shelters are often located in inconvenient places, far from where people live, work and play. • Many shelters are not open during after work hours. • Adoption criteria at shelters and rescue organizations are often overly restrictive and complicated. • Shelters are often perceived as dirty, smelly and depressing places that people do not want to visit.

For these and other reasons people end up acquiring their pets from other sources. In other words, deaths in shelters are not so much a problem relating to the quantity of animals in the community; there is a problem with the marketing and availability of homeless pets. If shelters take animals in faster than they adopt them, a SHELTER overpopulation problem occurs. Shelter overpopulation can be exacerbated if shelters are also “rescuing” animals that do not need rescue, which, it turns out, is common practice. But these facts don't seem to get in the way of animal welfare organizations making up data to justify killing. Years after the PETA massacre (which continues to this day), that organization continues to kill upwards of 97% of the animals they "rescue". Additionally, other groups continue to put forth false information in a misguided effort to justify killing. Take this quote from the American Humane Association, as an example... many "animal welfare" organizations cite American Humane Association (AHA) as saying:

“For every unwanted animal in the U.S. to have a home, each man, woman and child would have to adopt 15 dogs and 45 cats each year. There are not enough loving homes to adopt and care for all the abandoned pets in the United States."

Many organizations, including credible news sources quote these figures. If they were true, the situation would be horrific. But, the fact of the matter is that there are more than 300 million people in the USA. If each of them adopted 60 pets (15 + 45) that would amount to more than 18 billion (yes, BILLION) adoptions required every year, when there are only 8 million animals entering animal shelters. Animal shelters apparently need to invent these sorts of new math statistics to explain why "pet overpopulation" necessitates that they kill animals, rather than pointing their fingers at their own practices and policies. Throughout much of the United States, for example, allowing domestic cats to roam outside unconfined is legal. In spite of this fact, people who call animal shelters after having found a healthy free-roaming feline are frequently encouraged to catch the cats and bring them to their local humane society or SPCA. Many of these shelters have kill rates of more than 50% for felines, yet they continue to encourage people to bring them more cats, even if the cats don’t really need “rescue”. Policies like that result in a lot of unnecessary killing, according to a growing number of animal welfare advocates. Failed policies and leadership at animal shelters are to blame for high kill rates according to Nathan Winograd, founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center and author of the book Redemption: the Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America. According to Winograd, there are 10 basic programs shelters can implement to end the killing of healthy, adoptable companion animals. Furthermore, he says the change can happen almost overnight, so long as the shelters embrace the services he calls “The No Kill Equation”. Winograd is more than an armchair advocate. He served as the operations director at the San Francisco SPCA when their city was considered the safest in the nation for homeless pets. From California, Winograd took the programs to upstate, rural New York and implemented them in the open-admission Tompkins County SPCA. Immediately they surpassed the achievement of San Francisco and saved all healthy and adoptable pet and all pets that had treatable or manageable behavior or medical issues as well. Under Winograd’s leadership, Tompkins County went from killing large numbers of healthy companion animals to killing zero. For more than seven years shelters there have maintained a live release rate in excess of 90%. After Tompkins County, Winograd did it again and again in communities all over the United States. Duplicating the results in San Francisco and Tompkins County, shelters in places like Reno, Nevada and Charlottesville, Virginia simply stopped killing healthy animals. Winograd said, “All communities are uniform. They face the same problems. If they implement the programs that I call the No Kill Equation, they will achieve success.” The programs even work in communities that suffer from the worst social problems, he says. "They are drunk, uneducated and poor, but even they can achieve no kill." That could be the title of the story of Reno, Nevada. With a historically tourism-based economy, Reno has been especially hard-hit by the current economic downturn. Snow-covered tent cities have popped up to house the growing homeless human population in the city. The community ranks low in education, high in public drunkenness and is suffering from a host of other human social problems. Per capita, animal shelters in Reno take in about 3 times the national average. If ever there were a place where killing pets due to pet overpopulation were necessary, Reno could be it. However, on the contrary and much to the dismay of people who have excused killing in animal shelters as a “necessary evil”, Reno has one of the highest save rates for homeless pets in the nation. It has not always been that way. Not many years ago shelters in Reno and its surrounding Washoe County could have been described as blood baths. That changed when a new leader took the helm of the Nevada Humane Society and embraced Winograd’s paradigm. Contrast the Reno story with that of Contra Costa County, California: Situated near San Francisco this community consistently rates high in terms of economic stability, education and “livability”. It is a very affluent community with relatively low shelter intake per capita, a huge $10 million animal control budget. If ever there was a place that could end the killing of healthy pets in shelters, it should be Contra Costa County. Save rates in the community, however, are only about 60%. “When looking at the factors that bring about successful shelter outcomes,” said Winograd, “the most important one is a passionate leader at the animal shelter that is dedicated to life-saving rather than maintaining the status quo.” “For too long poor performing shelter directors have gotten away with blaming their failures on the boogeyman of pet overpopulation,” he added. “It is long past time for them to be held accountable for their outcomes.” Note: No Kill Learning can perform a shelter assessment for your organization, objectively measuring its efficacy relating to the 11 components of the No Kill Equation in order to improve your live release rate. For more information, visit this link or call (877) 799-9951.

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