November 2009 Blog Home January 2010


21 posts from December 2009


December 15, 2009

Talk Back: Ending Euthanasia of Homeless Pets

Last week, I posted, in a series of three blogs, a Q&A between me and Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA and an innovator in the sheltering field who is working hard to eliminate the euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals. I mentioned the pioneering efforts of Ed Duvin and Richard Avanzino to challenge the acceptance of euthanasia as an inevitable consequence of sheltering work, while lamenting the divisive presence of a small number of individuals whose bitterness and malice do no credit to our cause and retard its progress. In the series, I omitted mention of so many individuals who have made invaluable contributions to the cause, but thanks to their tireless work of rescue, spay and neuter, and sheltering, there has been much progress. But much work remains. Today, I post some of your comments in response to the series.

Great interview. Robin Starr is doing a wonderful job and I know her efforts will lead to a lot of great things for the animals of Richmond. —Tony
Thank you so much for this three part interview with Robin Starr. Also, thank you for addressing the animosity and vitriol directed at you, personally, by some of the no-kill advocates. I've never understood this. —Dianne Rhodes
Wow, I just love your blog! I always get so much out of your messages, and I really enjoyed this interview with Robin Starr. As a long-time San Francisco resident, I was one of the supporters of Richard Avanzino when he took the San Francisco SPCA to its no-kill status. I still support my local SPCA, largely because of him—as a foster mom and as the source of vet care for my (rescued, of course!) kitty, BooBoo. The SPCA has always taken good care of us. Bless you for mentioning them—and Richard—in this article. —Victoria Rouse
Thanks for the great interview with Robin Starr. I have seen the people on both sides of the debate questioning the motives of those on the other side. It is not productive in the long run also in my opinion. From Henry Bergh, Ellen Glasgow, the leaders of the HSUS for over 50 years and other mentors before Robin I am personally learning a lot in these issues. For full disclosure I am proud that I feel like I am a part of the Richmond SPCA through my various activities I am involved in. Even though I am retired from a blue collar background I have been blessed to be involved with Robin's organization. —Dougie K.
Thank you for this three part interview with Robin Starr of the Richmond SPCA, and for your comments on the no kill movement. Your comments about the shrill efforts of a few no-kill advocates are right on. I presume by this you mean the movement spearheaded by Nathan Winograd. While I applaud Winograd's goal of no-kill, his methods of attacking shelter leadership are incredibly damaging. The leadership of the only open-admission shelter in my city has suffered personal attack after personal attack from a small group of Winograd disciples, despite the fact that they are implementing policies daily designed to cut the euthanasia rate—and those policies are succeeding. When will animal advocates understand that we accomplish so much more by working together than tearing each other apart? No kill must be a community undertaking—one organization can't do it alone. To truly achieve no kill, we must work together, taking advantage of each other's organizational strengths. It was interesting to hear how the Richmond SPCA went through many of the same attacks from other animal groups in its community, and inspiring to see that they managed to achieve no kill anyway. There is hope for us all. —Emily in Ohio
Personally, I think Ms. Starr totally skirted the issue of the shell game problem. You can have all the no-kill shelters you want, but if you can't accept any more animals they HAVE to go somewhere. They are either going to a shelter that will kill them or they might be dumped on the side of the road to be scraped off at a later time, or dropped off in a different community that will accept them. I think no-kill shelters are great, but the best message is proper animal care. People need to be responsible if they add an animal to their family and quit thinking of these wonderful beings as something expendable if it doesn't go as they had planned! —Victoria, Clovis, Calif.

Continue reading "Talk Back: Ending Euthanasia of Homeless Pets" »

December 14, 2009

Survivor Stories: A Spared Seal Pup

Earlier this month I shared the story of Fay, rescued in July during an eight-state dogfighting raid—the most sweeping crackdown of its kind in U.S. history. A dogfighter had cut off her lips—in a demonstration of the barbarism of this underground industry. Thanks to the intervention, she was saved from the other perils of the dogfighting industry, and now lives in a safe and loving environment.

Today I share another survivor story of a different stripe. This survivor was discovered by our Protect Seals team off the eastern coast of Canada as they went about documenting the killing of baby harp seals—and then transmitted the images across the world to drive public awareness of the slaughter. He was a small, scared seal pup who had survived only by cowering in an ice cave. Rebecca Aldworth, our lead campaigner against the Canadian seal hunt, sat near him for a few minutes, and named him Sully.

In large part because of our efforts to close global markets for seal skins, prices for seal fur in Canada crashed this year, and there were far fewer sealers on the ice. They weren’t so relentless in their killing efforts, and that’s why so many seals survived the slaughter this year. The Canadian government had authorized sealers to kill more than 330,000 of the animals but sealers took 72,000 instead. That’s 260,000 seals who lived because of our global efforts against the fur trade.

There are countless thousands of animals whose lives have been turned around because of our efforts. To bring us even closer to ending the seal hunt once and for all, to help us save even more animal survivors like Fay and Sully, please consider a year-end donation to our 2010 Animal Survivors Fund. And stay tuned for our final Animal Survivor video next week.

 Watch Sully's story then please give to The HSUS's 2010 Animal Survivors Fund

December 11, 2009

Horse Slaughter: Not Tolerated

Americans don’t like horse slaughter. Our polling shows Americans want to see an end to the killing of our horses by foreign slaughter plants, with the horse meat going to high-end consumers in Europe and Asia.

Rescued horses at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch
The HSUS
Two horses who will find homes through our
Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center.

Though there have been serious efforts mounted here, especially in the last few years, the Congress hasn’t yet shut down the trade—which still claims the lives of nearly 100,000 American horses each year, most of them perfectly healthy animals and just unlucky enough to have been funneled into the grisly trade. We get reports from horse rescue groups that contract buyers for the slaughter industry are frequently at horse auctions, outbidding individuals offering good homes for horses. Illinois and Texas forced the closure of horse slaughter plants in those states in 2007, and I was delighted to learn this week that the New York Racing Association has just instituted an anti-slaughter policy, with penalties for those who either directly or indirectly sell a horse for slaughter. The association encouraged owners and trainers to collaborate with rescue groups as part of a broader solution to the current dilemmas we face in helping those animals being discarded or retired by the racing industry.

This state racing association is to be commended for taking such a major step in the fight against horse slaughter—surely, one of the biggest humane issues facing horse racing. Sadly, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and many other industry groups are standing on the sidelines as we fight to protect horses from this abuse and work to pass H.R. 503, and S. 727.

In Tennessee, we may have had a recent indicator of the pitiful effects here in the United States of the slaughter industry. Our Emergency Services team has been on the ground for weeks after they teamed with local law enforcement to rescue 82 horses starved by their owners. There’s speculation that they acquired the horses to sell them to the slaughter industry, but they didn’t even have the decency to feed and care for them properly.

The Tennessean, one of the state’s largest newspapers, comments today on the horse slaughter issue, as well as the efforts by state Rep. Janis Sontany to upgrade penalties for violations of the state anti-cruelty statute. So many good people want to do something about this problem, and now is the time for all of us to take collective action.

December 10, 2009

Your Lunch Money: USDA Spends Millions on Spent Hens

I’ve written recently about the fact that agribusiness has always been able to look to USDA to buy up its products when there’s more supply on the market than consumers demand. For example, when the pig industry overproduces, USDA steps in with millions of dollars to buy up pork, dumps it on our nation’s children through the National School Lunch Program, and requires nothing from the industry in terms of improved performance or standards. It’s a government give-away to the industry—with the subsidy serving to reward bad behavior.

Journalists Blake Morrison, Peter Eisler and Anthony DeBarros of USA Today yesterday reported on another USDA purchasing program that serves Big Agriculture—in this case, purchasing meat for federal food programs from “spent” egg-laying hens.

Egg-laying hens confined in battery cage
Compassion Over Killing

The egg industry confines about 280 million laying hens in tiny battery cages for more than 12-18 months at a time. Nearly half of them get killed each year. The long-term immobilization of the animals takes a serious toll on them, especially on their skeletal systems. In fact, in part because of their lack of exercise and their excessive egg production, the vast majority of “spent” battery hens suffer from osteoporosis.

Few people want to eat the meat from these birds, as their fragile bones break easily and splinter into their flesh. Research has shown that as many as 24 percent of hens suffer broken bones following commercial “depopulation,” or removal from their cages. Of hens transported for slaughter, as many as 98 percent of carcasses have broken bones by the time they reach the end of the evisceration line.

It used to be cliché to say spent hens become Campbell's soup. However, it’s been many years since major soup companies wanted such meat. Yet the egg industry is still determined to remain on the USDA dole—and the government seems quite prepared to market food products to school children and others dependent on federal food programs that many companies long ago decided were unfit or otherwise unacceptable for their paying customers.

Chad Gregory, senior vice president of the United Egg Producers (UEP), asserts, “Due to losing market options, the U.S. government purchase programs for school lunch, military and prisons have become the largest single buyer of spent hen meat.”

Chad’s father, Gene Gregory, president and CEO of the UEP, explains in greater detail: “[W]e seldom acknowledge how important a customer the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) Procurement Branch is to the egg industry. The USDA purchases for school lunch and other domestic food nutrition assistance programs are valuable sales for the egg industry. … USDA is an important buyer of light fowl meat. Based on UEP’s estimate, USDA purchased the meat from approximately 16.7 million light hens in calendar year 2006. This represented approximately 30% of all spent hens processed by U.S. fowl slaughter plants.”

So what’s the USDA’s excuse for dumping millions of pounds of this unwanted product on school kids? The agency explains: “Egg producers have been unable to dispose of egg laying hens in sufficient numbers because fowl processors cannot increase normal markets for fowl meat.” It’s that kind of thinking that leads many of us to conclude that USDA is more a promoter of big agribusiness than a protector of consumers or animal welfare.

So instead of letting the market take its course, the USDA supplements the profits of battery cage egg producers with millions in buy-up programs—compromising food safety in the process. In fact, at least one study shows that spent hen carcasses are several times more likely to be infected with salmonella than the carcasses of chickens bred for meat production.

One year into a new administration, it’s time to rethink these archaic programs. Big agriculture is deregulated. It causes major animal cruelty, environmental problems, and public health threats. And it gets billions in subsidies.

That equation doesn’t add up, and it’s time for change.

December 09, 2009

No Kill: Q&A with Robin Starr, Part Three

For the third and final day, I devote my blog to an extended interview with Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA (see part one and two). Robin has worked tirelessly to drop euthanasia rates in Richmond, with the goal of providing homes for all healthy and treatable dogs and cats in the community. In this large and ethnically diverse southern community, Robin has demonstrated tangible and measurable progress. Her operational model is one to emulate, and there are others out there moving in the same direction. In addition to what Robin and the staff of the Richmond SPCA have accomplished, I’ve been personally inspired by growing live-release rates for so many other shelters—Bob Rohde and his colleagues at the Denver Dumb Friends League, Barbara Carr at the Erie County SPCA, Sharon Harmon at the Oregon Humane Society, and so many others too numerous to mention here. In fact, the newly formed National Federation of Humane Societies, comprised of dozens of major shelters throughout the nation, has established a goal to eliminate euthanasia of healthy animals by the year 2020, at the latest. I was proud to be a founding member of this organization, and just delighted to see this goal embraced. Groups including the ASPCA and Best Friends also share the goal to solve this problem.

Black and white dog in shelter
Bill Petros/The HSUS

Sadly, the broader goal that these people and many others all strive to achieve—placement of all healthy and treatable animals—has been hindered by a few rancorous voices, who ceaselessly attack shelters, embellish or fabricate their supposed personal “success” stories, and sit on the sidelines fomenting strife within our movement. Ironically, these self-righteous bystanders reach their greatest audience only when the Center for Consumer Freedom, a leading pro-cruelty organization that exists only to provide a platform to the true enemies of animal protection, publishes their attacks on humane colleagues. These people hurt our cause, and the serious-minded among us should reject their vitriol and fabrications.

In contrast, Robin and other progressive leaders are bringing our movement together, every day and in every way. Their goal, the one all of us at The HSUS share, is to strive to do better and to save lives. We stand with every shelter in the nation—private and public, large or small, rural or urban—that wants to do better and turn the situation around for homeless animals. Isn’t that the point of our work—to eliminate the euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats?

Wayne Pacelle: Achieving a no-kill community can be particularly difficult for agencies with animal control responsibilities and a requirement to accept all animals. Some agencies have a desire to just “flip the switch” to no-kill, but, without a solid infrastructure, that can fail. What advice would you give an agency—particularly those with animal control responsibilities—to ensure they’re successful?

Robin Starr: I agree that it is harder for private agencies that have taken on animal control responsibilities. The most desirable arrangement is for there to be one or more private organizations partnering with an animal control agency that is a unit of the local government. I think this works best because I have never seen a private organization doing animal control duties by contract that is being paid adequately for the services that it is performing for the local government. Usually, they are not paid enough at the start of the contract and then, as years pass, the locality resists ever increasing the amount paid while the private organization feels locked into continuing to provide the services. These organizations end up using their charitable resources to supplement what should be the work of the local government and so must sacrifice some of what they could otherwise be providing their community in services and programs.

There are, however, some private organizations with animal control responsibilities that have been successful in achieving no-kill or adoption guarantee. What is crucial is that the essential programs and services that I  outlined in the answer to a previous question are being provided to the community. If an organization can perform animal control functions and still provide their community with these essential programs and services, then it can be done. Our organization has never had a contractual obligation to perform animal control functions for our city although, when I came here in the late 90s, we were providing a number of those services without any contract to do so. When we made our changes in 2001 and 2002, we ceased doing those jobs that are properly the roles of government, and that has allowed us to eliminate duplication of services and concentrate on providing those essential programs and services to our community that are crucial to achieving a no-kill community and that local government is not likely to provide.

WP: What special challenges might shelters face in becoming no-kill? For example, the handling of aggressive dogs in light of disagreements about their suitability for adoption.

RS: I believe that developing and consistently applying a valid health and behavioral matrix for your own community under the terms of the Asilomar Accords is crucial for two reasons. Such a matrix will clearly define what specific conditions and behaviors fall into the healthy, treatable rehabilitatable, treatable manageable and unhealthy/untreatable categories. Those definitions should reflect the care that a reasonable and responsible pet owner in that particular community would provide for his pet. Our matrix was developed with the participation of our staff, the staff of Richmond Animal Care and Control and several local veterinarians, and is updated annually. The second reason such a matrix is important is that it permits completely transparent statistical reporting to the community allowing everyone to see how close or how far the community is from achieving an end to the deaths of healthy animals and treatable animals. With the consistent use of a matrix, a humane organization can know that they are being both internally consistent and consistent with the standards of their community in their evaluation of the animals in their care.

WP: The no-kill issue has caused internal debate within our movement, but how do we bridge this gap and work together to combat the crisis of euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals?

RS: I believe that the first step needs to be for people on both sides of the debate to stop questioning the motives of those on the other side. There is nothing more paralyzing to any thoughtful discussion of issues than engaging in character assaults and accusing others of bad motives. Our organization has come to expect that, anytime we propose a new approach or undertake a new program, it will be met with vitriol from people within the field of animal welfare. We have come to ignore what is said by these people and that is why this sort of behavior is just alienating and ineffective.

It is essential that all of us respect the hard work and dedication of our peers who may not share our viewpoint and recognize that what we all do share is the wish to end the loss of life of the animals we all love. We must have real conversations with each other and take the time and patience to actually ask questions and listen to the answers. It is also important that we recognize that partnering with others is pretty much always better than not partnering with others. There is almost always some common ground that may be found.

Lastly, as I have said but it bears repeating, we need to be willing to try new ways, especially ones that have demonstrated success in other communities. They may or may not work in your own community, but trying something new may lead to a big advancement or, at a minimum, will make your organization more flexible and nimble.

WP: As we keep moving forward, what are your thoughts on community engagement? What can readers do to help reduce the number of homeless animals in their community and move toward becoming no-kill? And how do you at the Richmond SPCA include the community in your work?

Black and white cat
iStockphoto

RS: There is absolutely no way that any of us will accomplish an end to the loss of life of healthy and treatable homeless animals without the engagement of our communities. The problem with highly traditional models and why they usually achieve low live release rates is that they typically take a negative and distrustful view of human nature and require all of the work to get done by the public and private humane organizations. We must learn to first educate our community and to then trust our community. It may take some patience and a little prodding but most people will do the right thing by animals if we clearly show them how. People with wrong ideas about animal care should not be turned away but should be educated in a respectful manner. What people can do to help is to encourage everyone they know to spay and neuter their pets, never to buy from a pet store or a breeder but rather adopt from a shelter, utilize available resources to resolve issues with their pets without relinquishing them, become foster care volunteers and to give to the extent of their means to support humane organizations.

At the Richmond SPCA, we try to use every tool at our disposal to communicate with our community.  We have an active and engaging website, blog and Facebook page and we report our statistics and results promptly and openly in those venues. We use Twitter and send emails to our constituents to let them know of what we are doing and how we need their help. These approaches have allowed us to communicate with tens of thousands of people and to mobilize their assistance when we need it.

For example, this year we decided that we were going to take on the goal of saving the life of every neonatal kitten in the City of Richmond that was not seriously ill. To do so, we needed to vastly expand our foster care network to meet the huge demand in the spring and summer kitten season months. We broadly communicated that need, responded quickly when people offered help to us and removed every roadblock possible to getting kittens out to a huge number of foster care homes. We gave them training and trusted them to care. The result was that we saved the life of more than 500 neonatal kittens in 2009 (which was every one that was not seriously ill) and have had about 800 animals in foster care in that same year.

The members of our community are the most important partners we have. Without their participation, we will fail and, with it, we will get to our goal sooner than we ever could have imagined.

December 08, 2009

No Kill: Q&A with Robin Starr, Part Two

Today I bring you part two of a three-part interview with Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA, about her shelter's vigorous efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate the killing of healthy and treatable dogs and cats in the entire Richmond area. She’s demonstrating through her innovative leadership that a private humane society in a community can turn around the situation for homeless pets and help save an extraordinary number of lives. She’s smart and professional, and the emerging face of progressive community-based companion animal work in America.

Wayne Pacelle: There's a big difference between a single shelter going no-kill and a community achieving that status. Do you see partnerships between public and private shelters as vital in moving toward ending the euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals?

Two kittens in cage
iStockphoto

Robin Starr: Yes, public/private partnerships are very important, but they are not the only essential factor in reaching an end to the loss of life of healthy and treatable animals. Our experience has been that a public/private partnership in which both parties fully embrace the no-kill goal and share a fundamental belief system paves the way toward reducing the euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals. If one partner is private and another is public, it is very helpful if they observe a clear distinction between their respective roles and services so that duplication of use of resources is avoided.

In addition to a well functioning partnership, other factors must be present in order to achieve the goal. There must be a very accessible, high-volume and targeted spaying and neutering program, a user-friendly pet retention program, a creative and progressive adoption program and an active trap-neuter-return program for feral cats, among others, and all of the partners must fully embrace each of these. Probably most important is a good relationship between the partners whereby they work together cooperatively to avoid euthanasia during periods of stress and demand. We have now achieved success in saving all of the healthy homeless animals in both the City of Richmond and in Hanover County (a contiguous county to Richmond that we began a partnership with in 2008). The combined euthanasia rate in Richmond citywide in 2008 was 19 percent. The combined citywide euthanasia rate and that for Richmond Animal Care and Control alone have both declined steadily every year since we began our partnership in 2002.

WP: Most would agree that achieving no-kill status requires a multi-pronged, determined, creative effort. But it seems that in some communities humane organizations are very far indeed from the goal, and very poorly funded.  Are there intermediate steps they can take?

RS: The first step is to be willing to embrace new ways of doing things and this can be quite challenging in some communities. For example, it costs very little to undertake creative adoption programs and more open adoption policies. A vastly increased volunteer foster care network can make an enormous difference in the numbers of companion animal lives saved and requires more energy and dedication of time than expense. Our first step, before we ever announced that we were becoming no-kill, was to start a behavior helpline and to ask people who came to relinquish a pet to us because of a behavioral problem to first work with us to see if the behavior problem could be resolved with our help through training efforts. It did not cost much, it worked and we reduced our intake by quite a lot.

Many humane organizations do not like the poor results that they are achieving in their communities, but they still resist any notion of changing old ways. No one ever said that this was easy. It is crucial to create a culture where you try new ideas and see if they work to save lives—even if they don’t, you still have made it clear that it is okay to try.

Miniature Schnauzer dog
iStockphoto

Also, no one ever said that you were not going to need to work hard to fundraise. In my experience, the problem of poor funding often arises from a discomfort with asking, rather than from an ungenerous community. There may be a great deal of new financial support in a community that could be tapped by an organization that is articulating a compelling message for change and a better prospect for homeless animals in the future. You have to explain why your concepts are innovative and valid and why they will work and then ask for your community’s help.

WP: Is substantial euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals in a community a sign of insufficient funding and a lack of community engagement, is it an issue of resolve, is it a reflection of a philosophical outlook, or is it a combination of these factors?

RS: I think it is all of the above. We need to be honest enough to acknowledge that people are not likely to give their money, or their support in other ways, to an approach that does not make any forward progress but rather returns ever more dismal results and offers a pessimistic outlook. When we provide an approach that promises great life saving progress and then delivers on those promises, we get funding, engagement, resolve and, best of all, we change the philosophical outlook of the community too. A paradigmatic shift is what a lot of communities need.

December 07, 2009

No Kill: Q&A with Robin Starr, Richmond SPCA

No social movement has monolithic thinking, and our cause is no different. There are fault lines on many issues, whether the treatment of farm animals, the use of animals in research and testing, or other categories of animal use. One of the deepest fissures in the companion animal domain has been over the question of euthanasia and whether it is acceptable for humane organizations to euthanize healthy and treatable animals. There are about 8 million dogs and cats who enter shelters (both public institutions and private, charitable organizations), and about 3.7 million are put down, including 3 million who are healthy or treatable.

Tabby cat in shelter
iStockphoto

While that’s too many animals, the trend has been moving in the right direction, with the pro-sterilization campaigns launched by The HSUS and others in the 1970s having helped drop euthanasia numbers from as many as 20 million dogs and cats in 1975. So many shelter leaders I know are desperate to break the cycle of euthanasia and find a home for every adoptable animal. And helping the shelters are a vast network of rescue and feral cat organizations that do remarkable work day in and day out to save lives and give animals a second chance.

It is always dangerous to provide too much credit to any one person as the intellectual spark for a movement, but for me longtime animal advocate Ed Duvin deserves recognition. He wrote a series of widely circulated essays starting in 1989 that questioned how euthanasia had come to play such a major role within animal shelters. His original essay, “In the Name of Mercy,” argued that we had lost our way as a cause by treating the killing of animals in shelters as routine and mission-consistent.

“Although euthanasia cannot presently be avoided, it borders on the surreal to describe the killing of millions of healthy beings as a ‘merciful’ act,” wrote Duvin, in “In the Name of Mercy.” “Whether strays or surrenders, these animals inescapably experience the kind of psychological trauma and terror that we find unacceptable for caged zoo and laboratory animals. Some are exposed to various forms of physical mishandling, and all suffer from the anguishing ordeal of being processed and warehoused in a foreign and frightening environment. Euthanasia might be a relatively painless end to this journey of terror, but each death represents an abject failure for all of us—not an act of mercy.” Duvin’s argument resonated with some, and repelled others, who asked for his head. But the force of his ideas has stood the test of time, and gained momentum.

A second pioneer is Rich Avanzino, who served during the late 1980s and 1990s as CEO of the San Francisco SPCA. In 1994, he provided a good-home guarantee for all dogs and cats at his facility, and he’s been leading the charge ever since. He now heads Maddie’s Fund, the nation’s largest animal protection foundation (in terms of assets), and that organization is committed to community-based work to achieve a no-kill nation. Maddie’s Fund and The HSUS have joined with the Ad Council to launch The Shelter Pet Project, a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to end euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals by persuading more people to adopt dogs and cats from animal shelters. (Today, only about one in five pets in homes come from shelters and rescue groups.)

In the last few years—despite the shrill efforts of a few no-kill advocates whose work has retarded the progress of that cause by alienating so many people, especially within the sheltering community—there is broader acceptance of no-kill principles, and an acknowledgment that it must be our goal as a movement to find homes for healthy animals and to halt the killing of animals except when it’s medically necessary. There is a pathway, although a challenging and difficult one, to see an end in the years ahead to the routine euthanasia of animals in shelters. I know that among the celebrants will be the leaders of shelters, along with all other serious-minded animal advocates.

Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA
Photo courtesy of Saved Images
Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA.

A third pioneer is Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA. Robin joined our field in 1997, and several years ago, she committed her institution, in a major American city in the South, to the goal of halting euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals. She was one of the first to put no-kill principles into practice in a major American city, and she’s done it in a brilliant way. I have long admired her work.

I asked her to answer questions about the broader debate, to provide a full-throated argument for her viewpoint, and to answer some of the charges leveled by critics. It’s someone like Robin—a sensible, measured voice and a person in the thick of it, not just lobbing rhetorical bombs as a bystander to the day-to-day struggles of shelters—who should be in the forefront of the no-kill movement. I’ll provide her answers to my questions over three days, and here is the first installment. Tune in to the blog in the coming days to see the complete interview.

Wayne Pacelle: As background for readers, when did the Richmond SPCA become a no-kill animal shelter? What was your inspiration for this goal?

Robin Starr: In January of 2002, the Richmond SPCA became a no-kill organization. At that time, we ceased accepting more animals than we could care for without resorting to euthanasia of healthy or treatable animals. In 2001, we had announced that, in partnership with Richmond Animal Care and Control, we were jointly committed to achieving a city in which no healthy homeless animal would lose his life by 2008 at the latest. We accomplished that goal two years early (in 2006) and have sustained it ever since.

Our inspiration was without question the life saving successes achieved by the San Francisco SPCA under the leadership of Rich Avanzino. We were deeply impressed with the live release rate that they had achieved, which was unequaled at the time anywhere else. We believed that we could replicate their model in Richmond and we did.

WP: Do you think the term “no-kill” is the right one?

RS: I personally am comfortable with that term because I believe that it is a plain-spoken term, and we are always better off when we use terms that most people can understand even if they do not have expertise in a particular field. I believe that “no-kill,” whether used with respect to an organization or a community, means that no healthy or treatable homeless animal is losing his life there. By that definition, the Richmond SPCA is no-kill, but the City of Richmond is not yet no-kill since we are saving all of the healthies and a substantial portion, but not all, of the treatables in our city. We are working hard toward saving all of the treatables soon, and when we do that, we will also be a no-kill city.

I always explain to people who are not in our field that what we mean at the Richmond SPCA when we say that we are no-kill is that the only time we euthanize an animal is under the same circumstances that a responsible pet owner would euthanize their beloved pet. They always seem to find that to be perfectly reasonable. That said, I have no problem with other terms being used such as “adoption guarantee” if it makes people more comfortable and allows us to get on with the truly important work of accomplishing that end.

WP: How did the reception within the Richmond community compare to the reception within the broader humane movement?

RS: It depends on what part of the Richmond community you are talking about. Once we announced our plans to change our way of operating, we were aggressively attacked by people with other animal welfare organizations in our community and state. We had been a highly traditional organization for a very long time. We had performed many of the roles that should have been done by the City of Richmond, and we euthanized a large number of animals on a regular basis. The way we had been operating had been producing ever increasing euthanasia rates in our community so we could not imagine that it was something that should be clung to. Our detractors were very unhappy that we were going to change substantially our way of operating with which they had become comfortable. But those detractors were almost exclusively with other animal groups.

The response of the larger community was positive at the beginning and has become extremely supportive over the years. Our community has come to understand how we operate and to appreciate that it has reduced the citywide euthanasia rate in Richmond to 19 percent as of 2008.

The local barrage was so intense for a while that I had little time to pay any attention to what the reception was like in the broader humane movement. I think that for quite a while we were really not on the radar screen of the broader movement. That changed as our success in lifesaving began to develop. During that difficult period, I received invaluable support and guidance from both Rich Avanzino and from Ed Sayres who was at the San Francisco SPCA at the time.

The experience that we had with the aggressive negative reaction from animal welfare organizations in our own community was educational for me. Despite their behavior, the response of our larger community was wonderful from the start and the support of our community has grown vastly since that time as we have demonstrated success. It left me with the very firm view that every private organization has the right to determine for themselves the kind and the amount of work for homeless animals that they are going to do without interference from others outside their organization. It also taught me the importance of focusing on your goal and paying attention to those folks whose perspectives you should care about.

WP: Do you think that putting down dogs and cats became normalized within the humane community?

RS: Yes, I do and, to some extent, I think it still is although we are making enormous headway now in changing the paradigm. I have never believed that taking animals' lives is an acceptable solution to the challenges of managing homeless animals in communities. Most people outside our field demonstrate a visceral discomfort with the idea that healthy animals are being killed in shelters—we all have seen that happen. I think there is a message in that gut instinct, but for people in our field that gut instinct got worn down over time because of their need to emotionally cope with the horrors to which they were being exposed.

I have never believed that people who are doing the very tough jobs in shelters should feel any sense of personal guilt because they are generally doing their best in a very miserable situation. However, as a society, we collectively have a great deal that we should feel guilty about. Euthanizing healthy and treatable animals was never the right answer, but it became the accepted answer out of expediency.

WP: If it is not a community-wide no kill commitment, as compared to a single institution declaring itself no kill, is much being accomplished? Is it just a bit of a shell game?

RS: That is a complex question. Certainly, a community-wide collaborative commitment to ending the loss of life is the only thing that will really make a meaningful and sustainable difference for the prospects for survival of the homeless animals of a community. That is how the tough work happens and how real material change for the better for companion animals is going to occur. Collaborative partnerships need to include both private organizations and public agencies, and they must treat each other with mutual respect in reaching a shared goal.

However, I also respect organizations that have the courage to say that they do not believe that taking lives is an acceptable answer to managing the issues of homeless animals and that, for that reason, they are no longer going to participate in it. That step can be a very meaningful one toward changing the moral imperative for a community. Calling it a shell game suggests that they are trying to mislead the public. So long as the single institution is not misrepresenting what it is doing, I have never believed that a private organization is somehow derelict in its duties if it does not participate in taking the lives of healthy or treatable animals. No private organization needs to be doing something it does not think is right, but it does need to be sincerely working on a community coalition dedicated to ending the killing for the entire community.

Stay tuned to the blog in the coming days to see the complete interview.

December 04, 2009

Greetings from Bhutan: Saving Street Dogs

HSUS Board Member Andrew Weinstein with HSI van in Bhutan captial Thimphu
Weinstein
Andrew sees an HSI van in the Bhutan capital of Thimphu.

Perhaps the fastest-growing component of our work at The HSUS is our international activity, driven by our affiliate, Humane Society International. Recently, Andrew Weinstein, a member of the board of directors of The HSUS, was vacationing in Asia, and stumbled across our work in the course of his travels—and the highlight for him was running across our spaying and neutering work in the remote Bumthang valley of central Bhutan. I thought his serendipitous encounter was quite remarkable, and I asked him to provide an account.


Street dog rests in Phobjikha Valley of Bhutan
Weinstein
A dog rests in the Phobjikha Valley.

Bhutan is a small mountain kingdom in the Himalayas surrounded by two giant neighbors, India and China. Bhutan's population—roughly the same as Charlotte, N.C.—is spread across nearly 15,000 square miles of stunning snow-peaked mountains, lush green valleys, and mountain rainforests. Though not wealthy, the country is a global leader on environmental preservation, and its constitution not only requires the government to protect biodiversity and preserve the environment, it also explicitly mandates that more than 60 percent of the country's land be maintained under forest cover for all time.

One area where Bhutan has a huge environmental problem, however, is street dogs. As a Buddhist country, the Bhutanese commendably will not use lethal methods to destroy or control any animal population, but that has led to an explosion of stray dogs across the country, particularly in towns and villages. If you are visiting the capital city of Thimphu, you definitely need earplugs if you plan to sleep comfortably through the all-night barking.

To help address this problem in a humane manner, HSI conducted a four-month pilot program in coordination with the Government of Bhutan earlier this year in which it sterilized and vaccinated 2,866 dogs in Thimphu. Based on the success of that program, HSI launched a larger, nationwide program this fall in coordination with the government to sterilize up to 50,000 dogs over the next 3-5 years.

Although I knew the program had recently launched in Bhutan, I didn't expect to see its great work almost everywhere we went in the country. On our very first day in Thimphu, we spotted one of the HSI-branded vans in the parking lot of the massive Dzong (fortress-monastery) from which the government runs the country.

Street dog near Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan
Weinstein
At the Tiger's Nest monastery.

Four days later, after weaving halfway across the country on a twisting one-lane national "highway" through the mountains, we rolled into the small town of Jakar in the Bumthang valley. On our way to the hotel, we drove by a beautiful old farmhouse on the river and were surprised to see a huge HSI banner and another HSI-branded van parked outside (see a photo). We stopped in and met the team leader, a charming veterinarian from India named Dr. Satish.

Dr. Satish was kind enough to walk us through the entire process with an incoming street dog—from capture to anesthesia, vaccination, sterilization and recovery. He told us that the Bumthang team has already sterilized more than 1,090 dogs since September and is handling about 18-20 new dogs per day. They also evaluate the dogs for any other medical conditions and treat them as needed for conditions ranging from eye infections to mange.

After some initial cultural hurdles, due in part to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation and the fear that the dogs may include past family members, the program has gained a great deal of acceptance, and many of the dogs they are now sterilizing are also family pets.

It's very heartening to travel halfway around the world only to discover teams of dedicated HSI employees working to help street dogs and other needy animals.

Members of HSI street dog management and rabies control program in Bhutan

December 03, 2009

Survivor Stories: Fay’s Rescue

We come across thousands of animals in the most desperate of situations in our work at The HSUS.

We step in wherever we can and save these animals from the worst kinds of human cruelty. These survivors drive us in our work, inspire us as we confront the individuals and industries that profit off of such callous mistreatment.

Over the next few weeks, through a series of videos, we’ll introduce you to four of the animal survivor stories that most moved us this year. Today, you’ll meet Fay. Hers is the story of the worst of humankind, and I might say the best, too.

Fay was rescued last July in Missouri, where we assisted in raids in eight states to rescue dogs from the horrors of dogfighting. Fay’s mouth had apparently been badly wounded in the ring. In response, a dogfighter had mercilessly cut off her lips.

True to the spirit of humankind’s best friend, this animal who had suffered so much at the hands of people responded to her rescuers with unreserved affection. As you’ll see, Fay had been stripped of her lips but she still had a tongue, and she was happy to use it to lick the face of someone who would hold her close.

With animals like Fay in mind—and the others you’ll meet soon—we’ve created a special 2010 Animal Survivors Fund. As we look to the New Year and think about all of the suffering animals out there who still need our help, we’ve set a major goal: to raise a million dollars online for this fund before Dec. 31. After watching Fay’s video (don’t worry, it’s not graphic—just incredibly moving), please consider becoming a monthly donor to this special fund. When you do, you’ll be supporting the most hard-hitting, highly effective organization in the nation for animal protection. With your help, we’ll save thousands of animals like Fay from lifetimes of misery.

Watch Fay's video then please give to The HSUS's 2010 Animal Survivors Fund

December 02, 2009

Fenced-In Elk Killing Off Target in Colorado

Shooting tame wildlife held captive behind a high fence is hardly what most Americans would call hunting—it’s a corruption of the term, and a stripping down of the practice of hunting to the mere act of killing. In captive hunt facilities, chance is eliminated because animals are stocked in enclosures where trophy hunters pay thousands for a guaranteed kill. They choose from a menu of animals and sometimes have the proprietor of the operation, or his designee, lead them to the area where the killing can be consummated. With a “no kill, no pay” fee arrangement, the participants dress up like hunters and discharge live ammo from real guns, but it’s not the real thing. They’re hunting fakers. It’s little more than an open-air abattoir. Rank-and-file hunters think they’re a joke.

Bull at Elk Research Institute in Colorado
A bull at the Elk Research Institute.

About half of all U.S. states have restricted captive hunting for mammals, including Montana, where sportsmen led the effort to pass a ballot initiative in a state that is a cultural redoubt of hunting. North Dakota hunters are looking to do the same next year, after falling just shy of submitting enough signatures to qualify such a measure last election. In Colorado, however, not only are captive hunts legal, in one case it’s even state funded. The Denver Post recently reported on the Elk Research Institute, an elk breeding facility on state-owned property in Hesperus, Colo. where customers pay big bucks to kill captive elk.

The original purpose of the Institute was reportedly to create a strain of elk resistant to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a brain-wasting disease similar to Mad Cow Disease that afflicts deer and elk. Most wildlife scientists agree that CWD proliferated in captive herds (it was first identified in captive mule deer in Colorado in the late 1960s), and then put wild populations of ungulates at risk.

In response to this problem, Colorado lawmakers authorized the use of the people’s tax dollars to fund the genetic engineering of captive “super elk” to try to combat a disease that spread in the first place by holding wild animals captive. Predictably, the Colorado experiment failed to produce a solution to CWD, but it did produce elk with exceptionally large antlers, allowing the Institute to attract trophy hunters and profit off of the animals being chased to the fence line and killed. It was a mad science project, with the foolishness of the experiment now compounded by the morphing of the site into a canned hunting ranch. Maybe the state can add in a bordello, rack up some additional revenue, and then really let loose when it comes to ethics in government.

State supported or not, lawmakers should pull the lid off canned hunts, wherever they exist. Colorado and other outlier states on this issue should ban these no-kill, no-pay killing spectacles.

We’re also asking Congress to pass federal legislation to stop this cruelty. The Sportsmanship in Hunting Act (H.R. 2308) would crack down on captive hunts and also ban the practice of killing animals remotely via the Internet. You can help by asking your U.S. Representative to co-sponsor that bill.