As a California prosecutor, Nathan Winograd tried many cases of animal abuse and neglect. Troubled by what he witnessed, he became operations director at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and says he helped to make it the first shelter in the country to save all healthy dogs and cats. He then moved to Ithaca, N.Y. to head the Tompkins County SPCA, which he claims became the first no-kill shelter and community in the nation, saving 90 percent of all animals.
In June 2005, Winograd took his compassion for the subject a step further by forming the No Kill Advocacy Center and last year authored "Redemption: the Myth of Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America."
In his controversial book, Winograd defines a true no-kill shelter as one that only euthanizes only the most vicious, ill and injured animals. He contends there are plenty of homes for the nation's unwanted animals and blames shelter directors for euthanizing pets instead of doing more to find them homes. "For well over a century we've been operating under the principle that the best we can do for homeless animals is to adopt a few and kill the rest," he tells Angie's List Magazine. "One of the primary mistakes people make is to assume that an organization with the label 'Humane Society' or 'Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' is staffed with people who are passionate about saving lives."
But other animal advocates say Winograd is ignoring an important aspect of the problem. "To think there isn't an overpopulation problem is quite damaging," says Daphna Nachminovich, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' vice president. "You have to understand euthanasia is part of the picture until we stem the flow of unwanted animals."
Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, agrees. "We believe society should try to achieve a no-kill state," he says. "It's just easier said than done. Winograd thinks of the world in polarities."
"I don't believe it's productive to argue about who cares more," adds Ed Sayres, ASPCA president. "Winograd is one of many people working to help in his own way."
There's plenty of confusion over the use of the "no kill" phrase. In a recent poll, 10 percent of Angie's List members thought all shelters operated the same and 17 percent had never heard of a no-kill shelter. Even the San Francisco SPCA where Winograd began his crusade is distancing itself from the "no kill" term. "It misrepresents the reality that some of the animals in our care with serious medical and behavior problems are euthanized," says president Jan McHugh-Smith.
"'No-kill shelter' is a movement," says Christie Keith of San Francisco, lead blogger for Pet Connection. "It's a philosophy of no longer letting it be acceptable to use killing as a means of animal control."
According to the HSUS, approximately 6 to 8 million unwanted pets enter shelters each year and roughly 50 percent of those find homes. Winograd claims 5 million pets are euthanized each year but says dozens of animal shelters adopting his outline of programs and services, such as high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinics, are achieving save rates of 90 percent.
PAWS Chicago is one of those shelters - and one of more than 10,000 groups and individuals Winograd says have signed his "No Kill Declaration." "He is revolutionizing sheltering to end unnecessary euthanasia," says executive director Rochelle Michalek.
Winograd has gone so far as to accuse some traditional shelters of abuse and neglect but cites two West coast communities as being among the worst. In December, The No Kill Advocacy Center and two animal rescuers sued Los Angeles County, its Department of Animal Care and Control and Director Marcia Mayeda. The 29-page complaint alleges abusive treatment at all six Los Angeles County animal shelters, claiming animals are killed before their state-mandated holding period expires, proper veterinary care is not available, and adequate food and water aren't provided. "We cannot comment on pending litigations," says Deputy Director Michelle Roache, on behalf of Mayeda.
A former staff veterinarian and citizens advisory committee for the King County animal shelter system in Washington state concurred with Winograd and declared shelters in Kent and Bellevue "deplorable," with animals "living in filth or forgotten for days in a back room." County council leaders and shelter staff agreed on a plan to remedy the situation in April, but Winograd has accused them of "reverting to old patterns of behavior."
Al Dams, King County director of animal control, defends the shelter by saying a new animal placement specialist is on staff, along with a volunteer coordinator. New communications and outreach programs are in place, and new cat cages and dog runs are available. "I don't know where Winograd is coming from," Dams says. "The King County Council Advisory Committee established a 20 percent euthanasia rate for us and we're achieving it."
A shelter bearing Winograd's seal of approval has also come under fire. Nachminovich says the Tompkins County shelter in Ithaca, N.Y., where Winograd worked, is overcrowded and has resorted to stacking animals in cages throughout the facility. The shelter also "slashed its adoption fees and lowered its standards for the homes in which it places animals in an effort to move more animals out the door," Nachminovich says.
"Any shelter director who would rather kill than set [temporary cages] up should be fired," Winograd responds, and denies that standards were lowered under his watch or thereafter. Periodic promotions are offered at the facility, such as two-for-one cats, he says, but potential adopters are still "screened carefully."
Nachminovich also accuses the Ithaca shelter of refusing to take animals. "The places that implement some of these policies overcrowd very quickly," she says. "You're going to have to either make room for animals or turn them away."
"Not true," Winograd replies. "We were required by law to accept all animals within our jurisdiction. During my third year, we instituted a voluntary appointment system for owner turn-ins, not strays."
Winograd blasts PETA for its high rate of euthanasia at its only shelter in Norfolk, Va., which Nachminovich says was 91 percent in 2007. "We're not a traditional shelter," she says. "Most of the animals we take in are specifically to be euthanized. Three hundred cases of cruelty are reported to our office each week. We don't have the ability to hold animals indefinitely."
Despite the controversy over the no-kill philosophy, these animal activists agree on two things: spaying and neutering is vital and those looking for a new pet should check out their local animal shelter.
- with additional reporting by Tristan Schmid