by Merritt Clifton
‘There are communities in the U.S., like Dallas,” wrote No Kill Advocacy Center founder Nathan Winograd for the Huffington Post on December 11, 2015, in an essay entitled “Should we TNR Dogs?,” “which claim a large number of street dogs…Looking to other nations for guidance, places where free roaming dogs are far more common than in the U.S., but where humane approaches are demanded by dog-loving citizens, there is an answer: sterilizing and releasing community dogs, as is now done across the United States for community cats.”
He wasn’t joking
Winograd’s “modest proposal” to restore the U.S. street dog population might be mistaken for satire, but the Huffington Post is not The Onion, albeit a not necessarily more reliable news source.
The disingenuousness of the notion of allowing street dogs to return to the U.S., more than half a century after the habitat niche for street dogs in the U.S. all but disappeared, may be less evident than the barking madness of it.
The disingenuous aspect nonetheless requires immediate recognition, before addressing the environmental, cultural, and public safety aspects, lest discussion of the details be mistaken for accepting Winograd’s initial premise.
Going to the dogs
Street dogs are animals I have studied from childhood, for more than 50 years, in more than 40 nations, on every inhabited continent. I have for decades pointed out with data from my own research, gathered by traversing developing world alleys and dumps for countless hours by day and by night, the cruelty, futility, and ecologically harmful consequences of killing street dogs wherever killing street dogs is either public policy or commonly practiced.
Unhappily, street dogs are killed at least from time to time everywhere that has street dogs, whether the killing is conducted by government agencies, or is illegal but done anyway by vigilantes.
Dogs, cats, monkeys, pigs
I have encouraged neuter/return programs for street dogs wherever the habitat is conducive to street dogs continuing to fill their traditional niche as rodent hunters and scavengers. Street dogs, feral cats, urbanized monkeys, and street pigs have been the chief providers of public sanitation in most human communities since the dawn of civilization. Only within the past century or thereabouts have dogs, feral cats, monkeys, and pigs lost their traditional jobs in cities to the combination of enclosed sewers, paved roads, public garbage collection, refrigeration, and the use of motor vehicles in place of animal transport.
All of these transitions have combined in much of the world to reduce the available food sources and habitat for street dogs, feral cats, monkeys, and pigs to the vanishing point.
Some habitat remains
But viable habitat niches remain, for a time, in much of the developing world, where street dogs, feral cats, monkeys, and pigs may continue to live as they always have, at least to the ends of the normal lifespans of those now at large. Accordingly, in the 1990s and early years of the present century, I wrote and spoke in favor of the landmark national legislation supporting street dog sterilization in India, Turkey, and Costa Rica before those laws were passed. Since then, I have been tracking the results.
Winograd, unfortunately, has no such background.
Street dogs vs. “community dogs”
First to be understood about the Winograd proposal is that except on some Native American reservations, the U.S. has very few authentic “community dogs,” and never did have many.
The U.S. had abundant street dogs as recently as 1950, according to exhaustive studies done by National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull. However, while a street dog may sometimes be a “community dog,” the terms are not synonymous. Authentic “community dogs,” who are in effect the quasi-pets of multiple households at once, have been scarce in the U.S. since the settlement era, and may not have been common even in pioneer villages.
Dogs in early U.S.
The ubiquitous presence of dogs was often mentioned by visitors to Native American communities, while some of the first ordinances passed by newly formed townships provided for impoundments of stray dogs, lest dogs chase or startle horses and pedestrians. Early animal control ordinances also often banned pit bulls as well, then usually identified as “bulldogs.” Only long after those early ordinances were “updated” into inefficacy did pit bull proliferation emerge as perhaps the most vexing of all humane issues.
Old West lawman gunslingers, including Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp during their time in Dodge City, Kansas, debuted in public service as animal control officers renowned for their ability to shoot rabid and otherwise dangerous dogs.
Clubbed, drowned, gassed
Having greater numbers of dogs believed by most citizens to be in need of disposal, St. Louis and Philadelphia, among other cities, hired thugs to impound and bludgeon dogs to death. New York City preferred to drown strays in the East River, until the American SPCA took over the animal control contract in 1895 and began killing dogs with carbide gas instead.
Along with a longtime often violently enforced paucity of “community dogs,” the U.S. has few authentic “community cats,” despite the gross and frequent misrepresentations of some of the largest U.S. animal advocacy charities.
WHO defined “community dogs”
The term “community dog,” which Winograd in “Should we TNR Dogs?” misused as synonymous with “street dog,” came into widespread use through the public health text Dogs, Zoonoses, & Public Health, co-authored by Calum N.L. MacPherson, Francois X. Meslin, and Alexander I. Wandeler, published in 1990. Updated several times, Dogs, Zoonoses, & Public Health remains a much-used standard reference.
“We defined through a World Health Organization consultation held in the late 1980s the terms and categories of animals, mostly dogs, in relation to rabies control or elimination, along a continuum from ‘fully owned’ to ‘strictly feral,’ acknowledging that all states in between might exist under certain circumstances,” explained Meslin, who now heads the WHO Department of Food Safety Zoonoses & Food-Borne Diseases.
The WHO consultation defined “community dog” as “a dog without a single owner and cared for by the community.”
In this context, “cared for” means little more than feeding. In much of the developing world, including on some Native American reservations, edible waste is commonly tossed into streets, alleys, or vacant lots to be consumed by street animals, especially dogs, who may become habituated to the approach of humans and even beg for handouts from passers-by.
Some street dogs eventually become quasi-pets of multiple households, and as such are bona fide “community dogs.”
Other street dogs, however, remain semi-feral, wary of humans, even if living chiefly on the same piles of food waste as the “community dogs.”
Responsibility for vaccination
The significance of the WHO designation “community dog” was that a “community dog” had one or more regular feeders who might be persuaded to take responsibility for vaccinating the dog against rabies and––perhaps––introducing the dog to a home. (Sterilizing street dogs, as of 1990, was rarely done anywhere.)
Either dogs or cats roaming at large without regular feeders, who feed them deliberately, are categorically not “community” animals. Some of the dogs are street dogs, meaning dogs who have never had homes, whose ancestors probably also never had homes, going back hundreds or even thousands of years. Some of the cats are feral cats, a term having similar meaning.
In the U.S., however, and in most highly mechanized societies, with enclosed sewers and routine garbage collection, most free-roaming dogs and the majority of free-roaming cats are most accurately identified as strays.
WHO also defined “stray”
WHO defined a “stray dog” as “An ownerless dog, free roaming and not cared for by any household in a community.”
The free-roaming dogs in Dallas, whom Winograd mentioned, are strays, as are the free-roaming dogs in the other U.S. cities which today have abundant free-roaming dogs. Just a handful of U.S. cities had any verifiable presence of street dogs by 1970; practically none by the end of the 20th century.
While growing numbers of dogs appear to be born at large in some cities today, most free-roaming dogs in the U.S. had ancestors in homes not longer than five years ago. Only very recently has activist pressure on animal control agencies rallied by, among others, Winograd’s No Kill Advocacy Center, incited some of the most troubled agencies to try to inflate their “live release rates” by simply leaving dogs at large.
WHO did not offer a definition for “community” cats, because despite the occasional wandering tom who visits several different porches per day, free-roaming cats with multiple feeders have never been verifiably abundant.
Free-roaming cats tend to be either feral, meaning fully self-sufficient hunters; pets, fed by one particular person or household on a regular basis, but allowed to wander; or strays, who once had a home but no longer do, and tend to fare poorly by comparison to either authentic feral cats or roaming pets.
The U.S. retained a large feral cat population long after street dogs disappeared, partly because cats are smaller than dogs, with smaller food requirements, and partly also because street dogs scavenge much more than hunt rodents, whereas feral cats hunt rodents much more than scavenge.
In addition, cats can access many rodent-hunting locations that are inaccessible to dogs. As street dogs vanished, feral cats claimed some of the last habitat niches that street dogs had occupied, just as feral cats are now doing in other rapidly mechanizing and modernizing societies.
Invention of “community cat”
The term “community cat” was quite deliberately brought into widespread use through a public relations campaign launched on October 16, 2009 by the Best Friends Animal Society in an overt attempt to win more public support for neuter/return programs. Winograd is now pursuing the same tactic on alleged behalf of dogs––and also blatantly misrepresenting the extent to which cats are accepted at large.
Neuter/return feral cat control came into widespread practice in the U.S. in the early 1990s, after a decade of use in Kenya, South Africa, and the U.K., and experimental use since 1980 by Annabell Washburn on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
I helped to field-test and validate neuter/return in 1991-1992 as an effective means of humanely eradicating feral colonies with minimal ecological impact, and as an effective approach to rabies control in the path of the mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic of 1976-1993.
As introduced, neuter/return was meant to sterilize feral cats out of existence. The idea was that cats who cannot be handled and want nothing to do with people, but have found a viable habitat niche, can be sterilized, vaccinated, and left where they are. The cats go on fulfilling their role in the urban/suburban ecology as mousers for the rest of their usually short lives, at which point the mousing role is ceded to native predators.
Merely removing cats, as in catch-and-kill, creates an abrupt habitat void, soon filled by cats coming from other nearby habitats, rather than by native predators, who typically have less than half the fecundity of cats.
Gradually reducing the numbers of cats in a habitat by contrast allows the native predators to breed up to the carrying capacity vacated by cats, until the native predators have completely taken over.
Within a decade of the introduction of neuter/return, the numbers of cats arriving at U.S. animal shelters fell by 75%. Native predators including both red and grey foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls, eagles, fishers and bobcats made spectacular comebacks in urban and suburban habitat nationwide.
Rise of opposition
By 2009, unfortunately, cat population control results attributable to neuter/return had leveled off, largely because the technique was often misused by cat feeders as a pretext for keeping outdoor pets. Even though the U.S. feral cat population has declined to about 20% of what it was in 1990, to about eight million down from 40 million, opposition to neuter/return had increased, and still is rising, because the remaining cats were and are much more visible.
Instead of hiding and sleeping by day, hunting rodents by night, as true feral cats do, remaining invisible to most of the public, fed cats treated as outdoor pets tend to loiter in daytime awaiting their feeders, sometimes conspicuously hunting birds for sport.
If the measure of success of the redefinition of “feral cats” as “community cats” is the intensity of opposition to neuter/return, the effort is a catastrophic failure.
Monkey see, monkey do
Meanwhile, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I might be sincerely flattered by erstwhile street dog advocate Winograd’s emergence as a prominent figure in animal advocacy. This began with publication of Winograd’s 2007 opus Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & the No Kill Revolution in America.
Much of Redemption reprised many of my own earlier writings, making extensive use of my research, occasionally with due credit but most often not. When Redemption was published, I accepted the due credit with thanks, and attributed the frequent omissions of acknowledgement to Winograd’s effort to translate a great deal of often complex information for a less informed audience.
Simplistic & abrasive
What mattered to me, then and now, was that the information was reaching more people. Winograd was often simplistic and needlessly abrasive. Worse, Winograd was condemnatory and disrespectful of some of the humane pioneers he wrote about, whom I had known but he had not, with whom I had often conflicted but had never seen as enemies, even though many of our ideas were in opposition.
Nonetheless, Winograd as of 2007 appeared to me to be helping to effect transitions in how animal care and control work was done that I had begun to research and help promote literally in childhood.
Introducing no-kill methods
Indeed, I had begun talking about founding a no-kill sanctuary as an alternative to animal control killing before entering grade school. I first tried to find adoptive homes for kittens and first extensively censused street dogs and feral cats––in nine western European nations––before Winograd was born. I helped for decades, as a prolific and widely distributed journalist and statistician, to introduce the humane community to almost all of the now standard methods of reducing shelter killing.
Along the way I also helped to introduce the humane community to most of the leaders of what became the no-kill movement, including Winograd himself, whose volunteer work with a pioneering feral cat neuter/return program I first mentioned in print in 1988. I was honored to be keynote speaker at the first No Kill Conference, in Phoenix in 1995, and to have spoken about no-kill technique during the next dozen years at nearly two dozen other national and international conferences.
As of 2007, I did not yet recognize that what Winograd was really doing in Redemption was distilling the many nuances and shades of grey involved in animal care and control work into stark black and white, essentially to “divide and conquer.” I did not recognize that Winograd was demonizing some of the past leadership of the humane cause in order to beatify himself.
Neither did I see yet that Winograd had formed the No Kill Advocacy Center as the hub of what might be called a fundamentalist no-kill cult, around which would revolve a constellation of “crazy cat ladies,” “rescue angels,” “pit pushers,” dog-and-cat breeders, other chronic critics of humane institutions with their own hidden economic agendas, and animal hoarders, for whom the sole criteria by which animal shelters and animal control agencies are to be judged is the “live release rate.”
(See also Nathan Winograd in perspective.)
Rat control & horse manure
Winograd in “Should we TNR Dogs?” mentioned that “some of the early founders of our movement not only advocated against round up and kill campaigns for community dogs, they advocated leaving them alone.”
This could accurately be said of Henry Bergh. Bergh founded the American SPCA in New York City in 1858 and died there in 1888. Bergh’s entire humane career came before the advent of either refrigeration or mechanized transport, in an era when two of New York City’s biggest municipal problems were rat control and what to do with horse manure.
Bummer, Lazarus & the Emperor Norton
Winograd also mentioned that “early San Francisco humane pioneers even raised the money to bail dogs out of the pound in order to release them back on the street.” These were the two dogs Bummer and Lazarus, the reputed consorts of the delusionary Emperor Norton, who was more-or-less the San Francisco town clown from circa 1855 to 1880. What little documentation of that relationship exists, however, indicates that Norton resented sharing gossip columnists’ spotlight with Bummer and Lazarus.
Bummer and Lazarus were better documented as the rat-killing mascots of Frederick Martin’s saloon, favorite haunt of reporters for the Californian, the Daily Alta California, Daily Morning Call and Daily Evening Bulletin.
Bummer, unfortunately, was also a sheep-killer. That landed both Bummer and Lazarus in trouble.
Journalists fond of Bummer and Lazarus bailed them both out of the pound on June 14, 1862, but such was not the good fortune of San Francisco street dogs in general; Bummer and Lazarus were jeopardized precisely because most street dogs unlucky enough to be impounded were killed.
Continued Winograd, “Sterilization and release of dogs, in lieu of killing, is done in other countries and even U.S. territories today. In fact, it is successfully being done in American Samoa, Independent Samoa, the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Cabo Verde Africa, Saipan, and the Galapagos Islands. And the reports have been universally positive for the dogs and for the public.”
Winograd neglected to add, however, that all of these are islands to which neuter/return has quite recently been introduced. More significantly, Winograd overlooked the much longer history of neuter/return of street dogs in many other much larger nations.
India & Turkey
The Blue Cross of India introduced neuter/return of street dogs to the world in 1966, under the banner of Animal Birth Control. The Animal Welfare Board of India adopted Animal Birth Control as recommended national policy in December 1997; I was honored to be present for the vote. The Indian national ABC policy has been federally subsidized since 2003.
Friends of Fethiye Animals introduced neuter/return of street dogs to Turkey in 1997. Turkey adopted neuter/return of street dogs as national policy in 2004.
Both in India and Turkey, neuter/return where conscientiously practiced has markedly reduced the numbers of street dogs––in India from as many as one dog per ten humans, a ratio still seen in villages that lack ABC programs, to fewer than one dog per several hundred humans in many of the biggest cities.
Along the way, both India and Turkey have also experienced explosive economic growth. Exponentially increasing numbers of cars, trucks, paved roads, refrigerators, and flush toilets have drastically reduced the habitat niches for street dogs, so that free-roaming dogs could not return to their former abundance even if the sterilization programs failed. The food sources and cover for so many street dogs simply no longer exist.
India, meanwhile, which long led the world in human rabies deaths per year, is now within striking distance of eliminating canine rabies altogether. The 2015 Health Profile of India, compiled annually by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence, lists just 104 medically confirmed human rabies deaths in 2014, the lowest number on record; new lows were also achieved in 2011 and 2013.
But more dog attacks
Yet India now has more reported dog bites and non-rabid fatal dog attacks than ever before.
This is no surprise to longtime investigators of either street dog behavior or investigators of how and why dog attacks occur.
Sterilization alters dog behavior in two ways that reduce the numbers of bites: by reducing the numbers of bitches with litters to defend, and by reducing fights among male dogs, in which humans may intervene. But sterilization also accentuates territoriality, by far the leading dog trait associated with biting and mauling.
Effects of territoriality
The influence of increasing territoriality, despite sterilization, is starkly evident in the U.S. data.
Fewer than 1% of the dogs in the U.S. were sterilized, in the time frame from 1930 to 1960, and more than half roamed at will. Because female puppies were often drowned at birth to prevent unwanted litters from being born later, the Trumbulls found in 1938 that unsterilized male dogs had come to make up nearly 90% of the total U.S. dog population.
Yet during the 1930-1960 time frame, just 15 Americans were killed by dogs, nine of them by pit bulls, two by Dobermans, four by unidentified mutts.
The first national surveys of dog bite injuries, done in 1960 and 1966, found that an average of about 600,000 Americans per year were bitten by a dog population which was about half as numerous as dogs are in the U.S. today.
Today nearly 75% of the U.S. dog population are sterilized. Owned dogs are rarely allowed to run at large. Yet the U.S. since 2010 has averaged more than 40 dog attack fatalities per year (including 30+ per year by pit bulls), and more than 4.5 million dog bite injuries.
Barking, biting, & defecation
Recounted Winograd’s sole source for the claimed success of the island nation street dog sterilization programs, “Once the packs of males stopped chasing the in-heat females, we saw that the dogs started to hang out in front of their favorite person’s home more.”
That “favorite person” tends to be a frequent feeder. Street dogs who scavenge for a living may guard whatever food they find, but do not become territorial, because they have no territory to defend: they keep moving, searching for food wherever they can find it.
(See also New data shows decline of rabies in India.)
“Community dogs,” by contrast, guard the doorsteps and courtyards that are their food sources. They become territorial; they bark at perceived intruders, and may then attack them.
Even more menacing to passers-by, “community dogs” often rush up to any passer-by carrying edibles, mistaking any passer-by for a potential feeder.
The more territorial dogs become, the more they bark, a considerable source of annoyance to neighbors. And the more dogs loiter in particular favored locations, the more often they defecate nearby, where people walk, work, and play.
(See also Animal control is people control.)
Loss of public tolerance
Intensified barking, biting, and defecation in inconvenient places by the dwindling numbers of Indian dogs remaining at large has in some cities and even a few whole states put political support for the entire ABC approach in jeopardy.
Bluntly put, India is rapidly losing the tolerance for street dogs that it has had for millennia. This is not because of any of the propaganda issued for more than a century in support of aggressive catch-and-kill and poisoning campaigns that killed millions of dogs in futile efforts to stop rabies before the advent of neuter/return.
Rather, India is losing tolerance for street dogs precisely because the success of neuter/return has altered dog behavior much more rapidly than it has amended the behavior of feeders whose hand-outs encourage dogs to congregate and guard inappropriate locations.
Where is the data?
Claimed Winograd, “Initial data from the Samoa experience shows a decline in the number of dog bites after the dog sterilization and release campaign,” but he admitted that “the exact cause of this decline has not been specifically studied.”
Whether there has actually been such a decline also does not appear to have been studied. Neuter/return of street dogs was introduced to Samoa in early 2009, but as of 2013, reported dog bites had increased steadily since 1983, according to articles published by the Hawaii Journal of Public Health and the Bay Post-Moruya Examiner.
“Of course, once shelters are fully reformed, once we live in a No Kill nation,” Winograd concluded, sounding a bit like the Emperor Norton, “sterilization and release wouldn’t be the first choice…redemption and adoption would be. It would and should, however, remain a choice, because killing should never be a choice at all.”
Meanwhile back in the real world, killing street dogs remains the prevailing policy in almost every nation that has them, while those nations in which killing street dogs has yielded to neuter/return lead the known universe in roadkills of street dogs.
If the goal of humane advocacy includes quality of life, and not just preservation of life even when the life is a life of unloved suffering, concluded with a painful and often prolonged end, Winograd’s proposal to bring street dogs back to the U.S. should be consigned to the same scrap heap as his 1996 scheme to popularize pit bulls by renaming them St. Francis terriers.
“St. Francis terriers”
That program, undertaken by his then-employer, the San Francisco SPCA, lasted just 60 days before it was ended by the propensity of the newly adopted “St. Francis terriers” to kill and injure other animals in their households.
Unfortunately, neither Winograd, nor then-San Francisco SPCA president Richard Avanzino, nor the humane community as a whole appear to have learned anything from the episode.
The term “St. Francis terrier” is forgotten.
Needed: a pound for Bummers
Meanwhile, Winograd at the No Kill Advocacy Center and Avanzino in 17 years as the now retired chief executive of Maddie’s Fund have actively contributed to many other pit bull popularization schemes.
Net result: pit bulls adopted from shelters have since 2010 killed more than 20 times more people than were killed by all shelter dogs combined from 1858 to 2000.
And pit bulls are now killing upward of 50,000 other animals per year in the U.S. alone.
Those outcomes should be sufficient to warn people of humane inclinations, combined with good sense, to consign the Emperor Winograd to a pound for Bummers, where sheep never venture.