A History of Animal Sheltering in America & the Origin of the No Kill Movement
228 pages, 2018.
Free download from:
Prodigal Pets, offered as a free download by “Out The Front Door” blogger Susan K. Houser, is the best bargain in books that anyone could hope to discover, if interested in how animal sheltering in the U.S. has evolved, what it has accomplished, and where it may go from here.
As billed in the subtitle, Prodigal Pets is a thoroughly documented “History of Animal Sheltering in America & the Origin of the No Kill Movement”––the best, by far, published to date.
At that, though, Prodigal Pets omits much historical context, which, if included, would have required Houser to write perhaps twice as long a book, going well beyond her focal topic of animal shelter operations.
How did we get here?
The strength of Prodigal Pets, despite the contextual omissions, is not so much in the details it provides of who did what, when, and where, as in the analysis it offers of why.
It is from that analysis that clues emerge as to where animal sheltering may be headed, having currently painted itself into a corner by either abandoning or outgrowing all of the traditional sheltering roles of the past 160 years.
The early humane movement focused upon abolishing egregious cruelty to humans, including “cruel and unusual punishments” and slavery.
Abolishing cruel and unusual punishments was in 1789 enshrined in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but slavery was not abolished in the U.S. until the addition of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
Abolition of vivisection, often practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries as sadistic entertainment in the guise of education, drew some notice, as did abolishing cockfighting, dogfighting, bull-and-bear-baiting, and other cruel entertainments involving animals.
[See The Poet-Physician & The Healer-Killer: Vivisection & the Emergence of a Medical Technocracy.]
Dogs, cats, horses & pigs
Since any animals removed from such abuses were almost always either already dead or dying, however, scant attention was paid to the question of what to do with the victims.
As street dogs and feral cats had been ubiquitous aspects of urban life since the dawn of civilization, practically no thought was given to them in any manner. Dogs and cats running at large were sometimes regarded as a public nuisance, but no more so than the free-roaming pigs who were then a vital part of city sanitation, whose presence went unquestioned.
After all, horse poop and even human poop was much more plentiful along urban thoroughfares than any excreta from either dogs, cats, or pigs.
Only in the mid-19th century, as recognition spread that animals at large and their effluents might spread disease, did controlling street animals become a frequent subject of civic concern.
From abolition to “abolish the dog pound”
As advocates for “humane” behavior were then still several generations from becoming identified primarily with animal advocacy, U.S. humane societies involved themselves in animal control only after cruelties such as clubbing dogs to death and drowning them by the dozens in the nearest pond or river became systematic and conspicuous.
For the most part, this came after the abolition of slavery left the anti-cruelty societies of the era temporarily without a focal cause––though many already ran orphanages.
Anne Waln and Elizabeth Morris began experimenting with operating an animal orphanage in Philadelphia in 1858. The three acknowledged major figures in initiating a humane movement centered on animal advocacy, however––Henry Bergh, George Angell, and Caroline Earle White––were all abolitionists who took up the animal cause in earnest only after the U.S. Civil War.
Bergh, forming the American SPCA in March 1866, soon asked New York City mayor John T. Hoffman to abolish the city dog pound, because of the cruelty he had seen there during an April 1866 inspection. Bergh, however, conspicuously did not offer any alternative, and later suggested only better-managed variations on the basic pound modus operandi.
“Aunt Esther’s Rules”
To the extent that the humane movement offered any answers at all, those answers were prescribed by the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), best known as author of the influential anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
As Houser points out, Stowe, in “Aunt Esther’s Rules,” a story written in 1855 and reprinted in an 1896 book for children entitled Stories and Sketches for the Young, “praised a girl who drowned a homeless kitten after taking it from some boys who were tormenting it.”
Explains Houser, “Humane societies and SPCAs saw their mission as preventing suffering rather than preserving animal life. When Henry Bergh was criticized in the 1870s for not working to stop the killing of dogs at the New York City pound,” although Bergh did work to improve the holding conditions, “he reportedly responded: ‘It does not necessarily follow that there is cruelty in taking animal life; otherwise the butcher exposes himself to this charge, and all who eat flesh are to a certain extent, accomplices.’
Graham crackers & Thoreau
“More than a century later,” Houser continues, “the city pounds and legacy humane associations that killed millions of cats and dogs in shelters every year were merely reflecting the historical view of animal welfare that to cause an animal to suffer needlessly was wrong, but to kill an animal was not wrong as long as the killing was painless and done for a nontrivial purpose.”
The Bergh argument, rooted in the perspective that humans must eat meat, prevailed for almost 150 years. But even in Bergh’s time, it might have been challenged successfully.
Minister Sylvester Graham (1794-1852), who invented the Graham cracker, anti-slavery educator Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), essayist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), and Seventh Day Adventist prophetess Ellen Gould White (1827-1915), among others, had already in Bergh’s time established abstinence from meat as a healthy, virtuous, and socially acceptable lifestyle––though Thoreau himself, while praising vegetarianism, did not actually practice it.
Each enjoyed a growing following by the time Bergh founded the ASPCA.
Henry Bergh missed Noah’s Ark
Indeed, had ethically consistent animal advocacy caught on with the public as rapidly as did either Thoreau’s essays or the Seventh Day Adventist Church, let alone the Graham cracker, we––and animals––would now be living in the largely vegetarian world that climate change may finally force upon humanity during the next several decades.
Unfortunately, Bergh, heir to a ship-building fortune, missed Noah’s Ark on that point, and as Seventh Day Adventist doctrine later had it, was figuratively left behind to drown with the dinosaurs.
Massachusetts SPCA and American Humane Education Society founder George Angell missed the vegetarian boat too.
Caroline Earle White did give up eating meat, late in life, after cofounding the Pennsylvania SPCA in 1867, the Women’s Humane Society in 1869, and the American Anti-Vivisection Society in 1883.
“United voice” split within a year
Meanwhile, the American Humane Association, formed in 1877 as an intended united voice for the organized humane community, had a year later split into two branches, one focused on animal protection, the other on child protection.
More humane societies then operated orphanages than operated animal shelters. Initially providing a secular alternative to the work long done by Catholic and Jewish orphanages, and sometimes by the public workhouses made infamous in England by novelist Charles Dickens, humane society orphanages typically functioned under contract to local governments, in arrangements substantially identical to the animal control contracts of several decades later.
The major difference, as shelter critic Ed Duvin at last pointed out in 1992, was that the orphanages were neither allowed nor expected to kill orphans who failed to find adoptive homes. Instead, humane society orphanages, like their Catholic and Jewish counterparts, typically placed orphans in apprenticeships, or in work as maids or farmhands.
Lady & The Tramp
Orphanage management, and providing related child-protective services, including humane education, remained the dominant concern of the American Humane Association at least until the early years of the Great Depression. Then, financially stressed humane societies began one by one turning the more demanding role of sheltering children over to government agencies, while recovering economic stability by expanding their involvement in animal control.
The Connecticut Humane Society, the last humane society to handle child-protective services in lieu of a government agency, did not give up this role until 1966.
Humane education programs, meanwhile, had been steadily downsized since circa World War I, as funding was diverted into both orphanage and animal shelter operation. By the Great Depression the lead role in humane education had already been ceded to Hollywood, as Houser acknowledges in discussion of the influence of the 1955 Walt Disney animated film Lady & The Tramp, the first realistic screen depiction of animal shelters as they existed at that time.
The 114-question adoption form
Shelter policies established originally to protect human orphans were often extended to animals, and remained in place decades after the AHA itself quit supervising the New York state orphanage system in 1950.
Among the most obvious examples was the 114-question animal adoption form originally published by the AHA circa 1913 for use by member orphanages, reissued with only slight revision for animal shelter use circa 1948, and still in distribution as late as 1992.
Susan Houser mentions the form in Prodigal Pets, and discusses how Mike Arms in particular introduced much simpler, friendlier adoption screening, initially during his 20 years as head of shelter operations at the North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, New York (1997-1996), and since 2001 as president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
But Houser does not seem to realize where, when, and why the form originated.
A second obvious example of policies and practices carried over from the orphanage era to animal sheltering was the introduction of night drop-off boxes to facilitate owner-surrenders of unwanted pets. Much decried in recent years, including by Houser in Prodigal Pets, night drop-off boxes were adapted from the “foundling wheels” used by convent orphanages, from the Middle Ages to this day in some nations, to discourage infanticide and abandonment of newborns.
“Foundling wheels” originated as cradles mounted on wagon wheels or in barrels, into which a newborn could be anonymously placed from one side of a wall, and then be rotated to the other side. The wheel or barrel rang a bell when the cradle was rotated to the inside of the wall. Such devices have for centuries allowed desperate and usually unwed young mothers to surrender infants they could not keep, or care for, to nuns, without fear of identification and condemnation.
(The nuns at convent orphanages today, however, typically make an effort to find those young mothers as rapidly as possible to prevent suicides, which often follow an infant surrender, and to re-unite the young mothers with their nursing infants if this can be safely accomplished.)
Focusing exclusively on animal sheltering, Houser unfortunately makes no mention at all in Prodigal Pets of the orphanage era in humane work. This is a critical omission, since issues arising during the orphanage era had much to do with shaping the circumstances that Prodigal Pets otherwise describes and addresses in praiseworthy depth.
An orphanage run by the Mohawk & Hudson Humane Society, on the same campus as the then-American Humane Association headquarters in Albany, New York, at peak occupancy circa 1920 housed as many as 10,000 children, according to then-ASPCA and later longtime American Humane Association president Sydney H. Coleman in his 1924 book Humane Society Leaders in America.
That number, astronomical though it sounds by today’s standards, was not implausibly high for the era. Many humane societies housed or fostered 1,000 or more orphaned or abandoned children at a time, as did some of the older and bigger Catholic and Jewish orphanages.
Often humane societies initially took on animal control housing contracts as a means of suitably employing teenagers and teaching them good work habits, including marketable job skills. The teens would begin by handling dogs and cats, graduating to handling horses, and sometimes to carriage driving and farrier or even veterinary work, at a time when most veterinarians were trained through apprenticeships rather than through formal schooling.
Skilled horse handlers were in steady demand before the automobile era, and animal shelters with animal control housing contracts continued to receive considerable numbers of lost or abandoned horses until decades after automobiles displaced horses in most transportation uses.
Susan Houser in Prodigal Pets describes how line kennels gradually came to replace “gang pens,” today called “group housing,” as humane societies during the 20th century took over pound management, but does not mention that line kennels were adapted from the age-old hunting kennel practice of keeping hunting packs in spare horse stalls.
Until horse-drawn vehicles almost entirely disappeared from city streets, animal shelters, including some early 20th century buildings still in use, were typically built with stable facilities that were later adapted into kennel space, initially augmenting “gang pens,” and eventually replacing most of them––until “group housing” relatively recently came back into vogue, to facilitate better socialization of dogs slated for eventual adoption.
The American Humane Association had already tried several times to drum out vegetarians and anti-vivisectionists during the lifetime of the immensely respected Carolyn Earle White. But neither vegetarianism nor anti-vivisectionism were the central issue.
Many orphanage-operating American Humane Association member agencies believed that meat was essential to the diets of young people, but many did not, and served as little meat as possible, albeit partly to cut costs and partly in the belief that a low-meat diet suppressed sexual appetite.
John Harvey Kellogg
Many orphanage-operating AHA member agencies were persuaded that vivisection had scientific and educational value, but many others were not. Most of the animal-focused humane societies remained staunchly anti-vivisection, including the Massachusetts SPCA, whose Angell Memorial Hospital, opened in 1918, has taught veterinary medicine for more than a century without including vivisection in the curriculum.
The focal reason for American Humane Association membership antipathy toward vegetarians and anti-vivisectionists may have been opposition to the influence of physician and food entrepreneur John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943).
Persuaded to vegetarianism through early acquaintance with both Sylvester Graham and Ellen Gould White, Harvey had also become an ardent eugenicist, along with many of the other most influential people of the era.
Eugenics in much sanitized Oxford dictionary definition is “the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable.” The Oxford dictionary alleges that eugenics “fell into disfavor only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis.”
In truth, eugenics from the first was scientized racism, with quite a few other “isms” stirred into the mix. The root belief among eugenicists was, and remains, the pretense that a racial and cultural hierarchy with white Anglo Saxon Protestants at the top and dark-skinned people at the bottom was, and is, an inevitable and positive outcome of evolution.
Eugenicists saw, and still see, mentally handicapped people as evolutionary “throwbacks,” to be identified early in life through the use of intelligence tests and kept from reproducing.
Eugenicists further believe, and continue to believe, that white Anglo Saxon Protestant power-holders are also justified in doing everything possible to keep darker-skinned Catholics, Jews, Asians, and other black and brown people from reproducing.
Eugenics became law
Emerging in the late 19th century, the notion of eugenics easily fused with the conservation theories of John Muir, Madison Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt, among others (see Why mass shooters sometimes sound like conservationists); the family planning advocacy of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger; opposition to immigration and racial integration, then led by the Ku Klux Klan; and both far-left and far-right political movements.
Eugenic concepts were soon incorporated into law. Laws enacted in various states, for instance, and proposed in many others, mandated sterilization of young women who received public assistance, especially those who were either orphaned or jailed.
Tens of thousands of young women were involuntarily sterilized, and thousands of male prisoners too, mostly non-English-speakers and young men of color.
Standing against eugenics & the Klan
Standing against eugenics, and against the Ku Klux Klan, were the Catholic church, the major branches of Judaism, and the American Humane Association, allied in concern for the children in their care. Many of those children, born out of wedlock, abandoned, rescued from abusive situations, and/or born to immigrants for whom English was a second language, were easily said to be of subnormal intelligence, especially those who also happened to be dark-skinned.
In several respects the long and ultimately successful struggle against eugenics deserves to be remembered as the greatest triumph of the early humane movement, parallel to the work of the American Humane Education Society, in particular, in helping to build the foundation for the civil rights movement by sponsoring the work of black humane evangelists William Key, John W. Lemon, Richard Carroll, and Frederick Barnwell Rivers from 1898 to 1945.
(See Four black leaders who built the humane movement.)
That none of this is widely known, or remembered, is largely due to the post-World War II purge from the institutional memory of most humane organizations of any trace of the orphanage era, along with all trace of pre-World War II black and Jewish leadership, including the substantial accomplishments of New York Humane Society and First Church of Animal Rights founders David and Diana Belais (1870-1944).
(See “Intersectional issues” broke up the 1st Church of Animal Rights––in 1921.)
How eugenic theories took over animal sheltering
Basically, as Houser traces in Prodigal Pets, albeit without using the word “eugenic,” eugenic theories took over animal sheltering, even while falling out of favor elsewhere in polite society.
From the beginning of humane society involvement in operating animal shelters, Houser writes, “Purebred dogs had more value and snob appeal than mixed-breed dogs, but the dislike for mixed breeds went beyond that. There was a common belief that mixed-breed dogs had inherently bad characters that rendered them useless to society. Mixed-breed dogs were called ‘curs,’ ‘mongrels’ or ‘yellow dogs,’ and none of those terms was complimentary. A reporter in New York expressed a typical sentiment when he referred to dogs at the city pound as “a set of worthless curs.’ An 1858 book for young people advised that mixed-breed dogs were ‘certain to be cowardly and thievish, and likely to be treacherous, noisy, and unruly.’ On the other hand, according to the author: ‘Almost all pure-bred dogs are good.’
“Attitudes toward dogs sometimes reflected class stratifications,” Houser observes, “and working-class people and immigrants did not necessarily share the disdain that the upper classes had for mixed-breed dogs. A reporter in Boston, writing about working-class neighborhoods in 1895, said: ‘It is often remarkable what an affection people will show for the poorest kind of curs.’”
Spay/neuter caught in the crossfire
An unfortunate consequence of the American Humane Association stand against eugenics was that spay/neuter to curb the births of “curs” and “alley cats” got caught in the crossfire.
Alexandre Liautard, who founded the American Veterinary Medical Association at Astor Hall in New York City in 1863, just a few doors away from Clinton Hall on Astor Place, where Henry Bergh founded the ASPCA three years later, had already literally “written the book” on animal castration in 1884.
Houser in Prodigal Pets details the work of other pioneering veterinarians to develop spay/neuter procedures, including animal anesthesia, as we know them today––though she mentions only in passing the achievements of J.C. Flynn, of Kansas City.
Flynn, on record as early as 1913 deploring that most veterinarians were “uninterested” in acquiring best practice dog and cat skills, including learning how to do spay/neuter, developed the basic early-age sterilization technique in 1925.
This was three years after Flynn developed the now almost universally recommended small-incision spay technique, which he called “Spaying without sutures.”
American Humane opposed s/n until 1973
The American Veterinary Medical Association approved the basic dog and cat spaying and castration surgeries in 1923, but the American Humane Association immediately denounced the AVMA position as “vivisection,” although it had actually voted anti-vivisection societies out of eligibility for membership circa 40 years earlier.
Then-ASPCA president Sydney Coleman, a devout Catholic who later headed the American Humane Association before returning to the ASPCA, felt that if spay/neuter was accepted for use on animals, the AHA would have a much more difficult struggle to prevent spay/neuter from being inflicted on humans in the name of eugenics.
Coleman articulated his perspective repeatedly in The National Humane Review, the AHA monthly membership magazine, as did Richard Craven during a 10-year tenure as editor preceding his formation in 1940 of the AHA division that monitors U.S. screen productions through a contract with the Screen Actors Guild.
The American Humane Association, while lamenting in the early 1950s that spay surgery cost too much to be widely adopted, did not actually withdraw opposition to spay/neuter surgery on dogs and cats until 1973, by which time practically no one remembered why this policy was ever adopted in the first place.
(See AVMA insight: cats are not dogs, so “Fix felines by five months”)
Liautard & Flynn vs. Naramore & Bonner
Houser in Prodigal Pets tends to accept the argument that spay/neuter surgery techniques and technology were simply not ready for widespread use until the 1970s.
Reality, though, is that Liautard, Flynn, and others could have taught exactly the same skills taught and popularized by Marvin Mackie, DVM, and the other originators of high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter surgery, if the humane community had been willing to pay attention.
No technology is involved in gas anesthesia as practiced in spay/neuter clinics today that was not known to animal gas chamber inventor Raymond Naramore in 1937, who then headed The Humane Society of Rochester & Monroe County, and to Richard Bonner, who as Los Angeles animal control chief, popularized the use of decompression to kill animals, beginning in 1949.
Naramore and Bonner just did not choose to address preventing dog and cat overpopulation instead of trying to kill it out of existence, and the humane community, represented by the American Humane Association, did not challenge their priorities.
(See North Carolina ends gassing.)
High-volume shelter killing of owner-surrendered and stray dogs and cats, already practiced in big cities since the 19th century, as Houser traces, became the U.S. norm in the mid-1940s.
This was partly in response to a boom in pet-keeping paralleling the post-World War II “baby boom,” which––in an era before the advent of easily accessible and affordable spay/neuter––produced surging shelter intakes of unwanted puppies and kittens.
Use of the term “euthanasia” to describe the killing, however, came into widespread use in response to the advent of “pound seizure.”
Universities rapidly expanding involvement in biomedical research in the post-World War II era turned to shelters as a source of dogs and cats for use in experimentation and dissection.
When humane societies balked at allowing animals to be used in painful procedures, many states passed “pound seizure” laws, almost all of them now repealed, requiring any shelter holding an animal control housing contract to surrender animals to laboratories on request.
“Shelter workers saw high levels of killing as a necessity”
The only way an open-admission shelter with public contracts could avoid surrendering live animals for laboratory use was to euthanize any animal who might be taken, before the “bunchers” who were the “middle men” between shelters and labs could seize them.
Susan Houser in Prodigal Pets describes the influence of “pound seizure” on animal sheltering; Allie Phillips provides further detail in How Shelter Pets Are Brokered for Experimentation: Understanding Pound Seizure.
“Shelter workers saw high levels of killing as a necessity in those years,” Houser writes, “because there were not enough homes for the number of animals coming into shelters, not to mention the number of homeless animals in the environment who never came into shelters.
“This view of the necessity of shelter killing was illustrated in a 1978 essay written by Phyllis Wright, the head of shelter issues for the Humane Society of the United States. The essay, titled ‘Why Must We Euthanize?’ was widely read, and shelter workers could point to it when members of the public accused them of being uncaring.
“Kill the homeless”
“Wright argued that dogs and cats, as domesticated animals who had been selectively bred to be pets, needed a home and family to have a good quality of life,” Houser summarizes. “She identified companionship with humans as one of the most important factors in the lives of cats and dogs.”
Wright thereby overlooked that most dogs and cats, throughout human history, had never lived indoors with humans. Half the cats in the U.S. as of 1950, and a third of the dogs, were alley cats and street dogs, as confirmed through exhaustive research by National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull.
(See Street dogs in the U.S.? and “Vagrant” or “feral” cats: part 2 of What to Call Cats & why it matters.)
Wright argued, Houser continues, “that a dog or cat who did not have its own home and loving family would inevitably suffer to the point that humane killing was a preferable alternative to life in a kennel.”
“The freedom to live”
Houser also mentions that “This welfarist approach was typified by a concept called the ‘five freedoms,’ which was originally designed to apply to farm animals [actually, to laboratory animals, by W.M.S. Russell and R.L. Burch, in 1959], but was adapted for animal care in many other contexts, including animal shelters. The five freedoms are freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear and distress. Notably absent from this list is the freedom to live.”
When push came to shove, to make more room in cages, animal shelter operators opted for the eugenic concept of killing “inferior” dogs and cats, while encouraging the reproduction of allegedly superior purebreds by politically and economically aligning themselves with fanciers whose declared ambition was to “improve the breed” of whatever style of dog or cat they favored.
This attitude was perhaps most blatantly demonstrated by the longtime close relationship of the American SPCA with the Westminster Dog Show, the flagship event of the American Kennel Club. This culminated in the tenure of longtime Westminster Dog Show ringmaster Roger Caras as ASPCA president, 1991-1999.
Gifford & Kibbe
Houser in Prodigal Pets, to her considerable credit, extensively profiles many of the individuals and organizations who resolutely stood against the trend, developing the techniques and philosophy now identified as “no-kill,” a term that Houser accurately mentions was originally associated with catch-and-release fishing.
Ellen M. Gifford’s no-kill Gifford Home, founded in 1884 in Brighton, on the outskirts of Boston, still exists despite a long history of attempts by the Massachusetts SPCA and others to absorb, plunder, and dismantle it (which Houser touches upon only briefly, omitting mention of an epic court battle waged to save it by former nun Dorothy Checci-O’Brien [1930-2001].)
Much more influential than the Gifford Home was, and is, the Bide-A-Wee Home, founded by Florence Kibbe in 1903. Houser offers much more about Kibbe, who died in 1943 at about age 80, than ANIMALS 24-7 has ever discovered from other sources.
Briggs & Sanders
Kibbe directly inspired, encouraged, and at times bailed out fellow no-kill sheltering pioneer Anna Briggs. Raised herself in an orphanage, Briggs with her much older husband James P. Briggs operated the Be Kind to Animals Rest Farm (1920-1932) in Potomac, Maryland, which was foreclosed during the Great Depression.
After James P. Briggs died, Anna Briggs in 1948 founded the National Humane Education Society, continuing to direct it until her death in 2011 at age 101.
Circumstantial evidence indicates that Kibbe also inspired and encouraged Marianne Sanders. Sanders in 1944 founded the North Shore Animal League, of Port Washington, New York, by far the biggest and most successful no-kill animal shelter in the U.S. during the 20th century, and in turn influential in the debuts of many others.
(See Who invented No-Kill.)
The North Shore Animal League
Houser extensively profiles the North Shore Animal League, especially the role of Elisabeth Lewyt (1913-2012), who headed the organization from 1969 until shortly before her death.
As Houser points out, much of the celebrated success of the San Francisco SPCA, Maddie’s Fund, and Best Friends Animal Society in furthering no-kill animal sheltering over the past 30 years may be attributed to their emulation of techniques developed by the North Shore Animal League.
The North Shore Animal League, meanwhile, for decades took considerable abuse from much of the rest of the humane and animal rights communities for contradicting the then-conventional belief that animal shelters could somehow kill their way to heaven.
Shelter killing & the animal rights movement
Houser enlighteningly examines how the rise of the animal rights movement, initially focused on laboratory use of animals, later changed the paradigm of animal sheltering––albeit against some of the most deeply entrenched views of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) founder Ingrid Newkirk.
Newkirk, who previously headed the Washington D.C. animal control department, in 1981 enshrined precepts from the Phyllis Wright essay “Why must we euthanize?” into the PETA bylaws.
Houser sidesteps tangling with Newkirk, but explains that animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, “in his 1983 book The Case for Animal Rights defined the proper use of ‘euthanasia’ of an animal to refer to a killing that is as painless as possible, done in the objectively correct belief that death is in the interest of the animal being killed.”
Therefore, Houser writes, “Killing healthy animals in shelters should not be called ‘euthanasia,’ in Regan’s view, because such killings are not in accord with the animals’ preferences and are not objectively in their interest.”
(See Tom Regan, 78, made the case for animal rights.)
In The Name of Mercy & Ed Duvin
“Regan was one of the few animal rights advocates to grapple with the problem of shelter killing in the 1980s,” Houser observes, but––like Henry Bergh more than 110 years earlier––Regan was unable to suggest an immediate solution. When animal-rights advocates did think about companion animals, they [like Newkirk] sometimes concluded that the entire institution of ownership of companion animals was ethically wrong because it was exploitation of the animals.”
Enter Ed Duvin, a veteran of the civil rights movement, who “published a newsletter called animalines that he started in 1979,” Houser summarizes. “He combined an uncompromising view of animal rights with a pragmatic understanding of the social and economic factors that kept people from facing the evils of society’s treatment of animals.”
Duvin occasionally addressed the contradictions of animal sheltering, as it was then practiced, stirring considerable controversy, until “in late 1989,” Houser recalls, “Duvin published In the Name of Mercy, by far his most influential essay.
“Duvin had interviewed many shelter directors and workers in the months before writing Mercy and had studied shelter operations, and was not impressed with what he had seen.
“He noted in Mercy that ‘in most communities across the country’ animal shelters ‘represent the sole voice for other beings, a voice that is often inaudible.’”
Developing statistics to counter the damned lies
“The shelter industry did not have accurate national statistics,” Duvin complained, “which were “an indispensable element in developing, evaluating, and refining effective policies.”
(ANIMALS 24-7 subsequently tabulated national sheltering statistics annually, 1993-2014, by which time much better funded organizations were finally doing the job. See Record low shelter killing raises both hopes & questions.)
Assessed Duvin, “It’s evident that the shelter community either doesn’t know enough or care enough to meet even the most marginal professional standards.”
“Borders on the obscene to describe killing millions as merciful”
Concluded Duvin, “Although euthanasia cannot be completely avoided at the present time, it borders on the obscene to describe the killing of many millions of innocent and healthy beings as a merciful act.”
Writes Houser, “Duvin noted that shelters justified the killing by arguing that they were merely caretakers, and that ‘irresponsible pet owners’ were to blame. He found those justifications ‘not only self-serving, but preposterous on the face of it’ given the deficient management and operational practices of even the wealthiest shelters. Duvin acknowledged that ‘the public is not an innocent bystander,’ but faulted shelters for their failure to reach out to the public and educate people about what was happening in shelters.”
Where Prodigal Pets ends
Duvin directly inspired the late Lynda Foro (1941-2016) to found the national no-kill advocacy organization Doing Things For Animals, to publish several editions of an annual No Kill Director, and to initiate an annual No Kill Conference series, 1995-2005, underwritten by the North Shore Animal League.
(See No Kill Conference & No-Kill Directory founder Lynda Foro, 74.)
Houser recounts in depth how the No Kill Conference enabled the North Shore Animal League and the San Francisco SPCA, in particular, to share life-saving techniques centering on high-volume spay/neuter surgery and adoption promotion with animal shelter personnel nationwide.
In addition, the No Kill Conference brought the no-kill Best Friends Animal Society to national prominence.
Having only quietly attended the first No Kill Conference, the Best Friends Animal Society was by 1999 holding twice-annual No More Homeless Pets conferences modeled after the No Kill Conference, and today claims to have had a longtime leadership role which before 1999 was practically invisible.
This, for all practical purposes, is where Prodigal Pets ends.
“Noses in” and “Noses out”
“I chose 2000 as the cutoff point,” Houser told ANIMALS 24-7, and explains at greater length in the book itself, “because it seemed to me that it was around that date that ‘noses in’ and ‘noses out’ became close enough in a significant number of communities that open-admission No Kill was no longer an unrealistic idea.”
Fair enough. Another book will have to be written by someone to explain how the runaway success of the no-kill movement has since then, paradoxically, come to mirror some of the worst excesses of the high-kill animal sheltering era.
The crux of the problem is that the success of an animal shelter today has come to be measured almost entirely in terms of the “live release rate,” or “save rate.”
This simply compares the animal “noses in” and “noses out alive” ratio, without taking into account who those noses belong to.
Why the ratio is misleading
Back in the high-kill era, most of the “noses in”––upward of 70%––resulted from surplus births of puppies and kittens. Many of those animals were easily and safely rehomed, but there were just too many of them.
Thus, paradoxically, adoptions from U.S. animal shelters peaked and plateaued circa 1984 at about four million per year, even as shelter killing, at 17.8 million, remained relatively close to the all-time high of about 23 million, reached circa 1970.
Shelter killing today is down to less than 1.7 million dogs and cats per year. Shelter adoptions, together with adoptions facilitated by shelterless “rescues,” may be down to as few as three million per year, substantially less than in the high-kill era, despite enormously increased resources expended on adoption promotion.
About 95% of the reduction in numbers of animals killed at animal shelters since the 1970s, in short, is attributable to the success of the humane community over the past several decades in persuading most pet keepers to get their dogs and cats sterilized. Relatively few puppies, kittens, and other safe, easily rehomed animals now arrive at animal shelters.
Abdicating the job, to keep the “live release rate” up
Yet, to be recognized as “no kill,” a shelter must rehome 90% of the animals it receives, even if those animals are fractious, frightened feral cats and lunging pit bulls with bite history.
Animal shelters continue to impound dangerous dogs, but increasingly reluctantly, since either killing them or holding them indefinitely is inherently incompatible with achieving a high “live release rate” to meet the objective of becoming, or remaining “no kill.”
Cats found at large, relabeled “community cats,” are increasingly often not accepted into shelters at all. This is not a problem for bona fide feral cats, who want and need nothing from humans in the first place, but leaves wandering stray cats who are dependent upon humans at constant risk from irate birders, gardeners, private pest control contractors, and dangerous dogs.
In addition, while well-managed neuter/return programs quite effectively reduce feral cat populations, programs such as “return-to-field,” a euphemism for leaving cats found at large, at large, tend to normalize allowing pet cats to roam, without anyone taking responsibility for their care and well-being.
Where is Nathan?
As the title of Houser’s “Out The Front Door” blog indicates, she seems to believe that a 90% “live release rate” should be the goal of all animal shelters––though there are indications in Prodigal Pets that Houser may be rethinking some of the presumptions she may have made when beginning to research the book, many years before completing it.
Late-comers to animal sheltering issues may wonder, for instance, that No Kill Advocacy Center founder Nathan Winograd, who along with the Best Friends Animal Society and Maddie’s Fund has most vigorously advanced the 90% “live release rate” standard, rates not even a passing mention in Prodigal Pets.
But this is contextually accurate.
Where Winograd was
Winograd was a volunteer, as a Stanford University undergraduate, with the Stanford Cat Network, founded in 1989 by Carole Miller and Carole Hyde at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Winograd also later headed the Law & Advocacy Department at the San Francisco SPCA.
Both the Stanford Cat Network and the San Francisco SPCA Law & Advocacy Department made contributions to the progress of no-kill sheltering that Houser thoroughly credits; but the SF/SPCA Law & Advocacy Department was most influential under Winograd’s predecessor, Pam Rockwell.
Winograd, as of 2000, was not yet nationally known and indeed had not yet even attended a national no-kill conference. It was Winograd’s 2007 book Redemption: The No-Kill Advocacy Movement in America that made him nationally known; that he now postures on the No Kill Advocacy Center web site as “the father of the no-kill movement,” as the history recounted in Prodigal Pets makes plain, should make him look nationally ridiculous.
In fairness, it must be observed that the chief difference between caring for foundlings and the no-kill movement may be that a multitude of men pretend to be the fathers of no-kill.
(See Nathan Winograd in perspective.)
Pit bulls: unacknowledged looming crisis
Many readers may also be surprised that Houser, a sometime pit bull advocate, says nothing whatever about pit bulls in Prodigal Pets. This, however, is also consistent with her chronological framework.
As of 2000, when Prodigal Pets concludes, ANIMALS 24-7 had been warning the animal sheltering community of the coming pit bull glut for more than a decade, tracking the increasing numbers of pit bull attacks since 1982, and owner surrenders and impoundments since 1993; but almost alone.
As keynote speaker at the first No Kill conference in 1995, which Houser otherwise describes in detail, the author of this review pointed out the necessity of breed-specific legislation to compel pit bull sterilization, since pit bull owners seemed to be uniquely resistant to accepting spay/neuter (and still are).
Despite that, and despite ANIMALS 24-7 having pointed out the same issues at 22 more national humane conferences through 2007, pit bulls did not become a frequent discussion topic at conferences and in animal sheltering media until after the large-scale pit bull evacuations from Louisiana and Mississippi that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and even more so, after the 2007 dogfighting case involving football player Michael Vick.
(See Pit bull advocates owe Michael Vick bigtime, at victims’ expense.)
Soaring fatalities by shelter dogs
The reality of the situation today, a statistic that Houser does not mention, is that before 2000 only two dogs rehomed from U.S. animal shelters had ever killed anyone. Both were wolf hybrids, who killed children in 1988.
Today, at least 75 dogs rehomed from shelters, 52 of them pit bulls, have participated in killing 46 humans, disfiguring at least 426, and killing thousands of other pets as well.
Having abdicated the lead role in protecting public health and safety from dangerous dogs, the animal sheltering community may now have a difficult time winning back public confidence squandered in the rush to go “no kill” at any cost.
Ups & downs of democratizing animal shelters
The no-kill movement of the past 20 years might also be described as an era of democratizing animal sheltering.
This has been a positive development, in that the advent of neuter/return, shelterless rescues, and internet-assisted adoption brought vastly more volunteers to work on behalf of homeless dogs and cats, but has also often been disastrous when under-skilled amateurs have been allowed to assume the care of animals they have neither the resources, know-how, nor mental stability to adequately look after.
Animal hoarding in the name of rescue has proliferated to the point that an average of more than 100 “no kill” sheltering and rescue organizations per year have collapsed in each year of the 21st century to date, typically meaning the deaths from starvation and neglect of more than 100 dogs and cats.
(See Casualties of the “save rate”: 40,000 animals at failed no-kill shelters & rescues.)
“Overcrowding, sickness, suffering & secrecy”
Recounted ANIMALS 24-7 photographer, graphic artist, & researcher Beth Clifton in her May 2019 essay Recurring nightmare: my escape from a serial no-killer, “The concept of ‘no kill’ sheltering, meaning that animals would not be killed simply for exhausting a set holding time or because a shelter was out of housing space, sounded to me then,” as animal control officer during a 2013 attempt by the city of New Port Richey, Florida, to go no-kill, “like a sensible and humane plan for shelter animals.
“But as I learned,” Beth continued, “first through my New Port Richey experience, and since then through extensive research into other attempts to convert animal control agencies to ‘no kill’ by delegating much of their work to volunteers, what I saw first-hand in New Port Richey is occurring all over the country.
“Overcrowding, sickness, suffering and secrecy to conceal the realities of ‘no kill’ have become the new norms of animal sheltering, in mirror image of the ‘high kill’ era, when shelters practiced secrecy to keep the public from finding out about that.”
Ed Duvin’s words still pertain
Ed Duvin’s words of more than 30 years ago, that “It is evident that the shelter community either doesn’t know enough or care enough to meet even the most marginal professional standards,” unfortunately still pertain.
Then, as Houser recounts, “shelters justified the killing by arguing that they were merely caretakers, and that ‘irresponsible pet owners’ were to blame.”
Today, shelters and rescues often use the same excuses to rationalize passing out pit bulls and other dangerous dogs, to excuse high-volume criminal neglect, and to abdicate any pretense of concern for what becomes of animals at large, so long as deaths do not count against their “live release” rates.
Then, Duvin “found those justifications ‘not only self-serving, but preposterous on the face of it’ given the deficient management and operational practices of even the wealthiest shelters.”
Still urgent need to address the issues, instead of hiding them
Today, Duvin, 79, an avid ANIMALS 24-7 reader, continues to acknowledge that “the public is not an innocent bystander,” as Houser put it, but still faults the sheltering and rescuing community “for their failure to reach out to the public and educate people” about what is happening.
Indeed, as Prodigal Pets details, animal shelters have over the past 50 years come much farther, faster, to overcome a festering social problem than the organizations addressing any comparable issue: racism, addiction, poverty, hunger, and homelessness are but a few examples.
But there is still urgent need for the animal care community to learn to avoid covering up catastrophic mistakes, such as turning over animals by the hundreds to hoarders and rehoming dogs who kill people, and instead directly address the continuing problems.
Joel Klutch says
Just your run-of-the-mill, exhaustively-researched post of 7,500+ words. Very thoughtful of you to provide Houser with the 2nd half of her book.
(Seriously, spectacular article!)
Ed Duvin says
Your review of Susan’s Prodigal Pets might have been your longest book review, but it was written with consummate skill–the work of a highly accomplished pen. I was moved by your kind words regarding my “indictment” of grossly substandard practices, which were the prevailing norm and remain so in too many shelters. I know most of the quotes were taken from the book, but you superbly captured the sine qua non of my critique.
Please tell Beth that I love the photo of her when she was at New Port Richey––beautiful then, beautiful now.
“Today, at least 75 dogs rehomed from shelters, 52 of them pit bulls, have participated in killing 46 humans, disfiguring at least 426, and killing thousands of other pets as well.”
Something is surely wrong somewhere.
Thanks for the review.
Debra J. White says
To me it’s not helping to say we’ve reduced our euthanasia numbers by simply closing our doors to unwanted animals which is what Maricopa County has done.
We are one of the largest counties in the country and they closed down the east shelter.
The west shelter isn’t taking cats at all. No wonder there’s an abundance of free roaming cats and dogs around. The county claims they will pick up strays but from what I hear that’s not always the case.
The county hired yet another director who is a vet. I hope she’s better than what we’ve had.
Our most euthanized breeds are pits/pit mixes, chihuahuas and chi mixes and cats. Even when
we offer free spay neuter people still won’t do it. Onward we go.