By Laura Oppenheimer
Nathan J. Winograd is on a mission: he wants every shelter in the United States to stop euthanizing homeless animals. His list of achievements are admirable: he is a former prosecutor, an SPCA administrator who oversaw the first no-kill animal shelter in the country (in San Francisco), founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center, and most recently an author. His new book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Movement in America, concerns the evolution of shelter management and procedure in the United States, and the birth of the no-kill movement. We talked to Winograd about his life’s work and why he believes no kill can become a reality.
I read that you used to be a corporate attorney and criminal prosecutor. How did you initially get involved working with animals?
I graduated with a degree in political science, which like most people who majored in it, meant I couldn’t get a job. So, I went to law school, but knowing that I always wanted to help animals. One day in my dorm, I heard a women calling out to a cat in a high-pitched voice, “here kitty, kitty,” like that. I went and looked out the window and I saw her feeding a cat, who she told me was part of a community of cats on campus who were homeless; she was involved with a trap neuter release (TNR) program. I spent the next three years getting an education about US animal shelters, while the rest of my classmates were studying their textbooks. When I became a prosecutor, I always chose the animal cruelty cases. As some point I realized I wanted to be working on the other side, with the animals before it got to this point. It was then that I began to work at the San Francisco SPCA.
With your work at the San Francisco SPCA and other shelters, you have been able to institute drastic and positive changes. How are you able to do this so effectively?
We thought about it this way. How do you create a no-kill community? We used trial and error and tried to follow the golden rule. If I were a shelter dog or cat, what would I want to happen to me? At this time, other shelters were saying that trap neuter release is the same as abandoning an animal. At the end of the day, however, our efforts resulted in a 70 percent reduction of killing in the shelter.
Can you explain the idea behind the no-kill movement?
The first SPCAs in the country were started by people with tremendous vision and passion. They trumpeted animal rights and care. They initially started working with pounds and animal control to advise and offer support… and then they took on more than they could handle as they took over managing the pounds entirely. What the no-kill movement is trying to do is to go back to these original roots. That was my goal in San Francisco when I left to take on a shelter in upstate New York. People didn’t believe we could achieve the same successes in a rural community as we did in a cosmopolitan urban area. When we succeeded, the shelters said you could do it in the North, but not the South. After we worked at Tompkins [in New York], we went to Charlottesville, Virginia and turned it into the second no-kill community in the country. Then they said we wouldn’t be able to do it in a developing community. So we took our program to Reno; 91 percent of the dogs and 80 percent of the cats were placed in homes… and this is out of a shelter that takes in 15,000 animals a year. These changes all happened in less than a year.
How did this turn into the No Kill Advocacy Center?
San Francisco was, at the time, one of the most successful communities at lifesaving. When San Francisco was saving 82 percent of animals, we thought other communities would flock come to us and find out what the cure is for the disease that is shelter killings. But they didn’t. That is where the impetus for the No Kill Advocacy Center came from. We try to provide the tools for activists to use to implement the programs in their own communities.
Don’t all shelters want to be no-kill? Why does your program even need to exist?
That is the great question. Why is it, given the success of San Francisco, Reno, Charlottesville, etc, that all shelters aren’t embracing this model? The bottom line is that when you look at job descriptions for shelters across the country, they look to hire people not on what their successes are in life saving, but what their experiences are working in shelters. Running shelters used to be a mission, but now it is a job. When lives are at stake, if you don’t have someone who is passionate about saving lives… then you have a bureaucrat. And someone lost in the clichés of “too many animals, not enough homes.”
What are the steps a city or a shelter needs to take in order to start moving in that direction?
The most important step is to hire a director or leader who is passionate about saving lives. Other parts of the program include a TNR program, a program to provide foster care, allowing community volunteers to come in, caring for sick dogs and cats… Following the steps in the no-kill equation can result in a decline of 50 or 60 percent in killings in a year.
Are their any detractors? What do they say?
Many national groups like PETA argue killing homeless animals is an act of kindness. They preach the right to life for pigs, chickens, etc. but don’t believe in the no-kill philosophy for companion animals. PETA has always been derisive about no-kill. The Humane Society still claims that killing homeless animals is the kindest thing to do.
Tell me a little bit about your new book.
My hope is to reach the larger dog and cat loving American public. The concept of no-kill, while controversial amongst shelter personnel is not controversial with the American dog- and cat-loving public. Unfortunately they’ve been led to believe killing in shelters is a necessary evil. My hope is that if they are provided with the info in my book, they will rise up and demand the end to killing in shelters. The public needs to make themselves heard that they are tired of the killing.