“REDEMPTION: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America” by Nathan J. Winograd. 2007. Subsidized through Almaden Press.
There’s a rhetorical story, an old chestnut, that I first heard in Portland, OR, where I was an animal control officer. It was told by Portland Commissioner Jordan and it went like this: “You’re standing on the bank of a river when suddenly you see a drowning baby floating by! At considerable risk, you swim out and save the infant. Next day there is another one. And then more, so you organize a baby-saving crew that has their own boat to get out there to save all those babies. Taxes have to be raised to pay for it. Eventually, it dawns on someone that it would be a good idea to go upstream and find out how all those babies are getting into the river in the first place.”
This book is about saving the babies when they are seen floating by, one by one, with the utmost intervention for each one of them. Except the babies are dogs. To many people dogs are very much like children in fur and their relationships to “their” dogs are nearly as strong. What we were doing at animal control was as much about preventing babies from going into the river as about saving them. This book has a religious term for a title: “Redemption,” which is God saving humans from damnation, and reveals that the paradigm for the writer is not about babies but about having the god-like power of saving animals in kennels from being killed. To keep up dedication to this end, it is necessary to locate a Devil, which the writer identifies as the HSUS mostly. The Humane Society of the United States is a nonprofit that makes huge amounts of money but maintains no kennels. To Winograd, kennels are where the action is, which is true for many people.
This three-cornered interpretation of what happens in the dog world is very much like the psychologist’s diagram of what happens with co-dependent people: there is a victim, a persecutor and a savior. This structure underlies all attempts to reinterpret or restructure the interaction. The victim needs the help, the persecutor is defensively righteous, and the savior gets much gratification for being “compassionate” and for achieving small successes.
Another structural and conceptual force at work here is that because humane societies commonly run shelters, they have often been contracted by jurisdictions to either accept impounded animals or to actually hire and supervise animal control officers. This leads to confusion about the purpose of the officers: to prevent cruelty (a role that makes one look good in the eyes of the neighbors) or to impound dogs, which is not done to punish the dog but to keep them safe for owners to redeem. Even animal control entities that are not entwined with humane societies are often seen by their jurisdictional supervisors (usually city or county commissioners) as “dog catchers” -- impounders of animals. But impounding animals is strictly a by-product of enforcing animal laws, the same as a jail is a by-product of law enforcement. The real work is educating, warning and citing human beings and it does not happen in a kennel -- it happens out in a neighborhood.
I’ve wondered and wondered about the fascination some people have with the kennel and with the killing of animals that cannot be placed with owners. Maybe it’s partly because it’s a place anyone could go and see. This author insists that ALL animals can be placed and that ALL homes are loving. He thinks that all dog-owners are like himself: people who carefully choose their pets, cherish them, and supervise them. But the larger American custom comes from rural land and small towns, much like where I live. Dogs sometimes choose for themselves and will simply attach to a family much as they would attach to a pack. A humor writer on the radio told about his cat who “slept all night” and “went out mousing all day.” Then he met a man several blocks away who said his cat “went out mousing all night” and “slept all day.” It was the same cat, who had little reason to mouse at all, since he was getting fed in both homes.
In my experience the dogs that get impounded are not really stray or unowned at all. They are CARELESSLY owned dogs who think of their dogs as free-lance and don’t bother to go to the shelter to look for them, don’t bother to put identification on them, simply wait for a new dog to enter the household from a friend, or by showing up with one of the kids, or just occupying the front porch one morning. Since in Portland officers stayed on the same “beat,” we got so we could recognize individual dogs. There’d be a few who were impounded, unclaimed, adopted out again, only to go back to their previous home. When we finally had enough time to send officers or volunteers to check on newly adopted dogs, they had sometimes “run away.” When we insisted that they could not adopt a dog without a decent fenced yard, this stopped. We’d been pouring dogs through a sieve.
HSUS likes to demonize puppy mills. Many are beginning to demonize AKC propaganda about how much one’s status and admirability will be improved by getting a dog. Some are even realizing that cute dogs in the media cause overbreeding and therefore dissemination of substandard versions to people who don’t realize what they are getting into. It’s interesting that “Redemption” shows as its “cover dog” a Jack Russell terrier, a breed now so popular that over-optimistic people buy them and then are appalled when the busy little critters drive everyone nuts. There is a Jack Russell Rescue organization.
Having a dog is like having a mother and eating apple pie. To Americans (and probably English even more so) all dogs are Lassie. Killing them sounds atrocious. Shelter attendants obliged to do it pay a high psychological price. The drugs attract all the wrong people. As a nation, at least in the cities, no one is home in the daytime except the elderly. Many burglaries are committed in the afternoon -- better than night for remaining unseen. The dog may bark, but who will hear it?
This book is actually a defense of specific programs that Winograd managed. I also was part of specific programs (Multnomah County Animal Control) and know that many of the things he says are untrue. For instance, in 1973 we were already working hard to get subsidies for spay/neuter programs and LA was one of the first to start their own clinic. He does not name some of the people I can identify, but he does name Phyllis Wright, because she was the HSUS rep trying to guarantee humane euthanasia and kennel practices. As such, she was one of the few to actually enter the kennels.
Winograd doesn’t recognize the programs that have become very popular around here, where a team of veterinarians volunteer to spay or neuter pets in small towns for free or at low prices. They rent a gymnasium or cafetorium for the day and sterilize a hundred animals at a time. The owners of the animals, including the children, bring their pets and blankets and comfort their animals while the veterinarians circulate among them until they are stabilized enough to go home. Feral cat programs are expanding: cats are caught, sterilized, and put back into their ecology. I read about vets who convert RV’s into rolling offices and circulate through neighborhoods.
In short, there is a huge complex of forces out there, many of them economic and some psychological. We have not thought much about the religious dimension. One of the most frightening phenomena has been little teams of people (usually young adults, maybe of the “Goth” persuasion) who appoint themselves Death Angels and kill animals, leaving them in dumpsters. My starting premise would be that we are all struggling to understand how humans are animals but animals are not humans in the face of the Revelation that it takes very little change in a genome to create a new species. One way of maintaining superiority is to assert one’s ability to kill, rather in the way that a male -- challenged by an uppity woman -- might demonstrate superiority by killing the female. Sick, demonic, damning as such a phenomenon is, you can read about it in the daily paper.
Ideally we would not have to kill nearly so much as we do. In the best of worlds, animal control officers could pass through the streets and visit the houses without condemnation. (The first officer shot to death on duty happened this last year.) And humane societies could both maintain proper kennels and work to reform our larger society without lining their pockets and crowing about it.