Do the Math

September 14th, 2011 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

I get forwarded lots of animal articles.  Pretty much daily I can count on getting at least one which involves some agitating reform group condemning some animal shelter somewhere.  Inevitably the condemnation revolves around the animal shelter in question euthanizing animals which shouldn’t be euthanized.  It is rare that I see one of these articles and don’t shake my head at the shallowness of the attacks.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think the states of most shelters in America and the entire U.S. animal welfare “system” are archaic and deplorable.  I routinely state that I think half the people in animal welfare should find other work because they are, at best, ill equipped and, at worst, very nearly criminally unqualified to do their jobs.  I think management of the majority of shelters is terrible, that health and welfare programs within most are sub-par, and that a culture of secrecy, defensiveness and cronyism blocks most meaningful change.

However, that doesn’t mean these “death row dog” groups, No Kill acolytes, and candle light vigil holders are correct in the reasoning of their attacks.  Nathan Winograd, the Dumbledore or Voldemort of animal welfare, depending on your personal view, beats the drum loudly that it is simple math and he is correct, in the most simplistic way.

He uses some simple math to show that there are more pets needed by the public than there are in shelters.  Therefore, simple math shows that no animals should be euthanized.  The death row acolytes then highlight all the animals euthanized for what they view to be questionable reasons: non-life threatening illnesses, behavioral problems, or even just no space.  Heck, you can even count on someone to protest if an animal is slated for euthanasia after killing a person.

Taken together, one could believe that there really is no reason for any animal to be euthanized in a shelter.  The logic goes that badly run shelters are euthanizing adoptable pets when simple math shows us there must be more homes looking for pets than there are animals needing homes in shelters.  Just do the math, stupid.

Except the math isn’t that simple.  People and animals aren’t numbers.

The simple math tells us something very different.  More animals enter shelters than are adopted, leading to lots of animals euthanized.  Some of these animals- some– face euthanasia due to entrenched, old school, better-dead-than-adopted-to-a-renter-or-at-Christmas, shelter thinking.  But most are euthanized for a simple reason.

People don’t want them.

People don’t want older pets.  They don’t want ones which pee on the furniture.  Or growl.  Or are this color or that color or this size or that size.  Math may be simple but people are complex.  You can do all the equations you want:  Ten people in a community need dogs.  Eight dogs enter a shelter.  10 – 8 = all the dogs adopted with room for more!

But the word problem is a little less simple:  Q: Ten people want to adopt a dog, all prefer a puppy, preferably not a pit bull.  Eight dogs enter a shelter.  Four are pit bulls, seven are not puppies, four have behavioral or health issues.  How many dogs get adopted?  A:  Depending on which one is the puppy and which ones have the health or behavioral problems, between one and four of the eight get adopted.  The rest get euthanized.

These advocates would say, “They should work more with rescues, make it easier to adopt, have more outreach.”  Yes, they should.  But HSBC literally gives away pets and we don’t have 100% adoption.  We pay for adoption billboards, have tons of outreach, have “One Penny Stray Adoptions”, give away free health care to adopted pets, have adoption retention programs, and we still can’t get every animal adopted.  Would we do more with more resources?  Yes!  Would it be better?  Yes! But better wouldn’t mean all and it never will.

People are fickle.  They want what they want and the reality is they don’t always want what’s in a shelter.  Don’t believe me?  Think about the amount of out of date food that gets thrown away in grocery stores.  The manufacturers have mathematicians, accountants and huge advertising budgets and they still have food which rots on shelves.

Or how about the simple fact that there are hoards of people wanting to adopt children yet there is still an unending supply of brown skinned non-infants sitting in orphanages and foster care for no other reason than those people want white or Asian infants, not a twelve year old black boy.  We leave orphan children to rot in America.  Why do death row dog advocates think we won’t do the same with a dog?

When these passionate animal advocates spend their time claiming simple math and working on absurd legislation rather than advocating for legal and animal health care service reforms which would allow us to be more like Great Britain and other nations which don’t have our animal euthanasia crisis, they just prolong and defer implementation of the solution.  They are well intentioned.  But so are the old guard sheltering people they demonize.

I don’t claim to have “the” solution.  I just know that most of “the” solutions being put out there aren’t as easy as 2 + 2 = 4.  People and animals aren’t numbers and the answers aren’t that simple.


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13 Responses

  • Nathan Winograd has shown, again and again, that it may not be simple math but it is absolutely possible to run a shelter without killing animals that are not hopelessly ill. The main tenet is this: the first rule is NO MORE KILLING. Once everyone understands that, then solutions are found. NO excuses. Many shelters have done it and you can too.

    It may not be simple but it’s possible and I for one am done with people who say it cannot be done. When I learned that the majority of animals in homes do NOT come from shelters the answer seemed pretty obvious: get that message across about back yard breeders and puppy mills. If there is just a 3% increase in adoptions there will be no “overpopulation”. It isn’t rocket science.

    • Karel Minor says:

      RE: Judith Lautner’s comments: Ending euthanasia isn’t like demonstrating that the Earth revolves around the Sun. If one could “show” how to do it as Copernicus showed our planetary revolution, there’d be less argument. No one argues that the sun goes around us because that’s something you can “show”. It does not differ between San Francisco and San Jose. Winograd conflates mathematics with human behavior and nature, things which do not directly translate. People are not governed by math as the physical universe is. Yesterday the NYSE varied 80 points over the course of the day, yet the market fundementals were not changed. People just bought and sold based on their gut. My father drove Chevy trucks, my wife’s father Ford. We have a Toyota. No reason but preference.

      Winograd offers the proof of a messiah, not a scientist. Like all leaders of faith, he has tenets which are of value and can guide our lives and work. But it is not the kind of “proof” which will guide a space shuttle, make cancer go away, keep my kids safe in a car accident, or get someone to adopt an old, incontinent, ulgy, pit bull who growls. And the next one and the next one. For the first, I’ll want a scientist, a doctor and an engineer. For the last, I’ll just have faith and pray, but no math will make that dog’s equation balance out.

      I believe I mentioned we will literally give away our animals. If we have an animal slated for euthanasia, we’ll let pretty much any rescue with a pulse try their hand. No one can claim we have barriers up. Yet we can’t get them all adopted. And that doesn’t include the thousands which now go somewhere else to face euthanasia when we stopped providing dog catching and euthanasia contract services. There is no way to adopt our way out of our national euthanasia crisis, we must stop animals from arriving. In that way, the simple math you propose may give us hope for an afterlife but it does not provide us with a template for a life that gets us there.

      I offer no excuses and I don’t say it can’t be done. I do say it’s not as easy wishing. If wishes were horses, beggers would ride. Please, tell me right now how to empty my shelter, today, tommorow, next week, next month, next year, the next 100 years. And the shelter next door. I’m begging.

  • Wonderful article. Thank you for a much-needed breath of fresh air. We need to stop fighting each other, stop the personal attacks, and refocus all that energy on solutions – not hype, rhetoric, or fuzzy math. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we start saving lives.

  • Tammy Hawley says:

    I had to share this with my animal friends. It’s what I have always wanted to say but can never find these words… I know helping animals is a huge challenge and takes a lot out of each of us. When I read this, I felt rejuvenated just by knowing someone understood how I felt. We must do what we can – even though we know – it’s never going to be enough. We just can’t give up.Thank you for understanding!

  • Milo Goin says:

    This is excellent, Karel! Winograd and his minions seem to be completely unable to do math, and are so out of tune with reality that it makes the entire debate just worthless (not that you can actually have a discussion with them, they are overly vapid). You’ve nailed the problem on the head, and for that I am grateful.

  • Judi Burnett says:

    Your after”word” is even better than your fore”word.” Thank you! So well said!

  • Rosebud says:

    Your article is passionate, COMpassionate, and articulate. You are correct in this. “Wishing” it to be true, cannot make it true, However, there are MANY operating examples of No-Kill, or shelters rapidly improving their numbers on their way to No-Kill. Perhaps speaking TO THEM, speaking to the people in the trenches that ARE making it work, is a better solution than attacking the “messenger”. Messiah to some, Anti-Christ to others…it really doesn’t matter what Winograd says. If you are REALLY about saving animals, then speak to those shelters that DO, and find out HOW they do it. My shelter here in Plano, TX, while not having a 90% save rate, has save rates consistently in the 75/85% range year long, and over multiple years now. Those shelters operating at No-Kill status are proud of that, and are willing to talk to anyone, literally ANYONE who wishes to find out how they do it. So, it “can” be done, it IS BEING done, and I’m not saying that 90% success is around the corner, but any improvement is a success, isn’t it? Good marketing of shelter animals, and welcoming, inclusive volunteer/foster programs are only two of the critical steps to successful shelters. Those that can attract LARGE volumes of volunteers and fosters, generally are able to put all the other steps in place easily. But volunteers/fosters have to be treated as intelligent, wise, and needed for whatever talents they can bring. The application process must be simple. And they must be treated as allies, and not have to “prove” themselves before being accepted. If you want them, you make it easy for them, and treat them as if they bring something very important to the shelter…they will come in droves. If they must fill out a 10 page application, sign non-disclosure agreements, be relegated to inferior jobs, and not treated with respect, or looked upon as a liability…guess what? You’re not going to have volunteers…and without them, you cannot save large numbers of shelter animals.

    From Karel: Thanks so much. We actually are one of those example shelters and are running around the same rates ourselves but also reflect that harder and harder climb the closer to 90% (God forbid 100%) we get. Our volunteer hours have tripled in the last four years, so we have loads of support there. We have volunteers functioning at every level from cleaning to architectural services. Our donors are super generous (although our crumbling old kennels could use a little more generosity- hint, hint, if any donors are reading). I must politely point out that 75/85% or even 90% is not good enough for these strident advocates and they most vehamently attack those of us like your shelter and mine which are the closest to achieving the top end of the scale.

    The problem I have is with the “just stop killing” mantra, as if that’s actually an answer. It’s like saying that if you are on a wet road and a tree falls in front of your car, the answer is to “just stop”. Or like the SNL skit with Oscar Rodgers whose answer to the broken financial system is to “fix it!” Believing that it’s more complicated than a slogan or that there are very real situational and regional variations doesn’t make a sheltering professional evil as some imply- or flatly state. Bizarrely, many of these agitants save their greatest vitriol for the places closest to 100% saves. Why one would attack SFSPCA with a profoundly low kill rate with there are others nearby with literelly exponentially higher kill far below national norms is beyond me. I’d love to talk to you about your programs and will email directly. K

  • peace says:

    Of note is that Winograd is a hero among breeders (‘responsible’ and otherwise), the pet sales industry, and the “animals-as-property” crusaders. His books are championed by the likes of the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is no friend to anyone who cares about animal rights or welfare.

    It’s best to do some research before you assume Winograd is your buddy.

    From Karel: Is that a generic “your” buddy or imply that Nathan’s my buddy? I thought I was pretty deft at leaving that up in the air in this one, at least explicitly, but even so it would take a pretty contorted read to find a bromance with him implied here. It is interesting that he is beloved by a big tobacco created astroturf group like the CCF.

  • peace says:

    No, I meant “your” in the generic sense. I’ve noticed that many animal advocates have latched onto Winograd out of the belief that he’s a great crusader on behalf of animal rights and welfare. I was encouraging everyone tending toward this POV to do some more research into Winograd’s ties before they see him as some sort of guru.

    From Karel: Thanks.

  • pixie says:

    Do you think that training the adult dogs– not only training them out of behavioral issues, but also to do neat “crowd pleaser” tricks– might help? I’m sure there’d be some experienced owners and dog trainers willing to volunteer, even if just to teach some of the regular volunteers how to train the dogs.

    After that, you could take some of the dogs, especially the more “undesirable” ones (pitties, black, visibly older, etc) and just sort of take them for walks in populated areas, show people tricks, maybe do stands somewhere or something?

    It seems like that would help warm people up to the idea of a shelter dog. I think a lot of people would like the idea of getting a well-trained adult dog who’s already been worked with.

    I’ve read about people training them before, but I think that tends to just be in a foster care situation, right?

    Unfortunately, there will always be those people for whom shelter dogs just aren’t really suitable for whatever reason (people who don’t find themselves compatible with the breeds or dogs available there, for example), but there’s also people who just think they aren’t suitable when really, with training and socialization, they are.

    • Karel Minor says:

      I think you are exactly right and most “shelters” (in the traditional central sense) are doing exactly this things. These efforts certainly make shelters dogs more genrally adoptable and increase the post adoption success, which is important since adoption returns are a huge hidden begative factor in shelter numbers. It helps across the board, as well; although I still challenge the factual basis for the “big, black dog” claims and would welcome the frist person to show hard data on this as a major, independant issue.

      But for those who do not want an adult dog or mixed breed dog or want to come to a shelter- and the shelter experience still leaves much to be desired all too often- shelter pets may still not be their choice. There is interesting new hard research showing that among cats shelter acquisition is in third place after simply taking one off the streets or from a friend. This could make the case for shelters being a worse place for a cat to find a home than just wandering the streets, not that I’m making that case. Yet. Unless we can either mandate shelter acquisition, outlaw any other avenue of acquisition, or completely change the hearts and minds of people immediately and miraculously, there is no simple switch that will suddenly empty our shelters of the young, old, sick healthy, black, white, big, small pets which are in them. We can improve, as we have for decades. But a claim of a magic equation is intellectually spurious.

  • sophia says:

    this article, as well as its follow-up comments feel like they came out of my brain. i volunteer several days per week at my local shelter (it is a no-kill, but i have volunteered at either/or), and work with several all-breed and pure-breed rescues in colorado. the difference being is that here, it seems to be a point of pride to be able to say, at the dog park ‘i adopted my blind, 12 yr old tri-pod from the ____ shelter,” as a conversation starter. people here are really, REALLY into volunteer work, and altruism. i find that when the odd duck says ‘we got him from a breeder in kansas,” people will kind of disengage. crazy, right? not sure if this has much to do with it, but we have a pit bull ban in denver. i am pro-BSL, which can make one unpopular in the ‘saving dogs’ world. we do have the mixes and they seem to be adopted out just fine. the one concern i have is that when a shelter claims to be ‘no kill’ it generally means they cannot also be ‘open intake.’ (our shelter actually does take in serious behaviorals and remain no kill, but most won’t.)

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