A few weeks ago, I came across an invitation from the New York ACC to attend a presentation by Dr. Roger Haston from PetSmart Charities. After seeing Dr. Haston’s impressive educational background, a PhD in Geophysics and an MBA, an apparently successful professional career, and his analytical approach, I was eager to attend. In fact, I was so interested in the topics I watched two of his presentations from elsewhere. Subsequently, I went to his speech in New York City. Based on the New York ACC hosting this event and also having Dr. Haston separately teach the organization’s staff, its safe to assume the New York ACC holds similar views to Dr. Haston.
Does Dr. Haston have the right vision for “the future of animal welfare”?
Overview of Animal Welfare History
Dr. Haston’s presentation was nearly identical to ones he’s given across the country. You can view one he recently gave here. In person, Dr. Haston was articulate and presented his material in a clear and concise manner.
First, Dr. Haston provided a short history of animal welfare in the United States. As others, such as Nathan Winograd, have stated, Henry Bergh launched the humane movement with his focus on animal cruelty in New York City in the 1800’s. Dr. Haston then talked about how poor treatment of livestock in the United Kingdom in the 1960s led to the creation of the “Five Freedoms” as a humane standard for treating these creatures.
Dr. Haston then discussed the growth of the humane movement starting around 1970. These things included the creation of high volume spay/neuter clinics, eliminating cruel euthanasia methods, increased veterinarian involvement with shelters and more adoptions. He then talked about developments in the 1990s, such as the no kill movement starting, large well funded shelters, reduced intake from high volume/low cost spay/neuter efforts and increased public interest in adopting. Finally, he talked about the Asilomar Accords, which is a method of tabulating animal shelter statistics and computing live release rates that have been criticized by many animal advocates as a way to excuse shelter killing, and the growth of rescues and transports after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Dr. Haston also made some other good points. He talked about the growth of transports and how the financial incentives can lead to fake rescues selling animals. Dr. Haston also talked about the failure of the animal welfare community to reach pet owners in need in poor areas. In particular, he provided a nice example of why “free” spay/neuter is often costly to people in these areas and explains why many people don’t take advantage of these services. Finally, he made a point, which I have also long made, that we need more animal welfare organizations to merge to reduce costs and improve efficiencies.
If this is all Dr. Haston discussed, I would have had a very positive review. Unfortunately, much of the rest of his presentation was repackaged excuses for shelter killing. Dr. Haston stated “conflicts and confusion” developed in the 2010s and called out no kill groups, such as Nathan Winograd’s No Kill Advocacy Center, for being divisive. Unfortunately, this set the tone for Dr. Haston’s views.
Myths of Pet Overpopulation, No Kill Shelters Severely Limiting Intake and No Kill Advocates Instigating Threats of Violence
As I’ve discussed in the past, the live release rate cannot be the only way we view shelters. Specifically, we must also ensure shelters have relatively short average lengths of stay and use large percentages of their appropriate animal enclosures to maximize life saving. In addition, we must also evaluate if and how effectively shelters implement the eleven no kill equation programs, which include humane care.
Dr. Haston provided a graph with absurd data to make the point that we shouldn’t focus on live release rates at animal control shelters. On the graph, he showed how transported dogs were generally easy to adopt. However, on the other side of the graph, Dr. Haston showed about 25% of local community intake at animal control shelters in his data set from the Pacific Northwest were “unhealthy/untreatable.” Based on the many no kill animal control shelters across the nation taking in predominantly local dogs, we know no where near 25% of dogs are hopelessly suffering or a serious threat to people without the possibility of rehabilitation. Thus, Dr. Haston seemed to just accept seemingly bad shelters words that they had all these unadoptable animals despite numerous no kill animal control shelters proving the opposite with their very high live release rates.
In another presentation he gave several years ago, Dr. Haston implied no kill leads to selective admission and shelters turning their backs on animals in need. Furthermore, Dr. Haston’s past presentation argued limited admission shelters in communities lead to the animal control shelters filling up with unadoptable animals. How do we know this is not always true? We have plenty of examples of animal control shelters achieving dog live release rates of around 95% to 99%, taking large numbers of challenging dogs and having selective admission shelters in their communities.
If that was not bad enough, Dr. Haston’s seemed to imply we should kill less adoptable dogs and transport in easier to adopt ones. He used data from an undisclosed sample of shelters, most of which I would bet are not elite no kill animal control shelters, showing intakes of certain types of dogs, such as pit bulls and Chihuahuas, exceeding their positive outcomes to insinuate we can’t save these types of dogs. In fact, he said “we can’t adopt our way out of” the so-called pit bull problem. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve posted extensive data of high volume animal control shelters saving over 90% and up to 99% of pit bulls. You can view these blogs here, here and here. In fact when asked about saving pit bulls in shelters, Dr. Haston could only provide a nebulous and incoherent answer about solving a community problem. In other words, Dr. Haston implied until society somehow magically transforms, we would have to keep on killing pit bulls despite numerous animal control shelters proving we can save these dogs.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Dr. Haston later talked about a person who was “brutally killed by a pack of stray pit bulls.” As far as I can tell, he was simply quoting a news article that stated four pit bulls killed the victim. However, a later article stated only two of the dogs were pit bulls with the other two dogs being a boxer mix and a Queensland heeler mix. In fact, DNA tests from two forensic labs found no evidence that these dogs even killed the victim. Given many dogs are mislabeled as pit bulls, it is irresponsible for any animal welfare leader to assert “a pack of stray pit bulls” killed someone without DNA evidence supporting that claim. Even if the dogs truly were pit bulls, Dr. Haston shouldn’t be using “pit bulls” to single out these types of dogs given many breeds of dogs can and have killed people. Sadly, it seems Dr. Haston has an anti-pit bull bias.
Dr. Haston also stated shelters were underfunded and seemed to suggest we couldn’t expect great shelters without that funding. In particular, Dr. Haston had a graph showing per capita funding of shelters in various cities with New York City near the low end. In reality, the New York ACC takes very few animals in and is in fact well-funded on a per animal basis, which is the appropriate funding metric. The New York ACC received $647 per dog and cat from the City of New York based on recent data compared to Kansas City’s no kill animal control shelter receiving just $136 per dog and cat from its city contract. Even if we doubled the Kansas City shelter’s funding to account for animal control services it doesn’t currently provide, Kansas City’s no kill animal control shelter still would just receive $272 per dog and cat impounded or just 42% of the New York ACC’s government funding per dog and cat. How do these shelters succeed with such little government funding? They limit costs by moving animals quickly out to live outcomes and gain donations and volunteer support due to the public supporting their great work. Thus, Dr. Haston’s implication that we must wait until the day when money falls from trees to get shelters we deserve is patently false.
Dr. Haston also implied that the focus on live release rates and no kill led to threats against shelter personnel. In reality, no kill leaders, such as Nathan Winograd and Ryan Clinton, also tell advocates to act professionally and avoid personal attacks. To imply no kill advocates are responsible for the bad behavior of others is a cheap shot designed to discredit a movement.
Perhaps, most misleading, Dr. Haston talked about Italy’s no kill law leading to overcrowded shelters and the mafia running those facilities. While I have no idea whether the mafia runs all Italian shelters, no serious people advocate for Italy’s ban on all shelter killing. Instead, advocates argue for the Companion Animal Protection Act which requires shelters to take common sense steps to get animals out of shelters alive, responsibly reduce intake and provide elite care to animals in those facilities.
Finally, Dr. Haston points to Calgary as a solution to the “pit bull problem” and increasing public safety, but this is simply a mirage. Under the Calgary model, high dog licensing rates and severe penalties are credited with increasing live release rates (via increased numbers of dogs returned to owners) and reducing dog bites. However, as I wrote about several years ago, Calgary’s high licensing rate is due to the city’s relatively wealthy and educated population and not the so-called Calgary model. Many wealthy and educated communities also achieve high dog licensing rates and 90% plus dog live release rates.
Backwards Looking Future
Dr. Haston’s concludes his presentation by going anti-no kill. On a slide about successful messages “starting to get in our way”, Dr. Haston cites “No kill”, “Save them all” (which Best Friends has used as a call to action), “Animals should only be adopted” and “People want to kill adoptable pets” among other things. If you read between the lines, Dr. Haston seems to say “stop with no kill and saving lives” and focus on other things.
In fact, Dr. Haston states we’ve begun to reach the “limit” of lifesaving, “the anti-euthanasia movement has become unhitched from animal welfare as defined by the Five Freedoms” and “animals are starting to suffer because of it.” The Five Freedoms are as follows:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease
- Freedom to express normal behavior
- Freedom from fear and distress
Most notably, the Five Freedoms do not include to most important freedom, the freedom to live. If you don’t have the freedom to live, you can’t have any of the other freedoms since you won’t be alive to experience those freedoms.
Frankly, it is impossible for shelters to give animals the “Freedom from fear and distress” if those facilities kill animals, particularly those that routinely do so. Animals sense death and to claim a kill shelter can prevent animals from fearing the ultimate abuse, which is a very real possibility, is completely “unhinged” from reality.
Sadly, Dr. Haston is just repackaging the long disproven claim that no kill equals hoarding and poor care. Numerous no kill animal control shelters, such as Williamson County Animal Shelter in Texas, Kansas City’s KC Pet Project and Virginia’s Lynchburg Humane Society, achieve average lengths of stay for dogs of just one to three weeks. Clearly, these shelters are not warehousing animals. Will these shelters sometimes during an emergency, due to say a hoarding case, double up kennels or even place a dog in a temporary enclosure for a very short period of time? Yes. Apparently, according to people like Dr. Haston, we should just immediately kill a dog instead of doubling him or her up in a kennel or putting the animal in a temporary enclosure for a day or two. This is akin to saying we should kill children in refugee camps since they aren’t experiencing all their “Five Freedoms.” If no one in their right mind would assert that for people, why would a so called animal lover demand animals be killed when obvious lifesaving alternatives exist?
In reality, shelters fully and comprehensively implementing the No Kill Equation not only provide these freedoms, which frankly are the bare minimum, but provide elite care and the most innovative programs to keep animals happy and healthy. For example, the full version of the Companion Animal Protection Act requires shelters provide high levels of veterinary care, socialization to animals, rigorous cleaning protocols and the most humane ways of euthanizing animals. In fact, traditional shelters, the ones Dr. Haston likes to lionize, are the very organizations opposing the Companion Animal Protection Act and its high standards of humane care.
Dr Haston provides nebulous goals that mirror what poorly performing kill shelters have stated for years. Specifically, Dr. Haston says we should have the following goals:
- Preserving and building the relationship between all pets and people
- Eliminating, cruelty, suffering and abuse
- Maintaining public trust and safety
The goal of “Preserving and building the relationship between all pets and people” is vague and conflicts with shelter killing. What exactly does Dr. Haston mean? How does he measure this? What are the metrics he uses to show success? In the presentation, he provided none rendering this goal meaningless. In contrast, when shelters needlessly kill healthy and treatable animals they destroy the relationship between pets and people by directly killing their pets (i.e. when shelters kill animals before an owner reclaims the pet or kill animals families had to surrender). Furthermore, kill shelters send the message to people that their pet lives do not have value. If the “professionals” kill a pet for cost or convenience, why shouldn’t a regular pet owner who is having some problem?
The goal of eliminating cruelty, suffering and abuse is laudable, but the greatest amount of companion animal cruelty, abuse and suffering occurs in regressive shelters. Virtually everyone supports ending animal cruelty. In fact, this is why I spent a large amount of time and money helping pass a new law to professionalize animal cruelty law enforcement in New Jersey. However, routine, systemic and institutional abuse occurs in many of the nation’s kill shelters. After all, if you ultimately will kill an animal, what difference does it make if the animal is in discomfort shortly before you take its life? Sadly, time and time again, we see high kill shelters abuse animals before committing the ultimate abuse, killing. Remarkably, Dr. Haston not only fails to demand shelters to stop killing, he seems to want us to increase that killing by telling us to not criticize shelters needlessly killing animals.
The “Maintaining the public trust and safety” goal is also a hidden attack on no kill. This goal, when you view it in context with the entire presentation, implies shelters must kill a good number of pets to protect the public from animals. The No Kill Movement has long supported shelters euthanizing dogs that truly are a serious threat to people with no reasonable hope of improving when reputable sanctuary options don’t exist. In fact, No Kill Learning talked about this recently. However, successful animal control shelters’ data show at most, a few percent, or as little as 0.2% at Austin Animal Center, of all dogs coming into such shelters are truly dangerous to people and can’t be fixed. In fact a University of Denver study found that severe dog bites did not increase in Austin during the time its dog live release rate skyrocketed to a very high number. Thus, the implication that proper implementation of no kill and public safety are not compatible is simply not true.
While Dr. Haston clearly is an intelligent, successful and articulate person, I think his own involvement with traditional animal welfare organizations has clouded his thinking. Dr. Haston served on the board, and ultimately was the chairman, of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. Over the years, this organization opposed no kill just as Dr. Haston apparently does. Ultimately, he started a full time career as the Executive Director of the Animal Assistance Foundation before moving onto PetSmart Charities. The Animal Assistance Foundation muzzles organizations which use “divisive language” by making them ineligible for grants. So if an organization calls out a high kill shelter for needlessly killing animals, the Animal Assistance Foundation will apparently not give them grant money. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Animal Assistance Foundation Statement of Position on Community Responsibility provides many excuses for killing animals yet does not demand those organizations not kill animals. Thus, Dr. Haston clearly has his own biases and we should take that into consideration.
At the end of the day, Dr. Haston mars his valid points with his support for shelter killing. How can one credibly talk about preserving the bond between pets and people when this very same person condones shelter killing? How can a person talk with authenticity about ending animal cruelty when that same individual enables the ultimate abuse, which is killing? Simply put, you cannot talk coherently about helping animals if you support needlessly killing those same creatures.
Dr. Haston’s anti-no kill message is dangerous for animals due to his influence. Given he speaks around the country, has an impressive background, is articulate and represents a large animal welfare organization, many people could be swayed by his pro-killing message. Furthermore, PetSmart Charities holds the purse strings on large amounts of animal welfare grants. If PetSmart Charities incorporates Dr. Haston’s anti-no kill views into awarding grants, this could disadvantage no kill organizations and enable pro-killing groups in the future. Thus, its imperative that no kill advocates challenge Dr. Haston’s anti-no kill message.
Given the New York ACC’s continued failure to end the killing at its shelters, is it any wonder why they brought Dr. Haston in to “educate” the public and teach its own staff? Despite what the New York ACC hoped to achieve, the public will see through an impressive resume and a slick presentation to see the New York ACC for the poorly perfoming and high kill sheltering organization that it is.