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Meet the Man Who is Rescuing Animal Welfare

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Nathan Winograd is the leader of the No Kill movement, a genuine revolution in animal welfare. Three million healthy and adoptable pets will be killed next year in America's shelters. Not, however, if Winograd and his growing army have any say. I caught up with him a few weeks after the No Kill Advocacy Centre's annual conference in Washington D.C.

COOPER: Congratulations: the last couple of months have been huge for you guys. I understand the No Kill Conference went swimmingly?

WINOGRAD: We had nearly 900 people. They came from all over the world: 44 U.S. states and 10 countries.

C: That represents growth?

W: In 2005, at the first conference, we had roughly two dozen attendees, from a handful of states. I was the only speaker.

C: The dark ages.

W: There was only one No Kill community.

C: Hang on. In the entirety of the U.S.?

W: Yes, Tompkins County in New York.

C: That was your project.

W: Right. And I spoke about how we'd done it. This year, over 50 communities have save rates better than 90 per cent. They represent about 200 cities and towns across America, and the numbers are growing.

C: So I take it you had more than one speaker this year.

W: Thirty-three speakers. Including shelter directors with save rates as high as 98 per cent.

C: People don't know just what kind of miracle that percentage is. Can you put that in perspective?

W: Well, today an animal entering a shelter has only one chance in two of making it out alive, and in some places it's as low as one in 10. So 50 per cent -- that's the national average. And 10 per cent in the worst shelters.

C: Hence, a 98 per cent save rate is not trivial.

W: It's massive. Shelter veterinarians -- speakers at the conference -- are saving animals who would have been deemed "unadoptable" just a few short years ago.

C: But it's not just a medical thing. It's highly political.

W: Absolutely. Some of the speakers were animal lawyers who've worked successfully to expand the rights of animals in shelters. We heard from activists at all levels: people taking on their regressive local shelters and city councils, but also people battling the large national organizations.

C: The big guys who defend the status quo: always the real problem.

W: That's right. We've taken the fight to them.

C: And the activists are winning?

W: Many have already won. There was one defining moment for me at the conference -- it highlighted how far we've come. Right before my keynote, I came from behind the stage and saw one of the speakers, an attorney named Ryan Clinton. He was sitting near the front row, with his back to the auditorium; he was checking email or doing something on his telephone. So he couldn't see what I was seeing: an army of hundreds upon hundreds of people -- including lawyers, veterinarians, shelter managers, rescuers. I said, "Ryan, turn around." I watched as he did -- he was awestruck by the size of the crowd, almost three times the size of last year's. The look on his face said it all. That's when I knew we couldn't lose.

C: It reminds me of that famous anecdote about Beethoven. Linus likes to relate this in Peanuts: how Beethoven -- who was now deaf -- had to be turned around to the audience, to see how his Ninth was being acclaimed.

W: Love it.

C: A lot of people are unclear on the definition of "No Kill." For instance, I was initially under the impression that it meant no euthanasia, even for incurable animals in pain -- and I was wrong.

W: That's important. We distinguish between "killing" and "euthanasia." Euthanasia means ending life for hopelessly ill animals, out of mercy. Shelters should make the same decisions for animals in their care that you or I would make for our own animal companions.

C: Your opponents insist that "killing is kindness."

W: Over 90 per cent of animals in shelters are healthy and treatable. Sometimes upwards of 98 per cent. Killing them is not an act of kindness -- it's an act of violence.

C: It's certainly not "euthanasia" -- a "good death." People are beginning to realize this. In fact, you guys were seen as way outside of the mainstream a few years ago. But that's beginning to change, no?

W: Absolutely. In 2005, we were a movement of outsiders. This year almost half of the attendees came from shelters, including municipal shelters -- people who are being pressured by the public to do something about high rates of killing.

C: It's a major feat to win these people over -- there's a lot of propaganda out there. Embracing No Kill means rejecting a fair bit of misinformation. What's bringing them on board?

W: We offer solutions. Yes, we also offer condemnation when it's deserved, but if shelters want to save lives, they know that they can come to us.

C: The opposition to No Kill is really quite surprising. Once you actually know about the program, there's only one conceivable refutation: You'd have to demonstrate that No Kill doesn't work. The problem is that you've already demonstrated that it does.

W: That's right. The argument is over. We can point to over 50 communities: there's your proof.

C: Most of the opposition that you encounter isn't precisely rational, however. I mean, hardly philosophical: It's mostly just ranting and screaming. Really vicious stuff, from people who insist that they care about animals -- that they're committed to animal welfare. I find it a truly interesting question: Where does this almost psychotic animosity come from? Why would anybody actually want No Kill to fail?

W: The animal protection movement had been claiming for half a century that this was one of its most pressing goals: ending the killing of animals in our nation's shelters. But when we show them how to do it, they ignore it. Worse, they denigrate it. And us.

C: This is what I don't get. You've achieved their stated goal, in some 50 communities? What's going on?

W: The large animal protection organizations have never acknowledged this. They act as if the key to ending the killing has yet to be discovered.

C: Yeah, but why?

W: If the leadership at these organizations were to publicly acknowledge the success of No Kill, it would immediately create an expectation that they would champion it. That would require sincerity, dedication, and hard work.

C: So it's laziness?

W: Worse. What's really threatening is that they'd have to acknowledge that their friends and colleagues -- the ones currently running shelters -- are not meeting these standards. Or that they themselves failed to do so when they ran shelters. Nobody wants to admit that they've needlessly killed animals.

C: Right. Michael Mountain, the guy who founded Best Friends sanctuary, calls these people "Lady Macbeths." They can't wash away the blood. Hence the denial: We're dealing with the Lady Macbeth Syndrome.

W: If you're an agency that is supposed to be providing oversight -- and you intentionally fail to -- No Kill is a threat. No Kill invites comparison. Comparison compels criticism. If your shelter is neglectful, abusive, or mired in killing -- and you do not intend to do anything about it -- then No Kill is dangerous.

C: Hence the animosity. I mean, real animosity. Some of the sites that criticize No Kill read like hate literature.

W: And the results are anything but mundane. Millions of animals die. But the motivation behind their resistance is ultimately attributable to pedestrian flaws of human nature: primarily uncaring, greed and narrow self-interest.

C: Which explains the war with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

W: PETA is different. Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PETA, is different. She opposes No Kill because the No Kill movement represents the antithesis of her definition of animal activism. To her, killing is the goal -- because she believes that life itself is suffering -- and therefore killing is, in her words, "a gift."

C: Actually, I've pointed out before that greed isn't Newkirk's motivation -- she doesn't in fact pay herself a huge salary from donations. It's not even self-interest, right? It's a sick worldview. You've written about this in "The Butcher of Norfolk."

W: That's right. And it really is perverse. It's in obvious opposition to every creature's instinctual will to live. It's especially terrifying when you consider her success at manipulating others to share and act upon her views.

C: This I don't get. You're a young, idealistic vegan, you go off to intern at PETA headquarters, and somehow Newkirk convinces you that killing pets is right.

W: And PETA is letting them loose upon the world: individuals who not only maniacally believe that killing is a good thing -- and that the living want to die -- but who are legally armed with lethal drugs.

C: So they can put this ugly theory into practice.

W: Yes, 27,751 times in the past 10 years. That's how many animals they've killed.

C: And donors don't know this. I've tried to write about it, and I've been accused of lying on behalf of the meat industry. Or worse.

W: You have to develop a thick skin.

C: No kidding. Still, word is getting out, despite them. PETA have always had a real edge when it comes to publicity -- they're very very good at it -- but you guys now have a pretty high profile. This year in particular.

W: People are listening.

C: There's a feature-length documentary about No Kill. When does the world get to see this?

W: The feature-length version will be released in mid-2013. But we already have a trailer on the web. In fact, it's more than a trailer. It's 12 minute long, and it's a microcosm of the whole film. (NOTE: You can see it here.)

C: I watched that. Interesting that you've decided to include historical reenactment.

W: The history's crucial. We were founded on the highest ideals of compassion, but we lost our way. When the early founders of the animal protection movement died, their organizations took over the job of killing the animals they had been formed to protect.

C: Which is just sick.

W: But even if the founders were dead, their ideals were not. It was more like the movement went to sleep. After over 100 years of this deadly paradigm, the grassroots is finally waking up. The trailer tracks three of the most successful No Kill communities -- people who have reclaimed the founding vision of our movement. It finishes with a view to our inevitable No Kill future.

C: And that is?

W: A nation where we no longer have to distinguish between "No Kill" and "the animal protection movement." Both sides will finally be what they should have been all along: one and the same.