Redemption: First Thoughts

Reprint from 12/16/2007


Today marks the one year anniversary of my enlightenment to the true state of the shelter system in this country, its sordid history, and the hope for a better future. What a profound impact the words and research of Nathan Winograd have had on my outlook towards the animal rights and animal welfare movements, my views toward breeding and owning animals, and the duty we have to do right by them in all respects.

Before I read Redemption, I had a rather negative attitude toward the breeder ethic of taking their puppies back at any time for any reason. While I agree with everything I said then, I put such a clause in the contracts I signed with the buyers of my puppies. Why? After reading how incompetent and defeatist the shelter system really is, there is no way I’d ever want an animal I love to end up in one.

I had the mistaken idea that shelters were positive upbeat places where used dogs could find new homes. I had no idea that killing was such an ingrained element of the culture, defeatism the rule not the exception, and community outreach an unfulfilled burden instead of the core mission.

I had no idea that the ASPCA had abandoned their core principles and I didn’t appreciate how antithetical the roles of animal advocacy and animal control really are.

I got everything I wanted out of the book, and more.

Give yourself a gift this Chrismas and pick up a copy of Redemption. You won’t be the same again.

I’d heard of Nathan Winograd before Redemption came out, and I even placed that link to his blog on my blogroll before the avalanche of recent blog posts by Pet Connection, Terrierman, Lassie Get Help, Dogged et al hit the presses. But I can’t claim early adopter status, or even a great deal of sympathy for or knowledge of his views (yet), all out of ignorance and apathy, not any sort of malice.

You see, when I read his name combined with his work in San Francisco, I immediately thought that he must be related to Terry Winograd, one of the best Computer Science professors I had at Stanford. After all, how many Winograds can there be in the bay area, let alone on the Stanford campus; they must be related especially since they have more than a passing resemblance to each other. If Nathan is anything like what I assume is his father, then he must be an engaging speaker with a soft style that belies a razor sharp intellect.

I read his online material about feral cat populations at Stanford and was rather impressed that despite being accosted on several occasions by the mutant black squirrels on campus, I never once recall even the slightest annoyance by a cat, despite there (supposedly) being a sizable feral population on campus. If they’re still there, they are unobtrusive and seemingly innocuous. I don’t recall ever seeing a mouse or a rat, and can’t say I ever smelled urine or stepped in cat feces. If you’d argue that cats would be detrimental to bird populations, the plethora of owls, hummers, and abundant species in between would suggest otherwise and the Stanford Cat Network makes a pretty convincing argument that saving cats is not endangering birds.

According to Winograd, a feral cat population that numbered between 500 and 1,500 in 1990 is today a community of 50 spayed and neutered cats. At a sustained level of 4-10% of what it was at its peak, without the unneeded killing of a single cat, the Stanford Cat Network would have to be called a resounding success.

Given the reviews and a decent bet that he can write as well as his father, I bought Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.

I wanted to write at least one post before I read it, giving my honest guess about what the message might be and to document my comparative ignorance of the shelter situation in the U.S.

To me, most of the rhetoric coming out of the various animal crusader movements is off-putting and obnoxious, filled with slogans that don’t make sense and are frankly offensive. The “buy a puppy and kill a shelter dog” rhetoric pretty much just disgusts me, and removed any desire for me to learn more.

But I have a feeling that all of that is about to change, and nothing is better for the growth of the intellect than to be proven wrong or enlightened to a topic you’re in the dark about. Everyone seems to agree that Winograd is not your average bleeding heart gimme-gimme type, and on all accounts he seems to be a potential for a “true genius” that is being harped on by the “confederacy of dunces” according to my favorite of theories.

Several warning flags alerted me that I might not enjoy this book as much as others have. First, the liberal use of the word “compassion” all over the cover. Often, this is a political code word used by lefties to justify pork projects that don’t work and create a culture of dependency and by righties to abandon fiscal conservatism and libertarian ideals with their own vote-buying pet projects. Both parties use the word to whitewash what really amounts to either a nanny state or fascist interference into the economy or individuals’ social lives. Given that Winograd is an ex-lawyer from the Bay Area, there is a 95% chance he’s a lefty… maybe he’s a socialist anti-capitalist too.

“Compassion” is an attack word: people never use it to describe themselves, yet they often site its lack in others as justification for otherwise unpopular or nonsensical redistribution programs. When a socialist with a bleeding-heart’s compassion outgrows their own means to provide relief, they almost universally demand that other people who “have” aren’t doing enough for the “have nots.” They combine this with the anti-democratic notion that their power to influence wealth should be proportional to how much they “care,” not how much they have.

In essence, this is the same mentality as the protest movement. Protesting isn’t democratic, it’s the exact opposite. It’s using tactics to magnify your voice louder than it really is and to drown out the voices of the larger opposition. It’s tyranny of the minority. Obstructing commerce, trespassing, destruction of private property, inciting a riot, and vandalism are terrorist techniques, not democracy. They might be justified, but that doesn’t make them democratic. This is the game plan of wackos like PeTA.

So why is all this relevant to Redemption? Well, this is the milieu from which I would suspect on first glance that Wi
nograd is coming from. Guilt by association, so to speak.

But there are other things that make me feel that this book and Winograd’s argument might be different. First, the Stanford Cat Network is run “in agreement with, but not funded by” Stanford University. Interesting, a cause that doesn’t have its hands in the deepest pockets it can find.

Second, Terry Winograd is such a captivating professor because he combines two distant disciplines, computer science and modalities of human interaction, to great effect. His book and class is on Human Computer Interaction and all the issues regarding how we translate our organic wants and needs into digital processes and likewise how we interpret output from lifeless and predetermined systems with our social lens was a highlight of my undergrad experience. He managed to take the most interesting aspects of computers and human behavior and show how they relate.

Winograds are probably people who don’t think along trite two dimensional models. From what others are saying, Winograd is advocating a new path, a different direction, and just maybe he has found a way to combine the best of two different fields just like his father.

Third, I like people who come out with seemingly outlandish theories that defy all “conventional wisdom.” These people are the ones that push us forward and who find elegant solutions to complex problems that have evaded solution by generations of “experts.” These people are typically visionaries and their detractors are the confederacy of dunces who would rather wallow in the dark than face the light. Results based assessments versus theory base assessments are always superior (what actually works versus what sounds good).

Fourth, the first sentence of his book, “the Myth of Pet Overpopulation” rings very true with what I have observed to be true. I don’t believe there is a pet overpopulation problem and have yet to be shown any convincing evidence that there is one. The notion that there are homeless pets in no way demonstrates an overpopulation problem, just as the existence of homeless people doesn’t in any way support the notion of human overpopulation. It took me years of planning and months of intensive searching to find my two current Border Collies and I had to seek out of my home state before I found either of them. I have yet to see packs of wild feral dogs anywhere other than the third world countries I’ve visited, and the dog friendly places like dog parks and superstores are busy, but hardly overcrowded with too many dogs.

I’ve seen documentaries on Puppy Mills on TV, but the very existence of a low cost provider speaks to a burgeoning market, not an over population problem. Signs of overpopulation would be too many dogs over running every venue for dog activity, tons of stray an feral dogs wandering around and setting up wild colonies. News reports of farmers complaining about excessive predation on their flocks of chickens, sheep, and other small game. There would be more breeders than you could care to shake a stick at and they’d all be selling pups at dirt cheap prices. Mall pet stores wouldn’t be the low end of the market, they’d be comparatively high class compared to the masses of wild born puppies and get-rich-quick schemers, and the US would be exporting the excess puppies instead of importing them.

People wouldn’t be paying a premium for pet food, vet care, and dog toys. Nor would the standard of living of today’s pets be higher than ever before in history.

People who speak of human overpopulation are welcome to sterilize or even kill themselves to solve the problem. Few have the, erm, balls. But plenty of zealots have latched on to the eco-terrorist/green/vegan/environmental band wagon that says humans are a plague and pets are too, but since we can’t kill humans, killing pets will have to do.

That’s my greatest hope for this book, that Winograd uses facts and logic and data instead of zealotry and dogma, that he makes me want to support his movement instead of shun it, and that he acknowledges the facts as they are and gives credit where it’s due instead of the slactivist tactic of blaming someone else and then bitching for them to fix it.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.