Have you ever started reading a book only to find that after rocking your world for sixty-plus pages it next serves up a section so annoying you're hard-pressed to actually finish it?
That’s what happened to me with Nathan Winograd’s revered book, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No-Kill Revolution in America.
Its basic tenet? Our system of shelter management is broken, but not irreparably so. There is a way back from the high death rates and blind-eyed euthanasias visited upon our nation’s so-called, “unwanted” pets. How? A sea change in ideology is all that’s required.
Admittedly, that’s easier said than done. That’s why Redemption offers a detailed history of the philosophies, politics and practices that led us astray while offering clearly articulated solutions to how we might rebound from the brink of despair. Overall, it does a masterful job of it.
Extolling the no-kill revolution in key shelters across the country, Winograd convincingly debates, in a manner borne of his lawyerly beginnings and shelter management experience, the virtues of reversing our mindset when it comes to the need for systematic euthanasia of “unwanted” pets. He shows us the way home, if only we’ll open our minds enough to follow his yellow brick road.
Because of his revolutionary zeal and [generally] scholarly approach, Winograd’s book has made the rounds among all of us pet blogger types in recent months. It’s earned accolades and has even been credited with changing lives—not least those of animals granted reprieves based on the shelter practices he champions in this book.
I’ll admit, I was predisposed towards Redemption. After all, Gina Spadafori at Pet Connection was actually driven to deny she and Mr. Winograd were engaged in a love affair after she praised it to the heavens so frequently. And I trust Gina’s instincts near-implicitly.
That’s why I ordered it online back in October(?), awaited my Amazon box anxiously and sat down to read it with a highlighter pen in one hand and a pencil in the other. Such were my high hopes for this text.
And I wasn’t disappointed. But it took me a long time to finish Redemption. Halfway through, I came to a chapter that challenged my understanding of facts so utterly I was unable to reconcile its failure with the success of the rest of the book. In keeping with my goal of a fully open mind, however, I powered through and finally finished last week, only to let it percolate in my brain before I was willing to write anything concrete about my impressions.
To be sure this was a gratifyingly eye-opening read. That’s quite a statement for someone raised in the animal services industry and deeply inculcated in the beliefs Winograd effectively disabuses me of.
Nonetheless, I’ve been unable to rise above my reservations on the issue of feral cats he presents in the aforementioned chapter.
That’s because relatively early on in his book, Winograd tries to establish a bedrock argument on the myth of the feral cat as an evil that must be eradicated. In so doing, he attempts to persuade his readers that feral cats are not a danger to the environment—nor inherently less healthy than indoor cats.
While I understand his rationale for recruiting this argument in a chapter titled, “Witch Hunt,” I bristled at the blanket condemnation of my own views on the environment and the increased safety of indoor cats—even more so when he proposed that people like me were behind the very behaviors and practices I abhor.
To make his argument, he first references one non-representative study (undertaken in rural North Florida) to report that outdoor cats live 92% as long as indoor cats, thereby justifying their outdoor existence on the basis of salubrious survival alone. Whatever else he might argue afterwards, as a veterinarian I cannot condone the practice of clean outdoor living for cats—especially given my lengthy experience comparing both sets of cat populations in two different suburban locales in the United States.
Moreover, it’s my view that outdoor catdom should be anathema to the beliefs of anyone engaged so fully in the struggle for control of animal populations. Justifying the right to life of outdoor ferals is one thing; effectively supporting a less healthy environment for an owned cat is quite another.
I also object to his setting as “incontrovertible” fact the contention that cats are not having an impact on our environment. Relying on two of the least revealing and most methodology-challenged studies on the issue as foundation for his argument, Winograd conveniently ignores contemporary and subsequent studies supporting the negative impact of cats on the environment (all of which were available to him at the time of publication).
Furthermore, his argument against “nativism” (the idea that native species are more deserving of existence than non-natives) is offensive. The fact that we, whose careful interest in healthy ecosystems leads us to engage in trap-neuter-and-release (to less environmentally sensitive areas), should be lumped in with those who would kill cats (effectively for their simplistic view of environmental politics as he presents it) is insulting.
Treating my dual concern for cat and wildlife health as if it were part of a larger conspiracy against felines in general entirely misses the mark and forced me to call in to question much of what I’d read before I hit this chapter. It raised the concern that other studies he might be relying on to make larger points might also require vetting.
To my reading, Winograd should have steered clear of arguments pitting environmentalists against cat supporters, for we’re often one and the same. Still, I understand his desire to take another jab at HSUS in so doing, as HSUS was instrumental in once proposing eradication of feral cat colonies for reasons including songbird population decimation. HSUS has since softened its stance, but that fact arrives on Redemption’s pages as an afterthought to this chapter.
Clearly, Winograd wins us over most convincingly in the roles he plays best: that of shelter manager, historian and needless-euthanasia antagonist. His clear mastery of the history involved would have been better served by more assiduous referencing, but I can forgive this somewhat given the density of his report and his need to reach a wider audience. Still, I love footnotes.
Frustrated and angry as it made me, at times, I’ll never think the same way after having experienced this book. I hope most of you get a chance to read it and come through with your own unique take. Despite my concerns, this is perhaps the most life-altering read of my year (and I read a lot).
So kudos, Mr. Winograd. I hope we get a chance to meet soon so that I can tell you in person what reading your book has done for my personal beliefs on a wider range of topics than I can effectively address here.