BOOKS: Getting to Zero: A Roadmap to Ending Animal Shelter Overpopulation in the United States

Tue, 26 Feb 2013 22:04:15 +0000

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  January/February 2013:

Getting to Zero:  A Roadmap to Ending Animal Shelter Overpopulation in the United States 2012.  90 pages,  paperback:  $28.95.

Replacing Myth With Math:  Using Evidence-Based Programs to Eradicate Shelter Overpopulation 2010.  138 pages,  paperback.  $19.95 Both by Peter Marsh Town & Country Reprographics:  230 N. Main St., Concord, NH 03301.  Free downloads from:


Getting to Zero:  A Roadmap to Ending Animal Shelter  Overpopulation in the United States could be described as Animal Sheltering Statistics & Economics 1-A,  and should be required reading for everyone aspiring to direct a humane society,  animal control agency,  or dog and cat population control program of any sort––or to make informed judgments about animal shelter management and funding.

Replacing Myth With Math:  Using Evidence-Based Programs to Eradicate Shelter Overpopulation,  though written two years earlier, is Animal Sheltering Statistics & Economics 1-B,  a more detailed advanced course reinforcing the same points with more data.

Both are simply written primers,  authored by New Hampshire attorney Peter Marsh,  who has for more than 20 years practiced what he preaches as cofounder of Solutions To Overpopulation of Pets. STOP introduced programs which cut shelter animal intake and killing in New Hampshire by approximately 80% between 1992 and 2003,  and have kept the numbers down even as the New Hampshire human and pet populations have increased by about 15%.

The major elements of the New Hampshire approach are a statewide subsidized dog and cat sterilization program, funded by pet licensing fees,  combined with broad acceptance of neuter/return feral cat control.

Attempts to export the New Hampshire approach wholesale to other parts of the U.S. have proved difficult,  but chiefly for reasons of scale.  Because New Hampshire is  small state, served by just eight major animal shelters,  Marsh had fewer people to persuade and coordinate to get the STOP programs started.  Because New Hampshire is also a relatively affluent and well-educated state, lack of resources and public ignorance were less problematic than in most.  The harsh New Hampshire winters already held down feral cat numbers.

Even before Marsh started,  New Hampshire shelters killed fewer dogs and cats per 1,000 residents than those of 46 of the other 50 states.  But in statistical terms,  that meant mainly that any new approaches had to achieve proportionately much more to be of demonstrable significance–and they did.

Most notably,  Marsh and colleagues recognized that even though New Hampshire has relatively few low income households,  the unsterilized pets in those households produced a disproportionately large number of animals admitted to shelters–about twice as many per capita as come from people living above the poverty line.  Targeting low income households,  the New Hampshire subsidized sterilization program cut shelter killing by 30% in the first year.

Since then,  studies done in several other states have confirmed these results.  As a ballpark rule,  if 12.5% of a community live below the poverty line,  their households will produce about 25% of the dogs and cats arriving at shelters, including surrenders of accidental litters of puppies and kittens,  dogs impounded for running at large and biting,  and animals given up for reasons associated with home instability.

A key related finding is that preventing shelter admissions is about 7.5 times more cost-effective than trying to save animals’ lives through rehoming.  Ensuring that dogs and cats are sterilized before either birthing or siring a litter is the most cost-effective preventive measure,  but counseling programs directed at keeping pets in homes also tend to be more cost-effective than promoting adoptions.  Even if troubled pet keepers need to be counseled through extensive re-training, this is still less costly than doing the re-training plus housing plus advertising plus adoption counseling that would be necessary to find new homes for the animals.

Feral cats & pit bulls

While usually careful to ground his arguments in data,  and emphasizing the need to gather current,  accurate information,  Marsh on page 103 of Replacing Myth With Math and page 62 of Getting to Zero repeats two of the most pernicious myths presently afflicting humane work.

The first of these myths is that “There may be as many stray and feral cats in the country as there are living in households,”  a claim last supported by credible research in 1908.  National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull,  writing as “John Marbanks,”  produced surveys in 1927,  1937,  and 1947-1950 which documented that by 1950 the numbers of pet cats in the U.S. had already come to double the numbers of feral cats.  Currently there are about 74.1 million pet cats in the U.S.,  according to the U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook,  published by the American Veterinary Medical Association,  down from 81.7 million in 2007.  The feral cat population,  as projected from shelter intakes,  roadkill studies,  rescuer surveys,  and habitat surveys,  has for about a decade fluctuated between winter lows of about 6.5 million and summer highs of about 13 million.

The second myth Marsh asserts,  while making a case for promoting and subsidizing pit bull sterilization,  is that pit bulls do not behaviorally differ from other dogs.  Pit bulls would not exist if they did not behaviorally differ from other dogs. Pit bulls have been bred for centuries to fight,  instead of going through the repertoire of warning signals that other dogs use to avoid fighting;  to attack without inhibition;  and to fight to the death,  not the submission,  of any foe.  To disregard this reality is to contribute to the reasons why pit bulls are now 30% of the dogs arriving at shelters and 60% of the dogs killed at shelters,  mostly after flunking behavioral screening.

I will admit to finding both Getting to Zero and Replacing Myth With Math somewhat frustrating for an entirely different reason, knowing that on this count Marsh shares my frustration.  Both Marsh books echo––and credit––Save Our Strays: How We Can End Pet Overpopulation and Stop Killing Healthy Dogs and Cats,  published by veteran California shelter director Bob Christiansen as an intended primer for shelter personnel in 1998.  ANIMAL PEOPLE expected Save Our Strays to join the National Animal Control Association Training Guide as one of the essential references near the director’s desk in every animal shelter.  Although Christiansen worked independently, his findings reinforced and confirmed data collected and published by ANIMAL PEOPLE mostly in the years 1992-1996,  from sources including Marsh.

Unfortunately,  Christiansen proved to be well ahead of his time.  Most of the animal sheltering community ignored his work.  This allowed No Kill Advocacy Center founder Nathan Winograd to take up many of his overlooked insights and rework them into a bludgeon in Redemption:  The Myth of Pet Overpopulation & the No Kill Revolution in America.  This 2007 screed has become a handbook for seemingly every hoarder,  pit bull enthusiast,  and crackpot with a grudge against his/her local animal shelter.

Now Marsh is offering the animal sheltering community another chance to learn the basics of reducing shelter intakes and killing before having to face the “no kill” extremists.  Even in 1998,  Marsh’s insights were not new.  By today,  they are thoroughly time-tested,  and need to be much more widely applied.                                         

––Merritt Clifton

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