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The road to zero

A new book and video explore the path to end euthanasia

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2013

Peter Marsh's latest book questions conventional wisdom in the sheltering world and presents data-driven strategies for eliminating shelter overpopulation. Jen Corbin, director of animal services for the New Hampshire SPCA, says hello to a shelter kitty. The shelter is featured in a new documentary that details how advocates in the state worked together to reduce euthanasia and increase adoptions.Advocates in New Hampshire learned that well-designed, adequately funded programs can help prevent the euthanasia of adoptable animals like this cat at the New Hampshire SPCA.

The idea behind the chain of collars was simply to bear witness—to let people know how many animals were being euthanized in New Hampshire shelters in the early 1990s.

Author Peter Marsh describes the scene in his latest book, Getting to Zero: A Roadmap to Ending Animal Shelter Overpopulation in the United States. Marsh writes of how shelter staff throughout the state made paper ID collars for each dog or cat euthanized in the first seven months of 1992. Converging on the state capitol in Concord for a memorial service and candlelight vigil, advocates started linking the collars together, and were stunned to see how long the chain was. It eventually stretched for almost a mile.

During the vigil, shelter worker Donna Brigley-Savluk of the Cocheco Valley Humane Society stood on the State House steps and recounted the story of one of those animals: a tortoiseshell whose sweet nature prompted staff to nickname her the Cat Who Loved Kittens, but who failed to attract an adopter and was euthanized when other cats filled the shelter.

“Before the vigil, no one spoke about these individual, tragic stories very often, at least not in public,” Marsh writes. But advocates started to realize that they needed to tell people about the “unspeakable” number of euthanasias and the pets’ back stories, because keeping quiet wasn’t changing anything. The chain aimed to let people know the reality of the numbers in a personalized way—each collar represented an animal who had a life, a history, and perhaps a name. Marsh notes that 20 years later he still has his collar, which reads “Black/Grey Tabby Cat—4 months old—#849.”

Brigley-Savluk addressed a legislative committee the following year, telling the elected leaders that she had taken part in nearly 900 euthanasias at her shelter in 1992. She shared the story of that tortoiseshell, who would clean other cats’ kittens by licking them, and become alarmed when she heard them crying. “I knew we were making progress,” Marsh writes, “when a new member of the committee looked up at the ceiling as Donna spoke and tears rolled down his cheeks.”One lesson advocates learned, Marsh says, is that people can grasp the tragedy of shelter overpopulation more easily through the story of an individual animal than by considering cold statistics. As the legislative session wound down, a bill to establish a statewide neutering assistance program sat on the governor’s desk. Advocates broadcast a cable television show from the state capitol, urging viewers to call a hotline and ask the governor to sign the bill. The program ended with video of a young collie being euthanized, Marsh recalls. The hotline was overwhelmed with calls, and the governor approved the bill.

Getting to Zero, Marsh’s follow-up to 2010’s Replacing Myth with Math: Using Evidence-Based Programs to Eradicate Shelter Overpopulation, is peppered with such lessons for shelter workers and animal welfare advocates. A lawyer, consultant, and co-founder of Solutions to Overpopulation of Pets, a group that helped establish sterilization programs that dropped euthanasia rates in New Hampshire, Marsh takes aim at what he sees as flawed conventional wisdom that impedes progress toward eliminating unnecessary euthanasia.

He encourages advocates to use their heads as well as their hearts. “Hard work doesn’t guarantee success. Money doesn’t either. Both can be wasted on programs that don’t work well,” he writes. “To succeed, our passion to help homeless animals must be combined with level-headed analysis and planning.”

Getting to Zero is accompanied by a documentary film by Bill Millios, A Community Comes Together to Save Its Companion Animals: The New Hampshire Story. The film features shelter leaders recalling how they achieved success in the Granite State by learning to view people in the community as partners in the solution to pet overpopulation, rather than the source of the problem. Both the book and documentary are available as free downloads at, which also has information about purchasing hard copies.

In the edited interview below, Marsh discusses his work with Animal Shelteringassociate editor James Hettinger.

Animal Sheltering: What was your goal in writing this book, and how is it different from Replacing Myth with Math?

Peter Marsh: The purpose of the book is a lot like Animal Sheltering magazine itself; it’s to provide information to people that they can use to help the animals. One purpose of reading is to find out something you don’t already know. It’s even more valuable if you discover something that you thought was true turns out not to be true. So that’s why Getting to Zero went a little bit beyond Replacing Myth with Math to deal with some of the conventional wisdom in the sheltering world that turned out to be not true.

What are some of the issues that stand out to you as misconceptions in conventional wisdom?

Most everybody assumes that people understand how many cats and dogs are being euthanized in shelters, [so] we don’t need to tell them that, we don’t need to break the silence. Turns out that PetSmart Charities funded a survey in 2008, and they found that seven out of eight people underestimate the death toll, and that it’s more common in younger people to underestimate the death toll. There’s a knowledge deficit about that, that I think limits the ability to engage people. If they really don’t know how severe the problem is, it’s very difficult to engage them in finding solutions.

[Another] piece of conventional wisdom that turned out to be wrong was the idea that shelter overpopulation is inevitable, that it’s just an unfortunate fact of life. It turns out that’s not true, and we know that’s not true now. One of the things we know is that there are solutions to shelter overpopulation that every community can afford, and that the continued use of population-control euthanasia in shelters is a decision a community makes, not a necessity.

Do you think what you learned in New Hampshire can be applied anywhere in the country?

One of the things that is consistent from one end of the country to the other is that intakes drive euthanasias. The focus on preventing animals from becoming homeless and entering shelters is the key to solving overpopulation anywhere. It may well be, depending on the community, that they need different preventive programs. [The solutions have] to be customized to the sources of overpopulation. Each community is different, but there are some underlying principles that apply everywhere. And that’s really what Zero was trying to do, is to lay out the getting-to-zero principles.

What is the key thing that has to happen next in this movement?

The key thing that has to happen is for people to work together in a common mission, and to try to keep in mind the purpose—what the ethic is all about. The afterword in the book talks about something that we don’t discuss often enough: Why is it important to reduce or eliminate the use of population-control euthanasia in shelters? The afterword tries to develop the ethic that underlies that. The underlying ethic is what I call the reverence for life—Albert Schweitzer’s term—and that’s really important for people to understand, because that tells you what your mission is and where you’re going.

If you look at that, eliminating the use of population-control euthanasia would be an extraordinary achievement, but it’s not enough. If reverence for life is the ethic, then we have to have respect for homeless animals that never enter shelters, like free-roaming cats, and have to provide care for them, too—and basically have to provide homeless animals with the same degree of respect that we provide to animals that are in people’s homes. So not only do we have to end homelessness, but as I say in the afterword, not every home is adequate. Dogs can be chained out for endless periods in terrible weather. Animals can not get the nutrition or health care that they need and deserve. The mission is to make sure that every companion animal has a companion as loyal and trusting as the animals themselves.

Are you optimistic about the way things are going? Do you see these goals as being reachable on the horizon?

I’m even more optimistic than I was [two years ago]. I think we’ve reached a tipping point. Some of the factors that have added to the tipping point are the development of shelter medicine programs [in] veterinary schools throughout the country, and the engagement of veterinarians in this work; [and] the development of specialized high-volume spay/neuter clinics, developed through the Humane Alliance program in Asheville, N.C. To me, it’s no longer a question of whether we’re going to end the use of population-control euthanasia in shelters; it’s just a matter of when. And the goal of the book and the movie is just to try and bring that to fruition as quickly as possible—[to] be a catalyst to speed up what I think is a process that is certain to happen.

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.