Redemption's Nathan Winograd on the no-kill movement and his new film

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Nathan Winograd released his book about animal shelters, Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, eight years ago -- and the response was so successful that he decided to create a documentary about animal shelters not only to reprise the information in the book but also to discuss the impact the book had on the American no-kill movement.

That documentary, Redemption: The No-Kill Revolution in America, will screen in the Denver Post auditorium at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, July 12, and Winograd will be on hand. In advance of that appearance, we talked with him about the state of companion-animal welfare in this country (and how Colorado measures up), the complications of turning a book into a film, and the chicken-and-egg argument behind the need to kill dogs, cats and other companion animals in shelters.

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Westword: Why did you think it was important to make this film? What message did you want to convey about animal shelters and the no-kill movement?

Nathan Winograd: I've been an advocate for ending the killing of dogs, cats and other companion animals in shelters for more than twenty years. And I've been advocating for that in a variety of ways. Once a year we have a conference in Washington, D.C., and it draws upwards of 900 people from all over the world -- shelter directors, rescuers, shelter veterinarians. Eight years ago, I wrote a book in the hopes of reaching beyond the movement, reaching the average American dog- or cat-lover who for so many years has been led to believe that killing was a necessary evil.

I wasn't sure what the reception of the book would be, but it was wildly successful. It wasn't J.K. Rowling-level successful, but it really started to make an impact in the movement, and we saw a growth in the number of groups around the country. No Kill Colorado was born of that book. A book is going to reach a certain demographic, and the hope was to reach an even broader audience by not just turning a book into a film but also by talking about the tremendous success this movement has had in the eight years since the book was published.

So I created this documentary that covers the history of animal sheltering, which is a long history, in one hour, and ultimately it's a message of hope. It deals with difficult subjects, the killing of companion animals, but the ultimate message is one, I believe, of hope and inspiration -- and, if I can use the title, redemption, because it does show how far this movement has come and how close we are to achieving a no-kill nation. And my hope is that it taps into the public's compassion.

Can you talk a little bit about why people believe that killing in animal shelters is a necessary evil?

Historically, people have rationalized the reason for killing backward. Collectively, we're talking about four million animals every year. So rationalizing backward from the fact that shelters kill, the argument has been that if killing wasn't necessary, nobody would do it, and it must be necessary because there are too many animals for the too few homes that are available. But there's a lot of information that mitigates against that belief. If that were true, why are pet stores and puppy mills still in business? These are commercial enterprises that wouldn't be in the business if homes weren't available. How is it that there are now hundreds of cities and towns that have ended the killing and done so through adoption? There are at least homes in those cities -- are there homes in other cities where the killing is still happening?

The people making the argument that killing is necessary couldn't tell you the demand side of the supply-demand equation, and if you look at the demand side of the equation, every year in the United States, upwards of 30 million people get a new companion animal. Some of those people already have an animal, and they get another one. Some of those homes are going to be replacement homes, meaning an animal dies and they get another one. And some are going to be new homes. So it's not a question of too many animals and not enough homes, it's a question of where people are getting the animals. It's a market-share issue. And those shelters that effectively compete for the market share of animals and keep animals alive long enough to get into those homes -- those shelters succeed.

And we now have a number of communities from across the country of varying demographics, urban and rural, northern and southern, in communities we would classify as affluent and in communities that have tremendous poverty, in very conservative and very liberal or progressive parts of the country. When it comes to saving the lives of dogs and cats and other companion animals, if shelters tap into the public's compassion, it proves that people of all walks of life want to do right by them, and that is a very positive message that I hope resonates with the people of Denver and Colorado. Keep reading for more from Nathan Winograd.

The thing is, the state of Colorado has been improving so dramatically of late. It has a statewide save rate already of about 80 percent of all dogs and cats, which is really remarkable. So it's not like there's not a precedent for what the film says in Colorado. We just need to get that last 15 percent. The tragic reality is that there are some animals beyond the reach of veterinary medicine, but 95 percent of the animals can be saved, and I'm hoping this film gives the animal-lovers of Colorado the inspiration they need to cross the finish line.

What were some of the challenges you faced in taking the material from the book and putting it on-screen?

The first big challenge was -- look, I've been around animals my whole life, and I love animals, and this is a challenging topic. What I didn't want to do is to create a film that an animal-lover would be afraid to go see. I myself never watch nature channels because they're painful. I didn't want to show a film that would cause so much pain to people who love dogs or cats or rabbits and don't want to see the film because they don't want to cry. That was the biggest challenge: to give the information about the facts of shelter killing, the fact that it still occurs, and deliver that without overwhelming people, and I believe we succeeded in that endeavor. There are some difficult images, but they're in the minority, so it's safe for animal-lovers to watch.

The second big challenge was, we were trying to sweep 150 years of history in one hour, and whereas I can go to a community that is saving 99 percent of the animals and interview the shelter director and a rescuer or public officials, I can't go back to the nineteenth century and film the great Henry Bergh, who started the movement in North America. So what we did is combine nineteenth-century photographs with interviews with people today, and we recreated those events. We hired actors and bought or rented period costumes; we filmed sequences in buildings that were around back in the 1860s and created an authentic recreation of past events. And the combination of archival photographs, recreation and modern interviews, I believe we did it in a very seamless way, and hopefully it will be enormously entertaining to people while also giving them the kinds of information they need while saving the lives of at-risk pets who are still dying in our communities.

Is there anything else you'd like to add that you think our readers should know?

There has been a disconnect in the United States between how most of us feel about animals and how our shelters operate. For example, Americans spend more than $60 billion a year on our animal companions; it's the seventh-largest sector of the retail economy; and we give hundreds of millions more to animal-related charities and animals in need. We are crazy about our animals! And three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal to kill animals in shelters if the animals aren't suffering or dangerous. There's this great groundswell of compassion that shelters aren't tapping into. The shelters hinder those values and blame the public when they do so.

We really need to bring the public into the movement so that they can, through the democratic process, either encourage or require their shelters to start reflecting their values. When shelters have gone from blaming the public to partnering with the public, while the question of whether the animals live or die really depends on the policy of the shelter, it takes a community. It's that sort of partnership that saves lives, and my hope is that enough people see the movie and can reach out to their local shelters, and enough shelter directors will see the movie and look for new ways of addressing old problems.

Redemption screens at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, July 12 in the Denver Post auditorium; tickets are $7 (there are discounts for multiple purchases) and include the film, Winograd's talk and a gift bag with pet-related items. Find more information here.

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