Merritt Clifton Uses Manipulative Math to Try and Discredit Nathan Winograd and No Kill

Renowned no kill and pit bull hater, Merritt Clifton, recently wrote an article downplaying Nathan Winograd’s no kill success. Clifton uses manipulative math and logic to argue Nathan Winograd’s no kill equation leads to less lifesaving than spay and pray and other archaic shelter policies.

Analysis Focuses on Shelter Animal Deaths Per 1,000 People Rather than Save Rates

Clifton bases his entire argument on shelter animal deaths per 1,000 people rather than shelter save rates. Per capita shelter kill rates certainly are an important statistic as they provide a perspective to the amount of killing in a community. However, per capita rates of shelter killing tell us nothing about how shelters are doing. Per capita shelter killing may decrease due to spay/neuter rates in the community at large, which may be due to socioeconomic status of the population or access to affordable spay/neuter resources outside of the shelter, or other external forces having nothing to do with shelter performance. Additionally, per capita kill rates tell us nothing about an animal’s prospects once it lands in a shelter. In other words, a shelter can kill a large percentage of the animals coming though its doors, but still have a low per capita kill rate. People want their shelters to save most of the animals coming into their facility. Animals having little chance of making it out alive of shelters rightfully disturbs many people. Thus, any comparative analysis of shelter performance must include save rates.

Clifton’s Own Preferred Metrics Show Nathan Winograd’s and No Kill’s Superior Performance

Clifton’s entire argument using total change in per capita kill rates ignores basic logic of any intelligent analysis. In a stunning example of lazy or deliberately deceptive logic, Clifton takes gross changes in per capita kill rates to assert Nathan Winograd wasn’t very successful. Unfortunately, the per capita kill rates were much different in these analyses and they require percentage change analysis. Specifically, per capita kill rates were so much higher in Clifton’s counterexamples to Nathan Winograd’s work at the San Francisco SPCA and Tompkins County SPCA that these kill rates had far more room to decline. However, we clearly can see Nathan Winograd outperformed Clifton’s counterexamples on an apples and apples comparison using percentages.

Clifton’s first misleading example compares Nathan Winograd’s performance at the San Fransisco SPCA with shelters nationally during the same period. As you can see, shelters nationally were killing far more animals than San Fransisco and therefore could decrease shelter killing in total more. However, we see on a percentage basis Nathan Winograd outperformed these shelters by nearly a 3-1 margin.

Merritt Clifton Nathan Winograd Analysis SF SPCA V1

Clifton’s second example is even more misleading. In this example, Clifton compares Nathan Winograd’s improvement in total per capita kill rate in San Fransisco with the period after he left. Clifton not only fails to use percentages, but uses a longer period to show Nathan Winograd’s results were not impressive. Once again, we clearly see the flaw in Clifton’s analysis when we compare the results on a percentage improvement per year basis. Specifically, Nathan Winograd’s save rate was 33% better per year. Additionally, Clifton fails to mention the per capita kill rate decrease at San Fransisco SPCA after Nathan Winograd left largely reflected lower intake, which has been a nationwide trend, and the save rate (percentage of animals impounded leaving alive) has not improved since Nathan Winograd left nearly a decade and a half ago. Clifton also failed to point out San Francisco’s save rate stagnated despite save rates nationwide dropping significantly during that same period.

Merritt Clifton Nathan Winograd Analysis SF SPCA V2

Clifton uses a similar misleading example comparing Nathan Winograd’s performance at Tompkins County SPCA with the period before he arrived. Once again, Clifton uses total rather than percentage improvement in per capita shelter killing rates and periods of differing length. After we adjust for these analytical errors, we see Nathan Winograd reduced per capita shelter killing at a rate over 6 times greater per year:

Merritt Clifton Nathan Winograd Analysis Tompkins

Finally, Clifton posts the most egregious of all comparisons. He compares the era of regressive kill shelter legend, Phillis Wright, with the era of Nathan Winograd’s No Kill Advocacy Center. In addition to the analytical errors above, Clifton also mistakenly assumes all shelters today are following the no kill equation. Even with this assumption stacked against no kill, the per capita kill rate decreased twice as much per year since the No Kill Advocacy Center’s arrival:

Merritt Clifton Nathan Winograd Analysis PW

Nathan Winograd and No Kill Had More Challenging Obstacles to Overcome

Nathan Winograd had to use new techniques to decrease shelter killing. In the previous periods, such as during Phyllis Wright’s era, spay/neuter rates were quite low. All shelters needed to do was point people where to get spay/neuter done and that alone would significantly decrease kill rates. For example, spay/neuter rates were quite low in the early 1970s, but currently dog and cat spay/neuter rates are up to 83% and 91% per nationally per the ASPCA. Additionally, shelters in Phyllis Wright’s era could easily adopt more animals out as massive numbers of highly adoptable animals were killed then. As a result, Nathan Winograd needed to enact innovative programs to further decrease killing. These policies required far more work, and hence met more resistance, from regressive and lazy shelter directors. Thus, Nathan Winograd decreased the rate of killing in a much more challenging environment.

Clifton makes another egregious error by claiming Tompkins County SPCA was doing great before Nathan Winograd arrived and achieving no kill was basically a piece of cake. Specifically, Clifton states the shelter had a below average per capita kill rate during that time. Based on Clifton’s per capita kill rate of 1.8 and Nathan Winograd’s 93% save rate at Tompkins County SPCA, that equates to an intake of 25.7 dogs and cats per 1,000 people. Tompkins County SPCA’s per capita intake during Nathan Winograd’s time was nearly twice the national per capita intake rate of 14 dogs and cats per 1000 people today per Clifton’s former newspaper. Assuming the per capita intake rate was the same during the year before Nathan Winograd arrived at Tompkins County SPCA, the Tompkins County kill rate would have been approximately 30%. Based on Austin Pets Alive’s data, most of the improvement from reducing the kill rate from 30% to 7% would have been due to saving more challenging animals, such as underage puppies and kittens, critically ill or injured animals and animals with behavioral problems. Thus, Nathan Winograd faced a far more difficult challenge if Tompkins County SPCA was doing as great as Clifton claims.

Finally, Clifton fails to mention the animals amazingly short average length of stay at Tompkins County SPCA under Nathan Winograd’s leadership. Nathan Winograd’s animals stayed on average 8 days at Tompkins County SPCA despite the facility being old and rundown when Nathan Winograd arrived. Clearly, getting nearly all of the animals safely out of your facility in 8 days on average would yield no kill results at almost any shelter.

Clifton Makes a 180 Degree Turn on Nathan Winograd

Merritt Clifton praised Nathan Winograd quite a bit not too long ago. In 2008, Clifton concluded his review of Nathan Winograd’s book, “Redemption, The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America” by saying:

The loose ends barely matter. Winograd’s arguments would be only strengthened by using better data–and as it stands,  Redemption is probably the most provocative and best-informed overview of animal sheltering ever written.

Similarly, Clifton stated the following when Nathan Winograd ran Tompkins County SPCA:

Animal People, an independent publication, rated the Tompkins County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as having the lowest number of animals euthanized per capita in the nation for the past two years. While the national average is 15 animals killed per 1,000 people, Ithaca had 1.9 in 2002 and 1.8 in 2003, said Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People.

“It’s impressive to see an agency performing 10 times better than the national average,” Clifton said. “Knowing that the local SPCA is doing all it can to save the lives of the dogs or cats raises the level of the community’s satisfaction in the care for its animals.”

Clifton’s about face is quite telling. While we don’t know what is inside Mr. Clifton’s head, clearly Clifton has become anti-no kill. Most likely no kill is at odds with Mr. Clifton’s goal of eradicating pit bull type dogs. After all, numerous open admission shelters achieved no kill for pit bull type dogs alone. At the same time, Clifton has long been an animal welfare “journalist” and supporting outright killing of all pit bulls conflicts with that aspect of his career. Clifton’s play then would be the backdoor eradication through his vocal calls for pit bull sterilization using the bogus claims its for the protection of pit bulls. Thus, advocating only for spay and pray policies is how Clifton can reconcile his pit bull eradication position and his reputation as an animal welfare “journalist.”

Merritt Clifton’s donors for his new web site fit nicely into this ideology. Not surprisingly, Colleen Lynn, who runs the anti-pit bull website, donated to Clifton’s endeavor. The most telling donor is Ruth Steinberger, who advocates spay/neuter as the primary solution to shelter killing. However, Steinberger also believes shelters should NOT adopt out pit bulls using PETA like logic that all of them will be adopted by dog fighters:

“There is no other breed where people go to the shelter to victimize the animal,” said Steinberger.

As such, you just need to follow the money to see where Clifton’s positions come from. Luckily, Clifton no longer is the primary animal shelter commentator in the digital age. Additionally, Clifton’s sloppy and misleading analyses have further brought him to irrelevance. Thankfully, people finally see Clifton for what he truly is.


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