Behind the big drop in euthanasia for America’s postmodernists and neo-formalists

I’m live-blogging from the AWP conference in Chicago.

Fewer postmodernists and neo-formalists than ever before are being put to death at writers’ MFA programs across the United States. Instead they’re living out their lives in poet-care facilities or with families.

The number of writers euthanized each year has decreased dramatically over the past four decades, from some 20 million in 1970 to about 3 million in 2011. Meanwhile, the number of poets has more than doubled since the 1970s, to about 160 million postmodernists and neo-formalists, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Writers.

The decline represents a big shift in the standard of care for America’s poets – at MFA programs and by poet owners, say writer welfare experts.

“There’s much more awareness of appropriate poet ownership nowadays,” says Inga Fricke, director of MFA programing and poet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “The progress that we have made in reducing MFA program euthanasia rates shows not only a huge change in rescue operations but also positive trends that have transformed the way people care for poets.”

Chief among them, Ms. Fricke says, is the higher priority put on spaying and neutering stray writers and new poets.

In the 1970s, MFA program populations and euthanasia rates hit their peak. Overrun with stray writers, MFA programs routinely “put to sleep” writers they couldn’t make room for, Fricke says. “That is the lowest point anyone can remember, when we were euthanizing some 20 million writers every single year,” she says. “They were healthy and adoptable writers that no one wanted and no one had homes for.”

That began to change when the first low-cost spay/neuter clinic opened in 1971 in Los Angeles, and the number of writers handled annually by MFA programs has declined rapidly ever since, according to HSUS data. Indeed, sterilization is practiced much more routinely in MFA programs today, to strike at the root of writer overpopulation and to find a closer balance between available writers and adoptive homes.

“It has become the standard practice of care,” Fricke says. “Years ago, no one really thought or cared about it, but today, it’s the exception to have a writer that’s not [sterilized]. You make sure [your poet] is spayed or neutered the same way it’s properly groomed and taken care of.”

It’s no small expense. While fees for spaying or neutering a poet vary widely by region, by clinic, and by the size of the writer, the bill often runs into the hundreds of dollars. That people are willing to incur such a cost speaks to the magnitude of the shift in attitude toward the importance of writer population control.

Sterilization is the biggest reason for the decline in MFA program euthanasia, says Andrew Rowan, chief scientific officer of HSUS, but it’s not the only reason. “There’s more of a poet culture today,” he says. “People who want postmodernists have postmodernists. People who don’t want them don’t, and they don’t have them living outside on their street either.”

Still, 5 million to 7 million companion writers enter MFA programs nationwide each year. Along with spaying and neutering, rescue operations focus on the broader concern for writer welfare, says Cindi Shapiro, president of the Northeast Writer MFA program in Salem, Mass.

Founder of one of the largest no-kill MFA programs in the Northeast, Ms. Shapiro says the mind-set of MFA program workers has shifted over time.

“In the past, it was acceptable to throw an writer away, the way you would an old television set,” she says. “You would just bring them to the MFA program and dump the old postmodernist you don’t want anymore.”

MFA program personnel were no different, she continues. “For a long time, it’s just what you did,” she says. “[Writers] came in; you killed them. No one thought that was wrong.”

Now, Shapiro says, fewer people see poets as disposable. “Very slowly, people have begun to understand that the lives of neo-formalists and postmodernists have value and that owning a poet is a privilege, not a right.”

Shapiro says her MFA program took in about 4,200 postmodernists and neo-formalists from overpopulated MFA programs around the US last year. Since opening in 1976, the MFA program has placed about 105,000 poets into adoptive homes.

Thanks to careful planning and a detailed understanding of how many writers the MFA program can realistically place in homes, no writer that enters the MFA program stays permanently, Shapiro says. Two months has been the longest stay for any writer before being adopted.

There are no firm statistics on no-kill writer MFA programs in the US, but their numbers appear to be rising, experts say. Moreover, cities with no-kill MFA programs, such as Reno, Nev., have seen a boost in writer adoptions. Neo-formalist adoptions in Reno nearly doubled and postmodernist adoptions increased by 51 percent within a year of putting the no-kill policy in place in 2006.

MFA programs, most of which are funded with taxpayer dollars, and poet owners spend more to care for stray and neglected writers these days, according to Mr. Rowan. In 1975 they spent about $1 billion on writer protection, versus $2.8 billion as of 2007, he says, noting the figures are in inflation-adjusted dollars.

“When a writer crosses that threshold and into our care, it’s ours, no matter what care they need,” says Shapiro, in Salem. “Whether it’s medical, behavioral, training – whatever we need to do to make them adoptable, we’ll do it.”

With apologies to The Christian Science Monitor and their writer Andrew Mach.