Animal welfare is as much a realm of rumor as any industry. There is a rumor swirling around right now that the State Legislature and Executive Branch–or at least some in them–are considering a change in who provides initial and continuing education for Humane Society Police Officers (HSPO) in Pennsylvania. Since the inception of the HSPO law, this training has been provided through a partnership of major universities (including Penn State) and Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, a volunteer professional affiliation group made up of representatives from over 50 animal welfare organizations across the state. Disclosure note: I am on the board of directors of Federated Humane, and Humane Pennsylvania is a member agency.
According to the unsubstantiated rumors, the idea is to grant the training contract to a new entity and an existing individual entity, rather than a collective of organizations like Federated Humane or a major dissociated entity, like Penn State. In other words, instead of a coalition of organizations representing all types of communities ranging from rural to suburban and urban; and all types of missions ranging from brick and mortar shelters for companion animals to farm animals; and a wide range of mission beliefs and approaches, the training could be in the hands of just one organization. One organization, representing one viewpoint, one region, and one approach. In my opinion, this is a profoundly bad idea, for a number of reasons.
- Trust: The choice of a major university and a membership group representing organization from every corner of the state to be responsible for training was no accident. It is reasonable to expect some lack of trust from country folk or city folk, or eastern PA or western PA, etc. (and vice versa) because it is reasonable to think that there may be less understanding of these specific communities. Federated Humane had members of every size, from nearly every county, and could speak credibly to the views of a broad spectrum of organizational and local priorities. A single agency will not engender that same breadth of representation and may be viewed with suspicion in some quarters. Any out of state advocacy organization, such as HSUS, will unequivocally face suspicion from the agricultural community. This may be undeserved, but it will be a fact.
- Continuity: Penn State or a big university isn’t going anywhere. Federated Humane Societies or a similar group made up of and serving a large group of agencies of all sizes and types is self-perpetuating and less subject to major swings of capacity. The same cannot be said about individual organizations. The past decade has seen animal shelters growing or dramatically shrinking, some divesting themselves of shelters, other radically changing mission approaches. Some, including Humane Society of Berks County and Humane League of Lancaster County, chose to drop their legal rolls in cruelty law enforcement for a variety of reasons. In the case of the Humane League of Lancaster County, it literally collapsed as an organization and dissolved to be taken over by another organization in the matter of only a couple years. Placing all the training eggs in one basket is dangerous.
- Credibility: It is far easier to call into question the credibility of any agency which stands to personally profit from taking on training. Penn State makes little if anything on providing training and even if it did, it’s a drop in the bucket of their billions. Federated Humane is a volunteer organization that provides training supports at a loss using volunteers. Will an individual organization answering to its own board, donors, and operating budget needs be able to say the same? Will its own financial history be called into question and raise doubts about every price increase or change to the curriculum or training location? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is, of course it will.
- Politics: Granting one organization the power to provide all training is also an invitation to turning already latently political issues and processes into openly political ones. If any legislator thinks partisan politics are bad, try wading into animal politics. As soon as it appears that one organization will benefit directly and exclusively, it is a sure bet that other organizations will question why they should continue to support the efforts that are imbalanced in favor of one of their peers, especially one which may not even be in its community, or is bigger or better resourced already. Why would they continue to exercise their influence on local representation over statewide issues if they no longer have a voice in decisions?
- Moderation: Because of the current university and member organization control of training, there has been a moderating influence on all groups. For example, I serve on the board of Federated Humane and my organizations don’t provide direct cruelty enforcement any longer. But I know this is important to the member organizations which I am supposed to represent as a board member. It may make no difference to me and Humane Pennsylvania who does what, but it matters very much to scores of our members. That makes me fight on their behalf and it also obligates me not to unilaterally strike out on our own for our own political agenda. This moderating influence will be lost if training is placed in the hands of a single organization.
- Fairness: Let’s also be honest. If there is a change, especially if any sort of contrived crisis is allowed to occur, someone is likely to walk away with money that isn’t on the table right now. It is entirely unfair to organizations who have been providing services to the state for free for 25 years to relinquish that role–only to have a new comer profit from it. It is also unfair if all organizations who have been doing the work have been excluded from any discussions about the any changes which may be coming down the pike. If only one or two organizations or individuals are “in” on plans that will impact every community in PA, it is flatly unfair.
Maybe the rumors are false. I hope so. But if they aren’t it means that behind the scenes discussions are being engaged in that could radically change how HSPO training is delivered in Pennsylvania and it will almost certainly result in a lack of trust, continuity, credibility, moderation, and fairness. And that’s bad politics. It could also be very bad for animals if the changes don’t go swimmingly.
I sincerely hope that the legislature and the executive’s office thinks long and hard before taking any action which could turn Pennsylvania into an animal welfare free-for-all.