I find myself returning to central themes repeatedly and that leads to a return of things I’ve already beaten to death in this blog.  Occasionally, I come across one I still like.  Right now I’m muddling through a blog on when organizational inaction becomes immoral and it reminded me of a speech I gave to a group five years ago.  I didn’t realize at the time I was invited to speak that they weren’t a kitty and doggy group and in a fit of introspection threw out my prepared remarks for the ones below.  I still believe them.  If you get though this one, take a moment to read about the reception I got and something notable that happened later in the night that put a fine point on it here (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Home From the Humane League).

My profound and insightful comments [with a few notes thrown in]:

I get more chuckles than Zero Mostel

I get more chuckles than Zero Mostel

I’d like to offer a four part apology in advance: 1st:  It’s a bit longer than my time but I speak really fast [Note: I wasn’t kidding, I ran really long], 2nd: I haven’t given this sermon before and have not even done a run through so it may be more a reading, 3rd:it’s entirely self absorbed in my current high horse and 4th: I fear it may be viewed by some as an Bill Cosby style admonishment of my gracious hosts.  I’ll try my best to avoid that and you can check your email if I get annoying.

I may have been invited to speak under false pretenses.  Unlike most of you and my fellow speakers tonight, I do nothing for animals. Let me rephrase that.  Nothing I do is specifically for animals. [Another note: Making a rhetorical point here and giving a speech, not testifying under oath.  Cut me some slack]

I don’t even try to do things for animals.  In fact, my organization, the Humane Society of Berks County, explicitly avoids “doing things for animals”.  That is not to say that what we do doesn’t help animals.  It does and I think that we actually help more animals and do more good for specific animals and animals in general than most.  But while that is our goal, it is consciously not our tactic.

I am no doubt in a room with some True Believers.  People who truly, devoutly, perhaps even religiously believe in the welfare- even rights?- of animals and whose efforts to help them are defined by those beliefs.

I am, however, an Animal Rights Agnostic.  So you invited an agnostic to preach at your church tonight.  Don’t worry, I’m one of the good ones.

What do I mean by that and why do I think you should bear this phrase in mind as you go out into the world proselytizing your beliefs?

Like a religious agnostic (I’m one of those, too) it means I am without knowledge or belief in the higher nature of animals.  I am a natural scientist so in both cases I can appreciate the arguments made and can craft intellectual architecture to support both.  But in a broad sense, I have been provided no proof in one of divinity or in the other of- what do we even call it for animals? A soul?  An inherency of rights?

Before you start checking email, let say I am not a denying of these things.  I am not an Animal Rights Atheist.  At the risk of offending the atheists in the crowd, I believe that denying the undisprovable is as religious in nature as affirming the unprovable.

I know that animals feel pain.  I know they suffer.  I know some use tools, and learn and communicate.  I think there is the slightest chance that at some point in the future some ape, somewhere will open the name book and select “Caesar”, and as they cart me away to the human work camps I’ll think, “Well, I’ll be damned, they do have a soul.”

But chimps aren’t parrots and parrots aren’t dogs and dogs aren’t chickens and chickens aren’t yeast.  No more than I can tell you what the one true religion is, I cannot tell you what version of the animal rights religion is right.  Vegan, vegetarian, animals aren’t property, only eat the ones without eyelids?  Where on the continuum does the hammer fall?

And most people are in my camp.  They just don’t know it.

But like with religion, there are true believers who are certain they know and insist that there is one true way- their way- and that we must all follow their lead.  They loath non-believers but they maintain a special hatred for those who believe the wrong way or are open to other ways.  They are fundamentalists.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed that many of the “Animal” people corresponding with me by email had a common quote attached. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”*

I began to notice that often the people who attached these quotes were the least sympathetic, least agreeable, least kind human beings when it came to people but were absolutely strident when it came to their beliefs about our oppressed non-human brethren.  [One more note: If you have this quote on your email, I’m not talking about you.] All of the qualities they found so delightful and compelling in animals, they themselves lacked utterly when applied to people.  And that stridency  utterly alienated any human being they came in contact with in their supposed effort to make other people as “humane” as they are.

But Gandhi was not promoting equal animal rights.  He believed that decreasing suffering was a part and parcel of a process of changing ourselves and our human race.  His struggle was not merely about forcing the end to oppression, it was about changing the oppressors themselves so that they would choose to stop oppressing.  When oppression is ended forcibly and not by choice, it waits to return.

But the strident true believers use this quotes as a beard to pretend that they are empathetic to all.  They are, in effect, true believers in a religion of their own making.  For them every discussion is an argument and every position is a purity test which none but themselves could pass.

No animal I had ever helped had demanded that help.  No animal I had ever helped had in turn helped another animal.  No animal had protested a lack of aid.  Of course, the same could be said of an infant child.

But I have seen that when I helped an animal’s person- caretaker, owner, whatever- not only did that animal benefit, but so did every animal associated with that person in the future.  That person became more likely to do right by animals in the future.  That person protested in the future when others did not do for their animals.  By engaging the human part of the animal equation there was real change for the animal and that change was sustained.   Like the infant child in distress, the preferred assistance was strengthening the family.

That is why my efforts and the efforts of the HSBC are to help animals by effectively helping people. It is what we do best.  For the Jim Collins fans out there it is our hedgehog.  We believe that most people can be moved to do better, to perform good works- but not all can be converted.  This is not the Spanish Inquisition.  Conversion or death is not an option.  Yet many of us in the animal field treat our interaction with humans that way.

I think we need to decide what our goal actually is.  Is it to demand a world today we will not obtain but feel the self satisfaction of the purity and blindness of our dogma?  If so our lives will be frustrated and we will find our animal rights heaven very empty.  Or do we envision a world we want, recognize that we will only get there in time and by small steps and begin moving in that direction?  Moving the suffering scale for animals by degrees may seem less satisfying than a Holy Roller conversion, but isn’t the impact greater?

If we have people who on the living cruelty scale are a ten and we go with the convert or die – or ignore they may opt- we might get one convert who we can take to zero and nine ignore us and stay at ten.  We go from 100 cruelty points to 90. But what if we give options and don’t demand the conversion?  What if then we get one convert to zero points a few to seven points a couple to five, maybe a three pointer, and a few who stay at ten.  Maybe we end up at 81 cruelty points.  Except we have moved several in the right direction and inertia will help keep them moving.

I will use meat consumption as an example since it tends to be one of the screechier arguments [Note 4: Boy, was that a mistake.].  Most people who eat meat will not stop eating meat entirely.  If the choice they are given is meat or no meat by someone with a poster of slaughtered animals preaching at them, almost all will choose to ignore you.

But if you offer reasons and alternatives that do not rely solely on making a case for abstinence in the name of the divinity of your belief, many will change.  For some it may be that they would prefer to eat less cruelly harvested meat.  Others may respond to the economic and ecological impact of modern meat production.  For some it may be health.  Alternatives work for most people in a way that abstinence does not.  Just ask Bristol Palin. [Note 5: I’m sorry, Bristol.  That was funny but totally uncalled for.]

I now eat drastically less meat than I may have in the past, maybe half [Note 6: I think I exaggerated, probably more like 3/4]. For a true believer, that’s half [Note 6.1: 3/4] too much.  But if we could frame arguments that would help people eat half as much meat, be twice the caretakers they are now, to be twice as aware, even if that’s not perfect, the cumulative effect would be staggering.  And we should embrace those who make these small changes with open arms.

That is what religious charities do, or at least good ones.  They do their good works because of a devout belief.  But they accept the help of anyone who wishes to see the benefits of the good works realized.  Most are not true believers and need to have a case made that that work.  Churches and charities who operate this way don’t ask if you are of another faith or if your donation is strictly for a tax write off or if you are pure of heart.  And neither should we.

We should hope to engage the community, make the changes we can make, and hope to make more as we get our hooks into their psyches.  The most effective of us do exactly that, although not without stones hurled by the puritans.  I’ll single out HSUS as being particularly effective at this.

In case after case, they are faulted for cutting the pie in half for everything from puppy mill legislation to humane meat standards.  And time after time they get half a pie, not the whole one.  But the next time that issue comes up they manage to cut the now half pie in half again, and again.  It is effective and has moved the issues important to them forward faster and farther than any all or nothing approach would have.

I have no doubt that HSUS is chock full of true believers.  But they have moderated their tone and approach not because they are selling out but because they know they can sell more of their beliefs and agendas by not being wild eyed lunatics.  At the HSBC we have done the same and the success of our organizations compared to the success of others makes me believe it is the right approach.

So I make the case for embracing the large percentage of Animal Rights Agnostics out there on their own terms and not on yours a little selfishly because it is how I’d like to be approached.  However, I will say that I think most Agnostics, religious of otherwise, would kind of like to have the conversion experience or at least aren’t opposed to it.  I think my wife might hold out hope that the fact that I will go to church with her, know more about the bible than most there, and genuinely find value in much of the Judeo-Christian philosophy means that I’m just in the closet and will tell her I was kidding about that whole agnosticism thing [Note 7: I’m pretty sure I did “jazz hands” here.  I’m not proud of it.].

I think a few of my Animal Rights True Believers friends feel the same when it comes to me and animals.  While I won’t tell them to hold their breath, I also won’t say it’s not in the realm of possibility given the shifts in belief I’ve undergone in my first forty years.  But if they were ever to tell me that I am bad, condemned, evil or corrupt for not bowing down next to them at the altar of their choice, they would not be friends for long, even with the well of sympathy I have for them and their cause.

That is why I, as one of the many Animal Rights Agnostics out there, encourage you all to lead others gently into your faith.

[Final note:  This is where I thanked them for having me, apologized, experienced the definition of “smattering of applause, and slunk off the stage.  But I am accepting bookings for the continuation of my “Talking Smack About Things Your Audience Truly Believes In” tour!  Coming to a town near you!]

* And a final not:  I have subsequently learned that the Gandhi quote is fake.  So, that’s kind of funny.

Share

The death of brick and mortar book, video, and music stores at the hands of virtual, internet retailers is something we’ve all accepted as a consequence of technological advancement. That one third of US marriages result from online dating no longer seems weird. We’ve even accepted that we can, and will, know every thought in every one of our friends heads as they vomit them out in the social media hive mind for us.

Screen-Shot-2013-11-07-at-5_17_19-PMOne impact of technology and social media which hasn’t been as acknowledged is its impact on animal sheltering. One might not think technology could have as big an impact on animal shelters, but there is no doubt that it has started striking nails into the coffins of animal shelters as surely as Napster and iTunes did in the music industry. The social media, website, and e-commerce revolution which was embraced by an animal sheltering industry which proved to be an early adopter of technology- my animal shelter employed e-newsletters and web based marketing before my local bank did- has ultimately turned around to bite us.

That’s because it is a leveling of the playing field. Just as anyone can now self-publish and sell a book or can record, post, and sell their music, blog commentary (like I’m doing now), making anyone a “writer”, “musician”, or “editorial commentator”, so too can anyone now be a “rescue”. In the same way that the number of books and amount of music has exploded via micro-media outlets, the number of micro-animal rescues has exploded and it’s had the same impacts on brick and mortar shelters that internet based retailers had on brick and mortar stores. That is not to say more means better quality, but there is certainly more.

Like the record industry, most shelters didn’t see it coming and many still haven’t. We were the only game in town. If you wanted a pet and didn’t want to go to a breeder or pet store, you came to us. Chances are there was only one of us in a given county so we had a lock on your business. We could be as nasty as we wanted and have the most ridiculous policies. What were you going to do about it? We were the animal DMV. Granted, we all thought we were doing this for the right reasons and we viewed our monopolies as a grace to you, the ungrateful public who didn’t appreciate our work. While we paid lip service to wanting to “put ourselves out of business”, no one really believed it in our industry.

The worm has turned. With the advent of two way (million way) communications on Facebook, even the old web based pet listings like Petfinder seem quaint, let alone our proprietary websites’ listings. People first posted pictures of animals at shelters whose clocks were ticking down to extermination, and those animals could be rapidly and widely shared, and were almost inevitably adopted. Then people began to realize that if they posted a picture of their own unwanted dog, they could do the same and never have to bring it to a shelter. Then, people began to think, hey, I can set up my own virtual rescue and not even need a building, I can just connect pets and people directly. With the help of the Google, they even began to make it official and filed for 501c3 status and ordered car magnets as the new executive director of Susie Sunshine’s Cute Little Puppy Wuppy Rescue (tax deductible as allowed by law).

The most recent turn was perhaps the least expected. It’s the creation of virtual animal control services, which allow people to post lost and found stray pets on Facebook and rapidly connect finder and losers so that strays never enter shelters. We have a couple locally and I even nominated one for a Red Cross award this year- they won- because they are so effective.

Hell, who needs shelters at all at this point?

Now, I am being very tongue and cheek since, as you may know, I’ve been an advocate for generally napalming the animal sheltering industry as an unsuccessful, self-righteous (and that’s coming from me) wasteland for years. I think this technological revolution is spectacular because it is good- no, great– for animals. It keeps animals in their homes, it gets lost animals back home, and it finds homeless animals new homes better and in greater numbers than ever before. It is the missing component in the old, not quite right but close, animal welfare formulas of the past. It is driving a wave of innovation and of positive reactionary response by shelters which cannot keep on with their old dinosaur ways and policies. It’s leading to smart industry consolidation, as is evidenced by the merger our own organizations and others around the nation. It’s saving lives.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some down sides and unintended consequences. The fracturing of the market has created some losers in the fundraising arena as what was one or a handful of shelters in a region becomes scores or even hundreds. Walk for the Three Legged Black Chihuahuas, anyone? I will bluntly say it dumbs down the quality of professionalism on the whole, since it’s highly unlikely most of the virtual or living room rescues will have career animal welfare, non-profit corporate professionals on staff to answer questions and assist people. Need an answer on how to best donate in support of the cause while maximizing your charitable deduction or detailed information on how to respond to a frivolous neighbor dispute involving your dog? We have someone to answer that. Susie Sunshine probably doesn’t. There’s also a level of transparency and accountability that comes with having a building that is open to the public, as opposed to Susie Sunshine’s garage.

As an organization with brick and mortar shelters, we are part of an industry facing a very real existential crisis. Years ago we had a sense that the decline in animal intake would have an effect on our ability to provide “stock”, i.e. provide adoptable pets, because the industry was based on having an overabundance of supply for the demand, being able to select the “best” for adoption, and having the ability- while calling it the responsibility and necessity– to kill the rest.

What do we do when fewer animals are surrendered and those are increasingly the ones with health or behavioral problems or history of aggression, the ones Susie Sunshine won’t take? What do we do when even strays, which were secretly the bread and butter of adoption pools since it was likely that the only thing “wrong” with them was that they wandered off, and that was nothing that a good testicular intervention wouldn’t fix, are being syphoned off by social media lost and found groups?

Well, I guess I should say what are they going to do? We decided years ago, having seen this trend before we were even clear on why it was a trend, that we’d create intervention programs to allow us to fix the broken pets that came to us so they could be adopted and, better yet, to keep the most broken out of our shelters in the first place. Through intervention and relinquishment prevention programs, and most prominently through our public veterinary programs, we have avoided going the way of Sammy Goody’s Music, Blockbuster Video, and B. Dalton Books. Others have not been so lucky.

I guess the question is, will our brethren in the brick and mortar animal shelter industry recognize the death of their industry model and that a new industry paradigm rules the kingdom?

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Share

I was recently in upstate New York working with an animal welfare organization to develop a business plan for their soon to be under construction public veterinary hospital. The executive director plans to retire once the major building project is complete and after a long career in animal welfare. She’s been in sheltering for about twice as long I have- and I’ve been working in sheltering long enough that I still call it sheltering.

I have been to the pinnacle of Space Mountain and on the horizon of Tomorrowland I saw dogs in jetpacks.

I have been to the pinnacle of Space Mountain and on the horizon of Tomorrowland I saw dogs in jetpacks.

I find myself in the sweet spot of tenure in that I can commiserate with long timers about how much things have changed over the years, for the better, but I’ve not yet been around long enough to be viewed with utter disdain and suspicion by the post millennial new comers who have little professional historical context for their work. I’m fine with that, since at some point, whether it’s sheltering and animal welfare, or civil rights, we should aspire to the point where the new generation didn’t experience, don’t remember, and don’t want to wallow in the bad old days.

But those of us who were in the bad old days, or the tail end of them as I was, still remember the 100 cats- or more- euthanasia days, the days of no veterinarians one staff, let alone veterinary practices, and the days of patently insane shelter policies based on weird and illogical premises that seemed based on the idea there were mobs of Satanists running around, every black person was a dog fighter, and that feral cats were quietly pleading to be trapped, caged, and stuck in the heart with a hypodermic needle, for their own good.

When those of us of a certain era get together we often start spinning yarns and lamenting that kids these days don’t know how good they have it. We don’t yearn for the past, we just reflect on what it was like and why we look askance at staff who whine about kennels going to half full being SO much work, or adopters who won’t take TWO cats at once, or when a shelter with a 96% live outcome rate (that used to be 50% on a good month) makes the decision to euthanize a dog that has aggressively bitten multiple people in and out of the shelter. Yes, none of this is good or fun, but boy was it worse twenty or thirty or forty years ago, and we’d have begged, we did beg, for today’s burden over yesterday’s.

That’s where a little context can sometimes be helpful, even if it comes off a little like Grandma reminding us how far women’s rights have come, even though you’re still only making eighty cents on the dollar, girls, but at least you don’t have to wear skirts and the boss can’t smack on the ass.

However, there is a sliver- OK, a slice, a really large, birthday slice- out there in our business or on Facebook who not only don’t want to hear about how much better things are, they actively deny it. In some ways, they don’t even seem to want the better world we have now.

Coincidentally, the evening after having this discussion, I went out to see the new Disney movie, Tomorrowland. Since it’s a toss-up whether I’m a bigger whore for Disney, sci-fi, or George Clooney movies, this was a must see. It turns out Disney was bugging our conversation, went back in time, and made a movie about this denial faction in animal welfare!

Now, if you will be devastated by a spoiler on the deep, profound plot of a Disney movie, get up now, see Tomorrowland, run back, and start reading again. If you’re pretty sure you’d figure it out anyway, proceed….

The general premise of Tomorrowland is that in our wallowing in the misery and adrenaline rush of zombie plagues, real plagues, political plagues, and Iggy Azalea, we have ceased to strive from that great, big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day. We’ve accepted an end of vision, aspiration, and pioneer spirit. We no longer believe, in the face of all historic context to the contrary, that things are better now than ever before and that we- us, you, me, personally- can make it better still. And in the big plot twist we learn that we are heading headlong for destruction, not because it’s out of our power to do otherwise but because we want to destroy ourselves. Mind blown.

OK, not about the movie premise, because as an optimist, humanist, and futurist, I have utter confidence in our transcendence as a species. Nope, mind blown because I thought, holy crap, Disney made a movie about the animal welfare industry!

There is the crowd who refuse to acknowledge that things are better, even in the soft light of reality. Only 25% as many animals are euthanized in shelters now than a few decades ago? So what? And they question the numbers anyway. Pit bulls are now nearly a protected class in shelters as opposed to the almost uniform automatic euthanasia order of twenty years ago? Nope, they are still under siege, everywhere, all the time. Come out with even an hint that the spay/neuter mantra has been a success, to the point that shelters in much of the country are devoid of puppies, resulting in people turning to pet shops to find dogs under a year in many places? That will get you flawed faster than getting on the wrong side of House of Bolton in Game of Thrones. And don’t get started with the people who think fee waived adoptions are hunting grounds for bait dog collectors and that puppy mills still rule the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, despite the 80+% decrease in commercial kennels since the Puppy Mill Bill passed.

There is an active and aggressive sub-culture in sheltering and animal welfare who actively deny the victories we have achieved, embrace the failures we still have to overcome, as limited as they are in comparison to last decades, and cling to the “they are all dying!” approach. If you say otherwise, you are a liar or an apologist or a false prophet. These people are so invested in the urgency and need to prove an impending doom for animals that they can’t see the successes we have achieved.

Worse, by clinging to a reality which no longer exists in much of the nation and being fatalists, they are perpetuating the very real problems facing animals when they could be solved. Where we have overcome a hurdle, we must overcome the next hurdle, not deny the next hurdle in the NE US because the last hurdle still exists in the SE US. We are a capable industry and a capable people. We have achieved victories that were literally taught to me over twenty years ago as being impossible because of the intractability of the problems.

Will we now, as an industry and a movement, turn inward and backward after having done the equivalent of going to the moon in many places in our country? Will we not embrace the innovations and recognize the demographic trends that allowed some to get there first and bear down on those areas which have been slower to reach the same heights?

The premise of Tomorrowland is that some people are able to see it, be inspired, and bring that inspiration back to the rest of us. We can do the same in animal welfare. I look to organizations who have done what ours have not and strive to match it. Others who lag behind our success can do the same by looking at us. We can innovate and improve on the programs and technology of others in our industry. We are literally on the cusp of “saving them all” and we can.

But some people deny that. Some people want a darker future. Those people need to have a giant, floating Tachyon telescope dropped on them. Figuratively, of course. I’m not cruel.

Share