I am a recovering addict. I will admit it, and from what I hear admitting it is the first step to recovery. My addiction is the same one seemingly afflicting virtually everyone working in animal welfare, whether they are professional or volunteer, careerist or dilettante. My addiction is being right and being certain of my rightness. And it is a hard one to kick.
Since I started into animal welfare work I have had a clarity about the problems facing animals and their solutions. And that crystal clarity is a real rush. I see that rush in the faces of those I come in contact with in my work when they are telling me or someone else what The Problem is and how he or she has The Solution and if everyone would just do it, we’d solve the problems facing animals. You can see that these people are getting off on their rightness. Oh, and do I know that feeling, the feeling of being the most right person in a room full of people who are right.
But just like any addiction, it gets ultimately you nowhere. It is not a sustainable high. Worse, this high requires the existence of the very thing us addicts claim to have the solution for. It requires animals to be imperiled so we can save them with our unique solution. No imperiled animals? No need to be right. Not being right means no rush. We addicts need the problem to exist if we want our high.
But it takes little more than the most cursory look around us to see we can’t all be right and that, as far as I can see, not one of us has The Solution to The Problem. Many of us have solutions to problems. This little solution for that little problem. While a problem solved, no matter how small, is probably a life saved, it’s just not as satisfying as claiming ownership of the one shining path, the one true way, the sole keeping of the one door through which we must pass. The small solution is just a shadow of the rush of mainlining The Answer.
I’m not sure if there is a twelve step program for animal welfare junkies, but there probably should be. So I’m trying to kick my habit on my own and recognize that maybe I don’t really hold the key that unlocks the door to the transcendent solution. In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, I’m trying to accept the things I cannot change, have the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
After twenty years in animal welfare I’ve come to recognize that the problems facing animals in our society cannot be solved with a magic bullet, that I certainly don’t wield that gun, and I’m yet to meet the person who does.
But I can take aim at some specific targets and hit them. I can help this group of animals and that group of people. I can resolve this conflict and that problem. I can make a real difference in the real lives of real animals and people. And I can be a little right and a little wrong- and hopefully be a little less wrong tomorrow than I am today- and still have some success.
I don’t have to be the person with the ultimate answer. And even if I think I am, what power do I have to apply that solution universally? There is a difference between believing and acting in a way that makes me feel right and feel good and acting in a way that does good and makes things right and improves lives for animals and people. I imagine that those small, substantive victories are ultimately going to prove more satisfying and lasting than the sporadic flood of, yet intrinsically empty, satisfaction of knowing how much more right I am than everyone else.
In animal welfare work we exist in a room filled with those we blame for the problems facing animals: people, society, government, the animals themselves, competing organizations, speciesists, ethnic groups, religious groups, economic classes. But mostly we blame them for not recognizing that our door, among all the many doors to choose from, is the one which will fix everything. If they would just be smart enough to recognize it and choose it. I have been one of those people.
But I am starting to see that there are so many doors out of this room. Open access, no kill, low kill, sterilization, advocacy, research, interdiction, intervention, TNR, legislation, education, and on and on and on. Door after door to choose from and they all lead somewhere. But no one door is big enough to move out on its own the entire room. As good as it feels to believe that, as easy as it is to be sure that our own door is the only way out, it’s simply not the case.
So I’m trying to kick my habit. I’m knocking on other doors and seeing where they lead. Many will probably lead nowhere, despite the wild eyed insistence of their rightness-addicted doormen. But they can’t all be dead ends. With any luck, we’ll all get out of this room.
PS- My apologies to Lou Reed for so torturing a line from his beautiful song, Stephanie Says.