Cruelty Porn

September 16th, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

The recent 9-11 anniversary, and its wall to wall reshowing of the images of the horrific crimes committed that day, sparked some discussion among staff at Humane Pennsylvania about the appropriateness of the imagery.  You couldn’t avoid it on TV, newspapers, the billboards of a local advertising company, or even on radio, where NPR spent the day verbally drawing us mental pictures.

smile-kitten-largeFor me, this image assault is very much like what I call the “cruelty porn” tendency in my own animal welfare industry.  I don’t mean the “crush videos” that occasionally get dragged out by a concerned politician (but are actually about as common as roving hordes of Satanists sacrificing cats, which is to say, essentially non-existent).  I mean the tendency of animal shelters and their Facebook pages to insist upon posting images of abused, tortured, and dead animals.

There is often the same mantra and justification we heard recently:  Never Forget.  We must see the carnage so that we never forget it and are ever vigilant in our opposition to a repeat of said horrors.  Let me ask you, if you never saw a picture of the burning towers again, would it erase the memory of the feelings they conjure up?  I doubt it.  By the same token, seeing a picture of a dog that was doused in gasoline and lit on fire isn’t necessary for me to appreciate that act of cruelty or desire to prevent it.  It isn’t necessary for me to want to support the organizations which I know are there to care for animals who face cruelty and work to strengthen cruelty laws.

So why do we show these images?  Perhaps the better question is why do we look at them?  Is it the same impulse that makes us slow down and look at a nasty car accident?  That’s my impulse, I’ll admit it.  But I think there is a difference between wanting to see something in the immediacy of an accident or a terrorist attack or a witnessed incident of animal cruelty and wanting to replay the images again and again, in a way that seems somewhat emotionally masturbatory.  For me, that difference is respect.

I oft repeat a story about something that took place on the very first day of my tenure as Executive Director of the Humane Society of Berks County.  When you walked into the lobby there was one wall with a bulletin board chock full of happy pictures of adopted pets.  Then you walked past it to come to another wall with bulletin board lined with pictures of animals which had been shot with arrows, starved to death, lit on fire, beaten bloody.  I asked why we had that bulletin board and was told (I paraphrase), “So people know what happens, what we see and do, and so they never forget.”

I was appalled.  No one who walks into our lobby needed to be assaulted or made to feel bad that we have a tough job sometimes.  That’s why they are there- to help us do it by adopting and donating their money and their time.  And in the off chance that some sociopath did come in, what would these pictures accomplish for a person who doesn’t feel anything in the first place?  It was utterly ineffective and only served to create a hostile, painful, fearful mental environment, not a sympathetic one.  Not a respectful one.

That was the moment I met one of my very favorite people on Earth, then volunteer and later board member, Scott Yoder.  I grabbed him and asked him if he would mind taking it down and I believe he said something like, “With pleasure.”  He understood.

Some members of the staff went, bluntly, apeshit.  People need to know!  What they were really saying is that I need to share my anger and grief over what I see with everyone else to make them share my pain.  I understood.  But I wasn’t going to facilitate it.  And I settled on a way to express the reason for removal of these images that was at the core, for me, why they needed to come down and one which seems to resonate effectively with the staff:  The pictures were disrespectful and perpetuated the crime against the animals.

If we were a shelter for victims of domestic violence, would we hang photos of battered women in the lobby?  If we were a shelter for victims of child pornography, would we post images of their rape on the wall?  Of course not.  It is a perpetuation of the violence they have already experienced.  It is wrong for us to use their suffering to make some point about our job with a public we apparently think to be too thick to appreciate the magnitude of the crime.  The fact that it happened is enough, must we make others experience a slice of that pain to make ourselves feel better?

And what of the off chance the owner of one of those animals was there to see it?  Do we run drunk driving ads with the pictures of decapitated teenagers to drive home the “reality” of the problem?  No, we would say that it is morbid and unnecessary, and unnecessarily cruel to the family of the victim.  Yet we post images of the exact moments of the crimes which took the lives of 3,000 people for their families to see run over and over, out of respect and remembrance.  What must it be like for those families to be subject to so much of our respect?

It is perhaps a somewhat smaller matter, for most people, to be presented with the image of a tortured dog.  But it is no less respectful of its suffering and crime committed against it.  It is no more needed to make us know that vicious animal cruelty exists and that we must do something about it or help the organizations which do.  I travel to a lot of other shelters and I still see these bulletin boards of horror in some of them.  When I do, I tell my bulletin board story and share my analogies of the abused children, because hits home, and with any luck those boards will come down.

There is a reason Humane Pennsylvania and our partner organizations don’t resort to using shocking images such as these.  We don’t need to.  We trust you.  We trust you pay attention without having to be gore enthralled into it. We trust that you will never forget.  We also know showing these images are disrespectful and wrong.

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With the announcement of Michael Vick’s signing by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the self-righteous social media screeching which he perpetually leaves in his wake has once again reared its smug head. The moderate among of his well-wishers predict his sure descent into Hell. The worst offer to send him there. The kindest of the bunch tend to focus on his victims. Never forget his victims.

It might be a good idea to introduce you to the very first victim in the dog fighting saga that has become Vick’s life. Before there were the dogs he tortured and killed as a professional dog fighter, there was another victim of animal cruelty, one as lacking in culpability as any dog and one who is universally ignored.

mike-vick-childhoodIt’s Mike Vick, the child.

Before the wailing begins that I’m an apologist for his actions, I will make it clear I am not. His actions were vile. He deserves every bit of punishment he received, and more. I don’t believe the NFL should be hiring him to any position. Since he’s going to a town which cheers an alleged serial rapist, perhaps Vick is a moral improvement in their eyes.

However, the faux humane concern for “all” the victims, buttressed between calls that Vick be tortured and killed just like his dogs were, ignores that this is not a man who woke up one day and decided he was going to bash dogs heads in and drown others in buckets. This is a man who was a product of victimization himself, a man who was crafted and molded into being a sadistic abuser of animals.

Yes, the dogs were victims. But so was Mike Vick when he was a young child being taken by the adults around him to witness and participate in dog fights. As a child, he had no more control for his participation in dog fighting than did the dogs. As a young male child, likely taken there by older males in his life, he probably had the added burden of having to prove himself and show his acceptance and enthusiasm. As a poor child, he also likely did not have the kind of social environment that wealthier kids might, with housing and food stability, regular checkups and the local pediatrics practice, pets who saw a vet regularly for checkups and health care.

Granted, most people, nearly all, in fact, who were poor and lacked these things don’t grow up to be violent criminals. From what I’ve heard he didn’t have it much worse off than I did for stretches of my childhood, but I grew up to work in the animal welfare industry and he grew up to be a mediocre quarterback who spent time in prison for slaughtering companion animals for fun and profit. And while I acknowledge that I had the benefit of probably being a fair amount smarter than him, if utterly lacking in athletic ability, and, let’s face it, way whiter than him in a world were that matters, I didn’t make the choices he made.

Before I can proudly beat my chest at being better than Vick and pointing out that lots or most people don’t succumb to their bad upbringings to the extent he did and that many people with zero exposure to violence do turn out to be sadistic horrors, I must also acknowledge being exposed as he was increases the odds of offending in like ways. In the case of violence and boys, there can be a significant increase in the odds. Not all wife beaters saw it in the home but the boys who did are vastly more likely to beat their wives if they saw their dad beat their mother. What are the inclining odds if your dad or uncle took you to a few dog fights?

That is why recognizing Vick’s victimization while also condemning him as a victimizer is so important. If we want to stop dog fights, we can and should keep railing against them and have lots of cops prosecuting them. If we want to bring an end to dog fighting culture, we have to save boys like Vick before they become men like Vick. There is a cycle of violence. It is real and we have to support ways to intervene to keep kids from being a part of it and help them not become inculcated in that cycle if they are a part of it.

Socially, maybe ensuring that kids don’t have to move constantly because of housing insecurity, can always know that there is healthy food and plenty of it in the kitchen, have an economy which pays living wages so parents can work just one job- and be lucky enough to have one job- and come home to help their kids with their homework, homework assigned at great schools will make the difference. Maybe those schools could put as much emphasis on being smart and getting great grades as they do on creating the next generation of unaccountable self-entitled jocks who grow up to be another crop of loathsome criminals hired by the NFL Maybe those kids can see great doctors because they have health insurance. And maybe even access to high quality veterinary care for their pets so they can see that the right and normal thing to do with pets is keep them healthy and happy and in the home.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave making that happen to the brain trust running for President right now (fingers crossed!). What I can do is what we have pioneered at Humane Pennsylvania. We can offer high quality, affordable veterinary care to the community. We can invite in everyone with a pet to get the care they need without being disrespectful to them because they don’t look like us and call their pets “fur babies” like we do. We can show families who have never been able to provide stable, ongoing vet care for their pets how to do it and make it easy, and invite their kids in, too.

Traditional “humane education” has been an abject failure. People do what they know and they do what is the norm. When the norm is seeing the pediatrician regularly, graduating high school and going to college, not getting in trouble, taking Fluffy in to the vet a couple times a year for checkups, that’s what most people do and it’s what they pass on to their kids. When normal is none of these things, when normal is knowing that dog fighting is just around the corner every Saturday night, that’s what you accept. And when you grow up to be a rich football player, it’s what you carry with you.

Our veterinary hospitals have real potential for breaking this abuse cycle, not by preaching in schools to kids with bigger problems facing them, but by making the right thing to do the easy, available, affordable option for their family. We can make abuse the aberration by offering an alternative.

Our Humane Veterinary Hospitals in Lancaster and Reading aren’t just neat ideas, they combat cruelty today and tomorrow. They keep pets in homes and out of shelters. They offer an alternative which doesn’t exist for many families. By getting national AAHA accreditation (our Lancaster hospital is the only non-profit accredited vet hospital in Pennsylvania and the new Reading Hospital will be the second when completed later this winter) we also ensure that we aren’t offering at risk pets and families sub-par care, we offering the best. Just like their pets, and yours and mine, deserve.

When I see an eight year old kid holding his dog’s leash, waiting to get him in for his check up and vaccinations, I can’t help but wonder if that’s the next Michael Vick who will never be. I also can’t help but feel a little pity and more than a little shame that those of us in my humane industry who weren’t there to save young Vick from being the man he is today.

(You can support our work by making donation in support of our shelters’ adoption programs, cruelty intervention programs, and veterinary services.  You can even bring your pet to our excellent practices- we have vets for your pet, too!)

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It is really hard, in a complex world, to provide the one word or one sentence answers we might like to. Animal Welfare is rich with this paradox and with answers that are Yes, No, and ten minutes long, all at once.

Towelday-Innsbruck

How many roads must a man walk down?

I just had a call with a shelter to discuss a new operations model they are considering. One of the committee members politely admonished that he was quite capable of processing one word or one sentence answers. And I love giving them, when it’s possible. But this committee member was asking questions about operations models that were akin to, “What is the meaning of life?” or “Does bleu cheese smell bad?”

Sometimes the answer is extremely complex and require a “Yes, but….” And the “but” requires a LOT of explaining. Sometimes the answer is dependent or qualified. “I like the smell of bleu cheese, but others do not, it’s a matter of taste.” It smell good or bad is too simplistic an answer.

Animal shelters have begun more effectively grappling with complex issues. For example, when I started over twenty years ago, the answer to whether pit bulls should be put up for adoption was a flat, “No”. One word answer, all day long. The false choice offered was that the only alternative to “no” was “yes”. In fact, this is the choice still offered by many on both sides of the answer.

Of course, the answer is, “It depends. It depends on the dog, the adopter, the family, the history, the community, the competence of the adoption technician….” That’s also the complex answer for whether Labradors or Chihuahuas should be adopted. It’s a gray, verbose world.

When asked, “Couldn’t we just apply management model X to the current operations instead of making an investment in future operations that are different,” My answer was both yes, no, and long, with multiple analogies. There we a lot of moving parts and when you are talking about millions of dollars and thousands of animals, a one word answer is the wrong answer to give.

I will admit that I also tend to answer what will or should be the next question while answering the first or answering the question that should have been asked. That can probably be annoying. But why waste time and language on an incomplete answer or an answer which doesn’t really move things along? We’ve got words, we should use them.

When someone asks, “Is that Pit Bull up for adoption?” I’m going to continue to answer the question they are really asking: “Can I adopt this Pit Bull?” Well, that might be a completely different answer.

And when someone asks me if I can distill complex, highly variable outcomes based on diverse inputs and expectations, I’m going to give them the long answer it deserves. Unless I give them the short answer it deserves. No. I can’t do that.

But if you want the long and correct answer, listen carefully, and try to keep up. Because I’m quite capable of processing and transmitting complex and comprehensive ones.

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One of the things I think Humane Pennsylvania is pretty good at is recognizing when it’s time stop doing something when a program or effort has run its effective course, its practical lifespan, or can be done better some other way. It doesn’t always make the decision easy, especially when we have an emotional and historical attachment.

The former Holly Miller Center for Animal Welfare, Douglassville

The former Holly Miller Center for Animal Welfare, Douglassville

That’s the case with our recent decision to that it was time to close both our Holly Miller Center in Douglassville and our Deska Center in Phoenixville. Both of these locations were created to address vital needs: getting more animals adopted (especially cats) and to get our new veterinary service model out to the community. However, following the merger of Humane Society of Berks County and Humane League of Lancaster County, we’ve been able to do that some much more effectively and efficiently, in vastly greater numbers and at much lower cost, then we are able to using these satellite locations.

The toughest decision is certainly the Miller Center closure. When it opened in 2008 it was our first satellite location and it helped lead to our first milestone year of not euthanizing a single happy, healthy animal, and we never did again. The thousands of cats, dogs, and small animals which have been adopted as a result of the capabilities offered by this ground breaking facility have helped us move to being an organization that now manages to save over 90% of our animals, healthy and sick and injured.

We couldn’t have made the transition to our new lifesaving model without Douglassville. We couldn’t have made Douglassville a reality with the generosity of George Miller, who made a generous donation in memory of his wife, Berks County native Holly Miller. We are all deeply appreciative of the gift- and the woman who inspired it- to take our first steps toward breaking new ground in saving animals.

Phoenixville was always intended to be a short term endeavor, so while we will miss the wonderful Phoenixville community, we knew this day would come. The location was planned and leased just prior to our merger. It was intended to provide adoption and low cost veterinary outreach to an underserved community and was, in part, a recognition that the primary organization serving animals in Chester County was struggling and unable to serve all of their communities. Fortunately, there is new leadership in Chester County so the need for our presence is less acute.

Humane-Society-Phoenixville-200x200

The former Art Deska Gallery and Adoption Center, Phoenixville

We were able to provide no cost veterinary and adoption services to hundreds of animals and we were able to partner with and assist other local groups, like the Spayed Club. We will continue to work in the community to provide no and low cost veterinary care to at risk pet owners through our Humane Veterinary Hospitals of Reading/Lancaster programs and staff, and we will continue to offer mobile adoption services in the area.

What is it about the merger which makes shutting down these operations the right decision? Everything. One of the major goals of the merger was to be able to reduce the costs of helping animals through increased capacity so we could help even more animals for the same charitable funds raised. We also wanted to be more effective at helping the animals we were not able to help in the past. We have done exactly that.

Last year we saw a 40% increase in the number of cats entering one of our shelters because other area shelters unexpectedly began turning away cats. We were able to absorb every single one of those cats and increased our adoptions to match the influx. In fact, we achieved a live out success rate of 87%, our highest ever, of not just healthy and happy cats but treatable and manageable sick, injured, and behaviorally challenged cats, too. This year our rate so far is 94%. Without closing our doors to animals we have achieved what is considered a no kill success rate for cats. It’s a stunning success.

Dogs and small animals have fared even better, with a 97% and 100% success rates. That’s because even though we may have received more, and increasingly receive sick, injured and challenging pets thanks to our great reputation for adoptions and having the only accredited, public non-profit veterinary hospitals, we are fixing the ones which couldn’t be fixed before, we can move animals to where they are most likely to be adopted, and we have the space to work with animals who need that extra bit of care and attention to become adoptable.

But the success at our primary shelters and hospitals just made it clear that the investment at the Deska and Miller Centers didn’t offer the same return. We may be doing better than ever, but we don’t have money to waste and if we can get four times the results for every dollar spent, we had to make the tough decision that it was time to stop. So while we know many, many folks liked these locations, many volunteered at them, and they were a part of the local communities, we hope everyone understands that our job is first and foremost to do what helps the most animals, most effectively, with the money donors entrust us with.

We have some plans for the Miller and Deska names, because we don’t want the generosity they shared with us to be lost just because it was time to change course on our facility plans, and I’ll keep you up to date. Thank you to everyone who adopted, volunteered, and donated at these locations. Know that even bigger and better things which will help even more animals and people are happening right now, with much more to come.

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In the words of Tom Waits, a little rain never hurt no one.

In the words of Tom Waits, a little rain never hurt no one.

It’s always nice to have perfect weather for one of our special events but sometimes spectacularly, memorably bad weather adds a charm of its own. The downright Biblical deluge we had last Saturday in Lancaster for the first of our 2015 Summer of Ska Pints for Pups events will not be one to be forgotten soon.

 

Despite the two inches of rain, being crammed under tents (and that’s why you always get tents!), and the pruney feet, I think we had one of the most fun and entertaining Pints ever (check out pix here). The beer selection was fantastic, with an especially good batch of Pennsylvania craft beer and a heavy presence of less common Euro imports. The entertainment was spectacular, featuring Washington, D.C’s legendary Pietasters (who have played with James Brown!). They were tight, into the crazy weather and venue, and even featured a guest player from the Mighty Bosstones, for good measure.

Our ever fabulous and ever smiling events manager, Sarah Valentine.

Our ever fabulous and ever smiling events manager, Sarah Valentine.

Most notable for me was the dedication and good cheer of our amazing event volunteers who got a little more than they bargained for this time but poured with smiles on their faces like the champs they are. Of course, the staff was stellar as usual, the local breweries who joined us had their usual friendly and knowledgeable reps (please see our beer list on the website so you can visit their locations and buy their beer as a thank you), and our sponsors who underwrite these events- both business and individuals- helped ensure that we didn’t just have fun, we generated vital funds for our mission.

If you missed it, you have your chance to join us at the next two Pints events in Reading and Pottstown in July and August featuring The Hempsteadys and The Snails and some new beers. If you were there, you should join us again, and bring some friends who are new to our events and our great mission work helping animals and people.

Woodstock had nothing on us, baby.

Woodstock had nothing on us, baby.

What’s the hardest working animal welfare organization in the business? Humane Pennsylvania! Now we’ll take you to the bridge!  Use your funk, stay on the scene!  We’re an animal saving machine! Ha!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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You’d think the argument over whether free or reduced adoption fees are a good or bad idea- they are a good idea- would be long over.  However, it’s come up again so I thought I’d repost a repost of a prior blog, as well as a new article and study on the topic.  If you know any naysayers who are still living in the 80’s on this subject, please try to convert them!

Read: Damaging Beliefs, Damaging Traditions

Check out these Maddie’s Fund articles and studies on fee-waived adoptions (in case you don’t believe us).

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*I’m a fan of recycling in all ways, including blog posts!  The day after Pennsylvania’s primary elections I thought I’d repost this one as a reminder that while we are on a pretty good track in Pennsylvania for animal welfare support from the legislature, other states are not as lucky and are dealing with un-American ag-gag laws, are stomping on non-profit veterinary competition, and are slow to even ban gas chambers.  Since this blog was posted in 2011, PA has made some strides- a gas chamber ban, improvements to office of dog law enforcement, and our First Amendment violating ag-gag efforts have been repeatedly smacked down.  We must remain vigilant or we can lose our momentum in the blink of an election.  And we still have these nasty pigeon shoots and a backlog of important animal welfare bills waiting to move.  Enjoy the blog-o-wayback machine today!

“We weep for a bird’s cry, but not for a fish’s blood. Blessed are those with a voice.” Mamoru Oshii

fish-market-crying-outI came across this quote a couple days ago. It might have passed right by me if I had not heard a prominent politician on a Sunday news show the next day telling the interviewer that he was choosing to ignore the overwhelming majority of Americans on an issue he disagreed with them on. As soon as I heard him this quote raced back to me.

On issue after issue, it seems that politicians are embracing the arrogance and audacity to not just ignore the wishes of those who put them in office (we’re used to that) but to deny those wishes exist or even to reverse the explicit will of the voters. Time and again, the public is making itself heard on animal welfare issues. Time and again, politicians, our elected representatives, decide they will ignore, deny or reverse us.

When Pennsylvania voters demanded that puppy mills be changed and that we didn’t feel dogs were farming commodities, the politicians and bureaucrats found “regulatory” means to circumventing clear legislative prohibitions under the new Puppy Mill Law, such as no wire flooring. I’ll have to remind my daughters that “no means no”, unless they are dating a bureaucrat or a dog farmer.

In Missouri, where voters went around the politicians and went directly to the polls to adopt new puppy mill regulations in a majority vote, the legislature repealed and changed the law, and their Governor proudly signed it. Politicians love to harken to the Founding Fathers. I wonder what they would say to Missouri residents who are taxed yet clearly not represented.

In Pennsylvania and across the nation politicians are implementing laws which make documenting, reporting or even legally investigating reported violations of animal cruelty laws illegal. They claim the mantle of “protecting” farmers or our “bio-security”. But we know what they are doing. They are throwing a blanket over the public’s right to information itself. The strictest Constructionist might claim the First Amendment only applies to the Congress. But I think most Americans know illegitimate state government censorship to protect big business when they see it.

In Pennsylvania, politicians first say there is no ground swell to ban pigeon shoots. Then, when there is an upheaval, they tell us we don’t have a right to the belief that these travesties need to go. They tell us they are looking out for the little guy and his right to hunt or bear arms. Sure, little guys like the NRA or private club owners who get rich inviting out-of-staters to Pennsylvania to get their cruelty on for money.

Times change and America’s views on what is acceptable has been changing steadily. It is time for politicians to recognize that.

We’re not talking about mob rule or violent populism. We know that majority rule is not always the best thing for the minority. But who exactly is the minority they are protecting when they protect animal cruelty?

Animal welfare advocates aren’t calling for lynchings or burning farms. We’re saying that some things, like pigeon shoots, aren’t hunting- end them. We’re saying that some things, like puppy mills, aren’t farming- close them. That community decision is no more unreasonable than when we said you can’t own people, you can’t keep women from voting, or that you can’t drown your dog in the river to get rid of him. Three, two, one hundred years ago, all these things were perfectly acceptable. Now they aren’t. Note to politicians: This isn’t radical change, it’s just change. Welcome to the wonderful modern world.

In the coming months there will be bills, votes, and decisions coming up in Pennsylvania on a pigeon shoot ban, on banning gas chamber euthanasia, on enforcement of the Puppy Mill law, and more. We’ve always said that we were here to give voice to the voiceless. We need to remember that if we don’t have a voice, our wishes will be ignored. Hell, they might be ignored anyway.

But if we don’t speak up now, often, and loudly (but politely), we’ll be nothing but a bloody fish to those who think their ballot victory allows them to ignore those who put them in Harrisburg.

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