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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If it seems to you like there are more charitable fundraising events than ever, you are not wrong. Auctions of every variety, galas, beer tastings, and don’t even get me started on the multitudinous versions of walks and runs out there. When I started in non-profit animal sheltering over twenty years ago, there were far fewer non-profits and, therefore, far fewer fundraisers.

Back when our Walk was a mere ten years old- and yes, that is our very own Adrienne Trafford rocking the leggings at right.

Back when our Walk was a mere ten years old- and yes, that is our very own Adrienne Trafford rocking the leggings at right.

Back then, the Walk type fundraiser was pretty squarely in the pocket of animal shelters since, you know, dogs walk. Humane Society of Berks County, with its 35 year old Walk for the Animals, is among the oldest around. Over time, as Walks have become more ubiquitous because of their relative ease to conduct- “Hey, everyone, we’re walking, hope you show up!”- the number and diversity of groups has exploded. Cancer walks, domestic violence center walks, walks for Horses, walks for schools, pro-life walks. I even saw a walk for Beethoven or something. Half of them have added dogs to the program, so we don’t even have that unique aspect going for us anymore.

The latest boom in events are beer festivals. This is one area in which I think we were way ahead of the curve. The first beer tasting fundraiser I and fellow staff put together was over twenty years ago when we worked for a neighboring county’s organization. That was back when craft beer was still microbrew, you were lucky to find a bar with more than a couple taps and one of them had Bud Light and the other wasn’t likely to be much better, and you had to drive across the county to find micros or imports (shout out to Buy Rite in Morgantown for carrying Franziskaner!). There may have been another beer tasting fundraiser that long ago, but it pre-dates the internet and I haven’t found one.

In the past decade we brought the model of a small, non-frat boy dominated, fun beer fest to Berks with the Pints for Pups events. It quickly caught on and became one of our signature events. Of course, there had always been the for-profit warehouse bacchanalias and these began to proliferate, as did the smaller local non-profit versions, especially after the change in the Special Occasion Permit rules (which Humane Society of Berks County was instrumental in bringing about, so you’re welcome everyone else) expanded the list of eligible organizations exponentially. Where there used to be one in Berks County there are now four or five or more.

The gala type event, and often the associated auction, tended to be reserved for the “big boy” charities with the higher end donors in past decades. Hospitals, conservancies, museums, and the like tended to dominate this type and when little fellas like animal shelters got into the action it was pretty paltry competition. Fortunately, I had been tutored in Chester County (shout out to the lovely and wonderful Jane Thouron), the land of the swanky gala, in not just how to put one on, but how to create a culture of giving among an attached crowd that built on itself over the years. We brought much of that experience and structure to our events in Berks, especially the Art for Arf’s Sake Art Auction, and very quickly grew the event to the point where it routinely broke the $100,000 barrier so rarely achieved by any organization, let alone an organization our size (tiny by comparison to most) and we were trouncing the performance of the “real” charities who tend to have a lock on successful events.

How did we do it? The easy answer is the old chestnut, make an event fun, and we did that. I think our events are pretty fun: we switch things up pretty well, we have great entertainment, good food and booze, and all the things that make people want to attend rather than prefer to just send a check and stay home. That’s the easy answer. The truer answer is that we have always worked our butts off in creating a critical mass of people attached not merely to the fun event itself, but to the purpose of the event and the funds they raise. We put special thought to ensuring we have an array of events at all entry points, from free community events for large numbers, like the Walk, to smaller crowd, higher dollar events like Pints and the Auction. However, even those events, with added benefits for big dollar sponsors, have reasonable pricing and sponsorship opportunities since we know not everyone can write a big check. That’s why the Arf’s Art (Berks) and Wags and Whiskers (Lancaster) Auctions provides tickets to artists who donate their creations to both the auction and the Patron Preview Parties because they are as much a donor as the person who buys their art. We do our best to thank everyone, regardless of level, although with as small a shop as we run, we never do it as well as we could or would like to.

We also try to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of raising money at the expense of spending huge amounts through things like consignment items in auctions (great, it sold for $10,000 but we have to pay $9,500!) or by treating expenses like it wasn’t real money. It is real money. It’s real money someone is donating to us that could go to the animals and our programs. I know donors appreciate that but our vendors often don’t when our staff negotiates pretty hard bargains for the services we pay for.

Most importantly, we try to make sure that everyone who attends our events not only has a good time, not only gets thanked, but knows exactly what we are doing on their behalf, with their money, with the money raised from them and with their help. Our events are where we raise funds for specific purposes. We’ve applied event funds to creating Berks County’s first free, public dog park. To opening its first public, non-profit animal hospital. To opening the first modern, non-pound type adoption facilities, to provide free, targeted medical services to prevent parvo outbreaks, to create Pennsylvania’s first nationally accredited non-profit animals hospital, and much more.

That’s why, despite the intense competition for donor time and money from all these other events, even ones which sometimes are pretty patent knockoffs of our own, ours still do really well, even during economic downturns or other factors which could really damage them. And it’s why, when I see the latest billboard for the local “Beer Auction Gala Walk for the Dogs of Earthquake Survivors” I may say to myself, “Really? Another one?”, but I don’t begrudge them for trying.

I know we not only try harder, we do better, and we do better with what do raise than most manage. And we do it with the loyal and deeply appreciated support of all the people out there who don’t just want to attend an event and they don’t just want to “help animals”, they want to attend our events and help us help animals in the very special, unique and uniquely effective way we do it at Humane Pennsylvania, Humane Society of Berks County, and Humane league of Lancaster County.

If you are one of those people. Thank you and I hope to see you soon. If you haven’t yet been to one of our events, you’ve been missing out! Please join us- you won’t just have a good time, you’ll know you are going to empower us to do some really good work on your behalf.

We know that being first and four bucks will get you a cup of coffee. It’s about being the best. And we strive to not just to give you the best event to attend, but to do the best possible work that can be done, anywhere, with the donation you make.

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Race and Animal Welfare

April 15th, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

In retrospect, even with my preamble to our HSUS minder that it was meant with all love and respect, my announcement of my pleasure at being at the HSUS EXPO at which “HSUS discovered black people” might have been slightly over-the-top ironically pithy, even for me. I acknowledge a tendency to bite the hand that feeds me on occasion when my conscience or mouth get the better of me. And while I know all EXPO workshop presenters get a staff handler, I sometimes wonder if in my case it might not be because they one day expect me to revert to feral, rip off my shirt, start a bonfire with the conference room chairs and throw in anyone I deem to be of the old guard.

Cleavon-little-blazing-saddlesMy comment came in the midst of a workshop I was presenting along with Humane Pennsylvania COO, Damon March, at the request of HSUS, on the future of disaster response (“Is the future of disaster response “no response” at all?”). I have to be honest, I don’t think we were entirely comfortable with the topic as it isn’t our hedgehog, for the Jim Collins fans out there. I’d give us a B, and the evaluations we reviewed afterwards seemed to generally agree. Solid effort, won’t be adding this one to our future workshop bank. Sorry, attendees, they can’t all be grand slams.

But my comment hinting at the reality of race and animal welfare was not entirely off the cuff and it was appropriate for the portion of the workshop addressing the need to be sensitive to the widely heterogeneous nature of victims of disaster as well as to our own, possibly subconscious, biases and perceptions toward them. Two of the workshop reviews we received specifically mentioned the “race portion” of the workshop, but with diametrically opposed opinions. This utter divergence of view is why I addressed the issue in the first place, why I struggled with the issue specifically after what I found to be a disconcerting welcome session at EXPO, and why I return to the topic of race and animal welfare again here.

One of the two evaluations specifically thanked us for addressing the issue of race in animal welfare and our interactions with our clients. The other suggested that we (I) should have kept our “racial views to ourselves”. This familiar response to any discussion of race is no surprise and I bet a small sum I can guess the skin tone of the two evaluators, although I wouldn’t bet a large one. I have found that many whites in animal welfare, and animal welfare is comprised overwhelmingly of whites, and nearly exclusively once you reach the level of executive management, would prefer not to discuss the impact of racial prejudice in the field of animal welfare.

I will state my belief succinctly: There is and has been massive racial bias, intentional or not, in all facets of our industry and it has negatively impacted our ability to deliver services to our community and to connect with people and animals in need. Period.

This is changing. The, for me, disconcerting welcome ceremony at EXPO was ample evidence of this. There were four individual recognitions or awards offered. The first three were animal caretakers or rescuers of some stripe or another, all black. The first was a man who would not abandon his dog during Katrina. Guess what? The dog was not a pit bull, it was an Akita! In the workshop I also noted that I thought that anyone who did not think that a large majority of welcome session attendees did not have that clearly racially biased thought pass through their head- black or white- in a way it would not have for a white person is kidding themselves and doing their clients and staff a disservice by not recognizing that bias. The next honoree, who had an award posthumously named after him was also black. OK. Then the award was given to a wonderful woman who rescues neighborhood cats. Black. Uh. Damon March and I are looking at each at this point, because it seems like a pattern is building.

Were all of these people worthy of recognition? Of course they were. Is there also a whiff that the recognition was somehow more laudatory because the great white majority of our industry might credit non-white folk less with doing what we expect white folk do? Take a deep breath, you’ll smell it. Was HSUS, which has taken a clear and, in my opinion, wise and commendable turn toward recognizing that we are here to serve all animals, not just suburban white owned animals, and that access to comprehensive services such as veterinary care and not just animal control interventions is a right of all, was making a pretty pointed case for the fact that poorer, urban, black people actually love their animals, too? On that, I would wager a large sum. I applaud it.

So why the- snarky?- commentary if what they are doing is recognizing something which I think has gone too unrecognized and unaddressed for decades? My discomfort, and the discomfort that literally had me up later the night following the welcome session than I’d have preferred, springs from the fact that while there was clearly a point to the selection and presentation of the honorees and the programs being highlighted, the audience was left to awkwardly figure it out the subtext on their own.  When there is a clear, long-term, seemingly intractable problem, we must do more than just offer some remedial action. We must actually state, aloud, what the problem is, why we are addressing it, and what we are doing to remedy it. Simply letting Tiger Woods or the first woman into Augusta National Golf Club isn’t enough. We don’t just leave them standing there looking around sheepishly in a crowd of old white guys. “Hey, thanks for letting me in, not sure if you noticed but I’m a woman and he’s black. We’ll just stand here wondering if we are tokens or if you really see what the problem is.”

Sometimes a problem is so pronounced that just taking steps to fix it needs to be accompanied but an explicit statement that you are fixing it. Allowing membership to the club one day doesn’t make the club post-racial. It just makes it slightly less homogeneous. Until the addition of minorities- hell, in animal welfare being a man got a raised eyebrow in many shelters until recently- is unnoticed, there’s still an issue. Ignoring the reality of that issue, not saying, “Hey, we noticed that for whatever reason, there are no people of color in our club, we think that’s probably an issue, and we are going to change that,” doesn’t fully address the need, even if we are trying to take steps to.

Our animal welfare club is homogeneous to a fault. We may not have a secret handshake or citizenship tests to keep it that way, but a simple glance around any meeting of sheltering agencies should make it clear that we’re a lilywhite crowd. Whether this leads to outright bias in our work is certainly debatable but I don’t think that it is debatable that fewer members of diverse groups- racial, ethnic, gender, orientation- brings fewer perspectives to our work, less understanding of those unlike us, and a greater likelihood that we may inadvertently approach our work with bias that negatively impacts our efficacy.  It certainly makes it more likely that we will utter the word “they” when talking about problems facing animals.  As in “they” don’t view animals they was we do.

Those biases are very real. I have seen them in our organization and we have worked hard to crush the openly bigoted policies and approaches of the past and to minimize the inadvertent bias that can come from a lack of diversity. When I started at Humane Society of Berks County it was standard practice, if not actual policy, to refuse adoptions to people of color on weekends until we could check the ownership status of their homes with the county courthouse on Monday. We routinely waived that requirement for whites. When we overturned the total ban on pit-bull adoptions staff would refuse adoptions of pits to young black male adopters, because, you know, pit bull. I write “we” but I should more accurately say “they” because I and my new managers immediately stopped these practices when we saw them, we moved along staff that clearly did not see a problem with these approaches, and we had a 100% turnover within a very short period of time. Sometimes the only way to change a culture is too destroy it and start from scratch.

It was more insidious than that, though. In all my twenty plus years in sheltering, I have never had one charge levelled against me that my COO has had levelled against him repeatedly by the public, by staff, by the board, in whispers and knowing glances. It’s the charge of selling pit bulls out the back door to dog fighters. Care to guess what color our COO is? Yep, black. Or actually half black, since in our culture we don’t think half white is white, we think half white is black. And apparently black managers with decades of experience and skills sell pit bulls for fighting while white ones don’t because, you know, pit bulls.

Having managers and staff of varying genders and complexions helps lead to having even more variety. It builds on itself. Is our staff a United Nations reflection of the community? Not quite, but better than before and better than most in our region. Does it make us perfectly unbiased? No, because we all are to some extent. But it makes us aware that we are not dealing with “them”, we are dealing with people, just like the people we work with and for. Just like the people we and HSUS give awards to. Just like the donors and volunteers of all shades who make our work possible. Speaking of which, that fourth person recognized at the welcome session was a lovely old white lady who was an originator of HSUS from the 50’s. We’ve all certainly all come a long way since then.

HSUS doesn’t need me to tell them how to make a change in the culture of animal welfare. They are bigger and smarter than me and I’m sure they have discussed how best to approach it for a massive organization which needs to ensure it brings the most people along into this brave new multicultural animal welfare world, as it tries to find a way to bring in a whole new group of previously overlooked. In the same way a President has to modulate his speech once she governs us all and a Congressperson can spout off whatever he thinks is the most important issue of the day, with every step Wayne Pacelle is making seismic shifts in animal welfare and must be very careful how he treads.

I’m fortunate in that I am much less relevant and I can say what I think the animal welfare industry needs to hear. I do appreciate that may be a sensitive subject to some in a workshop or even reading a blog, but I know it is equally sensitive for those who have been ignored, marginalized or even openly accused of horrible things simply because of their skin tone by people who believe themselves to be humane and merely looking out for the animals.  I also know that sometimes it needs to be said by someone with an ass as white as mine since I’ve never been on the receiving end of racial bias in our industry.

I can say that the way we, as an industry, view and treat minorities, especially but not exclusively poor minorities, is different than how we view and treat non-minorities. I can say that the near or utter absence of non-white faces at our shelters and conferences does a disservice to our work and undermines our credibility. And I can say that by not discussing the reality of the impact of racial bias on our work we are impeding our progress, the very real progress we, HSUS, and some many others are making.

We can’t just do it. We need to acknowledge we are doing it and why. We need to say it.

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