One would think that those of us who believe animal welfare is important and that animals deserve our protection would all be one happy family. It makes sense that those who run puppy mills or hold pigeon shoots would loath animal welfare advocates and the work we do. But in reality, the ones who are most likely to vilify and berate those in animal welfare are not our opponents. They are our allies.
I just wrapped up an email exchange with a woman who was simply trashing me and our organization for not doing something she thought we should do, something that she decided was our mission. This animal lover has been a long time correspondent, alternately telling us she “loves us” and telling us in profanity laced emails that we are horrible and don’t care about animals.
I pride myself on always trying to convert every critic and my insistence on engaging every critic that comes to my attention. I either get them to see it our way and agree with us, I get them to at least acknowledge we have a valid point (if they won’t agree with us), or I wear them down to the point they just get tired of attacking us.
But after years of this person’s love/hate whiplash and self righteous edicts of what we should be doing, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I hit a wall. My response was professional, but it was blunt, direct and thoroughly unappreciative. I must admit, it was barely polite and it was withering.
Now, I did check to make sure that she was not, in fact, a volunteer, donor or adopter. As is so often the case who offer helpful advice, she was none of those. She was simply an animal lover with an opinion. An opinion that, in her mind was superior to mine. Therefore, whatever I thought and whatever our organization did must be wrong. Further, the implication is always that somehow by not doing what she thought we should, we were worse than those who run pigeon shoots or puppy mills because we are an animal welfare organization, we should know better.
While her attack was among the more pedestrian we receive, her sort of personal attack is not uncommon. Animal lovers, both professionals in animal welfare and the general public, seem to feel free to fling their worst abuse at those on their own side. I and others in animal welfare have been attacked for merely speaking to the wrong person during legislative meetings, for taking different position on issues- even minor ones. I have never been threatened with picketing by the pro-pigeon shoot lobby. But I have been threatened with it by a fellow animal shelter director because I was going to attend the same conference as another animal shelter director who he viewed as a traitor to the cause.
The worst attacks, gossip campaigns, mud-slinging, insults, innuendo, sabotage, and interference I have experienced as an animal welfare professional have come almost exclusively from those on my side of the aisle. And if you ask other animal welfare professionals, I think they’ll tell you the same thing.
And this behavior isn’t just directed at people like me. When animal welfare laws are on the table, these pro-animal people are often as effective at derailing them through their rude and abusive behavior directed at legislators as those who actually oppose the legislation. They paint the entire animal welfare movement as being nut jobs because they can’t keep their tongues and engage the debate civilly. Of course, they always tell us it’s because they love animals so much or that their heart is doing the talking. But the reality is that they are simply rude, mean, and use the suffering of animals as an excuse to abuse those they disagree with.
That is why I am increasingly of the opinion that the real obstacle blocking the improved welfare of animals is not those in opposition to change; it is those who so rudely demand it.
There is a place for disagreement- even bitter difference- but merely having a different opinion of the solution does not make someone deserving of abuse. People can be wrong without being bad. But these people who hide behind “loving animals too much” to be civil do more harm than good. Don’t believe me?
Look at the organizations which have been most effective achieving real change. Look at the Humane Society of the United States (no relation to the Humane Society of Berks County). They attack their animal welfare agenda in an incremental, methodical, reasonable way, and by doing so they are among the most effective. Some animal people trash them for being too willing to engage and compromise, too willing to work with the other side. But they have the other side quaking in their boots. They have put a reasonable face on their agenda and the people who oppose it can’t paint them as crazy fanatics- because they aren’t behaving like crazy fanatics.
You can see the same lessons repeated, sometimes inversely, elsewhere. We’ve all seen the organizations with the shrill, certain voice. They know exactly what should be done, expect everyone to do it, and try to demolish anyone on any side who disagrees with them. But their victories, when they get them, are often shallow and short lived. There is a reason that organizations become more moderate in tone over time. It’s because it is more effective than screaming.
Until we stop being apologists for the people on our own side who behave boorishly, uncivilly, and rudely, we will not be doing any favors for the animals we all say we want to help. We need to cast them to the fringes where they belong and disavow them. Not just because they are mean and rude but because they are doing more harm than good. And that’s the last thing animals need right now.
So, I feel kind of bad that I even engaged this person today. But enough is enough. If someone wants to help animals by tearing down our staff, organization, volunteers, supporters and me, I will politely tell them to peddle their “love for animals” elsewhere so I can get back to the real work of effective change.