Joni LaVigna and Other Peoples’ Lives

September 22nd, 2014 | Posted by Pam Keeler in Uncategorized

I recently saw a news story about a pet which had been abandoned along with some food and a blanket. The story ended with a statement that the person might face cruelty charges. I couldn’t help but wonder what might be going on in that pet owner’s life that they would leave their pet like that.

joniAfter all, they didn’t throw it out of a moving car. They didn’t starve it to death. They didn’t beat it to death. They even left it with food and a blanket. They cared enough to try to make it safe and comfortable to whatever extent that food and blanket offered. Was dumping their pet the right choice? No. But how many choices get made by people who think they have no other and perhaps have something happening in their lives about which we know nothing?

Yet, as animal welfare organizations, we so quickly move right to a punitive response, a police response, rather than a response of intervention and assistance. This story also reminded me of Joni LaVigna, Humane Society of Berks County’s former Chief Humane Society Police Officer who passed away several years ago. When I first arrived at HSBC I went through the cruelty investigation files to see what her department was doing (she was just an officer at that point). I saw many investigations which were closed without prosecution, but were not marked, as so many calls are, as “unfounded”.

I asked her why a case of a skinny dog was not prosecuted. She said it was because the owners had lost their jobs, so instead of prosecuting them she gave them dog food and told them to keep coming back for dog food as long as they needed it. I asked why a case of dog without shelter was closed without prosecution. She said it was because the people just weren’t too bright and they were very poor. So she arranged to have a dog house dropped off at their house. Case after case, resolved with a helping hand, not a hammer.

Unlike some other officers I have worked with in the past, Joni did not have a “start with a citation, ask questions later” style. She would not hesitate to prosecute vigorously in cases of genuine, wanton cruelty. But she did not hammer people just because she could. I think that was because she had gone through times in her life, as we all have, when trouble visited. She wasn’t going to add to someone else’s when the real goal was to stop and prevent suffering, not self-rightiously punish it after the fact.

Joni was extremely supportive of HSBC’s pet food give-away days. When we first held them and got hate mail for “helping deadbeats” and donors telling us they wouldn’t support us any more, she would tell me not to worry about it. We didn’t know what was going on in these peoples’ lives. Anyone standing in line for an hour in the middle of winter to get a free bag of dog food needed it, and chances are the letter writers just might need it someday, too. After the Great Recession, those letters stopped coming. More people started to recognize that with one bad turn of the economy, any of us could be in their shoes. Joni already knew that.

Now we get beat up by some in the veterinary community who don’t like that we offer veterinary services. They don’t like that we think that vet care is integral to our mission because good vet care keeps animals at home, where they belong. They really don’t like that we offer full cost services to people who can afford it- just like human non-profit hospitals do- so we can take the so called “profits” to give reduced cost and free care to those who can’t afford it.

“If people can’t afford a pet, they shouldn’t own one.” And I guess the pet should suffer. “It’s not fair for non-profits to compete with us.” I don’t hear pet supply and grocery stores complaining about us giving away free pet food. In fact, they give us their nearly expired food so we can give it to pets in need. Sure, we could just let these poor pet owners sink under the waves of their need and let their pets drown with them. Sure, we could allow the self-interests of a business community to dictate what we do with the charitable resources knowingly and generously donated to us by supporters. It would certainly be easier that way or maybe feel better or fairer. After all, we pay for our pet food and vet care, why should they be given a pass?

For those who would dictate what we at HSBC, HLLC and Humane Pennsylvania do to help those in need to suit themselves, I think of the parable of the vineyard workers: Are we not permitted to be charitable as we choose with the resources we have? Or are they envious because we are generous?

And when I occasionally question who we give these charitable resources to and whether they deserve the help, I remember Joni reminding me that we can’t know what these people are dealing with. We are here to help them, not judge them.

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