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 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.