Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Assuming the Worst of People is Killing Animals

It is an idea that is so entrenched in the minds of many animal rescuers and advocates that it is seldom questioned: “the public” is irresponsible and uncaring, and they alone are the cause of all the deaths in animal “shelters.” This theory would have us believe that the poor “shelters” have absolutely no choice but to do the public’s “dirty work” of killing the “surplus” dogs, cats, rabbits, and other animals who are “dumped” on them by this unworthy “public.”
There is an “overpopulation problem,” so this story goes, because the public refuses to spay and neuter their animals, they don’t really care about animals anyway, but see them as throwaway objects, turning them in to the pounds for frivolous reasons. These people are the scum of the earth, and the shelter workers are saints who must “euthanize” (a word that has been hijacked from its true meaning, and is now used to soften the reality of the killing) these animals.

I am on a number of email lists for networking animals needing homes, many of whom are currently in the pound, some of whom are being given up by their guardians, and rescuers are stepping in to try to find a home before the animal is taken to the pound. In the vast majority of these emails, the sender has added his or her own editorial comment, most of which go something like, “This scum is giving up his dog,” or “I’d like to get my hands on the bastard who turned the dog in in this condition,” or “I hope whoever turned this poor elderly dog in to the pound is put in a home and forgotten by his relatives when he gets old,” or simply the ever-popular, “I hate humans.” Many of the emails actually say, with regard to animals in the pound, “help, please rescue this dog/cat before the public gets their hands on him/her and he/she goes to a horrible home.” They just assume that if a member of the public adopts, the home will be horrible. I also see, time after time, emails that say, “these people brought this animal in to the shelter claiming he was a stray...yeah, sure, they probably just didn’t want to pay the relinquishment fee.” As if no one ever actually found an animal and brought him to the pound, and the world is full of nothing but lying bastards.

Of course, one major reason for this is that this is the propaganda we have been fed for so long by the pounds themselves, and as rescuers or advocates for animals, we tend to latch on to it because we are angry and frustrated about the killing and need a focus for our anger, and it is so easy to blame an amorphous, semi-anonymous “public.” This is, of course, in the best interest of the killing establishment, as it deflects the blame away from them.

Another reason is that rescuers tend to see a disproportionate number of examples of disregard for animals. Because yes, there are irresponsible, selfish, clueless people out there. No one in his right mind would deny that. Rescuers see this every day and it tends to warp their viewpoint and blind them to all the loving potential guardians looking for companions, who will provide them with wonderful homes. It also sadly robs them of compassion toward caring people who give their animals up to the pound because they don’t know of anywhere else to turn, or because they believe the word “shelter” means what it says, and that they are doing the best thing for the animal.

When you are surrounded by something, even if it isn’t a fair cross section, it becomes your reality. And that becomes the story you tell yourself. It isn’t a case of seeing is believing, but rather of believing is seeing.

But is the public responsible for pounds killing animals while they have empty cages? Is the public responsible for pounds killing animals when they have been notified that a rescuer–or even the animal’s own guardian–is coming to get the animal out? Is the public responsible for the pounds’ lack of basic sanitation protocols that cause animals to get sick, and then not treating them? And is it the public’s fault that the pounds kill animals with minor and treatable conditions, such as kennel cough?

So go ahead and continue to blame the public instead of the pounds, and here’s what happens:

1. It takes the onus off the pounds, excuses the killing, thereby perpetuating it. It plays right into the hands of the killing apologists. Only by putting the blame where it belongs can we put an end to the killing.

2. It alienates the people who might otherwise be responsive to working with rescuers/advocates to solve the problems that are causing them to give up their animal, thus lessening that animal’s chance of survival.

3. Blaming the public also creates heartbreak on an individual level. For instance, I recently received a forwarded email that had originated with a woman who had found a dog on the freeway and taken him to her local police station. She then sent out a mass email, which was forward on and on, pleading for someone to take this dog before he went to the pound. Almost immediately thereafter another email was sent out saying that she had found the dog a wonderful home–not a foster, mind you, a permanent home. I emailed her asking if she had tried to find the dog’s guardians, and she responded saying that she was sure he was "dumped" because people in that area didn’t care about animals, and that he had been at the police station for several hours, and if anyone was looking for him they would surely have found him by then. I emailed her again stating that the people might have been at work and not even known the dog was missing yet, or might not know to look at the police station, and she might want to think about putting up signs, that someone might be heartbroken. She assured me that no one cared enough about the dog to want him. There was nothing more that I could do but hope that there wasn’t someone out there with a broken heart, wondering where his or her best friend was, and if he were dead or alive. But there well might have been, all because this woman was so convinced that there wasn’t even the possibility that someone living in “that” neighborhood could care about his or her animal. This is just another sad result of the “irresponsible public” attitude.

4. And finally, it adds more unnecessary hate and vitriol to the world. It is mean, rude, insulting, and often undeserved. It doesn’t see nuance, but is a heavy-handed, black-and-white world view that is always counterproductive.

Not to mention the fact that it is simply not true: we have all seen people come together to help search for a dog or cat who was lost, or donate money to a rescue cat who needed funds for medical care, or stop to save a dog running in the street. On a recent visit to a city pound to pick up a mother dog and her litter for a rescue, I saw the following:

–three people bringing in a dog they had found, who were obviously feeling badly about having to leave him there, but not able to keep him where they lived. I could sense the sadness in the woman’s voice as she said good-bye to him. And he wasn’t even her dog.

–A man relinquishing his dog because he had been given an ultimatum by his landlord. The man was in tears as he filled out the paperwork.

–A woman who came in carrying her large dog (like a baby, wrapped in a blanket). The dog was very sick, and the woman could not afford to have him treated by a vet. She thought that if she surrendered the dog to the pound, they would treat him, make him well, and then place him in a good home. She didn’t want to part with him, but she wanted him to get well and was willing to make a sacrifice to see that he got help.

This doesn’t look to me like an uncaring and irresponsible public. The funny thing is, though, that many of those who are stuck in the "I hate humans," "irresponsible public" mind set would probably have immediately judged them all as bad people.

People are called “irresponsible” because they lack the financial means but dearly love the animal and want to do what is best. Or because they lack the education, but, again, love the animal. These people are not irresponsible. They just need a little help and/or guidance.

Instead of accusing the public of being irresponsible, why don’t we find out how we can help them be responsible. Why don’t we look more deeply at the person’s situation, and drop the superior and self-righteous “I would live in my car before I would give up my animals” mentality. Maybe you would, but not everyone is like you, and the fact that they are not does not make them irresponsible.

If we could first try to help before we jump to conclusions, and then, even if we find that the people are truly irresponsible, we don’t waste our energy spewing anger toward them, but rather put it toward damage control and helping relieve the situation ourselves, more lives will be saved. And isn’t that what we are working towards?

Instead of blaming the public, the pounds should be providing resources regarding pet-friendly rentals, trainers, financial vet assistance, and other ways to help people keep their pets. If the shelters were what many people think they are–what they should be by any logical standards–then the people who brought the animals to the shelter wouldn’t be seen in such a bad light. In other words, because the "shelters" kill these animals when they could be instituting life-saving No Kill protocols, the people who bring animals in, thinking the "shelter" actually is a shelter, are the ones who are condemned. Interesting way of looking at things.

As long as we erroneously see the public, and not the regressive pounds, as the cause of the killing, we will continue to tread water, trying to save as many animals as we can, all the while “knowing” that “we can never save them all.”

It is absolutely essential we start right now to put the blame squarely where it belongs: on those shelter administrators who refuse to implement the protocols that have proven, time after time, to end the killing, and who have a vested interest in keeping us believing the public is to blame, and, not least of all, on those of us who continue to buy into this myth.

Note: For more views on the myth of the irresponsible public, I refer you to two wonderful blogs from several months past:

John Sibley writes about this subject and gives more examples of how caring the “non-caring” public is here:

And this three-parter from YesBiscuit! is well worth reading: