Sunday, October 2, 2011

How and How Not to Ban Fur

Early in the morning of September 26, a group of animal “liberationists” calling themselves “the arson unit” set fire to a fur store in Caldwell, Idaho. Caldwell, Idaho, however, is not likely to ban the sale of fur any time soon.

During the evening of September 19, after individuals such as Ed Buck, Ellen Lavinthal, Bryan Monell, and others worked for months to make West Hollywood, California a fur free city, and finally working with newly-elected city council member John D’Amico, the West Hollywood City Council enacted a ban on the selling of fur. No fur stores in West Hollywood were set on fire. There was just some very hard, unexciting, undramatic work educating the public, holding rallies, and working to elect a humane city council person, and culminating in this historic city council meeting attended by scores of fur ban supporters who stayed at the meeting into the wee hours of the night.

The communique from the “arson unit” regarding the Idaho attack read in part, “by oppressing innocent life, you’ve lost your rights. We’ve come to take you down a notch. Stay in business, and we’ll be back.”

Do you think for a minute that this is going to make Caldwell, Idaho even consider a ban on fur sales? Or do you think it might just make them circle their wagons, and fight even harder against those who commit violence in the name of animal rights? And do you think it is going to win any hearts and minds of the public? Or do you think it is just going to make ordinary people equate banning fur with “extremists” who would commit arson?

Of course, you can argue that West Hollywood is a much more liberal town than Caldwell, and that, even if nothing had been done, Caldwell would be much less likely to institute a fur ban than West Hollywood. That is true. But I have a feeling that if fur stores in West Hollywood had been set ablaze, following which, “communiques” had been sent saying “stay in business, and we’ll be back,” even liberal West Hollywood wouldn’t have a fur ban today.

When violence is committed in the name of animal rights, it becomes an issue of the violence, not of the animals’ rights. When people stick to the issue, work hard within the system to make a humane change, the focus remains on the crucial goal of helping the animals.

So, to those of you who believe it is in the animals’ best interested to use “any means necessary,” I say: look at what you have actually accomplished. The means you are using are not only not necessary, they are counterproductive to your cause. You are cowards who won’t do the real hard work it takes to bring about change, but engage in “exciting” activities which take the spotlight off the animals and put it on you.

And to those of you who worked so hard to bring about the fur ban in West Hollywood, I say: Well done! Congratulations! You are heroes, and the world is better off for your work.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Los Angeles County Lowers the Bar for Declaring Dogs "Vicious"

On Tuesday, July 19, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to change the “Dangerous Dog” law in a manner that could potentially put any dog in Los Angeles County at grave risk. Caring people have voiced serious concerns about these changes, and in response to these concerns, Marcia Mayeda, director of Los Angeles County Department of Care and Control, assures us that none of the feared scenarios will happen.

But let’s look at the actual changes and their implications, and why Ms. Mayeda’s reassurances are unsatisfying at best, and in places, actually false.

Previously, when an animal control officer or law enforcement officer determined probable cause to consider a dog potentially dangerous or vicious, the department was required to petition the Superior Court for a hearing to determine whether the dog was indeed potentially dangerous or vicious. The law has now been changed so that the department itself may conduct that hearing. The new wording states that the administrative hearing to decide whether the dog is dangerous will be conducted by a “neutral hearing officer.” This sounds perfectly reasonable. However, it then goes on to say that “The department may authorize its own officer or employee to conduct the hearing.” So the very people who have already decided the dog is potentially dangerous or vicious, from the very department that so wantonly kills even animals it doesn’t deem vicious, now has the power of life and death over these dogs. How can this be “neutral?”

In addition, these animal control officers have absolutely no training in dog behavior or how to recognize dog body language and signals, or to determine when a dog is really vicious or potentially so. In fact, the definition of what exactly constitutes a “vicious” dog seems to be misunderstood, even among some “professionals” who do temperament testing. See, for instance, this video of a temperament testing session after which the dog was–very wrongly–deemed “aggressive” by a "professional". And this is far from an isolated incident. So how are untrained animal control officers going to be able to distinguish a dog who is actually “vicious” from one who is simply boisterous, playful, or noisy–or afraid?

Second, the law changes the definition of “severe injury” to include “serious illness,” and in another place changes the word “injury to “harm.” So whereas before, a dog would have to have bitten someone, or at the very least knocked someone over and caused bodily injury, under these changes, conceivably, a dog wouldn’t even have to touch someone in order to be declared dangerous. The addition of the phrase “serious illness” leaves the law so open that if an eight pound toy poodle walking on a leash barks at someone, and that person goes home and has a heart attack, the dog can conceivably be considered “vicious” and taken away and killed.

Some people have criticized concerns such as this as an overreaction, but is it? True, it is possible that the above scenario will never happen (and I certainly hope it doesn’t), but the changes leave the law wide open to abuses such as this, and it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility. And even if it never happens, do we want a law on the books that is so open to this kind of interpretation that there is even the possibility of it happening? Mayeda herself has been quoted as saying, “If a dog’s chasing you down the street and you jump on a car to get out of the way, that’s a potentially dangerous dog.” I’ve had people scream and run away when my very friendly twenty-six pound poodle mix goes up to say hello to them, so I can assure you, Ms. Mayeda, the car-jumping scenario doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is actually “potentially dangerous.”

Mayeda replies to the concern that certain breeds will be targeted by saying that “the ordinance is neutral regarding the breed of dog involved” and that “the County has no breed-specific laws on its books.” Again, this is true on the face of it, but because the changes also add that a dog can now be declared dangerous if that dog has been listed as dangerous or potentially dangerous in another jurisdiction, this can amount to breed discrimination in practice. For instance, if someone moves to L.A. County from a jurisdiction where breed specific legislation is in effect, and that person has a dog who was targeted under that law, and that dog has been labeled “vicious” simply because of his or her breed, that dog will now be considered vicious in L.A., even if the dog has never shown any signs of being anything but gentle and loving. So, although it is true that there are no breed-specific laws in L.A. County, in essence, due to this change, BSL will be imported from other jurisdictions.

Mayeda claims that “the threshold [for labeling a dog potentially dangerous] has not been lowered at all.” This is actually not true. Adding “serious illness” to the injuries a dog inflicts to be labeled dangerous, allowing untrained ACOs from inside her own department to determine who is “vicious,” and allowing a label of “dangerous” or "potentially dangerous" to dogs who have been labeled as such in a different jurisdiction, possibly one that labels any dog of a certain breed as dangerous, very much lowers the threshold.

We must keep a watchful eye on this and see how it plays out. I suspect that there will be lawsuits against it and dearly hope that the law won’t stand and will have to be repealed. The administrative hearings for dangerous dogs are open to the public It would be great if people who cared about real justice showed up in numbers to these hearings. First, the cases would be documented and could be publicized in instances where the facts show that the case against the dog is clearly unfair, and second, the department would see that the public is watching and this just might make them think twice before they acted as if they had carte blanche with dogs lives.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pet Connection Reports on No Kill Conference

Not able to make it to the No Kill Conference in Washington, D.C. this weekend ? The Pet Connection blog is doing a wonderful job of live blogging on the sessions. It’s the next best thing to being there. Follow them at http://www.petconnection.com/blog/

I wasn’t able to go either, and I’m grateful to the Pet Connection staff for these posts. Thanks, guys!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Words We Use and Why They Matter

[Note: this is a slightly different version of an essay that appeared on The Poppy Foundation Website]

Studies have indicated that surveys show completely different outcomes depending on the way the questions in the survey are worded. One person will answer the very same question in two completely different ways depending on the wording of the question. Therefore, one survey could have two or more completely contradictory outcomes based simply on the way the questions were worded.

Words matter. Words have a profound effect.

Choosing one word over another, even if those words seem to mean the same thing, can make a huge difference in the way we look at things, and can even completely change one’s world view. In our relationship with non-human animals, the words we use can have a major impact on the way we view animals and therefore on the way we treat them. Words we use without even thinking about them can color the way we perceive non-humans, and can perpetuate their exploitation.

An example is the word “owner” versus the word “guardian.”A study done by FIREPAW shows that people who refer to themselves as their animals’ guardians were more likely to treat their animals well than those who referred to themselves as their animals’ owners. It makes sense. Seeing ourselves as "owners" invites us to see our animal companions as property. In Defense of Animals has a program called the Guardian Campaign, the goal of which is to have the word “owner” replaced with “guardian” in official language, and it has succeeded in doing so in areas ranging from law codes to shelter and vet forms to signs in public areas. Many jurisdictions--even the entire State of Rhode Island--now use the word “guardian” officially.

Of course, it wasn't too long ago that humans "owned" other humans. We have done away with that, but legally we still “own” non-human animals. I eagerly await the day this law changes, and we regard the owning of any creature as abhorrent. But law reflects culture, and we can start by choosing to use the term “guardian.” As people think of animals less as property and more as fellow beings, we will treat them better, and the law will follow.
Something I hear often, even among many animal advocates–people one would think would know better–is the habit of referring to non-human animals as "it," with its concomitant “that” or “which” instead of “who” or “whom.” This seems to come so naturally to some people, but whenever I hear it, it is so obviously discordant, it affects me the same way as hearing someone use terribly bad grammar. Many people give the excuse that they don't know the gender of the animal, and therefore can't say "he" or "she." But if you didn’t know the gender of a human, would you call that human it? I doubt it. Referring to non-human animals as "it" helps people to think of them as objects, not the living beings they are, and therefore gives permission to exploit them, to treat them any way we please without regard for their feelings.

There is another type of word usage, or mis-usage that has a slightly different background. The use of the word “shelter” to denote a place where animals are taken in and killed, and the use of the word “euthanasia” to describe that killing have come about as euphemisms, a way to make the pounds seem like places that are protecting animals, and the killing that occurs in them seem like a favor to the animals. The use of such words intentionally hides what these places actually are and what actually happens in them. And this, too, has a disastrous effect on the animals. When the public thinks of pounds as “shelters,” they are lulled into thinking that animals are cared for and protected there. They are more likely to abandon their animals at these places, thinking of the "shelter" as a safe haven where the animals will be cared for and protected until a good home is found They are also less likely to be outraged at the killing that goes on and to want to do what it takes to stop it. Often those who are working to help animals will buy into the use of these terms, even though they know how inaccurate and misleading the words are, simply because they don’t want to be seen as too radical, or to alienate the people affiliated with the system. But until we quit using euphemisms that hide the truth and begin using accurate words for these things, the killing will continue.

Another word that is wrongly used to denote killing an animal is destroy, as in “the animal was destroyed.” No. The animal was killed. You kill living beings. You destroy inanimate objects. 
The way we talk about animals in the wild also affects the way we think of them and consequently the way we treat them. When they are no longer seen as feeling individuals, but rather "natural resources," well, aren't resources just things we use for our own benefit? When we kill them and refer to it as "harvesting," we turn them into something like wheat or oranges, not the feeling beings they are. Then, when some animals who haven’t been targeted for killing are accidentally killed in the massacre, they become “trash animals” (the non-human equivalent of “collateral damage”).
Then there's meat--oh, the euphemisms we use to distance ourselves from the fact we are eating someone's dead body. It has been sanitized so entirely that we don't have to think about it–to even connect the meal with the individual we are consuming. We don't eat pigs and cows and calves; we eat pork and beef and veal. If you eat pork, well, pork is not an animal, it’s food, and you don't have to even think about the living, feeling pig it once was. If we called it what it really was, I think more people would hesitate before they dug into that piece of meat, and many would finally make the connection and perhaps give up meat altogether.

Unfortunately, our everyday language is filled not only with thoughtless references to non-human animals, but also with downright derogatory ones. To merely call someone an animal is considered an insult, as are, more specifically, the terms "pig," "rat," “snake,” and so many others. We talk about "killing two birds with one stone" as if that were a good thing to do. These references are deeply ingrained in our culture, so much so that even those who are at the forefront of protecting animals are not immune from it. Even such a major voice for animals as Paul Watson, in an email alert, once called seal hunters “cigarette smoking ape[s].” He is trying to protect seals, but in the process he is sending a subtle but pernicious message that apes are something bad. Only by being vigilant, not only in removing them from our own language, but also in bringing it politely to the attention of others who use these terms and phrases, can we weed them out. One might ask, “is this really necessary? After all, they are just expressions, and have nothing to do with actual animals.” But that’s one thing about the power of words; it is insidious and often subliminal.

The words we choose to talk about anything or anyone color the way we view that thing or being. In the case of non-human animals, this can give us an unspoken permission to treat them in harmful ways. After all, wouldn't it be easier for you to "harvest" a "resource" than to murder a fellow being? And doesn’t it seem perfectly permissible–even the right thing to do–to “euthanize” someone rather than kill him?

Of course, simply changing the words we use to talk about animals alone won't magically change our treatment of them. Words not only shape our attitudes, they also reflect them. But words can serve to perpetuate a mindset. If those of us who are actively working to help animals remain vigilant and only use language of respect, it can help others think differently about animals, which may in turn help them to act differently.