Americans consider themselves animal friendly. In a national poll, 96 percent of Americans said we have a moral duty to protect animals and we should have strong laws to do so. An AP-Petside Poll from a few years back revealed that three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill animals if those animals are not suffering. These social attitudes are indicators of our cultural values, at least when it comes to general attitudes about animals and how our nation’s animal shelters operate.
There is, quite unfortunately, a great divide between our social values and how many animal shelters function using our tax dollars and donations. People want animals to be protected and don’t want shelters to destroy animals needlessly, but that is what is happening in the majority of our shelters in all but the most progressive of communities. As Nathan Winograd (the Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center) once said, if we had never killed animals in our shelters and we suddenly decided to do that, people would be outraged. The fact that it has happened for so long has made many of us resigned to the death, as if it is a foregone conclusion. It is not.
The good news is that things are beginning to change. With each passing month and year, the list of places where healthy and treatable animals are no longer at risk in shelters continues to grow. Success is now leading to success. Each time a new community adopts No Kill philosophies and ends the needless destruction of savable pets, other communities in the area and the region see the example and say, “we want that.” In places where municipal officials and shelter leadership do not voluntarily make changes to operate shelters consistent with public values, more and more advocates are stepping up and speaking out to demand that changes be made. Some of these advocates do so in spite of great personal risk and threats by shelter leadership to sue them for having the audacity to speak out. They speak out so they can live with themselves.
When my No Kill Huntsville advocacy group was speaking out to end the destruction of healthy and treatable animals at the local municipal animal shelter, some of the most vocal opposition to our efforts came from some surprising sources. Not only were some shelter employees opposed to our advocacy, we also faced some incredibly hostile opposition from shelter volunteers and supporters, in addition to local rescue group leaders. These are people who would tell you that they feel strongly about helping animals and making good decisions for animals. Rather than consider why our advocacy was necessary in the first place, they expended an incredible amount of energy engaging in personal attacks and defamatory behavior on social media. It was both obstructionist and unproductive.
I have seen this same behavior recently related to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society which fought for and then obtained the municipal animal control and shelter contracts in Alabama. I will likely never understand why a nonprofit organization would seek so much work and take on so many animals, resulting in the deaths of large numbers of those animals. Much like happened in Huntsville during what we call the “difficult years,” people in the Birmingham area are now speaking out in support of the organization even though they have been told (and shown) that the majority of the animals taken in are destroyed in all but some months of the year. There are countless people who have supported the organization so long that it is apparently inconceivable to them that animals are being destroyed needlessly.
All of this strange behavior by people who consider themselves champions for animals and animal welfare got me thinking about a concept you may have heard of before: cognitive dissonance.
In 1957 Psychologist Leon Festinger proposed a theory of cognitive dissonance centered on how people try to reach internal consistency. His theory states that cognitive dissonance is created when we have attitudes, beliefs and behaviors which are in conflict with each other. We naturally feel compelled to have our thoughts consistent and when they are not, it can cause us negative physical tension which can actually be physically uncomfortable. Common examples are when a person knows that smoking is unhealthy but that person still smokes or when a person knows that driving a vehicle which hurts the environment is bad, but still drives that same vehicle.
We know it is a fairly common occurrence for animal shelters to destroy healthy and treatable animals even though doing so is not consistent with public values or current social norms. The reasons this happen are many (and this no longer happens in Huntsville for the most part). My interest is in people who either volunteer in or otherwise support animal shelters which destroy healthy and treatable animals. As hostile as some have been toward me, I recognize that they are all people who either love or care about animals and they are very passionate about it. In spite of this, they often defend the destruction of healthy and treatable animals and in some cases do so with a great deal of hostility, as if they are being personally attacked. Although they would tell us that they don’t think healthy and treatable animals should be destroyed, they are very defensive of the fact that it happens every day
Cognitive dissonance theory states that we routinely resolve the conflict in one of four ways: 1) we change one of the thoughts to alleviate the conflict; 2) we change our behavior to alleviate the conflict; 3) we add new thoughts to rationalize our behavior; or 4) we trivialize the inconsistency.
As it applies to people who defend the destruction of healthy and treatable animals in shelters, an example of how cognitive dissonance works goes like this-
Belief: healthy and treatable animals should not be destroyed in shelters is in conflict with
Behavior: I support a shelter that destroys healthy and treatable animals
Change a belief - the shelter I support has no choice but to destroy healthy and treatable animals
Change behavior - I will not support the shelter because it destroys healthy and treatable animals
Method 3 - Add new thoughts to rationalize - the shelter I support destroys healthy and treatable animals because the public will not spay/neuter, there are too many breeders and the public is irresponsible AND I know that the people who work at the shelter I support are good people who don’t want to destroy animals and are doing the best they can
Method 4 - Trivialize the inconsistency - this happens across the country and there really isn’t any way to change it
The methods I see used most often to alleviate dissonance are adding new thoughts and trivializing the inconsistency. It is easy to come up with a list of reasons to rationalize the destruction of animals who either were, or could have been, someone’s beloved pet who ends up in a shelter due to circumstances beyond the control of the people who love that animal and may be looking for that animal. It is also easy to just throw our hands up in the air, say the problem is too big to be overcome and we just need to live with the fact that it can’t be stopped.
The example I gave above is just the tip of the iceberg. I have heard countless excuses from shelter supporters in defense of the killing of healthy and treatable pets and at the end of they day, they are just that: excuses.
If you currently lead or manage an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed, I challenge you to take immediate action to stop what you are doing. The methods being used across the country to save shelter animals have been known for about two decades. No shelter is an island. If you want to stop destroying savable animals you need only educate yourself about No Kill philosophies and then network with other shelters who can help you learn from their successes. If you refuse to do at least that, and do it with a sense of urgency, I encourage you to find another occupation.
If you currently work at an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed and you feel you have no control over that, please do all you can to try to use your influence to get the shelter leadership to network with No Kill facilities or communities in order to learn new ways to keep animals alive. If you are not willing to do that, you may very well find that your life will become incredibly difficult as you try to reconcile your personal beliefs with what happens at work every day you are there. We all decide what we will and will not tolerate in our working environments.
If you currently support an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed, please ask yourself why you tolerate that. As uncomfortable as it may make you to read these words - your silence is your consent. Consider becoming a positive influence for change to try to get the shelter to embrace proven programs being used across the country to save the lives of shelter animals. One of the worst things you can do as someone who cares about the well-being of companion animals is to enable the killing or be an apologist for the killing. The very worst thing you can do it to engage in obstructionist behavior to prevent shelter reform. Doing so only puts the lives of more animals at risk.
A time will come when all animal shelters in America are No Kill shelters and the practice of killing healthy and treatable animals is simply part of our shameful past.
It’s time to lead, follow or get out of the way.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson