I became an animal welfare advocate about a decade ago after I learned what happens at the shelter in the city where I work and where I was first stationed in the Army in a former life. Although there are many facets to my advocacy, I have spent a great deal of time in the last 10 years working to make Huntsville, Alabama, a no kill community - a place where healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed using our tax dollars. Huntsville is now being treated as one of the national success stories in animal sheltering. It is not yet a no kill community and it is entirely likely that it will never be one. Now that a certain level of progress has been achieved here, the mayor is happy, the city council is happy, the shelter staff is happy and so are most of the public. Better has been declared good enough; me pushing for more is likely an exercise in futility. I have already begun to turn my focus away from Huntsville towards the city and county where I live to try to do some good there.
The good news about the last ten years of my advocacy is that I have met some truly inspired, passionate people who are leading our society to a new age as it relates to how we treat companion animals in America. These are some tremendously talented and smart people and I am proud to say I know them. They are not afraid to speak out for the greater good and have stood up against tremendous opposition from people who claim to advocate for animals but who are really more focused on themselves and or on defending the status quo. The vast majority of them receive no compensation for their advocacy; it is a moral imperative to them and they feel compelled to act and speak out for the benefit of animals who cannot speak for themselves.
The bad news is that this period of time has taken an incredible toll. The amount of struggle I have faced, and the level of toxicity I have found among people who claim to be animal advocates, has been both shocking and educational. I have some regrets about things I did and I know I made mistakes. Advocacy is at its core about passion for a cause and I honestly don't think it's possible to always make the right choices. I can say for sure that there are things I did wrong, but for all the right reasons. I’m okay with the road I traveled. I know I did the best I could considering all the other factors in play and in light of the resistance I encountered from the very people responsible for making changes on their own without the need for any advocacy.
Which leads to the reason for this blog. I've developed a lessons learned type of list to try to help others who think they want to advocate for animals, particularly related to how their local animal shelter functions. Calling this blog a survival guide is a bit dramatic, but I do hope that reading my observations will help someone else avoid my same mistakes. It is not all inclusive and I’m just hitting the highlights.
Decide what you want. Ideally, I think you should be able to state your goal in a single sentence. You cannot fix our entire society or even an entire community in one fell swoop or through magic thinking. You cannot address issues related to companion animals, farm animals and wildlife at the same time. In my case, I wanted to push Huntsville to stop killing healthy and treatable animals in the tax funded shelter.
Do your research. If you don't know what you're talking about, you'll never make any headway because you'll have no credibility. You need to become an expert on your vision so you can speak intelligently about it from the hip. Learn the history of the issue you are working on so you know how our society got to this point. Make a decision on what methods you think work best to accomplish the goal, while being prepared to acknowledge that there are other methods which may have value. Network with people who have walked your path before you and whom are considered subject matter experts. You don’t need to be the smartest kid in the class as long as you know the smartest kids in the class.
Find a few like minded people to stand with you - but not too many. I think it is incredibly rare for a single person to be effective in an effort to make things better for animals and with no support when it comes to addressing systemic issues, particularly with local governments. It's just too easy for you to be dismissed as naive or as a zealot. You will likely be able to do more good if you find like-minded people who share your vision and are willing to join you to speak with one voice. Don't make your group larger than it needs to be for the sake of numbers. You run the risk of ending up with people who say they share your values but who truly do not or who talk but don’t do. Those people can be incredibly disruptive and take you way off course, wasting valuable time and energy.
Try doing "the ask" at the very beginning. If you are trying to reform the way your local animal shelter functions, diplomacy and respect are key and you simply must take the high road even if that behavior is not reciprocated. I’ve heard many times that all advocates are abrasive and are too quick to engage in name calling and assigning blame from the start. Not in my circles. I am a firm believer in taking the easiest path from Point A to Point B. If you do not approach those who have the power to change the situation and simply ask them to consider doing so, you run the risk of offending them unnecessarily. Go straight to the source as your first step.
Don't waste time or energy on someone who doesn't care or won’t listen. There is no polite way to tell someone "animals are being destroyed needlessly. Please stop." But anyone who is really interested in saving the lives of animals, as opposed to defending that outdated process, will quickly let you know that they are interested in learning other ways to function and are "all in" toward embracing new ideas, particularly if you can help them understand what methods have worked in other places. You cannot force someone to acknowledge your vision and to work with you if they are bound and determined not to do so. If you hit a wall, don’t keep banging your head against it. Find a way around it by involving the general public in your efforts.
Make your message one about ethics, money and accountability - not about specific people. All animal shelters function with some oversight. In the case of municipal animal shelters which are operated by a city, county or by a contracted nonprofit, those shelters are funded by tax dollars. If your argument is that animals are being needlessly destroyed, you do better to argue that doing so is not consistent with American values, is not a good way to spend money and that those who oversee the shelter are accountable to the people who are paying for it: the public. Even if you believe that a shelter director should be removed, you won’t get far suggesting that unless some actionable form of abuse is taking place. You are better off focusing on the leadership as a whole. If the leadership makes personnel changes, so be it.
Don't listen to the haters, enablers or apologists. Although most people outside of animal welfare circles think that all animal welfare advocates are on the same page, we are not. I firmly believe that there are people who advocate for animals solely for the benefit of those animals. They do not seek or want recognition and the act of having helped is their reward. Then there are people who advocate for animals so that they can say that they advocate for animals. Many of these people can be your worst critics. For them, this is more about people and not offending anyone than it is about saving lives. Detach from those people and don’t let them suck the life force out of you with their negative energy. When you are labeled the source of the problem because you took it on yourself to speak out, don’t get trapped by the tactic of putting focus on the messenger instead of the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. You cannot win with people who point the finger of blame at you while giving the people destroying animals a free pass.
Be prepared to see it through. Once you begin an advocacy effort, the reality is that you can’t just stop if you get tired or discouraged. Be prepared to see it through, no matter how long it takes. Your efforts could take weeks, months or even years. Be prepared to stay on subject and stay committed to your beliefs, even if you are not treated with the same diplomacy you use to advocate for animals. Part of this process is, however, knowing when you have done all that you can. When you reach a point where you are no longer being effective in any way and you are simply repeating yourself to an audience which doesn’t share your ideals, be prepared to move on and know that you did your best simply to preserve your own sanity.
I have been called a lot of things in the last decade related to Huntsville and I know there are some who would not volunteer to be president of the Aubrie Fan Club. I’m okay with that. Because I know that my advocacy made a difference. If I had not begun to rock the boat myself and then found others to help me rock it, very little would have changed. And animals would have continued to die by the thousands for no good reason at all.
Go forth and do great deeds.
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