There is a reason why some organizations are granted nonprofit status. They are tax-exempt because they exist for certain reasons which are recognized by law. In order to get and retain that status, nonprofits have to have bylaws which state that they will not engage in political activity. When they file their nonprofit application with the IRS they must reconfirm in that application that they will not engage in political activity.
Is it stated on the IRS website, “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”
In June of this year, I filed formal complaints with both the Internal Revenue Service and the Alabama Attorney General's office regarding impermissible political behavior on behalf of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. The basis for my complaint was fairy simple. In 2017 a website was published by an organization calling itself the Alabama Puppy Mill Project ("APMP"). The stated of intent of the organization was to promote legislation to end mistreatment of dogs in "puppy mills" in Alabama. The website was replete with references to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and openly talked about the relationship between the Greater Birmingham Humane and the APMP. The address for the APMP was the same as for the GHBS. The email address for the APMP was a GBHS email address. Although the names of the individuals behind the APMP are not on the website or Facebook page, my impression was then, and still is now, that the APMP is essentially Allison Black Cornelius (who is the CEO of GBHS), an attorney named Angie Hubbard Ingram and members of a rescue group which was up until recently called Cavalier Rescue of Alabama (and now operates as The Cavalier Rescue). The activities of some individuals associated with what is now doing business as The Cavalier Rescue were covered in an investigative article in the Washington Post which exposed the fact that some rescuers buy dogs at auctions and have spent large sums of money to do so. For me, the behavior of the APMP is imputed to the GBHS.
Because I lead an advocacy coalition which includes members who run non-profit organizations, I understand that there is often a fine line between a coalition and the people that make up the coalition. People who lead non-profit organizations are allowed to have personal opinions about political candidates; they just have to be very careful to keep their personal opinions from being interpreted as the opinions of the nonprofit. In order to eliminate any perception of impermissible political behavior, we never tell people who they should vote for. We do tell people the position of candidates on our issue, encourage them to research candidates and encourage them to vote.
When I first saw the APMP website and all the references to GBHS, I didn't think much about it or act on it because the primary purpose of APMP was to advance legislation. I also knew that the GBHS had filed an exception with the IRS to be able to be engaged in lobbying activity. I am not and have never been a fan of the GBHS. This is a huge nonprofit organization which operates with millions of dollars and which has historically had a dismal live release rate. When the APMP brought a “puppy mill” bill in 2017, I did not support the bill. I felt it was way too ambitious. It would have created a new state agency in Alabama which would have required funding in a state which has historically not done a great job of funding education. Beyond that initial hurdle, I just wasn't sure how much good the bill would actually do. It focused very much on licensing and I was left wondering who would enforce it. My thought was that a lot of small time, backyard breeders, who might not be treating dogs well, would simply ignore the law and not comply with it. I didn't state a public position on the bill and I simply stayed out of the way.
As I expected, the bill advanced by the APMP in 2017 failed. It appears that someone led the members of the APMP to believe the bill would make it out of committee; I'm not sure who. In the wake of the bill failure the members of the APMP behaved in ways which I found both extraordinarily unprofessional and embarrassing even though I had nothing to do with the behavior. Rather than simply lament the fact that the bill didn't pass and work to communicate with the senators who did not vote for the bill in committee - toward doing a better job in the future - the women behind the bill went on what I can best describe as a rampage. There was a press conference held in the lobby of the GBHS. People were encouraged to send emails to the senators which I'm told by the senators were juvenile and hostile. One senator told me this: "Unfortunately, those who try to intimidate and vilify end up losing respect and the option to even discuss important issues. My door has always been open to those who want to openly discuss issues in a professional manner." I also saw a number of posters which I thought were incredibly unhelpful towards gaining cooperation from legislators moving forward.
What led me to file complaints with both the IRS and the Alabama Attorney General's office was the fact that the APMP then began engaging in political behavior on its Facebook page. During the primary election in Alabama earlier this year, the page was very vocal that people should support one candidate to the exclusion of the other candidate (the image at this link is just one of many posts about candidates and who to vote for). At the time that this was going on the APMP website was still replete with references to GBHS. The About page talked all about GBHS. The address was the same as for the GHBS. The email address was the same as for GBHS. The candidate promoted by the APMP prevailed over a long-standing incumbent. We will never know if the voting was influenced by endorsement of one candidate over the other. What we do know is that this was political behavior which is considered impermssible behavior by nonprofit organizations.
I have not heard from the IRS about the status of my complaint. That is not surprising because I'm sure they get hundreds of thousands of complaints every year. When you file a complaint with the IRS you are told that you will not be notified of the outcome of the complaint.
The process with the Alabama Attorney General's office is different. I received an initial letter saying that my complaint was being processed. I was also informed that the organization against which I had filed my complaint would be given an opportunity to respond to the complaint.
After I filed my complaints the APMP website was scrubbed of references to the GBHS. The About page is gone as is any other reference to the GBHS. The Facebook page for the APMP has not changed much. There is still a lot of content tied to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and I presume that will not change.
I received a letter from the Attorney General's office yesterday which states the following:
This office has received no additional communication pertaining to your complaint against the above reference company or individual. Because the individual / company has obviously indicated an unwillingness to cooperate with this office and its role as a mediator, the Attorney General does not have authority to pursue this matter further. It is suggested that you may want to consult an attorney or considering filing a complaint in small claims court. I am sorry that due to the nature of this matter we cannot be of further assistance. (emphasis added).
If nonprofits want to promote or support legislation, I have no issue with that. If individuals want to support or promote legislation, I encourage that. What I take issue with is a nonprofit organization which tells people who to vote for and who to vote against. In this case, the least the Greater Birmingham Humane Society could and should have done was to respond to the request for input from the Alabama Attorney General's office to show transparency and to defend its behavior. The fact that the APMP website was scrubbed to remove references to the GBHS speaks for itself. Considering the terrible live release rate at GBHS, I would like to think that focusing on saving lives of animals entrusted to the organization's care would be a top priority and that focusing on legislation would be of secondary importance.
I am told the Alabama Puppy Mill Project plans to bring its 2017 bill again in 2019 with some minor revisions. I will again not have a position on the bill. I have one of my own I am advancing which may do some good. Time will tell.
NOTE: On the day I published this blog, I received an email from The Cavalier Rescue, Inc. asking me to change my wording related to the name of the organization and disputing my characterization that the group had been "outed" in the Washington Post article about rescues buying dogs at auction. I modified my paragraph above which references this group to which I had made only a passing reference. I have been in conflict with the people in the group for some time; we will never agree that buying dogs at auction for whatever it takes is rescue. It is a purchase and it is worse than buying a dog in a pet store - something we tell the public to never, ever do. The email exchange with the group is here. I chose to not respond to the last email to me. It would have served no purpose.
We are a nation of animal lovers. The vast majority of Americans believe we have a moral duty to protect animals and we should have strong laws to do so. A poll from a few years ago showed that three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill animals if those animals are not suffering. So why does it continue to happen? Good question.
People tend to focus on what is important to them in their own lives. It is human nature. We all have certain people, problems issues and concerns on our “personal radar” on an ongoing basis. We may have general knowledge or opinions about other issues, but we normally don’t devote too much time thinking about those things because they don’t affect us or our every day lives. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that most of us lack the “bandwidth” to remain fully engaged on all of the topics we find important on an ongoing basis.
This means that most Americans give very little regular thought to what happens at animal shelters using tax dollars and donations. Although we all pay for animal control and sheltering in some way, we still would not pay much attention to the topic even if our monthly bill for garbage and recycling pick-up included a line item for animal care and disposal. We think about shelters when we lose a pet or when we learn about some event or we are told about some tragedy. On other days, the shelter just “is,” pretty much like our view of other municipal functions on which we spend money. Law enforcement. Fire services. Engineering. Public works. Parks and recreation.
I have long believed that if we are ever to reform our broken sheltering system in America, in which the vast majority of healthy and treatable animals are still killed by the millions, we have to put that subject on the public radar and get people involved. I once described the separation between animal lovers and animal shelters like two groups of people on opposite sides of a chasm. On one side are the people who own and care for animals or at least like animals. They are at best family members and at least serve some purpose. Most of us include our animals in family celebrations and may take them on our vacations. We buy them beds and toys and treats and provide them with regular veterinary care. We expect that the people in the sheltering system will operate in ways which are consistent with our values and many of us just presume that all animals who end up in shelters are given an opportunity to be adopted. On the opposite side of this chasm are people in the sheltering industry. Most of them (but certainly not all) care about animals and do their very best with the resources they have. Many of them, however, work in a defeatist culture with calcified attitudes in which healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. They see this as some terrible task they must perform because there is no other way to function while blaming the destruction on the “irresponsible public” which is on the opposite side of the chasm. Not every shelter functions this way, of course, and many have become very progressive. I’m speaking for the majority of shelters which still destroy animals regularly and with no apparent regard for the very real fact that the way to stop that archaic practice has been known for decades.
Some communities change the culture at the animal shelter through municipal leadership or nonprofit leadership (in cases where the shelter operation has been outsourced to a nonprofit organization). Change is hard and those communities are to be commended. Most communities which change do so as a result of public pressure. People don’t like it when their money is used in ways which are inconsistent with their values. Once you tell people that healthy and treatable animals are dying and they are paying for it, most get mad, some get vocal and others become community activists seeking change. In all places where change takes place, there is one common denominator. The public didn’t suddenly become more responsible. It was the shelter operation itself that changed. It absolutely helps for the public to be invited to be part of that change. Their buy-in is actually vital to the process. The No Kill equation I promote contains 11 elements, but vital to most of those elements is public awareness and participation.
The last documentary film about the No Kill movement was released in 2014 - “Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America.” The film has since been made available by Nathan Winograd on Vimeo for free. It is based on Winograd’s 2007 book by a similar name - “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.” If you have not seen the film, you owe it to yourself to watch it for free while you can. It runs just over an hour.
At about the same time Redemption was released, documentary film maker Anne Taiz began working on the first of two fills about the No Kill movement. The first is called “No Kill: The Movement Begins.” This film focuses on both No Kill efforts and failures in the City of San Francisco. The people who appear in the film include Richard Avanzino; Nathan Winograd, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center; Julene Johnson, former San Francisco SPCA volunteer; Dr. Kate Hurley of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis; Maria Conlon of Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue; and Dr. Jennifer Scarlet, the current director of the San Francisco SPCA.
The second film is not formally named yet, but will likely be something along the lines of “No Kill Across America.” I had an opportunity to meet with Anne on July 30th to talk about both films. My hope is that the story of Huntsville, Alabama, will be included in the second film, provided it is produced. We had a great connection and I think the story of the changes in Huntsville can inspire other communities to get ahead of this issue.
I know that Anne is passionate about reaching the public about this very important and urgent subject. Like all documentary films, however, this film is only as good as the ability to finish the final production. All of the footage for “No Kill: The Movement Begins” has been shot and it has been partially edited. What is needed are finishing funds.
You can make a donation toward completion of the first film using this From The Heart Productions platform as I have done. No donation is too small. A donation of $25 will give you access to see the “rough cut” of the film and provide feedback. A donation of $250 will give you film credit as an associate producer. Award winning actor and narrator Peter Coyote has agreed to narrate the film.
A time will come when the outdated practice of destroying healthy and treatable pets in our nation's animal shelters will become part of our shameful past. We can reach that point faster if we reach more of the public and put this issue on the personal radar of as many people as possible.
I've been struggling for days with how to begin my blog about the latest book I read to add to my animal advocate education – Bronwen Dickey's “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon” - and ultimately decided I needed to start with what the book did to me and for me. It blew my mind and I mean that in a good way. I have so many adjectives inside my head to describe the book that it's hard to know just where to start. Beautiful, amazing, encyclopedic, scientific, endearing, frustrating, enlightening, empowering. This book is hands down the most comprehensive coverage of the topic of pit bull type dogs in our society which I have read in the last decade. I cannot implore you strongly enough: if you read one book this year that relates to companion animals in our society, please make it this one. I have already purchased additional copies to share with my local shelter director, a city councilman and some others I think may benefit from the information.
I came to the book somewhat indirectly and still shake my head that I was unaware of it until it had been in print for over two years. I'm not new to many of the topics covered in the book, having done a lot of research in 2009 to write a research paper at the request of my local shelter director advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs (which I later revised in 2014). The best treatise on the subject of pit bull type dogs at that time was written by Karen Delise who, to this day, is still considered the foremost authority on Dog Bite Related Fatalities (DBRFs) and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for helping me with my research. I learned about Bronwen's book after banging my head against a wall related to some people who promote a website called Dogs Bite dot org either to justify disparate treatment of the dogs or as part of an effort to render pit bull type dogs extinct.
It is the scope of Bronwen's book which blew my mind and which I am still processing even weeks after having finished reading it. It contains so much information that I know my simple blog about it can never do it justice. The book is not just about dogs and how we have breed dogs to look like hundreds of different species (often to their detriment) and how we judge dogs by what we see and what we fear. It is also about our society and how we judge dogs based on who owns them and what purposes they serve (or we think they serve) for those people. This book is as much an examination of how we view each other, be it right or wrong, as how we view the dogs with whom we share our lives.
I had hoped to do a Q&A with Bronwen for this blog, but that will have to wait a few months. For now, I want to hit on some of the highlights from the book in my efforts to convince you to read it. I consider the information below the tip of the iceberg; I had to pare down my original blog to what you see below, which was no easy task. It is my hope that you will find this information compelling enough that you will read the whole book. You will absolutely not be disappointed.
The information shared below consists of both quotes and paraphrased content from the book which is used with the permission of Bronwen Dickey. Thanks, Bronwen. You have my utmost respect and I know that what I have learned will help me not only be a better advocate for dogs, but be a better advocate for people who love dogs.
Our History with Dogs
In America there was never a formal movement to “weaponize” dogs of private citizens until the 1960s when graphic coverage of several high profile murders combined with political assassinations and the backdrop of race riots led many Americans to believe that they were no longer safe in their homes. As citizens fears of one another increased, so did the size of their dogs. While only a fraction of these dogs were professionally trained to guard or attack, the sudden swell in the popularity of dog breeds with formidable reputations marked a significant change in how many Americans viewed the dog's role in modern society.
In depressed American neighborhoods, owning a dog for protection was thought to be necessary for survival, and for many people, it probably was. Once the pit bull was portrayed as an “inner-city dog,” however, it became a magnet for racial fears about crime and the American underclass. Over the course of history, the dogs most often portrayed as “dangerous” and subjected to the highest penalties have belonged to people with the least political power.
Pit Bulls in General
The origins of the American pit bull terrier date back to the late 1889 when dog fighter John Colby began selling his brindle and white fighting bulldogs as pets. Chauncey Bennett established his own dog registry in 1898, the United Kennel Club, after the newly formed American Kennel Club wanted nothing to do with people associated with pit bulls. Bennett knighted Colby's dogs as “American pit bull terriers” because the only thing more fashionable than a terrier was a patriotic terrier.
“Pit Bull,” as it is most commonly used, has become a slap-dash shorthand for a general shape of dog – a medium-sized, smooth-coated mutt – or a “dog not otherwise specified.” The four primary breeds of dogs we call pit bulls are the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bully. The related breeds are English bulldog, American bulldog, French bulldog, Boxer, English bull terrier, Boston terrier, Bullmastiff and Dogo Argentino.
The Role of the Media Regarding Pit Bulls
Once reporters and mis-informed advocates cast the dogs as willing participants in their own abuse, pit bulls were exiled to the most turbulent margins of society, where a cycle of poverty, violence, fear and desperation had already created a booming market for aggressive dogs. . . America's century-old love for its former mascot gave way to the presumption that pit bulls were biologically hardwired to kill.
The overwhelming majority of pit bulls, like most dogs in America, live uneventful lives as family pets. You would not know this from reading, watching or listening to the news. Nor would you know that only about thirty-five Americans are killed by any type of dog each year.
Most of us decide what we believe based on our emotions and intuitions, not on the facts. Once we have made an intuitive judgment, we search for the facts that will support our position, then surround ourselves with people who agree. One misinformation takes hold, actual facts can do very little to dislodge a false belief. This is the social and psychological vortex that pit bulls were sucked into. The more we hear about an idea, the more we believe it's true, whether or not the belief is supported by credible evidence.
Breed Specific Legislation
In nearly every municipality where breed-specific legislation (BSL) has been adopted, it has failed to prevent serious dog bite injuries and hospitalizations. Veterinarians, animal behaviorists and public health experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are virtually unanimous in their denunciation of BSL on the grounds that it is both cruel and ineffective.
More than half of America's seventy-seven million dogs are not purebred. The most common method of labeling mixed-breed dogs is to describe the pedigree breed or breeds we think the most resemble. The majority of mixed-breed dogs in America are not crosses of two purebred parents, but multi-generational mutts, or mutts mixed with other mutts mixed with other mutts. Because the number of genes that determine the dog's shape is extremely small, and so many variations within those genes are possible, looking at a dog's physical chassis and making a guess as to its probable heritage will inexorably lead to error. (emphasis added).
In 2009, researchers at Stanford University mapped roughly sixty-one thousand canine SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) and discovered that only fifty-one regions of the vast genome determine the entirety of the dog's physical architecture (.000836 percent). (emphasis added).
The Mars Wisdom DNA panel is now able to match the DNA of more than 250 dog breeds but the American Pit Bull Terrier is not one of them. Some APBT blood lines have been tightly bred for many years and constitute legitimately closed gene pools, but others have been outcrossed with other breeds. The resulting group of dogs contains so many mutts that scientists can't isolate one signal. Only the AKC breeds, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier can be genetically mapped.
Dogs in Animal Shelters
Shelter worker's visual guesses – that is, the breeds they would have written on the dogs' kennel cars and medical paperwork – did not match the animals' DNA results 87.5 percent of the time. . .once a breed label is affixed to a dog, it not only influences what kind of life the dog's family can have but also sets up expectations that the animal will behave a certain way, which it may or many not. Shelters that have abandoned using breed labels for dogs from unknown backgrounds have seen the number of dog adoptions rise significantly.
Dog Bites and Dog Bite Fatalities
Dog bites almost never cause serious injury. . .the overwhelming majority of bites don't even break the skin. The risk of dying from a dog bite injury in the United States in any given year is approximately one in ten million. Most dogs bite out of fear – not malice or vengefulness or dominance – when a human pushes the animal beyond its stress threshold or forces it into a situation it feels it can't escape. Bite victims often mistakenly believe that the bite “came out of nowhere,” when in fact that dog was sending subtle signals about it's level of discomfort for quite some time. (emphasis added).
According to Randall Lockwood, almost every dog bite related fatality is “a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions – the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation. . .it's not old Shep sleeping by the fire who suddenly goes bonkers. Usually there are all kinds of other warning signs.”
Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council
When Karen Delise (regarded as something akin to the Erin Brockovich of dog bite deaths) began her research into dog bite related fatalities in the early 1990s, there had never been more than thirty-two DBRFs in the United States in any given year despite a human population that was then approaching 260 million and a dog population that exceeded 55 million.
To get more accurate data, Delise did what no other researcher before her had done: she personally interviewed the police officers, animal control officers and medical examiners who had directly handled each case. (I can attest to this myself, having connected Karen with law enforcement authorities in my state related to multiple DBRFs).
Delise found many DBRFs other researchers and organizations had all missed and nearly every one was a case that did not involve pit bulls. These were harder to locate because they did not receive the same level of media coverage as pit bull incidents. Many of the “pit bulls” responsible for DBRFs appeared to be generic mutts.
Dogs Bite dot org
Dogs Bite dot org was created by a web designer and self-professed fortune teller named Colleen Lynn who was bitten in the arm twice for a period of a few seconds by an unaltered male “pit bull mix” while jogging through a Seattle neighborhood in 2007. She then dedicated herself to the promotion of breed-ban laws (and continues to do so to this day; many of her followers openly and loudly seek the extermination of all pit bulls). The website contradicts everything put forth by group most qualified to speak about animal science, animal behavior and dog bite epidemiology.
Most of the information on the site comes from self-published paper on “dog attacks and maimings” by Merritt Clifton who possesses no relevant credentials and readily admits that his research methods are limited to scanning media reports and classified ads rather than personally speaking with investigators or reviewing primary source documents. Clifton's paper has never been peer-reviewed and it contains no citations. It does not draw upon government sources, public health records, or expert opinion. Numerous deaths on Clifton's list are contradicted by official medical examiners' reports. Clifton also includes breeds of dogs in his data set that do not exist.
"Despite everything that has happened to these dogs over the past two hundred years, I realized, 'people' do not hate or fear pit bulls. To believe that 'people hate pit bulls,' you have to believe only those who grab the microphone and scream the loudest into it matter. . .the dogs moved out of the darkness a hundred years ago. We are the ones who are stuck there.“
“Pit bulls are not dangerous or safe. Pit bulls aren't saints or sinners. They are no more or less deserving than other dogs of love and compassion, no more or less deserving of good homes. They didn't cause society's ills, nor can their redemption – real or imagined – solve them. There is nothing that needs to be redeemed anyway; they were never to blame in the first place. . . Pit bulls are not dogs with an asterisk. Pit bulls are just . . . dogs.”
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