As a U.S. Army veteran, I have strong opinions about free speech. I not only see free speech as a right of all American citizens, but I would argue that it is our responsibility to speak out on matters of public concern. If issues are important enough for us to be outraged or angry, then they must be important enough for us to speak out and express ourselves to those who govern us.
I’ve been an outspoken animal welfare advocate for many years. Your tax dollars at work, I guess. Most of my advocacy relates to keeping shelter animals alive using the programs and services of the No Kill Equation. I also advocate for animals related to the issues I cover on my website: puppy mills, spay and neuter, adoption, aggression in dogs, breed bans, etc. I am the first to admit that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way. In my early days of No Kill advocacy, I was too focused on the method I was promoting and not enough on the personalities of the people with whom I was dealing. Because I work in the legal field in municipal defense, I have always had a good handle on how local and state governments function. What I did not fully appreciate was that how my message is received is often as important as the message itself, regardless of my intent. I think the path I have taken would have changed little even if I had a better appreciation for position of the people with whom I was interacting. Some would have been defensive no matter how diplomatically I behaved. Some would not have been able to hear the message from me no matter now many years of experience I have or how much I know related to the issues about which I speak for animals.
One thing I have learned along the way is the importance of always striving to take the high road, no matter how others behave. There will always be people who oppose efforts to improve the welfare of animals for a host of reasons and there is little we can do about it. We cannot convince everyone to share our beliefs through magical thinking or sheer force of our will. Saying the same thing numerous times or saying it more loudly or forcefully is not the answer. I wrote about the behavior of some local opponents to my No Kill shelter advocacy in the book I published last year. People outside of animal welfare circles may think we all get along because we all want the same things. We do not all get along and there are great divisions and struggles between advocates. The people who voiced the loudest opposition to our efforts to reform the local animal shelter were from the animal rescue community. Doesn’t make much sense, I know. But that’s the reality. Even when we take the high road, that behavior is not always reciprocated and we have to learn to just tune out the hate and focus on the message and what we hope to accomplish.
In addition to my advocacy efforts related to No Kill animal sheltering, I’ve been involved with writing and advancing local laws in my state related to animals as well as writing, promoting and opposing laws on the state level. My bill about commercial dog breeding in my state has yet to be filed by my primary sponsor; it is standards-based and makes violations criminal, much like the criminal laws about abuse and neglect. My sponsor tells me he is holding my bill it as a common-sense alternative to a bill which he expects to be both overly ambitious and unenforceable. Time will tell if it is ever filed, but it has been reviewed for the state’s legal team and is ready to roll.
Just this week I was reminded again of the importance of staying on that high road when it comes to interacting with state elected officials. People who advocate for animals are passionate. We cannot lose sight, however, that how we communicate our opinion – and how we behave it we don’t get what we want – are of critical importance. I encourage everyone I know to speak out about proposed state laws that relate to animals. Sometimes bills about animals move so quickly the pubic knows nothing about them before they made laws. The reasons for this relate to money and influence by some large organizations like the AKC, Petland, insurance companies and Big Agriculture, but that’s the subject for another blog. When we communicate with state elected officials about bills, we have to be logical and respectful and we have to know what we’re talking about. To behave otherwise means that our message is lost completely. After having expressed our opinion about bills, we wait for the process to unfold and see what happens. If a bill we support does not pass, it is up to us to try to determine why. It may be that there is a way to promote something better in the future. It may be that the forces opposing the bill are just too strong to be overcome at the present time. If a bill we oppose does pass, it up to us to determine how we behave moving forward. Once a bill becomes a law, there is nothing we can do to turn back the hands of time. Laws are often amended, but that takes time so that circumstances change from the reasons the law was enacted in the first place.
When we yell, scream, threaten or otherwise run around like our hair is on fire related to laws, we lose all credibility and we stifle communication. I sometimes call this behavior Boomerang Aggression. We’re all familiar with the concept of a boomerang – a throwing tool or toy that is designed to spin about an axis perpendicular to the direction of its flight. A returning boomerang is designed to return to the thrower. Boomerang Aggression is when we behave so badly in our communication that we end up silencing our own efforts, having effectively hit ourselves in the head.
A number of animal bills have been filed in my state since the legislative session began in early February. Some are good like House Bill 134 which serves to define the single word, “shelter” in the existing criminal law about abuse and neglect of dogs and cats. This may seem like any easy bill. It is not. It has been opposed by some powerful organizations in past years and likely will be again this year. Nonetheless, animal advocates like me have voiced our support for the bill to the committee considering it and we’ll continue to express ourselves through the process.
One particular bill, Senate Bill 196, was not just terrible. It was downright dangerous. This bill would have put all control of all things animal under the exclusive control of the State Department of Agriculture (which has never dealt with any issues related to dogs and cats), would have nullified local laws already on the books about pet shops (for which I worked hard last year to promote) to open the door for companies like Petland to begin selling more animals in the state, would have put investigation of complaints of abuse and neglect in the hands of the Agriculture Department, would have criminal charged someone who reports animal abuse or neglect if the allegations later prove to be unfounded, and which would make it practically impossible for cities to enact new laws related to animals.
Through some incredibly hard work by a large number of people, to include the Alabama representative for the Humane Society of the United States -Mindy Gilbert- we were able to get SB 196 stalled. After the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture said his department was not consulted on the bill and they were completely unprepared to deal with issues related to dogs and cats, and as a result of many people speaking out against the bill, the primary sponsor agreed to not advance the bill further. This was a huge deal for most of us, but we’re not claiming victory yet. The legislative session doesn’t end until May and anything can happen in the intervening months.
In spite of this small victory, some people in the Birmingham area have failed to do one simple thing: stop talking about Senate Bill 196. The primary sponsor has agreed to not advance the bill. When people continue to call, email and write to the senate sponsors (there are 6) to threaten them, engage in name calling and engage in otherwise aggressive behavior, that does two things. It paints all animal advocates as unreasonable zealots who are incapable of respectful communication and it makes it harder (if not impossible) to have constructive communication with those elected officials in the future.
I have seen this same behavior from the same people before. It has not served them well in the past and it is not serving any of us well now. Those people fail to understand that the very senators they are attacking are the very people from whom they will need cooperation in the future on similar animal law or other animal laws. When you are so aggressive in your communication that the person with whom you are communicating is no longer listening or decides to apply your behavior to others, you are doing terrible harm to the animal welfare movement as a whole.
So. Folks in Birmingham. Please. Stop talking. Let Senate Bill 196 die a quiet death in this legislative session and stop vilifying the very elected officials from whom you will no doubt need cooperation in the future. We can all communicate our position on proposed laws in ways which are logical, effective and respectful. I can’t control your behavior, but you can for the sake of us all, human and animal. If you can’t stop talking, that tells me your focus is not on animal welfare itself but on you as a person. So don’t be surprised if the boomerang comes back and hits you in the head. You will have deserved it. And we may all suffer the consequences of your inability to speak your truth without screaming it.
It has been said that advocacy is not a spectator sport. If you want to be heard on a topic, you have to be willing to get down on the field of play, get dirty and take some hits. Many of us have learned this the hard way. We have also learned how common it is for people to focus on the messenger instead of focusing on why the message is necessary in the first place. Even the most diplomatic of advocacy can make people uncomfortable because it challenges the status quo which most of us have grown accustomed to.
It has also been said that the media is the most powerful entity on Earth because it controls the minds of the masses (Malcolm X). My own experience with the media as it relates to animal welfare advocacy has been a mixed bag. I have found some media outlets and journalists to be incredibly professional and entirely focused on neutral reporting which serves a public purpose and educates the public. I have found that other media outlets and journalists are not at all focused on neutral reporting, almost as if they are afraid to speak out on matters they know may be unpopular. Their bias is demonstrated in how they report on facts either in unexpected ways or incomplete ways. When it comes to how tax dollars are spent, some media outlets have no issue reporting on pot holes in the road or citizen complaints about law enforcement. But reporting on how animal shelters function? That's a whole different topic which seems to be off limits for some reason.
There has been a lot of media coverage in my state recently regarding activities at and by the Greater Birmingham Humane Society which fought for and then obtained municipal animal control and sheltering contracts in early 2015. The public perception of the organization and the behavior of the organization as a whole do not always match. When advocates expressed concern about the organization's own statistics and regarding some behavior, many of those advocates received "cease and desist" letters essentially threatening to sue them. I find that to be a bullying tactic which does not speak well to the true goals of any organization which purports to be focused on the lives of animals and needs public support to do a good job. I fully expect that upon learning of public critiicsm for how tax dollars are spent, an organization would first initiate at least some type of discussion toward resolving conflict or clearing up communication issues. There has been some local media coverage regarding what is going on with the Greater Birmingham Humane Society regarding the volume of animals being euthanized and reports from former employees, volunteers and fosters. I have honestly found it lacking to date. I am told another media outlet is working on an investigative report. Time will tell how deep the story goes or if is is more surface reporting which doesn't closely examine the issues.
One of the people speaking out in Birmingham is Phil Doster, a long time contact of mine. I had hoped that Phil's comments would end up being reported locally. Since they have not, I offered my website as a platform for Phil. Phil is down on the field of play and is getting dirty, knowing full well that many people in his area will be made uncomfortable by his words. I hope you take inspiration from Phil, that you speak your personal truth in your efforts to help animals and that you stand your ground when people try to bully you. The First Amendment is a powerful tool, but we have to have the courage to use it.
So I've been asked my feelings about the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and current leadership, and when I tried to prepare a fair, but critical response, the overwhelming response was that it is not sensational enough. That was never my intent in writing about my experience. I expect us to hold non-profits, especially those with an executive that makes over $160k annually as a base salary, to a high standard of integrity and responsibility. Furthermore, and forgotten in a lot of the conversation, is the fact that it is extremely painful and difficult for former staff to step forward and talk about how they were treated. Many are sensitive and compassionate people who were treated with incredible disrespect and tossed aside when they were no longer useful to specific executives. Below is my experience. You can dislike it if you'd like, but I ask that you consider the people and animals in the shelter, as well as the community that this charity is intended to help.
(images courtesy of Phil Doster)
There are a number of animal shelters across the country which have the word “Ark” in their names. This is fitting when we consider THE Ark which housed animals to save them from The Flood. An Ark is also often referred to as something that provides safety and protection. When I think of animal shelters I see them all as Arks in some form and more generally, I see them as much like boats.
Every animal shelter has a finite capacity, much like a boat. Only so many animals can be housed there at any give time. In a perfect world, those shelter are places which provide safety and protection. Also much like boats, shelters are not intended to house individual animals long-term; the hope is that the shelter is used as a transition location to get animals from their former lives to their new lives. It is a temporary place to stay.
I realize the most animal shelters in our country were designed to destroy animals and not to save them. A few short decades ago, millions upon millions of animals were destroyed in our nation's shelters. It is estimated that in the early 1980s, about 17 million animals died in shelters each year. Yes, 17 million. That number has gone down drastically as our culture has changed in our country and as we have become smarter and more progressive about how we house animals who are lost, found running at large, seized by law enforcement authorities or who are just in need of a new home for some reason. While many tax funded animal shelters have no legal obligation to take owner surrendered pets, many do because it has become a public expectation that they will be safety nets for animals and because shelters want to be seen not as places of death, but as places of hope and new beginnings.
I often but heads with people in the rescue community and with shelter volunteers regarding my criticism of shelters which continue to destroy healthy and treatable animals while failing to fully embrace programs to stop that outdated practice once and for all. I have been told that I do not have a right to criticize my local municipal animal shelter unless and until I have met certain criteria such as volunteering there X number of hours per week, fostering Y number of dogs or adopting Z number of cats. I simply do not agree. I have a right to speak out about how my tax dollars are used by municipalities without some litmus test to determine if I am worthy of free speech. One of the most common things I a told is that unless I am in my local shelter doing the same things rescuers do, I am only a keyboard warrior and my opinion has no value. News flash. I do volunteer for my animal control agency in the county where I live. Just because I am not active in all shelters does not mean that I do not support any animal control agencies and that I don't work to help animals find new homes. Even if I was not doing those things, I still think there is immense value in political advocacy for the sake of shelter animals and I know from a decade of experience that it is incredibly difficult work.
I often lament that there are some in rescue who are so focused on A dog or B cat that they cannot see the bigger picture. I applaud those who rescue animals. They are some of the hardest working people I know and they are not compensated for their time. Most are so busy that they rarely do anything for themselves that others take for granted. Read a book. See a movie. I realize that time is short and we all pick how we spend our time. I just wish that those in rescue who have not taken the time to learn about No Kill programs and philosophies which save the lives of shelter animals would do so. Saving A dog or B cat is absolutely to be commended. But to me, it is like scooping water out of a boat that is sinking because there are holes in the boat. Those holes are created by our failure to implement programs to both reduce shelter intake and increase shelter output. Do we need rescuers to get animals out of shelters? You bet. One of the 11 elements of the No Kill Equation is rescue partnerships. But if all we do is keep focusing on getting out individual animals, and we don't take time to stem the flow of those animals into the system, we are doomed to repeat the process over and over and over.
A shelter is a boat with finite capacity that we use to house animals temporarily to get them to safety. When our boats are taking on water, let's please stop long enough to find ways to just fix the boat. We can continue to rescue animals. But by plugging those holes with the programs which keep so many animals from getting in our boat in the first place and which get those animals out of the boat as fast as possible, we can save so many more and make better use of our time and our resources.
Please think about it.
I am an Army veteran who works as a paralegal who handles mostly municipal defense and who is an animal advocate. I sometimes lament the fact that I am not able to focus on animal advocacy all the time, but I have found over the years that this combination of experiences makes me a better advocate. I served in the Army for about a decade and got out while I was young enough to get another job and learn a new trade. I fell into paralegal work somewhat by accident, but have done this work for about 25 years. I have worked defending cities, counties and law enforcement authorities for most of that time. Because of this combination of experiences and passion for animal welfare, I have some firm views when it comes to people whom work in animal shelters funded by our tax dollars.
There are thousands of nonprofit animal shelters across our country which are managed by individuals and governed by boards of directors. Those people are beholden only to the donors, fosters and adopters who support them, as well as being required to comply with both state and federal laws and regulations regarding nonprofit organizations. They are also required to comply with state and federal laws regarding animal care and welfare. For the most part, the folks who run non-profit shelters can decide how to house and care for their animals for the benefit of their organizations.
Shelters which are operated by municipalities, or which are non-profits who hold municipal contracts, are entirely different and the expectations and requirements of those organizations are held to different standards. The people who manage and work at animal shelters operated by cities and counties are public servants. Their compensation and benefits are all paid for through public funds in the form of taxpayer dollars. The people who manage and work at animal shelters operate by non-profits who hold contracts with cities or counties are not strictly public servants in the same manner, but they are also compensated through public funds in the form of taxpayer dollars. Some non-profit animal shelters rely heavily on unpaid volunteer labor, as do shelters operated by municipalities.
People who are paid with public funds, whether they are elected officials, public servants or are performing public functions, are - by the nature of their jobs - open to criticism and comment. The reason for this is that they work for us. Of the people, by the people, for the people. When it comes to some forms of public office or public service, we have no problems voicing our opinions about how our money is spent. People complain about pot holes in the road. About the timing of traffic signals. About garbage pick-up. About law enforcement activities. About parks and recreation services. When it comes to these functions of local governments, people normally don't hesitate to make their grievances known and they expect results when they do complain.
So why are things any different when it comes to animal shelters and the animal sheltering industry?
Not a day goes by that I don't hear someone who is defending an animal shelter where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. Not a week goes by that I do not learn of someone who is aware of problems in a local shelter, but who remains willfully silent about those problems because they fear retribution for speaking out. That makes absolutely no sense to me. Why is it okay to complain about pot holes in a road, most of which will never cause any vehicle damage, let alone personal injury, but it is not okay to criticize shelters which destroy healthy and treatable pets, a process which is entirely permanent?
I realize that the topic of animal sheltering in America is an emotional one. Most of us care deeply about companion animals and we want the best for them. Polls have shown that the vast majority of Americans think it should be illegal for animal shelters to destroy animals who are not suffering or who do not present a genuine public safety risk. As time goes on, we see more and more places across the country embrace proven programs to treat animals in our shelters as individuals and save them from being needlessly destroyed. Although there are naysayers who claim it is not possible to save healthy and treatable shelter animals either because it costs too much or is just too difficult, those arguments fail when we simply look at the growing number of places where animals are saved and where the word "euthanasia" has been restored to the original meaning, as opposed to being used to sugarcoat the process of killing animals who either were, or could have been, someone's beloved pet.
When I began my No Kill advocacy in the city where I work in early 2009, the live release rate at the municipal animal shelter was 24%. That means that 3 out of every 4 animals in the shelter were destroyed. When I formed No Kill Huntsville in 2012, the live release rate was 41%. Some progress had been made but not quite 2 out of every 3 animals were destroyed. At this time, the shelter director (who is a veterinarian) had a huge fan base. She told a contact of mine that she and her staff were doing a beautiful job and were doing wonderful things. She claimed that she simply could not do any better. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. If my dog had ended up in the shelter at this time, he surely would have been killed and there would have been nothing beautiful about it. It would have been tragic.
During the years that followed as No Kill Huntsville took our vision and our No Kill message public, the opposition to our philosophies was constant and hostile. We were taunted and vilified both publicly and on social media. We were told we did not have a right to complain about the shelter operation unless we volunteered at the shelter X number of hours per month, had personally fostered Y number of pets or had adopted Z number of animals. The argument was that we had to be worthy of having the right to exercise our First Amendment free speech rights regarding how our tax dollars were being spent. No, no and no. All of us who pay taxes are not only entitled to comment about how money is spent. We are entitled to ask for better. There is no such thing as a Golden Ticket of Worthiness required to express opinions and even provide constructive criticism when it comes to the manner in which local governments function and how public servants spend our money.
Fast forward a few years and the shelter now boasts a live release rate above 90%; some months it is as high as 96%. The people who expended the most time and energy to oppose us have gone silent, although I’m sure they still harbor tremendous resentment toward us. It is easier to attack the message than it is to focus on why the message is necessary in the first place. What happened? The public didn't suddenly become more responsible. I, and the members of my group, did not suddenly jump through hoops to be worthy of exercising our right to free speech related to the shelter. The reality is that our advocacy was a 7-day a week job and we were all running our own shelters, rescue groups, non-profits and businesses already. We could not have met the X, Y and Z criteria even if we had wanted to. What changed was that local officials began listening to the public as a whole as people spoke out and said "I want lives saved" and "we are better than this." We took the subject to the public so that the voices asking for better were not just ours.
If you live in an area where healthy and treatable animals are being destroyed using your tax dollars and you want them saved instead, say something. Speak out.
And if you live in an area where healthy and treatable animals are being destroyed using your tax dollars and you are either defending that behavior or you remain willfully silent about it, please ask yourself why.
Surely the lives of companion animals in need are as important to you as a pot hole in the road or whether or not you sat at a red light for more than 3 minutes.
(image courtesy of the City of Kansas City and the City of Olathe)
When I first became an advocate and started doing volunteer work to help rescuers years ago, my presence was simply a Youtube channel. I stored my slideshow projects there and I still do, even though I have moved my voice to this website and to the other websites I manage related to my advocacy.
One of my early projects was a slideshow simply called "Find Me." I used a Fisher song which was unreleased at the time and which was written about the disappearance of Natalie Holloway. Although I have reworked a number of my slideshows over the years to keep them fresh, I have left Find Me as it was originally created. I put it together at a time when I was incredibly frustrated and exasperated and it is one of my darker projects. My thought now is that there is enough negativity "out there" related to issues about companion animals and I'm better off taking a more educational or positive approach. I know how I react when a commercial comes on TV for the APSCA or the HSUS. I just don't want to be seen in the same light. They can keep the doom and gloom approach and I'll try to reach people using other methods. One of the recurring frames in Find Me is the traditional see no evil, hear no evil speak no evil image which is ordinarily associated with the Three Wise Monkeys.
I was interacting with a contact of mine with No Kill Houston recently and she let me know she had been contacted by a filmmaker after reposting an old "rant" of mine about shelter volunteers who enable failed shelters through their silence or who otherwise defend the destruction of savable animals. The documentary film is called Silent Shelter and it is currently in production. What caught my attention about the film was not only the image which leads off the trailer, but also the subject of the film itself: the rights of volunteers who help in animal shelters related to their free speech.
I am the first to admit that I have very little tolerance for people who volunteer for or otherwise support shelters where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. There are proven programs to end the killing and they have been known for about 15 years. My own advocacy has been made more difficult not only due to shelter leaders and employees mired in a dysfunctional system, but also by rescuers and volunteers who refuse to speak out about what is broken. Some of the most toxic opponents of my no kill advocacy have been rescuers and volunteers who spend their time defending the killing and enabling the process when common sense would dictate that they would work just as hard as I am to end the needless killing. I cannot count the number of times I have been told by volunteers that they essentially "go along to get along" so they won't be "cut off" from helping animals. I've never really understood that position at all. If you really want to help animals, then look further than X dog or Y cat to resolve the systemic issues which cause them to be destroyed in the first place. Your silence is, ultimately, your approval.
In spite of my criticism for enablers and apologists, I know of numerous other people within the system who have spoken about about wrongs they have seen, heard and experienced only to be banned from a shelter or told they must sign some type of document saying they will not criticize the shelter. Is it this subject which is explored by the film and for that I am thankful. This subject has been covered by a lot of people a whole lot smarter than me so I won't go into detail on the issue here. The bottom line is that shelter volunteers and employees cannot be silenced because doing so violates the free speech provisions of our Constitution.
I look forward to seeing the film. I hope you'll take a few minutes to watch the trailer. If you are a volunteer or employee at a shelter where bad things happen, I hope you will take some time to educate yourself on no kill philosophies and issues related to free speech.
If you don't speak out for the welfare of animals in shelters, who will?
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