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The Fight, and When It Needs to Happen

Updated: Jun 7, 2019

A fight recently broke out on Facebook. It was, ironically, at least in part, a fight about fighting. It all started when keyboard advocate and blogger, Susan Houser, had posted a series of increasingly strange No Kill blogs that left many experienced No Kill advocates scratching their heads. More recently, she wrote a blog in which she criticized No Kill advocates who are critical of animal shelters that are still killing healthy and treatable pets, while not implementing programs that would stop the killing. While most people would easily understand the need for such advocacy, she seems to think these advocates are a "problem." We won't link to the blog, because it is filled with inaccuracies and half-truths that make it a dangerous read for new advocates. Additionally, since it was published, her own Facebook page became a focal point of some very important critiques of the blog from very seasoned advocates, like Mike Fry of No Kill Learning, Aubrie Kavanaugh of No Kill Huntsville, Peter Masloch of Allegany County Animal Shelter, John Sibley from In Dog We Trust, and others.

Another reason we will not link to her blog is that Houser's response to the criticism was to delete comments and then block or ban users from her page, without actually addressing the substance of the critiques. This caused other No Kill advocates, many of whom have privately said that Houser had become an apologist for poorly run animal shelters, to publicly "leave" her page. Others began posting their own commentary on their own pages, so that Houser could not delete or block them. One of the best was a post published by the NJ Animal Observer Facebook page, which made many important points, some of which we are quoting below:

Recently, a so-called "no kill" blogger attacked no kill advocates for strongly criticizing poorly performing animal shelters. While I could rebut each of this blogger's points, I will stick with a few key items.

According to this blogger, no kill advocates should "volunteer" first at bad shelters and then criticize these shelters later. First and foremost, this "no-lose proposal" allows needless killing and abuse to go on and on while people wait for incriminating evidence to get into their hands. Second, advocates acting in this manner may get the entire volunteer program shut down at regressive shelters. Third, this limits an advocate's reach as someone cannot volunteer at dozens of animal shelters in their area. Fourth, advocates can obtain much, if not more, of the incriminating evidence through public records requests (i.e. OPRA in New Jersey).

This blogger also asserts advocates can't quickly assess a shelter's performance and provide constructive criticism, such as recommending the shelter put missing no kill equation programs into place, since these critiques are ineffective and shelter directors have legitimate reasons for not implementing these initiatives. In reality, many shelter directors/city leaders simply don't want to do the hard work required to put these programs into place. Furthermore, nothing makes organizations change course like intense public pressure.

Read the rest of the post here, along with the interesting conversation that unfolded from it. In the face of that important discussion, we thought we would provide some insight and thought into the role of animal advocacy in shelter reform. It is an important conversation to have, because a growing list of agencies are offering consulting services to help shelters get to No Kill, including agencies staffed by people who failed to achieve it at their own shelters, and who actively discourage advocacy or attack advocates who engage their communities in order to bring reform to their shelters.

The fact of the matter is that the No Kill movement has become mainstream enough that there are now several "pretenders" who write about, consult about and otherwise push advice about No Kill and animal sheltering, but who appear to have an entirely different agenda altogether. One striking example of this is Sara Pizano who is the former head of animal control in Miami-Dade County. In her role running animal control she never exceeded a save rate of more than 50%. In fact, immediately following her departure, which seems to have been brought about by various complaints about Pizano's performance, including at least one from a veterinarian who worked for animal control, the facility's save rate began rising. By all available evidence, Pizano was no champion of animals at Miami-Dade Animal Services. She was their worst nightmare. Yet Pizano is now doing consulting with an agency whose stated goal is to get to "Zero" killing (because, apparently, they don't like the term "No Kill" and think "zero" killing is, somehow, more clear).

One of the ways No Kill advocates can spot No Kill pretenders is to listen for a pretty constant message they send. It usually includes stuff about how the term "No Kill" is divisive (hence "zero" kill instead of "No Kill"); how No Kill advocates are mean; and how No Kill advocates should get up from their computers and go volunteer at the shelter, instead of complaining about shelters killing animals. Fundamentally, they say everyone needs to work together and get along to bring about positive change. It is a nice-sounding message, and makes people think we could be sitting around the camp fire singing Kumbaya. The message may sound appealing. Unfortunately it does not work, because many shelters will never reform until public pressure forces them to do so. It is hard to sing Kumbaya with a shelter director that refuses to change and who you are trying to get replaced in order to save animals' lives. That being said, a fight is not always needed to reform a shelter. Usually it is, as the story of one trip to two cities in Alabama demonstrates.

The year was 2013. It was March and animal advocates in Scottsboro and Huntsville, Alabama were wanting to revolutionize their animal shelters, which were killing the majority of the animals they took in. The advocates flew in some national experts to present a No Kill workshop in each city.

At that point No Kill Huntsville had already done a variety of things to constructively engage their animal control. No Kill Huntsville, for example, provided free educational literature to Huntsville Animal Control. They paid for the director to attend a No Kill Conference. They formed a group willing to help and support making changes. By the time these presentations were scheduled, advocates with No Kill Huntsville had constructively tried to engage their animal control for more than a year, but were meeting all kinds of resistance.

In Scottsboro, the political landscape was very different. There was no head of animal control there actively fighting against No Kill. It was, however, a new concept and idea to them. As you will see from the outcomes, the difference between resistance to new ideas and embracing them meant the difference between a peaceful and amicable revolution to the Scottsboro shelter, compared to a years-long battle in Huntsville.

The first presentation was in Scottsboro. The next day, there was one in Huntsville. It was the same presentation made by the same two people. The response to it, however, tells you nearly everything you need to know. (Note: The presentation done in Huntsville again another time and was video taped and published on YouTube by No Kill Huntsville. You can watch it here or read some news coverage of it here.)

In Scottsboro, City officials were moved enough by the presentation that immediately following it, the Mayor called several semi-spontaneous meetings with the workshop presenters and other City officials. They spent hours looking at outcome reports and talking generally about changes they could begin making immediately to improve shelter outcomes. Free assistance was offered to the City in Scottsboro. They embraced it, were thankful for it, and immediately began making changes. In Huntsville, the response was a lot different, to say the least.

For starters, organizers of the event indicated they had trouble getting animal control to participate, and there was some question because of that, whether or not there would even BE a presentation in Huntsville the next day. In the end, due to pressure from City officials, combined with excitement about the event in Scottsboro, Huntsville Animal Control agreed to host a similar presentation the following day. The Huntsville presentation, like the one in Scottsboro, was well-received by most of the attendees, with one very notable exception: Dr. Karen Sheppard, the head of animal control for Huntsville.

Following the presentation, during the question and answer period, Sheppard stood and "explained" to the room that the presenters were able to achieve No Kill in their own communities because they had something in their communities that was lacking in Huntsville. The thing Huntsville lacked, she said, was talent.

Let that sink in for a minute. To achieve No Kill, the shelter director needs to be fully on-board and a primary driver of the effort. In Huntsville, that person was not planning to take on the effort, and was telling a room full of animal control staff, volunteers and rescue groups that doing so was pointless, because they were all without talent.

Way to engage your community, Dr. Sheppard... NOT!

Only then, and after Huntsville Animal Control repeatedly declined free assistance to improve its save rate, did advocates take the fight public and openly criticize the shelter or the shelter director. That was after more than a year of work to get their animal control on board using less confrontational means.

To listen to Houser and other apologists for kill shelters tell the story, however, you would think No Kill Huntsville stormed through the door, slapped Sheppard in the face and told her she was ugly and then could not understand why she was resistant. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The most important thing about this story is that the public advocacy worked. Officials at the City who oversee animal control began asking for changes and demanding more accountability. And, therefore, things got better.

The public pressure to perform meant things needed to change. The things No Kill Huntsville had been advocating were the same programs referenced in the presentation. All signs were pointing in the same direction. And, begrudgingly, Huntsville Animal Control started doing them. And, things got better.

Not too much later, Huntsville is now celebrated as a great success story, but not because people held hands and sang Kumbaya. Things got better because people who experienced a strong resistance to change pushed past it using active and vocal advocacy. Ironically, the very same people talking about the need to "get along" and "work together" were also some of the same people who set up an anti No Kill Huntsville Facebook Page that featured, among other things, a video playing the voice of the head of No Kill Huntsville coming out of the hind end of a monkey.

Aubrie Kavanaugh, head of No Kill Huntsville, described this video like this:

In the fall of 2015, we learned about a "hate page" on Facebook which was set up for the sole purpose of harassing and discrediting our coalition. It included a parody logo and reposted our posts with snarky and hateful comments. The worst item was a video created using my voice which had been edited out of a PSA I did for television, made to look like I was speaking from a monkey's rectum. Much to our shock, the people most active on the page were the leaders of local rescue groups, shelter volunteers and the shelter director herself. For all the talk of being respectful, getting along and not engaging in personal attacks, these self-proclaimed animal advocates found it appropriate to spend time not helping animals, but engaged in trying to defame our group.

Ironically, many of the people active on this hate page were Facebook friends of Houser's page, who, you know (*wink - wink*) is all about the importance of getting along. Many of them are also Facebook friends with Pizano's new group, which swooped in after the success in Huntsville happened and tried to claim credit for it themselves. It is also worth pointing out that neither Pizano's group or Houser have chastised the "Monkey Butt" video, or the hate page, that we have ever seen. We have only ever seen them criticize No Kill advocates for respectfully engaging in important policy discussions about the massive killing going on in animal shelters, which, really, all by itself, tells you what they are likely all about. For more information about the Huntsville story, check out this blog.

Bottom line is this: Some communities embrace change. Some have players invested in the status quo and need to be pushed into changing. That usually results in a fight with those in power resisting change. Those fights are important. They are usually fought by normal citizens who have nothing to gain from them, other than a desire to see more animals leave shelters alive.

When we see someone like Houser or Pizano's group complaining about such advocacy, it is a sign to us that they are pretending to be part of the No Kill tribe, while actually setting up a fight they are sure to complain about when they lose.

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