The following is an excerpt from my book entitled, “Not Rocket Science: A Story of No Kill Animal Shelter Reform in Huntsville, Alabama.” Not a week goes by when I don’t hear opposition to reform and wonder why in the world people who claim to value the lives of animals stand in the way of a newer and better future. The book is available on Amazon and is priced to print.
I spent a lot of time considering the common arguments against animal shelter reform. It seemed clear to me: If there are methods we can use to save animals, why not embrace them fully? I read time and time again that the death of animals in animal shelters was not the fault of the shelter leadership, but the fault of the public. I was shocked by the number of people who seemed more than willing to forgive the deaths of animals while happily giving the people making life and death decisions a free pass. If we, as a society, are outraged by stories on the news about animal collectors, animal abuse, puppy mills or dog fighting, why are we not equally outraged by the killing of perfectly healthy and treatable animals using our money?
One of the most common arguments against animal shelter reform is that the people speaking out for a better approach cannot engage in free speech absent performing certain acts to make them worthy of that speech. Advocates have heard countless times over the years that they have to be “nicer” regarding advocacy and that if they do not volunteer in the shelters they seek to change, they really don’t care. They are told that if they would just (fill in the blank), our local animal shelters would be able to save more animals. The most commonly used fill-in-the-blank option is the word “volunteer,” and other words include foster, adopt, donate, and support.
There was a social media post about this very subject last year in which a shelter director openly wrote: “Shelters need REAL help and STOP with the SUGGESTIONS until you’ve actually physically helped in the shelter, fostered at least three pets, attended two off-site events, done adoption counseling for ten-plus adoptions and taken back pets from at least one failed adoption that you approved. Once you are a true rescue/shelter warrior and part of my tribe, I will listen.” What this shelter director apparently forgot is that she is a public servant who is inherently subject to criticism. That criticism is called free speech and is the right of every citizen, not just those who meet a certain set of criteria of which the public official approves.(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.)
As far as the “you should be nicer” or the “can’t we all just get along” argument, the reality is that the lives of animals are at stake. Respectful communication and diplomacy are obviously preferred, but the tone we use to ask shelters to stop killing healthy and treatable animals is not relevant at all. There is no polite way to handle what we call “the ask” of municipal officials and animal-shelter leadership. It is sufficient to say, “Please stop killing animals,” “these methods will help you do that right away” and “these people can help you because they have proven experience. Please call them.” When a house is on fire, no one stands outside debating how to save lives and stop the blaze in ways that won’t offend anyone. The focus is on the task at hand. When people tell No Kill advocates they should focus on getting along or say that the method of communication is too direct, they have put the focus on the messenger and have diverted attention away from the fact that the message is necessary in the first place.
The “if you would only volunteer” argument is also a deflection. There are people who volunteer at kill shelters and do so proudly. Many would tell you they are providing much-needed services, giving the animals scheduled to die “good endings” by taking them for a walk or giving them special treats before they are killed. The fact that some people are willing to volunteer to facilitate the process of killing healthy and treatable animals is disturbing to most advocates. These volunteers surely mean well, but the truth is that they are complicit in the process, and their silence is their consent. They are enabling the very killing that most of us find abhorrent.
The majority of people who care about animals and know that the local shelter is destroying healthy and treatable animals refuse to volunteer there and be part of a broken system that does not operate consistently with their values. Who would want to volunteer in an animal shelter and engage with healthy and treatable animals one day, only to come back the next day and find them gone not to an adoptive home, foster home or rescue group, but instead out the back door in a body bag?
If the argument is really that volunteering is the only way to save the lives of more animals, there really are other options. Plans could easily be made to get help from local jails by using inmate labor, or by having the court refer people to the shelter to fulfill community service obligations. A host of programs across the country have shown that using inmates to help care for animals helps the inmates as much as it helps the animals.
The willingness of citizens to volunteer at their tax-funded animal shelters is very important to the process of keeping animals alive, but it is not THE answer and is not a prerequisite to free speech. Once a community demonstrates that the healthy and treatable animals in the shelter are no longer at risk, people are much more apt to spend time helping the shelter. They feel confident that the animals with whom they interact will end up leaving the shelter not in trash bags but instead with adopters, fosters and rescue groups.
The burden of change is not the responsibility of advocates to carry. Everything changes when those responsible for making life and death decisions regarding shelter animals choose life, take responsibility for what happens in their buildings and then invite the public they serve to be part of a new and better future.