The Right to Speak Out

January 27, 2015 by  

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A few days ago on my Facebook page, I posted about a Maryland court case that held that a volunteer, rescuer, or any other member of the public cannot be banned from a government shelter simply because he or she has criticized shelter management, complained about the policies and practices of the shelter, or posted information online that officials believe is unflattering to the shelter. We not only have the First Amendment right to speak out, we have a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified.

That post has been seen by roughly 200,000 people, been shared over 2,000 times, liked by over 5,000 people and generated nearly 300 comments. Several people have asked the following questions: 1. Does it apply outside of Maryland?, 2. Does it apply to private humane societies or SPCAs?, 3. Does that include the right to take photographs and video in the shelter?, 4. What should you do if your government shelter or government-contracted SPCA violates your First Amendment rights?

Does it apply outside of Maryland?

Yes. The First Amendment is a federal constitutional right and 42 USC 1983, the applicable civil rights statute, is federal law. It applies in all 50 states.

Does it apply to private humane societies or SPCAs?

Keeping in mind that the protections of the First Amendment protect against government intrusion, so long as they receive funding to provide a government function (i.e., animal control contract), Sec. 1983 has been held to apply to both government shelters and private SPCAs. Allen vs. Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 488 F.Supp.2nd 450 (MD Penn 2007); Brunette vs. Humane Society of Ventura County, 294 F.3d 1205 (9th Cir. 2002); and Snead vs. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 929 A.2d 1169 (Pa.Sup.Ct. 2007).

Does that include the right to take photographs and video in the shelter?

Yes. Banning photography and video in public areas of the shelter limits free speech. See Animal Legal Defense Fund vs. Otter, 2014 WL 4388158*10 (D. Idaho 2014). The taking of a photograph or video is “included with the First Amendment’s guarantee of speech and press rights as a corollary of the right to disseminate the resulting recording.” ACLU vs. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583, 597 (7th Cir. 2012). As the ACLU has correctly argued, “Videotaping and capturing images of poor shelter conditions or neglected animals are indistinguishable from ‘commenting’ or ‘speaking out’ on such conditions.” Volunteers, rescuers, and members of the public have a right to document things they believe are improper. They also can take photographs and videotape to assist in finding animals homes.

What should you do if your government shelter or government-contracted SPCA violates your First Amendment rights?

Find legal representation by contacting your state ACLU office, Legal Aid office, and utilizing the attorney referral program of your state bar association. If you live in Southern California, the No Kill Advocacy Center may be able to find an attorney on your behalf.

If you choose not to pursue this legally, you can seek to reform the shelter through political advocacy. Click here for 14 free step-by-step guides to do so.

Photo: A very skinny mama dog and her puppies rescued from a local pound, courtesy of Eileen McFall of Central California Pets Alive. Mama was scheduled to be killed by the pound, but is now under a veterinarian’s care and both she and the puppies are safe. Criticizing the shelter for threatening to do so cannot be used to prevent you from saving dogs like this.

For further Reading:

Section 1983 to the Rescue

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Florida CAPA

January 23, 2015 by  

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The Florida Companion Animal Protection Act would make it illegal for shelters to kill animals if there are empty cages or kennels, if animals can share a cage or kennel with another animal, if a foster home is available, if a rescue group is willing to take the animal, if an animal can be transferred to another shelter, if the animal can be sterilized and released, and more.

Similar laws in other states save tens of thousands of animals every year, have reduced killing statewide by 78%, and have cut millions of dollars in wasteful spending.

Such a law is not only necessary, reasonable and an effective means of saving lives, its passage would also bring Florida’s sheltering procedures more in line with the humane, progressive values of the American public.

For a copy of the bill, click here.

 

If you live outside of Florida, bring CAPA to your state. Click here for a copy of the model law.

 

Click here for a guide on how to get it introduced in your state.

Photo: In California, a similar law saves over 46,000 animals a year who would have been killed in years past, saving taxpayers $1.8 million in the costs of killing. Instead of ending up in landfills or turned into ash, these animals are chasing balls, sleeping in the sun, curling up on laps, loving and being loved in return. CAPA saves lives.

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Oswald Finds His Sparkle

January 18, 2015 by  

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This is Oswald, tuckered out after a long day, sleeping with his favorite blue bunny. We got Oswald from a rescue group that pulled him from a very high kill shelter in the Central Valley of California. He was found on the streets, very thin and sickly, developed Giardia and kennel cough in the shelter, had a prolapsed eye, was depressed, and ultimately put on the kill list. In years past, Oswald would have been killed. This particular shelter had a policy of refusing to work with rescue groups. No animals scheduled to be killed ever went to rescue. But in California, we succeeded in passing legislation to make that illegal. Shelters are not permitted to kill animals if rescue groups are willing to save them. Today, that shelter transfers about 4,000 animals a year and altogether, an additional 46,000 animals are finding homes statewide who shelters would have killed in years past.

Though Oswald was withdrawn and sick, he was pulled by rescue and patched together. When we adopted him, the rescue group told us that he is very friendly, will love us immensely, but that he had lost his sparkle. For the first couple of weeks in our home, Oswald was indeed very friendly, but sometimes leery. He would shrink a bit on approach. He was afraid to walk at night. Every little noise scared him. A trip in the car sometimes made him nervous. If you left the room, he left the room as he did not like to be left alone.

Today, Oswald is a confident, good natured, wild little guy. A drive in the car is as exciting as a walk at night. He loves staring at deer and squirrels and meeting other dogs. His days include walking 3 miles, playing with his blue bunny (which he carries in his mouth even though it is bigger than he is), trying to get our cat, Kenny, to roughhouse with him, running around with two big kids (my wife and I) and two real kids (my daughter and son), zooming around the house from room to room, playing at the park, an afternoon nap by himself in the downstairs bedroom, being genuinely excited to meet anybody and everybody, even the vet, and then, around 9 pm, passing out from exhaustion. And when he passes out, little can wake him. He is like a wet noodle. You can turn him upside down, you can mold him into shapes like clay, and you can carry him like a baby. He feels safe. He feels happy. He feels home.

Oswald has found his sparkle.

Rescue groups save roughly 60,000 animals from California shelters every year. Before the rescue rights law went into effect, it was only 12,000. In other states, too many rescue groups report being turned away by their local shelter and then the shelter killing the very animals they offer to save. You can help save animals like Oswald by making that illegal.

  • For a copy of the legislation, click here.
  • For a guide on how to get legislation introduced and passed, click here.

No Kill Advocacy Center attorneys stand ready to help, click here.

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Long Live Tank

January 15, 2015 by  

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Recently, someone posted a comment on my Facebook page defending the killing of animals by stating that No Kill shelters are ones where dogs and cat sit for years in “tiny cages without any love, companion[ship] or happiness.” She then preceded to defend killing, by asking if that is what I was hoping would happen? Or, in her words, “Is that what you wish [for] all these babies?”

Of course that is not what I am working for. And, of course, that is not what the No Kill movement represents. No Kill does not mean poor care, hostile and abusive treatment, and warehousing animals without the intentional killing. It means modernizing shelter operations so that animals are well cared for and kept moving efficiently and effectively through the shelter and into homes. The No Kill movement puts action behind the words of every shelter’s mission statement: “All life is precious.” No Kill is about valuing animals, which means not only saving their lives but also giving them good quality care. It means vaccination on intake, nutritious food, daily socialization and exercise, fresh clean water, medical care, and a system that finds loving, new homes.

At the open admission No Kill shelter I oversaw, the average length of stay for animals was eight days, we had a return rate of less than two percent, we reduced the disease rate by 90 percent from the prior administration, we reduced the killing rate by 75 percent, no animal ever celebrated an anniversary in the facility, and we saved well over 90 percent of the animals (over 95% using comparative save rate calculations). In short, we brought sheltering into the 21st century. Many other No Kill shelters have similar lengths of stay. The average length of stay at open admission No Kill shelters is roughly 14 days or the length of time a dog or cat might spend at a boarding facility while their family is on vacation.

But what if it was longer? What if it was, as it was for a dog named Tank, three years?

BRONX DOG FINDS FOREVER HOME AFTER 3 LONG YEARS IN SHELTER

While at the shelter, according to this report, Tank was walked every single day by volunteers. He was clearly well cared for. And now he has a home. Of course, I have no idea why it took three years and it is hard for me to imagine a scenario where it should have. But that issue aside, why should Tank have been killed? He was not in a tiny cage without any love, companionship or happiness. He had a personal family of volunteers. And he has a home now. By all indications, a very caring and loving one. Only the most hard-hearted of individuals would call for him to be dead.

By denigrating the movement to end shelter killing as akin to warehousing and abuse, and by ignoring the protocols of shelters which have truly achieved No Kill, these naysayers not only do so to provide political cover for their own killing but in order to embrace a nation of shelters grounded in killing—a defeatist mentality, inherently unethical and antithetical to animal welfare. To imply that No Kill means warehousing, therefore, is a cynicism which has only one purpose: to defend those who fail to save lives from public criticism and public accountability by painting the alternative as even darker.

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How to Handle Haters

January 13, 2015 by  

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A person came on my Facebook page recently and told me that he had come across my work, read up on it, and agreed with what I had to say. An animal rights activist, he told me that soon after educating himself about No Kill, he mentioned my name in a chat room supposedly dedicated to animal protection and received a massive backlash from people saying the most absurd and unkind things about me. He told me that it was at that moment that he knew I was onto something really big. That made me laugh and I was grateful he was able to put their opposition into the proper context.

For well over a century, the people who run kill shelters and their allies at the large, non-profit groups were allowed to kill millions of animals a year with total impunity. They portrayed that killing as necessary, even “kindness,” and schooled generations of animal activists to parrot this party line and to shift the blame away from them and onto others. So when I challenge the myths upon which the edifice of shelter killing now rests, demonstrating how animals are dying in shelters not because of the choices made by people outside of shelters, but because of the choices made by the people inside them, I am challenging a deeply entrenched paradigm people have relied on to shield themselves from greater scrutiny for their harmful actions. For these people, and their supporters, I, and the No Kill movement in general, are deeply threatening.

Creating change means shaking up the status quo and that means making some people angry. Any movement that wants to foster improvement must challenge tradition, and therefore, the people who champion that tradition because they benefit from it. If you are trying to be an agent for change and you are not upsetting some people, then you aren’t succeeding. You aren’t a threat to their traditional way of operating by causing people to question long held beliefs and assumptions that allow people, in the case of sheltered animals, to literally get away with murder. Handle the haters by viewing them for what they are: evidence of progress.

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The Theft & Killing of Maya

January 9, 2015 by  

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On October 18, 2014, in Parksley, VA, PETA stole Maya, a happy and healthy dog, from her porch while her family was out. They killed her that very day.

According to a spokesman for Maya’s family, PETA came to the trailer park where the family lives, where most of the residents are Spanish speaking with few resources. The PETA representatives befriended the residents. They got to know who lived where and who had dogs. In fact, they sat with the family on the same porch off which they later took Maya. Waiting until the family was away from the home, PETA employees backed their van up to the porch and threw biscuits to Maya, in an attempt to coax her off her property and therefore give PETA the ability to claim she was a stray dog “at large.” But Maya refused to stay off the porch and ran back. Thinking that no one was around, one of the employees—who was later charged with larceny—went onto the property and took Maya.

When the family returned and found their beloved Maya missing, they searched around the neighborhood before checking the video on the surveillance camera. That is when they saw the PETA van on the film and recognized the woman who had come to their house on prior occasions to talk to them about Maya. They called PETA and asked for Maya’s return. According to a family spokesperson, PETA claimed it did not have the dog. When PETA was told that its employees had been filmed taking the dog, they hung up. Shortly afterward, a PETA attorney called and informed the family that Maya was dead. PETA had killed her. She may not be the only one. On the day they stole Maya, other animals went missing as well. Had a surveillance video not been available, the killing of Maya would have remained unknown, as are the fates of the other animals.

 

More info:

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Keep Your Eye on the Ball

January 8, 2015 by  

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People familiar with my work know I disagree (at times vehemently) with some of the positions taken by the large, national groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, and PETA when it comes to companion animals in shelters.

I know this often leads to confusion, with people unsure of whom to believe, as if the right or wrong position comes down to personalities, rather than values or the outcomes resulting from them.

I would like such people to think about the issue this way: You don’t have to believe either of us; what is right or wrong does not come down to who is advocating a particular position, but which position is most likely to foster the kind of outcome you, as an animal lover, would like to see. In fact, your duty to animals requires that you make up your own mind, rather than relying on any one person or organization to tell you what to believe or to do. Humans are fallible. They are also capable of being manipulated. People who we respect can get it wrong. They can also change, become corrupted by power or their proximity to power, causing them to shift priorities so that we while we may believe it is safe, given their history, to defer to them, their calculations and allegiances are no longer in line with ours, and in deferring to them, we err. Because we can never truly know another’s heart, we must come to rely on the only person we can ever fully know and trust: ourselves.

We owe the animals an open mind and thoughtful deliberation of those views that contradict our own, but we also owe them the determination to stand up for what we, in the end, determine to be the correct course of action, rather than abdicating that responsibility in order to defer to “leaders” through cultish devotion. Our duty, first and foremost, lies with the animals who face needless suffering and whose very lives are often at stake. It does not lie in allegiance to “leaders” of the animal protection movement who might be embarrassed, offended, or threatened by others challenging their wisdom or authority. And it doesn’t lie with activists who regurgitate the pronouncements of those “leaders” without first thoughtfully deliberating their validity for themselves.

My hope is that, eventually, the animal protection movement will evolve to welcome rather than shrink from points of view that challenge the views of those in the greatest positions of power within our movement, not because all points of view are of identical merit, but precisely because they are not. We need more voices, not fewer, arguing, debating, innovating, and challenging tradition so that the best one can be heard and can prevail, thereby protecting animals better than would otherwise have occurred in a movement characterized by censorship and blind deference to authority. Some in the animal movement call this “divisive.” I call it democracy. It is what we owe the animals in a movement of conscience.

Photo courtesy of Eileen McFall, Central California Pets Alive

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Lessons Taught; Lessons Learned

January 7, 2015 by  

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 Our shelter was small, but we had big hearts and we never lost sight of our mission: “It’s great to be alive!”

When I ran a shelter, I liked to teach people a lesson when their animals ended up there. Like we did to the person whose cat, Dale, was brought to our shelter. Dale’s family had to go out of town and left him in the care of a friend. By accident, the cat got out of the house and given that he found himself in an unfamiliar neighborhood, he became lost. Someone found Dale hiding in the bushes and brought him to the shelter. Shortly thereafter, Dale’s person called the shelter to ask if we had a cat matching Dale’s description. We said, yes, that Dale was here and that she could come down in a couple of hours when we were open, pay the reclaim and impound fees ($16, required by the town) and pick up her cat. She said she didn’t have the cash and couldn’t wait the several hours to pick him up. I told her to bring what she had. 15 minutes later, I heard an excited pounding on the front door and I let her in.

Before she even reached the adoption room she began calling out for her cat. Every time she yelled, “Dale,” a little cat in the adoption room would cry out with a “meow.” Every “meow” elicited a louder “Dale” and every “Dale” elicited a louder “meow.” It was joyous reunion. As I watched the woman head out the door with her cat cradled safely in her arms I thought about asking her to fill out the required forms, but I decided against it. After the fear of believing she would never see her beloved Dale again, she was in tears and full of emotion, caught up in the happiness of the moment and seemingly oblivious to anything else. She dropped 36 cents on the counter—a quarter, a dime, and a penny—and asked if that was ok, as she didn’t have any more. I said yes. They left. We ended up paying the impound and reclaim fees directly to the town on her behalf. That will teach her!

And the lesson is this: if she or her cat ever needed us, we’d be there for them. We were the local refuge for lost animals and it was our job, our duty, to facilitate reunions and to ensure happy endings. Our shelter was taxpayer funded so she had already paid her fair share and now it was our turn to provide the services she and the other citizens of our community hired our shelter to provide. We took the 36 cents, she took Dale, and we now had another cage available for the next cat in need. A win-win-win. Isn’t that the lesson a shelter is supposed to teach?

Addendum - Bah Humbug! Here is my response to some who suggested in the comments on my Facebook page that it was wrong to give Dale back for 36 cents because she could not afford to take care of him: Some people live paycheck to paycheck and I was not going to ask for her tax returns. Nor, as a shelter, was I going to promote the notion that only wealthy people are entitled to the companionship and love of animals. He was happy, healthy, and robust. Dale clearly loved her and she clearly loved him. He was neutered and vaccinated, showing he has had veterinary care. Plus, if she ever needed it, we were there to help her.

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Our Shelters Could Be Great

January 6, 2015 by  

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It is true that some people are irresponsible. As a former criminal prosecutor, animal control officer, and animal control director,  I have seen my fair share of it. In terms of being a prosecutor, I’ve seen more than “irresponsibility,” I’ve seen things that have the potential to destroy your faith in humanity. But it shouldn’t because most people, the vast majority of people, are not like that. My point is twofold. One, when we are in the trenches, we have a pretty myopic view and we need to guard against universalizing that. Consider this: In a national survey, 96% of Americans—almost every single person surveyed—said we have a moral duty to protect animals and should have strong laws to do so. Three out of four Americans believe it should be illegal for shelters to kill healthy and treatable animals. Specialization and advancements in the field of veterinary medicine have been driven by a population of Americans willing to spend and do whatever it takes to save the lives of the animals they love. In fact, spending on our animal companions is the seventh largest sector of the retail economy, showing steady annual increases even in the face of economic uncertainty. And giving to animal related causes continues to be the fastest growing segment in American philanthropy. Most people love dogs and cats and do right by them.

Second, the fact that some people are irresponsible doesn’t mean animals have to die. For example, on June 11, 2001, I drove into the parking lot for the first time as the new director of the shelter in Tompkins County, NY. I was met at the front door by someone with five kittens he didn’t want. By handing them over to us, in his estimation he had done his duty. He had brought them to the animal shelter and they were now our responsibility.

For most shelters, this is the point at which the breakdown that leads to killing occurs. The current view is that killing the kittens is, in large part, a fait accompli, and that the fault for the killing belonged to the person at the front door. It was his failure to spay his cat, his failure to make a lifetime commitment to the kittens. But this view, while endemic to the culture of animal control, is not accurate. Thankfully, on that day, the person did not live in a community whose shelter still subscribed to those views. On that day, the Tompkins County shelter explicitly rejected the policies legitimized and championed by most shelters nationwide. Clearly, killing those kittens was not going to be an option. Not surprisingly, we found all of them—and the thousands of others who passed through our doors—homes. And we did not hold them indefinitely. Our average length of stay was only 8 days and no animal ever celebrated an anniversary. Moreover, while there, every dog was required to get out of their kennels four times a day and cats at least twice a day.

Animal homelessness is an inevitable fact born of the very nature of life itself: nothing lasts forever, people die, animals become lost, circumstances change, and yes, some people just don’t want their animals anymore. Animal shelters are supposed to protect animals from the uncertainties of life, and to give them a new home when things go wrong. While relinquishing care of an animal to most shelters in America literally amounts to gambling with that animal’s life, the deadly fate awaiting many shelter animals is not the natural outcome of animal homelessness but, rather, a tradition of killing that can be eliminated. As Tompkins County did then and hundreds of communities across the nation conclusively prove now, shelter killing is a choice.

Of course, this discussion is not meant as a defense of irresponsible people, but rather, as a segue to providing a much needed fresh perspective on issues surrounding homeless dogs and cats. It would be ideal if everyone was responsible with animals in the broadest meaning of the term; but that doesn’t mean shelters must kill until everyone is. Our animal shelters could be great, and the narrative that says that when an animal is no longer wanted, tragedy must necessarily ensue, could be replaced by the understanding that when animals need a helping hand, our society ensures that they have one. The infrastructure for this is already in place. What is lacking is the will to reform the 3,000-plus kill shelters across the nation. As long as we fail to reform shelters, millions of dogs and cats will continue to needlessly lose their lives each and every year.

Learn more:

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A Great and Terrible Year

January 3, 2015 by  

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Over 7,000,000 people now live in communities with save rates above 90%. Bunnies, hamsters, and other animals get their due. A challenge to save a million more cats. No Kill is Love. And so much more. Yesterday, I posted about the No Kill movement’s remarkable year.

What makes that success possible is the work of individual communities. Communities like Seagoville, Texas which posted a 99% save rate for 2014. In the past, I’ve written about Seagoville’s transition to lifesaving. Transition, however, is a misnomer as it literally happened in minutes. One day they were killing; the next day under a new director they were not. In fact, under the director’s first full year, they killed fewer animals all year than used to be killed in a week. In 2014, they did not kill a single cat.

They are not alone in their lifesaving success. Lynchburg, Virginia, flipped the numbers around, going from a once deadly 49% save rate to 2014’s 94% with a change in leadership.

And then, of course, there is Madison County, Arkansas, which posted only a 26% save rate in 2013 and has been at 98% over the last six months, once again thanks to a new director.

But this isn’t the story of only three communities. It is the story of hundreds across the county which collectively form a movement saving millions of animals. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll hear about more of them, lots more.

Of course, there is still a lot to work to do. Animals in other communities aren’t so lucky. Their shelters are not run by passionate people who are dedicated to saving lives. Their staff do not have a “can do” attitude. Their directors do not embrace proven solutions; they hide behind excuses. I just finished reading J.S. Coetzee’s Nobel Prize winning novel “Disgrace.” It is disturbing in so many ways, not the least of which is the protagonist describing a shelter on a day they are killing dogs,

“[D]espite the airtight bags in which they tie the newmade corpses, the dogs in the yard smell what is going on inside. They flatten their ears, they droop their tails, as if they too feel the disgrace of dying; locking their legs, they have to be pulled or pushed or carried over the threshold. On the table some snap wildly left and right, some whine plaintively; none will look straight at the needle… which they somehow know is going to harm them terribly…

 

“He does not dismiss the possibility that at the deepest level [the person killing the dog] may not be a liberating angel but a devil, that beneath her show of compassion may hide a heart as leathery as a butcher’s…

 

“What the dog will not be able to work out… what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in that room, something unmentionable… It will be beyond him, this room that is not a room but a hole where one leaks out of existence.”

It is enough to make you throw the book across the room and hold your head in your hands and cry. And so while we celebrate the tremendous progress we are making; while we take stock of the fact that millions live in communities where this is the aberration and not the norm; while we celebrate the Seagovilles and Lynchburgs and Madison Counties; while we marvel at the fact that two decades ago, every community in the nation was killing and today, many do not; until every last shelter embraces the No Kill philosophy and the programs and services which make it possible, until no dogs have to flatten their ears or droop their tails as they enter “a hole where one leaks out of existence” and face a needle “which they somehow know is going to harm them terribly,” we will endure in our great and noble work.

A work that will, in the hopefully not-too-distant future, make shelter killing an ugly relic of the past. Once again, not only will we save lives; but we will create a future where every animal will be respected and cherished, and where every individual life will be protected and revered.

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