Wayne Pacelle Under Siege

February 25, 2009 by  

In response to public outcry over their support and participation in the Wilkes County Massacre, in which the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) first championed and then defended the mass slaughter of over 150 dogs and puppies, Wayne Pacelle of HSUS issued an interim new policy of favoring temperament testing of individual dogs seized in dog-fighting cases, and called for “a meeting of leading animal welfare organizations concerning dogs victimized by dog fighting.” That meeting has been called for April in Las Vegas. If history is any guide, there is little reason to celebrate as of yet.

To begin with, HSUS did not adopt a policy that all dogs will be temperament tested to determine if they are aggressive, only that they will recommend that they be, a policy which can be ignored. Second, there has been no discussion over what type of test will be used and how outcomes will be determined, a major flaw in the temperament testing process used by many shelters. Third, there is reason to believe that the outcome in Wilkes County would not have been any different even if this policy were already in place. Last year, Wayne Pacelle claimed that HSUS had tested all the Michael Vick dogs and determined—in his own words—that “they are some of the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country,” a blatant falsehood. In overruling HSUS, the court agreed with non-HSUS reformers that most of the dogs were rehabilitatable, and two are now therapy dogs, bringing comfort to cancer patients. Does it matter if the dogs are killed with or without a temperament test if the test itself is as draconian as HSUS is?

There is also reason to doubt HSUS’ sincerity. Regardless of what HSUS says at the meeting or even publicly, they ultimately cannot be trusted to act in a manner consistent with their promises. After all, the support and participation in the Wilkes County massacre comes after HSUS publicly stated that shelter killing is needless and shelters are not doing enough to save lives. Their defense of it reverted to old patterns of blaming pet overpopulation and even suggesting that we cannot ask shelters to be more humane, because they’ll just do a worse job. According to HSUS, if you “impose” the “burdens” of being humane on these shelters, “they may decline to intervene in criminal fighting cases, allowing the dogfighters to continue to operate.” In other words, HSUS believes we can’t ask more of shelters because if we do, they’ll just decide to be even less humane.

In addition, their defense of the needless slaughter of almost every animal at the Tangipahoa Parish shelter last August which claimed the lives of over 170 dogs and cats came after they promised a “new dawn” of animal sheltering in that region.

And despite a “pro-TNR position paper” they published in 2006, HSUS officials said they “didn’t have a problem with humanely killing a stray cat” in April of 2008 after Randolph, Iowa officials announced a bounty on them, offering residents $5.00 for every cat they rounded up and brought to the shelter to be killed. (HSUS supported the plan to round up and kill the cats, but not the process suggesting that people might get bit by cats if the cats were not professionally trapped. They then backpedaled there, too, after a massive public outcry, suggesting it wasn’t a good idea either way. Sound familiar?)

In addition, even Pacelle’s announcement of the meeting suggests a diversionary tactic. The issue which needs to be addressed is not, as he misleadingly claims, a discussion concerning dogs “victimized by dog fighting.” We are all in agreement here. The scourge of dog fighting must be ended. We need to pursue and punish dog fighters with all the resources we can muster. The issue is what to do concerning dogs victimized by HSUS and shelters after they have been saved from dog fighters.

As I wrote in a prior blog,

The choice was not, as HSUS contends, a choice between continued suffering at the hands of dog fighters or death at the pound. This was not the option the dogs faced. Once they were taken into custody by HSUS and Wilkes County officials, more dog fighting was no longer an option. The option was whether HSUS and Wilkes County officials would kill them or whether HSUS and Wilkes County officials would not kill them. Their choice is now well known: they chose to systematically put all the dogs and puppies to death, a choice they defend still.

And finally, is such a meeting really necessary? If Pacelle was willing to stand up for what’s right, rather than to defend his clearly wrong colleagues, he would not need the symposium. He would know what HSUS policy needs to be and he would ensure that it is followed.

Instead, in response to criticism, HSUS—through dog killer apologist John Goodwin—chastised groups for making an unnecessary “fuss.” And when that callous retort sparked additional furor, they further inflamed public criticism by issuing a defense of the massacre. Everyone’s heard some variation of the joke that goes, “how many people does it take to screw in a light bulb?” In this case, the more apt question is: “How many humane groups does it take to figure out that an animal welfare organization should champion the saving, not the taking, of animal life?” The answer, of course, should be “one.” It is self-evident. You don’t need a meeting to figure it out. But the reality is that the answer is “two” if one of those groups is HSUS: HSUS to get the answer wrong. The other group to tell them what the right one is.

Ever since San Francisco’s 1994 seminal achievement when it became the first community in the nation to end the killing of healthy homeless animals in its shelters, HSUS has ignored that success and fought it—and other successes—every step of the way. They continue to regurgitate old clichés about pet overpopulation, continue to support regressive shelters, continue to fight progressive reformers in communities across the country, continue to falsely deny that No Kill has been achieved, and continue to support mass killings—as they have in Randolph, IA, in Tangipahoa Parish, LA, and in Wilkes County, NC. And ultimately, they don’t seem to want to learn from their mistakes.

The public condemnation over their call for killing of all the Michael Vick dogs should have pre-empted the current call for killing, but it didn’t. The support for cat killing in Randolph, IA should have been pre-empted by the outcry over their prior feral cat policy, which resulted in a policy switch two years before. It didn’t. And they should not have supported the Tangipahoa slaughter because every time they have supported other mass killings at shelters, they’ve been forced to back down by public outcry. These are not the actions of an agency whose leadership is truly interested in doing the right thing or learning from the past.

But that doesn’t mean the show mustn’t go on. The meeting has been called, and it should be attended. But we cannot confuse a move for political survival, which this meeting represents, with a sincere desire for change on the part of either Wayne Pacelle or his draconian organization. To do so, is to do so at our movement’s own peril.

This is classic social movement theory. Those vested in the status quo, as HSUS is, first ignore reform, as they did in the mid-1990s and lost. Then they fight reform, as they did in earnest in the first half of this decade, and continue to do so in various parts of the country, only to again find themselves on the losing side. The next stage is co-option. That is the stage we are currently in.

The fact is Pacelle and HSUS cannot ignore the will of No Kill advocates anymore and he is only asking for input because he has no choice in the matter. As Christie Keith noted in her Pet Connection blog,

if what HSUS needs is pressure from their donor base, the general public, pit bull advocates, bloggers, animal lovers or other animal welfare organizations to start doing the right thing for these much-maligned dogs … There seems to be an awful lot of it out there.

This is true. But caution should rule the day. In the past, No Kill advocates stopped the pressure on HSUS in similar campaigns and celebrated victory, only to have discovered they had been hoodwinked by carefully crafted statements and Pacelle’s penchance for meaningless pretty words. In 2004, some No Kill groups signed on to a statement of principles called the Asilomar Accords, which were championed by HSUS as a roadmap to “significantly reducing the euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals in the United States.” Unfortunately, the document allowed for the continuation of policies that resulted in killing, including breed discriminatory actions that culminate in mass slaughters like the one which has sparked the current outcry. In fact, the actions taken in Wilkes County were entirely consistent with the Asilomar Accords—an agreement many No Kill advocates initially supported.

Likewise, some feral cat advocates praised the 2006 HSUS statement on feral cats as a “vision for the future,” until it was shown that the statement was riddled with loopholes which allowed killing of feral cats to continue indefinitely—actions consistent with their support of the cat bounty debacle in Randolph, IA.

Time and time again, Pacelle and HSUS have proved they cannot be trusted. Nonetheless, some groups are optimistic. Best Friends welcomed the recent announcement and stated,

There had been more than enough airing of feelings and outrage that the [Wilkes County] dogs were not evaluated prior to being summarily [killed]. It was time to hit the reset button on this in order to move things forward in a constructive way. Mr. Pacelle was open and receptive to what we had to say and we are looking forward to our meetings in April.

One does not necessarily follow the other.

It was mass public pressure from a large number of groups and a wide array of voices which forced HSUS to the table, not a response to a single group’s call for change, however large and influential. Any appearance of cooperation they get from HSUS is the result of widespread and loud dissent rising up from grassroots activists and rescuers nationwide. It is that clamor which is the only thing that has ever forced HSUS to the bargaining table—and it should not be discouraged.

Moreover, leadership in this movement must reflect the tremendous discontent of those in the grassroots, not seek to prematurely quell it and the vast potential for reform its expression offers. There is no “reset” button for the more than 150 dogs and puppies killed in North Carolina—they are gone forever and we cannot bring them back. It is, therefore, premature to suggest that we move on—not only because HSUS has neither apologized for their actions nor owned up to the obscenity of them, but because the North Carolina incident is a typical example of how HSUS routinely operates, and therefore offers us a cautionary tale as to what we can expect from an HSUS that is anything short of what it is our duty to force it to be: unequivocal in its embrace of No Kill.

And force it we will because the power is now ours. We are in a position to dictate the direction of this movement and we must not settle for any compromises. At the meeting in Las Vegas, demands must be made that include, for example, a condemnation of the Wilkes County massacre. To prevent other shelters from citing HSUS’ actions and its very public defense of it for their own policies which favor killing, HSUS must publicly reject them in total. The demands must also include:

  • The right of individual evaluation and consideration for each dog, not merely a recommendation.
  • It must include a guarantee of clemency for any puppies.
  • It must give rescue groups and No Kill shelters the right of access to save the animals, and the right to conduct independent evaluations rather than rely on the flawed results of HSUS or the shelter’s own potentially predetermined ones which favor killing.
  • It must include an unqualified statement in favor of saving animals that rejects the excuses of the past.
  • It must include support of legislation that will give all of these principles the force of law. It should be illegal for a shelter to kill a dog if a rescue group is willing to save him (as it is in California).
  • And dogs should not be deemed dangerous without an evaluation and hearing, subject to appeal by any shelter or rescue group.

That is just a start. There are thousands of us and only a few of them. We have found our voice, and recognize the potential its fullest expression can create. No more compromises. No more killing.

HSUS Defends Wilkes County Massacre

February 21, 2009 by  

Earlier this week, rescue groups throughout the country pleaded with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Wilkes County officials not to put nearly 150 dogs and puppies seized from a dog fighting raid systematically to death. Instead, they asked that the dogs be individually assessed and even extended offers of assistance, support, and resources. But HSUS refused, arguing that all the dogs should be killed, including puppies who were born after the seizure and posed no threat to public safety. Not content to simply embrace the killing, HSUS then one went step further. John Goodwin of HSUS attacked the animal lovers, claiming that they were “clamoring for media attention” and expressing annoyance that, in his view, no one is raising a “fuss” over the other 3,000 dogs this particular community unnecessarily kills each year.

Across the country, animal advocates, No Kill shelters, and rescue groups, as well as everyday dog lovers condemned the killings and Goodwin’s callous retort about it. Even those outside the humane movement were moved enough to share their overwhelming sadness and anger at the decision. Websites and blogs devoted to photography and other non-animal pursuits interrupted their focus to share their grief over the fate of all those dogs and puppies.

In my own condemnation of the HSUS position, I wrote that Goodwin willfully ignored that many of the groups seeking clemency for the Wilkes County dogs—and the No Kill movement, more generally—have been raising a fuss over killing in U.S. shelters—a fuss opposed by HSUS which has often sided with these shelters. I also wrote that,

Every time HSUS defends killing, their antiquated, regressive viewpoints are not only harmful to animals, they make HSUS more and more irrelevant to animal sheltering and more and more despised by those who truly love animals. And they become more out of touch with public sentiment.

Finally, I argued that,

Goodwin’s offensive claim that the advocates calling for clemency in Wilkes County were motivated by a “clamoring for media attention” is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. HSUS can only see this as a clamor for media attention rather than a clamor to save lives because that is how HSUS appears to operate. For HSUS, animals do not seem to matter unless they result in a headline and therefore donations for HSUS. For the rest of us, it’s the animals that count.

Unable to ignore the loud and wide cross section of critics, HSUS has now issued a defense of the killing. Not surprisingly, HSUS takes no responsibility and offers little in the way of thoughtful analysis. The dogs and puppies whose lives were taken be damned, HSUS chooses to present itself as the wounded innocent in the whole affair—the real victims in it’s twisted view—by blaming the judge for the “order to [kill] the dogs,” even though it was HSUS which testified in court that the animals should be killed, and then defended the decision by attacking rescue groups and No Kill shelters for daring to question the mass slaughter.

Hoping we’ll all forget about the puppies killed, HSUS also writes that, “No organization has done more to attack and harm the dogfighting industry than The HSUS.” Despite the “We’re Number 1” bravado, HSUS’ logic in support of the killing comes down to little more than this: According to HSUS, they had to call for the death of puppies who were born after the seizure, who have never known aggression, and who, in some cases, were raised by loving foster parents because some of the other dogs in the same seizure were aggressive.

In making such a ludicrous argument, HSUS ignores the whole point of the criticism: it wasn’t a question of whether a dangerous dog should be put up for adoption no matter how hard HSUS pretends that is what this is about. It was a question of whether the decision that any of the dogs were truly dangerous was made after the dogs were individually and fairly assessed. It ignores that there were puppies killed who posed no threat to public safety, that there were rescue groups willing to provide needed support, and that HSUS has the enormous resources to intervene in a life affirming way, choosing instead to champion the dogs’ death. It ignores that the experience with the dogs in the case of Michael Vick undermined everything HSUS thought it knew about the nature of dog aggression. Like in this one, it was HSUS which led the call for mass killing of those dogs after Wayne Pacelle falsely claimed that “Officials from our organization have examined some of these dogs and, generally speaking, they are some of the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country.” In fact, following their actual assessment, only one dog was deemed too vicious to save. In overruling HSUS, the court concurred that most of the dogs were rehabilitatable, and two are now therapy dogs, bringing comfort to cancer patients.

But that is not what takes HSUS’ defense of the Wilkes County massacre to its extreme of obscenity. That is reserved for two of the most offensive claims ever to come out of HSUS. First, HSUS claims that we should not ask shelters to do a better job, because they will likely respond by doing a worse one. According to HSUS, if you “impose” the “burdens” of being humane on these shelters, “they may decline to intervene in criminal fighting cases, allowing the dogfighters to continue to operate.” In other words, HSUS believes we can’t ask more of shelters because if we do, they’ll just decide to be even less humane. If we accept this point of view, we can never expect shelters to be effective. We can never demand more from our government agencies. We can never suggest that shelters reflect, rather than undermine, our values. We have to accept that they’ll be killing indefinitely. And we have to keep quiet about it or they will be worse than they are now—a wholly unethical and self-defeatist mentality that is grounded in failure. A failure that HSUS seems to believe is permanent and unchangeable.

Second, while HSUS claims to be a leader in stopping dog fighting, they champion the same attitude towards dogs that allows for such abuse—indeed, that perpetuates it: the idea that dogs do not matter; that their lives are of little value and are expendable. Their advocacy that the dogs should be killed undermines the entire principle which should be motivating their anti-dog fighting campaign. Dog fighting is horrible not only because of the pain and suffering of dogs, but because it kills dogs. And killing dogs is the ultimate betrayal—the worst thing we can do to them. To “rescue” them from the worst thing that could happen to them when they are being abused and then to turn around and advocate for that very thing to be done to the dogs makes no sense whatsoever.

In its response to critics, HSUS is essentially saying that the killing of these dogs should continue because there are fates worse than death. And, sadly, too many people who should know better have adopted this point of view, even though it is patently false on its face; and is more so because it incorrectly assumes there are only two choices available: killing at the pound or killing at the hands of dog fighters. Working hard to end the scourge of dog fighting—and to punish the abusers—is not mutually exclusive with saving the lives of the innocent victims. In fact, the moral imperative to do one goes hand in hand with the other.

I am not naïve. I understand that method of killing is important, and if we lived in a two dimensional world of shadows—if we lived in Plato’s cave—where the choice was nothing more than to be killed inhumanely or to be killed in a less brutal way, we would pick the latter each and every time. Although I have called repeatedly for the end of shelter killing, I have also supported efforts to abolish cruel methods of killing, as in the case of the draconian gas chamber—which shelters in North Carolina, the sight of the current killing, have refused to do. But that is not the choice presented, no matter how hard HSUS tries to pretend it is; nor how many times it repeats it in its statement of apologia.

But even if it were true (it is not), while cruelty is abhorrent, while cruelty is painful, while cruelty should be condemned and rooted out, there is nothing worse than death, because death is final. A dog subjected to pain and suffering can be rescued. A dog subjected to savage cruelty can even become a therapy dog, as the Vick case showed. There is still hope. Whereas death is its total antithesis. It is the eclipse of hope. It is forever. Because they never wake up, ever. The worst of the worst—a fact each and every one of us would recognize if it was us facing death.

That basic understanding is, in fact, the very underpinning of our criminal justice system in the U.S. where generally only one offense carries the death penalty because it is an offense not just in difference of degree, but of a difference in kind to every other crime. It is in a class by itself. Only the taking of a life is punishable by death.

But in this case, even this argument by HSUS is a red herring. The choice was not, as HSUS contends, a choice between continued suffering at the hands of dog fighters or death at the pound. This was not the option the dogs faced. Once they were taken into custody by HSUS and Wilkes County officials, more dog fighting was no longer an option. The option was whether HSUS and Wilkes County officials would kill them or whether HSUS and Wilkes County officials would not kill them. Their choice is now well known: they chose to systematically put all the dogs and puppies to death, a choice they defend still.

And so we come back to the first and primary principle of the humane movement: Animal shelters are supposed to be the safety net for animals, not an extension of the neglect and abuse they face elsewhere. Just as there are other service agencies which also deal with human irresponsibility, shelters—like the other agencies—should not use that as an excuse to negate their own responsibility for failing to put in place necessary programs and services to respond humanely, and therefore, appropriately. Imagine if Child Protective Services took in abused, abandoned and unwanted children, and then killed them. We should no more tolerate it for animals.

Because ultimately it comes down to this: it doesn’t matter to the dog one whiff who is ultimately robbing them of their life—be it a dog fighting thug, a thug in a suit testifying in court that defenseless puppies should be killed, or a thug cloaked in the mantel of “animal control.” Killing is killing, and the tragic end remains the same, regardless of who is pulling the trigger.

Building a No Kill Houston

February 20, 2009 by  

Houston, TX

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sponsored by No Kill Houston

Come to the all-day seminar which has been called “a prerequisite for rescue groups and organizations that are serious about changing their communities to No Kill.”

Workshops include:

Building a No Kill Community: Cost-effective Lifesaving Programs
In 2003, the open door animal control shelter in Tompkins County saved 100% of healthy and treatable animals, and 100% of feral cats. Over nine out of ten dogs and cats were saved, without big bucks and without a big shelter—a reduction in the kill rate of 75%. At the same time, the agency went from a $120,000 a year deficit to finishing the year with a surplus, raising more money than it spent. Using the same model, the open door animal control shelter in Charlottesville, VA saved 92% of all dogs and cats, while Washoe County, NV reduced the death rate by over 50% in one year. Since then, other municipalities have achieved similar success. Learn what programs and services help save lives.

Big Dogs, Shy Cats & All the Rest: Finding Homes for All of Them
Pit Bulls, Rottweillers, big black dogs, shy cats and cats with attitude. Learn the strategies to increase adoptions, effectively market shelter animals, and find loving, new homes for all the healthy and treatable pets in your shelter, including those hard to place ones. Using this model, a community that takes in tens of thousands of dogs and cats annually increased dog adoptions by nearly 60% and more than doubled cat adoptions (104%) in less than one year.

Saving Shelter Dogs: Evaluation, Socialization, Treatment & Placement
Some shelters have adopted the rhetoric but not the programs of No Kill. As a result, they are using “temperament testing” to deem dogs unadoptable and make their statistics look better. Saving shelter dogs is as much about fair and proper evaluation, socialization and stimulation in the shelter, treatment and rehabilitation strategies and marketing, as it is about adoptions. You’ll learn strategies from evaluation to placement from a pro-life No Kill perspective.

Feral Cat Care & Advocacy
Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) is not only humane, it’s effective. But beyond the basics of trapping and spay/neuter, a comprehensive program to save the lives of feral cats and reducing the number of kittens coming into the shelter involves resolving neighbor disputes, working with the media, dispelling myths about predation and public safety, and changing the attitudes of your health department and animal control agency. This workshop will give you the tools you need to effectively do that.

Reforming Animal Control: A Guide to Citizen Action
How do you get animal control to shift from a reactive, public health model of sheltering based on killing, to a proactive one which balances its animal control and animal care responsibilities in order to maximize lifesaving? This workshop will provide strategies for helping animal control change on its own when it is willing, will debunk the “open vs. limited admission” myth, and provide strategies for forcing animal control to change when it is resistant to doing so.

For more information, go to www.nokillhouston.com

To register, go to nokillhouston.eventbrite.com

Proceeds benefit No Kill Houston.

thebark

Notable: The Bark magazine has named Redemption an Editor’s Pick as a notable read in the current issue (Jan/Feb 2009). You can also read my article on a renewed hope for No Kill in next month’s issue (available wherever books and magazines are sold).

The Death of Hope at HSUS

February 18, 2009 by  

The original version of this post appeared on The No Kill Nation website at www.thenokillnation.com on February 17, 2009. The following is a modified version of that post.

In Wilkes County, North Carolina, over 120 Pit Bull-type dogs and puppies seized from a dog fighter were systematically put to death over the opposition of rescue groups, dog advocates, and others. Some of the puppies were born after the seizure. And a foster parent was even ordered to return puppies she had nursed back to health to be killed. As they did in the Michael Vick case, HSUS once again led the charge to have all the dogs, including the puppies, slaughtered.

Before the dogs were killed, rescue groups were offering to help and calling for HSUS and Wilkes County officials to give the dogs clemency unless and until they are individually assessed and a rehabilitation plan, where possible, was devised for each of the dogs. HSUS refused. In reply, HSUS’ John Goodwin wrote:

Wilkes County euthanizes 3,000 healthy, adoptable animals a year simply because there are not enough good homes opening their doors to these needy animals. I find it disturbing that the groups clamoring for media attention over these 127 dogs raise no fuss, and offer no assistance, for the other 3,000 dogs put down in that county each year.

Are Goodwin and his cohorts at HSUS out of their minds? Are we back to blaming pet overpopulation? What happened to HSUS’ claims of just a few short months ago that that the public does care and is not to blame for their killing, that killing animals in shelters is “needless,” that we can be a No Kill nation today, and that “pet overpopulation” is more myth than fact?
What happened to their statements that

•    “The needless loss of life in animal shelters is deplored by the American public. People deeply love their dogs and cats and feel that killing pets who are homeless through no fault of their own is a problem we must work harder to prevent. They want animals to have a second chance at life, not death by injection.”

•    “The needless killing of pets by animal shelters and animal control agencies comes at an enormous economic and moral cost.”

What happened is that when they made those statements, Maddie’s Fund was dangling a check in front of them and the check came with the statement attached for their signature. What is now happening here is that HSUS is, once again, showing us who the animals’ true enemy really is.

As I’ve stated in a previous blog,

Our battle for a No Kill nation is not against the public. It is against the cowards of our movement who refuse to stand up to their colleagues and friends running shelters that are mired in the failed and defunct philosophies that allow (indeed, cause) killing. Our battle is against those who claim to be part of our movement but fail to recognize the killing of millions of animals every year as an unnecessary and cruel slaughter and to call it what it is. It is against those who will not do for the animals that thing which is their solemn duty to do: to change themselves and to demand that their colleagues change, when that is what the situation calls for.

The only thing standing between the system of mass killing we are living under today and the No Kill nation we can immediately achieve is that the leaders of the large national organizations refuse to seize the opportunity to act. Instead they are determined to fail—to ensure that the paradigm they have championed for so long is not upended—by blocking reform efforts which challenge their hegemony; by protecting and defending draconian shelter practices, uncaring shelter directors; and by squandering the potential represented by the great love people have for companion animals.

Instead of championing life, HSUS not only called for the systematic killing of the Pit Bulls, they blamed the very groups expressing concern for the fact that Wilkes County NC continues to needlessly slaughter 3,000 other dogs a year. Moreover, shelter activists have raised a fuss over the killing of other animals. Showing how little knowledge Mr. Goodwin has about the field he is supposedly a part of, that fuss has culminated in the No Kill movement, which has challenged his organization’s paradigm of killing.

Indeed, activists have been fighting to modernize North Carolina shelters for years, but have been continuously rebuffed by the sheltering industry every step of the way—even to the point of refusing to stop cruel methods of killing (North Carolina deplorably remains a state which continues to allow the use of a gas chamber). And, when activists do raise a fuss and offer their assistance to help animals, that assistance is often refused by shelters (as happened in Minnesota just this week). And, just as often, HSUS often ends up condemning the fuss, siding with regressive shelters which refuse to work with animal advocates to reduce killing, as they have in communities across the country.

Every time HSUS defends killing, their antiquated, regressive viewpoints are not only harmful to animals, they make HSUS more and more irrelevant to animal sheltering and more and more despised by those who truly love animals. And they become more out of touch with public sentiment.

In Minnesota, for example, the Animal Humane Society this week systematically put to death about 120 cats they claimed to rescue from a hoarding situation, even though the cats suffered only minor and treatable medical conditions, and even after No Kill shelters, rescue groups, and even everyday Minnesotans offered to help save the cats. Here are some of the comments the media and rescue groups have been receiving from the public:

•    We are just so upset about this. Whether or not they knew about the offers of help, they shouldn’t have killed those cats so quickly.
•    AHS is an embarrassment to this community with its anachronistic policies and refusal to even consider a different way of doing things other than killing almost 50% of the animals who come through their doors every year. And now you can add straight out misleading and lying to the public, their donor base, to the list.
•    I’m so saddened to think that this probably happens even far more often than the media even knows about. We all understand that with that large number of cats, there would be illnesses. I am upset about the lying to the public and unwillingness to respond to the outpouring of support.
•    If I were an animal that’s the last group of people I would want to be “rescued” by.
•    I struggle with finding words to express my anger and disgust with this revelation… This is nothing more than a mass cat slaughter.
•    I would of taken one or two of those poor kitties and would have assumed responsibility for their care. I emailed the humane society about it on Feb 13th, and never even got a reply back. It makes me so sad.

While the news media was condemning the action, while protests erupted in front of the humane society, while animal lovers were aghast, and while groups across the country were condemning the action, what did HSUS say? Nothing. They said nothing.

What should they have said? They should have said that the actions of the director in ordering those cats killed violated both the rights of the animals and the trust the public placed in her. As a result, her actions are intolerable and she should be removed. What would they almost certainly have said if they were asked for a comment? If history is any guide, they would have said it was the fault of pet overpopulation.

Moreover, Goodwin’s offensive claim that the advocates calling for clemency in Wilkes County were motivated by a “clamoring for media attention” is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. HSUS can only see this as a clamor for media attention rather than a clamor to save lives because that is how HSUS appears to operate. For HSUS, animals do not seem to matter unless they result in a headline and therefore donations for HSUS. For the rest of us, it’s the animals that count.

And so it has come to this. While animal lovers around the country can see so clearly what the problem is, Wayne Pacelle and his team at HSUS continue to stick their head in the sand and deny reality—acting like the Bush Administration when it continued to flatly deny that climate change was real even after the alleged controversy had been put to rest and the nation moved on to looking for viable solutions; Or refusing to admit the nation was in a recession, even as the economy began falling to pieces.

If they did not still have the power to cause harm—in fact, they will potentially contribute to the death of 127 dogs—the anachronistic viewpoints they continue to espouse would be merely embarrassing. We would feel nothing but pity for such an out of touch viewpoint. But they do cause harm, just like Bush’s environmental and economic policies. And so we must condemn HSUS once again.

While the Republican Party not so long ago was the dominant voice in American politics, Wayne Pacelle would do well to heed the lessons offered by how Bush’s obstinacy in the face of reality led to their demise.

To read more commentary on the Wilkes County slaughter, visit www.thenokillnation.com, www.kcdogblog.com, and www.bestfriends.org.

Senseless Slaughter Causes Anger and Despair

February 16, 2009 by  

The Animal Humane Society (AHS) in Minnesota claims to have “rescued” about 120 cats from a situation they described as animal hoarding. According to press reports, the cats suffered from mostly minor and treatable medical conditions. Animal Ark, the largest No Kill shelter in Minnesota, and local rescue groups had offered to help pay for the care of the cats, offered to provide the care themselves, and offered to transfer the cats to their own groups to save them. But according to sources, AHS did not return their calls. Today, they learned that all the cats have been killed.

Although AHS blames a variety of illnesses including colds (“respiratory infections”), ringworm (which is highly treatable and also self-limiting, meaning it can resolve on its own), and other largely treatable or manageable ailments, the reality is that AHS initially offered no reason why it did not accept the offer of groups to care for the cats. AHS’ subsequent claim that by the time rescue groups called all the cats were already dead (if true) only underscores how driven they were to kill these cats, without really giving them or the community a chance to save them. But it turned out not to be true, as a local reporter uncovered that Animal Ark’s offer to help came as the Humane Society was still processing the animals for intake. And regardless, it begs the question: why didn’t they call Animal Ark or other shelters and rescue groups to help?

When a shelter director orders animals killed when they are not irremediably suffering, despite rescue groups and No Kill shelters willing and able to save them, that director has committed acts that are outrageous, immoral and intolerable. And they should be fired. It is such a core violation of their ethical duty to the animals that there is simply no place for them running an organization that is supposed to protect and care for them.

As three separate hoarding cases in other states demonstrate, a hoarding rescue does not have to mean killing all the victims. One of those cases involved 800 cats. The other involved over 1,000 rabbits. And the third involved roughly 140 feral dogs. All these cases were more challenging than the one facing AHS and yet none of them resulted in mass killing. The animals were saved thanks to the efforts of animal welfare agencies, rescue groups, and No Kill shelters, who predictably stepped up the plate to offer assistance, as they also did in Minnesota. The difference was their help was accepted, rather than ignored or rejected, as it was in Minnesota.

It is a time of anger and great despair for cat lovers in Minnesota. But it should not be a time of losing hope. We must never say, “What’s the point? They will never change.” Because quitting ends hope. Quitting fails the animals. And we must focus on the progress that has been made. There was a time in our history and not so long ago, when there would have been no controversy over AHS’ decision. But there is now because we have found our voice. And we have discovered that we speak for the masses when we speak out against such atrocities because the public supports our cause. As one Minnesotan wrote,

“[I]n my state of anguish I forgot to consider how the tragedy is compounded by wasting the public’s good will. As many animal advocates are aware, when the public learns of a specific need they do rise to the occasion. If the AHS refuses to change their philosophy concerning this group of homeless cats and they choose not accept the help that is offered to them, the blood of these cats and kittens will be on their hands.”

Voices like this prove that our work is not as burdensome as we once believed, when we blamed the public and thought our challenge was to make the multitudes care as we do. In reality, we know they share our cause. And our goal, therefore, while at times seemingly insurmountable is, in reality, inevitable. Today, there are only a few thousand shelter directors like the one in Minnesota holding back the will of over 100 million dog and cat lovers in the United States. And we only need to point out—loudly and with conviction—the hypocrisy of organizations which claim with their rhetoric that they champion animals, but demonstrate, time and time again through their actions, how little concern they truly have for our animal friends. In short, we need to bring public scrutiny to them and place their actions in the open light for all to see and judge for what it truly is. To quote the wise words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with its ugliness exposed to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

We will win because, regardless of the social cause, those who champion compassion always do. Gandhi once said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants … and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall.” Always. And so there can be no doubt: If we continue to demand it, those who ordered the killing at AHS will be forced to change or they will be swept aside. So speak up loud and strong Minnesotans. Make your voices heard. You will carry the day.


Channeling our Anger

While we have animal cruelty laws giving shelters the power to protect animals from abusive people, we don’t have good laws protecting animals from shelters. As a result, shelter directors often enjoy unfettered discretion to kill, to refuse putting in place programs that prevent killing, and to continue to demonstrate so little regard for animal life that they can take the lives of animals even when No Kill shelters and rescue groups are willing and able to save them.

While shelters who kill in the face of alternatives are acting unethically, their actions should also be illegal as they are in California, where state law forbids shelters from killing an animal if a No Kill shelter or rescue group is willing to save that animal’s life. If rescue groups come forward and say they will save them, there should be no choice in the matter.

But legislation of that sort is only a start. At the very least, we must also require shelter directors to comprehensively implement all the programs of the No Kill Equation including medical and behavior rehabilitation, foster care, and more. We must make it illegal for shelter directors to kill any savable animals until they have shown that:

(1) there are no empty cages, kennels, or other living environments in the shelter;
(2) the animal cannot share a cage or kennel with another animal;
(3) a foster home is not available;
(4) rescue organizations have been notified and are not willing to accept the animal;
(5) the animal is not a feral cat subject to sterilization and release;
(6) the director of the agency certifies in writing, and under penalty of perjury, that he or she has no other alternative.

And the reality is that if they do comprehensively implement the programs, and if they do certify the preceding, there will be no savable animals facing death, as No Kill will be achieved.

For more information on shelter reform legislation, click here.

To learn more about this tragic situation, including news videos of the cats, visit www.animalarkshelter.org or click here.

Shelter News from Around the Country

February 13, 2009 by  

Trouble in Philly, Indy Pit Bulls get a reprieve, President Obama inadvertently helps King County’s neglected homeless animals, the No Kill Advocacy Center offers BOGO Free, Building a No Kill Houston, and free copies of The Pit Bull Placebo.

Chaos in Philadelphia
Dismantling the Philadelphia Animal Care & Control Association (PACCA), the homeless animals of Philadelphia were turned over to the Pennsylvania SPCA (PSPCA) on January 1 when the Department of Public Health gave them the contract to run animal control. In an effort to garner public support for their takeover in light of skepticism regarding its dedication to No Kill given their Executive Director’s poor lifesaving performance as head of the Washington Humane Society and his history of remarks disparaging No Kill, the PSPCA openly promised to seek passage of the Companion Animal Protection Act (CAPA) upon getting the contract. Shortly after signing the contract for animal control, however, the Executive Director has quit, adding more confusion and chaos to an already volatile situation in Philadelphia.

So now the future of Philadelphia’s homeless animals rests with the part-time, volunteer Board of the PSPCA. Will they use this opportunity to hire a director fully committed to a No Kill Philadelphia? Or will they repeat the mistakes of the past by using an outside executive search firm, run by a woman who used to work in animal control in a shelter with a dismal record of lifesaving and open hostility to the No Kill philosophy? And will they follow the predictable route of hiring a showboat who promises to raise gobs of money, instead of hiring a committed animal lover passionate about saving lives?

If they care about animals, and even if they only care about the PSPCA (which is not necessarily synonymous with caring about animals), they should commit themselves to hiring someone committed to No Kill with a solid track record of saving lives. An SPCA’s duty is to fulfill its mission of saving animals, not solely seek enrichment of the agency at the expense of the mission. Moreover, if the history of this movement proves anything, it is that money follows lifesaving success, not vice-versa.

As I explained in Redemption about the San Francisco SPCA’s tremendous fundraising success following its embrace of No Kill:

Once teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the San Francisco SPCA now had an ample budget and a healthy surplus—totaling tens of millions of dollars—thanks to San Francisco’s pet-loving public, which no longer felt it was subsidizing the killing of pets if it supported the San Francisco SPCA… the San Francisco SPCA’s newfound wealth was a byproduct of [its No Kill] success—results which the public clamored to support—and not its cause.

How do you raise money? 1. Do good things for animals; 2. Tell people about it; 3. Ask for their help. When I took over in Tompkins County, I inherited a $124,000 deficit and turned it into a budget surplus by focusing on the animals first and foremost! When Bonney Brown took over as head of the Nevada Humane Society two short years ago, she inherited an $800,000 structural deficit. After reducing killing countywide by over 50% and creating one of the safest communities for homeless pets in the U.S.—Washoe County is saving 90% of all dogs and 83% of all cats even though her community takes in more animals per capita than Philadelphia—she finished 2008 with a budget surplus! (Bonney originally applied for the job at the PSPCA, but was turned away by the search firm.)

Furthermore, given that the new CEO will inherit animal control, a public agency, animal lovers in Philadelphia must insist that the new director be committed to No Kill and that they have a voice in who that person is. The PSPCA board should ask a committee of rescue advocates to meet the top three candidates, give them the opportunity to ask the candidates questions, and then make a formal recommendation to the Board, as occurred when I was recruited for the  job as Executive Director of the Tompkins County SPCA animal control shelter.

In addition, the current volatility underscores the importance of shelter reform legislation, something the PSPCA has already committed to seeking, but has yet to deliver. To achieve a No Kill nation, we must move beyond a system in which the lives of animals are subject to the discretion and whims of shelter leaders or health department bureaucrats. In a shelter reliant on killing, directors can come and go, the shelter continues killing, local government ignores the ongoing failure, and the public is led to believe that “there is no other way.”

Meanwhile, No Kill is succeeding in communities where individual shelter leaders are committed to it by establishing the programs and services that make it possible. Unfortunately, such leaders are few and far between. For No Kill success to be widespread and long lasting, we must move past the personalities and give shelter animals the rights and protections afforded by law.

Every successful social movement results in legal protections that codify expected policies and provide consequences for future conduct that violates normative values. We need to regulate shelters in the same way we regulate hospitals and other agencies which hold the power over life and death. The answer lies in passing and enforcing shelter reform legislation that mandates how all shelters must operate. In short, Philadelphia needs the Companion Animal Protection Act!

Finally, the recent chaos also shines a disturbing spotlight on the City of Philadelphia’s grossly incompetent Department of Public Health. Despite concerns with PACCA, it is disturbing that the Health Department which created PACCA after the PSPCA walked away from the animal control contract almost a decade ago would simply go back to such a volatile situation. What happens if the PSPCA walks away again after a new director is hired? There isn’t another private agency which can run animal control and given the history of the Health Department, they’ll simply create another uncaring, abusive, dysfunctional department.

Before 2005, the Health Department-run PACCA was, according to a wide variety of sources, “a mismanaged house of horrors” killing 88% of all animals—often illegally within minutes of arriving. This is the same Health Department which betrayed whistleblowers at PACCA after they came forward with allegations of abuse. Instead of acting on their complaints, the Health Department sought to silence them by informing the union which represented the abusive workers, subjecting the whistleblowers to threats of physical violence and acts of vandalism. One whistleblower was threatened with bodily harm and had the tires on his car slashed in the PACCA parking lot. This is the same Health Department which allowed foster kids in their custody to be abused and killed because they falsified records and failed to follow up—and then tried to derail a homicide investigation into the death of a 14-year old ward with cerebral palsy to protect themselves. Philadelphians cannot rely on this agency to do what is in the best interests of animals.

A Reprieve for Indianapolis’ Pit Bulls, not for Director
Pit Bulls-type dogs have been given a reprieve as the new Indianapolis Animal Care & Control (IACC) director has repealed their automatic death sentence. According to IACC, if they are friendly, they’ll be put up for adoption. If they are aggressive, they will not be. The change is welcome news. If there is a silver lining to the horrific ordeal endured by the dog victims of animal abuser and dog killer Michael Vick, it is that the surviving dogs forced even dog lovers—but more importantly the humane movement—to question their most basic assumptions about dogs, pit bull-type dogs, and dog aggression.

In the Vick case, only one dog was actually killed for aggression after evaluation, and the remaining dogs were placed in either sanctuaries or in loving new homes. Two of the dogs are now even therapy animals, providing comfort to cancer patients.

But not everyone is cheering. Unfortunately, victims of dog bites are upset, complaining that Indianapolis should continue to kill all dogs who even remotely look like the dog that bit them. Even pro-kill supporters like Pat Dunaway have weighed in—in a series of “anonymous” rants, predictably, dysfunctionally, and insanely in favor of continued killing.

Meanwhile, as the director continues to make reforms, he has had his car windshield smashed and his car smeared in dog food. Threatening notes have also been left for him on his now broken windshield. Although the perpetrator(s) have not been caught, the Indianapolis Police Department is investigating. It is worth noting that this follows a pattern when reform minded directors take over long neglected animal control departments. In at least two other circumstances, the culprits turned out to be union protected shirkers who were being held accountable for the first time in their animal neglecting careers. In Philadelphia, this included slashed tires, sugar in gas tanks, and threats of violence against reformers.

President Obama Inadvertently Helps the Animals of King County WA
Showing more holes in the vetting process which has plagued the new administration, President Obama has tapped King County Executive Ron Sims to be the number 2 person as Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sims will run the day-to-day operations at HUD. But in picking Sims, the President has potentially helped the homeless animals of King County’s abusive animal control shelter.

For the past several years, Sims has overseen and defended an animal shelter system marked by allegations of unnecessary killing, animal abuse, neglect, and serious dereliction of duty. Under his watch, staff members who were involved in animal neglect are still employed; and, supervisors who allowed it to continue and/or then subsequently covered it up have received promotions. Meanwhile, those who sought to report it have been threatened with termination; and citizens who have answered the call to help the Council fix the broken shelter system have been smeared.

The move is likely to be welcome news for homeless animals in King County, but don’t expect a fix to our nation’s housing problems anytime soon.

Building a No Kill Houston
Houston, TX March 28, 2009

Sponsored by No Kill Houston.

Come to the all day seminar which has been called “a prerequisite for rescue groups and organizations that are serious about changing their communities to No Kill.” Workshops include:

Building a No Kill Community: Cost-effective Lifesaving Programs
In 2003, the open door animal control shelter in Tompkins County saved 100% of healthy and treatable animals, and 100% of feral cats. Over nine out of ten dogs and cats were saved, without big bucks and without a big shelter—a reduction in the kill rate of 75%. At the same time, the agency went from a $120,000 a year deficit to finishing the year with a surplus, raising more money than it spent. Using the same model, the open door animal control shelter in Charlottesville, VA saved 92% of all dogs and cats, while Washoe County, NV reduced the death rate by over 50% in one year. Since then, other municipalities have achieved similar success. Learn what programs and services help save lives.

Big Dogs, Shy Cats & All the Rest: Finding Homes for All of Them
Pit Bulls, Rottweillers, big black dogs, shy cats and cats with attitude. Learn the strategies to increase adoptions, effectively market shelter animals, and find loving, new homes for all the healthy and treatable pets in your shelter, including those hard to place ones. Using this model, a community that takes in tens of thousands of dogs and cats annually increased dog adoptions by nearly 60% and more than doubled cat adoptions (104%) in less than one year.

Saving Shelter Dogs: Evaluation, Socialization, Treatment & Placement
Some shelters have adopted the rhetoric but not the programs of No Kill. As a result, they are using “temperament testing” to deem dogs unadoptable and make their statistics look better. Saving shelter dogs is as much about fair and proper evaluation, socialization and stimulation in the shelter, treatment and rehabilitation strategies and marketing, as it is about adoptions. You’ll learn strategies from evaluation to placement from a pro-life No Kill perspective.

Feral Cat Care & Advocacy
Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) is not only humane, it’s effective. But beyond the basics of trapping and spay/neuter, a comprehensive program to save the lives of feral cats and reducing the number of kittens coming into the shelter involves resolving neighbor disputes, working with the media, dispelling myths about predation and public safety, and changing the attitudes of your health department and animal control agency. This workshop will give you the tools you need to effectively do that.

Reforming Animal Control: A Guide to Citizen Action
How do you get animal control to shift from a reactive, public health model of sheltering based on killing, to a proactive one which balances its animal control and animal care responsibilities in order to maximize lifesaving? This workshop will provide strategies for helping animal control change on its own when it is willing, will debunk the “open vs. limited admission” myth, and provide strategies for forcing animal control to change when it is resistant to doing so.

For more information, go to www.nokillhouston.com

To register, go to nokillhouston.eventbrite.com

Proceeds benefit No Kill Houston.

Help Spread the No Kill Revolution with BOGO Free
Buy One Get One (for a local shelter) Free!

From now until March 31, buy one copy of Redemption from the No Kill Advocacy Center for you or a friend and get a second one sent to the manager or director of your local animal shelter free.

How it works: Purchase Redemption from the No Kill Advocacy Center for the cover price of $16.95 (tax and shipping included). As a thank you and to help spread the No Kill revolution, a second copy will be sent to the shelter of your choice with a gift card saying that the book is a gift from you (can also be anonymous!)

Help spread the No Kill revolution with the book which is being called “powerful and inspirational,” “ground-breaking,” and “a must read for anyone who cares about animals.” Winner of USA Book News Award for Best Book (Animals/Pets), a Best Book Muse Medallion winner by the Cat Writers Association of America, a Best Book nominee by the Dog Writers Association of America and winner of a Silver Medal from the Independent Publishers Association, the book shatters the notion that killing animals in U.S. shelters is an act of kindness.

Go to www.nokilladvocacycenter.org and click on “What’s New” for more information.

No Kill Conference 2009
May 2-3, 2009 in Washington D.C.

While supplies last, the next 20 people who register will receive a free author-signed copy of The Pit Bull Placebo, a gift from the National Canine Research Council.

The No Kill Advocacy Center is teaming up with the Animal Law program at George Washington University Law School to bring together the nation’s most successful shelter directors and the nation’s top animal lawyers. They will show you how to create a No Kill community and teach you how to use the legal system to save the lives of animals.

Learn from animal control/shelter directors who are now saving over 90% of all animals using the building blocks to No Kill success—programs and services that have had results in both urban and rural communities—to increase adoptions, reduce length of stay, increase redemption rates, rehabilitate animals, and much, much more.

Learn from animal law experts who have challenged our legal system to help animals: Whether it’s drafting model laws, fighting breed specific legislation, filing impact legislation, or protecting condemned dogs, learn how to use the legal system to save the lives of animals.

Learn from activists fighting entrenched and regressive shelters in their own community as they show you how to launch successful campaigns for reform.

For more information, including speakers, workshops, registration, and more, go to www.nokillconference.org or click here.

You must register by February 28 to receive the early bird discount!

Section 1983 to the Rescue

February 10, 2009 by  

Some officials who oversee shelters are threatening volunteers and rescuers that if they speak publicly about inhumane conditions, they will be banned from volunteering or rescuing animals. But in actually banning or threatening to ban volunteers and rescuers, these officials nationwide are not only holding the animals hostage by threatening to kill them as punishment, they are also violating the civil rights of volunteers.

In 2008, Los Angeles rescuers teamed up with the No Kill Advocacy Center to file a lawsuit which alleged that the civil rights of volunteers and rescuers were being violated as retaliation for going public with their observations of inhumane conditions and neglectful treatment at the shelter. The court agreed.

In applying a federal civil rights statute to this area, the court gave animal activists a powerful weapon to reform the nation’s broken animal shelter system. Volunteers and rescuers no longer have to choose between remaining silent about abuses or risk losing their ability to help some animals by volunteering or rescuing them from death row.

Attorney Sheldon Eisenberg, who brought the ground-breaking lawsuit, argues that “Section 1983,” which was enacted as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 “can now help extend the protection of laws to those individuals committed to safeguarding the welfare and rights of the animals entrusted to our care.”

Section 1983 to the Rescue

By Sheldon Eisenberg

It can be a cruel “Sophie’s Choice” for animal rescuers: observe in silence deplorable conditions and mistreatment of animals in government run shelters or call attention to the plight of the suffering animals and face the possibility of retaliation that can mean being deprived of the ability to save lives. Sadly, this is not some fictional plot device but the reality that rescuers confront when they seek reform from apathetic or incompetent shelter directors and their staffs or, failing that, meaningful oversight from elected or higher level municipal officers to whom the directors report.

Fortunately, there is a very old legal remedy available to rescuers who find that their advocacy on the front lines has led to the suspension or elimination of their rights to visit, monitor, and rescue animals from these shelters. A federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, best known simply as “Section 1983,” can and should be applied to stop and punish action by governmental officials or employees to retaliate against or obstruct an activist’s exercise of his or her First Amendment rights in speaking out against conditions in animal shelters.

Section 1983
Congress enacted Section 1983 as part of the Ku Klux Act of April 20, 1871, largely to protect African Americans in the South from the lawlessness that ensued after the conclusion of the Civil War. It is now probably best known in legal circles as the law that individuals invoke when they allege that police or prison officials have mistreated them. A pertinent part of it reads:

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. . . .”

In recent years, the courts have said that people have a right to file a claim under Section 1983 when state or municipal governments take action designed to scare or prevent them from exercising their First Amendment rights, or punish them for doing so. The plaintiff must show that all of a few specific conditions, or legal “elements”, exist: The plaintiff’s conduct must be protected by the Constitution,  this conduct must have been a “substantial” or “motivating” factor in the defendants’ decision to take action, and the plaintiff must have suffered actual injury.

The Case For Applying Section 1983 To Animal Rescue
There can be no dispute that complaining about abuses or violations of law at shelters is a constitutionally protected right. A rescuer not only has the First Amendment right to speak out against abuses and violations of law committed by a governmental entity, he or she also has a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified. This includes the right to threaten to sue or to actually file suit against the shelter.

Government officials rarely admit that they have intentionally meted out punishment beyond the scope of their legal power; therefore, the law allows plaintiffs to use direct or circumstantial evidence to establish that punishing protected conduct was the government’s motive in an action such as suspending adoption rights. Circumstantial evidence may include showing that the rescuer’s privileges were withdrawn within a narrow time frame around the time he or she engaged in protected conduct, and that no other explanation or reason was given for the rescuer’s punishment.

The last element of the Section 1983 claim, actual injury, can be demonstrated merely by showing that the rescuer has suffered a loss of any governmental benefit or privilege.  It is important to emphasize that the loss of a common benefit counts as injury; a rescuer need not establish a legal right to adopt animals or take advantage of any other benefits afforded by a shelter. As the Supreme Court has stated, a government entity “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests—especially, his interest in freedom of speech.” Therefore, it should be enough to show, for example, that a person has been deprived of his or her ability to volunteer at, or to adopt animals from, a shelter.

A question may arise as to whether a volunteer or rescuer needs to wait for a government official to follow through on a threat to retaliate before filing a claim under Section 1983 or whether a threat of retaliation alone is sufficient to trigger one. For example, some volunteers have been told by officials that publicly speaking about a shelter will result in the volunteer being banned. Since the whole point of a Section 1983 retaliation claim is to prevent the “chilling” (discouragement) of constitutionally protected rights, it seems clear enough that a threat of retaliation for exercising those rights, which is specifically designed to obstruct the exercise of those rights, should be sufficient to satisfy the actual injury element of a Section 1983 claim.

Initial Success
These principles were recently applied by a trial court judge in Los Angeles to stop the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control (“DACC”) from retaliating against an animal rescuer who instigated a campaign to call attention to the conditions at DACC shelters and complain about DACC’s failures to comply with California law on holding periods and veterinary care. In response to those complaints and the rescuer’s threat to initiate litigation, the rescuer’s adoption privileges at DACC shelters were suspended.

The rescuer brought an action against DACC in which she sought, among other things, an order  restoring her ability to pull animals from DACC shelters. The Court found that she had established a strong probability of success in a Section 1983 claim; her evidence met the basic requirements. The Court reasoned that the rescuer certainly had a First Amendment right to speak out about perceived abuses of animals and violations of law. The Court also determined that the rescuer had demonstrated the likelihood that her suspension was retaliatory by showing both that the suspension came soon after her public comments and threats of litigation and that the County failed to reveal any basis for it. Significantly, the Court held that the suspension of an animal rescuer’s adoption privileges would no doubt discourage such a person from exercising her First Amendment rights and specifically ruled that the opportunity to serve as a volunteer is a protected government privilege. As a result, the Court granted the motion and required the County to restore the rescuer’s access to the shelter pending the litigation. The order was made permanent as part of the ultimate settlement of that case.

Conclusion
There would be little hope of progress in improving the conditions at municipal animal shelters if rescuers—the people likely most knowledgeable about those conditions—could be intimidated into remaining silent by the threat of retaliation. Thus, Section 1983 can be a powerful tool not only to obtain justice for people unfairly treated by government officials, but also to insure that rescuers and animal shelter reformers can continue their critically important work in saving lives and educating the public about our shelter systems. For lawyers in the animal rights and welfare movement, there is more than a little sense of satisfaction that a statute originally designed to insure the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law can now help extend the protection of laws to those individuals committed to safeguarding the welfare and rights of the animals entrusted to our care.

For a PDF copy of this article, click here.

Sheldon Eisenberg is a principal founding partner of the Los Angeles law firm of Eisenberg, Raizman, Thurston, and Wong LLP. For over 25 years, companies from all sectors of the Southern California economy have entrusted their most significant litigation problems to Mr. Eisenberg—from cutting edge technology and telecommunications companies to financial institutions and real estate developers, from Hollywood studios and other entertainment companies to software developers and publishers, and from literary and talent agencies to advertisers and national public relations firms.

He recently represented animal rescuers and animal protection organizations, including the No Kill Advocacy Center, to protect volunteer whistleblowers who document abuses from being fired, defend an animal’s right to prompt and necessary veterinary care while in the shelter, and require that shelters offer animals to rescue groups or for adoption, rather than kill them. The case Nguyen vs. County of Los Angeles settled in plaintiffs’ favor.

Mr. Eisenberg will be leading a workshop on Litigating No Kill at the national No Kill Conference 2009 in Washington D.C.