Why Believing In People Helps Animals (by Nathan & Jennifer Winograd)
For decades, groups like the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, PETA and local shelters have schooled us in the belief that the American public is irresponsible and uncaring, both by allowing the birth of unwanted dogs and cats and by abandoning animals in shelters in epidemic numbers. In fact, when animal lovers question the killing, they are given a narrative that places the blame for it squarely on the shoulders of a callous American public. But is it true? Although I no longer believe so, there was a time, roughly 20 years ago, when I would not have hesitated to answer that question with an emphatic “yes!”
In the early 1990s, I was a young law school student at Stanford University, fighting animal abuse on many fronts with the student animal protection group I had founded, the Stanford APES (Animal Protection and Education Society). I opposed animals in captivity by doing educational leafleting in front of zoos and aquariums. I fought animal research by exposing the cruel experiments and poor conditions animals were forced to endure on the Stanford campus and even rescued and then found homes for former research animals. I encouraged others to adopt a more humane diet by distributing information about veganism. And I worked to promote an end to shelter killing as a Board Member of the Palo Alto Humane Society and by working at the San Francisco SPCA Law and Advocacy Department when that organization was (though no longer is) the leading voice in the No Kill movement.
Working to overcome the abuse of animals on so many fronts, I believed the world to be a cruel, dark place filled with cruel, dark people. I was not alone. During my second year of law school, I met my future wife, Jennifer, when we both joined a grassroots organization that was formed to defeat legislation introduced in California at the behest of the Fund for Animals (an organization which eventually merged with HSUS), legislation that not only called for the round up and killing of cats, but would have authorized animal control to kill cats right in the field.
Jennifer had already worked for several animal protection organizations and spent most of her free time doing animal advocacy and animal rescue. Like me, she was happy to have met a kindred spirit—another person who shared her love and concern for animals, a quality which traditional animal protection movement dogma had schooled us both to believe were in tragically short supply. So while we complemented each other’s strengths, we also unfortunately fed each other’s disdain for the public.
Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
When we noticed that a local photography studio which left spotlights on the photographs in the window also put a spotlight on their pet bird every night, we were reminded of the cruelty of factory farms where constant lighting is used to trick hens’ bodies into greater egg production. In response, Jennifer sent an angry letter to the owner of the studio, asserting that birds were not artwork to be put on display, and condemning him for jeopardizing the birds’ health and well-being. When we found a skinny, sickly, stray dog wandering the streets, we decided not to return him to his family, certain that his poor health was a result of neglect and abuse. And when, after news of Nathan’s rescue of a tiny, terrified kitten who had become trapped inside an abandoned bank vault became a media sensation and offers of adoption came pouring in, we recalled the cruel building superintendent who had determined to let the kitten die, surmised that no one could be trusted, and raised him ourselves.
While trying to make the world a better place for animals was gratifying, being immersed in work designed to combat animal abuse meant that we were reminded of it constantly. Living in the trenches, we became myopic, believing that most people didn’t care about animals or their suffering. We focused primarily on the bad things people did to animals, and we became blind to the good. Most regrettably, we lost the ability to perceive how most people really felt about animals.
Suspicious of everyone and always anticipating the worst, we became blind to any evidence that countered those expectations. When the owner of the photography studio, graciously ignoring the hostile tone of our letter, wrote us a thank you note for letting him know that the spotlight was harmful to the bird, assuring us he dearly loved “Tony” and promising to keep the light off so Tony could sleep, it should have made an impression. When we began to see “Missing Dog” signs for the stray we had found, and a fellow rescuer informed us that the dog was suffering from cancer and his heartsick, worried family desperately wanted him back, we returned the dog, but ignored the lesson. When the media got wind of Nathan’s kitten rescue, and three television networks showed up at our door to tell his story on the evening news, we were blind to the concern and gratitude expressed by everyone who heard the kitten’s tragic tale, and focused instead on the heartlessness of one person—the man who had condemned him to starvation, but in so doing had become the subject of public scorn and derision.
Our glass was half empty, and we took what should have been cause for rejoicing—the fact that a bird and a dog we had assumed were neglected were actually cherished family members, and the public’s interest and concern in the fate of a helpless kitten—and we turned their meaning upside down.
Admittedly, our suspicion often bordered on the absurd. Whenever we drove by empty boxes on the side of the road, we always doubled back to peer inside, worried they might contain an abandoned litter of kittens. And when we saw dogs in cars, we worried they were on the way to the pound, rather than what was the far more likely explanation—they were out for a ride with a family who enjoyed their company. But then, thankfully, we woke up. When we moved to Ithaca, New York so that I could take over, and transform, that community’s animal shelter, the blinders came off completely.
An Army of Compassion
Before we arrived, the shelter in Tompkins County was typical of most in the country: it had a poor public image; it killed a lot of animals; and it blamed the community for doing so. Once there, however, I announced my lifesaving goal to the community and asked the community for help. The response was overwhelming. People from all walks of life volunteered, inspired by the goal and eager to assist. Many people adopted animals. Some walked dogs. Others socialized cats. Veterinarians offered their services at reduced rates or free of charge. Business owners offered free products as incentives to adopt. I was not timid about asking for help, and most people were incredibly generous and eager to assist.
The goal of ending the killing of animals in the shelter became a communitywide effort. The people of Tompkins County opened their hearts, homes, and wallets. And overnight, by harnessing that compassion and changing the way the shelter operated, Tompkins County, New York, became the first No Kill community in U.S. history, saving not only healthy animals but all treatable sick and injured animals as well. It didn’t matter whether they were “cute and cuddly” or blind, deaf, or missing limbs. They were all guaranteed a home, and they all found one.
For us, one of the most amazing things about the experience was that the people of Ithaca didn’t need to be convinced that this was a good idea or a worthy goal (in fact, they had been clamoring for it for years). They were ready and willing to make it a reality as soon as we got there. They just needed someone to tell them it was possible and to show them how to do it. And the achievement became a source of community pride, with bumper stickers throughout the county proclaiming “The Safest Community for Homeless Animals in the U.S.”
We lived in Tompkins County for several years and then returned to California to start the No Kill Advocacy Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading this new model of sheltering—what has since become known as the No Kill Equation—to shelters nationwide. And it is spreading—to every part of the country. In some communities, shelter leadership has led the charge. In others, grassroots activists have forced the replacement of regressive leadership, hostile to their calls for reform with new leaders who are passionate about No Kill and dedicated to making it a reality. But everywhere it is succeeding, it is succeeding because people in these communities overwhelming rise to the occasion. Why? As we finally came to realize, Americans truly love dogs and cats.
These positive experiences made us question our long-held assumption that we were in the minority regarding our concern for animals. We realized, thankfully, that we weren’t so unique after all. And once the blinders were off, we saw evidence of the American public’s love of dogs and cats everywhere we looked:
- The people who cross our paths on their morning dog walks;
- The stories, care, and embraces at our veterinarian’s office (the waiting rooms never devoid of people, the faces of scared people wondering what is wrong with their animal companions, and the tears as they emerge from the exam room after saying good-bye for the last time);
- The bestselling books about animals that are written in ever increasing numbers because they touch people very deeply and very personally;
- The widespread popularity of movies about animals;
- The increase in specialty stores and services for animal companions;
- The steady increase in spending on our animals, even as other economic sectors may decline; and,
- The millions of dollars we give annually to humane societies and animal protection groups, making animal causes the fastest-growing sector in American philanthropy.
And the conclusion became inescapable: the animal protection movement had gotten it wrong. My experience in Tompkins County proved that the story of the eight million animals entering shelters in this nation does not have to be a tragedy. Shelters can respond humanely and compassionately without resorting to killing. These shelters can be temporary way stations for animals, providing good care and plenty of comfort until they find loving homes. We also came to realize that the old excuse of rampant human uncaring and irresponsibility toward dogs and cats was simply not true. Because in order to make that case, one had to ignore the bigger, more optimistic picture of the 165 million animals in homes across the country cared for by people who go to great lengths to ensure their happiness and well-being. In short, we learned that there was enough love and compassion for animals in every community to overcome the irresponsibility of the few. Our hearts swelled. And then, and most important of all, our minds opened.
An Unstoppable Force for Good
The day before we arrived in Ithaca, the shelter was killing animals. The day I started my new job, the killing came to an end. During the night that straddled those two days, nothing changed in that community other than the potential that already existed was finally being harnessed to the animals’ benefit. For us, this led to an obvious and exciting question: What other potential to help animals now exists but is not being leveraged because the animal protection movement refuses to recognize its existence? Refuses to recognize that, in fact, people do care and will help us build a better world for animals if we give them the information and opportunities to do so?
This is not to say that that there are no uncaring people in the world. Of course there are. As with any social justice movement, there are enemies with vested interest in exploitation who must be overcome. This is especially true within the animal protection movement, plagued as it is with people like Wayne Pacelle of HSUS, Ed Sayres of the ASPCA and Ingrid Newkirk of PETA—people who have so thoroughly bastardized the mission of those organizations that in practice they actually undermine the cause they theoretically exist to promote. But most people—the average American—value animals. And that genuine compassion can and must be leveraged and harnessed because what may seem to us to be overwhelming “support” for the status quo that harms animals is in reality, people acting in blind accordance with inherited mores that have yet to be effectively challenged in the court of public opinion.
Humans are creatures of habit. Most of us go with the grain without ever taking the time to consider if the way of life we have inherited from our parents and ancestors is the right or ethical way to live. Out of habit, we have continued to exploit animals long past the time we should have abandoned it as a cruel anachronism. Yet history shows that as a species, we are far from hopeless. When we are compelled to examine our collective behavior by a few, rogue voices who champion a better way, we vindicate ourselves. It may take time and effort, but in the end, when someone comes along who compels us to see things differently—to see the disconnect between our common shared values of empathy and compassion and the ways in which the world we have inherited works against those values, most of us rise to the occasion, while those who don’t are forced, by the larger collective will, to change their behavior, too. But to realize that potential, we first have to believe it is possible.
All Good Christians, Disembark
When I began writing Redemption and researching Henry Bergh, the founder of the humane movement in the United States, I was deeply inspired. Bergh was such an unlikely hero—a wealthy aristocrat in Old New York who could have spent his time at lavish parties and lawn bowling in Newport but chose instead to spend his days and nights patrolling the streets for animals in need of his protection. His foresight and dedication were remarkable, as was the brilliant way he often approached his activism.
True to his upbringing, Bergh was a gentleman, ever polite, and always arrayed in tails and a top hat. Although Bergh would do whatever it ultimately took to protect an animal from abuse—once famously chucking a trolley car driver in the snow for refusing to unload an overladen cart beyond a horse’s ability to pull—he always approached a situation by assuming the best of people, and by giving them the opportunity to rise to his expectation of their decency. He understood that people wanted to think of themselves as good, and cleverly leveraged this to the animals’ advantage.
When, during rush hour traffic in crowded Manhattan he would come across a horse straining to pull a trolley filled beyond capacity, he would stop the car dead on its tracks, and loudly announce, “All good Christians, disembark!” And many people, wanting to identify themselves as just such a person, would willingly exit the train. While his act of stopping the trolley and telling people to get off inherently implicated them in the abuse he was trying to end, he allowed people to save face. And he gave them the opportunity to choose to be a part of the solution, so they could own that act of compassion, wear it with pride and hopefully do better next time, even when he wasn’t around to request it.
Nearly 150 years ago, when there was literally no animal protection movement in the U.S. but that which he himself was creating, Henry Bergh had the vision to believe in people, and transformed a nation. In 2012, in a society that has ended slavery and child labor, passed universal suffrage, given handicapped people equal access, mandated civil rights, elected an African-American president, smashed the glass ceiling, is on the verge of granting marriage equality and has created 70 No Kill communities, we have no excuse to give in to pessimism and defeatism. If, unlike the great Henry Bergh, we cannot see the immense potential offered by basic human decency and the love of animals most people have, then we will not attempt to leverage those things—to reform the local shelter, to work for the passage of laws that will protect animals, to provide people the information that will help them make better choices. As a result, efforts to help animals will not be attempted, and animals will continue to be harmed long past the point when we could have brought such harm to an end.
The High Road
As anyone involved in animal protection can attest, opportunities for advocacy on behalf of animals present themselves constantly. After learning about Bergh’s approach, we began to emulate it in our daily interactions with people, and to great effect. We stopped assuming people didn’t care and gave them the benefit of the doubt. Seeing this approach work again and again, we began to see that our job as animal activists was to help people understand how certain actions, choices or beliefs undermine the inherent concern for animals they already have. We came to see that ignorance, and not ill will, accounted for so much of the explanation behind harmful choices, and that, when armed with the truth by someone who believed in them to do the right thing, that a great many people will do just that, and actually become the change we want to see in the world. Most important of all, we came to understand that misanthropy, as righteous and as justified as it may sometimes feel, harms rather than helps animals by blinding us to the potential for change.
Today, there are 70 communities representing hundreds of cities and towns across America with save rates of greater than 90%. And there are dozens more on the cusp. Everywhere there is killing, there are activists working for reform and there are animal lovers in their communities who will rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to do so. A few months ago, Austin’s animal shelter got jammed. When it told the community it was in trouble and stayed open until 10 pm, people adopted in droves. When a shelter in Florida which has a capacity of 375 found itself with 750 animals due to a hoarding bust (including a bust of 300 dogs), it asked the public for help. “After a rush of adoptions on Friday, [the shelter] announced Friday it had no more animals available for adoption. ‘It was like Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving.’” When a shelter in Australia made the decision to save every single baby kitten, it found a public ready, willing and able to help. And when I asked a community which was clamoring for change in Ithaca, New York, to help me achieve it, they did. All good Christians, disembark.
Admittedly, sometimes we still have to catch ourselves. Sometimes, old patterns of thinking are our knee-jerk reaction. Not long ago, as we were searching under a BMW in a parking lot for an injured bird, the owner of the car asked us what we were doing. We said we were looking for a crow who looked like he might be injured. He looked confused for a moment, and we braced ourselves for his dismissal or a sarcastic laugh. Worse, we expected him to tell us to get away from his pristine, expensive car. But it never came. Instead, he began searching with us, literally offering the shirt of his back to catch the crow should it be needed.
It’s been 20 years since Jennifer and I first met, and believed, naively, that no one cared as much as we did. How grateful we both are to have been proven wrong.
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