Power to the People

February 13, 2010 by  

Understanding why Ed Sayres, Jane Hoffman, and now Laura Allen oppose Oreo’s Law, even though their opposition means animals will continue to be needlessly killed.

Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… the fear of a loss of power. –John Steinbeck

When Oreo’s Law was introduced, it quickly gained the support of leaders of the No Kill movement. On behalf of the No Kill Advocacy Center, I wrote in support applauding the “common sense and compassionate approach to protecting animals’ lives and empowering those who want to save them.” The most successful shelter directors in the country, those running open admission animal control shelters saving over 90 percent of the animals, uniformly embraced it, including Bonney Brown, Susanne Kogut, and Abigail Smith. The nation’s top shelter reform advocates, including FixAustin, wrote letters of support. The nation’s top law professors uniformly embraced it. The media, including Christie Keith of the San Francisco Chronicle and Animal Wise Radio, have called for every state to pass such a law. New York-based rescue groups including Pets Alive, Empty Cages Collective, and others, are pushing for its passage. And progressive animal rights groups like Friends of Animals came out in strong support.

Predictably, Ed Sayres—Oreo’s killer—opposed it, even though he supported identical rescue group access rights in California. In fact, given that Oreo’s Law has recently been amended to provide for additional protections, there is no basis on which Sayres can legitimately explain why he supports rights for rescue groups in California, but not for rescue groups in New York State—other than his own unethical motives to bury his killing of Oreo, even at the expense of thousands of animals being killed every year because of it. And to kill Oreo’s Law, as easily as he killed Oreo for which the law is named, Sayres now has two others supporting his position that animals in New York State (NYS) shelters should continue to be killed, while rescue groups willing to save them should be turned away: (1) Jane Hoffman of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals, and (2) Laura Allen of the so-called “Animal Law Coalition.”

If Ed Sayres is motivated by sheer self-preservation and spite against those who dare question his unfettered discretion to kill animals, what, then, is motivating these two?

For over a hundred years, animal shelters in this country and their allies working at large, national animal protection organizations have argued that the killing of animals in shelters is unavoidable, and that the irresponsible American public is to blame. Without an alternative model to challenge the assumptions upon which these calculations were based—animal shelters were, by default, granted almost unequivocal discretion to kill millions of animals a year, while blaming others for the need to do so.  Not only did this stymie any innovation seeking to reduce the numbers of animals killed, but, having been unchallenged in this course of action for so long, it had the unfortunate side effect of creating the expectation among shelter directors that they should be able to operate without public scrutiny, comment or accountability for their actions and decisions.

In the late 1990’s, when the burgeoning No Kill movement proved that many of the assumptions upon which traditional sheltering were based were, in fact, untrue, and that nearly all animals entering shelters can be saved, traditional sheltering models had by that time become so firmly entrenched—and those championing them so large and influential—that any challenge to their hegemony was met with recrimination and hostility. And since that time, animal advocates throughout the country, working to reform their local shelters by demanding innovation, modernization and greater lifesaving, have almost universally found themselves at cross purposes with not only their local shelters which refuse to reform, but, just as often, the large, national groups, such as the ASPCA and HSUS, which come to the defense of their local shelter and its archaic, regressive policies which favor killing, and, therefore, a continuation of the paradigm upon which their power is predicated.

As a result, it is not uncommon for shelters to refuse the assistance of grassroots rescue organizations willing to save the animals they are determined to kill. Time and again, these organizations hold the animals hostage, ignoring the requests of local sanctuaries and rescue groups willing to assume responsibility and liability for their care, even as they then turn around and kill them, just as the ASPCA did to Oreo.

But these rescue groups are not going away quietly, as the furor over Oreo’s killing has proven. Despite the entrenchment of groups like the ASPCA, the widespread success of the No Kill movement has invigorated animal lovers nationwide, and one of the results of that success has been an exponential increase in the number of rescue organizations. Their efficacy, their dedication, and their willingness to do the lifesaving that shelters and the large national organizations have for so long argued is impossible threaten to expose the lies upon which the historical inaction of shelters and the large national groups is based. It is why Ed Sayres chose to kill Oreo rather than give her to an organization that was willing to go the extra mile for her, when the ASPCA was not, despite raising over $100 million dollars last year from an animal loving American public after promising to do just that in such circumstances, and for such animals.

And it is why Jane Hoffman, who now keeps the rescue groups of New York City under her regressive rule of thumb, is also opposed to Oreo’s Law. Her opposition is, at its core, about fear—a fear of losing power. A fear that Oreo’s Law—by eliminating her role as the unnecessary “middle man” between shelters and rescue groups will render her obsolete, as it should.

Follow the Money

As head of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals, Jane Hoffman wields a tremendous amount of power, with tens of millions of dollars flowing through her hands. Her group has received over $5 million from Ed Sayres at the ASPCA, and over $13 million to date from Maddie’s Fund. She also received an additional $250,000 from Sayres in 2009.

Given the money that flows from Sayres to Hoffman, is it any surprise that she supports his position in opposing Oreo’s Law? Is it any surprise that she immediately wrote a letter in defense of the ASPCA after the furor erupted over Oreo’s killing? To understand Hoffman’s opposition, one need only follow the money. And, more importantly perhaps, follow it to where it dries up.

While Sayres continues to write checks to Hoffman’s group, such as the additional $150,000 given in 2009 for her discretionary use, the initial $5 million from the ASPCA has been spent. And the Maddie’s Fund project ends this year. The Mayor’s Alliance and her role as its head cannot survive in New York without grant funding from the ASPCA. And there lies the rub. Hoffman needs Ed Sayres’ money and control over the rescue groups to stay in power, and Ed Sayres needs Jane Hoffman’s support to fight a law which will forever memorialize his betrayal of an abused dog. It is an unholy alliance based on greed, naked self-interest, and the preservation of near unequivocal power the two currently enjoy over the smaller non-profits in New York City.

Right now, Hoffman has the power to remove the rights of rescue groups to get animals from New York City’s animal shelters, and she is not shy about telling groups who oppose her of that. In order to be allowed to rescue animals who are on the kill list, Hoffman has to approve them. Like the old “Ward Bosses” of the 19th Century, her power is based on the largess and her unfettered discretion to take away a rescue group’s ability to save animals from death row. But when the Maddie’s funding dries up and without an influx of money from the ASPCA, the power she yields as a result of control over the purse strings also dies. As a result, Hoffman has hatched a plan to expand the alliance to a statewide organization that will have the power to regulate all rescue groups, with—drum roll, please—herself as its head. If Oreo’s Law passes and rescue groups have a legal right to shelter animals, her plan is rendered impotent and consequently, she loses all the power she currently has. Rescue groups will no longer be beholden to her “certification” of their fitness. Subject to law (including an IRS designation, a mission of animal rescue or adoption, and no record of convictions for neglect or abuse), rescue groups can cut out the middle man and Hoffman goes from Ward Boss to persona non grata.

All of the power in the humane movement is consolidated in the hands of the very few, like Hoffman and Sayres, and it is to their advantage to keep it that way. Laws which grant a legal right of shelter access to small, non-profit rescue organizations level the playing field and empower the grassroots, giving them the same rights, privileges and access to animals they exist to protect as the large non-profits enjoy. And that is deeply threatening to people like Sayres and Hoffman. And in their fear of losing power, they deceptively seek to play upon our fears—by arguing that dedicated rescue groups are the real threat—they are what we should fear, because they are hoarders and dog fighters in disguise. And sadly, these deadly, dangerous, and antiquated views have found a champion in another so-called animal activist—and friend of Jane Hoffman—in Laura Allen of the “Animal Law Coalition.”

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Laura Allen runs a New York-based group she calls the “Animal Law Coalition.” A coalition, however, is “an alliance of distinct organizations or parties.” But the Animal Law Coalition is a coalition in name only. It is one person: Laura Allen. And Laura Allen has come out in opposition to Oreo’s Law by arguing that shelters should be trusted when making behavioral determinations, by misrepresenting the law relating to California’s Hayden Law upon which Oreo’s Law is based, and by arguing that animals are better off dead than in the arms of the rescue groups which she says are most likely animal abusers anyway.

According to Allen and her anti-Oreo’s Law propaganda, we need to “respect” the decisions made by shelters about which dogs are aggressive. In her latest salvo, despite the fact that the ASPCA refuses to provide the videotape of Oreo’s alleged aggression and Oreo’s Law will primarily save kittens and puppies and healthy/ friendly dogs and cats, Allen writes that:

After months of care and evaluation, the dog was determined to be “unpredictably aggressive,” biting even caregivers.

According to Allen, that is good enough. Rescue groups should not be allowed to second guess these decisions, should not have access to these dogs, should not be allowed to bring in their own evaluators, should not be allowed to employ efforts at rehabilitation, and in light of her opposition to Oreo’s Law, this is true even at shelters that give dogs only the minimum time according to law before they are killed—a paltry five days for strays and zero days for owner relinquished animals.

But while Allen argues that such determinations are adequate for the dogs of NYS—even when it means those dogs are killed while rescue groups willing to save them are turned away—it is not good enough for her own dog. When it comes to the life of her own animal, Allen has an altogether different standard. In opposing Oreo’s Law, she is opposing legislation mandating action which saved her own dog from death.

Allen has never worked in an animal control shelter, and perhaps has never even been to one—except in Seattle, where her and her husband’s dog was impounded after biting someone, was determined to be dangerous, and was sentenced to death. Instead of respecting the decision of the shelter as she admonishes others to do, Allen and husband Russ Mead enlisted a rescue group, Best Friends, to save their own dog’s life from a shelter determined to kill him. And Best Friends did, on condition that the dog never be allowed to leave a lifetime care facility. It sounds remarkably similar to Oreo, where Pets Alive offered lifetime care. The difference of course is that Oreo was not adjudicated to be dangerous by a court and never attacked anyone. The other difference of course is that, in the case of Allen’s dog, the rescue group was given the ability to save a life by being rescued from the shelter, while Oreo, and the thousands of anonymous dogs and cats unknown to her at shelters throughout NYS, Allen’s viewpoint seeks to condemn to death.

The praise and confidence she places in shelter directors throughout NYS does not extend to those who judged her own dog dangerous because when Best Friends invited Seattle Animal Control director Don Jordan to speak at their conference, Allen’s husband Russ Mead called Best Friends and let fly a string of epithets against them for inviting that “*&^%#$” who was going to kill their dog.

Yet in spite of this experience, Allen published an opposition piece when Oreo’s Law was first introduced arguing, of all things, that it should be opposed because it goes “too far” and saves “too many” animals. Allen actually opposed Oreo’s Law because the law was not limited to “adoptable” and “treatable” animals the way she claimed the California law on which it is based is. In other words, she was essentially arguing that the law had the potential to save too many animals. As unethical as that position is, it was also a misreading of California law.

According to UCLA Law Professor Taimie L. Bryant, the Hayden Law’s primary author,

The California version of Oreo’s law did not limit rescue groups’ right of access to shelter animals to only “adoptable” and “treatable” animals as defined in the public policy statutes of the Hayden Law. The specific statutes of the law that give rescue groups rights of access (Food and Agricultural Code sections 31108 and 31752) explicitly exclude from rescue groups only those animals who are irremediably suffering from a serious illness or severe injury such that immediate euthanasia is the only humane alternative.

Language about “adoptability” and “treatability” do appear in public policy statutes that are part of the Hayden Law. However, the purpose of those statutes is to assert the preference of the people of California for adoption and rehabilitation instead of killing shelter animals. There are no specific duties in those statutes, and they do not constrain the application of the specific statutes that provide for release to rescue groups.

Of course, one would expect an “Animal Law Coalition”—even a coalition in name only as her group is—to celebrate, rather than condemn, expanding the scope of the bill to save animals such as feral cats, as well as neonatal kittens and puppies. But equally disturbing is that even after being informed of her misreading of the law, Allen refused to correct the error on her website. To this day, she continues to intentionally promote the misinformation in order to derail Oreo’s Law from passage. And she has even gone so far as to ask people to write the legislature in opposition based on her false assertions and false comparisons to Hayden.

Allen also recently posted another call for opposition to Oreo’s Law, claiming rescue groups cannot be trusted and the animals are better off dead, another equally offensive misrepresentation: Day in and day out, animal rescuers show tremendous courage and compassion—visiting what is often the one place on earth hardest for them to go as animal lovers: their local shelters. And yet they go back, again and again. They endure the hostile treatment. They endure the heartbreak of seeing the animals destined for the needle. They endure having to jump through unnecessary and arbitrary hurdles set by shelter directors who are holding the animals they want to save hostage. They endure having to look the other way at abuse of other animals, because if they don’t, if they speak out, they will be barred from saving any animals. And this law would make their lives easier—their work less difficult. It would empower them, tip the balance more in their favor, and lessen their daily burden. That Allen would fail to support such a law, or worse, would dare oppose it by claiming that these dedicated, hard working rescuers are, in reality, dog fighters and hoarders in disguise not only is offensive, but a betrayal of these selfless, compassionate individuals, and true animal lovers.

Moreover, after all the evidence of abuse, cruelty, neglect and killing that is rampant in our nation’s shelters, how can Allen oppose Oreo’s Law by deferring to their authority? By arguing that animals are better off killed by shelters, who often neglect and mistreat them in the process, than in the protective embrace of rescue groups made up of people truly dedicated to their well-being?

In the No Kill movement, our mission is two-fold. First, we must reform our nation’s broken animal sheltering system so that the animals who enter them will get the chance at life millions are now so cruelly denied. But reforming a shelter, wearing down the opposition, forcing the replacement of a regressive director with one dedicated to saving lives—all of these things take time. And time is one thing that animals entering shelters today do not have. To help these animals, we need to offer something more immediate. They need a way out. They need rescuers who want to save them to have the power to do so even when a director says, “No.” And they need that now, because tomorrow will be too late.

The second goal of the No Kill movement is therefore to arm those who want to save animals with the power to do so. Like the network of “safe houses” which protected runaway slaves as they fled north to freedom, the thousands of rescue groups, No Kill sanctuaries and No Kill shelters throughout our nation are our movement’s own safe houses. And they must be supported, and empowered through law. That goal is, in fact, fundamental to what our movement is all about, because that is what the animals most desperately need. And not only will doing so save animals today, but it will save them in perpetuity since the power of one director to say “Yes” to saving lives can be taken away by the next director who says “No,” absent a law to the contrary. That is why a shelter can be progressive one day, and moving in the opposite direction the next. Animals should be saved regardless of who is running our shelters and legislation like Oreo’s Law gives rescuers the power to do so.

But Allen is no champion of No Kill. In this case, she is a proponent of killing and a prophet of doom. And in the process, she attempts to derail progress by opposing legislation which would empower others to save them, and by throwing up smokescreens such as fears about hoarders and dog fighters to portray greater lifesaving as a threat to the animals. The animals are, in her own self-serving, delusional, and antiquated thinking, better off dead at the hands of even under-performing and even cruel shelter staff than in the protection embrace of animal rescuers: all ideas that successful, progressive, and forward thinking animal activists now wholly reject.

Laura Allen’s Myopia

It is an inevitable part of working in the animal protection movement that one is exposed to dogmas and mythology built up to rationalize and explain the killing in shelters. Too often, activists become blinded by these explanations. Slowly, they stop listening to their common sense, and let their fears and phantoms guide their advocacy. They become lost in the wilderness of their own making, unable to see the forest through the trees, and tragically lose sight of what they—and our movement—should be striving for. As a result, they hinder, rather than promote, the welfare of animals, by advocating bizarre, irreconcilable propositions that make no sense whatsoever: such as arguing that animal rescuers should be denied the right to save animals on death row because they might be hoarders or dog fighters in disguise. In doing so, they advocate positions that are the antithesis of those they should be championing as people who claim to speak on behalf of animals. They fail to do what is required of them as animal activists—recognizing and hailing success, such as the introduction of Oreo’s Law, and helping to ensure its passage.

And, despite Allen’s hair splitting, Oreo’s Law has significant protections that even the California version does not have. And yet even without these protections, the California law has not led to an epidemic of hoarders and dog fighters exploiting it, as was predicted by fear mongers who opposed it then. In fact, it has led to thousands of animals being saved, rather than killed. And while Allen cites Taimie Bryant and law professor Rebecca Huss for her baseless proposition, she ignores the fact that both of them not only support Oreo’s Law, they have written letters to the NYS legislature in support of the law.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

As a movement, we must be guided by our greatest hopes, and not our darkest and unsubstantiated fears. And when it comes to hoarders, the irrational and at times hysterical phobia of them within the humane movement is wholly out of all proportion to the actual threat. Only 4% of animals in shelters nationwide are impounded because of neglect or abuse (and even a smaller percentage of these are the victims of dog fighters or hoarders). And while that is still too much, it is by comparative standards, rare compared to the 96% of animals who are not. As the comment someone posted on Allen’s website indicated:

The question is, are there more unreputable 501c3s hoarding? Or [shelters] killing animals unnecessarily? I think most people know the answer to that one…So, we must ensure that the minute possibility of an animal making its way into the hands of a hoarder is prevented instead of preventing the REAL probability the animal will die in a shelter?

In short, Allen’s rationale for opposing Oreo’s Law comes down to the disturbing notion that we must kill animals to keep them safe, the very kinds of insidious arguments the “catch and kill” sheltering establishment has been peddling for decades to justify their paradigm of high rates of killing. In 1968, then HSUS Vice-President of Companion Animals, Phyllis Wright, wrote,

I’ve put 70,000 dogs and cats to sleep… But I tell you one thing: I don’t worry about one of those animals that were put to sleep… Being dead is not cruelty to animals.

She then described how she does worry about the animals she found homes for. From that disturbing view, HSUS coined a maxim that says we should worry about saving lives but not about ending them and successfully propagated this viewpoint to shelters across the country. And after turning away both adopters and rescuers, these shelters turn around and kill these very animals.

Despite wrapping opposition in legalese based on a misreading of California law, trying to confuse the issue by discussing other aspects of Hayden, by claiming California passed right of shelter access because of a “crisis” in killing in California which she claims does not exist in New York State (since when did New York State become No Kill?), and by citing both Professor Bryant and Huss out of context and ignoring that both actually support Oreo’s Law, Allen’s opposition amounts to nothing more than: Let’s kill the animals now to keep them safe from possible future harm. An inherently unethical and deeply disturbing contradiction.

But she does not stop there. Allen goes further, by offering three other red herrings. Beyond the fear mongering about hoarders and dog fighters, Allen claims that Oreo’s Law could lead to a future crackdown on dogs  because rescue groups will release dangerous dogs all over the state, which will go on to attack people. Not only has this not occurred in California based on the law which has been in effect for 11 years, it is pure fear baiting.

Second, she cautions that it could undermine the Mayor’s Alliance of NYC, costing animals their lives, without any evidence of how Oreo’s Law would do that. In fact, all Oreo’s Law does is set minimum standards. Shelters and rescue coalitions are free to add more expansive protections if they so choose. Moreover, Oreo’s Law will strengthen rescue groups, and lead to more collaborations of shelters and rescue groups throughout the state. According to Professor Bryant,

In addition to expanding the opportunities for animal adoption, rescue groups have opportunities at adoption events to educate members of the public about various animal-related topics such as development of local dog parks or where to find low-cost spay/neuter services. Rescue group presence in pet supply stores greatly increases public access to information that can reduce relinquishment to shelters. Group members regularly provide information about solutions to common problems such as inappropriate barking or urinating.

Finally, the greater confidence rescue groups have in their continued existence to perform their mission has resulted in increased networking among groups to solve problems or share such information as good deals on pet food and supplies, experiences with veterinarians, and proposed laws that affect rescue group activity. For instance, recently members of different cat rescue groups in California have shared information about and written letters in support of proposed laws to ban non-therapeutic declawing of cats and other animals. Those groups know firsthand the terrible consequences of cat declawing, and their input has been helpful to legislators considering bans.

Now, ten years after it went into effect, it is possible to say that the right of access provision in the Hayden Law was very important to the development of a vibrant network of animal rescue and adoption groups that function more efficiently and optimistically than they could when their ability to rescue animals from shelters was insecure. Animals have benefited directly from their life-saving activities and indirectly from the education and other services they provide.

These are all very positive features of a law that met vehement opposition while going through the legislative process. The stated bases for opposition are similar to those expressed by those who oppose Oreo’s Law: the risk of hoarding of shelter animals, the risk of dogs ending up in dog fighting circles, and increased risks to the public due to irresponsible release of unsuitable dogs to adopters. Despite such dire predictions of increased incidence of public harm and cruelty to animals as a result of passing the right of access provision in the Hayden Law, there is no evidence of increased incidence of either.

Truth be told, Oreo’s Law will undermine Jane Hoffman’s dictatorship over rescue groups in New York City. If Oreo’s law passes, every rescue group in New York will enjoy the privilege she now possesses, and her stranglehold on power will disappear. But that is a good thing and should be actively encouraged. Hoffman’s power in New York is an accident of history and serves no needed purpose. Throughout the nation, there are communities which have greater rates of lifesaving than New York City and have achieved No Kill without a self-serving middle man wielding arbitrary power. They have no intermediary such as Hoffman dictating which rescue groups can save animals, while taking a cut of the funding available to those groups. The Mayor’s Alliance is Jane Hoffman’s personal fiefdom which now exists to serve Jane Hoffman, and not the animals of NYC.

Finally, Allen closes her opposition to Oreo’s Law by suggesting that despite the killing, despite documented cases of shelters killing animals while rescue groups are turned away, Oreo’s Law is not even needed. She says “there is every indication that in New York[,] public shelters are already placing animals with rescuers.”

I love New York City as much as the next person. I used to live in upstate New York and took every opportunity to visit when I could. And since moving to California in 2004, I continue to visit New York City every year. But I am not deluded, like some New Yorkers, who believe that New York City is New York State; that beyond its borders is a vast emptiness that does not matter. Sure, in New York City, animal control does transfer some animals to some rescuers, if Hoffman approves. Yet, that is definitely not true throughout the state, and certainly not enough even within NYC.

I also ran an animal control shelter in the state, the first to achieve a No Kill community. I know firsthand that many New York shelters aren’t doing nearly enough to save the lives of the animals they are pledged to protect, at the same time they turn away the lifesaving assistance of rescue groups who would offer the animals they kill a lifesaving alternative. Oreo’s Law would help remedy this tragic result.

But what does Allen care? She got her dog back, who was given the second chance by a rescue group she would deny Oreo, and insists on denying to the thousands of other animals like Oreo.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

In the end, neither Sayres, nor Hoffman truly fear that the legislation will put animals in harm’s way, because such a claim is nonsensical. Rescue groups take animals out of harm’s way by saving them from certain death. What Sayres and Hoffman fear is a loss of power, and they have now have a puppet—Laura Allen—as a mouthpiece for their cause.

The grassroots of this movement—the small non-profits which do the lion’s share of life-saving and would be able to do much more if not hindered by those in positions of power—must demand the rights that are their due, and which are the animals’ saving grace.

As I write in my book Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America’s Animal Shelters,

The goal of every social movement is legislation to gain and then protect the rights of its members or the focus of its efforts, and the No Kill movement must stop acting like it is the exception. The suffrage movement wasn’t just seeking discretionary permission from elections officials to vote, an ability that could be taken away. Its goal was winning the right to vote, a right guaranteed in law. The civil rights movement wasn’t just seeking the discretionary ability to sit at the front of the bus or to eat at the same lunch counters (and so much more). Its goal was winning the right to do so, a right guaranteed in law. The movement for marriage equality isn’t just seeking the discretionary opportunity to marry despite sexual orientation. Its goal is winning the right to do so, a right guaranteed in law. Because without legal rights, one’s fate is contingent on who the election official is, who the restaurant owner is, and who the mayor is. And just as quickly as permission is given, it can be taken away.

However, whenever legislation is passed empowering the grassroots, those in power lose out, including those who claim to desire the very things the legislation seeks to create. In the case of people like Sayres and Hoffman, they claim to want rescue groups to be able to save animals, but only so long as they take a cut of the funding and maintain the imperious power to decide who lives, who dies, who does the saving, and when. They know and fear the truth: That once the power shifts to the rescue groups, animals will be saved in skyrocketing numbers and the sky will not fall as a result. And we will see more clearly than ever that the emperors have no clothes. And neither Sayres nor Hoffman will allow that to happen without a fight.

Learn more at: www.YESonOreosLaw.com

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