Where Have You Gone Best Friends?
June 24, 2010 by Nathan J. Winograd
It has been nine days since Oreo’s Law was defeated in this session of the New York State legislature. Nine days since several of the largest, most influential “animal protection” organizations in the country banded together to defeat a bill that had the potential to save thousands of lives by empowering their less wealthy, less powerful colleagues to do so. And I’ve written nothing about its defeat.
I assume I am regarded as a person who is rarely at a loss for words. And truth be told, I do have much to say regarding the bill’s demise and the obvious lessons the fight for Oreo’s Law has imparted. But this blog nonetheless has not come as easily as the others have, and every day since the bill’s defeat, I have sat before my computer, staring at a blank screen and struggling to find the words to express what needs to be said, to reiterate in part, that which to me and I hope to my readers has by now become so evident that stating it feels simply gratuitous: the enemy is within.
Yes, I am talking about the ASPCA which claims to champion the animals but advocates for their slaughter; and yes, I am talking about groups like the Mayor’s Alliance and the Animal Law Coalition that do the same. And as groups mirror the decisions of their leaders, I am talking specifically about Ed Sayres, Jane Hoffman, and Laura Allen. But those have become the obvious ones and I’ve written no less than 17 blogs and articles about their duplicitous and indefensible role in this saga. And if that was all there was to be said, I would have done it on June 16, the morning after Oreo’s Law was tabled by the legislature.
What has caused me to stare at a blank screen, unable to find the words is trying to put into context the actions of a group which I’ve worked with in the past and whose conferences I’ve been speaking at since their inception. Last week, as thousands of animal lovers throughout New York State flooded Albany with e-mails of support for Oreo’s Law, shutting down the mail server not once, but twice, ASPCA lobbyist Debora Bresch combed the halls of the capitol, working to defeat the bill with lies, misrepresentations and the powerful weight of the ASPCA’s century-old reputation. Covering her back were not only those organizations financially beholden to the ASPCA or those equally threatened by the upset of power which Oreo’s Law would accomplish but, tragically, an organization that for a long time now has been generally regarded within the No Kill movement as the only large national organization that is an ally to our cause: Best Friends Animal Society.
How can I share how hurt I am over their positions and handling of Oreo’s Law, without coming off as callous or dismissive to their sanctuary work, the rescue they do, and the safety net they provided for the victims of dog killer Michael Vick? I don’t want to take anything away from those things. Nor can I forget that while most national groups were preaching killing, Best Friends championed my message when I was in San Francisco and they championed me when I created the nation’s first No Kill community in Tompkins County. And though I’ve been disappointed in their handling of some issues—how they sought to quell public discontent over the Wilkes County Massacre among other things—I’ve not called them out the way I have others, believing that in the cost-benefit analysis, they help more than they limit the success of our cause.
But this time, it is different. And I cannot remain silent in deference to their past contributions. In Oreo’s Law, in the brutal and needless killing of Oreo herself, I saw the defining issue of the No Kill movement. Oreo’s Law is not some auxiliary effort for the movement, it is central to the fight for a No Kill nation. Legislation that empowers rescue groups, removes the discretion which allows shelter directors the ability to kill animals in spite of lifesaving alternatives, and makes the killing we all claim to want to end illegal is what our movement is ultimately about. We will never, ever, ever, ever achieve and sustain a No Kill nation without legislation to reform our broken animal shelter system.
The goal of every social movement is legislation to gain and then protect the rights of its members or the focus of its efforts. 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 or be given equal protection and equal opportunity. 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 in our case, who the shelter director is. And just as quickly as permission is given, it can be taken away.
Laws codify norms of behavior and, at their best, help create a just and thoughtful society. We have—and embrace—voting rights acts, environmental protection laws, and laws against discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. Ultimately, such laws are essential to ensure that fair and equal treatment is guaranteed, not subject to the discretion of those in power. We shouldn’t just want a promise that shelters will try to do better. We already have such promises—and millions of animals still being killed show just how hollow such promises are. We must demand accountability beyond the rhetoric. And we shouldn’t simply be seeking progressive directors willing to save lives. We should demand that the killing end, now and forever, regardless of who is running the shelters. And we get that in only one way: by passing legislation that gives sheltered animals the right to live.
But Best Friends refused to embrace Oreo’s Law. And in not taking a position, their silence spoke volumes too: it failed to convey the urgency with which laws such as this are needed. In reality, neutrality is a position—a position that condones the status quo by not demanding different. It amounts to support for killing. This was bad enough, but it gets worse. Several months ago, I was made aware that Best Friends had called and e-mailed an early and influential supporter of Oreo’s Law—Mike Fry of Animal Ark shelter and Animal Wise Radio—asking him to withdraw their support in deference to ASPCA President, Ed Sayres. In addition, I was privy to several conversations with Best Friends where they stated they would support the law if various amendments were made. Those amendments were made, but Best Friends did not honor the agreements. They also stated that they would support the law if Ed Sayres and Jane Hoffman did not withdraw their opposition after they were told that in exchange for doing so, the bill would be renamed to remove any reference to Oreo. And when Sayres and Hoffman said “No,” Best Friends still refused to support it.
Instead, when queried by rescuers as to where they stood on Oreo’s Law, they responded that they “support rescue access legislation,” even as they failed to actually support it, in Oreo’s Law. But the inherent contradiction aside, Best Friends tried to undermine it behind the scenes by asking Animal Ark and Animal Wise Radio to withdraw their support. Why? According to Best Friends, the bill was nothing more than a vendetta on my part to “get back” at Ed Sayres for destroying the San Francisco SPCA. And Best Friends would not support such a bill.
But I did not introduce Oreo’s Law, did not name it Oreo’s Law, had never met, spoken to, or heard of Assembly Member Micah Kellner before he introduced it, and found out about it after the bill was already introduced. It is true that I disdain Ed Sayres, and no one who has read anything I’ve ever written about him would think otherwise. It is no secret that I think he is a bad, small-minded and hard-hearted individual. But I have come to this conclusion not out of spite, but out of experience. I have judged his actions in relation to his responsibilities and have continually found them to be the opposite of those a man in his position should be taking. He has defended killing and killers throughout the nation, providing them political cover which allows them to remain in their positions and kill even more. Even though he heads the nation’s wealthiest humane society, the shelter in his own community routinely says it is running out of food. And he stated publicly that killing animals is the moral equivalent of not killing them.
In Austin, Texas, he worked diligently to derail the efforts of animal lovers trying to reform a regressive shelter whose director killed animals despite over 100 empty cages on any given day, refused to allow the public to foster animals choosing to kill them instead, claimed she and her staff did not have time to adopt out animals because they were too busy (killing those animals in the back), and withheld treatment and care to sick cats, allowing them to suffer as a vendetta against the City Council which ordered her to stop convenience killing. And when she was finally fired, Sayres called her termination “horrible.” Time and time again, he has taken positions that embrace killing. Time and time again, he has misappropriated donor funds given to save animals to promote their killing instead. Time and time again, he has abused the power he has been given in trust by the American people.
But while Oreo’s Law was sparked by the actions of Ed Sayres, my disdain for him was not the reason I supported it. For one, I supported the Hayden Law, on which Oreo’s Law was based at a time when Sayres also supported it. But more importantly, I supported Oreo’s Law because it would have taken animals throughout NYS out of harm’s way, and placed them in the protective embrace of true animal lovers. Over 70% of non-profit rescue organizations surveyed in New York State stated that they have been denied the ability to rescue animals on death row at their local shelters for entirely arbitrary reasons. The study also revealed a pattern of intimidation by shelter directors throughout that state which forces rescuers to do what is incredibly difficult for any animal lover to do: stay silent in the face of abuse and inhumane treatment at their local shelters or risk losing the ability to save any animals. Oreo’s law sought to right these terrible wrongs and to further the cause which I am pledged to protect: to reform our nation’s shelters and to save the lives of innocent dogs and cats.
Were another Oreo’s Law to be introduced in another state, under a different name, and with a different set of events sparking its introduction—and were such a law to ultimately have nothing whatsoever to do with Ed Sayres or the ASPCA, I would work just as hard to ensure its passage as I did Oreo’s Law, because it is a good law, vital and essential to our cause. In fact, I sent a letter to Sayres offering to disappear, to give him full credit for the law, to have the name of the law changed, if he would withdraw his opposition and champion it. And because we could never bring her back but we could save thousands of others with the law if he removed his opposition, I offered never to mention Oreo again in return.
But I suspect that their alleged concern over my relationship with Sayres is not really why Best Friends asked Animal Ark and Animal Wise Radio to withdraw their support for Oreo’s Law, but rather it was motivated by their relationship with Ed Sayres. Because when Animal Ark and Animal Wise Radio informed Best Friends that this was about saving animals needlessly killed, not about who was or was not supporting it, they balked even though their own survey showed that shelters in NYS were hostile to rescuers, were needlessly killing animals, and that this bill was desperately needed. (Best Friends removed the comments from rescuers, the pleas for help, the evidence of needless killing from their website and erased it from their servers.)
Over the last several months, I have struggled with how to react to these actions: to the knowledge that not only did Best Friends intend not to support a law which could save thousands of lives by empowering the small non-profits rescuers which have always supported them, indeed, made them who they are; but, even more painful, that they had actively worked behind the scenes to undercut support for the bill. Although I was upset at these decisions, I worried that publicly revealing their conduct would place Oreo’s Law in further peril. I calculated that the revelation that yet another large, powerful animal protection organization opposed the law—even unofficially—especially an organization that is seen as “progressive,” might give legislators who were unacquainted with the dysfunctional and broken humane movement one more reason to table the bill.
And so I chose to remain silent, I chose to continue a dialog with Best Friends, hoping that their politically calculated statement in support of “rescue access legislation” might be interpreted as support for Oreo’s Law and hoping that their lack of involvement in Albany would have no impact. But the ASPCA made sure that didn’t happen, telling legislators on the eve of the June 15 vote to kill the bill that groups like Best Friends really opposed the law, but they were afraid to come forward for fear of reprisals from the rescue community. Bresch, the ASPCA’s hired gun in Albany, told legislators to interpret their neutrality as opposition because that was what it really was. And they did. Now, Oreo’s Law is dead for this year, and the opponents of Oreo’s Law have won, effectively issuing a death sentence to thousands of defenseless animals across New York in the coming year.
But then came the second punch in the solar plexus: The announcement right after the vote, that Jane Hoffman, who condemned those animals to death, was invited as a “featured speaker” at the Best Friends No More Homeless Pets conference in October.
And for several days, I’ve sat at my desk wondering what, if anything, I should say about it. The other day I received an e-mail from a rescuer who complained about my silence. She wrote, “Everyone figured you were locked away typing a reply to the shelving [of Oreo’s Law].” And I lashed out: Why should I have to be the one to do it?
I shouldn’t have. I wish I hadn’t. I’ve since apologized. But for the week after the June 15 vote that will cost thousands of animals their lives, I’ve been filled with anger and hurt, and no matter how many times I tried to write about the defeat of Oreo’s Law, my writing always centered on Best Friends. Because what more could I possibly say about Ed Sayres, Jane Hoffman, and Laura Allen? I’ve written 17 articles about their efforts to ensure that animals continue to be needlessly killed. But I’ve never written about Best Friends, how they abandoned us, first by a cowardly embrace of neutrality when the rescue groups and animals needed them the most, and then by a ham-fisted attempt to get Animal Ark and Animal Wise Radio to withdraw their support of the law.
And after staring at a blank screen for days, I’ve written it, rewritten it, set it aside, come very close to deleting it and if you are reading this, finally posted it. But having posted it, having told of Best Friends’ behind-the-scenes lobbying and Best Friends’ refusal to empower the rescue community, how does that change my view of Best Friends?
Do they still run an important sanctuary for animals? Yes they do. Do they still deserve our thanks and gratitude for their rescue of the Michael Vick dogs and other animals? Yes they do. Are there some amazing people there doing great things for animals? Yes there are.
But does Best Friends as an organization aspire to the full potential that they can and should achieve given their size and wealth? Does the leadership believe their rhetoric and live by the principles they claim to espouse? Did they defend the rescue groups and rescuers who made them who they are? Did they faithfully give voice to the voiceless animals in NYS shelters being slaughtered every day despite a readily available rescue alternative? Did they stand up for the thousands of animals who are going to lose their lives because of the June 15 vote? Did they act with honor, integrity, altruism, and compassion in their official and unofficial conduct as it relates to Oreo’s Law? That, they did not. Et tu, Best Friends?
As they prepare another conference pledging to provide the roadmap to a world where there are “no more homeless pets”—a conference I of course can no longer attend—I can’t help but wonder if the lack of discussion of Oreo’s Law, legislation which would have empowered the rescuers in attendance to actually succeed at the endeavor, will be noticeably absent? I can’t help but wonder if the unassailable fact that the very rescue groups in attendance are being routinely turned away by their local shelters and the animals they have offered to save are being killed instead will be addressed? And I can’t help but imagine how Best Friends choosing to remain neutral or the telephone call and e-mails to the contrary would go over with the rescuers in attendance if they knew about it? If it comes up, how will they spin it?
One thing we don’t have to conjecture is the message they will hear from one particular speaker. Because Jane Hoffman who worked diligently to make sure that rescue groups are not empowered, who worked diligently to make sure that shelters are allowed to continue killing in the face of alternatives, and who worked diligently to maintain their unequivocal discretion to kill who they want, when they want, regardless of whether a rescue group can save the animal or not, is very clear about where she stands.
She will repeat what she told attendees at last year’s conference—that shelters have no choice but to kill because of “pet overpopulation.” She will she tell them what she told attendees at this year’s HSUS Expo—that no one should be made to “feel guilty” about that killing. What is less clear is whether anyone will challenge her and make it known that if they wanted excuses for killing and absolution for the killers, they would have attended HSUS Expo instead? What is less clear is whether anyone will stand up and let it be known that if you truly want to end the killing of animals, you need to make it illegal to do so. You need to empower the rescue community. You need to actually commit to the mission you claim to support. And you need to stand up to bullies like Hoffman and Sayres who champion killing.
So what happens now? Where do we go from here?
I believe that the only way forward is to lay bare the forces that contributed to the bill’s demise so that in the next great battle of this war for No Kill, be it the re-introduction of Oreo’s Law in 2011 or similar legislation in another location, we can be better prepared to overcome those trying to hold back our success and the inevitable march of history. For in the end, it is the truth alone, and not our apparently naïve hope that those who have long spoken the rhetoric of No Kill and have financially benefitted as a result, will also have the courage, conviction, and even determination to put concrete action behind that rhetoric when the opposition is powerful and there are costs to be paid for doing so. When large organizations speak in opposition to our cause, even when their statement on the matter is made through silence—when they “simply” choose to remain neutral at a time rescuers and the animals need large groups to stand up for them, they do so with the authority we have entrusted to them with our support. Ultimately, their strength comes from us. When that power is revealed to be inauthentic—when the use of the power we have lent them is misused, we must look elsewhere for true leaders who will move us courageously forward in spite of any potential personal consequences.
While I was bitterly disappointed at the defeat of Oreo’s Law, while I am hurt by the posturing of Best Friends, while many of you were distressed at the failure to win this important victory for the animals, and while it was important for me to say these things, I am not in despair. Even though we learned that we cannot expect Best Friends to come to the rescue, we will win justice for Oreo and protections for animals yet. We are in a war to win the brighter future for our animal friends that we know to be possible, and as with any war, we will win some battles, and we will lose others. While it is natural to celebrate our victories and mourn our losses, we must not forget that our failures have much to teach us. We must use our defeats as learning opportunities, which, if we heed their lessons, can make us stronger, more effective, and ultimately invincible. While we may have lost this round, we’ve seen where groups and people line up on this issue. Ed Sayres and Jane Hoffman have won a pyrrhic victory because more people see them for who they really are and what they really stand for. This can only serve to weaken them and to strengthen our resolve.
Open any history book, and on those pages you will find the story of our movement: a minority group with a new, more humane vision, seeking to overcome the status quo and the voices of the vested interests which champion them. Our struggle, in the end, is not a new one. And if there is any justice in this world, it is that those who seek to hinder progress are the cause of their own undoing, even when, in our own time, it may sometimes seem as though they are winning. Hindsight is unequivocal and unforgiving of those who seek to hold back the progress which future generations will regard as self-evident.
So fellow activists, take heart. Not only is history on our side, but so is our size. We outnumber our opposition—a small group of cowering, fearful pretenders masquerading as members and leaders of the humane movement beholden not to the animals they fundraise off of, but to themselves and one another. Try as they might to hold us back, try as they might to maintain their grasp on power and maintain the charade that we all want the same thing, regardless of how many conferences they are invited to as a “featured speaker,” the very introduction of Oreo’s Law on their own turf and the chorus of thousands of voices that supported it in their own backyard prove that while they may have won this battle, they are losing the war.
Time marches in only one direction: forward. Next year, we’ll be back. And, if necessary, the year after that. However long it takes, we will not shrink from this fight. And each time we are called upon to stand up for the animals, we become smarter, bigger, more powerful, and ultimately unstoppable. And whether it is next year or the year after that, or even thereafter, eventually, we will win.
The drumbeat that started as a little patter in San Francisco those many years ago is now beating louder than ever, all over our country. And as we march, we are raising our voices for all to hear: no more excuses, no more compromises, no more killing.
Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light!
For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise!
Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing, say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!
For Part II of this article: Read “The Best Friends ‘Spin’ Machine Goes into Overdrive” by clicking here.