A Culture of Cruelty
January 21, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
If you were a cat and you happened to be stuck in a wall, where is the worst place for that to happen? Is it, say, a prison filled with criminals? Is it a construction site where tearing up a wall to free the cat would cost money and impact profits? Or is it, say, an animal shelter filled with people who are supposed to protect animals from harm and rescue them when they are in trouble, people who are paid to care for animals in need?
If I were to have asked this question just a few short years ago, most people would have answered the first. Some would have answered the second. None would have said the third. Today, only those who have been living under the proverbial rock would not answer the so-called “shelter.” Not only because there are prisons with TNR programs and prisons with foster care programs. And not only because despite the profit motive, we know that most people do care about animals and will help them if they are in need. But also because we are no longer naïve. We no longer believe that animal shelters are filled with animal lovers, people who would leave no stone unturned to save their lives. We no longer believe that “we are all on the same team” and that we are “all dedicated to the mutual goal of saving animal lives.” We now know that working in a shelter is a “job” for too many—a job no different that working for the department of sanitation and picking up the trash every week, with a difference. The latter job actually helps people, is actually honest labor, and fulfills a necessary function to improve society.
But for a cat stuck in a wall in a U.S. animal shelter, a cat who was stuck near the employee break room, where every employee could hear his cries while they sat and drank coffee, and ate lunch, and gossiped, and laughed, and regaled each other with what movies they’ve seen, how much they had to drink, who was dating who, there was no help. They later told a newspaper reporter that they “pleaded” with their superiors to do something about it. But none of them did what compassionate dictates. None of them took action themselves. They looked the other way while their superiors did nothing. And because of that, the cat paid the ultimate price.
Imagine it. Really try to imagine it. A shelter filled with employees whose job it is to care for animals. Imagine a cat calling out in panic or fear, stuck in a wall, where the employees are eating and laughing and not a single one does anything about it. Sure, one of them calls a cruelty investigator and he comes and determines that yes, the cat is stuck in the wall. But he doesn’t rescue the cat. Others ask managers, each other, “will someone rescue the cat?” But no one does. And they keep right on eating their lunches, they keep right on laughing, they keep right on talking and gossiping and doing those things that people do in lunch rooms. And meanwhile, the cats’ cries are getting more desperate, then more weak, and then they finally stop. And a short time later, the smell comes. The smell of a decomposing body. And only then do they complain in earnest. How can we eat lunch in here, how can we laugh and gossip and talk with that smell? And because it now affects them, they do something about it. They cut open a hole in the wall to remove the dead body, while every single one of us wants to scream: tear open the wall! Why didn’t any of them tear open the wall?
That is what happened at Dallas Animal Services, a badly mismanaged house of horrors with an indifferent and incompetent shelter director, underperforming uncaring shirkers for staff, and a “cruelty investigator” who allowed cruelty to happen right under his nose and looked the other way, while the cat slowly starved to death. And each and every one of them, without exception, should be fired. Every single one.
And it gets worse. Dallas takes in roughly the same number of animals as Austin, Texas. But while Austin is now saving nine out of ten animals, Dallas is killing more than seven out of ten. And Dallas has a bigger population, which means they are taking in less animals per capita than Austin. This is YOUR animal shelter. The one that blames YOU for the killing. In fact, in response to the cruelty within their facility, the Division Manager did just that. He said that we need “public responsibility” to fix the problems that afflict Dallas Animal Services: If the public just sterilized their animals, if they licensed their dogs, Dallas Animal Services would be a model of compassion.
As if we are to believe they care about spay/neuter or adoption or increasing owner reclaims or any effort to improve lifesaving when they are capable of such mind-numbing, heart-wrenching indifference in the face of a terrified, starving cat that they had the power to save, but chose—chose—not to. As if the public is to blame for their own neglect, cruelty, indifference, and incompetence. As if the public in Dallas is somehow different than the public in Austin. Or the public in Reno or the public in Tompkins or the public in Marquette or the public anywhere shelters are embracing accountability and saving 90% or better of the animals. There is only one solution: Fire every single one of them.
And don’t think for a second that Dallas is unique. Don’t think that this is the result of a “few bad apples.” Indifference, incompetence, neglect, and cruelty are epidemic and endemic to animal control. This is Robeson County or Lincoln County or Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC. It is Miami-Dade, FL. It is Harrison County, OH. It is Carroll or Floyd County, GA. It is a shelter near you. In fact, for many animals, the first time they experience neglect or cruelty is at the “shelter” that is supposed to protect them from it. And it has to end by firing every single one of them.
But how can you run an animal shelter with no staff? You don’t have to. Go to the nearest dog park and hire the first person you see. And tell them to bring all their friends. Hand them the keys, hand them the $6.5 million dollar budget, and tell them to go forth. I guarantee they will do a much better job than the two-bit thugs who stuffed their mouths with food, grinned at the off-color jokes, and tried to one-up each other with stories about who had the most to drink at which party, while a cat—a terrified, hungry, cat—cried out for help while they ignored him and he slowly starved to death.
We are a nation of animal lovers. We spend $50 billion every year on their care. We miss work when they are sick. We cut back on our own needs during difficult economic times because we can’t bear to cut back on theirs. And when it is time to say good-bye for the last time, we grieve. We deserve shelters that reflect our values.
And I would bet it all that that poor cat, crying out for compassion inside the lunch room wall at the Dallas House of Horrors which has the audacity to call itself a “shelter” would still be alive today if the first person we see at the dog park and all his or her friends were running it instead.
For more reading: As Blue as The Summer Sky: Austin, Then & Now.