Understanding the Culture of Cruelty

February 3, 2011 by  

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog called “A Culture of Cruelty” about a cat who was allowed to slowly die of starvation after becoming trapped inside the wall of an animal shelter in Dallas, Texas. The cat could have easily been saved. Instead, every single employee of that “shelter” allowed him to die. In that blog, I wrote:

[D]on’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.

The question of course is why? How is it that agencies 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, are in fact abusive? There are a lot of answers to that question. They include a combination of the following:

  1. Working at a municipal pound is a job, not a mission;
  2. Animal control lacks accountability;
  3. Applicants who score the lowest on city aptitude tests get placed in animal control;
  4. Some agencies are staffed by prison inmates with no oversight;
  5. Employees who fail in departments deemed more important by uncaring bureaucrats are not fired, but placed in animal control;
  6. City officials sign draconian union contracts that make it difficult to fire neglectful and abusive staff;
  7. Lazy managers won’t do the progressive discipline necessary to fire them (and workers know this!);
  8. Some people just don’t care; and,
  9. Some people are just abusive and cruel.

I recently went to hear an author talk about his book on the neuroscience behind morality. He described how normally circumspect people turn off their natural compassion when placed in unnatural contexts. People we might consider “kind” or “decent” could be cruel when placed in a context in which cruelty is the norm. And what could be more unnatural than a typical U.S. animal control shelter which is little more than an assembly line of killing?

Indeed, studies of slaughterhouse workers have found that in order to cope with the fact that they are paid to kill day-in and day-out, slaughterhouse workers had to make the animals unworthy of any consideration on their behalf. And the two most common methods of achieving this are indifference and showing sadistic behavior toward the animals. They actually became cruel, increasing the suffering of the animals. And in too many communities, the implications for shelters are frightening: shelters are too often little more than slaughterhouses.

But while all of the following contribute to needlessly high rates of killing and a culture of neglect: working at a shelter is a paycheck and nothing more to employees, no accountability, poor candidate screens, criminals, lazy and inept managers who refuse to terminate lazy and inept employees, uncaring workers, and the unnatural environment; they alone or even in combination do not fully explain how it is that every single person at Dallas Animal Services, without exception, was complicit in the death of a cat because they failed to take the necessary action to save his life. In other words, they failed to do what every single one of us would have done. The answer to that question can be found in the very nature of shelters themselves and the kind of people who apply to work in them.

The fact is that as much as we want to believe shelters are supposed to protect animals from harm and rescue them when they are in trouble; and as much as want to believe that the people who work in them care deeply for animals in need; and as much as that is what those places can and should be; the ideal and the reality are worlds apart.

The good news, of course, is that an increasing number of these shelters do align the ideal and the reality. In others, they are aggressively trying to do so. There are now No Kill animal control shelters all over the U.S. and many are striving diligently toward the goal. When a shelter director says “I don’t want to kill animals,” and then works very hard to change that reality, as they are doing in places as diverse as Williamson County, Texas and Wilmington and Georgetown, Delaware, we celebrate with them. But the naked, unvarnished truth is that these places, those directors, the staff they allow to remain are an aberration.  And to get there, many of them had to fire most of the existing staff; because the tragic fact is that animal shelters in the U.S. are designed for violence and the people in them are largely hired specifically to commit it.

Employees Wanted: To Commit Daily Violence Towards Animals

Killing is the ultimate form of violence. While cruelty and suffering are abhorrent, while cruelty and suffering are painful, while cruelty and suffering should be condemned and rooted out, there is nothing worse than death, because death is final. An animal subjected to pain and suffering can be rescued. An animal subjected to savage cruelty can even become a therapy dog, bringing comfort to cancer patients, as the dog fighting case against football player Michael Vick shows. There is still hope, but death is hope’s total antithesis. It is the eclipse of hope because the animals never wake up, ever. It is the worst of the worst—a fact each and every one of us would recognize if we were the ones being threatened with death.

And not only do people in shelters work at a very place that commits this ultimate form of violence, they have, in fact, been hired to do exactly that. Can we really be surprised when they don’t clean thoroughly, don’t feed the animals, handle them too roughly, neglect and abuse them, or simply ignore their cries for help while they slowly to starve to death or die of dehydration? How does shoddy cleaning or rough handling or skipping meals compare with putting an animal to death? Because shelter workers understand that they have the power to kill each and every one of these animals, and will in fact kill most of them, every interaction they have with those animals is influenced by the reality that their lives do not matter, that their lives are cheap and expendable, and that they are destined for the garbage heap.

The reality is that truly caring people, people who actually love animals, either do not apply to work at these agencies or if they do, they do not last. They realize that their efforts to improve conditions and outcomes is not rewarded, their fellow employees are not being held accountable, neglect isn’t punished, and in fact, too often they are for trying to improve things, and they quit. And when they do stay and, tired of watching abuse while shelter managers look the other way, they come forward and become whistleblowers, what happens to them?

In Philadelphia a number of years ago, a whistleblower not only got his car vandalized, but he was threatened with physical violence by a union-protected thug. Who outed him? The then-City of Philadelphia’s Health Commissioner who oversaw the shelter and wanted to silence critics. In King County, Washington, a whistleblower was transferred to another department for her own safety. In Miami, the whistleblower who stood up to cruel methods of killing was simply fired by the director.

Tragically, in the U.S. today, we have a system of facilities where animals are routinely neglected and abused, places where the normal rules of compassion and decency toward animals to which the vast majority of people subscribe simply do not apply. And most ironic of all, given that we are told that these facilities protect animals from our own neglect and abuse, is that this system of death camps is defended and celebrated by the nation’s largest animal “protection” organizations: HSUS, the ASPCA, and PETA. These organizations tell us that the killing is not the fault of the people in shelters who are actually doing the killing. But it is their fault. They are the ones who do it. It is right in their job description. They signed up for it. And that is not what kind-hearted animal lovers do. And because kind hearted animal lovers won’t do it, they don’t work in these agencies. Or if they do, they don’t last. That leaves animals, like the trapped cat in Dallas, at the mercy of an entire department of employees who do not care enough to do anything about it.

In fact, a recent study found that 96% of Americans, almost every single person surveyed—said we should have strong laws protecting animals. They also said we have a moral duty to protect animals. As scandal after scandal unfolds in our nation’s “shelters” across the country, it often seems like the remaining 4% are the ones who go to work in killing shelters.

The systematic killing of animals in U.S. shelters is not a “necessary evil.” It is not “lamentable.” It is not “morally acceptable.” And it is certainly not a “gift” as the heads of the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, and PETA have indicated to one degree or another. It is nothing short of an ugly, broken, regressive, wholly unnecessary, and violent system and it is so by design. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can focus all of our energies on ending it. But it is taking far too long, and too many animals are being subjected to systematic and unrelenting violence—including neglect, abuse, and intentional killing—because the large, national animal “protection” organizations are defending and protecting them.

They fight progressive legislation to save tens of thousands of animals every year from those brutal environments, as the ASPCA did in defeating Oreo’s Law. They send letters and staff members to fight shelter reform, as both HSUS and ASPCA did in San Francisco, or as they have in other places such as Austin, Texas, Eugene, Oregon, and Page County, Virginia, insisting on the right of “shelters” to kill animals in the face of readily-available lifesaving alternatives. They defend the massacre with circular reasoning, fuzzy math, and their regressive, antiquated dogmas as the American Humane Association recently did. Or, like HSUS, they celebrate these agencies when they should be holding them accountable by holding “National Animal Shelter Appreciation Week,” abdicating their mission as watchdogs to be cheerleaders.

And not one by one or two by two or a thousand by a thousand or even in the tens of thousands, but millions upon millions of animals are marched to their needless deaths while these national organizations, just like every single employee in the Dallas “shelter,”  continue to ignore their plight.

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