Losing My Religion

April 4, 2011 by  

How and Why I Lost My Faith in Maddie’s Fund

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk listening to Animal Wise Radio while waiting for the call from their producer for my weekly interview. They were interviewing Jeff Daniels whose dog Bella was killed by a police officer even though she did not pose a threat to anyone. The officer was lazy, uncaring, and inept and killing Bella was easier for him than doing his job competently and compassionately. That needless killing sparked the No Kill movement in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, which Jeff’s (and Billy Lefeuvre’s) group, Justice For Bella, has spearheaded.

During the interview, Jeff described riding in an elevator with that officer months later. The officer could/should have apologized to Jeff for killing his dog. He could/should have apologized for his family’s loss. He could/should have said a lot of things to convey his empathy: “If I could go back and do it differently, I would.” Anything that showed an acknowledgment of a thing done ill, a betrayal to that which we should cherish above all, life, and the resulting hurt that he caused. But he said nothing and instead chose to ride the elevator in a deafening, cowardly silence.

In his view, and the view of some of the leadership in the county, the fact that dirty cops kill innocent dogs is not the problem. The fact that the shelter refused to do any adoptions and systematically put to death almost every single animal in the pound before Justice for Bella forced them to modernize was not the problem. In their view, Jeff was the problem.  He was the problem for exposing their dirty and ugly secrets. He was, to use their words, divisive. It haunted me all day. But not because it was surprising or news to me.

In my second book, Irreconcilable Differences, I write that “Shelters kill because killing is easier than implementing needed programs. Shelters kill because incompetence, uncaring, and neglect of animals are, unfortunately, endemic and epidemic in our nation’s animal shelters.”

I go on to say that,

But until recently, few in the animal protection movement have been willing to recognize this reality, or to state such facts publicly. Critics who do are attacked as “divisive.” Indeed, it is common notion in the animal protection movement that if we could all set our differences aside and “get along,” we would better serve the animals. But how can this be so when there are those staffing traditional humane societies and shelters who hold viewpoints and act in ways which are the antithesis of the very goals—saving lives, doing no harm, and advancing the rights of animals—that the animal protection movement exists to promote? Why should we remain silent and complacent about their failures simply because they claim to be part of our movement and to care about animals, even when their actions oppose such values and priorities? Movement unity and cohesion do not—and should not—supersede our duty to animals and the goals we seek on their behalf.

 

While it is always more difficult and uncomfortable to stand up to one’s so-called “friends” than to stand up to one’s “enemies,” stand up we must. For if we are ever to achieve a No Kill nation—and end the wholly unnecessary killing of millions of animals every year in U.S. shelters—we must respond strategically to the actual problems that cause animal suffering and prevent greater lifesaving. And the biggest impediment to No Kill is that many who currently oversee our nation’s animal shelters do not care and therefore eschew their duties to animals.

Nationwide lifesaving success will be achieved only when all shelters and all animal protection groups embrace the No Kill paradigm that says that the killing in our nation’s shelters must end—and not when we “respect” opposing views that accept and legitimize that killing. To the extent that shelter bureaucrats and their national allies oppose the No Kill philosophy, animals will continue to needlessly die. To the extent that animals continue to die needlessly, we are morally bound to speak out on their behalf. Now that we know the key to ending the killing, our silence amounts to betrayal. The humane movement must acknowledge that animals in shelters have a right to live. And that will occur only when we speak loudly and clearly in their defense, and reject the viewpoints that have historically blocked No Kill’s widespread implementation.

What haunted me about Jeff’s interview was the indecency and obscenity of it. That the person who suffered the most and who was working the hardest to make sure no animal went through what happened to his family dog was the accused.

And what bothered even more, and which I’ve not been able to shake, was that my former mentor, Richard Avanzino, felt the same way. According to Maddie’s Fund, anyone who fights back, who stands up for the animals by pointing the finger of blame where it belongs is guilty of “bash and trash” even though dissent is often necessary to force change; even though in communities like Austin, Texas, recent success was the result of a fight; even though the organizations Maddie’s Fund partners with refuse to willingly collaborate and try to thwart any efforts at reform.

And so I am going to take my own advice, advice which I believe has not only served me well, but in exposing the hypocrisy of groups like HSUS, the ASPCA, and Best Friends, has served the animals well by forcing them to back off, cave in, and modify some of their anti-animal positions. And that has saved the lives of animals, animals they were otherwise determined to either kill or allow to be killed.

HSUS once called TNR abhorrent and inhumane. They once asked a prosecutor to arrest feral cat caretakers for violating state abandonment laws. They opposed foster care, transferring animals to rescue groups, offsite adoptions, low-cost spay/neuter, and pre-killing notification to rescuers, choosing to side with killing shelters on each and every one of these common-sense lifesaving programs. They don’t oppose them anymore. Not because they saw the errors of their ways on their own, but because we fought them, publicly exposing HSUS for their anti-animal views. We’ve shamed Wayne Pacelle and he backed down. We still have a long way to go, but they are no longer arguing that two week old puppies who are still bottle feeding are a threat to public safety and should be systematically put to death as they did in Wilkes County. We did that. By fighting.

But Maddie’s Fund claims we are bashers and trashers for doing so. Claims we should collaborate with killing shelters and with groups like the ASPCA and HSUS, even when they refuse to collaborate. The capital crime, according to Maddie’s Fund, is not the needless killing of animals. The real crime is pointing the finger of blame at those responsible.

The No Kill Advocacy Center, the organization I founded, used to accept money from Maddie’s Fund, about $10,000 a year. Last year, we accepted a $50,000 gift to put on the No Kill Conference. But this year, after a very disappointing but brutally honest meeting with them, I walked away and said no more. I walked away because I no longer saw Maddie’s Fund as ineffective, but benign and I did not want my association with them to give the impression that I support their philosophy. To me, they have crossed the line into harmful. And I want to explain why. I want to put the whole story on the table and let people judge for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

I realize a lot of my readers do not have the time for a 5,000 word, 9-page blog. I realize that in the age of 30-second You Tube videos, this blog is positively unreasonable. Please do not criticize me for that. I have to do it because I want Richard Avanzino to know that I did not come to this lightly. I want him to know that I am not being rash or unfairly harsh. I want him to understand there is a basis for my anger and loss of faith. And I make it public so that, in the infinitesimal chance that one of the Duffields should come across it, that they will see the evidence laid out that they are being failed, and that, hope against hope, they will do something about it and right the ship that has gone astray. Because it doesn’t have to be this way.

It shouldn’t be this way. In fact, there is much to be optimistic about in the No Kill movement today. There are now No Kill communities in California, Kentucky, Michigan, Texas, New York, Virginia, Nevada, and elsewhere, not just across the country but across the world. The No Kill Equation has become the new standard for sheltering and is on course to becoming the new paradigm.

The hope and excitement about the future I feel today has only ever been rivaled a few times before: in San Francisco in the mid- to late-1990s, in Tompkins County back in 2001-2004, and in 1998 when news hit that David Duffield was dedicating an initial $200 million and upwards of $800 million to create a No Kill nation within five years. That was good news, but just as exciting was the announcement that Richard Avanzino, the father of the No Kill movement, would head this new effort. We were told Maddie’s Fund was a “game changer” and I believed it.

Those were exciting times and I wore my enthusiasm openly on my sleeve. But tragically, the “game changing” promise has not come to pass. Fast forward and compare that initial announcement—to use Richard Avanzino’s words—of “pouring megabucks into every community” and the end of killing in less than a decade, to Maddie’s Fund recent announcement 11 years later—without the promised No Kill Nation, let alone a single No Kill community to its credit—that they will be opening one shelter in one community in Pleasanton or Dublin, California within four years. But while the latest announcement might seem out of place in light of the first announcement, it did not cause a shock. It did not even cause a murmur. In fact, it barely registered at all.

A decade ago, anything that Maddie’s Fund announced would have made the New York Times or People magazine. Today, much of their news falls flat. And why shouldn’t it? In 1998, Maddie’s Fund announced the achievement of a No Kill nation in five years. It then announced its achievement in 10 years. Now we are told it will happen in 2015. Yet 11 years and nearly $100 million in disbursements later, they still do not have even a single No Kill community to their credit. Not one. Why?

Because while the grassroots of our movement has evolved to respond to the true causes of killing in our nation’s shelters—namely, regressive shelter directors coupled with institutional uncaring and inertia—and in doing so, has helped create No Kill communities across the U.S. by holding those directors and shelters accountable and/or forcing them to get out of the way when that is what the situation called for, Maddie’s Fund remains devoted to and mired in the disproven, harmful, and stymieing belief that “collaboration” with those who adamantly refuse to collaborate will magically deliver a No Kill nation. And worse, they attack those who disagree, who actually work the hardest to save animals, with the very thing they claim to abhor: “bash and trash.” How long will Maddie’s Fund ignore the obvious, perpetuating the fiction that community collaboration is the key to success, even after 11 years and 100 million dollars has proved them unequivocally wrong?

Maddie’s Fund collaborations in Austin (in the late 1990s), Contra Costa, Utah, Maricopa County, and New York City have not been the “game changers” we were promised. In fact, the first three collapsed in failure. The latter two are ripe with allegations of fraud and/or abuse. Maricopa County’s pound says it does not kill any healthy animals at the same time they admit they kill every animal after 72 hours, an irreconcilable contradiction; while New York City pound staff has admitted killing healthy animals even as they tell Maddie’s Fund, and Maddie’s Fund announces, that no healthy animals are being killed. (The goal has never been to say we are saving their lives, but to actually save them.) And while Jane Hoffman of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals, the recipient of Maddie’s largesse, claims that they are “on track” for a No Kill New York City by 2015, they have made those claims twice before, promising a No Kill NYC by 2008 and then 2012 and both times had to back pedal as they failed to deliver. Worse, Maddie’s Fund appears to be willfully ignoring that the city’s shelters are moving in the other direction, with allegations of rampant mismanagement, neglect, and abuse of animals prior to their killing.

There are cats who are in chronic pain, but not receiving pain medication in NYC shelters. A dog chewed off half his own tail because he did not receive proper care. Cats and kittens are going long periods without food and water. Dogs are wallowing in their own waste and not getting needed socialization. Adding insult to injury, Hoffman cannot summon the energy to denounce the treatment of animals in the shelter, but she had endless stores of it to tirelessly and successfully work to kill a law that would have saved 25,000 of them a year without a word of protest from Maddie’s Fund. In fact, they hold her and her “collaboration,” and the abusive NYC pound system as a national model to which all communities should aspire.

That, coupled with the failure of the supposedly “game changing” Asilomar Accords and the underwhelming Shelter Pet Project, is why the latest news barely registered. Even Facebook, where every announcement gets play, yawned with only two posted comments. How long can they speak the dead and naïve language of collaboration—a rebuke which flies in the face of the personal experience of thousands of rescuers throughout the United States—and expect us not to tune out?

According to the press release announcing the new shelter, Maddie’s Fund says:

We’ve invested our resources in building community collaborations where animal welfare organizations come together to develop successful models of lifesaving… We’ve now reached a point where we need to take the next step. We’ll be combining the latest developments in lifesaving with advances in technology to create a new concept in animal sheltering. And we’ll be sharing the results, both challenges and successes, with the rest of the world. (Emphasis added.)

Where are these “successful models of lifesaving”? With not a single No Kill community to its credit, how is Maddie’s Fund ready to take the next step? Nor is lack of information on what it takes to achieve success, lack of state-of-the-art shelters, and even lack of technology why animals are being killed. Why has San Francisco failed to achieve No Kill despite a state-of-the-art shelter, an animal hospital the size of a football field, a budget in the tens of millions of dollars annually, and an intake rate five times less than communities that have achieved No Kill? For the simple and tragic reason that they don’t want to. They don’t care enough that the lives of defenseless and imminently savable animals are being taken and it is within their power to prevent it.

There is little doubt that, with the protection of the Hayden Law forcing draconian Contra Costa County shelter directors to give animals to Maddie’s Fund rather than kill them, the new shelter will save lives. It will also be big. It will be beautiful. It will spike adoptions in Pleasanton as people flock to see it, just like Maddie’s Pet Adoption Center did for San Francisco. And all of that is good news. It is great news for the animals of Contra Costa. But it will not have the impact promised because it ignores the reason animals are being killed in shelters.

Five is the Magic Number

Last year, as they had two times before, Maddie’s Fund began making the claim that we are going to be a No Kill nation in five years. This will happen in every community, all over the U.S. including Carroll County, Georgia which last year killed 904 cats despite only taking in 902; in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, where staff use dogs for target practice, beat cats to death with a pipe, and use pit bulls for dog fighting; at Dallas Animal Services in Texas (a Maddie’s Fund grantee) which last year allowed a cat to starve to death while stuck within the shelter’s wall; and in Memphis, Tennessee which doesn’t care that its neglect, abuse, and overkill are on camera for all to see.

Moreover, all of these communities are supposed to achieve No Kill without anyone being allowed to stand up and call them out. All of these communities are supposed to become No Kill by collaboration, even as they turn around and refuse to do so. It is pure fiction.

What happens when the Maddie’s Fund deadline of 2015 comes and these shelters and others like them are still killing? Will they set a new date—five years down the road again—when we will magically become No Kill for the fourth time? And if the latter, do they care that people will grow weary of ever achieving it and sadly (and falsely) conclude it is not achievable because they will have heard it three times before? It is irresponsible. It is not fair to animals. And it should stop now.

We can achieve a No Kill nation. We can do it today. We can do it in 2012. We can do it in 2013. We can do it in 2014. We can also do it in 2015. But we are not going to do it without a fight because 3,000 shelter directors refuse to do it willingly and they are protected and defended by the leaders of the big four—HSUS, the ASPCA, American Humane, and now Best Friends. If we want to achieve it, we cannot stick our heads in the sand and pretend we are all on the same team, that we all want the same things, that groups like HSUS are our partners when they actively fight our shelter reform efforts. We will only achieve it by 2015 if we fight against those who misuse their power over life and death because that is what the situation calls for. Ask anyone who has tried to work with their shelter to save more lives, only to be turned away. Ask the animal lovers in Miami-Dade County. Ask them in Carroll County, Georgia. Ask them in San Luis Obispo, California. Ask them in Chesterfield and Memphis. Indeed, ask them in New York City. As it was called for in Austin, and elsewhere, it takes a fight.

In our movement, as in every social justice movement before it, change requires challenging the prevailing paradigm, and that means challenging those who champion it. That is at the very heart of social change in every movement that has ever succeeding in making the world a better place and the animals deserve nothing less from us.

As I said before, there are now No Kill communities across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. And they all achieved it in pretty much the same way, with the same programs. Given that, given that shelter directors have had 15 years to embrace a life affirming model and they have failed to do so willingly, what would Maddie’s Fund have us do about it? Given that evidence of widespread neglect, abuse, and overkill is unassailable, how does Maddie’s Fund suggest we stop it? By collaborating with those who refuse to collaborate? 11 years and $100,000,000 says clearly that this approach doesn’t work.

But what does work, what has worked, what paved the way for No Kill in Tompkins County, what caused it in Austin, in Reno, and elsewhere when shelters refuse to willingly embrace the only proven model to achieve No Kill, when they actively fight reform efforts, when they turn away rescue groups, when they abuse animals, is to force them to do so or force them aside. It is our job to call them out for who and what they are: people who find killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it. The lives of animals are at stake and, in too many communities, animal control is nothing more than a jobs program for the cruel and inept.

I’ll welcome and work with anyone who is sincere in their effort to do better and who sincerely and comprehensively follows through. In fact, I’ve extended an olive branch to people like Wayne Pacelle at HSUS for 15 years. Believe it or not, the decision to finally call him and others like him out was not an easy one for me. But given his defense and promotion of killing, and his trampling of every olive branch I extended, I had no choice.

And because killing is the norm, not the exception, and because that killing is cruel, unnecessary, violent, and ugly, and we can’t even introduce legislation to do simple common sense things like make it illegal for shelters to kill animals when qualified rescue groups are willing to save them without a power grab in opposition by the large animal groups, I intend to keep fighting. I do not see that as “bash and trash” as Maddie’s Fund does. I see that as the honorable and right thing to do.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

The ineffectiveness of Maddie’s Fund has been a painful awakening and a bitter disappointment for those of us who had hoped they would lead us into a brighter future. But existing success around the country proves Maddie’s Fund isn’t necessary in order for us to achieve a No Kill nation. We could do it, and in fact are doing it, without Maddie’s Fund. And that is good news. The No Kill movement has always been a grassroots movement and it remains so today.

In fact, filling the void created by lack of leadership from any of the millionaire animal protection groups are animal lovers and community activists who do not share their complacency and gradualism, and are demanding the lifesaving programs which are the right of every animal entering our nation’s broken sheltering system. Right now, today, taking their place is a new generation of activists demanding transparency and accountability from these organizations, a new generation of activists who do not defer to personalities, but to what is the right thing to do.

On a wall in my home are portraits of leaders throughout history who fought against the status quo for a more progressive and passionate society. They include people like Henry Bergh, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the great Alice Paul. One of the portraits is of Thomas Clarkson, the English abolitionist and tireless fighter of ending the British slave trade. Some historians consider him the father of the human rights movement. He also pioneered many of the tools for direct action and social change we utilize every day in the No Kill movement. Every time I visit a community and do a “Building a No Kill Community” seminar; every time Ryan Clinton talks to groups about “Reforming Animal Control”; every time a rescue group does direct mail lobbying, we have Thomas Clarkson to thank for pioneering these forms of advocacy. In the pantheon of great men, Thomas Clarkson deserves a seat at the table.

But by the end of his life, when the issue went beyond the end of the slave trade toward full abolition of slavery and civil equality, Thomas Clarkson was no radical. Sometimes the leaders who start a revolution aren’t the ones who take us across the finish line. Sometimes, their once “radical” activism in the face of the status quo looks conservative and even anachronistic by the time the paradigm they first challenged crumbles.

Unfortunately, later in his life, Clarkson had not realized that the ground underneath his feet had shifted; a change he himself brought about. When he gave what was to be one of his final speeches in front of the large crowd assembled for the cause of total abolition, he and his colleague William Wilberforce were drowned out for preaching gradualism and restraint, at a time people were ready for and demanding immediate and complete equality.

When I think of Richard Avanzino, I am reminded of Thomas Clarkson. Every time a shelter or rescue group does an offsite adoption, every time they offer guidance on pet retention, every time a shelter releases rather than kills a “feral” cat, we have Richard Avanzino largely to thank for pioneering these programs.

But while the movement he founded has charged out of the gate and is at full gallop, Avanzino is preaching a piecemeal, pacifying, and ineffective approach that most of us have rejected. He is still calling for collaboration with those who simply refuse to collaborate. He is still calling for gradualism despite the fact that the communities he uses as examples of success achieved No Kill virtually overnight. He attacks dissent as “bash and trash” even though dissent was what was necessary for those communities he promotes as models to achieve success in the face of dishonorable and malicious opposition by the very groups he embraces.

What seemed radical in 1994 feels gutless today, which is why I sympathize with the mood of the crowd as they shouted down Clarkson and Wilberforce. “The very demon of procrastination seemed to have possessed our leaders,” wrote one of those in attendance.

We all Have our Maddies

If David Duffield wants to sink his money into a failed model, my personal opinion is that this is a tragedy and lost opportunity to really save lives in earnest. But, at the end of the day, that is his business—as long as that agency does not actively undermine our cause. But Maddie’s Fund’s embrace of people like Jane Hoffman who fights rescue access legislation and their accusatory language claiming that anyone who fights her and others who actively impede the cause of lifesaving is guilty of “bash and trash” changes the calculation. As does their desperation to claim success in Maricopa County and New York City while ignoring the elephant in the room: the data is a lie. Healthy animals are still being killed. And, at least as to the latter, neglect is rampant. That is not benign. It is harmful.

David Duffield may have started Maddie’s Fund in memory of his little dog, but the rescuers and activists working to reform our nation’s broken animal sheltering system also do so in the name of those animals that likewise touched their hearts as Maddie touched his. What they don’t have is $200 million dollars to honor them.

So, instead, in their name, and in the name of the four million animals needlessly killed in our nation’s shelters every year, they battle insurmountable odds. They endure the heartbreak of witnessing abuse and cruelty and killing at their local shelters. They endure hostile and abusive treatment by shelter employees and directors who undermine and fight their lifesaving efforts every single day; efforts at collaboration and cooperation that fall on deaf, defiant ears. And Maddie’s Fund is financing the person that worked to (successfully) kill a law that would have empowered them, would have saved the lives of tens of thousands of animals, and given that they bankroll her, it was within their power to make her stop. But they didn’t.

More than that, they continue to shield her from any criticism and accuse those who do of “bash and trash.” They even champion the New York City shelter system that is rife with neglect and cruelty, a system which violates the constitutional rights of volunteers by threatening to fire them if they try to help the animals by exposing inhumane conditions to the public, as a national model, protecting and legitimizing that which causes harm. This cannot be the will of David Duffield. I don’t believe this is what he intended.

We all have our Maddies. We all have animals who meant the world to us. Animals who helped us through difficult or challenging times. Animals who taught us the meaning of unconditional love and whose passing left us with an empty hole we can never fill. For many of us, that is why we do what we do. That is why we fight for them and others like them. An article in the Huffington Post on the work of the No Kill Advocacy Center asked “Is someone killing your next pet?” How many potential Maddies will lose their lives because shelters find killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it? How many loving, life-changing relationships are irretrievably lost? In New York State, potentially 25,000 a year who will not be saved by rescue groups ready, willing, and able because the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, an organization Maddie’s Fund finances, killed the law which would have allowed them to do so for the simple reason that Jane Hoffman, which Maddie’s Fund holds up as a lodestar of collaboration, saw it as a threat to her power. What kind of collaboration is that?

That is why we are morally bound to fight. And waiving $200 million in front of us as a carrot can’t stop it. The truth will out. And when the new beautiful shelter fails to achieve a No Kill nation by 2015 as promised, and Maddie’s Fund finally runs out of “game changing” distractions that fail to deliver, maybe then they will be forced to recognize the cold ugly reality of who our enemy is and how necessary it is to be brave and stand up to them if we are to succeed. And maybe then, too, the Duffields will hand the baton over to someone willing to join us in the fight because as much as we all wish otherwise, that is what the situation calls for.

I fight. And I will continue to fight until every last vestige of the catch and kill paradigm groups like the ASPCA and HSUS and the shelters they defend so desperately cling to is upended. If Maddie’s Fund wants to accuse me of “bash and trash” for doing so, so be it. I am not the one that neglects and abuses animals. I am not the one that systematically puts them to death. I am not the one that defends their “right” to do so. I fight against all those things. My conscience is clear.

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The views expressed in this blog are mine only and do not necessarily include those of Jeff, Billy, Ryan, Animal Wise Radio, or any other person or group mentioned.

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