Unobvious Choices: The Animal Protection Movement’s Fourteenth Floor

June 8, 2011 by  

Understanding Samantha Mullen and Other Opponents of Shelter Reform Legislation. Those of us who embrace a brighter future, those of us who seek to finally bring some accountability to a field that has historically lacked it, have found we must work to overcome the false perceptions the public, legislators, and the media have regarding these individuals, simply because they have the names “humane” or “SPCA” in their titles. They believe these organizations represent the best interests of animals, even though they are little more than the equivalent of a corrupt labor union–protecting incompetence and fighting innovation at all costs. They believe they are run by “experts” even if all they have to substantiate their alleged “expertise” is letterhead that looks legitimate, but nothing else.

The late John DeLorean’s personal transgressions aside, his insights in the book, On a Clear Day, You Can See General Motors, might well have been written about the humane movement. The book could have easily been called, On a Clear Day, You Can See the Humane Society of the United States. Or the ASPCA. Or the American Humane Association. Or, given their recent opposition to the Companion Animal Access and Rescue Act, the New York State Humane Association.

Chances are, even if you live in the Empire State, you’ve never heard of the New York State Humane Association. It is no surprise. The organization is an irrelevancy, taking in less than $10,000 a year in donations and user fees for its barely attended annual conference where the heads of kill shelters tell the other heads of kill shelters to stay the course, before they all go out for cocktails. The telephone number of the organization, listed on its letterhead, complete with clip art logo borrowed from the 1970s, is registered to a private individual also now in her 70s, with little to show for her decades of tenure in this movement.

In fact, the NYS Humane Association serves no useful purpose. When I took over as Executive Director in Tompkins County, NY, and I began to cut unnecessary and wasteful spending, annual “dues” to the NYS Humane Association was on the chopping block. We sent them a check every year because, well, that is what we always did. In return, they sent us absolutely nothing and did absolutely nothing.

Today, other than a conference filled with empty chairs, the NYS Humane Association has only done one thing of note in recent memory. It dusted off the cobwebs of its typewriter, and it wrote out an opposition memo to the Companion Animal Access and Rescue Act (CAARA). The typist? The notorious Samantha Mullen whose title “Chair of the Legislative Committee,” intimates (incorrectly) that these views belong to others beside herself. Mullen, like Ed Sayres of the ASPCA, like Wayne Pacelle of HSUS, like Dori Villalon of the American Humane Association, is what DeLorean used to call an “unobvious choice.”

DeLorean left a $650,000 a year salary at General Motors because of those “unobvious choices” on the Fourteenth Floor of GM Headquarters in Detroit, the floor that not only housed the office of the CEO and all his Vice-Presidents, but where innovation, quality, and safety went to die. DeLorean decried GM’s tendency to recruit people of little or no demonstrated talent to the highest echelons of leadership: mediocre yes-men and sycophants, men who lacked a knowledge of the business and refused to keep pace with the changing times. “If the question were asked,” DeLorean said, “’Would a man of these [few] qualifications be chosen from outside the company for this post?’ the answer would always be a resounding, ‘No!’”  In other words, GM hired cronies, rather than talent, people who were already part of the culture of failure, who lacked vision and foresight, who lacked basic knowledge of their own field, and thus surrounded themselves with others who shared these traits because they were not a threat.

Mitch Schneider, the head of Washoe County Regional Animal Services, who last year posted a countywide save rate of 91% despite an intake rate seven times that of New York City, and who is himself championing a CAARA-type law in Reno, says it this way: “A-level” managers hire people at their level or above because they want to improve the organization. “B and C-level” managers hire people below their level because they fear A-level people as a threat to their power. The end result in sheltering is that incompetent directors hire incompetent people so that they can feel safe, sustaining a culture of incompetence within the organization.

That is what we see in the humane movement. That is why Dori Villalon was hired as the “unobvious choice” to be Vice President of Animal Protection for the American Humane Association, the oldest national organization focused on companion animals in the United States, after being chased out of California shelters in Sonoma County and San Francisco for competency issues. And that is why she publicly stated that in order to end the killing, we need to adopt out 2.4 billion animals—six hundred times the number being killed. Or as she said it, in her own words, “every person in America right now [would have to] adopt eight animals” and they would have to do so every year. (Hear it for yourself by clicking here.) But her ignorance does not stop there. When asked how we should measure a shelter director’s effectiveness, she said she didn’t know. When asked how many people were looking to adopt animals, the demand side of our movement, she said “Gosh, um, I don’t know that number.” These are the “experts” shelters and public officials have been turning to for decades.

Ed Sayres was given the half-million-dollar-a-year job to run the ASPCA, the wealthiest SPCA in the nation, after destroying the San Francisco SPCA, opening up record deficits in excess of $3 million per year and plunging the agency, once the crown jewel of the No Kill movement, into disarray. His tenure was marked by lawsuits, evisceration of lifesaving programs, and lavish expenses on nonsensical personal fetishes, such as a retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming to ask the question: “Are insects messengers of our soul?” Another “unobvious choice.”

I was once asked by a city to sit on their community panel to review the leading candidates for animal control director, after they had already been vetted and passed muster with city staff. A “community panel” was the last step to being hired. Also sitting at the table where heads of neighboring kill shelters. I was the proverbial black sheep in the room. I rejected all the candidates. Why? While the others asked softball questions about their style of management, I asked each one four questions:

  1. Did they accomplish what they set out to accomplish at their current shelter job? The answer was invariably, “Yes.”
  2. What was their save rate? The answer was invariably, very low (in other words, they killed most of the animals);
  3. If their save rate was so low and yet they accomplished their objectives, what was it they set out to accomplish if it wasn’t to save the lives of animals? The answer involved stunned silence, stuttering, and an incomprehensible stream of consciousness. And finally,
  4. If they failed to save lives at their current job, what made them believe they would succeed in the new one?

In fact, when I asked the second question, without fail, the candidates were shocked. One of them actually responded, “Why do you want to know that?” And said that no one had ever asked him that before in an interview. In other words, I was asked to rubber stamp an “unobvious choice,” because that was the safe choice. They were already members of the Fourteenth Floor of the humane movement and that was all that mattered, even if they lacked the qualifications to actually do the job competently. I had dared to ask, as DeLorean did, “‘Would a man of these [few] qualifications be chosen from outside the company for this post?’” knowing, like DeLorean, that “The answer would always be a resounding, ‘No!’” Not surprisingly, I was not asked to sit on the panel again and they hired someone I would have rejected.

To this list of “unobvious choices,” add Wayne Pacelle to head the Humane Society of the U.S. despite never having worked in a humane society, calling for the killing of 2-week old puppies as dangerous, and defending pounds that kill all animals for no credible reason, and you start to understand why poorly run shelters are the norm. You start to understand why 4,000,000 animals a year are being butchered in pounds across the country in the face of readily-available lifesaving alternatives they simply refuse to implement. Why 71% of rescue groups are being turned away by “shelters” which then turn around and kill the very animals those groups have offered to save. And why we need laws like the Companion Animal Access & Rescue Act.

Like GM, the “unobvious choices” of shelters and the large national organizations have become a self-perpetuating cycle of what DeLorean called insecure executives looking for “methods and defense mechanisms to ward off threats to their power base.” Is it any wonder that GM needed a bail out after losing $23.5 billion in one year (nearly $45,000 per minute, every minute of the day and night, for a full year!) And is it any wonder we have to contend with the likes of Samantha Mullen?

In fact, the culture of “unobvious choices” in the humane movement is why Mullen can make claims about CAARA that are based on a bungled reading of the law (making at least seven false claims about it), calling basic common-sense measures such as not killing a savable animal when there is an empty cage “unreasonable,” and suggesting that asking shelters to do what they have been entrusted to do is “burdensome.” (See below.) The culture of “unobvious choices” is why Mullen can claim that CAARA will lead to hoarding and that the animals are better off dead, 11 years after those arguments were proven false in California. Mullen’s claims are a rehash of the arguments made in 1998 in California when the rescue access provision of the Hayden Law was being debated, a claim that did not bear out. What did happen was that the law forced regressive pounds to collaborate with rescue groups saving tens of thousands of lives killed in years past. In fact, in just one county (of 58 in California), the number of animals transferred, rather than killed, went from zero to about 4,000 a year. The hoarding never materialized.

But how would Mullen know this? Mullen has made a career out of clinging to the past, out of refusing to admit problems in “shelters” exist, out of refusing to have standards and benchmarks that would hold them accountable, out of refusing to acknowledge failures and refusing to correct even the worst of their deficiencies. In other words, she has failed to keep pace with the dynamic and innovative changes in the field as a result of the No Kill movement, choosing instead to fight those changes by embracing those who have no skills, training, or desire to do a good job even as they are entrusted to do so by an animal loving public which pays their salaries. In short, Mullen is the NYS Humane Association’s “unobvious choice” to be their Legislative Chair.

Mullen’s move to the do-nothing, know-nothing NYS Humane Association came by the way of the Humane Society of the United States, where, as program coordinator, she made a career out of defending the “right” of pounds to kill animals. In 2002, Mullen rallied around the New York City animal control shelter even after the comptroller’s audit found a number of incidents involving “animal neglect and abuse.” The report found that not only were animals wrongly killed, but “many animals didn’t have regular access to water and were often left in dirty cages.” Despite nearly 70 percent of dogs and cats being killed, HSUS defended the shelter, calling those statistics “useless.”

In 2003, Mullen supported the pound in Rockland County, New York, even after an auditor substantiated allegations of high rates of shelter killing and other deficiencies that were not corrected after a year. She wrote a letter opposing a No Kill group’s proposed takeover of the shelter. In her letter to the Rockland County County Executive on behalf of HSUS, Mullen underscored her commitment to killing as a preferred treatment of shelter animals, arguing against a No Kill orientation for Rockland County. Although the County Executive was inclined to turn operations over to the No Kill group, Mullen succeeded in swaying the decision in favor of retaining a traditional kill-oriented facility. Mullen’s intervention harmed the potential for animals to receive the care of a No Kill service provider.

Where did she get these views? Mullen was a long-time protégé of another “unobvious choice,” the late-Phyllis Wright of HSUS, the matriarch of today’s killing paradigm, who as Vice-President for Companion Animals at HSUS, 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.

Wright then described how she does worry about the animals she found homes for. From that disturbing view, Wright coined a maxim that says we should worry about saving lives but not about ending them and it fell upon Mullen to propagate this viewpoint to shelters across the country as program coordinator for HSUS, a job she did with relish. In short, Mullen’s job at HSUS was to fight progressive programs to save lives by defending abusive and poorly performing shelters against those pushing for reform, a mandate she continues to this very day.

You’re doin’ a heckuva job, Samantha…

The New York State Humane Association’s Memorandum of Opposition makes a number of illogical and patently incorrect assertions regarding the mandates of the Companion Animal Access & Rescue Act:

  1. It claims to be an “umbrella organization” representing animal advocacy organizations statewide. It is not. It is a self-proclaimed “association” with little support, taking in less than $10,000 a year, such as through user fees for its poorly-attended conference.
  2. It claims that a shelter “must hand over an animal to a rescue or adoption organization that comes forward to request that animal.” This is also false. The law does not mandate that a shelter give an animal to a rescue organization. It states that a shelter may not kill an animal if a qualified non-profit organization, recognized under IRS Code Section 501(c)(3), that meets a host of conditions, including a relationship with a veterinary provider and a track record of adoptions, requests that animal. The shelter can choose to adopt out the animal itself. The shelter can choose to work with a different rescue organization. And the shelter can charge the rescue group an adoption fee. It simply cannot kill an animal that has a place to go. In addition, the law allows the shelter to inspect the facilities of the non-profit organization.
  3. It claims that shelters will be forced to adopt out aggressive dogs. This is also false. The law specifically excludes dangerous and aggressive dogs with sufficient clarity and safeguards to protect both dogs and people.
  4. It claims it supports laws focusing on the “births of animals.” Supporters of CAARA also support laws curtailing the activities of puppy mills, but we recognize that we owe a duty not just to prevent future suffering by curtailing puppy mills, but also to protect animals alive today threatened with being killed. This argument is, therefore, a red herring as protecting animals today and preventing future suffering are not mutually exclusive, and support for laws against puppy mills has nothing whatsoever to do with the provisions of the lifesaving CAARA does mandate.
  5. It claims the requirement that shelters not kill savable animals if there are empty cages is unreasonable, even though this policy is in place in the most progressive shelters across the country, has been mandated statewide in Delaware, and is law in Austin, Texas, to great effect.
  6. It claims that animals may not be killed unless “irremediably suffering,” suggesting that this will force shelters to keep animals alive who are sick or injured without care. This is also false. The law requires shelters to provide care. But more to the point, it simply says that unless the animal is irremediably suffering, it cannot kill animals who are sick or injured if a non-profit rescue organization which has a relationship with a veterinary provider, is willing to provide that care at private expense.
  7. It claims that requiring shelters to charge abusers with a crime when they discover it would task overburdened court dockets. This is also false. However, if shelters discover neglect and abuse, they should file charges. To the extent that CAARA encourages shelters to follow the law and closes loopholes that have allowed known abuse to continue, this is good policy.
  8. It claims that mandating collaboration with qualified rescue organizations will lead to hoarding, 11 years after California’s rescue access provision have proved such fear-mongering to be false.

Not only is the NYS Humane “Association” basing its opposition based on a bungled reading of the law, but it is making claims about CAARA that are a rehash of the arguments made in 1998 in California when the rescue access provision of the Hayden Law was being debated, claims that did not bear out. What did happen was that the law forced regressive pounds to collaborate with rescue groups saving tens of thousands of lives killed in years past. In fact, in just one of 58 California counties, for example, the number of animals transferred, rather than killed, went from zero to about 4,000 a year. The hoarding, and other associated fear-mongering, never materialized. (See http://www.rescue50.org/pdf/haydenreport.pdf)

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