Rise, Sleeping Giant
November 17, 2011 by Nathan J. Winograd
A seminal moment in time, a fight for the future, and once again, we must ask: will Best Friends ever rise to the occasion?
and a tip of the lid
to the person
Sometimes, the importance of certain moments in history are so obvious as to inevitably create awareness among those who participate in them that what they are experiencing will forever be remembered as a momentous and unforgettable turning point in history. On July 4, 1776, when representatives of each of the colonies signed their names to the Declaration of Independence; when Neil Armstrong lowered his foot onto the surface of the moon; and when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, no doubt the people who were there or watched these events unfold knew they were privileged to bear witness to such a singular and historic moment in time.
More often, however, we are able to recognize significant moments only in retrospect, after the consequences that result from them play out and we can connect the dots back to discover that a turning point had taken place. As a result, truly important moments in time may seem, at the moment they occur and to those who experience them, as merely curious, or even, unfortunately, somewhat mundane. On October 29, 1969, when Leonard Kleinrock sent the first message from one computer to another and then smiled to himself, locked up his office and went out for a dinner of fast food to celebrate, he did not begin to comprehend that he had just used, for the first time, a tool that would become the most transformative means of communication in human history: the internet. What to him no doubt seemed like a mere professional victory was, in reality, one of the most significant moments in the evolution of human technology. And yet he celebrated alone with a soda and some French fries.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. And yet there is a way of focusing our vision to help us better understand and interpret the present: by reading history. Because human nature is so predictable, history is a story that is always repeating itself. And for those of us who work in a social justice arena like the No Kill movement, it can provide inspiration, hope and motivation.
When you are working to change the status quo, it is easy to become discouraged. Sometimes, it can feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall that will never, ever move, despite how hard you push on it, especially when your opposition is big, powerful, wealthy, and seemingly invincible. And yet history shows us that the people who prevailed in transforming our world for the better and who we now regard as heroes in the ongoing struggle for greater justice, once faced the same seemingly insurmountable odds and obstacles that we do. We can see that while they may have felt that they were pushing against an impenetrable wall, with each push they were creating fractures and fissures that, in the end, destroyed the structural integrity of the wall they were bashing, and ultimately brought a seemingly solid monolith tumbling down. At this point in our movement, when those who oppose us are still so powerful, so pervasive, and still retain unwarranted credibility with many people, we must learn to celebrate those fractures and fissures, to recognize their meaning, to feel empowered by their significance, and to exploit them to the fullest extent possible.
This past week marked just such an important turning point in the history of the No Kill movement. We were witness to the unfolding of several events that demonstrate just how vulnerable our opposition is feeling: beginning with a series of documents released by the ASPCA that referred to No Kill advocates as “extremists” and which gave kill shelters a step-by-step playbook on how to fight No Kill reform efforts; from reports that a speaker at the annual SAWA conference presented a talk on that same theme; to news that the ASPCA and HSUS are teaming together to host a series of workshops for shelter directors in Florida about how to kill vital shelter reform legislation pending there. We also learned that the ASPCA has been buying up “No Kill” domain names so that they are not available to advocates for true reform and that HSUS is launching a campaign to counter the growing trend of shelter reform laws being introduced in states throughout the country by preempting their introduction with their own watered-down and loophole-filled versions.
All this evidence points in the same direction: the heads of the large national organizations are now actively colluding together, and taking pro-active steps to defeat us. We are no longer a mere nuisance they can largely ignore: we are an active and growing threat. And while, at one time, playing defense was all that was required, they are now on the offense. They are wide awake, on their feet, hostile, and ready for outright war. And, ironically, that is good news.
When the status quo can no longer ignore you and is forced to debate you openly, the public becomes more aware that a problem exists, that there is a solution, that some groups stand in the way of that solution, and they are inevitably forced to choose sides. Given that it is our movement that truly reflects the American public’s values when it comes to companion animals, we will invariably win that debate. Moreover, groups like HSUS and ASPCA will be forced to reveal their regressive, antiquated views, making the choice that much easier for the American people. As the saying goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Over the last week, members of the status quo animal sheltering community have publicly referred to No Kill activists—people who simply want to end the abuse and killing of animals—as “psychos,” and “minions,” and the organizations we have formed to reform the cruel and deadly kill shelters in our hometowns as “terrorist organizations.” We are drawing them out, and more than ever, they are revealing their true, sordid selves to the American public, and proving the validity of our assertions about their true nature.
Reaching this point was inevitable. Although some critics of this behavior chose to categorize the ASPCA’s behavior last week as “paranoid,” the reality is that given the threat our movement poses to the cozy relationship the ASPCA and HSUS have enjoyed with the generous, deep-pocketed American public over the last 50 years, we are a threat, and a threat of the highest order. They grew rich, powerful and respected parroting a fiction we are now proving to be false, and through our successes, we are proving that we—and not them with all their millions—are far better equipped and qualified to do the job that has historically and without question been their field of “expertise.” They are truly under siege, and given that their allegiance is not to the animals but to power and money, their backlash is tragically predictable, though no less morally reprehensible for it. As yet another saying goes, “some people have things to be paranoid about.”
Over the last five years, the number of No Kill communities has increased from one to well over 25. The number of communities across the country where activists are taking on the struggle to reform their deplorable local shelter are growing exponentially. The number of average Americans who are becoming educated about the tragic truth of the American sheltering system is growing as well, and these organizations are hearing from outraged, savvy donors who no longer buy into their lies. With the introduction of our legislative shelter reform campaign, Rescue Five-0, which reached out to every single state legislator in America about the need for shelter reform legislation and has resulted in the introduction of the Companion Animal Protection Act in Texas, Florida, New York, and Minnesota (and announcements pending about similar legislation in two other states), we are not just educating Americans and then arming with the tools they need to succeed. In community after community, we are also winning. Hairline fractures and fissures of the status quo are increasing in number, and growing larger and wider. And our opposition is terrified, and mobilizing to fight us as never before.
So much so, HSUS and the ASPCA, the nation’s two largest self-proclaimed “animal protection” organizations, which, for the last 50 years have seen each other as the biggest threat to their massive, well-tooled fundraising machines, are actually teaming together to fight us. HSUS is no longer the biggest threat to the ASPCA fundraising, nor is the ASPCA the biggest threat to HSUS fundraising. We are. The question is: what are we going to do about it? As they commit to join forces and cover each other’s backs, we must ask the question: who has our back? Who can we rely on for reinforcement?
There are those in our movement who consider Best Friends to be part of our cause. And there are those like me, who, after having followed the tragic events that unfolded in New York when Oreo’s Law was first introduced and Best Friends not only worked with the ASPCA behind the scenes to kill that bill but tried to use their considerable resources to blackmail other organizations into silence about that betrayal, had their faith in that organization shattered; a loss that more recent events have vindicated even further.
A few months ago, the Companion Animal Protection Act was introduced in Minnesota. And the Animal Humane Society—one of the states’ most powerful kill shelters with a long, sordid history of fighting No Kill, immediately went on the defensive. They sent out a mailing to their donors equating No Kill with hoarding, and citing Best Friends’ original opposition to Oreo’s law as proof that such a law was a bad idea. On my Facebook page, I asked No Kill advocates to contact Best Friends and ask them to clarify their position on the bill, to publicly condemn Animal Humane Society for using their name to defeat it, and to insist that Best Friends actively support CAPA in Minnesota.
Instead, they chose to confuse their supporters and those who contacted them asking for clarification on their position by responding with a clever but thoroughly misleading statement. After being blasted by their supporters, Best Friends no doubt searched the archives of their byzantine No More Homeless Pets volunteer posting site, and were relieved to find that a volunteer had, at some earlier point, reposted the original press-release about Minnesota CAPA sent out by Rescue Five-O. Citing this obscure and buried post which the leadership at Best Friends had nothing to do with, and, in fact, were most likely unaware even existed prior to their search, they offered it as evidence that they supported the bill. And many activists, trusting that Best Friends would not act in bad faith, and meant what they said, thought that settled the matter, and dropped it.*
Then, just a few weeks ago, when No Kill activists in Florida succeeded in getting shelter reform legislation introduced there, and again, Best Friends was asked whether or not they supported it, they attempted the same sleight of hand, relying on volunteers who said they support it. But you won’t find any mention of it on their Facebook page. You won’t find any mention of it on their blog page. You won’t find any mention of it on their legislation page. Although such legislation is a crucial step on the road to a No Kill nation, and although these laws are being introduced around the nation, Best Friends is not actively working to get them passed, except the New York law, and then only after massive public discontent shamed them into doing so. They are not working to ensure the passage of CAPA laws against the hostile and entrenched forces of the status quo in Florida or Minnesota, nor did they do so when CAPA was introduced in Texas last year, and was soundly defeated by an HSUS-led coalition of kill shelters.
While achieving No Kill involves three areas: 1. leadership (getting No Kill directors to take over kill shelters); 2. shelter reform through political advocacy; and, 3. fighting for shelter reform legislation, by introducing and passing CAPA, the fight for a No Kill nation usually involves only the last two. These are the two most important areas for community advocates wanting to end the killing of animals in their local pounds. And as much as we all wish otherwise, it involves a fight. Political advocacy is important because it is crucial to convince those with political power to join the side of reform, as they did in Austin, Texas. Legislative advocacy is important for No Kill success to be widespread and long lasting. We must move past the personalities and focus on institutionalizing No Kill by giving shelter animals the rights and protections afforded by law. Every successful social movement results in legal protections that codify expected conduct and provide protection against future conduct that violates normative values. We need to regulate shelters in the same way we regulate hospitals and other agencies which hold the power over life and death. The answer lies in passing and enforcing shelter reform legislation which mandates how a shelter must operate.
As it relates to the latter, CAPA is our most important tool because too many shelters are not voluntarily implementing the programs and services and culture of lifesaving that makes No Kill possible, killing animals needlessly. To combat this, CAPA mandates the programs and services which have proven so successful at lifesaving in shelters which have implemented them, programs such as foster care and offsite adoptions; follows the only model that has actually created a No Kill community; and, focuses its effort on the very shelters that are doing the killing. In this way, shelter leadership is forced to embrace No Kill and operate their shelters in a progressive, life-affirming way, removing the discretion which has for too long allowed shelter leaders to ignore what is in the best interests of the animals and kill them needlessly.
In Texas, CAPA would have banned the cruel gas chamber; ended killing based on arbitrary criteria such as age, color, or breed; ended convenience killing (making it illegal for a “shelter” to kill an animal if a rescue organization was willing to save the animals); and would have mandated transparency (the reporting of life and death rates). But Best Friends was nowhere to be found. All told, the organization that has historically assured us it supports No Kill, it supports the rescue community, that it supports rescue access legislation, has either opposed progressive shelter reform legislation, or has thoroughly ignored it, even though they want us to believe otherwise, and are willing to intentionally mislead us in order to do so.
And failing to support No Kill legislation is not the only way Best Friends is failing our cause while trying to cleverly and deceptively lead us to believe otherwise. Last week, in response to the release of the ASPCA document, “Tactics of the Extremist Agenda,” as the entire grassroots of the No Kill movement was inflamed with outrage, Francis Battista of Best Friends also weighed in, condemning the handbook as “paranoid,” and urging the ASPCA to stop fighting No Kill reform efforts. He wrote:
Instead of cooking up fevered fantasies about an Al-Qaeda-like no-kill operation that is on the loose and may be coming to a community near you, one would hope that the ASPCA would be rattling the cages of local SPCAs and shelters and using their considerable influence in those circles to get such organizations to address the actual cause of public unrest, which is not an extremist agenda, but the killing of healthy, treatable pets.
As I wrote in an earlier blog, this of course, begs the question, why doesn’t Best Friends use their considerable influence in those circles to get such organizations to address the actual cause of public unrest? As one of the largest, wealthiest animal protection organizations in the nation, Battista is blasting Ed Sayres of the ASPCA for not doing what he and his organization are not doing, either. It is sheer hypocrisy. But, again, Best Friends wants us to believe otherwise, and is just clever enough to get many of us to think they actually are.
Several months ago, Best Friends highlighted the successful campaign of Fix Austin and Austin Pets Alive which succeeded in ousting the ASPCA-protected shelter director in that community and passing progressive, shelter reform legislation which transformed that community, leading to save rates in excess of 90%. Although Best Friends referred to the effort as a “No More Homeless Pets” campaign, in reality, Best Friends had nothing whatsoever to do with the success in Austin. While the David and Goliath battle was raging between grassroots No Kill activists and the ASPCA, and the support of Best Friends could have made a profound difference—a quicker victory, a smaller body count—they were nowhere to be found. They did not back the activists and when the shelter director there tried to sabotage No Kill by intentionally withholding medical care from animals so she could blame their illness on the No Kill initiative, Best Friends did not condemn her, but was deafeningly silent. It was only after the dust settled, and a clear victor was declared, that they weighed in, swooping into Austin to highlight the activists who prevailed, and, misrepresenting their efforts as somehow a part of a larger, nationwide “No More Homeless Pets” campaign, which—despite Best Friends’ $40 million in annual revenues—has yet to create a single, No Kill community.
If the events of the last week are an indicator of things to come—and I believe they are—we are entering one of the most exciting and potentially fruitful, though difficult, chapters of our movement’s unfolding history, and we must demand more from each other and from those who claim to support our cause. As for Best Friends, we must demand what we have the right to expect: that they put actions behind the pretty words they have whispered in our ears for so many years—to fiercely come to our defense, to finally give something back to the cause and the animals which have given so much to them; to actually do the work they have already been paid for. They must pick the right side of this fight—the grassroots—then support it with action, and not just empty rhetoric.
Sadly, I long ago gave up the hope that determining what is in the best interest of animals is the criteria by which those who run Best Friends make their decisions. I long ago gave up expecting that they will ever do the right thing for animals if it requires upsetting the status quo or taking bold and decisive action. And I don’t believe they will do so now. I no longer believe in Best Friends, but I believe in you, the grassroots. And I believe that collectively, the grassroots has tremendous power when it comes to influencing—that is, forcing—Best Friends to do the right thing, as happened when they caved into pressure and finally supported New York shelter reform legislation. The motivating effect of your collective ire on the leadership of Best Friends is not to be underestimated. Francis Battista has stated that he is terrified of the grassroots regarding Best Friends the way it now regards the ASPCA. Let them know that the only way to avoid that dreaded calculation is for them to stop acting like the ASPCA—a giant, bloated organization that fails to truly champion the cause it has grown fat feasting upon.
Our enemy is evolving, mustering its forces and forming a new battle plan. The question is whether we will respond in kind. As we prepare to meet their challenge, will the organization that has grown rich and powerful pandering to our cause ever begin to use that money and influence to help us achieve our goals? Will they ever fight in the trenches by our side, cover our backs, and help us achieve victory? Or will they remain as they are now: shallow, idle and insincere cheerleaders, standing on the sidelines doing nothing while the grassroots gets bloodied and beaten on the field before them, cheering only when we glance their way or, as in Austin, after we achieve victory without them? Will future generations, remembering the historic and tragic moment in time when the nation’s two largest animal protection organizations joined forces to fight those working to further the cause of animal protection, also remember it as the glorious moment when the other, large national animal protection organization finally put their money where their mouth is and came to its desperately needed defense? Or as the predictably tragic moment when, once again, they betrayed them?
Best Friends, at $40,000,000 per year in revenues, we expect more than pretty, but hollow words. The time for talk is over. Do something. In the name of decency, in the name of compassion, and most importantly, in the name of the defenseless animals whose plight has made you rich and powerful, join us in the trenches in earnest and fight.
* After Best Friends released it’s non-endorsement endorsement, Minnesota activists chose to promote Best Friend’s insincere statement the way Best Friends wanted activists to perceive it—as an actual statement as support, therefore placing Best Friends in the untenable position of having to deny that they supported the law if kill shelter colleagues took them to task for it—an action that they would be disinclined to do, given how it would once again raise the ire of the grassroots they were trying to quell and mislead.
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