Best Friends Wants You to Pat the Bunny

January 4, 2012 by  

By Nathan & Jennifer Winograd

Yesterday, Gregory Castle of Best Friends posted a blog in which he asserted that several communities that they are involved with are poised to achieve No Kill success. They included New York City (and Los Angeles). In reality, the prospect for No Kill at any time in the near future is dire, as there are serious, institutional roadblocks to success that must be overcome in order for No Kill to be achieved – work that Best Friends is not doing, and which, in some cases, it is actually helping to sustain. In other words, if Best Friends were responsible and sincere in wanting to bring about No Kill in those communities, they would be working to tear such barriers down. Yet, instead, they celebrate the architects of those obstacles and those whose inept and uncaring leadership causes great animal suffering and cruelty. Why?

When I first took over as the Executive Director of the Tompkins County SPCA, I did everything possible to ensure that our organization was continually in the public eye, and that anyone and everyone living in Tompkins County, New York knew that we were committed to ending the killing of animals in our shelter, and that their help was needed. When I first arrived, I did a media blitz announcing our No Kill ambitions. I began writing my own column in the local newspaper, began a weekly spot on the popular morning radio show, and even began filming my own cable access program with a local newscaster who was committed to our cause.  I introduced myself at every council meeting of the cities that contracted for our services and informed them of our goal. I spoke to the local Rotary Club chapter and other service organizations. I met with local business people, veterinarians and the Chamber of Commerce. And I never turned down an opportunity to speak at any community club, no matter how small. I was not only committed to the goal of ending the killing in the abstract, I was determined to succeed by laying the necessary, concrete groundwork for that success to actually occur: primarily motivating the community – so vital to our endeavor through their volunteerism, fostering, adoptions and donations – to assist us in our cause.

As a result, the TC/SPCA became well-known in the community and soon after, when we began to show amazing results for all our bold pronouncements, much beloved. So much so that we were able not only to end the killing – but to raise enough money to replace our old, dilapidated shelter, literally an old house that had been bequeathed to the organization decades before, into a stunning, state-of-the-art, green-certified shelter – the first of its kind in the nation. Within a very short time, by systematically addressing the causes of the killing and by working with the people of Tompkins County to systematically put into place life-affirming alternatives, we became the most successful shelter in the nation and the nation’s first No Kill community.

Although common sense would dictate that our immediate and total success would no doubt have thrilled the Board of Directors that had hired me, that was not the case. While a precious few were truly grateful for the transformation, others were not as supportive. One Board member actually complained to me that we had achieved success too soon – lamenting how we would never be able to raise all the money necessary to build the new shelter and create an endowment when we had already arrived at our goal. “You created No Kill too soon,” she told me, “How will we ever be able to raise money for a new shelter if people think we already solved the problem?”

I was, of course, stunned. Was she really telling me that I should have continued to kill animals even though we could find them homes so that we could lament the “necessity” of their killing in order to raise money? I knew the Board had many detractors in the community for years of neglect and killing that had gone on under their watch and that they had a hostile relationship with the volunteers who wanted reform, but was it possible that this Board member was so out of touch with our core mission that she really thought our goal was to raise money rather than save lives?

Sadly, aside from the lack of ethics revealed by her comment, what her statement also revealed was a terrible underestimation of the community. In the end, the fact that we had achieved success was what helped us to fundraise as never before. The people of Tompkins County saw our success, and ever grateful, rewarded it with tremendous generosity.

Not long after that conversation, I received another eye-opener that further enlightened me about how many non-profits lose sight of their mission, its urgency, and the desire to address the real and concrete obstacles that stand in the way of truly solving the problem they theoretically exist to combat. Having noticed our organization’s popularity, the Executive Director of a local children’s literacy organization asked if I wanted to participate in a joint campaign that she said would be a “win-win” for both our organizations. She wanted the TC/SPCA to assist in the purchase of thousands of Pat the Bunny picture books to be given to every newborn baby at the local hospital. When I asked her how this would help our organization, there was what appeared to be stunned silence on the other end of the line. She then managed to choke out, “Well, you know, it’s Pat the Bunny.” Further confused, I told her I still didn’t get it. More silence, then timidly, “You’re the SPCA and it’s about a bunny.” I asked her how – given that people donated to the SPCA for the specific purpose of ending the killing of animals – my spending those donations on a picture book for newborn babies would translate into lives saved.  Again, stunned silence. I of course declined, but never asked her the equally salient question: how on Earth would it help her mission, either? Sure, it might make for a cute photo op, the head of the local SPCA and the head of the local literacy organization delivering a fuzzy picture book about an animal to the new parents at a maternity ward of the local hospital. But would it save a single life? Would it help a single child learn to read? In the end, it might be cute, but that was it: to quote the great Howard Cosell, “Another example of whimsy over substance.” And yet, tragically, I have come to realize, this is not an uncommon phenomenon in the non-profit world.

Sadly, the larger and more powerful an organization gets, the more timid it often becomes in challenging the status quo it became wealthy lamenting. Fix the problem, and how do you fundraise; pay the rent, pay pensions, salaries, distinguish yourself. I’ve asked the question before, “What happens to the dream merchant when the dream becomes a reality?” And for Best Friends, there can be little doubt. Their goal is not really about fixing the problem of shelter killing. They abandoned their plan for a No Kill Utah. They abandoned their plan for a No Kill Atlanta. And, in opening a New York City office, they did not even bother pretending otherwise. They were opening a fundraising office, pure and simple. In fact, they have never succeeded in creating a single No Kill community for the simple reason that achieving one is not the goal. It is about selling a dependency model whereby you give them money and they will work toward a time when there will be no more homeless pets. Even the name of the campaign reflects that focus. They do not envision a No Kill nation. They do not even envision no more killing of homeless pets; just a mythic time in the future where the need for rescue groups, for shelters, for refuge, for sanctuary won’t exist. There is no finish line so that they can keep fundraising forever. It is about the money.

As another No Kill activist once sagely told me, “Once an organization gets an office, the mission is lost.”  And I am reminded of the comment made on my Facebook page recently by Kerry Clair of Pets Alive in New York about how she lays awake some nights considering what safeguards she could possibly put into place now to prevent her organization from ever becoming a bloated, uncaring, ineffective organization should it ever become wealthy.

In truth and to be fair, I am not so cynical as to believe that such corruption is inevitable.  While it is certainly true that, for the most part, power corrupts – or, more accurately, the fear of a loss of power corrupts – in reality, the true success of an organization, that is, whether or not it strategically and effectively battles the evil it exists to combat, comes down to the choices made by its leader. Organizations reflect the personalities of those who lead them. And there are good and bad people in every field. Yet having said that, I do believe that as a society, we need to learn to be far more discerning about which non-profits we trust with our donations. Right now, we are naive and too trusting of the non-profit world. I, too, was once guilty of that.

For years I spoke at Best Friends conferences, and believed that they were an organization committed to ending the killing of animals in our shelters. But as Best Friends has grown larger, they have become more and more ineffective, and more and more timid and content with the status quo that has made them so large and so powerful. Yes, they run a sanctuary, and I would never suggest that this wasn’t worthy. But what I do argue is that for an organization that takes in 40 million dollars a year by claiming to support an end to the killing of animals, they have very little to show for it. Like the ASPCA and HSUS, they take in a large sums of money donated for a cause they do not actively or effectively champion, and which, in some cases, they have actually worked to oppose.

For all their millions, they have never succeeded in creating a single No Kill community, while the No Kill Advocacy Center and it’s No Kill Equation have assisted in or inspired the creation of over 25, on a tiny fraction of Best Friends’ budget. They could choose to leverage their millions and their influence to fight alongside grassroots activists working to create No Kill communities, but they do not. Instead, as in Austin, they wait on the sidelines until the dust settles to see who is the victor, and then they swoop in, highlight the activists, and portray the work of others as their own – calling the effort a “No More Homeless Pets” campaign so they can confuse people into thinking they were involved, thereby taking credit and raising even more money to hoard in their bank accounts.

As I mention in a recent blog (which there can be no doubt that Gregory Castle’s recent pronouncement is a response to), they have threatened to withhold funding from smaller grassroots organizations that spoke out when they worked behind the scenes to kill legislation in New York mandating collaboration between small rescue groups and animal control agencies, an effort that tragically succeeded and condemned 25,000 New York animals to death every year. And while we have vital legislation pending in several states to codify No Kill policies and procedures –  legislation that is at the heart of our cause and needs powerful allies in order to succeed – Best Friends does precious little to see it get passed (although we shamed them into writing a letter of support in Florida this week.) The introduction of these laws is some of the most significant work we can be doing to bring about a No Kill nation, and Best Friends is not actively working to ensure their passage. Put this into context: imagine legislation to ban child labor not being supported by a large, wealthy child protection organization. Imagine a law to limit greenhouse gas emissions not being supported by a large, environmental organization. Imagine a law to ensure equal pay for women not being supported by the National Organization for Women. The equivalent is happening with Best Friends’ failure to actively champion the Companion Animal Protection Act and ensure its passage against hostile, entrenched forces.

Tragically, like HSUS and the ASPCA, Best Friends has become another voice protecting poorly performing shelter directors rather than the animals those directors are killing. When fighting to defeat Oreo’s Law in New York, Best Friends defended their failure to publicly support that bill by calling the requirement that shelters notify rescue groups about animals they are planning to kill “unrealistic.” And, as a favor to Ed Sayres of the ASPCA who killed Oreo and pledged to likewise kill the legislation named in her honor, they called No Kill activists who supported the bill and asked them to please oppose it.

When it suits them, such as when they speak to the grassroots, they speak the language of No Kill. But when it comes to actually working to bring it into existence in this country, they do not support activists fighting for it, they do not actively work to see that legislation mandating that is brought into existence, and they attempt to confuse and mislead people about that.

After 150 years of large, national animal protection organizations that have been essentially given a free ride, which do little more than pander to animal lovers but do not actively seek concrete changes to better the lot of animals, many people do not even know what they should expect from wealthy animal protection organizations. By highlighting the tremendous success that small, grassroots organizations and the No Kill Advocacy Center has had in 2011 on the tiniest fraction of the budget of the large groups in a recent blog, I hoped to educate people to expect and demand more from the groups that have a lot of money, and therefore, a lot of influence. If we can achieve what we have with our limited means, imagine what they could do with their vast wealth if they were sincere. We must demand that these organizations stop hoarding millions in their bank accounts that are donated with the specific purpose of bringing about substantive change which they fail to truly pursue.

In the field of animal protection, with large, national organizations taking in the lion’s share of resources for the stated purpose of helping animals even as they use that money and influence to undermine the No Kill cause – the need for the public and activists to become more savvy – to learn to read between the lines of cleverly worded press releases and fundraising appeals – is, in fact, an urgent need. We need to learn to separate whimsy over substance, to demand results, and to be intolerant of those organizations which never evolve their approach to overcome obstacles to success, that endlessly fundraise on a problem they do not strategically combat, and which sacrifice the best interest of animals to their merciless, greedy fundraising machines.

Yesterday, Gregory Castle of Best Friends posted a blog in which he asserted that several communities that they are involved with are poised to achieve No Kill success. They included New York City. In reality, the prospect for No Kill at any time in the near future is dire, as there are serious, institutional roadblocks to success that must be overcome in order for No Kill to be achieved – work that Best Friends is not doing, and which, in some cases, it is actually helping to sustain. Castle writes that, “New York City is well on its way to achieving its no-kill goal under leadership of Maddie’s Fund and the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals.” In reality, the Mayor’s Alliance has been a roadblock to No Kill success. They have fought legislation that would have saved the lives of animals, and they have looked the other way, while the animals are systematically neglected and abused. The city pound kills healthy animals, intentionally sickens healthy animals to create an excuse to kill them, allows them to languish in pain while they slowly die, does not provide basic care, and bans anyone who tries to reform these practices. In fact, the Mayor’s Alliance has paid rescuers with Maddie’s Fund money to take animals to the pound where they are killed. Meanwhile, Best Friends not only holds up the leadership of the Mayor’s Alliance as experts and models of compassion, giving them a forum at their national conference to excuse killing and teach people how to silence volunteers (Jane Hoffman of the Mayor’s Alliance once famously stated at a seminar that shelters should not be made to feel guilty about killing), they are also raising millions through the Best Friends New York City fundraising office, while the animals of the city pound go without basic needs. In other words, if Best Friends were responsible and sincere in wanting to bring about No Kill in New York City (and, say, Los Angeles*) they would be working to tear such barriers down. Yet, instead, they celebrate the architects of those obstacles and those whose inept and uncaring leadership causes great animal suffering and cruelty. Why?

Anxious to highlight some semblance of relevance in a movement that is steam-rolling ahead without the participation of his organization — an organization that once saw itself as the chief mouthpiece for the cause and became very wealthy claiming such — Gregory Castle is willing to not only sell out the animals who are, in reality, suffering terribly in these communities, but to willfully undermine activists who are working for true reform by portraying tragic circumstances as hopeful. In short, Gregory Castle is asking you to Pat the Bunny with him, to smile vacuously and feel the fuzziness, while, in reality, his organization and the activists in these communities should be storming the gates, demanding real reform.

Over the years, I have worked with activists in literally dozens if not hundreds of communities across the U.S. who are working for No Kill in their hometowns. Often, I visit and give my “Building a No Kill Community” presentation which is intended to educate and inspire members of the community to reach higher, reject the excuses of their local shelter leadership, and to demand change.  And I end every presentation with the warning that in most cases, in the battle for No Kill, prevailing requires what Ryan Clinton called “a marathon, not a sprint.”

Frequently, the No Kill Advocacy Center provides advice and guidance to these activists, as well as ground support: writing letters to local politicians, talking to the media to set the record straight, highlighting their efforts to other activists and animal lovers, meeting with public officials, writing policies, recruiting staff, and more. In many of these communities, we invest significant time and energy. And we do so in the hopes that each of these efforts will eventually succeed. But not all of them do.

In some cases, such as in Allegany County, Maryland or Shelby County, Kentucky, the activists do succeed, and they have the facts and statistics to prove it: concrete save rates in excess of 90%, a transformation of the local shelter from a house of horrors where animals went to die, to places of hope and second chances. But, tragically, sometimes, the effort doesn’t fully succeed. Sometimes people burn out, give up, and stop trying. Sometimes I’ve put my faith in people who have stabbed me and the animals in the back. And I’ve been very candid about that. In fact, despite highlighting Philadelphia Animal Control in Redemption, I admitted that it faltered in the introduction to the second edition.

As the Executive Director of a national companion animal advocacy organization that has successfully created No Kill communities or assisted activists working to achieve it in their own community, I am always disappointed when efforts falter, or face such formidable institutional obstacles and resistance that success, at least for the time being, seems unlikely. But to pretend otherwise simply because my organization and I were in some way involved would be incredibly irresponsible.  No matter how much time or energy we have invested in a community, to ever publicly suggest that the situation was more hopeful, the animals in less peril than they really were, in order to tout success – and therefore fundraise — would be unethical and a betrayal of the animals and the efforts of future activists in that community. But that is exactly what Best Friends is doing by claiming that the communities they are involved with are poised to achieve success. They are not. And to say so, is, quite simply, a lie.

Gregory Castle writes in his blog that, “We hope that the old-line shelters and national organizations that are dithering or are on the wrong side of the fence will listen to the public and step over to no-kill.” To which the only rational, informed response is Physician, heal thyself.

Best Friends is quite simply the biggest ditherer of them all.

For further reading, click here.

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* Thanks to an adverse court ruling, every cat classified as “feral” in Los Angeles city shelters is systematically put to death. TNR is illegal because of a court injunction prohibiting the city pound from working with TNR groups. And like they did in Austin, Best Friends sat on the sidelines during the fight. When the No Kill Advocacy Center tried to intervene, Best Friends opposed it. And when the City decided not to appeal the ruling and opposed the No Kill Advocacy Center trying to appeal, Best Friends supported the City there, also.

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