It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

March 17, 2009 by  

In 1993, both the ASPCA and HSUS opposed a No Kill San Francisco. The ASPCA called it a “hoax” and the HSUS spent years trying to derail it through data distortion and a deliberate campaign of misinformation. Now, both the ASPCA and HSUS are trying to hinder success yet again. If ever agencies were blind to their own interests and bent on their own destruction, it is HSUS and the ASPCA.

The Animal Welfare Commission in San Francisco is considering the Companion Animal Protection Act (CAPA), shelter reform legislation designed to maximize lifesaving by mandating how shelters operate. Ultimately, the question facing San Francisco is not will it or won’t it pass such a law? The real question is, will it do it now or will it do it later? In the end, laws of this nature are inevitable: not just in San Francisco, but in every community; and not just for sheltering, but in every social justice movement. All movements seek to codify expected norms of behavior into law. That is why we have—and embrace—voting rights acts, environmental protection laws, and laws against discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. Ultimately, such laws are essential to ensure fair and equal treatment and to prevent abuses which can come when those in power are given too much discretion—a discretion which has been abused by shelter directors to unnecessarily kill almost four million animals every year.

As I reported earlier, I was asked to testify by the San Francisco Animal Welfare Commission as part of its “exploration of a policy that would ensure that no adoptable animal (including those that need medical and behavioral intervention but would be adoptable after that) is [killed] in San Francisco shelters.” The effort is directed at saving the last 10 percent of savable animals still being killed in San Francisco’s animal control shelter—Pit Bulls, feral cats, older animals, sick and injured but treatable animals—and it is an achievement easily in reach given that San Francisco has the lowest per capita intake rate of any municipality in the nation (five times less than that of Reno, NV, four times less than Los Angeles, and half the national average) because of a twenty-plus year history of high volume, low-cost spay/neuter. If it chooses, it can easily achieve this worthy goal, even while importing thousands of out of county young and small dogs and cats, as the San Francisco SPCA is currently doing.

Why do the ASPCA & HSUS Fear the Companion Animal Protection Act?
At the meeting, both the ASPCA and HSUS testified (the latter in a letter from Wayne Pacelle) against legislation of this kind. Why? There are several reasons.

First, the ASPCA and HSUS oppose any form of shelter regulation if a shelter director asks them to do so—regardless of what is right or what is wrong, what will help animals or won’t help animals, and despite public desire and clamoring for change. That is why the ASPCA supports the decision by Town Lake Animal Control (TLAC) in Austin, Texas to keep over 100 empty cages daily, even as it claims it has no choice but to kill “for space.” That is also why the ASPCA sided with TLAC when it decided to move the shelter from its currently central location conducive to adoptions to a more remote location in order to build more office space for managers and less kennel space to save animals. That is why HSUS supported the massacre of 145 dogs, including some 60 puppies, in Wilkes County, North Carolina last month even though rescue groups offered to help save them. That is why HSUS supported the shelter in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana when it decided to kill every single animal in its facility, including cats, when a few dogs came down with a mild corona virus (which is not fatal to dogs and which cats cannot get).

Moreover, the notion of a city passing legislation of this kind is very threatening to HSUS and the ASPCA. It would prescribe how shelters must operate, removing the discretion that allows shelter directors to ignore what is in the best interests of animals and needlessly kill them. And because it would codify the programs and services responsible for dramatic lifesaving success in communities which have already voluntarily implemented them, its success would prove exactly what is needed in order to create No Kill. For example, before killing an animal, the law would require the shelter to certify that:

(1) There are no empty cages, kennels, or other living environments in the shelter;
(2) The animal cannot share a cage or kennel with another animal;
(3) A foster home is not available;
(4) Rescue groups have been notified and are not willing to accept the animal;
(5) The animal is not a feral cat subject to sterilization and release; and,
(6) The director of the agency certifies he or she has no other alternative.

As such, this law provides a course of action so reasonable, so eminently fair, and so easily doable that there should be no controversy whatsoever. Not only because the public would be shocked to know that such basic and important steps are not commonplace for every animal in every shelter already, but that a law is needed to force shelters to take these simple, ethical steps. Moreover, because San Francisco’s SPCA and its Department of Animal Control assured the Commission that they are already doing everything they can to save lives, they should also support this legislation. If they claim to already be behaving in accordance with the law, why oppose it? If the claim is true, the law would not require them to do anything differently. The reason is that they are not doing everything they can as evidenced by the save rate, and thus fear being held accountable. The ASPCA and HSUS’ position defends and excuses this resistance—when as the nation’s largest animal protection organizations, they should be voices for progress, not champions of those resisting change.

Another reason they are opposed to CAPA is that it will show, in fact, that the killing is the fault of shelter policies and regressive directors—something HSUS and ASPCA will not allow to happen willingly. By changing the way shelters operate, thereby resulting in immediate lifesaving success, the legislation will prove that shelter policies were to blame all along—in opposition to their longstanding assertion that the public is to be blamed for the killing. In fact, it will expose Pacelle and Sayres for what they truly are—bureaucrats who do not care about saving animals, but see their role as protecting a special interest group: shelter directors who do not want to change. Because, in the end, neither Ed Sayres, the President of the ASPCA—who sabotaged No Kill in San Francisco when he was President of the San Francisco SPCA—nor Wayne Pacelle of HSUS could support CAPA because to do so would require them to stand up to their colleagues, something they have proved too cowardly to do in the past.

By contrast, the demands such a law makes on shelters are and would be judged by the public as so reasonable and so successful in achieving their intended aim that for HSUS and the ASPCA to oppose them elsewhere would be politically untenable in other communities that would inevitably follow. This would force Pacelle and Sayres to an even tighter corner than they have already placed themselves through their historically virulent opposition to No Kill—how can they stand before a city council and tell them not to pass a law which leads to No Kill success, in order to defend a kill oriented colleague?

Likewise, when a CAPA-type law passes, and works, it will eliminate any perceived need for the legislation that they, in fact, do promote. Every community will have a choice going forward: continue to pass their leash laws, feeding bans, pet limit laws, and mandatory sterilization laws which have failed in every community, or pass CAPA, and realize immediate life-saving results. It will shine a bright light on just how irrelevant and obsolete HSUS and the ASPCA have become as they cling to outdated, harmful philosophies which have been proven false, no longer make sense, and fail to define a way forward from the quagmire their organizations created.

In fact, during the hearing, when the ASPCA representative referred to No Kill as “radical” and was asked by a commissioner if she really believed that, she realized too late she could not defend her position nor create a smokescreen effective enough, and she was forced to back-pedal. She had not properly anticipated her audience or the issue at hand; namely, that the idea of not killing is no longer controversial in San Francisco and hasn’t been for over a decade. So her suggestion that No Kill is “radical” to a room full of people who live in the City that proved high rates of lifesaving are possible showed how completely tone deaf the ASPCA has become, especially since she followed a presentation that discussed the attainment of 90 percent save rates throughout the country. The world of animal sheltering is changing rapidly, and rather than learn, evolve, and positively contribute, they continue their attempts to force failed, worn out ideologies on a movement that has moved beyond them.

Reading Between Wayne Pacelle’s Lines
Despite Pacelle’s unwillingness to compromise HSUS’ defense of killing, he has realized he must modify its language embracing it. In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, it was HSUS that argued that shelters should not send animals to rescue groups rather than kill them because sending them to rescue would “stress” them in transport, even though the alternative was death. It was HSUS that argued that people who trap, sterilize, and re-release feral cats were violating state anti-cruelty laws against abandonment and should be jailed and prosecuted. It was HSUS that falsely inflated San Francisco’s dog and cat death rates in their magazine to downplay the success of the No Kill effort, and refused to print a retraction when the San Francisco SPCA pointed out the lie and demanded that they do so.

But the times are changing and so is Pacelle’s rhetoric.  Though Wayne Pacelle’s letter to the Committee was wrong in its conclusion that the City shouldn’t force the shelters to the goal line, he did acknowledge that the success in San Francisco is real and is due to the No Kill Equation. But he then wrote that a community should not put in place a plan to demand and achieve that success because doing so would take the City further away, not closer, to the goal of not killing—a hopelessly irreconcilable contradiction. Under Pacelle’s muddled thinking, we shouldn’t have voting rights legislation because that will lead to disenfranchisement. We shouldn’t mandate civil rights laws because that will lead to discrimination. We shouldn’t pass environmental laws because that will lead to more pollution. It not only makes no sense a priori, it makes no sense in light of the tremendous success communities which have achieved No Kill experienced by committing to the endeavor whole-heartedly as this law would dictate.

Because challenging No Kill outright is no longer politically possible for these agencies, both the ASPCA and HSUS now have to use a less obvious, more subtle ways to fight San Francisco making further progress. They have to make it sound like they were on board all along, while simultaneously pushing the same agenda of hindering lifesaving that they always did.

That is what makes Pacelle’s spin so cleverly crafted. Now that leadership has changed and those in charge do not want to save the remaining animals that are at risk in the City, Pacelle now supports the SPCA leadership. Were the situation different, were the San Francisco SPCA promoting this legislation over the objection of animal control, Pacelle’s letter would have challenged the SPCA’s lifesaving claims, just as HSUS always has.

In the end, however, while HSUS and the ASPCA have not changed, the movement has. And this change offers the San Francisco Animal Welfare Commission a chance for its own redemption.

A Second Chance to Do the Right Thing
In 1993, Richard Avanzino stood before the Commission and asked for its support in forcing animal control to allow the SPCA to save animals in the custody of San Francisco Animal Care & Control (ACC). Avanzino was offering to save every healthy and thousands of sick and injured but treatable animals from animal control’s death row by bringing them to the SPCA for adoption. ACC refused. Its leadership argued that they should be allowed to continue to kill animals because the threat of a death sentence is what kept people from surrendering animals to the shelter. Sadly, the Commission refused to act. Given the number of lives that have been saved by the SPCA since, and how obscene it was for the leadership of animal control to demand that killing continue, we look back in astonishment that there was ever any opposition at all, that ACC leadership felt confident enough to voice that position, and that the Commission actually bowed to it. How dare animal control say no. And how was it that the Commission failed to act in support of the animals? What was so controversial about mandating that Animal Control give the San Francisco SPCA animals it was planning to kill, but the SPCA wanted to save?

Likewise, were the City of San Francisco to pass legislation prescribing how shelters in the City must operate in order to maximize lifesaving, it wouldn’t be long after they were passed that their precepts would come to be regarded as sacrosanct. In the future, we will likewise look back with bewilderment as to what all the controversy and fuss was about.

Will the San Francisco Animal Welfare Commission take what may now seem to some like a bold leap, but which history will judge to be such an obvious necessity as to leave us astounded by the hesitancy? Will they set aside their hesitation—and in the case of the San Francisco SPCA and San Francisco Animal Control representatives on the Commission, their personal loyalties—and look at the issue for what it is: granting animals the protections they need and deserve, and by doing so, help the city of San Francisco once more attain its reputation as the crown jewel of the No Kill movement? Or will the Commission delay action while other communities continue to move confidently forward? Will they wait to act until public dissatisfaction at the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of animals every year in San Francisco grows even greater? Will they wait until the fight becomes more bitter and divisive as San Francisco animal lovers watch other cities throughout the nation continue to achieve and then supersede San Francisco’s lifesaving? Will they wait to act until San Francisco is no longer hailed as the progressive city where no healthy animals are killed, but lamented as a regressive city where they are still killing animals who can and should be saved?

If history is any guide, we may be in for a long fight.

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