Valuing Animals

February 8, 2016


A few years ago, Avery, a beloved family dog, escaped from his yard and was picked up by an animal control officer. When the family went to claim Avery, they could not: the shelter had killed him. The family sued and as the No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization, unsuccessfully argued in court in support, while Avery’s family can find another dog; try as they might, they will never find another Avery. Tragically, the Texas Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that since Avery had no “market value,” he wasn’t worth anything.

Animals Are Not Mere “Property”

Given the profound nature of the relationships that often develop between people and their companion animals—the love, the mutual affection and often, the emotional dependence—is it too much to ask that our legal system recognize the importance of such relationships? That when others who have been entrusted to responsibly care for our animal companions fail to do so, that the loved ones negatively impacted or left behind as a result of that failure are compensated in a manner that adequately reflects the depth of their suffering or loss?

Tragically, the very industries which benefit most from the love and concern people have for their four-legged family members—veterinary medical associations, the pet food industry, pet product manufacturers, and others—have fought efforts to increase compensation for the victims of such harm by encouraging courts to rely on 19th century case law that held animals are mere property and by disingenuously claiming failure to do so will lead to skyrocketing costs that would preclude anyone but the rich from being able to pay for boarding, veterinary care, and other services. But this is nothing more than fear mongering and is designed to obscure their true motivation: profit.

Industry Fear Mongering

Thankfully, some courts have ignored the fear mongering and agreed that they should, awarding damages for sentimental value, mental anguish, and loss of companionship, holding correctly that when people fail to act with reasonable care, the persons whose animal companions are unnecessarily, improperly, and often illegally hurt or killed should be compensated. Despite these awards, the claims of the industries that have opposed such compensation have not come true. Contrary to their predictions of doom and gloom, veterinarians across the country, including those in states which do award these damages, are not facing particularly burdensome insurance premiums: for less than $500 a year, a small-animal veterinary practitioner can purchase $5,000,000 of coverage. In addition, the veterinary industry itself determined that if emotional damages for companion-animal loss were allowed up to $25,000, insurance premiums would rise by only $212 per year, which amounts to—on average—a mere 13 cents per customer. Even if rates “‘skyrocketed’ by 100 times their current level,” the average increased cost per pet-owning household would be $11.50. The sky is in no danger of falling.

Members of veterinary associations, and indeed all producers of goods and services for animal companions, owe their livelihoods to the animal loving public’s love of their companions. It is, therefore, the very sentimental attachment that people have for their animal companions that compels people to collectively spend $60 billion annually on those animals.

As long as these groups are shielded from liability, they have little incentive to provide better care or safer products. If anything, the availability of sentimental-value damages would encourage veterinarians, shelter workers, animal-control officers, pet food manufacturers, and other animal-service providers to act with reasonable care and thereby reduce—not increase—the number of injuries to or deaths of companion animals.

For further reading:

Friends Don’t Let Friends Kill Dogs


Have a comment? Join the discussion by clicking here.

Defining No Kill

February 6, 2016

pit pups

Read “Defining No Kill,” My new article in the Huffington Post by clicking here.

There are some who want to simply reduce the killing to some consensus-based percentage, such as 10% or less. They claim a shelter or community achieves No Kill when it saves at least 90% of the animals. This is the kind of thinking that allows a city in Florida to claim No Kill despite a pit bull ban that condemns dogs based on the way they look. It is what allows a Michigan shelter to claim No Kill because of a save rate higher than 90%, while asking people to submit a “euthanize card” whenever they surrender healthy, community cats who are not social with people. It is what allows a California shelter to kill healthy animals so long as the save rate does not fall below 90%.

Although I celebrate the increasing success of cities who are saving 90%, when they use to kill more, claiming to have achieved No Kill suggests that they have crossed the finish line and are doing all that is medically and behaviorally possible to save animals animals when they are not.

The goal of the No Kill movement is not to reduce killing to some consensus-based level. It is to end killing for all animals who are not irremediably suffering physically, rigorously defined. Otherwise, the movement legitimizes the killing of animals who can and should be saved while betraying the very ethos at the heart of the term “No Kill.” Shelter staff should never feel okay about killing, regardless of whether the animals are healthy, have treatable conditions such as ringworm, are categorized as “feral,” happen to be of a species other than a dog or a cat, are banned because of their perceived breed, or because killing such an animal won’t affect statistics that still allow the shelter to post a 90% save rate.

So how should we define No Kill?

In the most honest, most accurate, and most objective way possible:

“A shelter or community achieves No Kill when it ends the killing of all animals, except those who are physically suffering irremediably. Irremediable physical suffering means an animal who has a poor or grave prognosis for being able to live without severe, unremitting pain even with prompt, necessary, and comprehensive veterinary care, such as an animal in fulminant organ system failure.”

Following this very strict definition which serves each and every animal entering a shelter, and not just a certain percentage of them, will result in shelters making the same decisions for animals in their facility that you or I would make with our own animal companions. And only then would a shelter truly return “euthanasia” to its dictionary definition.

Read “Defining No Kill,” my new article in the Huffington Post by clicking here.


Have a comment? Join the discussion by clicking here.

Rejecting Arbitrary Labels

February 5, 2016


Every day, my wife and I go for a walk with our dog in an Oakland Hills park. The entire path is lined with trees, creating habitat for animals, and an idyllic, shady trail for running, hiking or dog walking. We pass literally thousands upon thousands of trees that the City of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Parks District plan to cut down, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of stumps which will then be soaked in chemicals that will poison wildlife, people, and the dogs who visit this park. These chemicals are made by Monsanto and Dow and have been proven to cause severe birth defects when tested on poor animals including rats born with their brains outside their skulls. They are toxic to birds and aquatic species, and cause damage to the kidneys, liver and the blood of dogs. And yet the plan is being proposed by people who call themselves “environmentalists.”

Environmentalists, however, don’t advocate for the clear cutting of healthy forests. They don’t advocate for the spreading of cancer causing chemicals in public lands. They don’t seek to decimate and poison the habitat upon which wildlife depends. And in a world just beginning to understand and experience the cataclysmic results of climate change, they don’t seek to cut down over 400,000 carbon sequestering trees.

When an agenda has means and ends that are identical to timber and chemical companies, when it is based on methods which the environmental movement was formed to fight against, and when it calls for clearcutting trees and pouring poison on the stumps, you can call such a plan many things: foolish, short-sighted, dangerous, tragic, heart-wrenching, and cruel, but the one thing you can’t call it is environmentalism.

Why are they doing it? They claim the trees do not belong here because they are “non-native,” a false, short-sighted, arbitrarily label that ignores the one constant of life on Earth: change.

Read, “Rejecting Arbitrary Labels That Enable Great Harm: Fighting the Oakland, UC Berkeley & East Bay Regional Park District’s War on Nature,” a Huffington Post article by my wife and I, by clicking here.


Have a comment? Join the discussion by clicking here.

In Defense of “Keyboard Advocates”

February 4, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, I posted how Best Friends is trying to reduce holding periods in Wisconsin, thus putting animals at greater risk for killing and killing more quickly. It is not the first time Best Friends has betrayed animals in shelters. They helped kill a rescue rights law in New York, effectively condemning 25,000 animals a year to death. Best Friends is not what it pretends to be. It is, at best, a mixed bag, doing some good things, doing some harmful things, but generally receiving unfettered and unquestioned allegiance because it buys supporters, much like the ASPCA.

In response to my post, people went on the attack, defending Best Friends by claiming that giving shelters the power to kill quicker is necessary to give them the power to adopt quicker, a claim that is singularly disturbing, internally contradictory, ethically dubious, and demonstrably false. I proposed a bifurcated holding period that would allow quicker adoptions, indeed allow shelters to transfer animals to rescuers the day they come in, while protecting the rights of families to reclaim their animals, protecting animals from being killed too quickly, and protecting animals from being killed without ever being offered for adoption.

Second, I previously showed how the claims that “holding periods do not save lives” are also demonstrably false and how the data is misused by those with either limited knowledge of sheltering, lack vision of what our movement can and should be championing, or simply put allegiance to Best Friends over minimal protections for animals in shelters.

To which they responded: people who disagree with them have “zero experience running open admission shelters. These people are merely keyboard advocates…”

And there it is…

The ad hominem attack. When attacking the message fails, they attack the messenger. Ironically, those who champion this message are, by their own definition, “keyboard advocates” themselves or were at one time. Some of them have never actually worked in a shelter and have little to no history even volunteering, but the rules do not seem to apply to them; only to those with whom they disagree.

Of course, I have run shelters, I’ve done training and consulting with shelters all over the world, I currently do training and consult with shelters throughout the U.S. I write books, produce movies, write legislation, work with elected officials, rescue animals, litigate, run an organization, and more. And I oppose this legislation. Nor am I am the only one. Others who likewise object to this legislation also have rich, complex lives that define them more broadly than “keyboard advocates.” Like me, many of them rescue, lobby, run organizations, work in shelters, work outside of shelters, and more. But even if they, and I, did none of these things, what does it mean to be a “keyboard advocate” and is being one a bad thing?

When I posted about Best Friends’ embrace of quick kill legislation, I braced myself for what was to come, as I knew it would: the vitriol, the self-serving statements devoid of evidence, the thought police who declare that we should not even be allowed to have this discussion and that any questioning of the “wisdom according to Best Friends” amounts to heresy, regardless of what the evidence shows. Sadly, for such people, a misplaced trust and need to identify with such groups or the people who work at them at some point became more important than the professed values that presumably led them to support such organizations in the first place. The ideals that animals have rights and interests independent of humans—including the right to live—are casually discarded so long as those causing the suffering or death are self-proclaimed members of the animal protection movement. For them, it is not what is right that matters, but who is right—even when they are clearly wrong.

The No Kill philosophy, the No Kill movement, the No Kill Equation, and the focus on high-volume adoptions are ideas that require abandoning old ones. Without exception, these were once unilaterally opposed by our nation’s wealthiest “humane” groups. To win support for these new ways of doing business required abandoning deification of ideas, leaders, and groups that experience proved to be wrong. And in order for a bad idea to be abandoned, it must be directly challenged. We do that in several ways: direct action, litigation, legislation, education, and—last, but certainly not least—advocacy, the tools used by every social movement in American history.

Contrary to their assertion, we need more “keyboard advocates,” not fewer.

To bash the “keyboard advocate” is to bash Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Clarkson, William Shakespeare, Upton Sinclair, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and legions of newspaper reporters who spend most of their time advocating via keyboard. It is to deny the power of the written word and relegate the protection of a free press and free expression of ideas to the dust heap.

That the venue of such advocacy is increasingly on cyberspace—such as blogs and social media—rather than books and newspapers is of no moment. That we are debating and discussing remotely rather than in public squares is also irrelevant. The 17th and 18th century Europeans had their coffee houses, the colonists and early Americans had their taverns, we have Facebook. This is where we come to talk, debate, discuss, learn, and then go do.

But that is not what these people want. They simply want to dismiss anything they disagree with by demonizing people as “keyboard advocates” because they prefer to stay within the safety of platitudes. They do not believe they have anything to learn by looking at what the research shows and how experience is changing what we think we know or how our own myopia might cause us to misunderstand what we are seeing. Instead, they want us to defer to groups like Best Friends because they are a “solid organization” who deserve our “gratitude” no matter what they do.

If you see someone condemning “keyboard advocates,” you can rest assured those “keyboard advocates” are onto something. Bashing “keyboard advocates” is code for “I object because their assessment is devastating to my case.”

The power of Facebook does not lie in hand-wringing about problems while ignoring viable solutions or the perpetuation of white noise about how “people should spay and neuter their pets.” It does not lie in deification of the so-called “leaders” of the movement simply because they are large, wealthy, or because if you lionize them as they require, they write your group checks. And it does not lie in accepting false “either-or” propositions, such as holding periods have to be longer or shorter, but can’t be both.

It lies in truly talking: about what works, what doesn’t work, what needs reevaluation, and where we go from here. In other words, the power of the keyboard lies in collectively imagining the bright future we want for animals and then working to achieve it. Behind every revolutionary movement is an intellectual tradition. Behind every movement that has ever made our world a better place is a quill, typewriter, pen, or computer keyboard. Keyboard advocates change hearts, minds, laws, policies, and nations. With a keyboard, we can challenge our society to do better; to be better, arriving at the brighter future we are striving for; on the road we paved that led there.


Have a comment? Join the discussion by clicking here.

Hope for Maryland Shelter Animals

January 30, 2016


The Maryland Animal Shelter Standards Act would, among other things, end convenience killing in shelters, including making it illegal for shelters to kill animals when rescue groups are willing to save them. It would also bring transparency to shelter operations.

According to its chief sponsor Christian Miele:

“Today Delegate Shelly Hettleman and I introduced the Animal Shelter Standards Act of 2016, the most comprehensive animal shelter reform bill in the history of Maryland. Co-sponsored by 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats in the House, this bill is a truly bipartisan effort that will save countless animal lives, and bring about greater transparency and accountability in taxpayer-funded shelters throughout the state.”

If you live in Maryland, please contact your local legislator and ask them to cosponsor and support HB 494.

If you live outside of Maryland, please share with those who do. You can also bring similar legislation to your state using the No Kill Advocacy Center‘s free guide on how to get it introduced.


Have a comment? Join the discussion by clicking here.

Next Page »