Yesterday afternoon, just before they released the new agreement with HSUS on the issue of seized Pit Bulls, I spoke on the telephone with Best Friends. In trying to be fair to Best Friends and what they hoped to accomplish, I agreed to remove my prior posts on the issue and to judge the agreement on its merits.

I am grateful that Best Friends challenged HSUS on this and tried to come up with a “win” for the Pit Bulls. I welcome the involvement of Best Friends in helping set HSUS policy and have very high regard for Best Friends employees working in this field. But, in the end, I have serious reservations about whether this will truly signal a substantive shift in HSUS policy and a lot of what HSUS said at the meeting is still very disturbing.

For example, John Goodwin, HSUS’ Dog Fighting Czar, started the meeting defending HSUS’ actions in Wilkes County by reiterating his past statements that if we ask more of shelters, they will do less. In other words, we shouldn’t ask shelters to try to save the dogs, otherwise they won’t get involved:

It’s a deterrent to going after dog fighting what you do with the animals. If they can euthanize them, it facilitates prosecution…. Why should these dogs get to the front of the line?

In addition, HSUS initially said it would not change its law enforcement manual that recommended all dogs be killed saying that “We cannot take back what is out there” even though Best Friends indicated that they had to. HSUS continued to resist, claiming that “only 2,000 people read their [law enforcement] manual, so that is not a big impact,” ignoring that the number of people is less relevant than who those people are (in this case, those with the power of life and death over the dogs). But it appears that Best Friends carried the day in subsequent negotiations on this issue as reflected in the final policy statement.

During the meeting as well, HSUS—the richest humane organization in the country which an annual budget in excess of $100 million per year—claimed that saving these dogs was a resource issue and that the public would not embrace these dogs, even as the Michael Vick dogs proved otherwise. And, once again, to their great credit, Best Friends chastised them for “their language [which] did contribute to the [public’s] perception” and urged them to take a “a leadership role in changing the language and perception rather than just giving in to it.” And as Best Friends further stated—and as HSUS fundraisers are no doubt well aware—“resources are not the problem they at first appear, ask the public for support,” to which HSUS responded that the “rhetoric” of No Kill advocates was hurting their effort to raise funds.

And, in the end, HSUS did not even want to issue a new policy statement, but was pushed to do so by Best Friends:

Best Friends: As to a policy change, is there anything we can take away?

Wayne Pacelle: We wanted to have a meeting first before we make any decisions.

Best Friends: Are we anticipating a statement?

Wayne Pacelle: No, no statement.

Best Friends: This meeting is not a secret so there needs to be some agreed upon … [trails off]

Wayne Pacelle: We can work with you bilaterally on that.

After continued negotiations, HSUS agreed to two issues and a subsequent working group to continue the dialog:

  • The HSUS has a new policy of recommending that all dogs seized from fighting operations be professionally evaluated, according to agreed upon standards, to determine whether they are suitable candidates for adoption. Dogs deemed suitable for placement should be offered as appropriate to adopters or to approved rescue organizations. The HSUS will update its law enforcement training manual and other materials to reflect this change in policy.
  • The groups agree that all dogs should be treated as individuals, and they are the true victims of this organized crime. They also agree to support law enforcement and animal control agencies when decisions must be made regarding the dogs deemed unsuitable for adoption and in cases when rescue organizations and adopters are unable, within a reasonable timeframe, to accept dogs from such raids that have been offered for adoption.
  • The organizations will form a working group to develop future protocols for cooperation in addressing the needs of dogs seized in raids, such as how to assist with the housing of fighting dogs, how to conduct professional evaluations, and how to screen potential adopters.

Wayne Pacelle posted his interpretation of the agreement on his blog, where he admits the outcome for many of the dogs may be the same:

In the past, animals seized from these operations have been routinely euthanized. This may still be the outcome for the animal victims of dogfighters, but we agreed as a number of groups that all of us should do our best to evaluate dogs seized from these operations and adopt those dogs who can be saved.

It’s all vague. The agreement. Pacelle’s statements. They are vague. And, as a matter of course, vagueness isn’t enforceable. Vagueness doesn’t help assure outcomes. Vagueness allows for differing interpretations. Vagueness gives plausible deniability. Vagueness dissipates anger, but does not live up to the hopes of animal lovers. As such it stifles criticism, without offering anything really bankable and concrete in return. And that really bothers me.

I want to be wrong. I want to believe that the new policy will signal a radical new shift in HSUS policy over these dogs—a policy which will, in fact, result in lifesaving, rather than continued killing. And if it does, I will be the first to admit it. That is, after all, what we are fighting for.

But I don’t think that is likely to happen though, because for it to happen, I have to ignore that HSUS claimed to give the Michael Vick dogs individual consideration and determined—falsely—that they were some of the most vicious ever seen.

In order for the policy to be significant, I have to believe that even if the vague promises have teeth I can’t quite fully see, that those reforms will be fully and faithfully implemented by the same HSUS team which has time and time again broken promises and championed killing: Wayne Pacelle, John Goodwin, and those two HSUS staff who told the court in Wilkes County that all of the dogs were a threat to public safety, including nursing puppies.

I have to ignore a continuing pattern where HSUS says one thing, does another, makes promises, and then subsequently breaks them as follows:

  1. There is a scandal in a shelter involving unnecessary killing (such as Tangipahoa Parish, LA or Wilkes County, NC) or animal lovers go public in their effort to reform their shelter (Fix Austin, Fix San Francisco, Coalition for a No Kill King County);
  2. HSUS defends or legitimizes the regressive shelter, undermining the efforts of animal lovers in that community;
  3. No Kill advocates publicly condemn HSUS;
  4. HSUS defends its actions, asks for a meeting which fails to result in comprehensive, substantive, and permanent reforms, or issues a vague statement only to violate its dictates at the next available opportunity;
  5. The whole process starts again.

I also have to accept, like at least one of the rescue groups present, that it is acceptable that dogs may be evaluated and adopters and rescue groups may only have a small number of days to pick these dogs up or HSUS will be able to say they’ll “have to” kill them. Why is killing the automatic default if rescue groups can’t save them? HSUS is the largest, best funded humane organization in the country, with the largest number of animal loving members. Why can’t HSUS save them? It is, after all, not only what their supporters would expect of them, but what HSUS leads them to believe they in fact do.

But during the meeting, one of the other group representative (not Best Friends) responded that “no one is asking for HSUS resources for these dogs,” which I simply do not understand. And yet another stated that, “There are limited resources, we are not trying to save them all.” Referring to a dog fighting bust in Oklahoma, where roughly 130 dogs were killed, they stated: “Thirteen out of 145 were saved. But we were happy with that outcome.” Happy with that outcome?

Sure, it will mean the world for those dogs who make it. Sure, thirteen is better than none. But are we to sweep the rest under the rug? Why is up to rescue groups—limited by foster homes and resources—to do most of the saving and not the richest animal protection organization in the country which actually participates in the dog fighting bust and ostensibly raises the most money from the fundraising which inevitably follows?

In order to embrace the policy, I also have to ignore that the 2004 Asilomar Accords were also released by HSUS to great fanfare and billed as the future of sheltering that would help us “reach the ultimate goal of ending the euthanasia of healthy and treatable companion animals,” but their vagueness allowed for policy after policy which revealed that, in fact, the opposite is true. I have to ignore that the 2006 “pro-TNR” statement of HSUS was then followed up with HSUS fear mongering about feral cats over bird flu (telling people not to rescue cats but to call animal control—agencies with a history of killing—when they see a stray) and a statement from HSUS that it did not have a problem with rounding up and killing stray cats in Randolph, IA in 2008. I have to ignore that despite their 2008 statement embracing No Kill in conjunction with Maddie’s Fund, that HSUS then asked the court to slaughter each and every Wilkes County dog, including nursing puppies. I have to believe the following were aberrations that do not accurately reveal the “real” HSUS:

  • In 2002, HSUS rallied around the New York City animal control shelter even after the comptroller’s audit found “a number of allegations of 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, which called those statistics “useless.”
  • In 2003, HSUS supported an animal control shelter at a time when a No Kill agency was poised to take over sheltering operations 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. According to No Kill advocates, HSUS excused the failure of the agency “to correct the worst deficiencies noted by an outside inspection the year before [despite that such] deficiencies [also] violate[d] each and every one of Defendant HSUS’ own published program and policies for ‘Every Animal Shelter.’”
  • In 2003, HSUS also opposed a rescue group’s efforts to get pre-killing notification from animal control in Page County, Virginia, so that they could save the dogs, calling the request “unreasonable.”
  • In a September 27, 2006, speech at a Eugene, Oregon, town hall meeting on the issue, HSUS sent a representative who claimed No Kill was a sham, killing was necessary, and the blame belonged with the irresponsible public.

I have to ignore the August 2008 slaughter in Tangipahoa where shelter leadership decided to kill all dogs and cats for what was ostensibly a mild, self-limiting coronavirus (which cats cannot get), but which HSUS legitimized by blaming the public. I have to ignore the 2009 Wilkes County massacre.

And I just can’t do that. It would not be rational.

On the morning of the Las Vegas meeting, I sent an e-mail to Pacelle informing him of what I hoped would come out of it:

  • All dogs have the right of individual evaluation. Dogs shall not be deemed dangerous without an independent evaluation.
  • No Kill shelters and rescue groups have a right to conduct independent evaluations of the dogs, rather than rely on the results of others.
  • Puppies will not be killed.
  • Rescue groups and No Kill shelters have the right of access to save the animals, and it shall not be permitted for a dog to be killed if a rescue group or No Kill shelter is willing to accept the dog into their sanctuary or adoption program.
  • Shelters shall make non-aggressive dogs available for adoption.
  • HSUS shall assist in the adoption of dogs, through finances, boarding the dogs when necessary to avoid killing them “for space,” and utilizing its vast media and donor resources.
  • Legislation that will give all of these principles the force of law shall be pursued. It should be illegal for a shelter to kill a dog if a rescue group is willing to save him (as it is in California).

In reading the new joint statement, there is no right of evaluations. There is no stated commitment to save all the underaged puppies. There are no independent evaluations. Rescue groups do not have a right to save these animals, regardless of what the HSUS evaluation shows. And there is no commitment for HSUS to use its significant resources in order to expand the adoption opportunities of these dogs. Instead, we got, what reads to me, to be more HSUS equivocations: “recommending,” “should be,” “approved” rescue groups, “reasonable” time frame, and “future protocols.”

We got a policy that says, in essence, that these dogs should not automatically be killed, but that HSUS will recommend that they be given individual consideration and equal opportunity. But what does that mean? Does it change the outcome for the dogs? Does it mean they live instead of die? Are we really going to settle for an unenforceable promise of equal opportunity, which in too many communities means little more than an equal opportunity to be killed? Are we really going to trust that the same people who brought you HSUS’ defense of killing in Tangipahoa, LA and Wilkes County, NC are going to fully champion the dogs going forward, especially since they resisted a new written policy and began the process by defending their actions?

I am not blind. I realize what has resulted is better than the automatic kill policy, and that is certainly progress. But I also know that doing better is true by definition. You couldn’t do worse. It isn’t possible. If only one dog is saved going forward, that’s improvement over automatic destruction. And by an automatic destruction standpoint, 13 of 145 dogs in Oklahoma is significant. It certainly is better than the zero who made it out alive in Wilkes County. But it is not enough.

And but for the fact that HSUS simply refuses to give more, we don’t have more. There is simply no reason why we shouldn’t have gotten all those guarantees requested. Instead, we hold back comprehensive progress because Wayne Pacelle won’t allow for more, and we accept it for no rational, financial, or practical reasons other than Pacelle refuses. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is only this way because we let it be. The power he has is the power we give him.

And so, as to whether the new policy actually results in dogs being saved, rather than killed while Wayne Pacelle, John Goodwin, and the others are still in charge of implementation, I’ll say this in a moment of diplomatic self-restraint: I’ll believe it when I see it.

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