A Revolution in Sheltering

I’ll be offline for awhile as I try to finish up some projects. As we celebrate Independence Day across the nation, I’ll leave you with some excerpts from one of my recent keynote addresses at the annual No Kill Conference:

The year is 1776. It is a time in world history when nations were governed by a privileged few. A few great thinkers dared to imagine something altogether different: a more compassionate society, a democracy, the ability to end injustice through self-rule as codified in law. Our forefathers fought a war for these ideals, and once the war ended, they sought to institutionalize those ideals with laws—great change, a revolution, codified in law.

It is a legacy that is at the core of who we are and how we effect change: a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Our system of government was designed not only to solidify the ideals of the American Revolution, but to change with the changing times. As envisioned by James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, “In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”

No matter what the issue is: the fight for democracy as epitomized by Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams; the abolition of slavery as epitomized by William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass; the struggle for women’s suffrage as epitomized by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the great Alice Paul; civil rights as epitomized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harvey Milk; an end to child labor as epitomized by Lewis Hine; or disability rights as epitomized by Justin Whitlock Dart, Jr. and Richard Pimentel; all these movements culminated in the passing of laws.

The goal was not to get promises and commitments that we would strive to do better as a society. The focus was always on changing the law to eliminate the ability to do otherwise, now and for all time. The suffrage movement wasn’t just seeking discretionary permission from elections officials to vote, an ability that could be taken away. Its goal was winning the right to vote, a right guaranteed in law. The civil rights movement wasn’t just seeking the discretionary ability to sit at the front of the bus or to eat at the same lunch counters or be given equal protection and equal opportunity. Its goal was winning the right to do so, a right guaranteed in law. Because without legal rights, one’s fate is contingent on who the election official is, who the restaurant owner is, who the mayor is, and in our case, who the shelter director is.

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 that fair and equal treatment is guaranteed, not subject to the discretion of those in power.

We shouldn’t just want a promise that shelters will try to do better. We already have such promises—and millions of animals still being killed despite readily available lifesaving alternatives show just how hollow such promises are. We must demand accountability beyond the rhetoric. And we shouldn’t simply be seeking progressive directors willing to save lives. We should demand that the killing end, now and forever, regardless of who is running the shelters. And we get that in only one way: By passing shelter reform legislation which removes the discretion of shelter directors to ignore what is in the best interests of animals and kill them…

I am not a religious person, but that does not mean I am a man without faith. The faith I hold is in the remarkable capacity of my fellow humans for change and compassion. As a species we aspire to do better, to be better. We want to leave the darkness of the cave and come into the light. And when someone comes along who illuminates a path towards that light as the figures in history did for our ancestors, history vindicates us because we follow them into a brighter future.

I understand that my love for animals and your love for animals is not so unique as we’ve been led to believe. It resides in most people. Most people want to build a better world for animals. And they are waiting for us to show them how, to give them the means to do so. In our movement, the battle is not against the many, but the few; those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Right now, a small handful of people—the regressive directors in our nation’s kill shelters and the heads of the large national organizations—continue to hold us back. They hold us back from the great success we could achieve and the millions of lives we could save if only we find the courage to stand up to them together: loud, unified, uncompromising, demanding legislative changes that would put an end to the ruling power of the pretenders in our midst; that would force them by the rule of law to no longer kill or allow others to kill the animals they are pledged to protect.

We, the people in this room, the rescuers and reformers nationwide, and all animal-loving Americans outnumber them by the millions. As a movement, we must stop deferring to leaders who fail us and the animals time and time again. We must summon the determination to begin this vital process and the fortitude to challenge those who would dare hold us back. That is our mission and our challenge for the coming decade. And that is our most urgent and solemn duty.

As you move confidently into that future, prepared to meet the challenges, ready to fight when that is what the situation calls for, your allegiance never wavering from the animals, know that you are not alone. Know what was once called “impossible,” and then “improbable,” is now “inevitable.” To see what the future holds requires nothing more than a motivating backwards glance to see that you are truly standing on the shoulders of giants. We are continuing the struggle to build a more perfect union. And we’ve already come so far.

At this bright new dawn, let us seize the day:


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