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HSUS Defends Wilkes County Massacre

Earlier this week, rescue groups throughout the country pleaded with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Wilkes County officials not to put nearly 150 dogs and puppies seized from a dog fighting raid systematically to death. Instead, they asked that the dogs be individually assessed and even extended offers of assistance, support, and resources. But HSUS refused, arguing that all the dogs should be killed, including puppies who were born after the seizure and posed no threat to public safety. Not content to simply embrace the killing, HSUS then one went step further. John Goodwin of HSUS attacked the animal lovers, claiming that they were “clamoring for media attention” and expressing annoyance that, in his view, no one is raising a “fuss” over the other 3,000 dogs this particular community unnecessarily kills each year.

Across the country, animal advocates, No Kill shelters, and rescue groups, as well as everyday dog lovers condemned the killings and Goodwin’s callous retort about it. Even those outside the humane movement were moved enough to share their overwhelming sadness and anger at the decision. Websites and blogs devoted to photography and other non-animal pursuits interrupted their focus to share their grief over the fate of all those dogs and puppies.

In my own condemnation of the HSUS position, I wrote that Goodwin willfully ignored that many of the groups seeking clemency for the Wilkes County dogs—and the No Kill movement, more generally—have been raising a fuss over killing in U.S. shelters—a fuss opposed by HSUS which has often sided with these shelters. I also wrote that,

Every time HSUS defends killing, their antiquated, regressive viewpoints are not only harmful to animals, they make HSUS more and more irrelevant to animal sheltering and more and more despised by those who truly love animals. And they become more out of touch with public sentiment.

Finally, I argued that,

Goodwin’s offensive claim that the advocates calling for clemency in Wilkes County were motivated by a “clamoring for media attention” is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. HSUS can only see this as a clamor for media attention rather than a clamor to save lives because that is how HSUS appears to operate. For HSUS, animals do not seem to matter unless they result in a headline and therefore donations for HSUS. For the rest of us, it’s the animals that count.

Unable to ignore the loud and wide cross section of critics, HSUS has now issued a defense of the killing. Not surprisingly, HSUS takes no responsibility and offers little in the way of thoughtful analysis. The dogs and puppies whose lives were taken be damned, HSUS chooses to present itself as the wounded innocent in the whole affair—the real victims in it’s twisted view—by blaming the judge for the “order to [kill] the dogs,” even though it was HSUS which testified in court that the animals should be killed, and then defended the decision by attacking rescue groups and No Kill shelters for daring to question the mass slaughter.

Hoping we’ll all forget about the puppies killed, HSUS also writes that, “No organization has done more to attack and harm the dogfighting industry than The HSUS.” Despite the “We’re Number 1” bravado, HSUS’ logic in support of the killing comes down to little more than this: According to HSUS, they had to call for the death of puppies who were born after the seizure, who have never known aggression, and who, in some cases, were raised by loving foster parents because some of the other dogs in the same seizure were aggressive.

In making such a ludicrous argument, HSUS ignores the whole point of the criticism: it wasn’t a question of whether a dangerous dog should be put up for adoption no matter how hard HSUS pretends that is what this is about. It was a question of whether the decision that any of the dogs were truly dangerous was made after the dogs were individually and fairly assessed. It ignores that there were puppies killed who posed no threat to public safety, that there were rescue groups willing to provide needed support, and that HSUS has the enormous resources to intervene in a life affirming way, choosing instead to champion the dogs’ death. It ignores that the experience with the dogs in the case of Michael Vick undermined everything HSUS thought it knew about the nature of dog aggression. Like in this one, it was HSUS which led the call for mass killing of those dogs after Wayne Pacelle falsely claimed that “Officials from our organization have examined some of these dogs and, generally speaking, they are some of the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country.” In fact, following their actual assessment, only one dog was deemed too vicious to save. In overruling HSUS, the court concurred that most of the dogs were rehabilitatable, and two are now therapy dogs, bringing comfort to cancer patients.

But that is not what takes HSUS’ defense of the Wilkes County massacre to its extreme of obscenity. That is reserved for two of the most offensive claims ever to come out of HSUS. First, HSUS claims that we should not ask shelters to do a better job, because they will likely respond by doing a worse one. According to HSUS, if you “impose” the “burdens” of being humane on these shelters, “they may decline to intervene in criminal fighting cases, allowing the dogfighters to continue to operate.” In other words, HSUS believes we can’t ask more of shelters because if we do, they’ll just decide to be even less humane. If we accept this point of view, we can never expect shelters to be effective. We can never demand more from our government agencies. We can never suggest that shelters reflect, rather than undermine, our values. We have to accept that they’ll be killing indefinitely. And we have to keep quiet about it or they will be worse than they are now—a wholly unethical and self-defeatist mentality that is grounded in failure. A failure that HSUS seems to believe is permanent and unchangeable.

Second, while HSUS claims to be a leader in stopping dog fighting, they champion the same attitude towards dogs that allows for such abuse—indeed, that perpetuates it: the idea that dogs do not matter; that their lives are of little value and are expendable. Their advocacy that the dogs should be killed undermines the entire principle which should be motivating their anti-dog fighting campaign. Dog fighting is horrible not only because of the pain and suffering of dogs, but because it kills dogs. And killing dogs is the ultimate betrayal—the worst thing we can do to them. To “rescue” them from the worst thing that could happen to them when they are being abused and then to turn around and advocate for that very thing to be done to the dogs makes no sense whatsoever.

In its response to critics, HSUS is essentially saying that the killing of these dogs should continue because there are fates worse than death. And, sadly, too many people who should know better have adopted this point of view, even though it is patently false on its face; and is more so because it incorrectly assumes there are only two choices available: killing at the pound or killing at the hands of dog fighters. Working hard to end the scourge of dog fighting—and to punish the abusers—is not mutually exclusive with saving the lives of the innocent victims. In fact, the moral imperative to do one goes hand in hand with the other.

I am not naïve. I understand that method of killing is important, and if we lived in a two dimensional world of shadows—if we lived in Plato’s cave—where the choice was nothing more than to be killed inhumanely or to be killed in a less brutal way, we would pick the latter each and every time. Although I have called repeatedly for the end of shelter killing, I have also supported efforts to abolish cruel methods of killing, as in the case of the draconian gas chamber—which shelters in North Carolina, the sight of the current killing, have refused to do. But that is not the choice presented, no matter how hard HSUS tries to pretend it is; nor how many times it repeats it in its statement of apologia.

But even if it were true (it is not), while cruelty is abhorrent, while cruelty is painful, while cruelty should be condemned and rooted out, there is nothing worse than death, because death is final. A dog subjected to pain and suffering can be rescued. A dog subjected to savage cruelty can even become a therapy dog, as the Vick case showed. There is still hope. Whereas death is its total antithesis. It is the eclipse of hope. It is forever. Because they never wake up, ever. The worst of the worst—a fact each and every one of us would recognize if it was us facing death.

That basic understanding is, in fact, the very underpinning of our criminal justice system in the U.S. where generally only one offense carries the death penalty because it is an offense not just in difference of degree, but of a difference in kind to every other crime. It is in a class by itself. Only the taking of a life is punishable by death.

But in this case, even this argument by HSUS is a red herring. The choice was not, as HSUS contends, a choice between continued suffering at the hands of dog fighters or death at the pound. This was not the option the dogs faced. Once they were taken into custody by HSUS and Wilkes County officials, more dog fighting was no longer an option. The option was whether HSUS and Wilkes County officials would kill them or whether HSUS and Wilkes County officials would not kill them. Their choice is now well known: they chose to systematically put all the dogs and puppies to death, a choice they defend still.

And so we come back to the first and primary principle of the humane movement: Animal shelters are supposed to be the safety net for animals, not an extension of the neglect and abuse they face elsewhere. Just as there are other service agencies which also deal with human irresponsibility, shelters—like the other agencies—should not use that as an excuse to negate their own responsibility for failing to put in place necessary programs and services to respond humanely, and therefore, appropriately. Imagine if Child Protective Services took in abused, abandoned and unwanted children, and then killed them. We should no more tolerate it for animals.

Because ultimately it comes down to this: it doesn’t matter to the dog one whiff who is ultimately robbing them of their life—be it a dog fighting thug, a thug in a suit testifying in court that defenseless puppies should be killed, or a thug cloaked in the mantel of “animal control.” Killing is killing, and the tragic end remains the same, regardless of who is pulling the trigger.