Articles Articles (Essential)

Lessons from an Andy Warhol Tote Bag

Recently, my wife was given a tote bag purchased at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) gift shop in New York City. The bag has an “Andy Warhol” theme, and, therefore, not surprisingly, it also has a sense of humor. It’s made of pink and green striped canvas with a large Campbell’s Tomato Soup can—arguably Warhol’s most iconic work—printed on its front and back. Running up the straps is the famous Warhol quote, “I am a deeply superficial person.”   Inside, at the end of a long, silver chain is a soup can shaped coin purse. But the real gem—the pièce de résistance—is what was tucked discreetly inside an inner pocket of the bag: a photocopy of a 1956 letter written to Andy Warhol by the then Director of MOMA Collections, rejecting the donation of one of his drawings.

It’s a masterfully written letter, gracious in actual word choice, but dripping in sarcasm. You can infer just how audacious the Committee considered Warhol to be for daring to suggest that his art belonged in their venerable institution. Little did they know the joke was on them; as Warhol’s paintings have recently sold for as high as $71 million, and MOMA now boasts over 130 Warhol pieces in its Collection.

“Last week our Committee:held its first meeting of the fall season and had a chance to study your drawing entitled Shoe which you so generously offered as a gift to our museum,” begins the letter. “I regret that I must report to you that the Committee decided, after careful consideration, that they ought not to accept it for our Collection.” It then goes on to explain that because storage space is limited, they had to decline a work that, in their words, would be “shown only infrequently.” And as if that was not shocking enough to the modern reader, the letter ends with the most ironic post script in the history of letter writing:   “P.S. The drawing may be picked up from the Museum at your convenience.” At his convenience?! Where? At coat check?

Given the perspective afforded by hindsight, the letter is, of course, comical. And kudos to the Museum of Modern Art for being able to laugh at, indeed, fess up to, what in the end was a monumental blunder on their part. As art lovers, we can laugh along with the Museum and even appreciate their self-deprecating humor. We can forgive, forget, and move on, because in the world of art, when non-profits such as the Museum of Modern Art screw up, when they become insular, short-sighted, or fail to keep informed or open minded about the evolving field in which they are supposed to be the “experts,” no one dies as a result. Egos are bruised, perhaps careers are stalled, but no one dies. And true genius lives on to vindicate itself—and even settle the score—at a later date.

The same, however, cannot be said about all non-profits. For some, the stakes in which they engage are so high, that their advocacy—when ill informed, antiquated and regressive—can have harmful, even deadly results. They, therefore, have a greater responsibility to stay informed and on top of the field they work in. They need to be held to a higher standard. This is why the recent recommendation by the American Humane Association (AHA) that Washoe County (NV) implement cat licensing is so downright obscene. When animal welfare groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the AHA fail to keep pace, when they claim to be “experts” but promote antiquated policies, animals do die; something, unlike MOMA’s blunder, that the passage of time fails to correct. Those animals killed because of the decisions made by AHA or HSUS “experts” can never be brought back because they are gone forever. They are dead. They can neither bark or meow or purr or love or be loved ever again. And that is intolerable.

It is especially intolerable because it has been 15 years since San Francisco inaugurated the first major breakthrough in the No Kill paradigm and eight years since Tompkins County (NY) became the first No Kill community. There is simply no excuse not to know better. We know how to save lives. We know there is only one model that makes No Kill possible. And the large national groups should be working feverishly to ensure that the model is replicated in every community in the country. But they aren’t.

HSUS isn’t because Wayne Pacelle, their uncaring CEO, cares more about not offending his cronies in the “catch and kill” sheltering establishment than he does about the animals. He has made the willful decision that the animals be damned so HSUS can champion poorly performing shelters and provide political cover for shelter managers who find killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it.

And AHA doesn’t because they choose to remain willfully ignorant. That is disconcerting enough. But that they are going into communities and giving advice that will cause animals to lose their lives is what makes it especially egregious. It is also a lost opportunity to influence shelter policy in a positive, life-affirming way.

Recently, AHA was asked to review Washoe County Regional Animal Services (WCRAS) in Reno, Nevada. Reno is also the home of the Nevada Humane Society, a shelter that not only shares a facility with WCRAS, but is a shelter I’ve been working with since 2006. I did two assessments of NHS since early 2007, recruited the Executive Director, helped write and implement policies, and am currently in the process of recruiting their Associate Director. I’ve also spent plenty of time at WCRAS, the WCRAS director was a speaker at the No Kill Conference in Washington D.C. I organized, and I recruited him as one of the panelists for the Committee reviewing candidates for the open NHS leadership position. I am very familiar with both the challenges and successes in Washoe County, which I have documented in over 200 pages of recommendations and model policies. Washoe County, as of the first ten months of this year, is saving 92% of all dogs and 88% of all cats.

The difference between the dog save rate and the cat save rate comes down largely to one program: the lack of a full scale, widespread municipally endorsed Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) program, although WCRAS is now in favor of such an approach. But regardless of the 4% differential in lifesaving, Reno is one of the safest communities for both dogs and cats in the United States, saving nine out of ten animals and they achieved that success in one way: by following the No Kill Equation and by rejecting the failed 19th Century model of catch and kill sheltering sponsored and promoted by AHA-HSUS-and the equally “deeply superficial” ASPCA’s punitive legislation approach: a model that not only has never been successful in the U.S., it is also a failure in Australia as the No Kill Advocacy Center recently reported.

But that did not stop AHA from recommending that Washoe County implement mandatory cat licensing in their final report. In 1995, the San Francisco SPCA published what remains the definitive refutation of cat licensing in the United States, almost 15 years ago. That position paper was distributed all over the country and even presented to AHA when I met with their shelter services leadership at the San Francisco SPCA back in 1999. I personally hand-delivered it in a meeting in the conference room at the SPCA’s Adoption Center. Cat licensing, like other punitive laws, remains a license to kill and to increase the power of the animal control bureaucracy, at the expense of the animals.

So why did AHA advocate a failed model of punitive legislation that has never worked, has resulted in increased killing in those jurisdictions that have implemented it, and is in contravention of the only model that has actually succeeded: the No Kill Equation. Though it claims to be an “expert” at shelter operations, AHA is recommending a centuries old model rooted in killing and failure, while ignoring the only model that has achieved success at saving lives.

As I state in my upcoming new book: “Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters,”

Only the No Kill Equation model has achieved this success. It is a program model which changes the way shelters operate and which gives the animal loving public an integral role in that operation. If a community wants success, this is the way to go: nothing else has succeeded. Trying to achieve a new end with a failed model doesn’t make sense.

When both I and Bonney Brown, the executive director of NHS, openly challenged AHA about their cat licensing recommendation, AHA defended itself stating:

American Humane’s recommendation that Washoe county consider implementing a cat licensing program is based on the National Animal Control Association’s (NACA) best practice guidelines and the expertise of our field services consultant, a former animal control director and NACA president who has over 30 years experience in the field. NACA is the national professional organization for animal care and control and the only organization that provides certification of animal control officers.

NACA is an industry trade group that represents people who kill millions of animals every year. They give awards to people and shelters that kill large numbers of animals. Has this supposed “expert” and “former animal control director” and “NACA president” ever achieved No Kill success? If he couldn’t achieve No Kill in 30 years, what business does he have telling a shelter that is currently saving 90% of all animals what they should be doing? In fact, NACA is on record calling No Kill a “delusion.” They have embraced Sue Sternberg’s anti-Pit Bull/anti-dog methods and policies, even though her methods do little but give shelters the excuse they need to kill savable dogs. They have condemned cats to death despite the TNR alternative. And they have consistently sought punitive schemes like cat licensing to give the officers they represent more power—a power that comes at the expense of animals. Cat licensing gives these officers one more reason to find animals in violation of law and subject to either citation and/or impound, and thus killing. If NACA staff and members are expert at anything, it is at how to kill animals. That is not the kind of advice Washoe County needs and it is certainly not the kind of advice that AHA, which claims to be about protecting animals, should be following.

This is also why we must conclude that AHA’s “Getting to Zero” campaign is so hypocritical and insincere. How do you have the hubris to claim you have the expertise to help shelters “get to zero” killing for healthy and treatable animals when none of your experts have ever achieved No Kill and when they remain willfully ignorant of what is truly required to do so? When you give advice that will actually undermine a community’s ability to do so? That will divert resources which should be used for lifesaving programs to enforcement of needless and counterproductive punitive mandates? It can’t be done. It has never been done. And it never will be done. Enough is enough.

No one in the movement seriously entertains the belief that AHA is a leader. But if they are going to claim a leadership position, they should lead. Relying on the consensus of an agency with a killing orientation is at odds with true leadership in the animal protection movement. If they are not going to change, they would best serve the animals by getting out of the way; by stopping their attempts to perpetuate failed and deadly policies.

It is time that the humane community and city governments cease relying on the advice of agencies and individuals that have never achieved No Kill success. In fact, it is irresponsible for individuals and organizations with absolutely no experience achieving No Kill to be offering themselves as experts, especially in light of the evidence that it is a concept to which they have been historically opposed, have at best only a superficial understanding of the dynamic and exciting changes occurring in the field of animal sheltering as a result of the No Kill movement, and do not embrace the only model that has proven successful in those communities which have implemented it. In short, Washoe County should not be following the recommendations of people who have had, by their own admission, 30 years to achieve No Kill success, but have utterly failed to do so.

The definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Which leaves me to ponder the questions: Who are the people running AHA? Where is the cave they work out of? Where do they get the audacity to recommend what they recommended to one of the nation’s most successful lifesaving communities? And do they have any conception of how their antiquated recommendations expose the depths of their ignorance and unprofessionalism?

One of the most tragic things I have learned working in the No Kill field is how steadfast in defense of the status quo many in the humane movement remain, in spite of the body count. And while I have been forced to conclude that self-preservation and uncaring are at the heart of their resistance, I cannot conceive of how, at some point, this devotion to self-preservation would not also compel such people to read the writing on the wall and thus embrace the inevitable. I also cannot conceive of how their desire for self-preservation doesn’t force them to abandon outdated, disproven, regressive “deeply superficial” policies if for no other reason than to spare themselves the embarrassment of promoting a viewpoint that is so completely out of touch with reality. The earth is not flat, no matter how many times AHA and NACA say it is.

For additional reading: San Francisco SPCA, “Against Mandatory Cat Licensing,” 1995.