Articles ASPCA

No More Empty Suits

A letter to Tim Wray, Chairman of the ASPCA Board of Directors


By Nathan & Jennifer Winograd

The outgoing President of the organization you oversee, the ASPCA, leaves in his wake a legacy of controversy and betrayal. His tenure is marked by his heartless killing of Oreo and other animals who rescuers offered to save, his defeat of rescue rights laws in New York while championing laws that eviscerated shelter holding periods, of releasing manuals which sought to educate shelter directors about how to fight No Kill reform efforts (efforts that were characterized as essentially acts of terrorism), of promoting sham shelter “reform” programs which exacerbated rather than lessened shelter killing, of an animal cruelty investigation division which failed to do its job thereby leaving abused and suffering New York City animals to die, of funding operations that raise animals to be slaughtered for food, and of defending the cruel and abusive New York city pound. In short, Ed Sayres lack of philosophical commitment to the cause which he was entrusted to represent is evident in his tragic legacy, and can best be summed up in the statement he made to the most widely read newspaper in America, USA Today. In 2007, he was quoted as having said, “There is no room for No Kill as morally superior,” equating the needless killing of four million animals a year as the ethical equivalent of a movement which actually saves their lives.

As bad as Sayres was, as a President of the ASPCA, he was rather typical in his lack of positive accomplishment for animals. Besides Henry Bergh, there isn’t a single person who has served as the former President of the ASPCA over the last 100 years whose name we celebrate or remember as having achieved substantive progress for animals, of having authentically and effectively championed the cause or furthered the animal protection movement in any meaningful way. Why? Because they were not expected to.

The qualifications the Board of Directors has looked for when recruiting for the job of ASPCA President have historically been simple ones: to look the part, to give the impression of being concerned about animal welfare by merely regurgitating clichés about the human-animal bond, to be able to rub elbows with rich people and to have a body temperature in the range of 98.6 that would occasionally (though not reliably) warm the seat vacated when the great Henry Bergh, the tireless and dedicated founder of the ASPCA, died. That’s it. The ASPCA of 2013 is not a firebrand, it is not on the front lines of the cause of animal protection, and for most people, its name and reputation do not connote much more than  sad, heart-wrenching commercials on television or calendars filled with pictures of puppies and kittens.

And yet with so much money and so much influence at their disposal, Ed Sayres and every one of his predecessors could have emulated Bergh’s legacy and changed American society for the better had they actually wanted to do so. When rescue rights access legislation was pending in New York State, despite over 20,000 calls and emails of support for the bill which shut down the email servers in Albany two times, all it took to defeat the bill was the ASPCA’s powerful opposition. With people like Sayres at the helm of the ASPCA, that power has either been left untapped or used to the detriment of animals. But it could be used for their benefit—and not just the betterment of animals in shelters, but all animals.

Though the platform most commonly associated with the ASPCA is companion animals, that was not the founding vision for the organization. Henry Bergh was a fierce advocate for animals exploited in a variety of contexts. During his lifetime, he not only fought the New York City dogcatchers, he opposed hunting (helping to invent the clay pigeon) and almost succeeded in getting it banned statewide. He opposed vivisection, he advocated for animals raised for food, and he was relentless in his advocacy for “working animals.” In fact, had the ASPCA not gone off the rails after his death, not only abandoning Bergh’s vision by accepting the contract to run the city pound but the precedent that only a dedicated, passionate animal lover be entrusted to run the organization, what might the ASPCA look like today? What, in fact, could it look like today with the right person in charge? I urge you to consider those questions as you choose the next President of the ASPCA.

With a revenue stream of almost 150 million dollars annually, the ASPCA has virtually unlimited resources. Yet the vast majority of those donor dollars are now squandered on meaningless campaigns that are not driven by a concrete agenda, or on programs such as its Poison Control Hotline (providing the public with information any vet or a Google search can provide) which do nothing to address the causes of animal suffering and death in America. At its best, the ASPCA is merely ineffective. At its worst, it causes animal suffering and death. It is bloated, bureaucratic, and insincere. But it doesn’t have to be. It could, in fact, be amazing.

A genuine, dedicated, hard-working ASPCA would have the following departments working on the following issues in the following ways:

Companion Animals
Right now, the ASPCA fights No Kill reformers and No Kill legislation while celebrating cruel and abusive shelters that kill. It champions the abusive New York City pound, undermining No Kill reformers in the city, and it even sends animals to the pound where they are killed. It claims to rescue animals from high-profile abuse situations and raises a lot of money while doing so, but often sends the animals they claim to “rescue” to shelters where they are killed or displace local animals who are killed to make room for the animals they send.

Imagine, instead, an ASPCA that is an uncompromising champion of No Kill, the No Kill Equation, No Kill reformers and the laws mandating No Kill policies and procedures in shelters nationwide. Through its publications, through a national conference and in its communications with the sheltering industry and the American public, the ASPCA could champion No Kill and provide the guidance and tools for shelters to achieve it, forcing its now powerful detractors to embrace No Kill as well. This would erode all opposition and pave the way for a No Kill nation, and it would elevate a new group of individuals to positions of authority and leadership within the movement, replacing the current tier of failed shelter directors who tenaciously defend killing with people who reject it.

And a No Kill nation would benefit not just the animals entering shelters who would no longer be killed, but the larger animal rights platform as well. Today, when animal lovers go to work at traditional animal shelters (often SPCAs or humane societies), they often do not remain, uncomfortable working in an environment of killing that is also frequently abusive. By making these organizations safe for animals, we make them safe for animal lovers to return to, as well. And once the No Kill movement reorients these organizations away from killing and toward protecting life, they, like the ASPCA, can return to the cause of their early founders: making the town or city in which they reside a more humane place for all animals, regardless of species. A No Kill nation would mean that thousands of existing SPCA’s and humane societies across the nation recovering their original missions, missions they abandoned when they took over the job of killing.

And with an authentic ASPCA they can look to for guidance, an ASPCA setting a national agenda and a national example of what a humane society or an SPCA should be, the animals would gain powerful advocates in virtually every community in America. Allies that would further the following causes as well:

Today, hunting is on the decline. Interest groups that champion hunting know this, and are working to encourage younger generations to take up the killing to stop this decline. A campaign geared towards young people that opposed hunting by appealing to their compassion and love of animals would counter this effort and push hunting closer to extinction.

Millions of animals die on our highways every year and no national animal protection group is working to research and seek implementation of strategies to make our roads safe for wildlife. The ASPCA could lead this effort, as well as researching and encouraging methods of organizing cities and building structures that minimize impact and dangers for wild animals. In Toronto, for example, all new building projects require “bird friendly” design to avoid collisions. The ASPCA could push for such standards to be required by building codes across America.

Nationwide, invasion biologists and “environmentalists” are stepping up their attacks against animals they label as “invasive.” They kill with poisons, traps, fire and guns, while not a single animal protection organization is challenging the flawed moral and scientific basis for such distinctions or highlighting and condemning the health dangers, environmental havoc and suffering such efforts result in. The ASPCA could speak out against this dangerous movement, countering its hyperbole, hysteria and biological xenophobia with science, and its intolerance with calls for compassion and respect for the inherent rights of all beings regardless of their antecedents.

Many laws which protect wild animals, moreover, are based on protecting species rather than individual rights. To many environmentalists, animals are judged worthy of activism on their behalf in relation to how useful they are to humans or how many members of their species exist. There is no objection to taking the lives of animals such as crows, raccoons, or rats, animals belonging to species which are plentiful or have no material value to humans. Yet if there are limited numbers of a species humans have traditionally exploited, or if a species is threatened with extinction, environmentalists advocate that we adjust behaviors negatively impacting their numbers. For instance, some non-profit organizations have mounted campaigns encouraging the public to eat only fish caught in accordance with their “sustainability” standards. These organizations are seeking to ensure the continuation of certain species not because they believe individual fish deserve our respect but because some species, those which historically have been exploited as food, are being pushed to the brink of extinction by what they call “overfishing.” Ultimately what they want are limitations on how many animals of certain species can be killed. Killing is acceptable so long as it falls within certain parameters. In other words, they want to make sure we don’t kill all the fish so that there will be some left to kill indefinitely. That is the essence of the environmental philosophy which predominates today, but is this really what “environmentalism” should be?

A true environmentally-friendly society would seek to meet the needs of humans through the least destructive and most non-violent means we can imagine. It would no longer allow animals to be regarded as “resources.” It would interfere in the lives of other animals as little as possible, grant protection to the habitats animals need in order to thrive, and, above all, be guided by the principle that respect for sentient life is paramount, irrespective of the species in which that life is manifest. To be authentic, environmentalism must be grounded in a foundation of animal rights. In fact, we must come to regard the two movements as one and the same. The ASPCA could embrace and publicly promote this approach to environmentalism.

Animals Raised for Food
Today, the ASPCA’s “advocacy” for animals killed for food is to perpetuate the myth of humane meat and to partner and even fund companies which raise animals for slaughter. One of the first things the ASPCA needs to do in working to help animals killed for food is to dissolve these partnerships. Just as important, it must also work to render meat, eggs and dairy obsolete by teaching Americans what to eat instead, and by working to improve the taste, convenience and availability of vegan foods nationwide so it is easier for people to make humane dietary choices.

Imagine an entire department at the ASPCA dedicated to laying the infrastructure necessary to transition our country to veganism. This department would be dedicated to increasing vegan options at restaurants, grocery stores, schools, hotels, amusement parks, sporting venues—everywhere Americans work, live and play. It could have an in-house research and development department developing cutting edge vegan analogs and a restaurant in New York City which featured these new and exciting foods. ASPCA employees from this department could encourage the veganization of America’s favorite brand name foods by meeting with representatives from food companies, promising to promote popular foods in exchange for veganizing them. It could offer the public classes on how to be vegan. It could offer vegan cooking classes, some of them specifically designed for chefs to encourage restaurants to begin offering delicious vegan options. It could sponsor the public distribution of free meals or free samples of vegan foods throughout the year and throughout the nation to introduce Americans to delicious vegan food: vegan BBQ’s on the Fourth of July, turkey-free dinners on Thanksgiving, etc. And every day of the year, ASPCA food trucks could tour the nation, handing out free samples and coupons for tasty vegan foods, pamphlets that encourage them to go vegan as well as cookbooks filled with recipes for delicious vegan foods; while teams researched and publicly exposed the animal cruelty occurring in farms so that Americans would be motivated to embrace the more humane way of eating that the ASPCA is so effectively promoting.

Serving the Community of New York City
Locally, the ASPCA could make New York a No Kill city. It could end the carriage horse trade and place those horses into an ASPCA sanctuary where they could live out the remainder of their lives in peace. It could create animal ambulances to care for animals who have been injured in the streets. It could promote pro-pet policies: housing, rentals, restaurants (integrating animals into daily life). It could provide free veterinary care for the animals of homeless people.

In addition, like the traditional sheltering establishment, the wildlife rehabilitation community is plagued with harmful dogma that leads to the killing of animals. The ASPCA could create its own wildlife rehabilitation program for the city of New York, one that include lifetime sanctuary care for animals who could not be released safely into the wild, and one that would be based on No Kill principles, thereby providing an alternative No Kill model of wildlife rehabilitation that could begin to challenge the current, deadly paradigm which permeates that field. The ASPCA could also push the city of New York to embrace only the most innovative, humane and non-lethal alternatives when handling conflicts with animals historically viewed as “pests” such as rodent-proofing buildings rather than using traps and poisons. And the ASPCA could create local, NYC campaigns, for example, that teach tolerance and respect for the wild animals who also call NYC their home, including skunks, opossums, raccoons, pigeons and rats. These campaigns (bus posters, billboards, etc.) could highlight the qualities of animals that people are likely to find endearing and which might teach them to view these animals in more positive light, such as info about pigeons mating for life, or male pigeons being very dedicated fathers, sharing equally in the task of rearing their young.

These campaigns would not only save animals locally, they would have a parallel, national impact. And they are just the tip of the iceberg of what can and needs to be done for animals in the United States. There are many more opportunities to remediate common practices which currently cause animals to suffer and die, including vivisection and entertainment. The ASPCA could lead and effort to replace dissection in American schools with cutting edge 3-D and computer modeling, to urge zoos and aquariums to transition into sanctuaries for animals who cannot be released safely into the wild, to replace the use of animals in film with computer generated imagery and other technologies. Each of these areas could become an ASPCA department; each department could be tasked with devising concrete goals and strategies to bring an end to the particular form of animal exploitation they are tasked with eliminating.

A President Henry Bergh Would Be Proud Of
Were the ASPCA to embrace platforms of this nature, to put real action behind its now hollow rhetoric, not only would the ASPCA be transformed, but the entire animal protection movement would be as well. Other large national groups which are now long on rhetoric but short on delivering substantive change would be forced to evolve in order to effectively compete with the ASPCA. Right now, the most authentic voices in animal protection are in the grassroots; the least sincere are in positions of power. A new ASPCA President could change this by staffing the ASPCA with bright, passionate animal lovers, empowering those whose allegiance is to the animals first, and strip away power from those who place the interests of colleagues or industries which harm and exploit animals before the animals themselves. A sincere, hard-working, determined and goal-oriented ASPCA could accomplish in a manner of years what would take the grassroots decades to achieve. There is now so much untapped potential for animals laying fallow that the ASPCA would no doubt succeed in ways that would be nothing short of astounding.

The possibilities are breathtaking, so I urge you not to do what the ASPCA Board has always done when choosing the next President of the ASPCA: do not elevate form over function. Do not choose someone who represents the lowest common denominator, but rather embrace a person of commitment and integrity who will rally the nation with the highest of aspirations. Do not take this decision lightly, but give it a consideration that is equal to its vast potential to help those who are now not only so horribly abused, but so misrepresented by those who are supposed to speak on their behalf as well. By making the right choice, the Board of Directors could not only breathe new and authentic life into the ASPCA motto, “We Are Their Voice,” the ASPCA would be given power to transform our country. The tenure of the next President of the ASPCA could be historic, a before-and-after moment in the cause of animal protection.

Given the vast, untapped potential that exists to help animals through the ASPCA; given how much the ASPCA could positively affect American society on behalf of animals in truly profound and lasting ways; and given the gravity of what is potentially at stake, I urge you not to pick yet another, in a long line, of empty suits.

The animals deserve better.


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In 2012, over one new community per week achieved a save rate of at least 90% and as high as 99%. The No Kill revolution is ON THE MARCH. Join me as we celebrate that achievement and teach you how to do the same: