When it comes to his city’s most vulnerable dogs and cats, the reality doesn’t match Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s rhetoric about his rehabilitation of South Bend, IN. There’s simply no excuse for killing dogs and cats in 2019, especially after seven years at the helm as mayor.
There’s an old Ghandi saw that is almost certainly apocryphal. A mother brings her young son to Ghandi and asks him to tell her kid to stop eating so much candy. Ghandi looks at the mother and then the boy and tells them both to come back in two weeks. Two weeks later, she and the boy return and Ghandi tells the boy to stop eating so much candy. Perplexed, the mother asks Ghandi why he sent her away rather than telling her boy that two weeks earlier. “Because,” said Ghandi, “two weeks ago, I was eating a lot of candy.”
Pete Buttigieg’s campaign for the presidency reminds me of that story. The crux of Buttigieg’s campaign is that if he can fix the problems of South Bend, a microcosm of the country’s problems, he can fix America. His is a campaign based on the premise of walking the walk, not just talking the talk. But does the reality match the rhetoric? When it comes to the performance of the South Bend Animal Care & Control Department under his tenure, there is real cause for doubt.
I realize that there are a lot of important issues facing a Mayor of an American city and even more so facing our nation. I also realize that the President of the United States has little jurisdiction over our nation’s animal shelters. Finally, I realize that for many of us, myself included, ending the occupancy of the current Resident of the White House is priority number one. But as we decide who should carry the pink slip on our behalf and after witnessing, in 2016, the disaster of making political calculations as to who we think could win, rather than who we believe more fully reflects our values, I am going to vote my conscience. And in addition to all the other issues that weigh upon my conscience such as protecting the climate, providing universal healthcare, upholding the rule of law and the independence of the federal judiciary, defending the First Amendment, preserving Western alliances and norms, addressing poverty and racism, border security without cruelty to children and terror to their parents, constraining despotic regimes like North Korea and Russia, gun control, the ballooning deficit, and keeping Islamic fundamentalism and other religious/right wing extremism in check, my conscience also lies with the most vulnerable among us: the animals. Buttigieg has not fixed an antiquated pound system run on a 19th century “catch and kill” model and shows little appetite for doing so. And that suggests an indifference to animal issues, which is within the purview of the presidency. Animals — a lot of animals — live or die depending on the actions of the executive branch.
As of last month, the statistics the South Bend pound publicly disclosed on the City’s website were outdated as they only covered the period August – November 2018, evidencing a lack of commitment to full and complete transparency even as government transparency is one of the Mayor’s clarion calls. More importantly, those statistics paint the picture of a poorly performing department. According to outcome data for the reported period, the agency placed 72% of dogs (less than the national average) and 67% of cats, most through rescue rather than adoption, and, more importantly, far below the best performing cities and counties in Indiana.
By contrast, there are now hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. placing over 90% and as high as 99% of all dogs, cats, rabbits, and other animals in their municipally-funded animal shelters. This includes communities throughout Indiana. Muncie, for example, placed 99% of dogs and 97% of cats; Brown County placed 99% of dogs and 97% of cats; Fulton County placed 99% of dogs and 94% of cats; Hamilton County placed 98% of dogs and 94% of cats; Porter County placed 98% of dogs and 94% of cats; and Dubois County placed 99% of dogs and cats.
Is it too much to expect that after seven years in office, Buttigieg would have reformed the South Bend pound? That he would have overseen a transition from a pound that kills animals behind closed doors to one that embraces transparent, life-affirming innovation? I don’t think so. After two terms, the South Bend pound still lacks transparency and it still chooses to kill, all while carrying the name “Peter Buttigieg, Mayor” on the top of its web page. There’s simply no excuse for killing dogs and cats in this day and age.
I wrote Buttigieg on behalf of the No Kill Advocacy Center — the organization I run to reform our nation’s shelters — informing him that the killing of animals in pounds is a problem that can and should be fixed. “For far too many years,” I told him, “pound killing of animals, as occurs in South Bend, has been done in the name of ‘pet overpopulation’ and under the false premise that alternatives to killing were not feasible, practical, or affordable.”
I further told him that,
The problem of shelter killing — a problem that not only robs animals of their lives but breaks the hearts of compassionate people— has a fix: change how shelters are run. We know how to end the killing. Using the most successful shelters as a benchmark and adjusting for population, U.S. shelters combined have the potential to adopt out almost nine million animals a year. That is over four times the number being killed. In fact, it is more than total impounds. But the news gets even better. Every year, as many as 30 million people will add a new dog or cat to their home. The reason animals are dying in shelters is not a lack of homes. It is that municipal pounds are not being run effectively, efficiently, or in line with the values of the American people that pay for them. Too many animals are denied adoption, either because they are killed before they are given the opportunity or because the shelter is failing to leverage the public’s compassion to maximize lifesaving potential.
I then explained how under his stewardship, he could follow the lead of other Indiana communities that have already ended the killing of healthy and treatable animals, why it is morally obligatory that he do so, how doing so would be cost-effective, and the positive economic impact that would result, writing:
A University of Denver study found that a No Kill ordinance passed in Austin yielded $157,452,503 in positive economic impact to the community in its first six years — a return on investment of over 400%. The study concluded that, ‘The costs associated with implementing the Resolution appear to have been more than offset by a series of economic benefits to the community’… Similar studies have been conducted in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and Oklahoma, with similar conclusions.
Finally, I let him know that doing so was also politically important. I explained that in an era of great political divide, the welfare of animals is one of the few issues that still unites Americans: “a recent study found that 96% of Americans believe we have a moral duty to care for animals and should have strong laws to do so.” As such, “not only would the people of South Bend enthusiastically support your effort to do so,” but that “such success would not only embody your commitment to government accountability, but would serve as a compassionate model for the rest of the nation to emulate, as well.”
In short, it’s good for animals, good for people, good for taxpayers, good for the local economy, and just good politics in an age where such a thing is hard to come by. I explained all of this in my outreach to Mayor Buttigieg, offering statistics, studies, a call to action, and the road map that has been adopted by communities throughout the nation which are now enjoying unprecedented lifesaving success. How did the Mayor respond?
I received a three-sentence form letter. The first sentence thanked me for my “feedback.” The second sentence about the importance of feedback was a variant of the first. The third sentence redundantly thanked me for my “comments.” It lacked sincerity, substance, accountability, or any concern for the fate of the vulnerable dogs and cats Buttigieg is failing. And as of today, all the statistics have been removed from the website. In other words, there is now even less transparency. There is little doubt, too, that the killing continues.
My message is simple: before “Mayor Pete” asks us to allow him to occupy the White House — the most consequential house of all — he needs to get his South Bend house in order, a house that includes animals most Americans consider cherished members of their families. In short, he needs to stop the killing. The good news is that there is still time: the vast majority of communities with placement rates between 90% and 99% achieved it in six months or less; many overnight.
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