Animal lovers across the country are anxious about the fate of some 400 dogs who were seized from dog fighters and are now in the custody of the Humane Society of Missouri (HSMO). Initially, all we heard were ominous statements from those involved—including the Humane Society of the United States whose CEO stated that he was “pretty certain” most of the dogs would be killed, the ASPCA whose representative stated that we should not expect the same outcome as the Michael Vick case (where most dogs were saved), and even HSMO which would not comment. The resulting public outcry and pressure led to more optimistic statements and actions. The dogs are not fully out of harm’s way, but there has been progress. HSMO has reached out to rescue groups. Photographs have been released of very friendly looking and loving dogs kissing and snuggling their caretakers. In addition, the dogs appear to be receiving plenty of socialization and care. We are more hopeful, but we also remain vigilant for all the reasons I stated in my prior blog. The dogs are not yet saved.

Sadly, I’ve read blog postings and have seen e-mails from even Pit Bull advocacy groups that suggest we prepare ourselves for inevitable killing:

  • “We just have too damn many dogs and never enough helpers;”
  • “[E]ven with hardcore efforts, good dogs will still lose out;” and,
  • “[Hurricane] Katrina is a reminder that in all kinds of disasters, including the economic disaster and this cruelty disaster, good efforts do not always add up to the widespread happy endings that victims of these cases so richly deserve.”

I’ve read that we should put off worrying about the dogs: “…we’re getting a lot of mail from people who want to see the dogs…given a chance to be rescued… If and when the dogs are released to the authorities, that’s when we can begin speculating about their rescue.” This sort of language is wrong on so many different levels.

First of all, the primary reason progress is being made in this movement is because of the vocal opposition to traditional policy by the grassroots. It is unfair (not to mention patronizing) when those in charge of organizations seek to forestall grassroots efforts by trying to dictate when it is appropriate for them to make their voices heard. Our strength lies is in their numbers and our power in the expression of their convictions. I, too, received many e-mails from people who are concerned and wondering what they can do to make sure the dogs don’t get killed. It would never have crossed my mind to tell them, in effect, to simmer down; to leave it to the self-proclaimed experts. To wait and see. Instead, I encouraged them to make their voices heard, to let the Humane Society of Missouri, HSUS, the media know that they will not tolerate killing. These are the soldiers who will overthrow the regime based on killing. This is our army of compassion.

No Kill is a revolution. And like any revolution, we have our battles. Each is an opportunity to challenge accepted ways of doing business that favor killing, by demanding that they be replaced with life-affirming choices. Each battle is a chance not just to save lives in the immediate sense, but to destroy long-held assumptions about what is possible and to prove there is a better way. Each battle is an opportunity to remind the leaders of the large national organizations that it is time for change. Most importantly, each battle is an opportunity to gain ground in the war we are fighting, to push the envelope, to heighten expectations of what is acceptable so that when the next crisis happens, when the next battle is upon us, the animals are that much safer and we are that much further along.

I am not sure why people are calling for restraint when we are being told to expect killing, when we are being told that it is “pretty certain,” that we should not expect a replication of the Michael Vick case, that there aren’t enough “qualified” rescue groups, that we saved only half of the 25 dogs last time and that’s better than none. Since when were those the only choices? Why set the bar so low?

The message in response should be: No. We will not accept this. These dogs must not be killed. And we have the power to make that happen. We forced HSUS into retreat after their massacre of the dogs and puppies in Wilkes County. We took the wealthiest, largest, most powerful organization in the country and we brought them to their knees. They were forced to recant. They were forced to change their policy. Not because Wayne Pacelle really cares and realized he got it wrong. Not because they learned from their mistakes. But because the power of our ideal, the strength in our numbers, the righteousness of our message was too strong for them to counter with all their lies, prevarications, and chants of “kill, kill, kill.” They couldn’t defend it. And it is not the first time. We forced them to embrace TNR. We forced them to accept offsite adoptions. We forced them to accept rescue groups. All things they have historically opposed. We’ve also forced them to modify their language on No Kill; and, in short order, we will force them ultimately to make good on those claims.

Second, I worked in animal control. I worked at a private shelter. I’ve done rescue. I’ve consulted with shelters all over the country. I’ve been in the trenches for years. And I say this for one reason: to let people know that it doesn’t take that kind of expertise to champion the ideal of No Kill. It doesn’t require any insider knowledge to know right from wrong. There are no extenuating circumstances or specialized skill-sets that would reveal anything different from what we know in our hearts: killing these dogs is wrong and it is totally unnecessary. And groups and voices on this issue must keep allegiance to the ideal and not hold themselves as having some insider knowledge that the “little people” (who are not so little, who have the numbers on their side, and who care very deeply) just don’t get. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating here: Groups which are going to claim a leadership role in this movement must mirror the discontent of the grassroots, not seek to keep it in check.

Because it is ultimately the vigilance on the part of the American public against the architects of the paradigm of killing we live with today that is going to save those dogs and future dogs who find themselves in the same predicament. It’s not about speculation. It’s about holding the feet of groups like HSUS to the fire, because when we don’t, it ends up as a massacre. The lives of the dogs are too precious to leave to the self-proclaimed experts.

Third, one of the more disturbing things about the way this case was handled is the lack of comprehensive planning—a planning which should have been going on even before the raid occurred when the agency was approached by the FBI for assistance during the investigation. It is planning that has made a difference in whether deaths have increased or decreased during this economic downturn. And it is a planning that can make a profound difference in cases such as the one in Missouri.

When I was director of the Tompkins County SPCA, for example, we were approached by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets which was investigating substandard conditions from a state licensed-breeder involving upwards of 250 dogs in what was described as filthy conditions and dogs with major medical issues. They approached us to participate both in the investigation by having our officers assist, as well as in sheltering the dogs.

We agreed and planned ahead. We set up the infrastructure. In the end, only 60 dogs came to our facility (although virtually all of them had “issues” including neurological conditions, rotten teeth, infections, severe matting, blindness, and more). But by the time they arrived, we already had rescue groups lined up (we did not tell them where the dogs were coming from so as not to jeopardize the investigation), we already had veterinarians on notice, we had a legion of volunteers on alert, and we had a media promotion plan to get the dogs adopted.

I remember walking through the shelter within an hour of their arrival to witness an awesome sight:

  • An assembly line of volunteers bathing, drying, and grooming the dogs.
  • Staff and volunteer veterinary technicians, and students from Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine providing medical care (under the direction of a clinician).
  • Volunteers transporting dogs to local veterinary clinics to augment the volunteer onsite veterinarians who cleared their calendars to assist.
  • The local news station, newspaper, and radio station asking their viewers, readers, and listeners to come forward.
  • Volunteers socializing with the dogs, sometimes just sitting on the other side of the kennel because the dogs were not yet used to human contact.

And all the dogs were saved. Not some of them. All of them. And we did it without the tremendous financial resources of HSUS and the ASPCA. Without the national media power of these groups. Without the millions of animal loving members and global reach.

So enough defeatism. Enough apologia preparing us for what they wrongly believe is inevitable killing. That is not the future we choose. Saving these dogs can and must be done. We do not accept the old thinking and old behavior when they say that “We just have too damn many dogs and never enough helpers.” This is an extraordinary situation and with the right leadership, there will be an extraordinary response.

Fourth, citing Hurricane Katrina as proof that “good efforts do not always add up to the widespread happy endings” is misplaced. A fellow Board Member of the No Kill Advocacy Center was there, on behalf of another organization, coordinating a large scale rescue. People I work with and trust were there, neck deep in water pulling animals to safety, smashing down doors to rescue them. I went there, as well, to do training of Parish animal control officers, to train activists on feral cat rescue, and to review operations for a shelter and rescue group on the Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Katrina could have had a much different outcome if the groups which took the lion’s share of the public largesse and had the most capacity to help had done the job the public thought they were doing when they wrote their checks. HSUS left after spending only $4 million of some $20 million raised for the effort and announced “Mission Accomplished,” even while animals were still suffering in horrific numbers. Their “rescue effort” was so badly mismanaged that they were openly condemned by people and groups who normally look the other way. In fact, it cost the Vice-President of Companion Animals for HSUS, the person responsible for coordinating the rescue effort, her job.

The ASPCA also raised a lot of money. They focused their resources on a newly created spay/neuter group run by a person who had no experience and who was hoarding the money rather than distributing the vouchers to the animal control officers, rescuers, and people who needed it. In fact, in 2006, I complained to ASPCA President Ed Sayres about it in a letter. Not surprising, but no less tragic, he offered a thoughtless, knee-jerk defense of her and told me she was doing a great job. It took him some time to see the light because Sayres has never been a champion of oversight and accountability, but the mismanagement was so bad, he ultimately did so. She, too, was removed.

In addition, the Louisiana SPCA which had the most capacity of any of the local groups and did a fraction of the effort of rescue groups like Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO) got the lion’s share of the ASPCA grant money for Hurricane Katrina relief. And while ARNO and others were still searching for wayward animals and feeding thousands of others, the Louisiana SPCA was solidifying plans to use the grant money to build a flashy dog agility center, while simultaneously cutting back kennel space. Don’t tell me it could not have been different—that the Hurricane Katrina relief effort wasn’t more successful had nothing whatsoever to do with inherent limitations possible in such circumstances. It comes down to the sincerity, devotion, and commitment to do the best job possible for the animals—values sorely lacking in the leadership of the humane movement’s largest organizations. The only lesson to be gleaned from Hurricane Katrina is that we must be vigilant in defense of these dogs to avoid the lost opportunities and needless suffering that results when the large, national groups are left in charge and with no accountability.

HSUS and the ASPCA, which are fundraising off this case and claim to be on the scene assisting, have combined assets exceeding $300 million. Their annual budgets exceed $200 million. They claim the support of millions of animal lovers. They have a national, indeed global, reach. We will not accept dead dogs because someone says there are too many or not enough helpers.

We will not accept the type of defeatism that sees killing as an inevitability. Even when the groups that make the claim otherwise deserve our praise and gratitude for all they have done to change the reputation and plight of Pit Bulls, as they most certainly have in other circumstances and in other contexts. Because it is not who is right that matters. It is what is right. And the views currently being expressed about these dogs just aren’t right. It is a defeatist mentality the dogs can ill afford. We have to demand what we have the right to expect! We have a right to demand what the dogs—whose lives so precariously hang in the balance—so richly deserve! And we have the right to demand what is so incredibly feasible! Once again,

We have found our voice, and recognize the potential its fullest expression can create. No more compromises. No more killing.