The Banality of Evil

After a cat starved to death at Dallas Animal Services, while each and every employee looked the other way and ignored his cries, I wrote an article that explained the culture of cruelty endemic to our broken animal “shelter” system. You can read that by clicking here. In this blog, I try to explain why shelter directors can seem so normal and even nice, but allow such rampant cruelty and killing in the organizations they oversee. I also explain why that should not deter us from waging a campaign for their ouster.

A few years ago, I was hired by King County’s Council to do a report on whether King County Animal Care & Control, just outside of Seattle, Washington had the capacity to run a humane sheltering program. The Council had mandated a 90% save rate, but advocates were complaining of poor care, systematic killing, and retribution against whistle blowers. In addition to a thorough document review, I spent several days over two visits to the facility reviewing operations and interviewing staff, volunteers, rescue groups, and others.

I arrived on a three-day holiday weekend and immediately went to the shelter. The cats in the infirmary had no food and no water, and according to the paperwork and the conditions I found, had not had any, including medicine, for three days. Tragically, it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. Whistleblowers told horror stories, of a staff member drowning a cat in a bucket of bleach for being “difficult,” of being threatened with violence if they spoke out about the things they witnessed, of animals allowed to languish with substandard care, of animals intentionally left to die. According to insiders, if staff “euthanized” an animal, that would be counted against the save rate, but if the cat were to die on his own, they did not have to count that animal in the save rate determination. As a result, staff was told to let sick and injured animals die, with no intervention to relieve their suffering.

But while meeting with the then-shelter director who was my age, he seemed normal, even nice. If I did not know better or know what he did for a living, he might have been a friend of mine under very, very different circumstances. He was a talker, and then some. During our meetings, he told me stories of his high school and college days, the bands he went to see, how much he loved music. His experiences tracked mine. We liked similar music, played in similar bands, went to the same concerts. Here was the man that was reputed to order the veterinary staff to let the cats die, who allowed known thugs to mistreat animals, who allowed killing in the face of readily available lifesaving alternatives, and who looked the other way at a union that protected shirkers and whose management staff did little to protect the defenseless animals. But he was normal outside this environment, even interesting. I’ve had other similar moments like this, such as when I was sitting across a director who oversees daily violence towards animals, not only killing in the face of alternatives, but allowing neglect and cruelty to accompany it. Yet, outside the shelter environment, she was normal, smiling, even asking me to sign a copy of my book for her.

As surreal as those moments were, they were never shocking; not shocking because I was one of the few political science students, if not the only one in my undergraduate class, who read not only all the required reading but all the optional ones as well, including Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I am not interested in cheap “Nazi” analogies. And the book was terrible, a misinformed view of both the trial and Eichmann’s role in turning the world into a graveyard. But Hannah Arendt got one thing right: You do not have to be a raving monster to do horrible, horrible things. “The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

This is something that William Wilberforce, the great crusader against the British slave trade, struggled with all the time. What made Wilberforce so unique is that he was a reformer who was also a member of the status quo. He was a wealthy English gentleman, a college friend of a future Prime Minister, and a Member of Parliament.   And that meant that his efforts to abolish the British slave trade affected his friends and colleagues. As the wealthy owners of British sugar plantations in the Caribbean, Wilberforce’s colleagues in and out of Parliament relied on the slave trade to provide them with a constant supply of new slaves because not only were slaves so brutally treated that they often died young, but many of them were too ill and malnourished to bear children.

What was shocking to Wilberforce, what he could not wrap his mind around, was that the face of so much obscene barbarity, killing, and cruelty was not the devil incarnate. The face of all that violence was, in many cases, an English gentleman in the drawing room of his country estate, who was committed to civility and good manners. These individuals owned plantations halfway around the world run by overseers who, at their behest, brutalized, tortured, and killed other human beings. Yet, these very same gentlemen tipped their hats to passersby, opened doors for women, welcomed people into their homes, and with graciousness and gentility, dedicated themselves to the comfort of others. In other words, they were “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

And so it was also not surprising when a celebrity member of the media visited the same urban shelter the No Kill Advocacy Center recently sued for killing animals in violation of law, for allowing animals to languish and die with no medical care, and for other inhumane conditions, and came away with a very different view of it. Here was a “shelter” overseen by people who allowed the most atrocious conditions; a shelter that was filthy; that hired thugs who were abusive to the animals; that kept cages empty to reduce their workload which meant more killing; that allowed animals to die of starvation; that dragged injured animals along hot asphalt by way of tight, hard-wire noose wrapped around their necks; that physically abused animals; that allowed them to go without food and water and basic care; and that even killed them cruelly. But after spending time with one of the managers, a manager who was soft-spoken, considerate, and accommodating to him, he could not square it with the reports of rescuers, volunteers, and shelter reformers, complete with data, photographs, even video of some of the most heart-wrenching cruelty and needless killing going on under the manager’s watch. The manager was not evil at all, according to the account. He was… nice. And so nice, so “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” that the killing cannot possibly be his fault.

One of my colleagues in the No Kill movement once said to me that he never calls out people by name, as I do, because it creates an expectation that is often betrayed by how “terribly and terrifyingly normal” they are when you actually meet them. But that is true of most people who cause great harm. How many news stories have we watched where someone is arrested for years of abuse, killing, and even torture, and then, like clockwork, we hear the interviews with the neighbors: “He seemed so normal.” “He was quiet, very nice, quick to say hello.” “It is so hard to believe because he was so polite, often willing to lend a hand.”

It is easy to be critical of people who have done horrible things whom we have never met. It is harder to publicly decry those we know, especially when those people—like the former director in King County, like the manager of the large, urban shelter—appear nice, normal, soft-spoken, and accommodating. It can seem harder because we have trouble reconciling the two. And it can seem harder still because we are afraid decision-makers will dismiss us. But stand up we must if we are ever to achieve a No Kill nation. As long as we avoid pointing the finger of blame and calling them out, they continue to get away with “murder.” And if our success as a movement proves anything, it is that eventually we will wear down the prejudices people hold that a “nice” person is not capable of great wrong. Moreover, we do not have much of a choice.

We can focus on promoting programs and policies, but individual people dictate programs and policies. And individual people decide which animals live and die. And individual people decide whether staff will be held accountable or not. What is the difference between shelters mired in killing and those that aren’t? Is it that the directors and staff of the former are all stark, raving mad? No. They are, in so many cases, “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” No matter.

For all the talk of paradigm shifts, infrastructure improvements, the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, we are, in the end, fighting against individual people who hold the power over life and death. These are people who have proven that they are not equal to the task before them. People who do not give us, and the animals, what we have a right to expect. In short, they are people who must be called to account no matter how “nice” they seem when you meet them.

The obstacle to success in Austin was the shelter’s director. The obstacle to success in Reno was the shelter’s director. The obstacle to success wherever there is killing is the shelter’s director. If we are to succeed, they must be removed. In our movement, the battle is not against the many, but the few; those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Right now, a small handful of people—the regressive directors in our nation’s kill shelters (and the heads of the large national organizations who protect and defend them)—continue to hold us back. They, and often they alone, are working to prevent the great success we could achieve and the millions of lives we could save by reforming our shelters. If we are to prevail, we must judge them, not by whether they seem nice, but by the decisions they make and the actions that results from those decisions, often with lethal consequences.

It is what each and every one of us would clearly see as an obvious moral imperative were our own lives on the line, but which custom, convenience, and, too often, a dangerous allegiance to a corrupted notion of “civility” prevent us from doing. In other words, the notion of being civil exists to create a civil society. But when decorum dictates that you remain silent even when individuals behave in uncivil—indeed, violent and cruel—ways, it is at cross-purposes with the goal. We cannot let allegiance to a corrupted notion of “civility,” “humane discourse,” or “collaboration” which asks us to ignore inhumane behavior prevent us from a greater allegiance—and the resulting imperatives—required of us to create a truly civil, humane, or collaborative society. And that requires standing up to injustice and holding people personally responsible for their unethical behavior.

All across this country, individual people are collectively putting to death millions of animals every year, and often allowing their staff to neglect and abuse them in the process, then going home to their friends and families who embrace them with open arms. It is hard for some to reconcile this. But change won’t happen if we ignore the fact that the difference between lifesaving success and the status quo of killing comes down to the choices made by individual people running the shelters. They must be judged and held accountable to those very weighty choices, and not by any other criteria.

As I wrote in Redemption,

In the final analysis, animals in shelters are not being killed because there are too many of them, because there are too few homes, or because the public is irresponsible. Animals in shelters are dying for primarily one reason—because people in shelters are killing them.

People who are “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”