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The Past is Prologue

No Kill Conference 2010 brought hundreds of animal lovers from 39 states and four countries to the George Washington School of Law in Washington D.C. where the most successful shelter directors, animal lawyers, and shelter reformers nationwide shared insights and strategies to end the systematic killing of animals in our nations pounds and shelters. The attendees heard from directors of open admission shelters with save rates between 92% and 96%. They heard from lawyers who have passed laws making it illegal for shelters to kill animals in a wide variety of contexts and who have successfully saved the lives of animals who shelters were determined to kill. And they heard from reformers who have succeeded in passing laws to end the needless killing of animals in their community. In the keynote address, after a brief introduction welcoming attendees, sharing our movement’s successes, the increase in No Kill communities throughout the United States and indeed the world, and laying out the vision of the conference, I talked about the future:

This conference is about the future. What it can hold if we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to building the infrastructure necessary to create and sustain a No Kill nation. To do that, we must demand the immediate implementation of the model that has ended the killing in communities across the nation so we can end the killing right now, today—the No Kill Equation. And then we must institutionalize that model to end the killing forever. That is why we are here. Not just at the No Kill Conference, but in Washington D.C., the seat of government; at a law school; in a conference that combines sheltering and law; in a room full of lawyers and law makers.

There is no doubt the No Kill movement has come into its own. The “adopt some and kill the rest” paradigm which has dominated our country for so long is being replaced. But to fully destroy it, to ensure it never rears its ugly head again; to ensure a more humane future, we must first take a backwards glance. We must put our cause in historical context in order to better understand who we are, what we should be fighting for, and how we should go about it.

We need more than leadership. We need more than directors willing to implement the No Kill Equation. Our goal is to build a more compassionate society for animals; to end their killing in “shelters” now and forever. That goal is new and different from social movements of the past, but the struggle to create a just and compassionate society is not. In that, we have a lot in common with other social movements and we can learn from them in order to achieve our goals.

The struggles they faced are often the same struggles we face. Regardless of whether your politics are to the left, to the right, or to the middle, how they overcame many of the same obstacles we face and how they achieved the ends they were seeking provides a roadmap for us to follow. History is our guide. Because all those movements shared an understanding that in order to create and sustain the changes they were seeking, they must ultimate change the legal landscape of our Republic. They must change the law.

Today, other than strays, most shelters can kill every single animal who comes through their doors. It doesn’t matter if they are healthy or sick, young or old, beautiful or ugly, friendly, scared, or aggressive, the choice is up to them. If the animal was surrendered by a family, he or she can be killed within minutes of arriving. No meager holding period. No chance at adoption. No food, water, or shelter. Just a trip from the front counter to the gas chamber or to be poisoned with an overdose from a bottle marked “Fatal-plus.”

If the animal came in as a stray, he or she will be held from 48 hours to 10 days depending on the state, and then they too can be put to death with no opportunity or chance for adoption. Just a one-way ticket to the morgue. In places like Reno, Nevada, and Charlottesville, Virginia, and some other communities, they’ll be held until they find a home. But nationally, shelters will only find homes for roughly half of them. And except for public pressure, it all depends on where the shelter is, on who is in charge, on how much they care, on how committed they are.

We’ve made tremendous progress, to be sure. No Kill communities exist throughout the nation and No Kill is on the agenda of local and state governments across the country. But in too many communities, we still have this:

I tried to adopt from my local shelter, but they weren’t open on the weekend, it was almost impossible to reach them on the telephone and when I did, I was treated rudely. Nonetheless, I raced down there one day after work, and the place was so dirty. It made me cry to look into the faces of all those animals I knew would be killed. But I found this scared, skinny cat hiding in the back of his cage and I filled out an application. I was turned down because I didn’t turn in the paperwork on time, which meant a half hour before closing, but I couldn’t get there from work in time to do that. I tried to leave work early the next day, but I called and found out they had already killed the poor cat. I will never go back.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can make that reality a thing of the past; an anachronism just like other movements have. And we do that by passing laws. The aim of every social movement in our nation’s history is legislation to gain and then protect the rights of its members or the focus of its efforts, a legacy which reaches back to the very founding of our Republic.

The year is 1776. It is a time in world history when nations were governed by a privileged few. A few great thinkers dared to imagine something altogether different: a more compassionate society, a democracy, the ability to end injustice through self-rule as codified in law. Our forefathers fought a war for these ideals, and once the war ended, they sought to institutionalize those ideals with laws—great change, a revolution, codified in law.

It is a legacy that is at the core of who we are and how we effect change: a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Our system of government was designed not only to solidify the ideals of the American Revolution, but to change with the changing times. As envisioned by James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, “In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”

No matter what the issue is: the fight for democracy as epitomized by Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams; the abolition of slavery as epitomized by William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass; the struggle for women’s suffrage as epitomized by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the great Alice Paul; civil rights as epitomized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harvey Milk; an end to child labor as epitomized by Lewis Hine; or disability rights as epitomized by Justin Whitlock Dart, Jr. and Richard Pimentel; all these movements culminated in the passing of laws.

The goal was not to get promises and commitments that we would strive to do better as a society. The focus was always on changing the law to eliminate the ability to do otherwise, now and for all time. The suffrage movement wasn’t just seeking discretionary permission from elections officials to vote, an ability that could be taken away. Its goal was winning the right to vote, a right guaranteed in law. The civil rights movement wasn’t just seeking the discretionary ability to sit at the front of the bus or to eat at the same lunch counters or be given equal protection and equal opportunity. Its goal was winning the right to do so, a right guaranteed in law. Because without legal rights, one’s fate is contingent on who the election official is, who the restaurant owner is, who the mayor is, and in our case, who the shelter director is.

We have—and embrace—voting rights acts, environmental protection laws, and laws against discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. Ultimately, such laws are essential to ensure that fair and equal treatment is guaranteed, not subject to the discretion of those in power.

We shouldn’t just want a promise that shelters will try to do better. We already have such promises—and millions of animals still being killed despite readily available lifesaving alternatives show just how hollow such promises are. We must demand accountability beyond the rhetoric. And we shouldn’t simply be seeking progressive directors willing to save lives. We should demand that the killing end, now and forever, regardless of who is running the shelters. And we get that in only one way: By passing shelter reform legislation which removes the discretion of shelter directors to ignore what is in the best interests of animals and kill them.

And nothing drives home the point more than the tragedy of Oreo. As many of you already know, Oreo was abused, thrown off a Brooklyn rooftop and left for dead. But she did not die. She was “rescued” by the ASPCA and dubbed the “miracle dog.” But they did not save her. She was subsequently killed by them despite readily available lifesaving alternatives; despite the offer of a sanctuary to take her, to give her the second chance and love she deserved; the opportunity to live which was her birthright.

In so many ways, it is a tragic story: her abuse, her short life, the betrayal by those who were pledged to protect her, the wasted opportunity for redemption. Tragically, we could not bring Oreo back and give to her the second chance the ASPCA denied her. But we could have lessened the futility of her death if we learned from it and altered our society in such a way as to prevent such a betrayal from ever happening again. That is what Oreo’s Law sought to do.

Oreo’s Law would have made it illegal for a shelter to kill an animal when another non-profit (rescue group) was willing to save that animal’s life. It sought to level the playing field between the big non-profits which have all the power and the small non-profits who are prevented from fulfilling their lifesaving mission when these larger organizations refuse to collaborate with them in order to save more lives. In this way, Oreo’s Law sought to reform our broken animal shelter system; to end injustice through the force of law.

The public overwhelmed the legislature with calls and e-mails of support. Some 10,000 calls and e-mails in a matter of days shutting down the New York State Assembly servers more than once. But the ASPCA ensured Oreo’s Law did not pass by using their power to defeat the bill even though the public embraced it enthusiastically.

In fact, we have seen what happens when the large organizations are not involved, what happens when the public’s values are not hindered. While Oreo’s Law was being undermined by the ASPCA and its acolytes, another state was also considering shelter reform legislation, and they succeeded. Like Oreo’s Law sought to do, the state of Delaware sought to make it illegal for any shelter to kill an animal if a rescue group is willing to save that animal’s life. But Delaware reformers didn’t stop there, because they went further: shelters cannot kill an animal if there are empty spaces in the shelter, if animals can share a space with other animals, if foster homes are available. The law requires them to post animals online and much more. It is the most progressive, comprehensive shelter reform legislation in the country and because not a single national group knew about it, there was no controversy. No fear mongering about hoarders. No fear mongering about dog fighting. No fear mongering about overcrowding. No fear mongering about costs. No fear mongering about notice requirements being unfair to small rural shelters. In fact, no fear mongering of any kind.

The bill mandates that animals be given every opportunity for life, and no one thought that would be a bad or controversial idea. That is why it passed unanimously in both houses of the legislature, with not one single vote in opposition. In fact when I was interviewed by the Dover Post about it, and I told them I was grateful that it passed, the reporter said to me: “Yes, well of course, who could possibly be against it?” I bit my tongue.

To the animal lovers in Delaware, to the rescue groups, to the legislators, and to the reporters, who in their right mind could possibly be against legislation to save animals? Who could be against a law mandating common sense policies the public would be shocked to learn aren’t willingly being done anyway? Imagine the National Resources Defense Council opposing legislation to make sure the BP oil spill disaster didn’t happen again, Greenpeace opposing a law to stop whaling, or the Sierra Club opposing a law to limit deforestation. It is unthinkable. But that is the humane movement we have inherited. Today, we have to fight the very groups founded to protect animals. And so we must fight until we prevail.

The obstacles movements in history faced were great ones. Not only did they have to fight the status quo, they also had to fight the public’s prejudice which sustained it. In other words, they first needed to win the hearts and minds of the American public. And still they prevailed. This is an obstacle we do not face.

We spend more and more every year on our companion animals, topping fifty billion dollars last year. We give hundreds of millions more to animal related charities. We miss work when our animals get sick. We cut back on their own needs to meet the needs of our animal companions. Evidence of this caring is all around us:

  • When people who adopt rescued animals send us thank you letters telling us how much they love these animals;
  • When we see people at the dog park or on our morning walks through the neighborhoods;
  • At our veterinarian’s office—the waiting rooms always filled, the faces of scared people wondering what is wrong, the tears as they emerge from the exam rooms after saying good bye for the last time;
  • The best-selling books about animals that touch us very deeply and very personally;
  • The success of movies about animals as a reflection of our love people for them; and,
  • No Kill success throughout the country being a result of people—people who care deeply.

More importantly, in communities which have ended the killing of savable animals, it is the public which has made the difference: in terms of adoptions, volunteerism, donations, foster care, and other community support. These communities have proved that there is enough love and compassion to overcome the irresponsibility of the few. So we need to put to bed, once and for all, the idea that dogs and cats—animals most Americans now consider cherished members of their family—need to die in U.S. shelters because people are irresponsible and don’t care enough about them. People love animals. And if we give them an opportunity to express that love; if we introduce laws to end the killing, as groups like Faithful Friends, Safe Haven, and others did in Delaware, people will support them because the public is already on our side.

I am not a religious person, but that does not mean I am a man without faith. The faith I hold is in the remarkable capacity of my fellow humans for change and compassion. As a species we aspire to do better, to be better. We want to leave the darkness of the cave and come into the light. And when someone comes along who illuminates a path towards that light as the figures in history did for our ancestors, history vindicates us because we follow them into a brighter future.

I understand that my love for animals and your love for animals is not so unique as we’ve been led to believe. It resides in most people. Most people want to build a better world for animals. And they are waiting for us to show them how, to give them the means to do so. 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—continue to hold us back. They hold us back from the great success we could achieve and the millions of lives we could save if only we find the courage to stand up to them together: loud, unified, uncompromising, demanding legislative changes that would put an end to the ruling power of the pretenders in our midst; that would force them by the rule of law to no longer kill or allow others to kill the animals they are pledged to protect.

We, the people in this room, the rescuers and reformers nationwide, and all animal-loving Americans outnumber them by the millions. As a movement, we must stop deferring to leaders who fail us and the animals time and time again. We must summon the determination to begin this vital process and the fortitude to challenge those who would dare hold us back. That is our mission and our challenge for the coming decade. And that is our most urgent and solemn duty.

As you move confidently into that future, prepared to meet the challenges, ready to fight when that is what the situation calls for, your allegiance never wavering from the animals, know that you are not alone. Know what was once called “impossible,” and then “improbable,” is now “inevitable.” To see what the future holds requires nothing more than a motivating backwards glance to see that you are truly standing on the shoulders of giants. We are continuing the struggle to build a more perfect union. And we’ve already come so far.

At this bright new dawn, let us seize the day: