A Former ASPCA “Director of Animal Behavior” Wants “Shelters” to Kill More “Behavior” Dogs, Wants Rescuers to Stop Saving Them, and Gives People Permission to Kill Theirs.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner
Animal Farm Foundation’s recent podcast interviewing a former ASPCA “Director of Animal Behavior” and euphemistically entitled “We Need to Talk About Behavior Euthanasia” is, without a doubt, the single worst commentary on sheltering I have encountered in ages. That is no exaggeration.
It is a smorgasbord of Orwellian doublespeak, of pro-death apologia, of anti-No Kill smear, of disingenuous logical fallacies such as strawman arguments. It is dishonest, ahistorical, amoral, anachronistic, and contrary to the facts. Most of all, it is cruel and deadly. Included in the hour-long podcast are stories about the killing of individual dogs, including puppies; stories that include a young dog who was killed whose mother lived a short, abusive, miserable life that included incest (sibling breeding); a retelling punctuated not by circumspection, sensitivity, regret, sorrow, or outrage, but by, of all things, laughter from the guest and the hosts; a laughter that continues to ring in my ears.
Trish McMillan, the former “director of animal behavior” and the hosts say that we need to “talk,” but that is just one of the many euphemisms used. They don’t want to talk as much as lecture. They want you to — and my apologies here as there is no nice way to say this and underscore the vehemence with which they argue it — shut the f— up*; you who does not matter, who is not entitled to an opinion, who should have no voice as to whether dogs are killed or not killed; whether the pound in your community reflects your values or tramples them; a pound which you fund with your tax dollars, run by an elected government that is supposed to represent you, in a democratic republic that operates in your name.**
I do not say this lightly: the logical outcome of what McMillan yearns for is that government agencies — in this case municipal pounds — deny citizens their rights under the First Amendment to free speech and to petition their government for a redress of grievances. Indeed, one of the AFF hosts says shelter workers “have to stop caring what the public thinks.” That is a call for a return to the idea that pounds should be the fiefdoms of those who run them, regardless of how regressive, inept, cruel, and lazy they are.
But to McMillan and the particular AFF host who echoed the sentiments, there are no regressive, inept, cruel, and lazy pound staff, because no one who works in government pounds wants to kill.*** And because no one wants to kill, if pound staff make the decision to kill a dog, they should never be second-guessed in that decision. Doing so, they say, causes “suffering” of those who kill dogs, irrespective of the suffering pounds cause dogs.
McMillan also suggests that if pound managers do not budget any money or allocate personnel for dog rehabilitation, they should be allowed to kill dogs who can be managed and live long, happy lives. Not content to stop there, she goes on to admonish rescue groups that pull these dogs, telling them they are wasting time and money.
That includes even “marginal” dogs — those in shelters who are “a little iffy with other dogs” or “a little growly with men.” (This is why her statements, “Adopting out dangerous dogs is not ok” or that we shouldn’t ask people to adopt out a dog that is going to “randomly attack them several times a day” is not only a strawman, but a bait and switch.) In fact, she says it doesn’t matter how many are killed as the number is irrelevant; even a 50% rate of killing is perfectly acceptable. Those who do not agree or who organize politically to advocate against shelter killing are nothing more than “keyboard warriors” who should remain silent. She says that, “If you have not walked a mile in their shoes, you should not be judging people who make [the decision to kill]… And if you have walked a mile in their shoes, you will not be judging people….” Her AFF host agrees.
Well, I have run municipal shelters, I have worked with some of the largest municipal pounds in the country, I have overseen an animal hospital that saw tens of thousands of patients every year, I worked as an ACO, have been the Chief of Animal Control, have written half a dozen books on sheltering, have drafted shelter protocols, animal protection legislation at the local, state, and federal level, have done top-down assessments of shelter operations, and more. I also lived with a dog who had a bite history who lived a full, rich, loving life with me that protected him and protected others from him. In other words, I have walked for many, many miles in those shoes. And I beg to differ.
I am not the only one.
Others who likewise object to the killing don’t just sit behind a keyboard. They also have multifaceted, complex lives that define them more broadly than “keyboard warrior.” Like me, many of them rescue, lobby, run organizations, train dogs, work in shelters, work outside of shelters, and more. But even if they, and I, did none of these things, we would still be entitled to say so.
The No Kill philosophy, the No Kill movement, and the No Kill Equation are ideas that require abandoning old ones. To win support for these new ways of doing business required abandoning deification of practices, leaders, and groups that experience proved to be wrong. And in order for a bad idea to be abandoned, it must be directly challenged. We do that in several ways: direct action, litigation, legislation, education, and — last, but certainly not least — advocacy, the tools used by every social movement in American history.
For the last several decades as never before, we, in the No Kill movement, have given voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. It is a cause that has demanded that we find the moral courage to stand up to those falsely shrouding their cruel ideas under a mantel of “expertise” and “animal protection,” even as they simultaneously promote the widespread execution of animals in our nation’s “shelters” and slander those who dare to grieve or question it. By highlighting their moral bankruptcy, their flawed logic, and their betrayal to animals and our cause, we have saved the lives of millions of animals who, were it not for our advocacy, would today be moldering in graves.
Contrary to the assertion made in the podcast, we need more “keyboard warriors,” not fewer. Indeed, to bash the “keyboard warrior” is to bash Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Clarkson, William Shakespeare, Upton Sinclair, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and legions of newspaper reporters who spend most of their time advocating via keyboard. It is to deny the power of the written word and relegate the notions of a free and independent press and free expression of ideas to the dust heap.
That the venue of such advocacy is increasingly on cyberspace — such as blogs and social media — rather than books and newspapers is of no moment. That we are debating and discussing remotely rather than in public squares is also irrelevant. The 17th and 18th century Europeans had their coffee houses, the colonists and early Americans had their taverns, we have Facebook. This is where we come to talk, debate, discuss, learn, and then go do.
The power of Facebook does not lie in hand-wringing about problems while ignoring viable solutions. It does not lie in deification of the so-called “leaders” of the movement simply because they are large, wealthy, or because if you lionize them as they require, they write your group checks. It lies in truly talking: about what works, what doesn’t work, what needs reevaluation, and where we go from here. In other words, the power of the keyboard lies in collectively imagining the bright future we want for animals and then working to achieve it. Behind every revolutionary movement is an intellectual tradition. Behind every movement that has ever made our world a better place is a quill, typewriter, pen, or computer keyboard. Keyboard warriors change hearts, minds, laws, policies, and nations. And with a keyboard, we can save the dogs McMillan appears determined to have killed.
The podcast closes with McMillan citing an article she wrote which essentially laments the disappearance of the now-thoroughly reviled sheltering philosophy of Sue Sternberg, who championed temperament testing (before temperament testing was debunked) with the goal of killing all dogs who are not perfect: a philosophy akin to insisting that dogs sit, fetch, stay, or die and which thus sent thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of dogs nationwide to an untimely death.
In fact, Sternberg once called for the killing of each and every friendly “pit bull” in each and every pound in the country simply because their wagging tails alone “could cause bruising on a small child.” Even if a family did not have small children, the dogs should be killed, she said, because they could potentially knock your teeth out just jumping up and “saying hello” :
Listening to the AFF podcast, it is as if the No Kill movement never happened, that the progress of the last two decades never happened, that our increased understanding of dog behavior never happened, that PETA’s viewpoint that killing is kindness and, indeed, a “gift,”, which is in full retreat all over the country, became hegemonic. It is The Handmaid’s Tale for the sheltering movement.
That it should be coming from Animal Farm Foundation, once a sponsor of the No Kill Conference and which, as recently as two months ago was raising the alarm regarding a Petsmart Charities presentation that likewise sought to revive from the dustbin of history many of the regressive pro-killing ideas that its own podcast now champions, is not not only concerning, but bewildering.
What, exactly, explains this dramatic about face? I cannot say, but sadly, it ultimately does not matter. What matters is the threat to animals presented by the stamp of legitimacy Animal Farm Foundation has given McMillan’s regressive and cruel ideas. I spoke to AFF about the podcast and was told it would be deleted. That was several days ago. Since then, I was told it would be “reworked.” As the podcast is still live and still making the rounds, and AFF is defending it on its Facebook page, a bell has been rung publicly that has not been unrung, and therefore, circumstances fostered by that ringing and the cause of animal protection it threatens demand rebuttal, since unlike the hit television series, it is not offered for purposes of entertainment or even, given the politics of our time, as a cautionary tale. It has very real life and very immediate, life and death consequences.
And when it comes to ideas, like Sternberg’s, that the movement has unequivocally proven false and dangerous, “what’s dead should stay dead.” And what is alive — in this case the dogs — should be protected from “shelters” that want to kill them and from others that not only give them permission, but hail them as heroes for doing so.****
* I have never used profanity in any of the six books, one film, hundreds of articles, dozens of interviews, dozens of speaking engagements, and thousands of social media posts I have done. I use profanity here. I apologize for it, but I could not think of a single word that better captures the egregiousness of what was being conveyed.
** Like the words “we” and “talk,” the term “behavior euthanasia” in the title is also a misnomer. Euthanasia is the killing of a dog to release from irremediable physical suffering for reasons of mercy. Since there is no such thing as irremediable psychological suffering, dogs allegedly killed for behavior are killed for human convenience, not mercy. The other euphemisms are used to describe killing and include “put to sleep,” “let them go,” and “release from his demons.”
*** But people who try to save dogs apparently do, as sanctuaries they argue, are often “psychological institutions” with horrible conditions; a fate worse than death.
**** I want to make it clear that nowhere do I suggest that shelters should adopt out “dangerous” dogs with indifference to public safety. I have very complex, nuanced views on that issue and I refer people to the latest research and experience here. What this research and experience demonstrates is that dogs are incredibly resilient, that there is no such thing as “irremediable psychological suffering” in dogs, and that all dogs with behavior trauma can be appropriately rehabilitated and/or placed through criteria that depends on the severity of the trauma. To protect public safety, that includes sanctuary placement with the understanding that a sanctuary should not be seen as a place where one gives up on animals with “severe aggression” or “trauma.” Instead, sanctuaries should be viewed as an environment where the animal and public are protected during long-term rehabilitation and barring that, where the dog is provided permanent placement that meets the needs of the individual for life. That is our duty as a society; a duty that is compounded by the fact that we — as humans — are often responsible for their condition through our neglect, abuse, and undersocialization. This is true even if their behavioral pathology is endogenous and profound because there is redress. Moreover, there is the added challenge of how we define our terms and assuming we could agree on a definition, how and whether we can determine, with any degree of rigor, if a dog is or is not “dangerous” (See, e.g., Winograd, N., New Study Calls for “Moratorium” on Temperament Testing, Mar. 26, 2019.) I would have welcomed that discussion, including any supposed practical limitations to it that need to be overcome. Since that is not what the podcast was about, my objection is to the “bait and switch” which resulted in:
- Not responding to stories about killing dogs/puppies and abuse of dogs with circumspection, sensitivity, regret, sorrow, or outrage, but by, of all things, laughter from the guest and the hosts;
- Saying that no one has a right to second guess the killing of dogs in their taxpayer funded pounds, a violation of their First Amendment rights and a recipe for regressive absolutism;
- Calling for the killing of all dogs who are deemed “marginal”;
- Excusing the killing of healthy dogs;
- Giving “shelters” a free pass not to work with dogs who can be rehabilitated;
- Telling rescuers not to waste their time on these dogs;
- Excusing pounds where half of dogs or more are killed;
- Perpetuating the lie that “no one” who works in pounds wants to kill (and then turning around and claiming that many who work in sanctuaries apparently do);
- Expressing sympathy for Sue Sternberg’s ideology of killing all dogs who are not perfect: a philosophy akin to insisting that dogs sit, fetch, stay, or die and which thus sent thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of dogs nationwide to an untimely death; and more.
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