Articles Best Friends

What Happens to the Dream Merchant When the Dream Becomes a Reality?

By Jennifer & Nathan Winograd

In 1832, one of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential anti-slavery organizations in the United States was the American Colonization Society (ACS). Their platform was a simple one: black people, being inherently inferior, could never live as equals among whites. So while they believed slavery was a regrettable institution, it should end only when the means and will could be found to “expatriate” all black people living in the U.S. to Africa. When that time came, it was argued, Americans would finally be free of the scourge of slavery, and black people and white people could live freely but separately as “Nature and Nature’s God” intended.

To our modern sensibilities, that such a notion could have ever been widespread seems simply inconceivable. But at that time in American history, the debate on slavery centered on little else. And the American Colonization Society—promoting an idea that “solved” the slavery issue without challenging racism and, in fact, condoned it—enjoyed immense popular support. That is, it did until a man named William Lloyd Garrison changed the debate forever.*

Garrison argued that to truly realize the American ideals of equality and liberty expressed in the Declaration of Independence, all people must enjoy the same rights and privileges of citizenship. He argued that slavery was immoral, that it should be immediately abolished, and—over 130 years before Martin Luther King, Jr.—that we should live side-by-side as equals. The ACS and other leaders of the “anti-slavery movement” simply ignored Garrison. Having grown large and powerful from the donations of Americans who were troubled by the institution of slavery but had no competing vision about what should be done about it to support, the ACS mistook their popularity and increasing wealth as evidence of invincibility. They regarded Garrison as a mere nuisance with radical ideas so far-fetched and preposterous that the best strategy was to simply ignore him, and eventually, he and his disturbing views would simply go away. How wrong they were.

Garrison’s ideas, with their uncompromising moral clarity and their call for an immediate end to an institution that was inherently evil, struck a deep chord within many people. His writings were widely distributed, and as he traveled the country calling for equality and immediate emancipation, he was greeted by increasingly larger crowds. And so the true abolition movement in the United States was born: a cause that was at the heart of the Civil War, and which, just 31 years after its inception, ended slavery in the United States forever.

Today, few people remember the American Colonization Society and its absurd scheme of colonization. And that is exactly how William Lloyd Garrison wanted it to be. He never did get these early leaders to come out in support of his work. After being derided as “divisive” by the early leaders of the anti-slavery movement when his crusade for abolition first began, he quickly realized that they were too hopelessly dependent on the status quo to ever embrace the truth. He recognized that what they sold was absolution, but not a solution to slavery. And that people donated to them because the ACS made them feel something was being done, at a time when alternative visions did not exist, even as the ACS shared more in common with the slave owners’ views of black people than they cared to admit. They offered a “dream”—future abolition at some mythic time in the future—while Garrison showed that the dream could and should be a reality today.

So Garrison switched course, forsaking his original strategy of appealing to the leadership of what then passed for an anti-slavery movement to one of changing the climate of opinion in which these so-called “leaders” had to operate. In other words, Garrison worked from the grassroots up to make the views of the leadership at that time look dated, immoral, and ultimately, irrelevant. It is a lesson that the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, the American Humane Association, and Best Friends should heed.

Like the ACS, these organizations do not offer moral clarity, nor do they offer a true solution to the problem they theoretically exist to combat. In fact, in their positions on Oreo’s Law—Best Friends is opposed, the ASPCA is opposed, HSUS cowers in silence, and the AHA probably has no idea what it is or what we are talking about—they make it clear that they do not want a solution. What they sell is the same fantasy as the ACS—a time in the future when there will be no more homeless pets, even as they fight the realization of it today.

In the No Kill movement, we are no longer surprised when groups like the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States oppose or fail to champion the cause that is at the heart of their mission. We know why that is. We now understand that these agencies are staffed by individuals who once ran killing shelters themselves. And that until the No Kill movement, these individuals were deferred to as the undisputed “experts” in the sheltering field, and that the alternative model of sheltering that No Kill represents threatens the paradigm upon which their careers are based, upon which their supposed “expertise” is based, and upon which their fundraising and power is based as well. The No Kill movement turns the world in which they have been reigning upside down, and reveals that they are not only wrong about their assertions, but that the killing they have done, and so vociferously defended all these years, was never the necessary evil they portray it to be. And so of course they oppose us at every turn. But what about Best Friends?

I’ve been reading a lot of comments substantively addressing Best Friends’ professed rationale in opposing Oreo’s Law. Although I have written extensively on the real source of their opposition—which in reality has nothing to do with their fears for animals, but their fears related to their fundraising and alliance with the ASPCA—I recognize that many people are dumbfounded by this seeming about-face of Best Friends. But now that they bring in over $40,000,000 a year—now that they are big and powerful—should we really be surprised that they are acting just like the other big, powerful organizations?

Like the ASPCA and others, Best Friends has enriched itself by bemoaning the killing, promising its supporters that it was working toward a time when there would be no more homeless pets. Unlike the ASPCA and HSUS, however, they have, historically, promoted the programs and services which make no kill possible: programs like TNR, foster care, and working with rescue groups. So how is it now, when they have a chance to codify those programs into law as they do with Oreo’s Law, they fight it?

For Best Friends, the goal is not really about fixing the problem of shelter killing. They abandoned their plan for a No Kill Utah. They abandoned their plan for a No Kill Atlanta. They abandoned their plan for a No Kill Los Angeles. And, in opening a New York City office, they did not even bother pretending otherwise. They were opening a fundraising office, pure and simple. In fact, they have never succeeded in creating a single No Kill community for the simple reason that achieving one is not the goal. It is about selling a dependency model whereby you give them money and they will work toward a time when there will be no more homeless pets. Even the name of the campaign reflects that focus. They do not envision a No Kill nation. They do not even envision no more killing of homeless pets; just a mythic time in the future where the need for rescue groups, for shelters, for refuge, for sanctuary won’t exist. There is no finish line so that they can keep fundraising for the same goal forever.

Theirs is a different brand of utopianism than that sold by HSUS and the ASPCA, a new flavor, a new and improved design, but it is in reality the same damn product with the same tragic outcome: the current killing of four million animals annually. Like those other brands, it never was about actually bringing that world into existence. No Kill was a pretty dream to which we all aspired, a mythical utopia that would someday—in the distant future when everyone was finally made responsible pet owners—arrive. And we bought that idea. We sent them money. And they became rich, they became famous, they became powerful, their conferences sold out, and Wayne Pacelle and Ed Sayres started taking their phone calls. Suddenly, the doorway to the halls of power opened at their knocking. And they could continue raising more money every year—$30,000,000, then $33,000,000, now $40,000,000 and more—much of it not being used for its intended purpose but to be hoarded in the bloated coffers of the Bank of Kanab.

But then something happened that they never anticipated: we changed the rules. The nation’s first no kill community happened. And then another, and another, and another. And we learned that there weren’t too many animals and not enough homes. We learned we could be a No Kill nation, today, if we could summon the will to bring it to life, and to overcome the obstacles which stand in our way. And Best Friends was faced with a choice. They could embrace the future they claimed for so many years to want, and which was proven to actually be possible, and, in so doing, work to remove every obstacle that stood in the way of its widespread implementation. They could celebrate the good news, inform their members, and use their power and vast resources to fight alongside the rescue groups, the reformers and activists who were working to make it a reality in their own communities. To give voice to the unequivocal moral clarity of the ideals of the William Lloyd Garrisons of our own time and of our own movement. And, in so doing, they could become that which did not yet exist: a large, powerful, wealthy, national organization championing No Kill and standing up for the unbending vision of a No Kill nation we have the ability to achieve today.

Or, they could take the other road, the safe one, the one most traveled, the one which has worked out so well for groups like the ASPCA and HSUS, but which in the end will be their undoing: don’t rock the boat, champion the status quo, and above all, protect the paradigm which made them all rich to begin with. Like the American Colonization Society, bemoan the current state of affairs but not do what is takes to change it.

Best Friends got rich promoting an idea that we—the grassroots—and not them with all their millions, are making a reality. And it wasn’t supposed to be this way. We are changing the rules by which they became who they are. We are changing the climate in which they have to operate. And no more homeless pets someday is no longer enough. The achievement of a No Kill nation need not be in the mythical future. It exists now, today, at animal control facilities across the country and it wasn’t delivered by angels descending from the heavens on gossamer wings. It was delivered through the hard work and dedication and uncompromising devotion of people with the courage to stand up to those blocking their way. In short, it happened because we stood up to the people with whom, as the leaders of Best Friends grew richer and more powerful, they became “best friends.” Francis Battista has stated that Best Friends will never support a law opposed by the ASPCA, an organization that killed an abused dog with a place to go and an organization with a long, sordid history of fighting animal shelter reform. And in so doing, it isn’t just the 25,000 animals a year who will be put to death Best Friends betrayed; they betrayed us, too.

Best Friends sold us out. In a barter with a man trying to avoid accountability for his own misdeed, Best Friends traded us in for unimpeded access to New York money. They took the power we gave them through our support and our donations—power that made their position on Oreo’s Law relevant to begin with—and they used it against us. And not only did they fail to support a law that would empower us as we have empowered them, but they blamed us for their “need” to do so, arguing that we cannot be trusted because we—the very people who supported them for celebrating a future in which animals are not abused or killed in shelters—are hoarders and dog fighters in disguise.

When William Lloyd Garrison became the nation’s voice for the immediate abolition of slavery, he had more than the opposition of slave owners to overcome. He had to fight the organizations that had become very rich and very powerful selling an “anti-slavery” platform that in reality condoned the status quo.   It was the same battle faced by Alice Paul when she was condemned by the leaders of the suffrage movement for the “indecency” of protesting in front of the White House, actions which, after years of capitulation with politicians by leaders of the suffrage movement, finally ended with the 19th Amendment.   And it was the same struggle faced by Martin Luther King, Jr., who’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to his fellow clergymen reveals his own struggles with the leadership of the civil rights movement, powerful people within the black community who were threatened by the urgency and immediacy of his calls for equality and his bold actions to achieve it; people who had become power brokers selling an agenda for the future. And so it is with our movement, too.

The unanimous passage of the Companion Animal Protection Act in Delaware—passed without the awareness of a single large, national organization including Best Friends—shows how successful we can be when they are not there to thwart our efforts. We get unanimous votes of support from legislators and we push our agenda, almost effortlessly, through state legislatures. In New York, supporters of Oreo’s Law shut down the servers at the Albany State Capitol twice with their numerous calls of support. What would the legislators there have chosen to do had they not been manipulated by the ASPCA and Best Friends?

When the early founders of our movement died and their organizations took over the job of killing those they had been formed to protect, a fiery zeal was replaced with a smoldering ember that gave little light or warmth, and the humane movement went to sleep. The tireless devotion of ASPCA founder Henry Bergh—a man who spent his days and nights patrolling the streets of New York looking for animals in need of his protection—was replaced with the likes of Ed Sayres, Wayne Pacelle, Julie and Gregory Castle, and Francis Battista; individuals who put the financial needs of their organizations and their own power before the animals off whom they grow rich. “Leaders” who do little more than speak about the human/animal bond, while growing fat on the financial largesse of an animal loving American public which, by virtue of having no alternative vision to endorse until recently, bought their dependency model of activism: send us money, let us handle everything, but don’t expect any real results.

It may be painful for some to recognize that Best Friends is no longer who we thought they were. They may feel the need to fall back on the same clichés many people once used for the ASPCA and HSUS: “But they do so much other good…” But if we don’t face the cold, ugly truth of what they have become and their inability to lead at the level to which we have raised this movement, if we put our allegiance to an organization first, we do so at the expense of our ideals. And that would betray the animals who need us to authentically and courageously stand up for them, as Best Friends refuses to do. Our mantra is not that we are working toward some mythical time, in a dream-like future, when there will be no more homeless pets. Our mantra is more immediate, more direct, more urgent, more compelling, and more achievable. It is straight and true: No more excuses. No more compromises. No more killing.

Like the great William Lloyd Garrison, we need to stop looking to old “leaders” for guidance and become the leaders ourselves. We must take back the voice we gave Best Friends to speak on our behalf—a voice they have abused and misused to their own selfish ends. Best Friends has not created a single No Kill community anywhere in the United States despite all their millions, and they were not involved in passing either the Hayden law or the Delaware Companion Animal Protection Act, the two most progressive companion animal protections laws in the country. We did those things. The grassroots. Without them and in spite of them. In the end, we don’t need Best Friends, we just need them to get the hell out of our way.

* Garrison was not the first voice for true abolition and equality in the United States. He was inspired by the writings of David Walker, the son of a slave father and free black mother, who championed immediate, universal, and unconditional emancipation. Walker died in 1830, only one year after he published his Appeal. And it was left to William Lloyd Garrison to pick up and subsequently carry the baton.