What We Owe Dogs – Part I

On December 28 and in subsequent blogs, John Sibley wrote about a rescue group’s killing of Nikki, a dog they said was aggressive. Sibley’s blog stated that the rescue group was given several options including expert assistance  from a certified behaviorist to assess Nikki and help the rescue group rehabilitate her, an offer from another rescue group to take Nikki, and evaluation for possible placement in a sanctuary.

According to Sibley, the rescue group declined all three offers and killed her. A person claiming to be “Jay Teske” (which I subsequently learned is a pseudonym) came on my Facebook page and attacked me publicly on a post for going after the rescue group by reposting Sibley’s blog. It turns out that after Sibley wrote his blog, No Kill Nation reposted it on their Facebook page with the following quote from Sibley:

“It is not right—ever—to kill an animal who has a place to go that provides an appropriate and safe environment for them.”

Though I was not privy to the facts surrounding Sibley’s blog, I do not find the statement, in and of itself, objectionable, and in fact agree with it for the reasons indicated below. But No Kill Nation is not my group. I am not responsible for what they post or don’t post, whose blogs they highlight or don’t highlight, and what they believe or don’t believe. “Jay” was angry about the repost and blamed me for it. The public attack was ugly. The private message was uglier. Following the exchange with “Jay,” New York City animal advocate  “Kay Smith” (aka, Karen Pepp)  came on my page to comment, followed by still other New York City rescuers. All of them stood behind the rescuer, vilified Sibley, and questioned my motives even though I had never posted a statement or expressed any opinion about Nikki’s killing. Instead, what I did was to reach out to Sibley for more information, asking him for the evidence that Nikki had lifesaving options, including offers from other rescue groups and evaluation for possible placement in a sanctuary. I also reached out to the rescue group itself, asking if they would be willing to talk to me so I could find out what happened from their point of view, but they never responded.

Since then, other rescues joined the attack against me. Harris Bloom likened me to Ingrid Newkirk, someone who butchers 2,000 animals a year. Not content with that, he also said I was like Al Sharpton, racially inflaming the passions of the masses. Someone named Amy Lee decided to one-up Bloom and called me mass murderer Jim Jones, saying I was feeding people (poisoned) Kool Aid. But here’s the rub: I did not issue a public statement. I did not take Sibley’s side. I did not take the rescue group’s side. I was just looking for more information as to whether Nikki had in fact been offered a lifesaving alternative. And, once drawn into the debate by the people who posted on my page,  I wanted to understand as a response to various statements by “Kay” and others, independent of the facts in the killing of Nikki, whether they believed it was ok for a rescue group to kill in the face of a lifesaving alternative. For that, I had become public enemy number one. Well, perhaps two. Number one was John Sibley.

I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to make it illegal  for shelters to kill animals when qualified rescue groups are willing to save them and I was trying to understand if, in fact, Nikki was offered an alternative, why it was not accepted. And if it was not accepted, how that is different from a shelter rejecting placement and choosing to kill an animal who had a place to go. Was there a principled reason for two different rules? And so I asked the New York City rescuers who came on my Facebook page this very question. The conversation went in circles because people had lined up on one side or the other, without all the evidence (was Nikki offered an alternative or was she not?) based on who they knew (and liked) and not what was right. They were unwilling to discuss the matter in the abstract irrespective of Nikki. In other words, if we agree that shelters should not kill in the face of a rescue alternative, why don’t we agree that a rescue should not kill in the face of a rescue alternative? All I got was that Sibley was a liar and that I have no right to even ask such questions.

Aside from the claims that I am akin to a mass murderer of animals (Ingrid Newkirk), a mass murderer of people (Jim Jones) and a peddler of “Al Sharpton’s racially inflammatory rhetoric,” the worse thing about the comments from some in the New York City rescue community was that they were making the exact same arguments that the ASPCA made when it killed Oreo: hoarding, you should not second guess decisions to kill, we know best, asking questions is divisive. In other words, rescue groups should never be questioned about who they kill and for what reasons. To say I was dismayed would be an understatement. All I wanted to know was whether Nikki was offered a lifesaving alternative and if she was, why it was ok to reject it. For that, I was condemned. By “Jay,” by “Kay,” by Harris, by Amy, by a whole host of New Yorkers because they knew and liked the rescuer who killed Nikki and did not like Sibley. Because what was important to them was WHO was involved, not WHAT was right.

In fact, the very people who condemned the ASPCA for killing Oreo and condemned all their excuses for not accepting the offer of sanctuary by Pets Alive, were leading the charge to condemn Pets Alive, who made an offer to evaluate Nikki for possible placement. Now, they were hoarders. Now, they were abusive. Now, they could not be trusted, never mind that every time they saved an animal from death at ACC, “Kay” happily put them in the “saved” file. According to comments “Kay” made on my Facebook page, if someone does not believe in sanctuaries, they have a right to kill a dog even when a sanctuary offers to save the dog. But if you change the word “rescue group” to “shelter” and “sanctuary” to “rescue group,” you have the ASPCA defending the killing of Oreo. And if you change the phrase “I do not believe in sanctuaries” to “I do not believe in foster care” or “I do not believe in TNR” you have now justified the killing of community cats and neonatal puppies by regressive shelter directors across the country. The logic is not just similar. It is exactly the same. How is this consistent with the No Kill philosophy? Indeed, how is it consistent at all?

Why do we support a law that makes it illegal for a shelter to kill an animal when a qualified rescue group is willing to save that animal? Because killing in the face of a lifesaving alternative is wrong. Because animals who have a place to go should not be killed. Because in order to save lives, animals should not be subject to the prejudices and whims of those in power over them. Because we need to eliminate discretion which causes animals to die despite lifesaving alternatives. Because some shelter directors are progressive and some are not. Because some shelter directors will take lifesaving alternatives and some won’t. Isn’t the same true of rescue groups? Of course it is.

In fact, their own arguments in defense of killing prove it. “Kay” writes: “Why should I give an animal to another rescue, that I may not agree with, just because they promise to prolong it’s life, or try harder than they felt I did?” The question should be rhetorical. More accurately, it is self-explanatory: Because they promise to try harder. Because they might be able to save the dog’s life. Because the dog should have a right to life independent of whether you agree with them. In short, because you are not the one being killed.

Unable to have a principled discussion on what rights a dog should have to his or her life independent of the beliefs of the rescuers, I wanted to strip the issue down to its core, without continuing to hear a defense of a particular rescuer or a bash of another. I wanted to know what most advocates believe if they were not friends with the person being implicated. So I posed it as a hypothetical on my Facebook page.  Most people said that the rescue group is obligated to give the dog a chance. Almost 500 comments were made. Some I agreed with, some I disagreed with. But there are three which really stood out:

“Just because today [the dog] doesn’t like to be touched, is in no way a determination of how he may behave after extended care and love.” “If he is alive, in a warm, comfortable, loving environment with enrichment and some socialization (even through a fence), his life is improving every day and his desire for contact may as well.”

Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times, yes. What do we know about saving “aggressive dogs”? The answer is not much as a movement because we kill most of them. And just because we’ve determined (rightly or wrongly, many times the latter) that a dog is not safe to place in the community today, how do we know what may be the case one year, two years, five years or more from now? We don’t. In fact, if a sanctuary is an option, we’ve got a win-win-win: for the safety of the community, for the safety of the dog, for advancing our knowledge of dog behavior and rehabilitation.

The second comment involved a rescue group from Belgium. They described their experience with a dog who lived alone in the woods for 12 years without human contact. When taken in by the rescue group, the dog was “shut down” completely to humans. After six months, though she largely does not want to be around people, she is getting along with other dogs and opening up. If you watch the video,  she looks happy:


She still doesn’t let people touch her much, but that such a turnaround can occur with such an extreme example calls into question the notion advanced by some that less traumatized dogs should be killed and that killing them is “in their best interest” (as opposed to our convenience).

The third comment was simply a stroke of brilliance:

“I think a dog who can find a home in whatever kind of environment best suits it is better than no life at all. As long as the dog is not suffering it is a good life. If there is a way for it to get some sort of stimulation and play in its own way that is all that matters. If it doesn’t like people maybe it can play with other dogs. If it doesn’t like other dogs maybe it can play with experienced humans. If it doesn’t like whether humans or dogs perhaps it can play with treat filled toys and other obstacles.”

We tend to judge a dog in terms of their relationship to humans. And just because we determine that a dog cannot live at a human address which is what we think the dog should want or have a cuddling relationship to a human which is what we think the dog must have, we opt to kill them. As animal advocates, we’ve put to bed this absurd notion as it applies to feral cats, it is time to do the same for dogs who are not suited to living in a human home.

In short, Sibley got it right: “It is not right—ever—to kill an animal who has a place to go that provides an appropriate and safe environment for them.” That applies to shelters. That applies to rescue groups. But should we go further?

Courts have ruled that a family who does not believe in chemotherapy or blood transfusions cannot choose to allow their child to die if those things can possibly save the child’s life. There are laws that say a family cannot cut down a tree on their own property because public policy is against cutting down trees. Isn’t it worth considering a vision for the future that just like kids and trees, a dog has a right to life (and potentially lifesaving treatment) despite the desires of the people who have control over him? Why should it matter if a rescuer does not believe in sanctuaries if a sanctuary can save the dog’s life? Why should a dog or cat or rabbit have less protection? In fact, precedent for such a viewpoint already exists. Over 20 years ago, California courts invalidated a will provision that said a dog was to be killed upon her owner’s death. The court (and then legislature) found that it violated California’s public policy that dogs who have a place to go be killed just because the dog’s humane caretaker requests it.

Where do we draw the line? It will change over time. In fact, it already has. Over one hundred years ago, you could torture and kill your own dog because “it” was your property. Today, the dog has a right to be free of such violence. In fact, “he” has a legal right to more: food, water, and shelter. Today in New York, a shelter can kill an animal despite a rescue group ready, willing and able to save that animal. In California, shelters cannot legally do that. Someday, “Kay’s” protestations to the contrary, neither will a rescue group when another rescue group is willing to save that animal. Someday, you will not be able to kill your own animal if the animal is not irremediably suffering. That is called progress; the march of history.

But “Kay” and others who aligned themselves with the New York City rescue group that killed Nikki do not agree. They believe that a rescue group is and always should be the final arbiter of whether dogs in their custody live or die. The rescuer knows best. All through history and presently in sheltering, those on the wrong side of where we as a society will eventually end up have made these arguments. The state should not dictate how husbands treat their wives, parents their children, “owners” their animals, shelter directors the animals in those shelters. Why? Husbands know best. Parents know best. “Owners” know best. Shelter directors know best. The argument is the same. It is not similar. It is not very similar. It is exactly the same and equally indefensible in that it  assumes that progress has come to an end and that our relationship with dogs has been perfected by the rescuer-rescued relationship. Worse, it subjects animals to arbitrary and indiscriminant standards. If I am a dog and I am lucky enough to get into a rescue group who believes in sanctuary, I may live. If I am at a rescue group that does not, I will die even if I have the exact same behavior. If I am an unsocial cat and I get into a rescue group who believes in TNR, I will live. The exact cat at a rescue group who believes all cats must be in human homes will die.

As we debate what we owe dogs (and cats and other animals) now and in the years to come, I want to share what I believe we should be working toward. I want to share what public policy—enshrined in law—should look like and how it should evolve over time. And I start with a basic premise: It is not ethical to kill dogs who have a qualified lifesaving alternative, regardless of whether the killing is being done by a shelter or rescue group and regardless of whether that alternative is another rescue group or a sanctuary. The dog does not care who it is that is threatening to kill him and neither should we. We also need to be honest with ourselves that dogs killed for aggression are killed for our “needs,” not for the dog’s own good. Whatever the “practical” justifications, it is not “euthanasia,” it is killing. Indeed, it is an execution.

When we claim to kill dogs for behavior on the basis of “quality of life” arguments, as some argued on my Facebook discussion, we have to admit that such calculations are not capable of rigor. We are clumsy when we debate medical euthanasia for humans, we cannot be so arrogant as to think we have a better understanding as it relates to dogs and dog behavior. In a worst case scenario, “quality of life” as it relates to behavior  has become an excuse to kill dogs.

Some suggested that it was possible for dogs to be so traumatized that being alive was a fate worse than death. This view  not only flies in the face of every living being’s instinctual will to live, but a dog’s own reaction to the perception that she may be in harm’s way is not to run towards a threat to their life, but to flee it or to display aggression as a means of deterring it. As I asserted in the fight against the ASPCA’s Quick Kill bill which sought to legally condone the killing of animals entering shelters in New York who were perceived to be in “psychological pain,” it makes no sense to respond to such a condition in an animal by doing the very thing a traumatized animal’s behavior demonstrates they are desperately trying to avoid: being harmed.

Indeed, it is impossible to imagine any scenario in which one human being can confidently say another human being suffering from a “psychological” condition is better off dead and feel justified ending that person’s life for “their own good.” We just do not think that way about people. Instead, we think about helping them not feel that way. There’s no justification for a different standard for dogs. In fact less so, because while we can empathize with how a person might feel given our shared experiences as human beings, we can never know the true mind of a dog.

As my family and I were driving home recently, we saw a homeless person sitting on a dirty mattress near a freeway off-ramp with a sign that read “Wet and sick and cold and hungry.” He looked beaten down, depressed, and as desperate as any homeless human being can possibly look. Was he mentally ill? Was he traumatized? Whether he was or he wasn’t didn’t matter; none of us in the car would have ever entertained the thought that he “should be killed for his own good.” Instead, we felt sorry for him. We wanted to help him. And we felt shame that our society allows people to live like that in a country filled with abundance. Ironically, that very same day, the BBC announced that Scotland passed a law that its citizens are legally entitled as a basic human right to a home. If they cannot afford one, the state will provide it.

I believe people and dogs deserve the same: as it relates to dogs, that might mean—as the third comment noted above—”a home in whatever kind of environment best suits.” Impossible?  Just over a decade ago, everyone said No Kill was impossible. Today, communities are saving upwards of 95% of the animals. Do we really believe we will never figure out the means to save the remaining 5%? But let’s assume for the sake of argument that we will  never cross the goal line (something I do not believe), we can move the ball down the field of play.  And, to quote a former shelter director who once said the same about No Kill, “that would make thousands of animals pretty happy, and it would make thousands of animal lovers pretty happy.” Having thought about these issues for 20 years, I can’t see how anything less is the kind of society we should all want and be striving to achieve.

Tomorrow, I will post Part II of “What We Owe Dogs” and what the killing of Nikki and the response to that killing foretells about our movement.

Please note: Defenders of the rescue group categorically denied that any offer to save Nikki was made. Earlier today, Sibley posted his evidence. You can review and read it here. You can review more here.


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