Ed Duvin: Unfinished Business

One of the luxuries of an informal grassroots publication is establishing an open and ongoing dialogue with the readers, and the thoughtful responses to animalines never fail to enrich me. As inveterate readers know, animalines has rarely been far from controversy. Indeed, its roots are in the gadfly tradition of challenging institutional inertia within the movement. As organizations grow over time and expand their purview of operations, an insidious process often ensues in which the initial mission and ideals are subordinated to the constant pressure of keeping the "machinery" running. Without due diligence, supplying ever-increasing amounts of fuel for that machinery leads to a self-serving organizational mindset.

The challenge for animalines has been determining the best means of "holding a mirror" to institutional self-indulgence without injuring specific individuals or organizations in the process. This frequently required delicate balancing over the years, but animalines was invariably received — by friends and foes alike — in the spirit with which it was intended. No matter how provocative the issue everyone understood the intended purpose of stimulating discussion and re-examining assumptions in the quest for higher ground. That dramatically changed in the autumn of 1989, when I wrote a sharply critical piece on the programs, policies, and priorities of animal shelters. Entitled "In The Name Of Mercy," it altered my life in ways that were neither foreseen nor desired.

As with most animal rights activists, I had essentially walked away from companion animals. I was thoroughly immersed in articulating a larger vision for other beings, and there was no time or inclination to become involved with the dog and cat set. After all, the "new movement" was charting an exciting course for the future, and there were ample humane societies and SPCAs to cope with unfinished business from the past. Yes, I wrote a number of essays on companion animal overpopulation, but that was largely at the urging of others. It will be to my everlasting shame that so many years passed before I heard the screams of those animals closest to me.

When I finally wrote "In The Name Of Mercy," it did not take long to recognize that I had struck a nerve. This was the intention, as "Mercy" was crafted to produce discomfort with the status quo — so much discomfort that never again would millions of companion animals be "euthanized" as a matter of routine. As Dr. Craig Brestrup described in his new book, Disposable Animals, "Powerfully and almost unflinchingly presented, ['Mercy'] stirred the normally placid welfarist waters." animalines commonly elicited a spirited response, but this was different not only in degree, but also in kind. I realized that much more was at play than just a disparity of convictions, as what struck me was the manifest absence of a passionate search for new life-affirming paths. There was a level of reflexive defensiveness that was unprecedented in my experience, and in the protector in the role of executioner is destructive to individuals in ways that most of us cannot begin to fathom. Once leaders accept the proposition that killing the innocent is a proper role for a movement committed to justice, they tacitly place their stamp of approval on the very injustice they profess to abhor. This inevitably leads to an intensely defensive mindset among the leadership, as they must continue to defend the indefensible — not only to others, but to themselves.

It is in this context that I see shelter leaders as victims. They are trapped in a nightmare that they never wanted, but cannot emotionally escape once having accepted the present approach as their compassionate responsibility. This is one of the principal reasons that shelter leaders cling so tightly to the present modus operandi, as to question the cogency of their position now could subject themselves to a tortuous process of self-realization — just as it is perilous for soldiers who have served in a gruesome war to reflect on the justness of that war after the fact. I am often asked if, after years of frustration, I harbor any animosity toward the shelter leadership; on the contrary, my heart goes out to them, as they are prisoners of a sorrowful process that has injured them along with the animals.

In such a self-protective climate, innovation is a lonely stranger. To cite just one example, when I first advocated that humane societies undertake a planned transition to no-kill and devote their full energy to prevention, the shelter Establishment advanced a litany of reasons why the sky would fall if this course were followed. The San Francisco SPCA saw a different vision, becoming a no-kill shelter and forming a creative partnership with Animal Control that has met with extraordinary success — placing San Francisco well on its way to becoming the first major kill-free city. Every community has different variables, and no single formula is applicable for every setting; however, evolution can only occur in the presence of an open mind and willingness to take measured risks. For the reasons discussed above, most humane societies hold on so fiercely to what is that they fail to creatively explore the full possibilities of what could be.

What ideological foundation is used by humane leaders to support the "homeless equals suffering equals killing equals kindness" rationale? I am not familiar with any well-defined ethical construct, but they interpret their central role as preventing "suffering" at any cost. Although this operating philosophy is clearly well-intentioned, the results speak for themselves. I have written ad infinitum that when Bentham posed the question as to whether animals could suffer, he hardly had mass killing of healthy beings in mind as an antidote to that suffering. This vague notion of suffering as a justification for destroying healthy creatures is speciesism at its worst, as standards are applied to rationalize killing other beings that we would never apply to ourselves or our families.

No sane person wants to see humans or nonhumans suffer, but what lethal myopia for defenders of animals to presume that "loving them to death" is a tolerable ethic. Is it any wonder that, in an editorial, the American Trapper stated that the movement's "expertise is quite simply, expert killing of the overabundance of pets. Nothing more." I'm not fond of quoting the American Trapper, but more lives are arguably taken in buildings that bear our movement's name than we save in all of our other endeavors combined.

These glaring contradictions are certainly not limited to humane societies, as they are also prevalent within the animal rights community. As noted above, when the laudable desire to prevent suffering substitutes for a coherent ideology to end exploitation, virtually anything can be-and is justified in the name of compassion. The quest for a new companion animal ethic has encountered many obstacles, but none more disappointing than animal rights leaders who sanitize the mass killing of healthy beings by rationalizing it as "euthanasia." This destruction of life doesn't even remotely resemble the traditional criteria for "euthanasia" as it is an obscene manifestation of a disposable society — with much of the animal rights leadership missing in action. Our movement frequently quotes Schweitzer and others on the "will-to-live" possessed by all beings, and yet some of our most esteemed leaders stand quietly aside while that will" in homeless dogs and cats is crushed. This mountain of invective that came my way, I discerned no reflection or interest in substantive dialogue.

The counteroffensive to the criticism voiced in "Mercy" was swift, intense, and well-orchestrated at a national level. As described in an editorial in The Animals' Voice Magazine (Vol. 3, No. 5): "When we decided to reprint 'In The Name Of Mercy,' word of our intent spread throughout the animal welfare/rights movement like wildfire across a dry grassy plain, and before press-date, we were flooded with calls and letters, urging us not to give 'Mercy' any space." This is but one of many illustrations — some of them surprisingly petty — in which those with power sought to limit meaningful discussion of the complex issues surrounding overpopulation. When the executive director of a humane society credited me for inspiring her efforts in an article submitted to the leading shelter publication, she was told in unceremonious terms-that the article would be pulled unless my name was removed. Such was the nature of the response to "Mercy's" plea for a new companion animal ethic.

Having devoted much of my research in past years to the historical dynamics of social change, I was intrigued by what seemed to be an inexplicable anomaly. In most altruistic endeavors, those closest to the suffering are the loudest and most persistent voices for change — eager to pursue creative risks for life, as the eyes of the victims are daily reminders of the miles left to travel. Regrettably, I saw precious little of this openness and urgency among the shelter leadership. I draw this conclusion not only on the basis of my personal experience, but from an extensive review of the literature prior to writing "Mercy." To my amazement, I was unable to locate a single article in a shelter publication that raised fundamental questions vis-a-vis policies and programs.

This conformity of thought and dismissive attitude toward "outsiders" who challenge the prevailing values saddened me, as these very same leaders should have been climbing the highest mountaintops — railing not against their critics, but at a populace that condones the killing of millions upon millions of healthy beings as an acceptable means of population control. How I agonized, could animal advocates arrive at an emotional and ethical place that allows them to participate in a process whereby their friends are killed in the name of kindness — providing the larger society with a free pass in terms of moral culpability, as humane societies obligingly "clean up the mess."

I hasten to add that the early pioneers in our movement were courageous in their efforts for homeless animals, and I have an abiding respect for them. It was a different era, and holding their values to contemporary standards would clearly be unfair. Equally important, the thousands of compassionate shelter workers who presently work in the trenches under difficult circumstances have my deepest admiration. My concerns are solely addressed to a leadership that I respectfully submit has followed, not led, and the reasons are as varied as they are complex. Within the limitations of space, what follows is an attempt to shed some light on the underlying dynamics that have impeded innovation.

The crucial historical process for humane leaders was moving from compassionate oversight of governmental agencies to directly operating the majority of kill shelters. Motivated by the best of intentions, they sought to improve conditions and provide gentler ends to tragic lives by assuming the traditional animal control functions. They didn't foresee the damaging long-term effects of devoting most of their energy to collection, processing, and killing, leaving sparse resources for bold preventive measures; nor did they realize the devastating consequences of the mixed-message they were sending to society about the value of non-human life; and, most significant to this analysis, they couldn't have known what they were doing to themselves — and to all who followed them in subsequent years.

Bountiful research exists on the profound effects of taking another life, even when that behavior is sanctioned by law — such as in war. In these forms of state-sponsored violence, those perpetrating the acts rarely know the victims and virtually never have deep feelings for them. This is obviously not the case in animal shelters operated by humane societies, and placing the caring and disparity between word and deed not only makes a mockery out of animal rights, but it sends a message that life is cheap.

Given this kind of reinforcement to the "killing them kindly" mentality by prominent animal rights figures, it is hardly realistic to expect shelters to serve as — using the business vernacular — change agents. Quoting from the aforementioned Disposable Animals: "Self-congratulatory for accomplishment, self-exculpatory for failure, [shelter leaders] present it all as operating under inexorable and probably eternal necessity. That same voice has been heard for decades. Meanwhile, perhaps 30,000 dogs and cats are killed in shelters every day, seven days a week." Companion animals have been waiting in vain for a war to be waged by activists on their behalf — not the tiptoeing-through the-tulips that characterizes our current efforts, but hard-hitting and relentless campaigns to thoroughly stigmatize the culprits.

It is often stated that the public is indifferent to this tragedy, but that is precisely what was said about drunk driving, cigarette smoking, and a myriad of other social issues before intense and unremitting pressure was brought to bear. People are initially unresponsive to most issues that fail to touch them personally, not simply because they lack adequate information, but because they either disagree with the position stated or just don't care. It is our responsibility to make them care. We have reached the public with "cute and cuddly" spay/ neuter messages for decades, but, without the necessary stigma to fundamentally alter entrenched behavior patterns. With no price to pay in terms of social censure, people continue having litters of animals with little regard for the devastating consequences. We must sharply raise the price, stigmatizing irresponsibility to such a degree that social condemnation is its constant companion.

Our outreach efforts must be commensurate with the magnitude of the carnage, articulating a message that leaves nothing to the imagination. In the midst of a silent holocaust, anything less is inadequate and we need to move light years beyond the present euphemisms and explicitly convey the public's complicity in the slaughter. Let them see that we will continue to express our outrage until this nation becomes so uncomfortable with the blood on its hands that it finally ends the madness.

There are approximately 124 million cats and dogs residing in households in the United States. If our movement can't awaken the collective conscience of this country to end the mass killing of its closest companions, then what hope is there for other species? We profess to be a voice for innocent beings, and it is our responsibility to make that voice heard. In the words of the eloquent Spanish philosopher, Miguel Unamuno, "Sometimes to be silent is to lie." Our movement hasn't been silent, but whispering at a barely audible level hardly represents the brutal truth. We might be able to live with this passivity, but homeless animals cannot.

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