Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why "tough love" is not the answer

Joint City/County meeting today gave a shelter update

The City Council and County Commission gathered today to talk about the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley and other "joint" topics, and the theme of the day as far as our animal shelter is concerned, if I can so boldly summarize, is that they are all in favor of a "tough love" approach to animal sheltering. On the one hand, I can understand all of us getting caught up in wanting to punish the bad and irresponsible pet owners out there and obsessing over them. Yet, only focussing on that blocks so much good that we could be doing if we only had some compassion for human beings and didn't punish the good people for the bad. The cornerstone of No Kill is this: don't worry about the bad people (you will change few of them or force few of them to become good and laws are in place to punish them NOW, so enforce those and move on). Instead, concentrate on networking and working with the good people for the sake of the animals in your care. Lucky for us and for our animals, we the good far outnumber the bad. We just need inspiration and an open, welcoming environment in which to thrive.

It seems like a simple concept and makes good business sense, but more and more, I am seeing how hard it is to overcome the culture of negativity and defeatism that we face in animal sheltering and that is so deeply embedded in our collective psyches (including those of our current leaders). It is very frustrating for advocates of No Kill who finally "get" it and cannot find apt words to explain the subtle differences of which we speak. The negative, defensive attitude we still have at our shelter is THE biggest hurdle we have to overcome, and we need the general public's help in doing so.

More need to speak out

Ironically, our shelter's management and oversight consists of people preaching tough love for the public but not being open to ANY constructive criticism that may come their way. The lack of respect for and accountability to the public is palpable (especially toward any animal-welfare advocate), and I hope that impunity does not last forever and changes when the new oversight board is in place.

For example, some of our leaders today had the audacity to not only ignore recent incidents that fly in the face of the law or show total lack of integrity on our shelter's part--such as killing a cat before its legal 72-hour holding period was up and defending that decision or shrugging off a dog becoming pregnant in the shelter and whose pregnancy was aborted very late-term when this was reported to our leaders--but we were told our criticisms via e-mail take up too much of their precious time. Part of this was that age-old deflection move where you are told that the time they have to take just reading about your issue could be time spent toward real (i.e., important) work. Since the issues are not fully nor responsibly addressed, it is not like much time is wasted on those efforts.

I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen of our City Council and County Commission, but you are elected public officials, and our shelter is run and operated on our tax dollars and serves the public as well. We have every right to report legitimate, often well-documented incidents to you that should be greeted professionally and handled responsibly, and you, in turn, should all be ashamed of yourselves for not doing so in many cases. Your distaste for hearing things from the public that are blunt and truthful is unfortunate, but even those of us you consider "animal wackos" and dismiss without honestly listening to a word we say will not simply go away and relinquish our rights. Many of us take our work seriously, and we are advocating for things in which we strongly believe and in which we put many hours of our own precious time into as well.

Along with that, I am urging everyone in the public to speak up and tell it like it really is, too. Don't be unfair, and don't stoop to any low levels. But, do it when it warrants the complaint,and do it to send a loud and clear message that we deserve better -- better service and some respect, too. Any of us that walk into the shelter for whatever reason, even to relinquish an animal we no longer want to care for, deserve better, too. In addition, so do our homeless animals.

On the path of irony still, if it were not for annoying advocates like myself and others in this community who have been working hard at change for much longer, we would not have many of the few improvements we are seeing at our shelter today. If no one speaks up, then it is assumed all is well. When all is not well, then it behooves our homeless animals to speak up. If you or your pet is a victim of some sort at the hands of our shelter or other animal-welfare pubic service, you have every right to seek accountability from our leaders about your complaint or issue. Transparency and accountability are a big part of No Kill as well, and we are far from that place today, as we are also far from fully implementing 8 of the 10 programs and services of the No Kill Equation as claimed today, especially not the progressive philosophy behind No Kill.

As for this horrible problem in our area that we seem to think is so unique--that there are bad and neglectful pet owners who consider animals throw-aways--well, that's a sad given and always will be and is a given in our entire nation. And, that's what animal-welfare groups and shelters are here for ... to care for the poor creatures abandoned by these people and not, in turn, throw the majority of them away themselves. Our system treats them as throw-aways the majority of the time, too. Saving lives should be our main goal. We need to stop complaining about this important work that is put before us and start approaching it and thinking of it differently. If you look at the whole of the human-animal relationship, the good outweighs the bad. That's what we need to brainwash ourselves with--that truth--to expunge the negativity from our own minds because it clouds our vision and stops us from approaching these issues creatively, progressively, proactively, positively, etc.

As for tough love, that is not progressive or new. For decades, we have created countless animal laws and legislation that try to punish the bad into being good, but there is a dark side to this as well (follow the link from this blog's title to read more about that). When this leads to a defensive, negative attitude that permeates all dealings the shelter has with the public it serves and the volunteer help it has access to, it closes many doors and ideas and opportunities to save more lives. This is especially true because the vast majority of us good people who could lend our service and expertise don't do so or are thwarted when we try to do so, and the waters are poisoned for those wanting to just adopt an animal or go find a pet that might have gotten away from us because no one is perfect.

Troubling issues with today's presentation

Trying to get on the No Kill Equation bandwagon, our shelter director reported that they are administering 8 of the 10 programs and services of the no kill model now. That the shelter's management is making this erroneous claim shows just how ignorant they are of what the full programs and services are about. For example, we are nowhere near having the kind of PR programs and presence in place that we need. We do not use the Internet or websites to their fullest capability and have no shelter website of our own, and our shelter has been working on their website for months with nothing to show for it yet. We do little pet retention and have no formalized programs for it, etc. In other words, simply dabbling in these programs and services, which most shelters do, is not full implementation of them. I suggest they read more of the details behind each before making such false claims.

Also troubling in the presentation were the statistics for our shelter shown that were entirely different from the ones handed to animal advocates just a few weeks ago (of which I have copies). The stats for the last few months, and the kill rate often repeated by shelter staff in the last few months, showed that rate at 70+% for all this time, yet the stats shown yesterday showed rates in the 50% region for some months. Which is it? And, how can we trust the integrity of the statistics in light of this huge discrepancy? If our shelter is truly looking at working toward No Kill, it needs to adopt standard sheltering statistical examples as well as full, equitable assessments of each individual animal that feed these numbers from the national experts, such as the Asilomar Accords model or the No Kill Adovcacy Center's Lifesaving Matrix model.

There were other areas of misinformation as well. No Kill advocates do make comparisons to communities based on the level of services and programs and especially the business-like, welcoming atmosphere that most progressive shelters put forth, as opposed to the "us against them" atmosphere of failing shelters. Shelters in our nation truly following the No Kill Equation model are having success, and not just small communities like Tomkins County rural NY, which our shelter loves to point to because their intake numbers are low and they say we can't compare to them in size alone. Well, Reno, NV in Washoe County is the comparison I think fits our community better because their intake numbers are similar, their growth rate is similar, and it shows that even a community with high homeless pet numbers like our own can turn things around rather quickly. Just their program that incentivizes people fixing their pit bulls has shown great success, and they have many programs like this in place. Look to their website for all the programs and services they have: www.nevadahumanesociety.org.

I shared their director's "How We Did It" document in my last blog posting, and her description of changing to a more customer-service orientation and utilizing/training hundreds of volunteers to help with the programs and services is key. Our shelter's director yesterday said we are struggling to train and hold just 100 volunteers "accountable" or to a set schedule, but maybe our shelter needs to look to iself for that failure--its lack of training, organization, empowement, ability to delegate, etc. For one, the hour-long volunteer orientation given now is not formalized training, and our shelter has yet to put formalized, documented training into place for staff, much less volunteers.

That's why we cannot say we are THERE and administering all these programs. We have a LONG way to go. The volunteer program alone is key because we don't have enough funding to hire the staff to fully implement all of these programs from within the shelter alone, and we need to use the expertise from the public and partner with and empower these stakeholders to help in meaningful ways. Many of us are out here and willing to help, and I started from this standpoint and mindset in the beginning with our new shelter's management ... sharing resources and ideas ... offering to help in meaningful ways that played into my strengths and talents ... I think many have done the same and been ignored or outwardly thwarted.

That's what I mean by "tough love" not being the answer ... for the mistakes of the irresponsible public, we are all made to pay in the eyes of the shelter (even volunteers). We cannot progress from that negative, defeatist standpoint.

Aside for Barb Lunn and Buddah

I guess most people think they are perfect; they never speed or never get caught and get tickets; they never make mistakes. It is inherent in our culture to tear down others in order to feel better about ourselves, too, a sad testament to our American culture and a past-time we all engage in one time or another. Sometimes, this is taken way too far.

As an example of this lack of compassion and quickness to judge others harshly, I was very surprised and shocked to see that a story that ran in the paper yesterday about a family cat that was killed within hours of being in our shelter garnered more online comments in outrage against the cat owner than the shelter ... both broke the "law" ... and, in callous statements made and quoted in the paper, the shelter's director contradicted her own logic in this decision at least three times and said if that cat hadn't given them a reason to be put down then "something else would have been euthanized instead" (that's not a throw-away mentality toward animals at all, is it?) Yet, not too many people were outraged over this and the incident itself -- only a handful.

There is a system in place to punish lawless pet owners, and that family legally had three days to go get their cat back and pay heavy fines and receive their punishment for breaking the cat leash laws, and they went to the shelter three times in one day trying to do just that. So, where is the accountability and punishment for the system that failed and broke its own laws? Where is the apology to this family as well?

I hope that Barbara Lunn does look into her legal options in this case and follow wherever that may lead ... not for revenge, but to honor her cat that she loved and had for 11 years and to get retribution for her loss. I would be livid if it was one of my pets, who are considered members of my family. Buddha should not have died in our shelter the day he was brought in, and there is no way we can assure this does not happen again to another cat or dog in this system unless someone challenges it. I urge Barbara to do so if she can afford to. I know many people do not have the means to do that, but you can still speak up, still file complaints, and call the newspaper to tell them your story as well.

Just as pet owners have to pay for breaking the law, then the shelter should have to pay the price that it deserves--no more or no less--for this mistake or any others it makes. The right thing to do, and the No Kill approach, would of been to admit you made a horrible error, apologize for it, make amends for it, and talk about the system changes you are going to put in place to make sure that never happens again (i.e., you won't kill any animal before its alloted hold time is up). Instead of taking a defensive stance, which is an attitude that is chosen, there are other, more positive, more sincere, and more professional ways in which any situation can be handled.