Monday, December 1, 2008

Busting our myths & prejudices

Othering types of people as a whole

I received a few comments on this blog recently about how some of the barriers to saving more animal lives stems from the animal welfare world being prejudiced against and turning off many people, especially the poor and those of Mexican origin. I hate to say that I often see and hear these prejudices firsthand. Being a human mutt myself with a French last name, often people I talk to and work with do not know that I consider myself a Chicana and grew up on the border and am half Anglo and half Hispanic.

I, too, find it offensive that many times all Hispanics and poor people are regarded as a whole and lumped into one huge group that represents the few that are neglectful and abusive toward companion animals. I know there are many of us, including everyone in my family, who are educated--humanely and otherwise--and who are responsible, loving pet owners. Even those not fully educated about animal welfare often love their pets and give them a decent, if not perfectly pampered, life.

I also don't think that because you are poor means you cannot adequately care for an animal. If you can afford low-cost options for vaccinations, spay/neuter, and food for your animal, I say that is good enough if you are giving that animal love and attention. Some might not be able to afford high vet bills when the animal becomes ill or something serious occurs, but when it comes to the choice of an animal dying today in a shelter instead of going to a loving home for a few years before a humane euthanasia is actually necessary, I say we give some of those less fortunate the opportunity to share their lives with animals, too.

I agree with some of the comments I received about how punitive laws and negative views perpetuated by our own Animal Control agencies lead to more killing as well. However, I myself as well as many others who volunteer in the world of animal advocacy do not have the power to exert any pressure in the decision-making ranks of our animal-welfare leaders. All we can do is try to show, by example, that there are other options and means to success than our current catch and kill system, which is obviously not very successful at anything except killing.

Othering some animals

We who work in animal welfare need to think and work and challenge ourselves outside of the myths we ourselves repeat all the time, or else we'll never be able to show that things can and should be done differently. Some examples of our own antiquated, unproven ideas and scripts are as follows: "many people adopt animals to be bait for fighting dogs; "don't adopt black and white cats during Halloween because of Satanic rituals"; "don't adopt out to anyone that raises a supposed red flag of any kind because they might return the animal", "avoid impulse adoptions or pets as gifts," etc.

These myths and prejudices that surround our dealings with animals and people on a daily basis are often what leads us to kill more animals each day, each week, each month, and each year and turn away many more good people than the monsters we assume are entering our oganizations to adopt. They do so by completely closing the door and opportunity for connection and honest dialogue. This is especially true in a shelter that is killing about 1,000 animals a month. If you engage with people in open conversations and provide good screening/adoption counseling, you should be able to weed out the few BAD people that try to adopt. In other words, reject the few individuals for legitimate reasons than whole groups of people for unfounded, unproven myths and future fears or something someone has supposedly done in the past.

So, I ask ourselves to question our own logic and brainwashing and look for evidence and do research about the reality in our specific community. After all, how much sense does it make to not adopt an animal from a shelter that will probably kill that animal in a few days because the animal "might" be returned to the shelter? How much sense does it make to not allow people to give animals as gifts if you properly screen the adopter to find out if the person receiving the animal will welcome the pet and can care for him/her and make a good match for that specific dog/cat? How much sense does it make to say the holidays are too stressful of a time for people to adopt when it is a great time of giving and love?

More scary than these scripts and myths we repeat over and over again are anitquated ideas and prejudices among those in animal welfare about some groups of animals, such as feral cats and pit bulls--even in the face of evidence to the contrary and that these animals are the ones in MOST need of our help and compassion and dealing with them more progressively is actually better for public safety, too. These prejudices directly lead to more killing of innocent animals that are also lumped together as a whole for the sins of a few (much like racial profiling).

In the case of pit bulls, it is substandard breeders and owners who misuse powerful, individual dogs that are to blame for isolated attacks and dog fighting, "monster" media representations, etc.--not this entire breed of dogs. History shows that powerful breeds who are popular, misused, overly/poorly bred, etc., are the ones involved in fatal attacks BECAUSE of humans, and the breeds of dogs involved in attacks has changed over time and that any dog is capable of killing a human being, but it is currently pit bulls who get all the attention and bad press--not other kinds of dogs who commit the same "crime". And, to blame it on breed alone is simplification; looking at details, there is often an explanation or circumstances that show how the event happened, however unfortunate. Like humans, animals are also not perfect beings.

Of the millions of pit bulls in our country today, if they were all dangerous dogs, we'd have far more attacks than our media outlets could even keep up with. But, to the contrary, as a whole breed, more pit bulls save human lives every year than take human lives; more share homes peacefully with families than not; and more are excellent when put into good service for humans -- yet that is not reflected in the press or the stories we read. It has been shown that newspaper reporters purposely seek out negative pit bull stories, ignore fatal attack stories when it is not a pit bull involved, and ignore good pit bull stories, which has directly led to the hatred and mistreatment of these dogs at the hands of humans. More humans hurt pit bulls now than any of these dogs have collectively hurt humans in the long course of history. This once proud, American breed has been betrayed by all of us for far too long.

And, most unfortunate of all, many animal welfare people share in this hatred and fear of these dogs, which is very sad and leads to about 1 million innocent lives being snuffed out each year in our shelters and few bothered by this fact. This cycle needs to stop.

The same is true for feral cats. When we look at the numbers and see that of the 4 to 5 million cats and dogs being put down each year, a large number of those are pit bulls, pit mixes and feral cats, we need to ask ourselves what is wrong with this picture and how we can work to turn that tide around. And, to help, we should be working to become more informed. Read the latest and greatest out there about the subject, such as The Pit Bull Placebo by Karen Delise, before you make up your mind to discriminate against a whole group of animals. Visit sites like and read about TNR before you revile it. These animals need our help right now, and they need it the most because they are suffering and dying the most.

If we want to break and bust these myths, however, we can't argue with others in order to do so. When that happens, we are too busy talking instead of working. In order to break cycles of fear and hatred, we need to work against what most people believe to show there is another way. That's the only way our entire community, including our AC departments, can start working toward saving more lives. For an example, see the work Best Friends has done to rehabilitate the supposed worst of the Michael Vic dogs.

Excerpt #1 from interview with Sue Cosby

I recently sent a survey to a successful shelter director about the reality of working toward No Kill in a community. I'm going to start sharing some of her responses with me in excerpts. They illustrate how ideas become reality--from someone who knows and works in the trenches of No Kill.

Sue Cosby is now the director of a private shelter and spay/neuter clinic in New Jersey. Before that, she worked at a municipal shelter that took in 25,000-30,000 animals a year in Philiadelphia. She is also the founder of

Here's the first excerpt from the survery, starting with the question posed:

Q: People here, even most adovcates, point to our Mexican-American border region being somehow worse regarding animal neglect and mistreatment than other regions in the U.S. because of Hispanic’s antiquated views about animals and a culture of “machismo”. To me, as a Hispanic who grew up in this region, I often find this insulting because many of us are educated and love our pets and treat them very well, and I see a macho culture that is alive and well in most of America, too. I’ve lived in the border region most of my life, so it is hard for me to compare animal treatment here to other areas. Do you have any insight on this issue I can share with others here?

A: I have had the pleasure of working with and talking to people across the country. Each and every community had some aspect that they were convinced made them uniquely different than other communities. While that is sometimes true, I have yet to meet the community where that unique aspect was ultimately the cause of killing in shelters. Sometimes it wasn’t even a real problem but rather a stereotype, myth or downright prejudice.

It is this type of attitude, though, that starts a spiral of shelter deaths. When we assume that a stereotype is true, how easy is it to adopt an animal to people of that ethnicity/community/-add any type of maligned persons here? How easy is it to find foster homes in that community? Will we even try? And how can we communicate effectively with a group of people that we have declared (either publicly or privately) essentially poor to unfit pet parents? And what if we aren’t right to begin with?

Different community values – if they are actually real and measurable - are a starting point for dialogue and research in an ongoing effort for animal advocates to become more effective at creating targeted programs. They are not a scapegoat for killing. There will always be bad pet owners and they come in all colors, shapes, sizes, communities, religions, etc. but most importantly there are many, many, many more GOOD pet owners who come in all the same flavors.