Our home is full of animals who have been cast offs at one time or another. Each one of them has ended up with us because they were abandoned, neglected, sometimes abused, and each one has had, through no fault of their own, at least one human turn their backs on them. A pathetic reflection on some people but their loss is our gain, and, though I wish very much our four-legged babes hadn’t had to trot through hell to get to us, our animals help make our house a home, they ground us, they are an integral part of our family and our traveling roots.
Before we had kids I worked with the animals who were cast offs, first at the Humane Society in Missoula, Montana as an animal caretaker and adoption counselor, then at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, (PETA) where I was a field worker investigating abuse cases, promoting our spay neuter program, teaching people how to properly care for their animals, and, among other things, euthanizing animals. In both those places I saw the best and worst of humanity. I worked with people who were passionate about animal welfare and passionate about furthering the humane treatment of animals. I encountered people who were abusive, who thought nothing of beating or abandoning an animal. When I felt overwhelmed by the brutality I had to remind myself of my goal–it wasn’t to hate people but to help animals. In my interview with the director of the Humane Society one thing she said to me really stood out: part of our job is to help these animals regain their self-respect because they’ve often been treated so badly that they are beaten down, but they can be brought back to a place where they trust and love again. It’s such a gift to be able to help an animal rediscover that there is kindness and love, and that they deserve those things.
Which is why when I read a recent article about PETA in the New York Times I went on such a rant that even my husband, used to my fire-filled venting sessions, was a bit taken back. Especially because it went on for a looooong time, poor guy. I lasted about eight months at PETA before I could no longer fall in line, which was fine because I was pretty much burned out with trying to do that. I was treading on thin ice for my last month or so, no longer buying into what I thought of as the triage mentality with which my department was supposed to operate– we were just stopping the bleeding temporarily rather than preventing it and I was desperate to turn that around. I asked if we could open a small shelter in the area where I did most of my work, that way I could spend less time in my van, we could do spaying and neutering right there, I could more easily integrate into the neighborhood and get to know people, and we could actually adopt out animals instead of euthanizing them. I was also really wanting to start a comprehensive foster program so animals could be in homes rather than in a shelter and so animals who needed more socializing or physical care could be given another chance instead of euthanized. I was met with absolute resistance, it was never going to happen.
I should have guessed it was going to go down that way since I had to fight hard for each animal I adopted out or brought to a local shelter. Every time I said “This animal is perfectly adoptable, I want to find a home for him/her” I was met with a stare from the President, Ingrid Newkirk, that conveyed complete disdain and clearly was meant to communicate that I was completely naive and foolish. I suspect the final cut to my short-lived time at PETA happened in a meeting where we were discussing paying for the spaying and neutering of pitbulls. Ingrid wanted to stop paying to neuter pittbulls, continuing only to spay, in order to save money. Again, I felt this was such a triage mentality, especially for an organization with a lot of resources. I reminded her that overpopulation, while a big part of the battle, was not the entire battle. I reminded her that an intact male is vulnerable to being used in fighting, which creates such a cycle of brutality and violence for children that the fight we ultimately were fighting–changing the way people thought about animals–was very much harmed by not tackling the whole problem. When she gave me that look of hers I continued to talk, to the point where a friend of mine who was also at the meeting was looking at me with a wild eyed “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?” look. Shortly after that I was fired, told, essentially, that I wasn’t good at my job and should look into another line of work. This, of course, was hot on the heels of an excellent review and a raise just a few months prior to my being told I was a disaster in the field. I was pretty upset because, even though I was burned out and happy to leave, I was pissed off that I’d gotten fired for voicing my opinion and that lies had been invented to cover up that fact. I remember talking to my dad, someone who has volunteered for and worked with and for, many non-profits. He told me a downside of an organization like PETA, one that is driven not just by a mission but by one strong leader, is that they often become a cult of personality and if you don’t fall in line you are tossed out of the cult because there will always be people clamoring to work for them, who will fall in line–no point in dealing with troublemakers no matter how good they are at their jobs.
On to my present day rant, started by this article, “PETA Finds Itself on Receiving End of Others’ Anger,” in the New York Times. It’s primarily about the number of euthanasias that PETA does, which I only want to address by saying it’s WAY, WAY too many and not nearly enough is done as an alternative to them. I believe, ultimately, that stems from this idea:
For their part, officials at PETA, which has its headquarters and only shelter here in Norfolk, say the animals it rescues are in such bad shape from mistreatment and neglect that they are often better off dead than living in misery on the streets or with abusive owners.
“It’s nice for people who’ve never worked in a shelter to have this idealistic view that every animal can be saved,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA’s vice president for cruelty investigations. “They don’t see what awful physical and emotional pain these poor dogs and cats suffer.”
And my response to that is to call absolute bullshit. Yes, many of the animals I took in were in rough shape emotionally and physically and, yes, it is a drain on resources to take an animal like that and rehabilitate them to the point where they can be adoptable but it is entirely possible, especially with a good network of foster homes (see above, my request to start working on a foster network that was roundly refused). And a fair number of the animals, I’d say the majority, I took in were absolutely adoptable–immediately, without hesitation.
I used to work in a shelter, and I’m a realist, I completely understand that, while working towards a no-kill nation is absolutely the right and possible thing to do, we aren’t there yet in most parts of the country and, until we get there, animals will continue to be euthanised because of a lack of resources and a lack of homes. As completely crappy as that is I get it. But PETA asserting that the adoptability of the animals they take in is the reason they don’t adopt out most of their animals is false. Period. I know, I used to feed people the same BS line when I worked there. Part of me believed it because I had, in a short time, become quite jaded but, eventually, I realized that I was wrong, that PETA was wrong, that they were doing it wrong–that’s when I burned out on the mission and I became so conflicted about continuing work that I believed in, in many ways, but I also wanted to put an end to the things that I could no longer comply with. I’m not writing any of this to jump on the “PETA is evil” wagon because, for the most part, I don’t believe that. I believe in their aims and their mission, not all parts and not always the way they go about it, but the work they’ve done with exposing cruelty on factory farms, in the fur industry, in science labs that use animals, in circuses, to name a few, has been groundbreaking and absolutely vital. But their work with companion animals–no. My belief in the larger good of PETA is the reason it has taken me 13 years to speak out about this but I cannot, in good conscience, keep quiet when the assertion is made that so many animals are too broken to be saved.
Others are working hard to get the message out that animals who end up in shelters are not damaged, or beyond saving, or broken …
… and PETA, in an article in the New York Times, states that the animals it takes in are usually too damaged, beyond saving, too broken. What. The. Ever. Loving. Fuck? THAT is putting the organization over the well being of animals, THAT is upholding stereotypes about shelter animals, THAT is utter bullshit.
Meet our dog Firu …
When he lived on the streets, he was mowed down by a car that was going so fast it broke his femur in half and dislocated his hip. Was he not worth saving? Thank heaven the person who found him shattered on the side of the road thought that he was worth saving, and thank heaven the shelter here, which operates (in stark contrast to PETA) on a shoestring budget, where she brought him thought so too. The one thing they weren’t sure of was if he would make it because he was in such bad shape, but they believed in doing everything in their capability to help him. Firu underwent an operation that not only saved his life but his leg and now we call him our 3 1/2 legged baby because he often treats his injured leg a bit gingerly but, really, he just knows that he gets sympathy from his limp.Yes, he was damaged emotionally and physically but he was far beyond hopeless and you don’t just throw animals away, even if you tell yourself that you’re doing it in the name of mercy.
Meet Squiggles …
Squiggles was discovered in a garbage bin with his brother and sister, someone had tied them all up into a plastic bag and dumped them when they were about a week old. They were filthy, our vet said they’d likely been in the bag for at least a day or two judging by the amount of waste in the bag. They were full of parasites, external and internal, and the other boy was very near death. Our vet kept the very sick kitten, who died later that day, and we fostered the other two kittens, named Squiggles and Cookie by our daughter. Cookie also later died, her parasites weren’t treated in time, but with a lot of intensive work Squiggles pulled through and is now a member of our family. His full name is Sir Lord Wesley Squiggleton the Third, we believe he deserves to be treated like royalty. Was he not worth saving? Were his siblings not worth fighting for?
I understand having to make choices, I understand knowing that you can spend a ton of money to save one dog or you can care for ten for a month, and those choices blow. But those choices are not why PETA makes the decisions that drive their animal companion program. I believe what drives their decisions is the belief that too many humans are inherently bad and undeserving of animals, that overpopulation is too overwhelming, and that you must euthanize and euthanize in order to combat it. But there are a whole lot of good people who want to make animals part of their family, and euthanasia should only be the very last option, it shouldn’t be a matter of course, it shouldn’t be the first, often only, choice.
Working with animals who have been neglected, abused, abandoned isn’t about bailing water out of a sinking ship, it’s about patching up the holes, rebuilding, preventing what caused the crisis in the first place. And what really bites at me is the folks at PETA must know this, either that or they are so completely jaded that they’ve given up on humanity entirely and, in turn, have given up on the animals we have a duty to care for. And that is a sad state of affairs for an animal rights organization.
PS. As an aside, I’m not interested in bashing PETA, or in communicating with people who do. There’s a difference between flat out bashing and pointing out problems, I hope I’ve made it clear that I believe there are big problems within PETA but they also do a whole lot of good so, really, it should just be about shining a light on the problems and hoping the people who have the power start to make changes.