Shelters are supposed to rescue animals from cruelty and neglect. They are supposed to be a sanctuary for lost dogs and stray cats. They are supposed to be a refuge, a safe haven for animals whose people can no longer keep them or no longer want them. Unfortunately, for too many animals, they are not.
Meet a little cat who was stuck inside a wall of a U.S. animal shelter, a cat who was stuck near the employee break room, where every employee could hear his cries while they sat and drank coffee, and ate lunch and socialized. They later told a newspaper reporter that they "pleaded" with shelter supervisors to do something about the cat. But neither they nor those supervisors did what compassion dictates. Not a single one of them took action. And because of that, the cat paid the ultimate price. This is how a local newspaper, the Dallas Observer, described it:
Before it starved to death last May, the cat could be heard by shelter workers, crying and clawing, trying to escape the confines of the break room wall behind which it had become trapped at Dallas Animal Services. Cats do especially badly in animal shelters, naturally preferring dark, quiet repose to loud, boisterous interaction. This cat, terrified, had jumped away from staffers who were trying to clean cages, going straight for a loose ceiling tile and bolting into darkness.
But somewhere in its search for safety, the cat fell between shelter walls and landed between the walls of the employee break room and the ladies' restroom. It couldn't move. It could only yowl and scratch. For more than a week.
Imagine it. Really try to imagine it. A shelter filled with employees whose job it is to care for animals. Imagine a cat calling out in panic and fear, stuck in a wall, where the employees are eating and talking and not a single one rescues the cat. Sure, one of them calls a cruelty investigator and he comes and determines that the cat is indeed stuck in the wall. But he doesn't rescue the cat either. Others ask managers, each other, "Will someone rescue the cat?" But no one does. And they keep right on eating their lunches; they keep right on talking and doing those things that people do in break rooms. And meanwhile, the cats' cries are getting more desperate, then weaker and then they finally stop. A short time later, the smell comes: the smell of a decomposing body.
And only then do they complain in earnest. How can we eat lunch in here, how can we socialize with that smell? And because it now affects them, they do something about it. They cut open a hole in the wall to remove the dead body, while every single one of us wants to scream: Why didn't any of them tear open the wall when the cat was still alive? Don't think for a second that this story is unique. There are many more. Moreover, these incidents are not just tragic in and of themselves, but they are set against the backdrop of the killing of roughly four million animals in shelters across the country every year.
Taken as a whole, these facts reveal a distinct pattern, an unpleasant but undeniable truth: willful abuse, careless neglect and even sadistic pleasure in causing animals to suffer and die are the status quo at many of our nation's shelters. The question, of course, is why? How is it that agencies filled with people who are supposed to protect animals from harm and rescue them when they are in trouble, people who are paid to care for animals in need, are often abusive?
There are a lot of answers to that question: working at a municipal pound is a job, not a mission; animal control lacks accountability; applicants who score the lowest on city aptitude tests get placed in animal control; some agencies are staffed by prison inmates with no oversight; employees who fail in departments deemed more important by uncaring bureaucrats are placed in animal control rather than fired; city officials sign draconian union contracts that make it difficult to fire neglectful and abusive staff; lazy managers won't do the progressive discipline necessary to fire them (and workers know this); some people just don't care; and some people are just callous and cruel.
In addition, neuroscientists who study morality believe they have part of the answer. Their studies demonstrate that even normally circumspect people turn off their natural compassion when placed in unnatural environments. People who might be "kind" or "decent" in a normal environment can be cruel when placed in a context in which cruelty is the norm. And what could be more unnatural or cruel than an animal shelter designed to warehouse and then kill animals? Although the large national groups try to assure us that the killing is done humanely, not only do the facts prove otherwise, but the very notion of "humanely euthanizing" a healthy animal is a contradiction.
Studies of slaughterhouse workers have found that in order to cope with the fact that they are paid to kill day in and day out, self-preservation motivates them to devalue animals in order to make what they are doing less morally reprehensible. In other words, the workers make the animals unworthy of any consideration on their behalf. The two most common methods of achieving this are indifference to animal suffering and even intensifying it, becoming sadistic toward the animals. In too many communities, the implications for shelters are frightening: shelters are often little more than slaughterhouses. And therefore by its very nature, shelter killing breeds a lack of compassion and caring for animals.
But while all of the preceding factors contribute to needlessly high rates of killing and a culture of neglect, they alone (or even in combination) do not fully explain how it was that every single person at Dallas Animal Services was complicit in the death of a cat because they failed to take the necessary action to save his life. Nor do they explain fully why this kind of indifference to suffering is endemic and epidemic in shelters across the country. To understand why they failed to do what every single one of us would have done, we have to look to the very nature of shelters themselves and the kind of people who often apply to work in them.
Employees Wanted: To Commit Daily Violence Towards Animals
Killing is the ultimate form of violence. While cruelty and suffering are abhorrent, while cruelty and suffering are painful, while cruelty and suffering should be condemned and rooted out, there is nothing worse than death, because death is final. An animal subjected to pain and suffering can be rescued. A traumatized animal subjected to savage cruelty can even be rehabilitated, as the dog fighting case against football player Michael Vick demonstrates. Dogs who the Humane Society of the United States lobbied to have killed because they claimed they were dangerous as a result of the abuse went on to loving, new homes and some even became therapy dogs, bringing comfort to cancer patients. Where there is life, there is hope, but death is hope's total antithesis. It is the eclipse of hope because the animals never wake up, ever. It is the worst of the worst--a fact each and every one of us would immediately and unequivocally recognize if we were the ones being threatened with it.
And not only do people in shelters work at a place that commits this ultimate form of violence, they have, in fact, been hired to do exactly that. Can we really be surprised when they don't clean thoroughly, don't feed the animals, handle them too roughly, neglect and abuse them or simply ignore their cries for help while the animals slowly starve to death or die of dehydration? How does shoddy cleaning or rough handling or failing to feed the animals compare with putting an animal to death? Because shelter workers understand that they have the power to kill shelter animals, and will in fact kill many of them, every interaction they have with those animals is influenced by the perception that the animals do not matter, that their lives are cheap and expendable and that they are destined for the garbage heap.
The reality is that truly caring people, people who actually love animals, either do not apply to work at these agencies or if they do, they do not last. They quit when they realize that their efforts to improve conditions and outcomes are not rewarded, that their fellow employees are not held accountable, that neglect isn't punished, and in fact, they will be for trying to improve things.
In Philadelphia a number of years ago, a whistleblower not only had his car vandalized, but was threatened with physical violence by another employee. Who outed him? Philadelphia's then-Health Commissioner, who oversaw the shelter and wanted to silence critics. In King County, Washington, a whistleblower was transferred to another department for her own safety. In Miami, the whistleblower that stood up to cruel methods of killing was simply fired. In Indianapolis, a shelter director who tried to transform the local animal control facility had his car vandalized and was subject to threats of violence.
Shelters today are places where the normal rules of compassion and decency toward animals to which the vast majority of people subscribe simply do not apply. And most ironic of all is that this system of death camps is defended and celebrated by the nation's largest animal protection organizations: HSUS, the ASPCA and PETA. These organizations tell us that the killing is not the fault of the people in shelters who are actually doing the killing, even while they ignore the systematic neglect and abuse which frequently precedes it.
But it is their fault. They are the ones who do it. It is right in their job description. They signed up for it. And because people who care don't, that leaves animals, like the trapped cat in Dallas, at the mercy of an entire department of employees who do not care enough to do anything about it.
The systematic killing of animals in U.S. shelters is not "necessary" or simply "lamentable." And it is certainly not a "gift" as the heads of HSUS, the ASPCA and PETA have indicated to one degree or another. The system is ugly, broken, regressive and violent. And it is so by design. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can focus our energies on fixing it. By making our shelters the safe havens they should be, we make them safe for animal lovers to work at, too. But it is taking far too long, and too many animals are being subjected to systematic and unrelenting violence, because the large national animal protection organizations are defending and protecting the status quo.
These organizations fight progressive legislation to save tens of thousands of animals every year from those brutal environments. They send letters and staff members to fight shelter reform. They defend the killing with circular reasoning, fuzzy math and regressive, antiquated dogmas. Or, they celebrate these agencies when they should be holding them accountable. And, in doing so, they abdicate their mission to protect animals through oversight of shelters in order to defend harm by providing those who abuse and kill animals political cover.
And not one by one or two by two or a thousand by a thousand or even by the tens of thousands, but millions upon millions of animals are marched to their needless deaths while these national organizations, just like every single employee in the Dallas shelter, continue to ignore their plight.
So we must do it in spite of them. Ending the routine and casual killing of animals will not only save the lives of four million animals every year, but it will bring decency and compassion to our nation's shelters where these virtues are in tragically short supply. The No Kill revolution starts with each and every one of us; the killing, and the accompanying neglect and abuse, ends when we demand that it does.
Follow Nathan J. Winograd on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nwinograd