Humane Disconnections

Humane Disconnections

This is an article that was published in the Newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso - Spring 2009

Those of us who work or volunteer in animal welfare for cats and dogs hear the same complaints over and over again from shelter staff (stated with disbelief and disgust): “Why do so many people consider dogs and cats disposable? Why do so many deadbeat dog and cat owners relinquish their pets to shelters or never bother looking for their lost pets – which, in turn, has led to a system that kills about 4–5 million unwanted homeless pets a year in this country? Why do so many people neglect and/or abuse dogs and cats?”

I hear this a lot at shelters and rescue organizations, and I see firsthand how doing this public service and “dirty work” poisons the staff at shelters against each and every person in the “evil public” who walks through the their doors. Even people coming in to adopt may be treated as representatives of those deadbeat owners — given the third degree and put through tests and hoops to see if they will be allowed to adopt an animal that, in all likelihood, will die in the shelter if not adopted soon enough to escape illness or madness. It’s like a shelter that kills lots of cats each day but has a strict policy of not allowing someone to adopt an indoor/outdoor cat because of the dangers to outdoor-access cats. Yet, ironically, what is more dangerous than dying that day in the shelter by lethal injection, no matter how humanely administered?

I see how these negative attitudes lead to more of that self-fulfilling prophesy of more unwanted animals, more killing, more restrictiveness, more policies and procedures that block animals from finding new homes or getting owners to keep those pets. It’s a vicious cycle that could be tempered with some compassion and understanding toward people by people. Because of the negativity and blame game, we are working less and less toward trying to talk to people on a human level and tap into their capacity for humane compassion for animals. I have seen shelter staff become obsessed with the “bad story of the day” and repeat it several times until that’s all they think about while they work, leading to their own negativity, apathy, and depression.

To me, the answer to the issue of non-compassion is simple enough to understand when given the big picture of animals in our world. If you look at humane compassion on a scale from 1 to 100, some people are at 0 and will never budge from there; some are at 20 and might move up to 50 if given knowledge and information; and many might have the capacity turn completely around and move more and more toward 100. To me, if I worked in a shelter and thought the person relinquishing the dog or cat was at 0–20 and not about to budge, then maybe it is a blessing that this person brought the animal here instead of an even less humane alternative. More than likely, those at a 0 on the compassion scale don’t take the time to even drive an animal to a shelter. But, just as there are people who should not have children, there are also people who should not have companion animals. Only by talking to a person can you know, and many times all you can do is judge by your gut feeling. You could be wrong in the end, too.

I truly believe people just don’t know any better or think any differently because of the natural superiority humans feel over animals. Many people also have very little information about how to be good, responsible pet owners, and lack even a basic understanding that owning a dog or cat takes work, time, patience, leadership, money and … well, the same things you need for a human child. Dogs and cats are not stuffed, are not robots, and most do not behave like Lassie or Morris or any other TV or movie animal that people may hope they are taking home.

People erroneously expect the dog or cat to feel “at home” the minute they get there from the shelter, not knowing it takes weeks or months for them to really settle in. Where does that idea come from? Who knows. These errors in judgment and irrational thinking are things we can’t change with only our standard humane education endeavors in schools. The only way I see to change this is one person at a time — working to raise the compassion scale of those with whom we interact. Educating those people individually when they walk in the door to leave off an animal or adopt a new one is our only hope.

In order for animal advocate workers and volunteers to find some common ground with the general public, I think I need to point out the following: many of the people with whom I work in the domestic animal advocacy community do not extend their deep compassion for dogs and cats to other animals. They believe that dogs and cats deserve to live decent lives free of harm and cruelty or neglect but fail to extend this view to animals raised for food or even used in laboratories. In other words, many shelter workers and domestic animal-welfare voluneers are also guilty of thinking of many animals as throwaways. You’d think they could understand how some people in the general public have this same viewpoint concerning cats and dogs.

I ask myself (in disbelief and disgust): “Why do so many people I know who care so deeply about the plight of cats and dogs have such little compassion and understanding or even interest in knowing how the animals raised for food in factory farms suffer all the way from birth to death?” Certainly, most of the food we eat comes from an intensive confinement agribusiness environment in this day and age of materialism and gluttony that has killed most family farmers. Anything you buy from a grocery store, if traced back to its origin, would most likely be traced back to conditions for animals that make any domestic animal shelter in our country look like a walk in the park.

To me, there is even a disconnect between people who care about animal welfare and rights but don’t care too much or know too much about human rights or human suffering. I heard a recent interview with John Shapiro, the HSUS lead on the Factory Farming Campaign, and he talked about how buying food is a moral choice, unlike the choice you make when you put on a shirt in the morning. Even that is shortsighted, and I beg to differ with Mr. Shapiro for the following reason.

Every purchase we make is a moral choice that helps support an economic system, and many (or most) of us don’t know the origins of the products we purchase. There is always a high price of some kind for every low price at Wal-Mart or any other huge store: of that, we can be certain. That shirt you put on today could perhaps be traced back to a sweat shop in some third-world country where a worker’s only choice of employment is working for dollars or pennies a day in horrible conditions and without any workers’ rights. Indeed, there is a whole system of modern human trafficking and slavery behind many of our luxuries. Who do you think is slaughtering animals in the factory farms? It isn’t the middle class or college-educated worker. Even buying cheap flower bouquets at the grocery store lead back to third-world pesticide-laden conditions, laced with human suffering in addition to the chemicals the workers inhale. Diamonds might be traced back to Africa if you follow the trail of blood far back enough. It’s enough to make anyone who wants to shop responsibly go mad trying to figure out what you can buy that does not trace back to either animal or human suffering.

If you are an animal advocate who works in trying to help save the lives of homeless, abused cats and dogs and cannot fathom why people can be so neglectful, uncaring, and cruel, you are not looking at the big picture of how compassion and humane treatment of animals and people are interconnected and how many of us miss or just don’t know about those connections. Of course, many people just cover their eyes and ears and don’t want to know.

One of the most fascinating books I have read recently was The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (the authors of Factory Farming). They trace back grocery store food choices of four families from the store where the food was purchased all the way back to the origins. It reminds me of when I go to Sam’s and just stand there looking at all the varieties of meat and poultry and seafood and pork they have. I stand there looking in disbelief, wondering about where it all came from and how those animals were raised and slaughtered so that we can have pork and turkey in 101 varieties or frozen fish fillets of all kinds, and so that we can eat this flesh three times a day and think nothing of it or what we could do with our purchasing power to fight these monolithic systems. For example, if each person cut down his or her daily flesh consumption by just 25%, a huge economic blow would be dealt to this super-powerful, super-rich, federally-subsidized food production business that raises, tortures, and kills billions of animals each year in the U.S alone – not to mention help save our environment, more so than if all of us drove hybrid vehicles.

This takes me back to my original premise and why people think some animals are “more” disposable than others or why some types of animal suffering matters more than other types of animal suffering — even why some human beings are more disposable than others. I wonder if it is this part of our social order — our racism and classism and speciesism, if you will — that explains way so many people relinquish their dogs and cats to shelters everyday. Is that why it is so easy for them to toss them aside and forget about them? If so, can those who work in dog and cat shelters – instead of demonizing and “othering” these people entirely – sit down and have a real, open, respectful conversation with each individual person and try to reach those who can be reached?

Coming full circle, one of my favorite quotes of all time is by Abraham Lincoln: “I am in favor of human rights as well as animal rights. That is the way of a whole human being.” I have always felt that was something to which to aspire. But, don’t get me wrong … I am far from perfect myself. I, too, get tired of trying to figure it all out, and I have to ultimately buy some clothes from time-to-time because running around naked is unlawful and uncomfortable, and in my case, would be very hard on people’s eyes!

I give up and sometimes go shopping for clothes at Kohl’s and even Wal-Mart, and I usually go for the clearance rack. I take the clothes home, after taking hours trying to find something that looks decent on a fat girl living in a skinny world, and I’m exhausted from that and so try my best to NOT think about where the clothes came from, who made them, and what their working conditions were like. I am frustrated that there is no way to really know the truth.

On the other hand, I try to also buy tops from the Las Cruces-Chiapas Connection, a group that sells hand-woven Mayan blouses (called huipils). I do feel so much better when I wear huipils because it is a great weight off my back. I know exactly who made my huipil because each comes with a bio and picture of the woman who made it, and the women on this side of the border who sell those tops pay these women a “fair” price for their labor. You can talk to the women and ask questions about the origins, and that just feels so right in a world where much is so wrong.

Ultimately, we are all human, and we are all animal, as well. We are not perfect, and there isn’t one of us who is not hypocritical at one time or another or wrongly judgmental or just not very well informed. If we keep this in mind, we can understand and be more compassionate and patient with both humans and animals of all kinds. That can only be helpful for all species, and I like the idea of righting the wrongs one at a time, no matter how long that takes.

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11 Responses to “Humane Disconnections”

  1. Another perspective:

    My mother’s father was a farmer. When he escaped Mississippi for New York in the 1930s, he bought three plots of land and planted a field of corn fewer than 20 miles outside of New York City. He kept goats that were milked but not eaten; dogs that were his work partners and friends; outdoor cats; and a pet turtle for his daughter.

    The lines cultures draw are typically (maybe even always) arbitrary. This man could wring a chicken’s neck or shoot a deer and eat it without blinking, yet he would roll over in his grave at the thought of a dog being killed for food guarding or biting a child. In his time and place, that wasn’t done. You couldn’t afford it, and it wouldn’t make sense. The first time I heard of a dog being killed for food guarding, my visceral response was “What the hell is wrong with city folk?!”

    At the same time, my grandfather was open enough to new ideas that he spayed our dog in 1971.

    So, I don’t agree that there’s some standard of compassion that would inevitably trump the very deep cultural practices we have around what it is and is not taboo to eat.

    • I agree, Barbara. It’s not so much compassion about what we do or don’t eat but what I was referring to was the more cruel practicies of factory farming — a natural, family farm such as your grandfather’s is becoming such a rarity … unfortunately!

  2. Lynn Orbison says:

    Yes, no, I don’t know…but THANK YOU!

    Michel did you write this originally? Okay, we haven’t put our steer in the freezer yet because it’s not a very fun job, and there’s still a bit of beef left from the last one we slaughtered a few years ago. (And yes, I too close my eyes and buy meat in the store or order a burger at Carl Jrs sometimes.)

    We used to raise swine too…and goats, but they were Nigerian Dwarfs and were used in petting zoos and sold as pets. (There are wishful and ignorant owners/caretakers in the livestock world as well…)

    I’m applying for a job with municiple Animal Control. I’m scared I’ll catch that negativism and end up sharing the poison. I’m bookmarking this page and hope to review it often to remind myself we’re all human as well as humane.

    One at a time, you, me, and the critters, we need to just keep practicing with ourselves and our loved ones in order to share with others who are harder to reach or perhaps more “dangerous” to our souls.

    I try to wear shirts that make me feel good. They’re usually T-shirts that promote stuff I like or support. Thinking about where they were sewn depressed me. (I’m not sure I can do anything about that as I’m already either getting the shirt for free as a gift, or paying top dollar to support the organization involved and they’re looking to make a buck so they probably bought the cheapest stock they could find…and we all know where that probably came from!)

    Oh well. Come to think of it, It’s rather amazing how many have given me the shirt off my back! Today I’m wearing a US Sled Dog Federation T-shirt. I have two of them and I can’t recall where they came from…they are Fruit of the Loom…did Singer and Mason backtrack that?

    • You’re funny, Lynn!

      Yes, I did write this originally for the vegetarian society’s newsletter — a few months back.

      I wish you the best in not letting the negativity poison your every encounter with other people … it’s not that I don’t understand nor have any compassion about where and how this comes about, it just drives me crazy when I see how much distance it puts between us animal people and what I usually refer to as “normal” people! I think it’s that distance that keeps us from breaking through the last walls we need to take down.

  3. sue_cosby says:

    I remember a seminar I was at and one of the slides was a horribly emaciated dog, bones jutting out at every angle. The audience gasped and murmured hoping to hear the good news that the owner was handcuffed and locked up.

    To their confusion the speaker pointed out that after a brief investigation, they found that this was an excellent pet owner who had spent many thousands of dollars working with veterinarians to assist the dog who was eventually diagnosed with a digestive disorder that prevented him from digesting his food. The veterinarians did not feel the dog needed to be euthanized and they were working diligently to assist the dog in getting better. He was otherwise happy, bright, alert and playful.

    Rather than relief the audience, annoyed at some level, started mumbling about the vet being inhumane and the dog should probably be euthanized anyways.

    Hate is an easy emotion. True compassion and love towards other people is much harder to find but essential to a good life.

    “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama

    • Lynn Orbison says:

      Wow. Been there, done that. Thanks. I have a friend with a dog much like the one in the slide presentation.

      Anybody watch the HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon?” In one segment there is a geologist taking the astronaunts on a field trip. He uses the “mystery of the dead cat” story to explain the term “context”…somebody gives you a dead cat. But until they explain where they found it, you can’t tell the difference between road-kill and a gourmet meal!

      I have other friends with old dogs that maybe I’d be making different choices with, and I have other friends who made choices that made my blood boil! (A gal euthanized her 10 year old dog the day it was diagnosed with breast cancer…the dog was alive and well and happy! And clean, because I’d just groomed it and pointed out the “lump” a few days before. If I’d have kept my mouth shut that dog might still be around enjoying life…for a while anyway.)

      Choices. They’re really important. Which is another reason I don’t like manadory anything…because it takes away choices.

      I can choose to read, I can choose to post. And I really appreciate both of these choices. If you guys weren’t doing what you’re doing, my choices would be even more limited, so thank you again.

      And if I don’t choose to get some chores done either my critters will be hungry or I’ll be late for my doctor’s appointment. (Oddly enough, I am rarely at risk for being emaciated…isn’t it bizarre that THAT is sometimes a choice in our disconnected high society?)

  4. Tracy says:

    Beautifully put :) I understand where you are coming from. I’ve wondered the same things many times myself. I’ve heard many excuses from people who rescue dogs and cats for eating cows, chickens, lobsters and so many other animals I cannot type them all.

    I don’t understand how family farms, where animals are raised “happy” is the pinnacle for “farmed animals” while raising your dog “happy” just to kill it is not okay? It just goes right back to the thought that some animals are more disposable, while others are more deserving.

    At first I thought that most folks who believe in no-kill shelters do so because they believe killing an animal for lack of money, time, space, or initiative is morally wrong. But to put a limit on what is a “worthy animal” makes no sense to me. Perhaps most no-kill advocates do not believe these things after all?

    I try my best to not be rude and help people (rather than lecturing them) towards living cruelty free. This is all very difficult when you know animals lives are on the line, but I believe it’s a necessary step.

    Thank you for all that you do for animals - human and non-human alike! Hold tight to your beliefs!

  5. A response: I was never held the illusion that farmed animals were “happy” and that this made killing them OK. There was an arbitrary line.

    If I answer emotionally rather than rationally I would actually say something like this: lions kill gazelles and they even kill cheetahs; for the most part, don’t kill other lions. I think I internalized a feeling of dogs and cats as “human community members.” That, again, on an emotional level, is the difference for me.

    • True … you look to nature to natural predators and prey, and there is no denial that the food chain is what it is … along with the suffering that entails for some. I guess the difference for us humans is we can step back and look at it all and make the assessments we do, which is why so many people feel so differently about what they consider food or not, whether culturally or otherwise.

    • “I guess the difference for us humans is we can step back and look at it all and make the assessments we do, which is why so many people feel so differently about what they consider food or not, whether culturally or otherwise.”

      I agree - and therein lies the rub. I think there will always be people for whom actively killing animals for food is the bright line, so to speak, and others for whom that line makes no more sense than any other, given the killing the remains on the other side of it such as habitat destruction.

    • Lynn Orbison says:

      What about the mother dog that eats her own pups?

      I had a pig who attacked her newborn piglets too…I had to snatch them and hide them to keep her from destorying her entire family. She became an excellent mother later on after the pain of birth and the strange hormonal shifts settled down. But we didn’t breed her a second time.

      What about the wild animals that kill the eggs or the newborns of their new mates in order to ensure that it is THEIR genetic material that carries on?

      Nature is NOT humane. Why are we expecting humankind to get there? (Because I really DO expect humans to be humane…and I’m just wondering if that is a logical or wise thing.)

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