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Dogs perish when critical race theorists publish
Over the last several years, professors who subscribe to critical race theory have falsely pitted animal protection and human dignity against one another. Specifically, they have written books and journal articles that:
Argue against prosecuting dogfighters like Michael Vick because they are the real “victims”;
Criticize placing dogs who survived dogfighting in caring, family homes because “they were effectively segregated from Blackness”;
Call for more animals to be killed in pounds or left on the streets instead of placed in homes so as not to promote “settler-colonial and racist dynamics of land allocation”;
Claim that viewing animals as family members, letting them sleep in the house, providing medical care, and showing affection are “white” values; while people of color treat animals “as resources, whether protective (as in guarding) or financial (as in breeding or possibly fighting)”; and,
Call for permitting dogs to be left on chains 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
They then argue that shelter workers and animal protection officers should turn a blind eye to dogfighting, chaining, and failure to provide food and veterinary care, even though these harms are “at odds with the humane society’s own core beliefs about how animals should be cared for.”
These ideologies may be having their moment, but they undermine moral and social progress by fostering the racist outcomes they hypocritically claim to oppose. They also throw defenseless animals under the bus. And they do so, even though the evidence does not bear out their claims.
The same is true of a new study published in Social Psychology Quarterly that claims shelter dogs with “white”-sounding names get adopted more quickly than dogs with “black” or “Hispanic” names.
Are Adopters Racist Toward Dogs with “Black” or “Hispanic” Names?
The study looked at the time to adoption of over 1,600 dogs in a county shelter. They compared length of stay with whether dogs had white, black, or Hispanic-sounding names. They concluded that people adopted dogs with white-sounding names, on average, in roughly six days, Hispanic-sounding names in seven days, and black-sounding names in eight days. They blame racist adopters.
The data suggests otherwise.
The dogs with the longest stay in the shelter did not have black or Hispanic names. Instead, they had unfamiliar names, like “Wigglystuff,” “Flufferton,” “Fruit Loops,” “Skittles,” and “Sir Pupper.” That, too, was my experience when I ran animal shelters.
In the 2000s, for example, I found that dogs with names like Harry Potter would get adopted before dogs with names like Harry Truman, even though both — including the fictional Potter based on the movies — are white. Harry Potter was more familiar and relevant to adopters, especially those coming in with children. In fact, I once adopted a senior cat named Professor Dumbledore to a family with young kids who came in for a kitten. I doubt the outcome would have been the same had the cat been named after the Professor (Roy Hinkley) from Gilligan’s Island.
Indeed, one of those shelters was near Cornell University, where graduate students made up a significant portion of our volunteer base. These volunteers were fond of giving animals unfamiliar names based on their field of study, doing the animals no favor to the extent that “Molly” and “Ben” got adopted faster than “François-René de Chateaubriand,” “Edna Pontellier,” and “Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.” (I finally told the Cornell students they weren’t allowed to name the animals.)
There’s an even more fundamental reason why “racialized names” do not appear to be impacting adoption speed. The survey group in the study tasked with assigning names into categories couldn’t agree if they sounded white, Hispanic, or black. The authors acknowledge that “relatively few names in our data set were consensually perceived as Black and Hispanic.” The lack of consensus had the effect of “suppressing the effects of these names” and thus confidence in the results. In some cases, confidence was at or near zero.
As a result, there was no statistically significant relationship between the perception of a name being black or Hispanic and the number of days a dog spent in the shelter. As their first figure shows, it is possible for dogs with names 90% of people would consider Hispanic-sounding to be adopted twice as fast as dogs with a name they think sounds white, undermining their conclusion.
Moreover, names can be changed. Some adopters came in with a new name for the dog even before they came to the shelter, having picked the name before they picked the dog. Other factors, therefore, are more likely to influence length of stay, including size, weight, age, and activity level. For example, people adopted “puppies and in-demand breeds” so quickly that the shelter did not even have time to take photos of them, negating the influence of names.
Finally, the shelter used in the study is in a city that “is relatively diverse with respect to race...” Unsurprisingly, people who came to the shelter to adopt were also “highly diverse in terms of race/ethnicity,” again negating the impact of race. The only way to prove or disprove this is to first identify confounding variables (i.e., the other factors that impact length of stay). After controlling for those, the next step is to match the adopter’s race with the dog’s name. Did white adopters consistently pick dogs with white-sounding names — or, at least, pick them more quickly? And, if so, why? We don’t know, as the study authors did not collect this information or conduct the necessary interviews.
A Cruel Proposal
The study sought to answer one question: Is there a bias against shelter animals when given names that some consider non-“white”? They failed to do so. Instead, we are left with the conjecture that it might be true. Unfortunately, that is all it takes to establish a proposition in critical race theory circles, as my other writings on similar issues have explored.
If there is a takeaway to be drawn from the study, it is the experience I had as a shelter director: avoid unfamiliarity to the extent it delays adoption and puts dogs at risk of being killed. This is especially important given the roughly one million animals losing their lives in shelters each year and recent headlines: “Animal Shelter Facing Euthanasia Due To Overcrowding,” “Animal shelter getting crowded,” “Animal shelter at capacity,” “Animals to be put down due to crowding.” Shelter directors should call shelter animals whatever names the evidence demonstrates would get them adopted quicker. (I consistently used names from annually published “top pet name” lists.)
Tragically, the authors disagree:
Given our results, this might seem like a “quick fix” that allows shelters to guard against any latent prejudices that clients bring with them onto the adoption floor. But in the long run, this would do nothing to combat the beliefs that allow these inequalities to persist, both in the context of the dog shelter and in the wider world. We therefore advise against this practice because this would be akin to leaning into bias. We cannot alter our behavior as a society to accommodate those with racist inclinations, even when those inclinations manifest in unlikely places.
What should shelters do to protect dogs from the twin evils of moral apathy and racism? What should they do to respond to the possibility that some dogs and cats might face a hurdle to getting out alive if potential adopters hold a bias against specific names, conscious or not?
Absolutely nothing, say the authors.
If it is true that dogs and cats are at risk of becoming collateral damage because of the troubled race relations between human beings, so be it, the authors tell us. The cost of “justice” — they claim — must be paid in the body count of innocent bystanders. Commit a thought crime about a shelter dog’s name, and the dog dies. To do otherwise would be racist.
In the end, the only prejudice this study establishes with any degree of confidence is that the authors hold the rights of at-risk companion animals in such low regard that their interests — their very lives — do not matter. To them, the animals staring down the gas chamber or the barrel of a needle filled with an overdose of barbiturates if they don’t get out of the shelter alive are not marginalized victims lacking legal rights who face the possibility of execution for the “crime” of being homeless. They are pawns in a game of “woke academia” that has abandoned all pretensions to truth or objectivity. In perverting the mandate to “publish or perish,” the professors of race and gender identity who co-wrote the study call for dogs to perish so they can publish.
We should never confuse the racist tropes and cruel policies peddled by professors seeking to make a name for themselves with the cause of animal protection (or human dignity). They are not the same. And they never have been.
The study, “When a Name Gives You Pause: Racialized Names and Time to Adoption in a County Dog Shelter,” is here.