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The Lure of the Dark Side
A successful shelter director I have been mentoring contacted me recently about a job offer they received from one of the wealthy, national organizations of which I have been critical. The director asked my advice about the costs vs. benefits of accepting the offer.
It is not the first time I have received this kind of question. I have received a great many. My advice is always the same: don’t do it. Time will tell whether they heed that advice, but my track record on this score is not good. Over two decades and with one exception (as I will explain below), all have ignored my advice. And yet just as I warned in my response to each of them, all of them would go on to make significant moral compromises, with the freedom to make choices focused on lifesaving replaced with fear about stepping on the toes of organizational leaders, inability to go against official though regressive policies, and the need to get along with others who excuse killing and even defend abusive directors.
Working for Austin Pets Alive, for example, requires one to sit on policy committees or work with directors and others who engage in activities the No Kill movement was founded to combat. This includes individuals who:
Allow their staff to abuse animals, including breaking their jaws;
Kill dogs despite rescue groups ready, willing, and able to save those dogs;
Allow dogs to cannibalize each other and die of exposure in unheated enclosures;
Turn animals away and tell finders to abandon them on the street;
Violate state and federal law to hide neglect and abuse of animals in their facilities;
Want to breed puppies in one part of the shelter while they kill rescued dogs in another;
Are paid lobbyists for the puppy mill industry; and more.
These are not the actions of No Kill organizations, and they are not the actions of animal protection groups (which should be the same). They are fundraising entities and jobs programs for the ambitious — places where innovation, effectiveness, passion, caring, and compassion go to die. Admittedly, these groups use some of the tens and even hundreds of millions they raise every year for their intended purpose to help animals. But that does not mean they have earned the right to cause harm to other animals themselves — terrible, irreversible, life-ending harm.
Not surprisingly, after roughly six months at the job, I often receive another email, text, or telephone call letting me know “they were thinking about me” or “they want to touch base.” The similar timing of these missives suggests that six months is about how long it takes for the honeymoon period to fade, for the empty nature of the promises made to become evident, and for numerous incidents to occur in which animals are sacrificed for other priorities such as fundraising, ego, relationships, or cowardice.
I’ve come to recognize it both as a sign of anxiety with the choice they made and a dangerous inflection point that will force them to make yet another fateful decision: quit or fully embrace the dark side.
Over the decades, the names and organizations have changed. But this much remains constant: the outcome is always the same. And so, in the interest of whatever insight might come from sharing my experiences and to spare myself the needless task of conveying this cautionary tale of woe privately on a person-by-person basis, I am instead publishing this open letter to any successful No Kill director who thinks:
It is a step-up to go to work for Best Friends Animal Society, the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, Maddie’s Fund, or Austin Pets Alive (it isn’t);
Unlike everyone else, they will not become corrupted to the point that they, too, will remain silent in the face of threats to animals at the hands of their employers or become an apologist for killing (you will); and,
They can do more good with the wealth and national reach of the large groups (you can’t).
Several years ago, the Board president of a shelter I mentored went to work with the Humane Society of the United States. He knew about HSUS’s history of corruption that consigned hundreds of thousands of animals to an early grave because he read my book, Redemption, read my many articles documenting that wrongdoing, and was involved in situations where HSUS was actively working to subvert No Kill. Still, he assured me he would not succumb and would help turn them around because Wayne Pacelle, CEO of HSUS, was personally courting him.
Pacelle — fresh off a national public relations tour calling for the killing of dogs victimized by Michael Vick and forgiveness for Vick himself — had admitted that he “missed the boat on No Kill” and was willing to embrace change. At the very least, my colleague assured me that HSUS’s wealth and national outreach would provide him a platform to do more good than he could at the local level.
I told him that he was being naive, that he would be the one to change, and that his relationship with HSUS would require him to abandon support for the kind of work that we did together. I also told him it was inevitable that, with time, he would come to deeply resent the nature of my work — work that helped him not only turn his community around and spare the lives of countless animals but to achieve the kind of success that brought him to the attention of HSUS.
I also predicted that it was just a matter of time until Pacelle once again misappropriated the might of HSUS to subvert genuine animal protection efforts, placing us on a collision course. Though Pacelle has since resigned in disgrace after sexually assaulting female employees, I was well aware of the tremendous social capital associating with Pacelle conveyed at that time, subjecting my colleague’s integrity to a severe stress test when he was forced to choose between the allure of Pacelle’s celebrity and remaining true to his professed values. I, therefore, predicted that when confronted with that choice, his resulting anger would not be directed at Pacelle for betraying his assurances of reform and continuing to harm animals but would instead be misdirected at me.
A few months later, his resolve to stand by his principles and reform HSUS “from within” was tested. Despite an unequivocal promise that they would not do so, HSUS lobbyists successfully defeated legislation I wrote that would have banned the gas chamber and ended convenience killing in Minnesota pounds. In killing the legislation, Pacelle broke promises made to both my former colleague and me. Worse, he consigned tens of thousands of Minnesota shelter animals to a terrifying, painful death. When I publicly called out HSUS for destroying this critical piece of animal protection legislation, my former colleague was furious at me and called to say so. We have not spoken since.
It wasn’t clairvoyance or political savvy on my part that saw it coming, but an understanding of human nature and the corrosive influence of money, fame (or the proximity to it), and power. Large, wealthy “animal protection” groups — including HSUS, the ASPCA, Best Friends Animal Society, and Austin Pets Alive — are lobbying organizations for people who harm animals. They operate like oligarchs in a kleptocracy, doing just enough to provide cover and the appearance of legitimacy as they:
Collectively hoard hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and grants intended to help animals;
Misappropriate their influence with the public and our elected officials to the detriment of animals;
Undermine the efforts of small, effective grassroots organizations and activists; and,
Hold back the cause they claim to champion by justifying the killing of animals in shelters and hindering the spread of the No Kill Equation that would end it.
Part of that modus operandi includes co-opting those whose leadership and work still embody No Kill principles — leadership and work that provide a threatening comparison and contrast. The money and national reach they offer are a siren song that often proves difficult to resist. Those who say “yes” to their overtures assure themselves (and usually, me) that they will not succumb to corruption. But they always do. Always. First, little by little, then yard by yard: holding their tongue when they should speak out, not fighting for an abused animal who needs a champion, or making excuses for shelter directors who abuse and kill animals when they should be holding them accountable. Until one day, they transform into someone they could never have imagined themselves to be, betraying their former accomplishments, undermining the cause, and abandoning the animals they once protected.
They then rationalize being at cross purposes with my work by claiming I am the one who changed, despite that my advocacy has been the same for 30 years: killing is wrong, killing is unnecessary, and we must ensure the implementation of humane alternatives in every shelter in America, regardless of who may take offense when we say so.
In my three decades of animal work, there has been but one successful shelter director who resisted the lure when these groups came knocking. To this day, he remains an inspiring anomaly. Last year, his shelter finished with a 99% placement rate, the highest in his state.
Through his example lies my advice to those considering working for one of the prominent organizations by telling themselves that they will be the exception to the rule: don’t do it. Don’t give in to temptation. It is simply not true that you can do more good working for Austin Pets Alive, Maddie’s Fund, Best Friends, the ASPCA, or HSUS. You can’t: corruption is hard-wired into their DNA.
The most effective thing you can do for animals is to challenge the dystopian messages coming from these groups by proving through your example of humane and effective No Kill sheltering that they are wrong and there is a better way. Doing so blunts the worst aspects of their corruption by setting a progressive agenda for the movement that their voracious fundraising machines are compelled to keep up with.
By contrast, if you embrace the Faustian bargain they offer and surrender your integrity, independence, voice, values, and commitment to the best interests of animals, it ends in only one way. Badly.
Winter is Coming: The movement faces dangers that threaten to erase the gains of the last three decades and increase animal homelessness, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and killing.
Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: The Humane Society of the United States wants shelters to start breeding puppies.
The Co-Option of Austin Pets Alive: APA’s embrace of regressive directors and their equally regressive policies highlights how organizations become corrupted and provides a cautionary tale for others.
The Growing Threat of Darkness: To the animals’ detriment, shelters refuse to fully open to the public.
From the Arms of Angel: How ASPCA negligence, corruption, and indifference led to the death of a little dog named Nyla.
Michael Vick is Rewriting his Sadistic History: And he has help doing it.