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The Power and “Privilege” to Kill
I recently invited my readers on Facebook and Substack to ask me anything. I responded to dozens of questions and did a podcast with six of the most useful ones. Today, I will answer one more. A shelter employee asked me: “How do you see your privilege as it relates to animal welfare?”
When I asked for clarification, she said, “You are a white male who has had access to a higher education.”
She took particular offense at my article criticizing Kristen Hassen of Austin Pets Alive for telling people that shelters faced only one of two choices: killing animals or abandoning them on the street. I argued that such a view was defeatist, contradicted by the evidence, and deadly to animals. Instead, I asked people to embrace a third choice: No Kill.
She also did not like my tone, which is not uncommon among staff at shelters that kill animals. When they encounter people who refuse to couch violence against animals in softer terms, refuse to engage in their carefully crafted double-speak, or counter their excuse-making with viable solutions and alternatives, they often mistakenly conflate honesty and optimism with rudeness and arrogance.
Frequently, they accuse those calling for lifesaving alternatives of being bullies, when their own actions toward sheltered animals are the very definition of the term: “a person who habitually seeks to harm… those whom they perceive as vulnerable.” This is why my response to the question of how I see my “privilege as it relates to animal welfare” is that I don’t. And I don’t because animals care about staying alive. They do not care about the skin color or sex of those trying to stop people from killing them. But I also don’t because her question has it backward.
The dictionary defines “privilege” as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” As the critic intends, it further defines it as an “unearned and mostly unacknowledged societal advantage that a restricted group of people has over another group.”
By that definition, privilege means power over vulnerable others, and as it relates to existing power structures in the “animal protection” movement, I have none. Large, wealthy, corporate “animal protection” groups dominate the movement and receive the lion’s share of resources — the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, PETA, Best Friends, Maddie’s Fund, Austin Pets Alive, the National Animal Control Association, and the American Humane Association. Without exception, these are the groups I have had to battle against to protect the lives of animals. That is because while they amass a lot of money and influence telling the American public they speak on behalf of animals, they misappropriate that influence to operate as lobbying organizations for those who cause them terrible harm.
As one might expect, highlighting their betrayals, teaching others how to see through their misinformation, and struggling to reform a profoundly dysfunctional movement have rendered me the proverbial outcast. I possess no “privilege” within their movement because I stand outside it.
And when it comes to that movement to which I do belong — the movement that places the interests of animals before the career interests of humans who hurt them made up of rescuers, volunteers, reformers, grassroots organizations, and No Kill shelter directors — the only power I have is the power of persuasion. I use my voice unapologetically to advocate the belief that animals have rights, irrespective of who might want to harm them, including those given a special dispensation by the large groups to operate as a privileged class of animal abusers/killers, such as shelter directors and their staff.
So while a corrosive and harmful privilege exists within the animal protection movement, she and her colleagues are the ones who possess it — and do so to the extreme. If they choose to, they can poison or gas animals, place them in an incinerator, and turn their bodies into ash without repercussions. Responding to criticism of this deadly power imbalance with her question about sex, race, and education shows how deep this sense of privilege is: to those who possess it, it is so invisible as to be construed as the natural order. To even question it is heretical. Hence, the deflection.
Only someone who fails to grasp the gravity of such a discussion or who has failed to spend time in quiet, empathetic contemplation of the cruelty and immorality of shelter killing could be so cavalier as to suggest the public debate about such a weighty issue should be subject to irrelevant criteria. Instead of having that discussion, she wants to talk about the color of my skin, my sex, and my degrees because in a cyber “chat room” where I cannot force anyone to enter or prevent anyone from leaving (my page on Facebook), I am sharing my opinions.
Nor are the rights of animals the only important consideration her question casually steamrolls. She also ignores the right of every person to be treated as an individual. Not all white people, people of color, or men and women have the same views and experiences. In fact, race and sex are morally meaningless distinctions. To believe otherwise is not only to embrace racial and gender disparity while infantilizing women and people of color but to suppress voices that might provide unique insights or solutions that would benefit everyone. Substantive debate should always be welcome because that is how ideas are stress tested, allowing us to learn, grow, and change our minds.
In addition, some ways of relating to animals are better than others. Determining how to treat animals should not start with arbitrary characteristics of the humans engaging with animals, but whether their actions help or harm those animals. For instance, providing food, water, shelter, veterinary care, attention, and affection is better than leaving dogs on the street to fend for themselves. Finding a dog a new home that provides those needs is objectively better than injecting them with an overdose of barbiturates. These are not “white” values. They are not “male” values. They are ways of relating to animals that objectively increase the overall well-being of dogs and cats.
But I suspect the critic knows all this, which is why I believe that the question is not intended to discuss the real issue at hand — the morality of killing animals by shelter staff. Instead, it is designed to quell dissent and shield powerful individuals who advocate harmful policies from accountability.
Over the last 30 years, No Kill advocates have been told that they don’t have a right to criticize shelters if they have never worked at one, even though we live in a democracy and the killing is paid for with our tax dollars in public institutions which are supposed to reflect our values, but currently hinder them.
We’ve been told that people in shelters shouldn’t face criticism for harming animals because it isn’t fair to them — that they are merely doing the public’s “dirty work,” even as shelter managers ignore, or openly fight, alternatives that would make that killing unnecessary.
And we’ve been told that “everyone wants the same thing,” even though those claims are betrayed by killing animals, the neglect and cruelty that often precedes it, and studies that show otherwise.
These attempts to stifle criticism of animal shelters are a lazy and cowardly dodge; lazy because they refuse to grapple with serious topics in favor of personal attacks and misinformation, and cowardly because mounting a genuine defense of shelter killing requires substantive engagement with the values and facts No Kill advocates such as myself use to defend the rights of shelter animals — engagement that would stress test the excuses they use to paper over the disconnect between claims of caring about animals and the act of poisoning them.
To be sure, laziness and cowardice are lamentable, and given that the result of both is the continued killing of animals, they are contemptible, too. But if the question posed to me is any indication — and this is not the first time my race or sex has been used to deflect attention away from the issue being debated — the newest tool to silence critics of shelter killing takes the lowest road of them all: intimidation.
In 2022, publicly asking me questions about my “white privilege” or suggesting that my views as a “white male” are, a priori, suspect, could be construed as an attempt to disqualify me from public participation by instilling fear that should I refuse to self-censor, I will be accused of being racist and sexist in a public forum, placing me at personal and professional risk.
And if that is the intent, my response is that I refuse to be intimidated by bigotry. Animals have no voice of their own and need others to speak for them. Silencing animal lovers silences the animals and often, with lethal consequences. If we care about animals and have the courage of our convictions, we must continue to speak the truth to people who possess the power over life and death. And here is the truth:
Animals are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Those things are impossible if animals are dead because they were injected with a fatal dose of poison by a “shelter” employee who finds killing easier than doing what is necessary to stop it.
And killing an animal is not an act of love; it is an act of violence.
What does the fact that I may be a white male who graduated from law school have to do with that?
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