July 10, 2009 by Nathan J. Winograd
In February, rescue groups throughout the country pleaded with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Wilkes County officials not to put over 150 dogs seized from a dog fighting raid, and their puppies, systematically to death. They even extended offers of assistance, support, and resources. But HSUS refused, arguing that all the dogs should be killed, including puppies who were born after the seizure and posed no threat to public safety. John Goodwin of HSUS also attacked the animal lovers for raising an unnecessary “fuss.” Across the country, animal advocates, No Kill shelters, and rescue groups, as well as everyday dog lovers condemned the killings and Goodwin’s callous retort about it.
The resulting outcry forced HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle, who had defended the slaughter and HSUS’ handling of the criticism, to back down. While stopping short of an apology or admitting they were wrong in having the dogs killed (including forcing a volunteer to return puppies to be killed), they agreed to re-evaluate their position and meet in Las Vegas to come up with a more humane policy.
The resulting April statement that came out of Las Vegas was hailed as a breakthrough. I was skeptical about it, and I wrote:
In reading the new joint statement, there is no right of evaluations. There is no stated commitment to save all the underaged puppies. There are no independent evaluations. Rescue groups do not have a right to save these animals, regardless of what the HSUS evaluation shows. And there is no commitment for HSUS to use its significant resources in order to expand the adoption opportunities of these dogs. Instead, we got, what reads to me, to be more HSUS equivocations: “recommending,” “should be,” “approved” rescue groups, “reasonable” time frame, and “future protocols.”
We got a policy that says, in essence, that these dogs should not automatically be killed, but that HSUS will recommend that they be given individual consideration and equal opportunity. But what does that mean? Does it change the outcome for the dogs? Does it mean they live instead of die? Are we really going to settle for an unenforceable promise of equal opportunity, which in too many communities means little more than an equal opportunity to be killed? Are we really going to trust that the same people who brought you HSUS’ defense of killing in Tangipahoa, LA and Wilkes County, NC are going to fully champion the dogs going forward, especially since they resisted a new written policy and began the process by defending their actions?
I am not blind. I realize what has resulted is better than the automatic kill policy, and that is certainly progress. But I also know that doing better is true by definition. You couldn’t do worse. It isn’t possible. If only one dog is saved going forward, that’s improvement over automatic destruction. And by an automatic destruction standpoint, 13 of 145 dogs in Oklahoma is significant. It certainly is better than the zero who made it out alive in Wilkes County. But it is not enough.
And but for the fact that HSUS simply refuses to give more, we don’t have more. There is simply no reason why we shouldn’t have gotten all those guarantees requested. Instead, we hold back comprehensive progress because Wayne Pacelle won’t allow for more, and we accept it for no rational, financial, or practical reasons other than Pacelle refuses. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is only this way because we let it be. The power he has is the power we give him.
And so, as to whether the new policy actually results in dogs being saved, rather than killed while Wayne Pacelle, John Goodwin, and the others are still in charge of implementation, I’ll say this in a moment of diplomatic self-restraint: I’ll believe it when I see it.
So what has changed since the Las Vegas meeting with Wayne Pacelle over the fate of dogs seized in dog fighting cases? From statements Wayne Pacelle recently made, the answer appears to be not much. HSUS claims it was involved in a major dog fighting bust of over 400 dogs, the vast majority in Missouri. Given the Las Vegas agreement, Pacelle’s statement about the fate of these dogs is ominous. According to Wayne Pacelle,
I think it’s pretty certain that a lot of those dogs will not pass a behavioral test.
Given everything we have been through with Pacelle:
- Given his unethical and dubiously legal misleading fundraising over the Michael Vick dogs asking the public to donate to help care for them when HSUS did not have custody of the dogs, and then turning around and telling a court to kill each and every one;
- Given his embrace of the Wilkes County massacre of dogs and even nursing puppies who posed no threat to anyone;
- Given his agency’s behind the scenes support of breed discriminatory legislation in Indianapolis;
- Given his embrace of Michael Vick, the most notorious animal abuser of our time;
- Given all this and more;
His statement is outrageous. The Humane Society of Missouri, which is housing these dogs, isn’t talking except to say that in a recent case, they killed half of all Pit Bull-type dogs they seized. Is that a bellwether of things to come? I would have feared so, but maybe not.
Randall Lockwood, who was part of the ASPCA team that evaluated and passed the vast majority of the Michael Vick victims, is on the scene in St. Louis. He is doing a preliminary evaluation of the dogs this week and will be designing an exercise and socialization regimen for them, as well. And that, at least for these dogs, gives us a small modicum of hope. But, at this time, that is all it is. One reason is that as a consultant, Lockwood can only recommend, not dictate. In addition, Lockwood himself made statements to the media about this case that the Vick outcome may not be “replicated.” He also made statements that we should not focus on our differing opinions about what to do with the dogs, but focus on blaming the dog fighters. No one questions the need to rescue these dogs from the abuse they faced. And kcdogblog’s aptly titled posting about the situation,Scumbags, conveys what we think about the perpetrators. But Lockwood is wrong. The case is in the hands of the U.S. Attorney. So there is nothing more to do on that score. The only choice now is whether, when granted custody of the dogs, the Humane Society of Missouri will kill them or whether the Humane Society of Missouri will not kill them. In fact, that is all we should focus on.
But at the very least, the outcome isn’t guaranteed as it would be if HSUS was involved. Because if Pacelle’s kill-oriented crew were involved, Pacelle’s premonition would be the most likely outcome. But the fact that Pacelle doesn’t have a role in their future doesn’t make his callous comment less obscene.
Once again, HSUS has taken on for itself the role of championing killing. Once again, Pacelle shows he is not fit to run the nation’s largest animal protection organization. Once again, Pacelle shows that his claims that “HSUS is changing” ring hollow. Once again, Pacelle replaces comprehensive, thoughtful, rigorous analysis, with an ignorant sound-bite that favors death.
If the Vick tragedy taught us anything, it is that our most basic assumptions about dogs, pit bull-type dogs, and dog aggression, were wrong. In short, it showed we can save virtually all the dogs, even when they were raised for dog fighting and horrifically abused.
As I stated in an earlier blog,
After the arrest of former national football league quarterback Michael Vick and the seizure of almost 60 pit bull-type dogs raised for fighting, many animal protection organizations called for the dogs to be killed, arguing that these dogs were vicious and beyond our ability to help them. None made this argument after evaluating the dogs, but based on assumptions about pit bull-type dogs, dog aggression, and dog fighting. After deceptively fundraising off of the dogs, for example, the Humane Society of the United States lobbied to have them killed. Because they believe all Pit Bulls who enter shelters should be slaughtered, it was no surprise that PETA also asked the court to put them to death.
In 2008, the court thankfully said “No.” Only one dog was actually killed for aggression after evaluation, and the remaining dogs were placed in either sanctuaries or in loving new homes. Two of the dogs are now even therapy animals, providing comfort to cancer patients.
The results forced even dog lovers-but more importantly the humane movement-to question their most basic assumptions about dogs, pit bull-type dogs, and dog aggression. In short, it showed we can save virtually all dogs in shelters.
Secondly, it showed that there is a real, practical, and potentially widespread “third door” between adoption and killing-the network of foster homes, sanctuaries and long term care facilities to provide for animals who may not necessarily be immediate adoption candidates, but can enjoy a good quality of life which would make their killing neither merciful nor ethical.
As a result, we should no longer assume the dogs can’t be adopted or for the ones who are traumatized, rehabilitated first because the vast majority can. We should assume the opposite: they are savable unless a rigorous, fair, and comprehensive evaluation proves otherwise, which it might—but only for a small number of the dogs. And we should no longer assume there isn’t a sanctuary or even homes for these dogs, since HSUS (and Lockwood’s ASPCA) has the public relations power, financial wherewithal and global reach which easily prove otherwise.
Given this, we must stop talking about how these are “often broken dogs” or how there might be difficulty finding “available homes.” We need to stop speaking the language of defeatism, the language which frames the debate in a negative light, that condemns some of the dogs without all the facts, that assumes killing may be inevitable, and thus may actually help pave the way for their eventual slaughter.
In other words, we need to put aside unfounded biases and consider the victims of these cruelty cases the way we talk about the animals in other cruelty situations—with regret and condemnation for what they have suffered and with the expectation that whatever agency now has power over them will give these dogs what they deserve. We must assume—as the facts in the Michael Vick case proved—that condemning them as vicious simply because a dog fighter possessed them is guilt by association and unfair. That they were abused doesn’t make the dogs abusive. That they were subjected to violence doesn’t make them violent. That they were unloved doesn’t make them unloving.
In short, we must not echo Wayne Pacelle and the unfounded biases which plague our movement and have harmed animals for far too long, with no evidence to support such claims. Instead, we must adopt a language that is optimistic about the dogs and uncompromising in defense of their lives. We must put the ASPCA and the Humane Society of Missouri on notice that we expect them to save these dogs. Because anything short of that clears a path for those—like Wayne Pacelle—who appear bent on destroying them.
Instead, we must start demanding outcomes—outcomes that include rescuing, rehabilitating, and ultimately saving these dogs. A fair, rigorous evaluation will lead to lifesaving for the vast majority of these dogs and given HSUS wealth, media power, membership in the tens of millions, America’s dog loving culture, and the vast number of available homes, these are not barriers. Even the slide show of photographs from the law enforcement raid shows the rescuers handling the dogs with little restraint, fear, or concern for their own safety. Because, at the end of the day, even if they do get evaluations, it’s not progress from the dogs’ perspective, if the outcome is the same.
Thankfully, it appears Pacelle and his kill-oriented dog fighting team will have no say in that.
For Further Reading: