Friday, January 23, 2009

When Cruelty Flies Just Under the Radar

The other morning, our staff arrived at the door of our adoption center to find a cat in a carrier wrapped in a plastic garbage bag. The temperature that night had fallen to below zero. Fortunately, the cat survived the night (without freezing or suffocating).

What was your first thought when you read that story? Mine, too. It's hard not to be angry when we hear about an animal being hurt. And many animal advocates allow bearing witness to such awful instances to tarnish their view of human nature. I usually have to take a deep breath and remember that, on the other end of this story, we'll find a person doing a good thing--opening her heart and adopting that abandoned cat.

While animal abandonment is illegal, one of the perpetual frustrations for animal welfare advocates is when we encounter cruelty or neglect that is just this side of the law. People who allow their longhaired cats to become painfully matted or who chain their dogs 24 hours a day or who keep their rabbits in freezing, filthy outdoor hutches usually aren't breaking any laws.

Proving cruelty or neglect and getting a case through the courts all the way to conviction are Herculean tasks. And the most common kinds of neglect--failure to provide socialization, adequate exercise, and basic compassion--aren't illegal at all.

Some communities decide that the minimal standards for what constitutes cruelty aren't enough. They might decide that there is more to caring for a dog, for example, than just giving him food, water, and a dog house. Those dog-loving voters then get together and pass anti-tethering ordinances. (For more information about anti-chaining legislation and other ways you can help end the torture of perpetual tethering, visit Dogs Deserve Better).

But legal options aren't always the best way to make change. For instance, communities with aggressive low-cost spay/neuter programs are more successful at achieving high rates of companion animal sterilization than those that pass legislation requiring sterilization. Making it illegal to care for an unspayed cat doesn't make it any more affordable to get her spayed.

Building a community that cares humanely for its animals involves educating people about the needs of different species, as well as the individuals within those species. Most people care for their pets the way they were taught to care for their pets--tie them up, let them run loose, keep them indoors, make them stay outside, take them to the vet, let them have a litter.

Our job as animal advocates is to provide accessible information. And by "accessible" I mean information people are willing and able to learn from--that means everything from delivering our message with compassion to delivering our message in a language our audience can understand (i.e., when I first started out in animal welfare 20 years ago, we served significant Spanish-speaking populations, but not only didn't we have Spanish-speaking staff, we didn't have Spanish-language materials).

DPVHS is fortunate to be located in the Pioneer Valley region, close to four renowned colleges and a major university. Our adopters, donors, and friends are often savvy animal lovers. Their attitudes about everything from farming animals to wearing them to hunting them to neutering them are typically more progressive than in other communities. But we still have a long way to go.

Some day, we'll live in a community where no one would consider wrapping a living cat in a plastic bag and leaving him outdoors in sub-zero weather. We'll live in a community where no one buys their puppy from a puppy mill or considers it okay to tie their dog up to a doghouse his entire life. Until then, we'll continue reaching out to schoolchildren, youthful offenders, college students, families with kids, elders in need, and all of the animals in their lives.

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