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Mr. President, please.

No matter how many times I hope to put this one behind us, somehow it keeps coming back up.  It was reported that President Obama recently spoke with Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and among the topics was Obama’s “passionate” props for giving Mike Vick a “second chance”.  His last flash of passion was anger directed at his base for their being mad he broke a campaign pledge to repeal taxes for the rich.  Watch out dogs, he’s probably mad at you now.

For the President’s benefit, let me run through this once more.  Yes, convicts deserve second chances.  I hire people with criminal records myself sometimes.  Yes, I still applaud the Eagles for turning an enormous pile of lemons of their own harvesting into a tub of lemonade in the form of a huge grant program to help animals.  Again, the HSBC took a big glass of that to build our VetMobile which helps lots of animals and people as a result.  Yes, I still think it was right for the HSUS (no relation) to work with him to help other kids avoid the same crimes (not mistakes, crimes).  Yes, I still think that much of the hostility directed at Vick had maybe a tiny bit to do with race and that there was no introspection on the part of animal welfare professionals that had we done our job when Vick was twelve, he might be cruelty free now and still not winning the Super Bowl for the Falcons.

But Mr. President, there are second chances and there are second chances.  The Eagles hiring Vick was a bad idea then and I still think it’s a bad idea now.  It has nothing to do with giving millionaire felons a second chance to integrate into society.  The NFL, among all professional sports, has played the “role model” card better than any other.  They want to pretend that they are representative of something better.  As a result, they are not just any business.  That’s why they should not hire convicted dog fighting racketeers.  Or those convicted of manslaughter, domestic violence or sexual assault or all of the other nastiness to which they turn a blind eye when the perpetrator is someone talented on whose back they can get rich.

To the Vick apologists out there, this is not about fairness and second chances.  Some jobs are different and I’d like to think mega-million dollar salary pro sports, played on fields subsidized across the country and right here in Pennsylvania with our tax dollars are one of those different jobs.  If Vick had been a teacher, he could not get his job back.  If he had been a police officer, no job.  One would hope that if he had been a politician it would be the same, but we’ve all seen evidence of the contrary there.  But it should be the same in that job, too.

Vick’s second chance could have come in any of a million different ways.  But it did not have to be this one and it certainly doesn’t call for the President of the United States getting passionate about it to the nice billionaire who hired this down and out ex-con.  I’ve certainly never received a call for any of the hand ups I’ve provided as an employer (Hey, Ben Roethlisberger, call me.  The next time you get caught with your pants down in a public bathroom with a young woman while your posse keeps her friends out and finally get fired, I’ve got a second chance for you in my kennel.  Maybe you can find redemption and I can get a call from the President!).

So, Mr. President, I’m just a dummy who works with dogs.  You’ve very cleverly done things that made sense after the fact (I know I’m waiting to see what Keith Olbermann has to say about those millionaire tax cuts now that we got to see it was a loss leader for DADT repeal and START II).  Maybe this was intended to be a Sista Souljah or “Kanye’s a jackass” moment.  But it’s got the feeling of you shooting your mouth off with the owner of a football team. 

Hey, we’ve all been there.  I know I have.  But I learned a little trick for when I’m about to say something that will make me look stupid, insensitive and out of touch. 

Start the sentence with, “Off the record….”

Shoot, I think I was supposed to start this piece that way.

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For the Humane Society of Berks County, 2010 was both the best and scariest year we’ve ever had.  Given the state of the economy, we accomplished not just more than we thought possible, we accomplished more than ever before.  All of our major fundraising events matched or smashed previous records.  For an organization which relies entirely on donations and services fees and coming at the tail end of a recession, this was amazing.

We partnered with J. P. Mascaro & Son to build and open Berks County’s first free, public dog park and an equine rescue and adoption center.  While this project has been planned on paper for years, at the beginning of 2010 no one at the HSBC expected that it would be started and completed in only six months.  During a time when we are scrambling to raise and save every penny we can, we also didn’t see a donation worth one million dollars in the cards for us.  This is one time we were glad to be proved wrong.

We started the year by debuting the region’s only VetMobile and mobile adoption center, a $250,000 project that was accomplished entirely through grants, individual donor support and corporate donations.  We did it by deciding that being effective was better, if sometimes harder, than just be mad.  In the ultimate turning of lemons into lemonade (and we had a few lemons thrown at us for doing it), we were able to turn the Philadelphia Eagles’ bad choice into a major long term benefit for animals and people throughout the region.

We were able to maintain and even expand our animal welfare programs, save more animals than ever through life saving veterinary care via our own in house veterinary services, and help thousands of animals not just in Berks but in eleven other Pennsylvania counties and five other states through emergency response, adoption transfer programs, and other services.  And we did all of that without having to make unplanned withdrawals from our very small savings nest egg for the first time in living memory. 

As great as all that was, the fact is we have been terrifyingly close to the edge the entire time.  The stock market decline resulted in shortfalls of hundreds of thousands of dollars we receive annually from donor trusts, money that had to be raised elsewhere or squeezed out of the budget.  Our record fundraisers, which were accomplished through the support of our strongest donors giving even more, were balanced by decreases in casual giving.  Most of our staff went through a second year without pay increases, we were forced to increase health benefit co-pays, and we saved by not replacing staff who left and spreading the work among those who remain.  All this together meant we were able to avoid cutting the services which are even more vital right now and live on the income we have (don’t you wish Washington could do the same?).

Even with those extremely hard choices and even harder work, we still faced some unpleasant realities.  The subsidy we previously gave those living at poverty level for vet care was decreased from a maximum of 33% to 20%.  That resulted in more pets being turned in to us because owners couldn’t afford to make them well even with our sliding scale services.  Despite extending $250,000 worth of lifesaving vet care to our animals and making formerly unthinkable treatments routine, we still face making health care decisions- life and death decisions- every day based solely on whether we can afford the treatment.  And despite all our efforts to do more work with less and for less, we have now finally faced our first layoff strictly for budgetary reasons.  That means fewer hands on deck to save the animals who need us and losing dedicated, hardworking staff.

And that does not include the unexpected and unbudgeted expenses that could not be put off.  The flood that destroyed our furnace.  The unexpected demise of part of our electrical system.  Termites (Seriously?  We were sent a plague of insects on top of everything else?).

So it was a mixed bag in 2010.  We did more than we ever have in good times or bad.  But like so many out there we did it under the constant cloud that one major crisis, no matter how hard or how well we worked, could spell catastrophe for all of our efforts.  As you probably know, we are a private, independent charity.  We get no subsidies from national groups like the HSUS or the ASPCA or from the government.  And we didn’t go into the recession with a boatload of the money in the bank to cushion us. 

But we did go into it with something even more important: the best staff, the best volunteers, some of the best ideas and programs, and strong, dedicated support from our donors.  As a lot of people and organizations have discovered, the money in the bank can go away, but if you have great people and great ideas, you can get by.  We have been blessed with both.

We at the Humane Society of Berks County hope you have a great holiday season, a merry Christmas, and a fantastic New Year.  We sincerely thank you for your support over the past year and hope you will continue it as we enter the next.  We are proud to be here for the animals and people who need us and proud that your support makes that possible!

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Pennsylvania loves non-profit organizations.  I’m not sure it has to as much to do with the work we accomplish as much as it has to do with the fact that by doing that work we allow the Commonwealth to avoid doing it themselves.  Despite having stacks of laws and regulations on the books, which presumably someone thought addressed problems important enough to write, pass and sign them into law, many of these go largely unenforced by Pennsylvania.

I’ll give you an example.  For a couple years I worked for a watershed conservancy.  As you can imagine, there are lots of regulations and laws addressing water quality and the environment, as there should be.  Yet this conservancy did more watershed conservation and recovery than the State in that watershed.  They responded to complaints about violations and trained developers in how to avoid damaging the waterways.  You might think that if these regulations were important enough to write, the governmental resources would be there to enforce them.  Largely, they were not, and the burden and the cost to do so fell on the conservancy, its staff and volunteers, and its donors.

Sound familiar?  It should.  The same basic problem exists in the area of animal cruelty in Pennsylvania, except in this area there was an open acknowledgement of the fact that the government was shirking its duties and the law was changed to explicitly “allow” animal shelters to enforce the law.  By allow I mean dump the unfunded job into our laps while we thanked them for the pleasure.

Many people are not aware of the fact that although any municipal or State Police officer can enforce Pennsylvania’s anti-cruelty laws, most do not.  That’s why about twenty years ago the legislature wrote a law that permits trained and sworn Humane Society Police Officers to enforce the section of the PA crime code addressing cruelty, as long as the crime is a summary offense.  Misdemeanor and higher require action by the County DA.  The law requires about 80 hours of training, that you are attached to a “real” animal welfare organization, that you get e few hours of continuing education every two years, that you are sworn in by the Court of Common pleas, and that you operate under the control of your County DA (as do other local police).

A victory for animals, right?  Sort of.  All of this “permission” to do the State’s job came with expensive training for which no funding was provided.  It led to the holding and housing of animals in cruelty cases, sometimes for years, with no reimbursement for costs.  At times it has resulted in extremely activist or unqualified individuals (and I stress a very, very few) acting on behalf of the state, botching strong cases or creating bad ones.  The law provides none of the protections from most lawsuits extended to police which has resulted good, careful organizations, including ours, to be on the receiving end of frivolous suits.  So although much good comes of this ability for private enforcement of the cruelty laws, it also comes with some very high costs.

It also means that organizations like mine are attacked on one hand by those saying we do not do enough to enforce cruelty laws, despite our legal, fiscal and organizational limitations.  On the other hand, we are attacked by others for being “activist” for doing anything at all, even when we are explicitly permitted to do so, have sound legal justification, or are even working under the direction of our DA.

Ultimately, there is the question of whether such private law enforcement should be allowed at all.  That is not an “anti-animal” sentiment, it is a valid question.  Please imagine if abuse of children was going unprosecuted so the State told Opportunity House (a great local charity which my family supports) that, in addition to aiding children in need, sheltering, and feeding them, they should also prosecute those who victimize those very same children and the State will step back from doing that job themselves.  I cannot imagine many would accept that abdication by the State, would believe it appropriate for private child welfare advocates to serve the dual role, or would expect a charity to fund the prosecution of State laws.

Yet we do when it comes to animal cruelty.  But it’s not like we couldn’t do things differently.  There are lots of options out there which might improve, or degrade, the quality of cruelty law enforcement in Pennsylvania.  I think it’s time we start talking about what those ideas and options are.  Off the top of my head I can think of a bunch.  A few might be good ideas, I personally think a couple are terrible ideas, some may simply be unworkable ideas.  However, just like the problem with animal control in Pennsylvania, there are some obvious problems which should be addressed in cruelty law enforcement.

To get the discussion started, here are a random sampling of good, bad and potentially terrible ideas:

  • Take away the power of private officers to enforce Pennsylvania law and:
    • Require Counties and municipalities to enforce them and fund the activities.
    • Create an “State Animal Police” force in Pennsylvania which exclusively enforces cruelty laws.
    • Permit Dog Wardens to enforce PA 5511 (the cruelty law).
  • If private organizations will still do it, try doing these things:
    • Fund training and prosecution costs.
    • Require vastly more training along with the funding.
    • Pass a law explicitly extending protection from lawsuits.
    • Provide State legal representation in lawsuits.
    • Create or extend a State insurance pool to cover lawsuit expenses.
    • Upgrade any violation of PA 5511 occurring in a commercial animal setting (kennel, pet store, etc.) to a misdemeanor, requiring direct action by County DA and removing animal advocates from potential conflict of interest.
    • Create an HSPO oversight board with authority to review complaints and remove the accreditation of HSPO’s found in violation.  Depoliticize such a board by having it operate out of the Attorney General’s office by people who know how to oversee police conduct, not under the Department of Ag packed to the gills with agriculture and dog breeder interests, the very interests which seek to weaken enforcement.

Like I said, these are just ideas off the top of my head and not all great.  However, if I can think up some quick ideas for improvements to our system of protecting animals and enforcing the laws put on the books by our elected representatives in Harrisburg, wouldn’t it be worth doing so, even if it’s just for giggles?  It might end the circular firing squad of blame that occurs every time an animal is hurt and the case is ignored/over prosecuted/under prosecuted, is determined not to be a violation in one county but a violation in another, leads to a frivolous lawsuit, or leads to genuine violations of a citizen’s rights.

As always, doing nothing is easier than changing something so let’s not all start holding our breath, shall we?

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First, I think I’ve determined that I am now officially a Radical Moderate.  I’m not sure when being a moderate became so radical or when I started being one (because I sure haven’t always been).  But, damn it, I’m ready to fight for my right to moderate.

Second, someone sent me a question for which I offered up an short (imagine that!) answer and I thought it might be good to share in case anyone else has the same question.  It’s short so it lacks subtlety and context, so keep that in mind.  Man, I can’t even keep the intro short.

Karel – help me understand your shelter’s rationale for not accepting strays, are you all trying to become no kill or is it lack of funding?

My reply: We’ve never been trying to be “no kill” since that is really an explicitly restricted admission model, we are trying to decrease the numbers of euth[anasia]s in the animals we do take in to the point of zero (it may seem a subtle difference but it’s ours).  We do accept strays if they are brought to us and the people are unable to take them to the place(s) which are paid and contracted to take them.  That means we get about 10% as many as we did a few years ago (and that does not include the animals we transfer in from other shelters which came to them as strays).   We stopped doing animal control and dog catching for money because:

  • It was and is, in fact, a euthanasia and disposal contract.
  • It was requiring a subsidy from our charitable donations that removed resources from other animals.
  • Was not done as part of any comprehensive plan to actually improve the problems of strays (since we do not have a honest partner in change in the state or municipal governments).
  • State law put us in a position of sometimes euthanizing healthier, happier dogs to abide by stray holding periods.
  • Those services put us at the mercy of funding government officials and agencies which were our supposed partners on one hand, our client on the other hand, and a regulatory control master on some mutant third hand.
  • We talked to and polled our supporters and staff and asked them what they thought we should do with the level of resources we had.  Of seven choices, animal control ranked 7th. 
  • We were fortunate that there was another organization in our county who was actively pursuing animal control when we were actively looking to divest so we could hand it off rather than cut it off.

The fundamental issue is that organizations can decide what they want to focus on and municipalities and the state don’t get to tell us what our mission is.  Golden Retriever Rescue doesn’t have to defend itself against not taking Chihuahuas.  Cat rescues take cats.  No Kill shelters get to take whatever they want to take.  We decided that we wanted to focus on truly homeless surrendered pets, owned animals with treatable health and behavioral problems we could fix to keep them from being surrendered, adoption services, and those strays which truly faced being dumped on the street, not just as a matter of convenience for a dog warden or to save a city money.  We support shelters which make different mission priority decisions and no more expect them to accept ours than they should expect us to employ theirs.   IF we had unlimited resources, we would likely provide the service because we could afford to do it properly, as opposed to the hack way it is handled in most parts of the state.  We’d also provide free s/n on demand, free adoptions, free vet care, and renovate our crumbling kennels.  But we don’t, so we make mission based decisions on what we should and should not do with the resources we have.  If the government would implement a comprehensive plan to overhaul animal control (we’ve proposed one reasonable way to do it) we might again consider doing animal control, but until that happens we have made the mission and fiscal based decision we have. 

If anyone has any questions about any of this, as always, I’d be happy to answer them personally and in excruciating detail.  Coming (probably) tomorrow: “The Tyranny of Cowardice”

 

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I don’t know about you, but I had an interesting evening last night.  I was one of the keynote speakers (since I spoke first, let me lay claim to being the keynote speaker of the keynote speakers) at an event hosted by the Humane League of Philadelphia (my speaking notes will follow this vastly overlong piece).  The Humane League is a great group which works to educate the public about the issues surrounding food animal productions and promote alternative diet choices. 

Of course, that means that for most of them vegetarianism is a yield sign on the way to veganism, but they are not strident about it, embrace incremental changes, and even invite guilty meat eaters like me to their events.  Needless to say, this was a very different crowd from the ones I usually talk to.  These were not the puppy hugging crowd.  It was more the cow and hen hugging crowd.  And I was there to kick off three other speakers including their executive director with his brand new book (I have got to write me one of those, signing your own book just looks bad-ass), a guy who saves whales by, no lie, placing himself between 50 ton whaling boats, and a woman who is so vegan I’m not sure she swallows her own saliva (I kid, I kid.  But I hope she has a sense of humor because I’m not done yet.  OK, someone just gave me another one: So vegan I’m not sure if she chews her own fingernails. Rimshot!).

If you know me, and you have my sympathies if you do, you know that putting me in front of that crowd was kind of like have a stand-up comic open for a huge stadium rock band.  It was like having a vegan talk at the PA Farm Show.  It was like having Bill Cosby talk to the NAACP.  It was like having a guy who eats meat and is regrettably responsible for the euthanasia of animals telling a portion of the crowd that they behave like fundamentalists.  Actually, it was exactly like the last one.

Yeah, I’m not sure that was the best idea but I made the point that as a vast minority and one which spends our time in an echo chamber which can convince us that we represent a larger portion of the population than we actually do, those of us who are animal activists- animal welfare, rights, liberation, whatever- needed to be gentle with a majority who just don’t see things our way when we try to “convert” them.  That we need to provide options along a continuum of change.  That the messaging is as important as the message.  And that the most effective way of helping animals was by helping people to make the right choices for animals.  I was politely received and managed to clown my way to a couple laughs at Bristol Palin’s expense (that poor girl).  Cue the tepid applause.

Of the people who did not already know me I had exactly three people in the crowd of a couple hundred (or one hundred thousand on the Beck-O-Meter) come up to me to say the really liked what I had to say.  A few more offered me, “Well, that was certainly brave.”  Oh, boy.

But I am a thoughtful guy and the next two speakers, as well as something crazy that happened on the way home, gave me something to think about.  The second speaker was Darrius Fulmer, who is a volunteer crew member for Sea Shepherd, the group that goes out and disrupts the whale hunt every year.  Besides having an awesome name, his story was nuts.  Japanese whaling boats ramming them, Sea Shepherd boats blocking access to the factory boat so the harpoon boats couldn’t load their kills, having a boat called the Bob Barker.  As a result of their actions, the Japanese were not able to kill a single humpback whalein the last season.  That is just freaking epic and downright heroic.  So when he talked about eschewing incrementalism, which I am usually all for, in exchange for direct action, it gave me pause.

The speaker to follow him was Jenny Brown, director of Woodstock Animal Sanctuary and loud and proud animal rightser and vegan activist.  She was perfectly charming and wonderful and, as far as I’m concerned, as pleasantly…[post-publish edit/redaction: right here I used a four word phrase that I associated positively but someone who I know and respect (aww, now you know) who knows and respects Jenny did not take that way.  So, as I've been known to do when my clever shorthand does not do what I intended, I am rewriting the sentence for greater clarity but more length.]…and pleasantly and alternatingly funny and earnest, random and direct, etherial and grounded, and apparently seventy years old.   Lest there be any confusion, I really liked her, respect what she said and does, but I have a fundamental difference of opinion in her approach and some beliefs and I have a feeling we could speak for a very long time, grandly enjoy it, stand up an move over to the next tea setting, and start at it again. [I turned four words into seventy-five and I'm not sure it's any clearer!]   Let me apologize to her now because I’m going to lay into her for rhetorical effect and although she really was nice, genuine and well-meaning, I just need a point to kick and she’s it- sorry

She was the rock star of the evening and living anti-thesis for my talk.  She was straight up on the “meat is murder” tip.  She ran through a vegan best-of medley of the numbers of animals suffering, the type of suffering, the impact on the earth and our health and economy.  All effective arguments and all arguments that make me at least think about my food animal consumption.  But then she painted me, and 99% of the rest of the country who are not vegetarians, let alone vegans, into a corner.  She said that if one believed meat is murder as she did, one was obligated to make the following case when proselytizing for the cause: If you really believe cruelty to animals is wrong, you must become a vegan.

And that was exactly the fundamentalist, convert or die, approach I had just suavely railed against.  As soon as she said that, I realized my face was smiling but my eyes were not.  That’s because unlike Darius politely  commenting on incrementalism and making me stop to think, the first thing I thought when she- repeatedly- pushed the “if you really care” approach, I immediately thought, “Well, no, I guess I must not care since I’m not going to become a vegan today.  I guess I’ll quit my twenty year career in animal welfare which apparently I never really cared about in the first place”.  That was followed by what I will euphemistically refer to as a Cee Lo Green.  I responded this way to her message despite being easy meat for her message, no pun intended, because I’m in the animal business.  I can be swayed much more readily than the average person on the street.  And I was moved to direct a Cee Lo Green at her in my head.  Her comments played well in an echo chamber, but in the big, wide world, it’s a dud.

Of course, that approach cuts both ways.  Here’s another way it can go:  An estimated 2.4 million people die from air pollution each year.  If Jenny really cared about the lives of people, she wouldn’t have flown on a plane to Philly and taken a gas taxi to the speech.  Oh, that’s kind of fun!  How about….Each year 331 million barrels of oil are used to make plastics and synthetic materials in the US alone.  Cotton production is incredibly damaging to the environment and employs the use of child and slave labor in many parts of the world.  If she really cared about the planet and children and slaves, she wouldn’t wear polyester or cotton, she’d wear wool.  Wait, that’s a problem, too, isn’t it?

I won’t do that to her because I’m sure she does care about the environment and children and slaves.  But she is passionate about people eating animals and that is her focus.  She subordinates those other concerns because in her life she has prioritized what she thinks matters.  And that is fine.  But everyone else in the US is also prioritizing what they think is important and if we start on down the path of passing judgment on them for prioritizing other things- like having a job or other charitable pursuits or even just really liking steak- rather than showing them how they can pursue those things and make the change we seek, we truly become fundamentalists.

She talked about using this approach on a guy she met on her plane in to Philly.  “If you really care…”  I will bet her $1,000 that the guy is not now a vegan and that he will be responsible for just as many dead animals today as he was yesterday.  I’ll go further and issue another bet.  I bet if we both talk to 100 random meat eating people and use our approaches, she will get zero vegans converted on the spot and I can get at least ten who will cut meat out of one meal a day for a week.  Her impact: Zero.  My impact, assuming three meat meals a day:  A 3% decline in the number of animals dying on their plates this week.

But her delightfully pious approach made me want to go find the closest Burger King.  OK, only at first.  Then I thought I should spite her by trying to get a few people to go on a one day meat holiday.  How that’s spiting her I’m not sure, but that was the progression in my head.  But then, driving home and being the thoughtful guy that I’ve mentioned I am, I started wondering why I found Darrius’ tale of essentially breaking the law to stop whales from being killed and his take on incrementalism to be so much more provoking than her vegan fundamentalist fervor.  Why did I find him heroic in the face of suffering and her just kind of insufferable?

It’s because with the exception of Eskimos, and I give them a pass since the US and Canada stole their continent, only Iceland, Japan and Norway still conduct whale hunts and they lie about the reason, claiming it’s for “research”.  It’s actually about the outrageously expensive, yummy whale flesh.  The entirety of the planet besides them has decided hunting whales was out of bounds, yet they do it, often illegally in other nation’s territorial waters.  When Darrius takes his direct action it does something.  If Sea Shepherd did not go out they know that 50 humpbacks would be killed.  Because they went out, no humpbacks were killed.  That is a pretty serious increment.  He’s taking direct action on the side of the 99% against the 1% who do something horrible.

But Jenny is in the far less than 1% and is tilting at the windmill of the 99%.  She may not be wrong.  But she has a long way to go before she has the critical mass to effect the change she seeks and while she may boast the purity of her convictions, is she really making the difference Darrius is?  Someday, we may live in a world in which animal farming is a marginal thing.  I think it’s more likely because of massive economic and environmental upheaval than a moral blossoming, but I’m a closet apocalyptisist at heart.  And when that happens, someone like Jenny might be able to block the gates of the last veal plant and save those cows.

But she lives in the equivalent of the whaling world two hundred years ago.  Whales were aplenty and people were still fighting about whether black people were actually human.  No one was talking about not killing whales.  Flash forward two hundred years and we have definitively established that whites aren’t the only true humans and that we don’t like killing whales.  Now, we can begin the long, slow painful movement forward to diminishing, then decreasing, then ending the suffering of animals for food production- not to mention all the other ways they suffer.  I actually expect this to happen since although the scale of the suffering is vastly larger, the acuteness of it has, in fact, decreased.  Just read Upton Sinclair.  A case can be made that moving from a few being tortured to many merely suffering by comparison is progress to the greater end of the Jenny’s of the world.

But ultimately, and I will wrap this up because it is waaayyy to long already, what Jenny is asking is just not realistic and it is not fair to ask people to do something they just can’t manage.  Racism is bad, but I’ll settle with getting a Klansman to just take off the hood.  I’m not going to demand he marry a black woman, too.  Aside from the unlikelihood of finding a willing wife, it would simply be asking more of the Klansman than he could probably manage.  Asking most people to stop eating any animal products is just more than they can do.  People can’t quit smoking and it kills them.  We are weak.  Deal with it and work around it.

I’m thinking all this as I’m driving down the Schuylkill Expressway in the rain at 9:30 and on the riverside lane in front of me a car swerves into the guard rail, flips over and spins around on the roof.  Well, that was unexpected.  I was in the far lane going about 55 MPH.  There were a couple cars in the other lanes and exit 341 had just gone by.  I did a quick calculation and decided not to cross three lanes of traffic, pull onto the shoulder, cross an exit ramp on foot, and go to provide assistance to the driver in the car with racing traffic all around.  That would have been heroic, had I helped the person, or heroically stupid had I been killed in traffic.

Instead, I slowed down, pulled out my cell phone and called 911 and report the accident.  Not heroic but it was what I could do.  Darrius might have done the heroic thing and swerved across lanes to pull the person, who probably would have been some really hot woman or the mayor or something, out of the car, which probably would have exploded in a ball of flames just as they reached safety and his heroic jaw would gleam in the fire light.  Seriously, that dude was cool.

But I would bet Darrius didn’t have three daughters and a wife who would have been pissed to learn that I had been hit by a car trying to save someone who in my case would have been a coke mule or something.  So, I did what I could.

But I wonder if in Jenny’s world the choice for me would have been pull the driver from the wreck or drive on without calling 911, as I saw the other drivers doing, with no third option.  Had that been my choice, I’d have done the unheroic thing and kept driving.  I wouldn’t have been proud if that but given those two choices, that’s what I’d have done.  Instead I found another option which let me do something, even if it wasn’t everything.

When we force people into the position of having to choose all or nothing, whether it is their food choices, politics, how they care for their pets, we can expect that most will choose to do nothing.  They might not feel good about it, but that’s what most will do.  But if we give them some other option, we might get them to do that middle thing and feel good about it.  And when people feel good about something they are willing to try something else that makes them feel good and we can start them down the road we want them on, even if we can’t get them all the way to the next town.

So I am sticking with my thesis of helping animals by gently helping people to walk the right path.  I hope Darrius keeps being awesome and I hope Jenny takes all this with good humor.  She shouldn’t really care what I think, I was just the opening act, but if she does our next meeting will be awkward.

Here are my comments to the Humane League if you feel like wasting a little more time, minus my insanely pithy off the cuff comments and asides that made me go way over my allotted ten minutes.  Oh, and I’m not opening this blog up for comments.  I’ll think up all the speciesism insults I’ll probably get on my own but more cleverly, thanks.

My profound and insightful comments [with a few notes thrown in]:

I’d like to offer a four part apology in advance: 1st:  It’s a bit longer than my time but I speak really fast [Note: I wasn’t kidding, I ran really long], 2nd: I haven’t given this sermon before and have not even done a run through so it may be more a reading, 3rd:it’s entirely self absorbed in my current high horse and 4th: I fear it may be viewed by some as an Bill Cosby style admonishment of my gracious hosts.  I’ll try my best to avoid that and you can check your email if I get annoying.

I may have been invited to speak under false pretenses.  Unlike most of you and my fellow speakers tonight, I do nothing for animals. Let me rephrase that.  Nothing I do is specifically for animals. [Another note: Making a rhetorical point here and giving a speech, not testifying under oath.  Cut me some slack]

I don’t even try to do things for animals.  In fact, my organization, the Humane Society of Berks County, explicitly avoids “doing things for animals”.  That is not to say that what we do doesn’t help animals.  It does and I think that we actually help more animals and do more good for specific animals and animals in general that most.  But while that is our goal, it is consciously not our tactic.

I am no doubt in a room with some True Believers.  People who truly, devoutly, perhaps even religiously believe in the welfare- even rights?- of animals and whose efforts to help them are defined by those beliefs.

I am, however, an Animal Rights Agnostic.  So you invited an agnostic to preach at your church tonight.  Don’t worry, I’m one of the good ones.

What do I mean by that and why do I think you should bear this phrase in mind as you go out into the world proselytizing your beliefs?

Like a religious agnostic (I’m one of those, too) it means I am without knowledge or belief in the higher nature of animals.  I am a natural scientist so in both cases I can appreciate the arguments made and can craft intellectual architecture to support both.  But in a broad sense, I have been provided no proof in one of divinity or in the other of- what do we even call it for animals? A soul?  An inherency of rights?

Before you start checking email, let say I am not a denying of these things.  I am not an Animal Rights Atheist.  At the risk of offending the atheists in the crowd, I believe that denying the undisprovable is as religious in nature as affirming the unprovable.

I know that animals feel pain.  I know they suffer.  I know some use tools, and learn and communicate.  I think there is the slightest chance that at some point in the future some ape, somewhere will open the name book and select “Caesar”, and as they cart me away to the human work camps I’ll think, “Well, I’ll be damned, they do have a soul.”

But chimps aren’t parrots and parrots aren’t dogs and dogs aren’t chickens and chickens aren’t yeast.  No more than I can tell you what the one true religion is, I cannot tell you what version of the animal rights religion is right.  Vegan, vegetarian, animals aren’t property, only eat the ones without eyelids?  Where on the continuum does the hammer fall?

And most people are in my camp.  They just don’t know. 

But like with religion, there are true believers who are certain they know and insist that there is one true way- their way- and that we must all follow their lead.  They loath non-believers but they maintain a special hatred for those who believe the wrong way or are open to other ways.  They are fundamentalists.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed that many of the “Animal” people corresponding with me by email had a common quote attached. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” 

I began to notice that often the people who attached these quotes were the least sympathetic, least agreeable, least kind human beings when it came to people but were absolutely strident when it came to their beliefs about our oppressed non-human brethren.  [One more note: If you have this quote on your email, I’m not talking about you.] All of the qualities they found so delightful and compelling in animals, they themselves lacked utterly when applied to people.  And that stridency  utterly alienated any human being they came in contact with in their supposed effort to make other people as “humane” as they are.

But Gandhi was not promoting equal animal rights.  He believed that decreasing suffering was a part and parcel of a process of changing ourselves and our human race.  His struggle was not merely about forcing the end to oppression, it was about changing the oppressors themselves so that they would choose to stop oppressing.  When oppression is ended forcibly and not by choice, it waits to return.

But the strident true believers use this quotes as a beard to pretend that they are empathetic to all.  They are, in effect, true believers in a religion of their own making.  For them every discussion is an argument and every position is a purity test which none but themselves could pass.

No animal I had ever helped had demanded that help.  No animal I had ever helped had in turn helped another animal.  No animal had protested a lack of aid.  Of course, the same could be said of an infant child.

But I have seen that when I helped an animal’s person- caretaker, owner, whatever- not only did that animal benefit, but so did every animal associated with that person in the future.  That person became more likely to do right by animals in the future.  That person protested in the future when others did not do for their animals.  By engaging the human part of the animal equation there was real change for the animal and that change was sustained.   Like the infant child in distress, the preferred assistance was strengthening the family.

That is why my efforts and the efforts of the HSBC are to help animals by effectively helping people. It is what we do best.  For the Jim Collins fans out there it is our hedgehog.  We believe that most people can be moved to do better, to perform good works- but not all can be converted.  This is not the Spanish Inquisition.  Conversion or death is not an option.  Yet many of us in the animal field treat our interaction with humans that way.

I think we need to decide what our goal actually is.  Is it to demand a world today we will not obtain but feel the self satisfaction of the purity and blindness of our dogma?  If so our lives will be frustrated and we will find our animal rights heaven very empty.  Or do we envision a world we want, recognize that we will only get there in time and by small steps and begin moving in that direction?  Moving the suffering scale for animals by degrees may seem less satisfying than a Holy Roller conversion, but isn’t the impact greater?

If we have people who on the living cruelty scale are a ten and we go with the convert or die – or ignore they may opt- we might get one convert who we can take to zero and nine ignore us and stay at ten.  We go from 100 cruelty points to 90. But what if we give options and don’t demand the conversion?  What if then we get one convert to zero points a few to seven points a couple to five, maybe a three pointer, and a few who stay at ten.  Maybe we end up at 81 cruelty points.  Except we have moved several in the right direction and inertia will help keep them moving.

I will use meat consumption as an example since it tends to be one of the screechier arguments [Note 4: Boy, was that a mistake.].  Most people who eat meat will not stop eating meat entirely.  If the choice they are given is meat or no meat by someone with a poster of slaughtered animals preaching at them, almost all will choose to ignore you.

But if you offer reasons and alternatives that do not rely solely on making a case for abstinence in the name of the divinity of your belief, many will change.  For some it may be that they would prefer to eat less cruelly harvested meat.  Others may respond to the economic and ecological impact of modern meat production.  For some it may be health.  Alternatives work for most people in a way that abstinence does not.  Just ask Bristol Palin. [Note 5: I’m sorry Bristol.  That was funny but totally uncalled for.]

I now eat drastically less meat than I may have in the past, maybe half [Note 6: I think I exaggerated, probably more like 3/4]. For a true believer, that’s half [Note 6.1: 3/4] too much.  But if we could frame arguments that would help people eat half as much meat, be twice the caretakers they are now, to be twice as aware, even if that’s not perfect, the cumulative effect would be staggering.  And we should embrace those who make these small changes with open arms.

That is what religious charities do, or at least good ones.  They do their good works because of a devout belief.  But they accept the help of anyone who wishes to see the benefits of the good works realized.  Most are not true believers and need to have a case made that that work.  Churches and charities who operate this way don’t ask if you are of another faith or if your donation is strictly for a tax write off or if you are pure of heart.  And neither should we.

We should hope to engage the community, make the changes we can make, and hope to make more as we get our hooks into their psyches.  The most effective of us do exactly that, although not without stones hurled by the puritans.  I’ll single out HSUS as being particularly effective at this.

In case after case, they are faulted for cutting the pie in half for everything from puppy mill legislation to humane meat standards.  And time after time they get half a pie, not the whole one.  But the next time that issue comes up they manage to cut the now half pie in half again, and again.  It is effective and has moved the issues important to them forward faster and farther than any all or nothing approach would have.

I have no doubt that HSUS is chock full of true believers.  But they have moderated their tone and approach not because they are selling out but because they know they can sell more of their beliefs and agendas by not being wild eyed lunatics.  At the HSBC we have done the same and the success of our organizations compared to the success of others makes me believe it is the right approach.

So I make the case for embracing the large percentage of Animal Rights Agnostics out there on their own terms and not on yours a little selfishly because it is how I’d like to be approached.  However, I will say that I think most Agnostics, religious of otherwise, would kind of like to have the conversion experience or at least aren’t opposed to it.  I think my wife might hold out hope that the fact that I will go to church with her, know more about the bible than most there, and genuinely find value in much of the Judeo-Christian philosophy means that I’m just in the closet and will tell her I was kidding about that whole agnosticism thing [Note 7: I’m pretty sure I did “jazz hands” here.  I’m not proud of it.].

I think a few of my Animal Rights True Believers friends feel the same when it comes to me and animals.  While I won’t tell them to hold their breath, I also won’t say it’s not in the realm of possibility given the shifts in belief I’ve undergone in my first forty years.  But if they were ever to tell me that I am bad, condemned, evil or corrupt for not bowing down next to them at the altar of their choice, they would not be friends for long, even with the well of sympathy I have for them and their cause. 

That is why I, as one of the many Animal Rights Agnostics out there, encourage you all to lead others gently into your faith.

[Final note:  This is where I thanked them for having me, apologized, and slunk off the stage.  But I am accepting bookings for the continuation of my “Talking Smack About Things Your Audience Truly Believes In” tour!  Coming to a town near you!]

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You may have seen the sudden flurry of indignation surrounding a report on feral cat management released by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  First, let me say this report is mostly a rehash of things you can find throughout the internet, that it is not a well written report and is full of uncited and unfootnoted “estimates” and “assumptions” (good luck getting that level of quality through your dissertation defense, boys), and it appears to be researched and written by a bunch of students.

Despite having pretty much disregarded the entire work in my “Firstly”, it does bear notice that it has a couple particularly stupid and politically tone deaf suggestions, such as shooting feral cats and using “crush traps” to control feral populations.  I guess as long as they don’t video tape the crushing while wearing high heels, those traps might be legal, but really, boys, crushing feral cats?  If anyone takes away a win on this school project, it’s the AVMA, much vilified for not taking more humane positions on things like allowable euthanasia techniques, but relegated in this report to the bleeding heart class by these hard-hearted undergrads for presumably drawing the line at stoning cats.

While this “report” is not worth the litter pan lining it will become, even total absurdities like this will become fodder for someone’s effort to justify something stupid down the road.  “Why did I shoot all the cats in my neighborhood?  Because U of N said it was the way to get rid of them.”  The defense rests.

However, I would like to make the case that we animal people bring this nonsense on ourselves through our unwillingness to ever accept any approach or variety of approaches to solve a problem unless it is the oneapproach we happen to endorse.  By doing so, numbskulls can sling together bits of chaff with their wheat in reports like this with a clean conscience by telling themselves that because we oppose everything unreasonably, even some things that may be reasonable, then anything must be reasonable, even the intellectual turds like cat crushing.

By selectively choosing the reality we will recognize and limiting the targets we address while at the same time applying our thesis universally, we open ourselves up for easy intellectual target practice.  TNR is a great example.  For years, advocates rightly faulted the sheltering community for insisting that trap and euthanize was the only solution and that TNR was not an alternative.  TNR advocates were right.  We were ignoring an option because we (and I was part of that We twenty years ago, although in my defense I was 22) were dogmatic in our attachment to the concept that a feral life was an inhumane life. 

Now, however, the sheltering community is increasingly seeing the light and recognizing that there are alternatives and maybe a feral life is not preferable to a sure death (especially for the cat).  Guess what?  Now the TNR community is increasingly becoming dogmatic that TNR is the only solution.  How funny is that?  They point to limited studies, which even this piece of crap report rightly says are neither definitive nor substantial, claiming that we now have proof of the effectiveness of the golden way of TNR.

Not so fast.  The problem is that TNR folks ignore one big problem.  No matter how good your TNR program is, no matter how much educational outreach you do to the community, right now some people and municipalities just don’t want feral cats around.  It doesn’t matter if they are fed, monitored, sterilized- they just don’t want them.  Period.  That is not unreasonable.

If there are not other alternatives offered to them by the feral advocates and if TNR is the only one on the table, people who don’t want feral cats will not only find another “solution” they will find it in the pages of reports like this and will decide that we (and now I lump the sheltering community in with the TNR advocates since we are viewed by the general public as cut from the same cloth) are not honest partners in finding a solution.  We are instead zealots faithful to our one true religion and accepting no other faith as legitimate. 

The other trick our side plays, generally against ourselves, is the game of bad calculus.  This is a special talent of He Who Must Not Be Named for fear of setting off the tracking hex which will draw his dark power down upon our lowly organizations.  OK, I’m kidding, I mean Nathan Winograd.

His central thesis of “stop the killing” is perfectly acceptable and was, in fact, being widely embraced before he showed up to lay claim to it.  His problem and the problem that helps lead to reports such as the U of N report, is when he starts to use voodoo math to justify his arguments and to vilify all others.  Just like Reagan’s so-called voodoo economics were faulted for working on paper but not in the real world (interestingly by those in his own party, specifically G. H. W. Bush who actually coined the phrase, making the parallel here even more apropos ), the No Kill Lord’s math demonstrably only works on paper, just like many TNR arguments.

You can list the replacement rates within communities all you want but numbers are not animals and people are not subject to biome calculations.  No matter how much you pad the case with side arguments, the calculus is central to the argument and the the calculus only works if you assume equal desirability and equal desire.  But we know that is not the case.  People do not make decisions based on math, they make them based on personal feeling.  And people feel they want kittens and puppies.  Again, that is not unreasonable.  Our desire to save every animal life does not obligate the rest of the world to decide they want a 15 year old black cat rather than a seven week old calico kitten.  It’s all fuzzy math and as soon as you replace numbers on a page with actual, real lives, it isn’t quite so easy.

And if you question that, just look at a different but similar model: human adoption.  People are clamoring to get a baby, but orphanages still have older kids sitting and waiting.  On paper, there are more than enough people to adopt every non-infant child.  But in the real world, if you are ten years old and black, it doesn’t matter if you are a child or a dog, you will have a harder time being adopted than a cute white puppy or baby.  To deny that, even with voodoo adoption economics, is a lie, not a disagreement.

And I won’t even get started on the bad math the Spay/Neuter crowd slings around about two unsterilized cats leading to 400,000 in five years or whatever some still claim.  I just looked out my window and saw grass, not cats.  That one is clearly indefensible.

So, since a snarky slam on what seems to be more an educated school boy prank than a serious feral cat control report has started to morph into a semi-rant about our own side, I’ll distill it down into a couple sentences.

As long as we continue to be dogmatic and inflexible, there will be no one to have a conversation  with about our concerns except those who agree with us entirely, and that is very few of those in the world.  As long as we cling to intellectual and mathematical exercises as the defense against addressing real world issues, in the face of much real world evidence to the contrary of our exercise, we will not be making the change we seek.  We need to be more open, flexible and honest. 

Otherwise, we just end up with more Ag heroes like the U of N boys who will probably spend their weekend hitting on chicks by telling them how much all us animal people attacked them for standing up to us and our stupid, bleeding-heart, Ivy-League, kitten-hugging, won’t-work-in-the-real-world, ideas.

PS- If you read this, Nathan, please don’t unleash the dementors.  I’m just a little nobody.  You’ll show your real power by ignoring me.

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Dear Animal Control,

Hey, baby, how are things going for you?  I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately.  I think it’s that Cee Lo Green song that was just nominated for a Grammy.  That one with the radio friendly alternate title, “Forget You”.

You’ve probably been hearing that I’ve been walking around town talking smack about you.  Saying how you’re no good, that you’ll go with anyone who can afford you, that you don’t care about quality and that you’re in it just for yourself.  It’s true.  I’ve been saying all those things.  I’m sorry, baby, but it’s all the truth.

I know some people are saying to themselves, “Damn, why can’t he get over Animal Control?  Why’s he always going on about you?  Why doesn’t he just move on?”  To mix my metaphors, theythinks I doth protest too much.  And they are probably right.  But, baby, I always loved you.  I still love you.  But I just can’t afford you anymore.  I want to keep you in the style I think you deserve but with my charity cash flow, I just can’t do it.

You know we were good together, baby.  No one did Animal Control better than us.  The best staff, the best equipment, the most comprehensive, detailed, and transparent program in the State.  We even had a big, old manual for municipalities to use.  Now who else could give you all that?  But, baby, I tried to give you an X-Box and all I could afford was an Atari.  And none of my friends in government would help pay for it. 

They were all, like, “We don’t care about all that quality.  Animal Control will go with us without all that.”  And I was all, like, “But Animal Control deserves all that.  That’s how Animal Control should be done.  You can’t just go passing Animal Control around to whoever will take her.“  And then they were all, like, “As long as we get what we want out of Animal Control, we don’t care who’s driving Animal Control around town.”

So, baby, I guess it’s goodbye for now.  I know you know that I put out a plan to win you back.  A plan that would let you be handled anywhere in the State affordably for all of us.  A plan where those of us  who want you done right could chip in a little together and take care of you, like you should be taken care of.  But as long as you’re going to run around with that crowd and let yourself be treated like that, I’ve got to let you go.  It doesn’t mean I don’t love you, I do.  But loving you ain’t cheap.

It’s like Cee Lo said.  Though there’s a pain in my chest, I still wish you the best with a….well, you know how the song goes.

Forever yours,

Karel

With apologies to Cee Lo.  Here’s one more jilted lover…

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If it seems like those in animal welfare keep talking about the same stuff over and over again, you aren’t imagining it.  We have been doing the same things over and over for years, largely with the same- or no- results.  There are many obvious examples. 

 ”Spay & neuter, spay and neuter!” is one sacred mantra.   Yet at the Humane Society of Berks County we are chock full of older, sterilized, homeless animals which were surrendered by their owners.  Not puppies from unwanted litters.  S/N is an answer but it is not the answer.  It certainly isn’t the answer for all the five year old sterlized dogs we have right now.  Yes, S/N is important and I think made a marked difference in many places over the past couple decades, but hasn’t reality progressed some in the past twenty or thirty years?  Does S/N address the reality of the populations actually in many shelters now?

Or the animal control situation in Pennsylvania.  The State convenes meetings to “solve” the problem of shelters refusing strays.  But the fix seems to be simply finding new shelters to take strays or trying to increase the funding.  No talk about the underlying nature of the problem, or that it goes beyond dogs, or that the agency in charge is an extension of a 90 year old model based on agricultural subsidies.  Finding more kennels does not address the fundamental problems with the entire model.

Take your pick: breed issues, adoptions, veterinary care, training, shelter medicine, cruelty enforcement, you name it.  We keep having the same conversation about the same problems, usually not even evaluating what has worked (or not) or changed and why.  It is time to fundamentally change our aproach to how we handle issues involving animals in the US.  And that involves thinking

Instead of asking how we can get more animal shelters to want to take strays, let’s start asking why we have strays, how we can have fewer (or none), who should do the job, what would the perfect world look like and how can we get there?  If we were a school, we’d be facing problems that should cause us to change the curriculla, adminstrators and the teachers.  Instead, we continually rearrange the seats in the classroom.

Speaking of education…if you have eleven minutes, use them to watch this amazing video.  Then take eleven more and think about the implications of this talk for animals and animal welfare.

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For decades, non-profit animal shelters which have accepted strays from State and municipal animal control have been sounding the alarm that the animal control model in Pennsylvania was unsustainable.  For well over ten years, Pennsylvania animal shelters have slowly begun dropping animal control contracts.  What started as a trickle is becoming a flood as animal shelters are limiting acceptance of animal control originated strays, drastically increasing contract fees to bring them even marginally in line with true service costs, or are dropping the contracts altogether.

Now the State convenes a summit to address the emergency.

At yesterday’s meeting the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement brought together the State, municipal governments, and animal shelter directors to discuss the suddenly noticed problem and, presumably, to allow all the “stakeholders” to vent their frustration.  That’s kind of like bringing together Federal banking regulators, Wall Street investment banks, and everyone who can’t sell a house now because of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and try to get everyone to agree it’s a shared problem.

Except it isn’t.  In both cases there are parties responsible for the mess, parties which shirked their responsibility to keep the mess from happening, and one party that just got screwed.  But we’re all in this lifeboat together, right?

As Sue Cosby of the PSPCA rightly said, this crisis is the result of no clear responsibility for animal control- not just dog control but animal control- placed on anyone by law as it is in other states.  The hodge-podge of dog control laws require the State to pick them up but makes no provision for where to take them.  The Band-Aids, the pitiful “grants” offered to shelters, and the regulatory winking and nodding which sometimes give a pass on quality to shelters assisting the BDLE with strays but retaliate against those who did not, have managed to cobble together a support network for the State until now.  But it is all falling apart.

 It is time for comprehensive animal control- not dog control but animal control- reform in Pennsylvania and it must come from the State Legislature.  The legal responsibility to provide for animal control service, or not if that is the choice, on the part of government must be written into law.  The mechanisms for paying for those services must be written into law.  The coercion of charitable organizations to do the State’s job must end and a functional, funded, coherent program must be put in place.

Many animal shelters will want to continue to offer animal control and stray housing services and many who do not now may reconsider if a cogent and fair system is created with clear lines of responsibility.  But the assumption on the part of the State should be that this burden falls solely on their shoulders and on the shoulders of municipal government.  If they get sheltering help, that’s icing on the cake.  But they better be prepared to eat the cake on their own.

I predict that more organizations will raise services fees or drop contracts in the coming years.  This problem will not get better, it will get worse.  The absurdity is that this is a problem with a solution, probably many solutions.  The Humane Society of Berks County has been thinking about this for years and has offered workable, affordable suggestions that would share the burden equitably.  Unfortunately, until now any non-profit which tried to find a solution that shared the burden was accused of trying to get over on municipalities.  Increases in services fees to actually pay the cost of the service were characterized by many municipal leaders as “forced donations”.

So I have one more suggestion to any non-profit offering animal control and dog catching services: Stop doing it.  Continue to take all the strays you can manage to take from the public and your fellow shelters.  Continue to provide cruelty law enforcement.  Continue to aid local and State law enforcement in emergency animal situations.  But stop being the dog and cat catcher.  Because if we have learned one thing from Washington and Wall Street, no solution is found until the bank is burning down.

And even then they’ll probably blame the fire on the working people standing in line to see a teller.

Update 12-3-10: Another domino may fall: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/griffin-pond-animal-shelter-may-stop-accepting-animals-from-municipal-officials-1.1072049

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