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After Puppy Doe: Imagining change and possibility in the prevention of cruelty to animals

After Puppy Doe: Imagining change and possibility in the prevention of cruelty to animals

As the red-line train rocked its way toward Braintree last Thursday, where I was headed to catch a ride to join others in front of the Dedham Superior Courthouse for the latest court hearing on the Puppy Doe case, I passed time scanning an abandoned copy of the Metro newspaper.  With my thoughts focused on the case of Puppy Doe, my mind holding the media images of her tortured body, and my heart heavy by the state of prevention of animal overall, my eye caught a blurb about a legislative effort to expand the legal right to buy firecrackers in Massachusetts. 

Somewhat bemused, I wondered: Just how do firecrackers become a legislative issue on Beacon Hill?  How does the “need” to purchase firecrackers become of such social relevance that it consumes valuable public resources of time and money in simply becoming a legislative issue?  Placing my musings on social priorities in context, according the Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARLB), the League alone investigated “about 1,500 cases” of animal cruelty in 2012. Yet, according to Massachusetts lawmakers like Senators Mark Montigny and Bruce Tarr, both of whom recently commented on the state of animal cruelty law in Massachusetts: “We so rarely have legislation on this floor to help our voiceless pets…Every person that I know with an ounce of humanity cares deeply about these harmless creatures. And yet, the law is inadequate. We do not have a body of law protecting animals”  and “Unfortunately I don’t think there’s been the kind of sensitivity to these crimes that there’s need to be,” …I don’t think animals have been seen as the kind of priority as they should be in the array of legislative issues that are before us.” 

I often wonder how this can be the situation in a city with two prestigious, and very wealthy, animal protection and advocacy organizations like the ARLB and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA)?  The MSPCA, the organization responsible for advancing legislative issues that address animal welfare and protection, had a total operating revenue $42,505,008 and held additional non-operating assets worth over $58 million in 2012. Net assets for the ARLB were even higher, just under $97 million in the same year.

So, I also wondered about the individuals/organizations who successfully articulated the social benefits of legalizing “sparklers and other small-scale forms of fireworks such as party poppers, glow worms and toy pistols…” (Metro/Boston/March 27, 2014. Page 2) in such an effective way as to move a bill through the Massachusetts House?  What is the size of the “party poppers and glow worm” lobby pushing for creating legislation on toy sparklers?  And, is there a constituent base loud enough, funded, and organized enough to move a bill on sparklers and glow worms toward becoming codified law in Massachusetts? 

Pondering the vagaries of politics and public policy making over party poppers brought me back to the unfortunate state of prevention of cruelty to animals in the Bay State.  Massachusetts recently fell to the very last place in the “top-tier” category published by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), dropping from #15 to #19 out of a total of 19 states in that category (For the most recent ALDF report where Massachusetts’ animal protection laws are ranked below those of Louisiana, West Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee, Virginia, Kansas, and Florida, see: http://aldf.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/2013-United-States-Animal-Protection-Laws-Rankings.pdf).   Additionally, my mind recalled the disheartening observations on the prevention of cruelty to animals by Massachusetts lawmakers that were reported in the press only a few months ago, immediately following the news of Puppy Doe ( http://backbay.patch.com/groups/announcements/p/reflections-on-puppy-doe-animal-cruelty-and-freezing-for-a-cause_2af28472).

So, I have to question what has made being a voice for defenseless animals on Beacon Hill so difficult, particularly in an animal loving society that spent over $55 billionlast year on our companion animals? According to the U.S. Department Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost three-quarters of U.S. households include pets. That amounts to approximately 218 million pets. 

Beyond the fact that we depend on companion animals to guide us when we cannot see, assist us when we cannot hear, and recognize that they can reduce anxiety, loneliness and isolation, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as blood pressure, our loving relationships with animals have also reshaped the configurations and values of our families.  According to 2005 research conducted by the Pew Research Center on social and demographic trends, a full 85 percent of dog owners considered their dog a “member of the family.”  A 2011 survey of pet owners conducted by Kelton Research found that 81 % of pet owners treat their dogs as members of the family and 77 % talk about their dogs as if they were human family members. A telling 73% of those surveyed would choose their pet over a human being if they were limited to having only one friend.  The survey also found that 90 % of respondents reported that, should they face divorce, they would fight more passionately for their pet than for money.  Our love of animals also translates into product and business loyalty and has the potential to make or break a political campaign. The Kelton study found that 66 percent of pet owners indicated they would not vote for a candidate who is perceived as not liking pets!

So, it’s not surprising that more and more animal lovers are questioning; “Who’s is Really Standing for Animals?” ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-j-winograd/peta-aspca-hsus-shelters_b_2696911.html)  while social media explodes with news reports and images of animals being set on fire, blinded, skinned alive, poisoned, shot, hung, dragged and ripped apart alive by perpetrators who are too often released back into society after something that looks akin to only a legal scolding.   Facebook pages like https://www.facebook.com/pages/Private-Citizens-for-Pets-in-Peril/165585960161300and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Animal-Compassion-Everywhere/587875951237623  are only two such sources that have made us more aware that something is desperately wrong in our ability to prevent cruelty to animals, despite pouring increasing hundreds-of-millions every year into organizations that claim that as their mission.

At the same time mainstream media also increasingly casts a questioning eye on the practices of some of our most prominent animal “protection” organizations and their leaders, as they continue to successfully collect hundreds-of-millions of dollars every year while smaller independent efforts to rescue and protect animal struggle to survive or close: 

Considering meaningful change toward building a culture that better protects animals from wonton human cruelty and neglect, change that moves beyond animal organizational leaders noting that “animals don’t vote” and avoiding accountability by suggesting that if only their donors, volunteers, and animal lovers everywhere would simply engage their legislators and vote, I believe the problem is much bigger.  I believe that real culture change toward protecting animals begins with our largest multi-million dollar animal organizations trying to rebuild trust with the public, including visible leadership that removes entrenched executives when public trust is breeched.

Additionally, the animal loving public must begin to question the philosophies, practices, leadership, and overall product of our largest animal “protection” organizations. We have historically placed our trust (and dollars) in these organizations to create the changes we want to see on behalf of animals. There really is no excuse for what we are seeing before us (including tepid laws that rank us in last place) in a wealthy nation of animal lovers where only five of our largest animal protection organizations together saw approximately $900 million in a single year, while managing extensive organizational infrastructures including professional public communications departments, government affairs offices, very successful (and busy) fundraising arms, and sophisticated state-of-the art veterinary science facilities. 

Even more frustrating is that across various scientific disciplines researchers have concluded that animals are conscious beings; so much so, that the international scientific community drafted a formal declaration of consciousness ( http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201208/scientists-finally-conclude-nonhuman-animals-are-conscious-beings). In essence, science accepts that human and non-human animals are not equal. Rather, they are equivalent.

Creating a culture change and society that respects, honors, and better prevents cruelty to animals, requires bold leadership – leadership that will take risks based on what we already know about defenseless creatures and the human capacity for cruelty often inflicted upon them.  As responsible animal lovers and donors, we must expect that our largest animal protection organizations aggressively pursue (and produce) change in laws, policies, and guidelines that reflect the rights and protection of conscious non-human beings.

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