Recently I sat and listened in amazement as a woman told me she was sure that her dog, adopted at a young age, had been horribly abused. Her reasons for believing this? Her dog, a boxer/mastiff cross (now grown) was terribly scared of brooms and men in turbans. “You wouldn’t believe how much he reacts to men dressed in Sikh garb, and I still can’t take out the broom in the house without him barking and running away from it. We’re sure this means he was abused, and it makes me really mad at whoever could have done that to him.” , she told me in all seriousness, leaning in and emphasizing with her voice just how mad this made her. I smiled a half smile, knowing that what I could share with her in regards to the flimsy nature of the evidence she had wouldn’t be received well. After all, like many people I have met, she was proud to have “rescued” Fido from what was certainly a torturous existence.
It used to be that the thing people were proud of about the dogs they owned was either their spotless pedigree or their amazing temperament, two things that spoke to good breeding and good rearing. Time, thought and care had to be put into producing a pedigreed dog and the same into deciding to breed a farm or family dog, based on tangible qualities such as winning championships in the ring and good working ability. These qualities were nurtured in these animals; a dog with many ribbons and a dog good with cattle or children boasted about with pride. Litters were almost always spoken for, their temperaments and structure assured. Then came the advent of rescue animals as the new “desirable”, and not just “desirable”, but nearly legislated. Mantras like “Adopt, Don’t Shop”, and arguments that ask people why in the world would they buy a dog just to have to vet it at considerable expense, when they could have a rescue dog, fully vetted, for a fraction of the price. It just makes fiscal sense, they argue, and along with that benefit, you can also feel good about yourself for saving a life! How in the world could anyone in their right mind think of doing anything else?
Google “sad story rescue” and you will be inundated with pages upon pages of sad stories about animals that organizations have taken on. There are stories about hoarders, puppy mills, animals rescued from near death (including those meant for your plate), burned, tortured, abandoned, neglected, starved, lost…. and on and on. It is enough to break the stoniest of hearts into a million pieces to read of Fiona, the blind and nearly dead dog who was brought back to life, and Sasha, the old dog left in a shelter because no one wanted her. Whole sites are dedicated to the plight of puppy mill dogs, dogs used in lab testing and “Inspirational Stories about Dog Rescue” – some stories made even more emotionally powerful by being written in the first person… the animal tells his or her story directly to the reader. Now, before we go any further, it is important that you understand that I am not saying that many of these stories are not legitimate, nor that we shouldn’t care. However, I do find it interesting, even concerning, that there are SO many of these stories that nearly every person who has adopted an animal has one.
I suppose it makes sense on one level that if an animal finds itself in a rescue or shelter it is most likely because some misfortune has befallen it. Following that logic, it would make sense that the majority of stories that are told about the animals in rescue or in a shelter would be sad. People who run rescues and those who support them constantly talk about how their faith in humanity is shaken every day, how the people they deal with all the time are at best irresponsible and at worst psychopathic. It seems, however, that there is a disproportionate number of animals in care and up for adoption who have been victims of the latter as opposed to the former. Does this mean that most people out there caring for animals are really horrible? Does this mean that on every block in every town there are people who get their jollies from hurting animals? The thought in itself is horrific, but I have to say it doesn’t jive with my experience and the experience of people I know. So, if it isn’t true that every second person is a secret animal torturer, then where are all these horrible stories coming from? The answer is twofold: 1) The stories are made up or exaggerated and 2) The rescues/shelters are more apt to step forward for these animals than ones who don’t have very sad stories and in many cases with seek them out. Can that really be true? Why in the world would would rescue organizations do such things?
The answers go full circle back to the story of the lady telling me in earnest that her dog was most certainly abused by a turbaned man wielding a broom. It is a well known, yet unsaid fact in the rescue world that animals with the saddest stories, the most extreme and serious stories, will usually not have to wait in line for a home, nor will there be trouble getting donations in for that animal. So much of rescue is emotional manipulation, and there is no greater weapon in a rescue’s arsenal than to be able to cite that this animal in their care was near death, and that that animal available for adoption was rescued from a certain, painful demise. It is also a well known fact in rescue circles that the most successful rescues are those who are led by, or who employ people who understand how to manipulate people into either giving money, fostering and/or adopting. This is not to say that people aren’t willing to do this on their own, but as we discussed earlier, rescues need to have ongoing injections of cash, volunteers and willing adopters in order to keep operating. When people who are able to present these needs in a easily accepted package meet with people who strongly need to be a part of something bigger than themselves and who don’t want to critically think about what they are doing… a mutually beneficial marriage ensues. There is unlikely to be more of a great motivator that the manipulators can employ than a sad back story on an animal. As we have seen, regular people are moved to rage and extreme action when presented with such stories, accompanied by before and after pictures and a clearly grateful animal presented to them. “We need your help!”, these people are told, “Without you, more animals will suffer!”
Posters and pictures like the ones above are in abundance in rescue, and depending on the organization involved, there is often no room to dispute or question any of the information. As most rescues have at least one person in leadership who is adept at emotional manipulation, youtube videos with sad music and guilt-inducing text abound, as do articles such as these: Peta , Hull’s Haven Border Collie Rescue . Note the language used throughout in these articles, language designed to place large amounts of blame, citing “…animals who were once discarded like old shoes by someone who didn’t care enough to find that new “pet-friendly” apartment or to put time into training them or who couldn’t afford or couldn’t be bothered to pay for veterinary care when their animals became ill or injured.” (Peta article) and “… wanted to share “a sad story with a happy ending.” He definitely caught my attention when, a few paragraphs in, he roared: “First, I would like to mention that if there is a hell, that person or persons responsible for abandoning three 10-week-old pups go straight there!” ” Here we have people lambasted for not caring enough to find proper housing, discarding their pets like “old shoes” and others sentenced to hell for abandoning pups. In the mind of the reader, it is clear that there is never a justifiable reason for the actions of these people, nor could there ever be understanding or empathy for such actions. Perhaps there isn’t in some cases, but this thinking transfers quickly and simply to other situations. Abused children abusing animals, people caught in tough circumstances with no option (remember that most rescues and increasingly, shelters, are not open-admission), etc. It’s clear. Rescues are good, honest and caring – while inundated with sad, horrible stories day after day, they struggle to remain available to the animals in need, animals left in need because of the horrible, uncaring people that abound in society. This is so true that these organizations will go to any length – to any country, to any backyard, to any remote community to find these stories and present them to the public.
Simple psychology tells us that some of the most effective leaders in any organization are those who lean a bit or a lot towards being psychopathic. These people tend to thrive in positions of power, not because they don’t understand emotion (as popularized in movies), but because they understand emotion all too well. Key Sun, Ph.D. wrote in an article for Psychology Today that even though psychopaths are found often in leadership roles, they are detrimental to the well being of others. He goes on to note that due to their great understanding of the complexity of human emotion they are able to manipulate people easily and that people often mistake the psychopath’s ” impulsivity and unscrupulousness as being courageous and determined, and mistake their self-inflation and self-admiration as signs of self confidence.” due to their superficial charm. By the time people realize that they are being used, they are often so involved that it is very difficult to extricate themselves from the relationship or they find that it is just not in their best interests to do so. Rescue organizations are no different, and in fact are much more likely to be run in whole or in part by psychopaths due to the high need for emotional manipulation in the day to day running of the operation.
Again, as in many situations, critical thinking is the best defense against being used for the gain of someone else here. Who stands to benefit from sad stories the most? The person saddled with the emotional and physical manifestations of the animal’s past life that is often ongoing – sometimes for life? Or is it the organization who gets the most media attention, funds raised, and acclaim by the public for the saddest stories? Even though it is clear who benefits the most, it is important to recognize that the responsibility for continuing this cycle rests equally on the public and the rescues. As long as the public thirsts to be a part of the saddest, most tragic stories, the rescues and shelters will continue to capitalize on them while the regular, run of the mill animal waits.