I’ve often been asked why we should talk about the problems in animal rescue. Along with this question sometimes comes the insinuation that I am doing more harm than good questioning the legitimacy of some organizations and pointing out the problems in the way they function. Certainly, on the surface it may seem that questioning or criticizing an organization that is dedicated to charitable purposes may harm the animals they are helping, leading to a mistrust in the public eye and a decrease in donations or adoptions. However, I believe the stakes to be much higher than that. I have touched on this subject before in my posts, but it deserves fleshing out, as the case of Rebecca Carey reminds us.
Rebecca Carey was by all accounts a model rescuer. A college student who was devoted from a young age to caring for animals, especially those who were in need, she lived with 5 dogs in her house in Decatur, Georgia. Her parents are quoted as saying ” “Since the second grade when she read the book ‘Throw Away Pets,’ she vowed to be a voice for all animals. Upon placing her first abandoned animal in a permanent loving home in 2003, she volunteered countless hours with rescue networks and animal shelters. There she did what she loved the most: rescuing animals from untenable situations to find them safe, loving homes.” The 5 dogs Rebecca lived with and who killed her were identified as 2 Presarios, 2 Pitbulls, and a Boxer mix. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that mix living as a pack, but what I will say is that clearly this is a case of someone passionately caring, leading with her emotions and not her head. Blaming the victim is not a popular viewpoint, and I say what I do with full realization that Miss Carey was as much a victim of the rescue propaganda network as she was responsible for not thinking through what she was doing. How can I say such a thing? Easily. As a child growing up with such messages as these:
Rebecca has become a symbol of all that can go wrong with rescue. Certainly she believed that these dogs in her care needed just to be loved and they would return the same, that their bully breed qualities would only be manifest in clear defense of her – not to harm her. Fueled by the belief that she was “gifted with compassion” by her boss at the animal shelter, the situation was ripe for something to go wrong, and it certainly did. This kind and loving girl lost her life to the very animals she was trying to love into “wholeness”. I’d like to think that if someone had just told her that she was working against the very real forces of nature armed with nothing but small bandaid she would have taken a different approach and/or rehomed some of her dogs, but the objective part of me realizes it is much more likely she would have laughed at them.
In this day and age, compassion and empathy are the buzz words used by many well meaning organizations to promote their agendas. We are meant to be enlightened, and in being so, meant to stop using animals for food, work, entertainment – and instead we are to “put ourselves in their place”, thinking what it would be like to be on a chain, harnessed to a sled, reared just to be killed for food. Certainly we would not want any of that! Further, we are told that what we would really want is for people to be compassionate and empathetic, to understand us… to instead of eating us for Thanksgiving, feed us a meal. In return, it only makes sense that we would shower the humans with undying affection and gratitude for the rest of our lives. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, what these organizations are skipping over is the undeniable fact that what we are talking about here are animals, not humans. We cannot anthropomorphize their thoughts and feelings and go from there – truly, we are animals, but we are much more so human and most of us have lost much of our connection with our animals selves. If we can identify the animal traits, we are loathe to admit them. Lust, hunger, rage, riot mentality, instinct – those are not “nice” qualities worthy of our time. Unfortunately for us, and the animals that we interact with, they are precisely the qualities that most animals find nice indeed.
Recently we were all smacked in the head with this very real fact when Terry Vance Garner was eaten by his own herd of pigs. A 70-year old Vietnam vet, Mr. Garner began raising pigs as a way to deal with his PTSD, and his family viewed his new hobby and the farm he bought as great therapy. One morning he went out to feed his pigs, some as large as 700 lbs, and when he didn’t return, his family went out to the pen to find him. They recovered his dentures and some other pieces of him, but largely, he was eaten by his pigs. We will never know if he was hurt or suffered a heart attack, went down, and then the pigs ate him – or if they attacked him outright, but in the end it matters not. The pigs were just doing what pigs do when presented with a meal. They ate it. Even though this story horrifies us and provokes the age old sense of injustice of biting the hand that feeds you… it is very unlikely the pigs themselves share that sentiment. Just like the dogs who killed Rebecca, the pigs who ate Terry most likely didn’t stop mid bite and say, “Hey guys- should we really be biting this person? After all, they kept us alive all this time and cared for us…” The thought is absurd, but so is the line of reasoning that if we give to animals they will always give likewise in return.
On a smaller scale, people are often baffled by the behavior problems they have with animals they have “rescued”. Since most rescues and shelters will first shame the person who finds themselves with an adopted pet they can’t handle, often these people live in silence with their new problem animals or quietly discard them. From the cute tiny pup with a history of being taken early from mom, to the unsocialized and neglected 4 month old; from the reserve dog with the aggressive past to the dog sprung from a “death row” shelter with literally no past information available…. all of these animals have behavioral issues and will have in the future many more. Some are manageable, others aren’t. Rescues often present the animal as “fixed”, cured of its’ past by the loving care of the rescue or shelter, and unlikely to have more problems in the future, or at least not ones that couldn’t be fixed by minimal intervention. Very few rescues will be upfront enough to say to a potential adopter – “This pup that is so cute and that you have fallen in love with, yes this one – he was unsocialized for the first 16 weeks of his life and seems to have a genetic tendency to be anxious. He will likely have longterm problems due to those things. The problems may be mild and easily dealt with, or they might not be. Do you still want to adopt him?” Or, to the person who is first in line to adopt an animal that was starved and beaten, it is unlikely anyone would ever say, ” This dog may never be able to trust again due to what he went through. He may always tend to guard his food and treats because he didn’t get enough in his past. He may also decide that the best defense against all things scary is to have a good offense. Be prepared that the love you give him may never be enough and he will remain, frustratingly, locked in a scared mindset.” Wouldn’t it just be a different world in rescue if such things were said? People could make decisions based on fact, not fiction, about the animal they bring into their home – and might just have reasonable expectations that the fairy tale ending they are offering this animal may just not work out as well as they had hoped.
Meeting animals where they are at is an essential part of rescue, and where most animals are at is just being animals. The miracle is how well they relate to us on a daily basis, even though we seem to have a very hard time relating to them. Denying them their ‘animalness’ is akin to denying us our humanness – at best a sad reality and at worst, ending in tragedy. The mantra of rescue needs to be changed to leading with the head as well as with the heart – no more emotional manipulation or living in a fantasy world where all turns out well because all was intended well. We must live in the reality of what we know about the problems associated with denying behavioral problems and genetic tendencies and have the guts to make the difficult decisions required. If we don’t question and criticize, if we stand by while people make bad and worse decisions about the best way to handle animals in rescue – we also become the responsible ones when people are injured and killed. I know that I can’t live with that, can you?