Wednesday, May 02, 2012

I Am Spartacus

There's a well known scene from the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus where, following defeat at the hands of a Roman legion, a general asks the surviving members of the slave army, "Who among you is Spartacus?" Kirk Douglas, playing the titular role, stands and says, "I am Spartacus". Then, out of loyalty to their friend and leader, his comrades rise, one by one identifying themselves, "I am Spartacus", "I am Spartacus" and so on. As a kid most of Kubrick's work went over my head but that movie meant something to me and in particular that scene. To say those words meant certain death but each man stood together side by side no matter the cost. It's a strong message that speaks to what's best in all of us and how difficult it can be to be that kind of person, it's a decision very few people will ever make, not with those consequences. That's been on my mind the last few days since first seeing an invitation to a fund raising breakfast for Defenders of Animals. I've been aware of the D.O.A. for several years and while individuals within the group no doubt have feelings that may not hold in lock step with the group's mission, the organization is not held in universally high regard in private conversations. "Exploitative", "Sensationalist" have been used to describe a group who's name suggests the most altruistic of intentions. For myself, these conversations have tinted my view but I avoid drawing conclusions from anything but primary sources. That invitation was my first primary source. It described two people I consider friends as mindless, blood thirsty hooligans (Hey, one hyperbolic rant deserves another, no?) Recklessly presiding over the future of two pit bull terriers. Katenna Jones and Dave Holden were the targets dujour in this D.O.A's latest effort to whip the rank and file into a furious lather. No one who knows know either Katenna or Dave would see that invitation without a resounding, "What the...?"

                      I'm going to backtrack a little because to understand where I'm going with this I have to tell you what I think the real problem is. Where the attention of Defenders and the like should be focused. Poorly bred dogs, many of them bully breeds, from puppy mills, hobby breeders etc. Individuals and groups with little or no regard for the future of the dogs they're breeding and the unpredictable consequences that often occur because of what they do. The toll is difficult to quantify because it expands beyond the actual monetary impact to real pain and suffering and sometimes death. That's the problem and anyone who's spent any time in a private or municipal shelter sees it every single day. I've been shown the door at evaluations more times than I can remember for explaining to dog owners that their pet store dogs likely came from puppy mills. "But if I didn't buy him, somebody else would have" and the cycle continues and the dogs are unwitting, innocent participants in this most existential of quandaries, "To be or not to be?"

                       The mess is left for others to deal with and that brings me back to the central theme of this entry. Katenna and Dave, both former founding members of the Rhode Island Animal Welfare Coalition, co-workers at the RISPCA and current members of Friends of Fido. Katenna, a graduate of Brown University, published author and shelter worker, was among the first on the scene to help in Joplin, MO following the tornado that destroyed that town. She's a certified behaviorist, worked with American Humane and spear headed an effort to improve the lives of all the animals at the Providence Animal Rescue League, a project I'm proud to say I helped her with. At the RISPCA Dave and Katenna worked together investigating animal cruelty cases doing real, meaningful things to improve the lives of the animals and sometimes the humans they lived with as well. It's not something anyone can do. It requires brains, compassion, and skill. It requires a degree of focus unhindered by the desire to judge. I've known both of these people for years and I ask you, do they sound like the source of the problem to you? They clearly are not and yet the invitations treats them as if they've been commanding a death camp. This in the wake of evaluations that lead to two dogs being euthanized at a local shelter. This is not about kill vs. no kill shelters. That's a book not a dopey blog entry and I'm not the person to write it. I know where I stand on this issue however and while I bring only a fraction of the expertise either of these two do to their jobs, I have logged hundreds of evaluations on dogs at my local shelter over the years. Some of those evaluations were mitigating factors in whether a dog was going to be made available for adoption or considered dangerous and euthanized. Temperament tests are far from perfect and there are different ways to do them, some considered more scientific/accurate predictors than others however, the ones I've seen share a common theme which is fundamentally how a dog responds to different stimuli including play, handling, food and loud noises. It is a snapshot of a dog, in a moment, responding to you (large, heavy male with glasses and a beard) in a small room in a strange, scarey place. Of course these tests aren't perfect, they also are not the source of the problem. Temperament test are typically done with big picture sensibilities in mind. The more information you have on any particular dog the more effectively you can screen applicants for adoption. The more effectively you can screen potential applicants the greater the chance of a successful adoption. Less information, lower likelihood. That's the corollary. Successful adoptions can and often do have secondary effects. Chief among them are that families that adopt one shelter dog will adopt other shelter dogs, I've adopted two, nearly all of my training/behavior friends, including Katenna, have shelter dogs at home as well. Friends, family and co-workers aware of your satisfaction with a shelter adoption may choose the same route rather than go to a hobby breeder or pet store who gets their puppies from puppy mills. Don't be fooled by semantics, puppies in pet stores come from mills, period. No thoughtful breeder leaves the all too important vetting process to a part time employee at a pet store. In the starkest of contrasts, an adoption that goes poorly has the opposite effect and because the connection that dogs in shelters often come from hobby breeders and pet stores (mills) is rarely made, the next dog often comes from one of those two sources and the cycle continues. Awareness and education are good starting points in stifling the flow of unfortunate animals into shelters. Temperament tests like MYM Safer and Assess-A-Pet are another and that means having smart, experienced and compassionate people to carry the tests out, people who understand the big picture. No one who knows either Dave or Katenna could reasonably dispute their intentions or their qualifications. They personify all of these qualities and where they should be the object of our collective admiration, they've been offered up as hapless fodder to otherwise caring individuals who, if they did a little homework, would know as I do that these are good human beings, the best among us in fact.

                      Everyone in the shelter/rescue world can have a discourse about the best way to address the issues associated with dogs in shelters, kill/no-kill etc. There's not a reasonable person I know who would expect anything less. To demonize these two people however, neither with a cruel bone in their bodies, is absurd, dumb and a waste of perfectly well intentioned angst. My message to Defenders of Animals and it's membership is simple, focus your energy on the real problem. We all know what it is so stop with the nonsense already, stop and think. There's not a soul alive who knows Dave and Katenna who'd believe for moment that they're not the good guys. If they aren't then I'm not either, I am Spartacus.