Herding Cats

"Dancing Sea Cats" drawing by BZTAT
"Dancing Sea Cats" drawing by BZTAT

I saw this statement posted on the Facebook page for the rescue group Rescue Ink (popularized by the National Geographic Channel TV show):

“Real Rescues don’t talk, they just Rescue.”

The statement was posted with a sign lamenting people who criticize the group’s tactics.

While I applaud the efforts of Rescue Ink and other volunteers who do the “in the trenches” work of animal rescue, I think that this sort of attitude is not helpful. It fosters a condescending attitude towards people who do supportive efforts that may not be in the trenches, but are extremely important to rescue efforts nonetheless.

Browbeating and “in your face” tactics may be called for in some circumstances to deal with problematic people who mistreat animals. But in many instances, more collaborative and understanding approaches can help people who are simply unaware that they have better options.

Certainly, browbeating others who want to help animals in whatever way they can is not helpful.

I have done a minimal amount of rescue, but I tend to focus my efforts on education and public awareness. I talk. These things are VERY important, I believe, to improving the lives of animals in my community and globally. Most rescue people do not have the skills that I have in these areas, so I believe that I can support their efforts with my unique skills.

But often the “in the trenches” crowd criticizes me, as does the statement from Rescue Ink, because I am talking and not rescuing like they do.

In creating Okey’s Promise, I have encountered both praise and criticism. Praise has come from those who appreciated my creative approach to connecting the dots between animal abuse and domestic violence. Criticism has come from a variety of people, some of whom I would have expected to embrace the Okey’s Promise mission.

The whole process has been intriguing to me.

I have learned one thing. Despite a few unifying principles, there is often a wide chasm between groups of people who dedicate themselves to animal and child welfare causes.

People who care about animals can be very passionate for causes related to animal welfare. They often become highly emotional for their cause, and they feel outraged when others do not share their passion.

People who involve themselves in the actual rescue of animals on an ongoing basis face daily hardship and emotional turmoil, finding themselves face to face with the pain of animal neglect and abuse. They engage in significant personal sacrifice, giving their time, money and emotional resources to saving creatures who did nothing to deserve their castaway status in society.

I applaud the conviction of people who do actual animal rescue. I deeply appreciate their efforts. When their passion translates into condescension of others, however, it can diminish the value of the great work that they do.

It is hard to know where to draw the line. Certainly, we do need to express outrage at outrageous things.

The realization that Canton’s Animal Control Program was leading to the euthanization of healthy feral cats needed to be exposed. The sudden change in policy that led to the deplorable devastation of the Loews Hotel feral cat colonies needed to be criticized and protested. The upending of New York City’s St. James Church’s successful TNR effort with a cat colony needed to be spotlighted. (Luckily, the Catholic Diocese had a change of heart with that colony.)

But criticism alone does not bring change. Doing actual rescue work alone does not bring about change. Working only with the people you like and excluding or disparaging others does not bring about change.

Building coalitions and collaborations brings about change in a systemic way that leads to longstanding and sustainable programs.

Building coalitions requires talk and compromise. It is a messy process. Coalitions are not effective if they only include those with whom you agree.

In Canton, we have achieved the goal of much of our advocacy efforts. As of May 1, 2012, Canton’s controversial Animal Control Officer, Phil Sedlacko, isĀ  no longer filling that position. Furthermore, there are no immediate plans to replace him, as far as anyone can tell. Canton City Council has agreed to form a committee to explore and develop a TNR program for feral cats, and the City Health Commissioner, who initially was opposed, is now working with the committee to address health concerns of such a program. The Stark County Humane Society has agreed to stop accepting feral cats for euthanasia, and they too are working actively with the TNR committee.

The city is unlikely to provide funding towards a TNR effort, which will be an impediment. But they have granted our wish – there is no longer a trap-remove-euthanize program for feral cats in Canton.

The Canton City Council, the City Health Commissioner, and the Stark County Humane Society have all been the subject of criticism of animal advocates. They have listened and made some changes. Now it is up to the animal advocates to guide them in developing a new approach to animal welfare.

Can we do it?

Herding cats is easier than coordinating a diverse group of people like we have in Canton. Advocates have criticized other advocates, and have engaged in parallel efforts that do not support an over all coordinated effort. No one is perfect, so the criticisms likely have varying degrees of validity. Mistrust and personal differences between individuals has been present in Canton for a long time. I have not been immune to it myself.

The question is, will we all be able to sit down together and make a coordinated TNR program happen? Will we be able to set aside competing agendas and personal differences in order to make this dream we all have a reality?

It is my hope that we will. The only way it can happen is if the program brings people together for the benefit of the cats.

A program that separates us is doomed to fail.



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