Vegas, Baby!

Warning:  This will be a looong post today, but it’s been a big week and I feel compelled to give my thoughts space to breathe.  They are wide ranging but thought-provoking and hopefully inspirational.  So here goes…

When I decided to quit my nice, well-paying and relatively comfortable day job to pursue my dream of a life philanthropy and altruism, I was already plugged into the deep reserves of righteous indignation that lay buried beneath the shale of my day-to-day life.  Working in human resources, even for a non-profit, one occasionally brushes up against a situation that inspires a mild sense of moral outrage, for instance when someone exaggerates a work injury or more commonly, gets themselves fired for attendance violations so they can collect unemployment and lay about sucking the teat of the system all day.  See, I’m getting fired up already.

In the HR scenario, I might be motivated to do an extra thorough job in an investigation of misconduct, or be extra vigilant about an employee’s attendance record in order to protect the company from being taken advantage of, but also because I enjoy vanquishing evil, and winning an unemployment appeal makes me feel a little like a minor superhero.

But in the grand scheme of things, I’m not passionate about who milks the system and who does not.  I’m concerned, and annoyed, but not passionate.  My husband on the other hand, who is a management-side labor and employment attorney, is passionate about these issues.  He fights for companies like he’s fighting for his own family, and when he’s in front of a referee or judge, or drafting a motion for dismissal, his righteous indignation spews heavenward like a big black geyser of crude.

While righteous indignation may be useful in collective negotiating a union contract, it’s slightly less useful when negotiating with a car salesman.  My husband would argue this point, citing the fact that we manage to get the cars we want, but I counter that strategic finesse is the better approach, particularly if the outcome is basically the same.

Moral outrage, in other words, has its time and place.  For me, that place is pure motivation.  Am I morally outraged by the failure of pet owners to sterilize their dogs and cats?  You bet I am.  Am I morally outraged when someone has a baby and decides that their beloved family pet is suddenly too much work and dumps the bewildered animal at a shelter?  Yes, of course.  But will the display of that outrage change the hearts and minds of the public?  Nope.  It sure won’t.

The outrage inspires me to fight, to champion this cause, but I can’t let it overtake my compassion and reason.  After all, I didn’t spay the first cat I had twenty-five years ago as a young adult and when she got pregnant and had five kittens, I took them all to my parents’ farm.

The most difficult thing about fighting for a big, complicated cause is feeling like you are in it alone.  The combination of idealism, passion and helplessness can do strange things to a person.  It can make you feel evangelical to the point that you find yourself proselytizing about the wisdom of trap-neuter-return programs to strangers at cocktail parties.  It can make you drive five hours to adopt a blind shelter dog whose euthanasia date has been posted on the pound website.  Worst of all, it can sadden you so deeply that you find yourself questioning the basic moral fiber and future of mankind.

There is strength in numbers, and there is also validation, and when you’ve got the numbers and validity on your side, you’ve got hope and you’ve got the power to make change.

For those of us who champion causes related to animal welfare, like pet-homelessness, there is reason to feel somewhat overlooked and even marginalized.  Consider that less than 3% of American charitable giving is made to animal causes1, and that scant 3% includes “environmental” causes as well.

Take the glass is half empty view and you might come away with the discouraging feeling that Americans simply don’t care about animal welfare, which might feed into that moral outrage and thus derail your efforts to bring about change.

Ah, but as any optimist (such as my husband) will tell you, the glass is also half full.  To benefit from this viewpoint, you must recognize that this percentage of giving represents almost 7 billion dollars, the bulk of which – more than 80% – comes from individuals, not foundations or corporations, in the form of donations and bequests2.

Why should anyone concerned about animal welfare feel a sense of optimism about a measly 7 billion dollar slice of a 300 billion dollar pie?

To find out, I traveled to Las Vegas last weekend to attend the 2012 Best Friends Animal Society No More Homeless Pets Conference.  You may know Best Friends from the Animal Planet “Dog Town” program, or as one of the shelters that took in and rehabilitated a large number of the abused dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s dog-fighting operation, renamed the “Vicktory Dogs”.  Or perhaps you’ve seen their “Fix at Four” campaign on TV, the cute and cheeky ads that encourage pet owners to spay and neuter their pets at the onset of adolescence before they have a chance to breed unwanted puppies and kittens.

But what you might not know is that Best Friends pioneered the no-kill movement, takes in the neediest of animals (including an amputee horse who was given his own special barn and prosthetic leg with the help of a private donor), and has over 1000 network partner shelters and rescues across the United States.  Best Friends does not hide from the horrific realities of animal abuse, but they also do not bombard the public with images or messages too disturbing to contemplate.  Their approach over the last four decades has been positive, deliberate, and hopeful.  Indeed, their tag line is “Our mission is to bring about a time of no more homeless pets®”.  In that mission statement you understand their sense of purpose, and hopefulness, but also their understanding and acceptance of the glacial pace of change.

Better than anyone in the animal welfare community, Best Friends has embraced the idea of collaboration and support.  To put together a conference that brings together the red-headed step-children of the philanthropic world is genius.

If the dog with the Best Friends logo “tattooed” on his behind or the throngs of young, fresh-faced women in Tevas and t-shirts festooned with paw prints didn’t alert me that I was surrounded by my brethren, then certainly getting to attend seminars such as “Increasing Cat Adoptions” and “Too Young to Die: Saving Neonatal Kittens and Parvo Puppies” sealed the deal.

As Kumbaya as it might seem for a bunch of animal-loving do-gooders to assemble around topics like “Cat Mojo for Cat Rescuers,” there is a fair amount of competition, distrust and bickering in the animal welfare community.  Even the “no-kill” movement has its detractors among animal welfare advocates who feel that no-kill shelters are unrealistic and exclusive.

But Best Friends optimistically chugs along, embracing all, leaving no heart untouched by their earnestness or mind unchallenged by their absolute authority and experience in all matters related to the issues of pet homelessness.  By hosting this conference they provided an opportunity to the many isolated, underfunded and overwhelmed organizations to collaborate, learn, support and inspire one another.  Rather than focus on the many ugly, horrifyingly depressing aspects of this issue that would inflame and outrage, Best Friends chose to present topics that inspired us toward innovation and challenged our excuses and exposed the pitfalls in our thinking.

If I hadn’t attended the conference I wouldn’t have met a man named Tim Crum, a Squirrel Hill native who once worked for our very own Animal Rescue League and who now makes his living teaching animal welfare organizations all over the country how to fundraise.

I wouldn’t have learned about the incredible numbers of puppies and kittens that are routinely killed in shelters because they are still of nursing age or are considered too “fragile” due to their young immune systems to survive the shelter environment, or the innovative solutions that shelters are implementing to save their young lives.

I wouldn’t have learned that Los Angeles has implemented the country’s largest no-kill city initiative, or that Austin, Texas became a no-kill city due to the initiative of one poised and determined young veterinarian who revived an all-but-forgotten program called Austin Pets Alive.

In other words, I would have felt a lot less hope.  I would have felt very alone.

The conference ended too quickly for me.  I felt that I had so much more to learn and many more people to meet.  Nevertheless, the four days left me feeling energized, optimistic and confident in the WearWoof mission.  I didn’t come across one person who was at the No More Homeless Pets Conference because they needed an excuse to come to Vegas, or because they were being put up on the company dime.  I didn’t see one person distracted by email during a presentation or hear a single complaint of boredom or discomfort.  Some attendees were staying in hostels instead of hotels.  Some packed snacks rather than buy them at resort prices.  Some posted on the message board looking to bum rides back to Utah.  One woman from Canada who runs a small death-row pet rescue, utterly compelled by duty and passion, took time between sessions to go to Las Vegas animal control and free a couple death-row dogs to take back to Vancouver!

Ellen Jefferson, the no-kill program resurrecting veterinarian of Austin Pets Alive said, “Perfect is the enemy of life saving.”  She was describing the early days of Austin Pets Alive, when their plan was still coalescing and their resources practically non-existent.  They could have waited until everything was “perfect” – until they had the right space for a shelter, the right number of volunteers, the right amount of money – but that day may never have come, and each day that passed waiting for “perfect”, would have meant that healthy, adoptable dogs and cats would have been killed.  So they just took the animals.  Took as many as they could.  “Just give us the animals,” they said.  “We’ll figure something out.”  And they did.

In fact, everyone I met at the conference was saving lives first and “figuring it out” second.  The sense of urgency was palpable.  There were no five year or ten year strategic plans.  They were too busy working about today.  Many of the attendees were running volunteer-based private rescue groups with little or no formal fundraising or marketing plan in place.  No one was in it for the money.

Thus, I left Las Vegas, my faith in humanity renewed, my righteous indignation in check, perfection no longer the goal.

To have the opportunity to add to that relatively “tiny” 7 billion dollar piece of the charitable pie, to support these amazing people in the heart-breaking, selfless work they do, even a little bit, is a tremendous honor.