On December 19th, I was among over 50 others who stood in front of the Superior Court in Dedham, Massachusetts to bear witness to the incomprehensible; the arraignment of a man accused of torturing a puppy, including pulling her legs apart at their joints and slicing her tongue down the middle.
Standing on frozen feet, aside total strangers for two hours in a cold wind mid-week before the busiest holiday of the year, leaves endless moments to ponder: What am I doing? Why are we all here? Why do we feel we must do this? Obviously those who gathered on the street “care” about protecting innocent animals. Yet, according to public opinion polls, so do many millions of other Americans who, at that same moment, were warm in their places of work or possibly shopping, or even decorating a tree a tree in front of a crackling fire.
It dawned on me as we stood shivering, chanting, and waving in response to the constant sound of horns honking in support as drivers cheered and jabbed their thumbs skyward; this day was less about caring human hearts and more about an underlying lack of trust. If we trusted that justice for a tortured puppy would be the likely outcome of the legal proceedings taking place in that courtroom that day, I suspect most of us would likely have been anywhere else, preferring to do anything else. Fortunately, the judge did deliver legal justice when she exercised her prerogative to deny bail to the man accused of unthinkable repeated assaults on a completely innocent and defenseless creature.
However, any question among the general public that an animal cruelty case may not see legal justice inside a Massachusetts courtroom was substantiated months earlier in the observations made public by several Bay State Senators and Representatives. They referred to our current laws as weak and ineffective, and “not tough enough to protect our animals.” They called them “woefully outdated” some dating back decades, even as far back “as the 19th and early 20th centuries.” Speaking in response to the Puppy Doe case, and in strong support of major legislative changes to the state’s tepid and ineffective animal cruelty laws, Senator Bruce Tarr told the press; “Unfortunately I don’t think there’s been the kind of sensitivity to these crimes that there needs to be. I don’t think animals have been seen as the kind of priority as they should be in the array of legislative issues that are before us.” At that statement, we must ask ourselves if anyone has been the “voice” for those who have none on Beacon Hill?
But the one comment that has lingered most in my mind, a statement that specifically identified the inadequacy of efforts to actually prevent cruelty to animals via the courts in Massachusetts, was a comment by Senator Mark C. Montigny. He said; “We so rarely have legislation on this floor to help our voiceless pets…We shouldn’t wait for a disaster story like what has happened recently. Every person that I know with an ounce of humanity cares deeply about these harmless creatures. And yet, the law is inadequate. We do not have a body of law protecting animals.”
Are laws alone enough to prevent cases of cruelty, such as the case of Puppy Doe? I don’t think anyone would argue that, including the legislators who made clear why Massachusetts’ laws, despite an impressive early history of animal protection efforts in the state, are currently ranked lower by the Animal Legal Defense Fund than those on the books in Virginia, Tennessee, Kansas and West Virginia (http://aldf.org/custom/rankings/ALDF2012USRankingsReport.pdf). Hopefully legislative action initiated and advanced by these political leaders will eventually improve that ranking.
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) was founded in 1868 and is the policy making entity responsible, through its Animal Protection Division, “for better animal-protection laws nationally and statewide …”. Additionally, it operates a world class veterinary medicine facility – Angell Animal Medical Center.
MSPCA is a beloved statewide institution, if we consider the public’s generous donation of volunteer time and financial support as a barometer. For example, according to the MSPCA 2012 annual report, the Walk for Animals last year netted more than $275,000. Similarly, the 2012 Spring Gala raised more than $515,000, the Hall of Fame dinner generated more than $363, 000, the “Pet Party” event raised nearly $30,000, and the “Run Fur Fun” produced more than $30,000. At year’s end, the MSPCA had a total operating revenue $42,505,008 and held additional non-operating assets worth over $58 million in 2012, a notable increase of over $10 million from 2011.
I do not claim any expertise in the areas of soliciting, every year, many millions of charitable dollars from the public. I also have no experience in managing highly political and bureaucratic institutions with professional public communications staff, veterinary science and legal departments, and a large cache of free labor provided by caring volunteers. Nor have I ever operated in the world of high finance within multi-million dollar charitable organizations. However, as a regular donor and volunteer for numerous animal protection organizations around the country (who has also rescued and cared for several animals over the years) and as an educated activist willing to stand outside on freezing and heat baked streets with dedicated others, it seems to me the gold standard in measuring the overall success of any mega-animal protection organization that includes the words “rescue”, “humane”, or “prevention of cruelty to animals” in its name should be how close they actually come each passing year to making their mission no longer socially necessary. In other words, their success should be measured by how close they can come to closing their doors for good, rather than expanding their assets by many millions of dollars each year.
On at least one point, I tend to agree with Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who said: “If good people are made aware of an injustice or an abuse, then they will act. …with thousands of us demanding change, we can bring about reform on a grand scale.” That said, the HSUS, the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), along with the MSPCA and ARLB (Animal Rescue League of Boston) ran organizations that managed around $900 million in revenue and assets 2012 alone. Yet, cases of horrifying animal cruelty, abuse, and neglect remain pervasive in the media despite a very caring and outraged public, as well as lawmakers who were clearly ready and willing to work for change on behalf of animals after learning about the case of Puppy Doe.
So, while thinking about the public’s trust (or, more accurately, lack of trust) of some of our social institutions that address animal welfare and protection, I am left wondering how many behemoth organizations and hundreds-of-millions of dollars (billions if you scrutinize more than only the five animal protection organizations mentioned above) does it take to bring about “reform on a grand scale”?
Many of the agents and events that created widespread shifts in our cultural consciousness were brought about initially by small determined groups of rather unorganized people who refused to continue to tolerate that which they could no longer accept. Their demands for change were accompanied by meaningful action, rather than incremental approaches by multi-million dollar organizations with vast infrastructures and resources at their disposal. The early civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the gay liberation movement, and the early anti-war resistance of the ‘60’s are all examples of transformative change and bold leadership. Additionally, the anti-smoking campaign transformed not only social policies, but our entire culture’s way of thinking, and did so in a comparatively short time. Those are examples of “reform on a grand scale.”
In searching for meaningful solutions to better protect animals, to respect and honor animal life, and to create a desperately needed culture change on their behalf, there are many more questions that need to be asked, and answered. In the meantime, as Senator Bruce Tarr noted, “the day has arrived when we will have a long and productive look at animal welfare …. We need much, much more.”