“Are you a no-kill shelter?” the woman asked as she readied a $20.00 bill for the donation box? The honest answer was ‘no,’ and my explanation didn’t help matters much, …at all really. With one corner already inside the box that twenty dollar bill did a U-Turn and headed straight back to the woman’s purse. Our consolation prize was a $5.00 bill.
And I thanked her.
I’m writing that now, because I sure as Hell wasn’t going to say it then (yes I do feel better). That wasn’t the only irritating moment that I recall from the year and a half I worked at a local Humane Association, but I suppose this is to be expected. There is indeed something terrible about a conventional will-kill shelter. Looking at it from the perspective of the lady above, I had effectively told her that the organization I worked for killed perfectly healthy kittens and puppies, …and that I wanted money so that we could continue doing so. Under the circumstances, I suppose I should have been damned thankful to get a five.
Seriously, what a bastard!
It’s tough to find a sound patch of middle ground on some issues and this is one of them.
I had that job for about a year and a half, and this was hardly the first time I’d taken grief from someone in favor of no-kill shelters. There was the volunteer who wouldn’t step foot in our shelter. There were the interviews that ALWAYS raised questions about euthanasia, even when that was clearly not the issue at hand. And then there were the phone calls, the ones that went something like this; “I don’t want to bring him to you, but no-one else will take him, what do I do?” And of course there were countless times I heard people describe themselves as rescuing an animal from us, often one we had been at great pains to keep alive.
But this was all pretty minor stuff really. All in a day’s work.
I have to admit that it got a little under my skin the day that a volunteer from the local low-kill shelter told me with a smile that she heard her own shelter had just saved 12 cats from us. See, the problem was that we had plenty of room at the time, and none of these animals were in danger. In fact, giving them 12 cats had left our own cat kennels near to empty. We had given the cats to the other shelter because they were suddenly short felines, and I knew damn well the reason they were suddenly short. It wasn’t a pretty story. I wanted desperately to tell the volunteer that her shelter hadn’t saved any animals by taking them off our hands on that day. Not at all.
This young lady doesn’t get called a name. She didn’t know. And anyhow I don’t feel as cranky as I did 3 or 4 paragraphs back. Still that was a bitter pill to swallow. Suffice to say I thought for a time there that a companion animal stood a better chance at our own will-kill shelter than they did with our low-kill counterpart. If I am hearing right lately, it sounds like the latter has cleaned up its act and both shelters are working together more lately. That’s a very good thing.
What bothers me about no-kill shelters is not the way they actually work, when they actually work at any rate; it is that their rhetoric tends to work just as well regardless of the details on the ground so to speak. If that woman with her twenty dollar bill really understood how our shelter worked and decided we weren’t a worthy recipient for her money, I would have been fine with that decision. But she didn’t. What she knew was one thing; we were the bad guys and that was about all there was to it.
I also remember a day that we ran out of room in our dog kennels and the local low-kill had been among the organizations that took a few off our hands. They took two, a pit bull and one other dog. I had been so relieved, because all of us loved that pit bull, even though she had been with us 6 months. At last she was safe, …except she wasn’t. Both of those animals ended up getting put down. And I never called the low-kill shelter again, not to help us keep one of our animals alive at any rate.
All of this had already happened on that day when a twenty climbed back into that woman’s purse and sent a five to take its place. I couldn’t help but wonder if the lady knew where people took their pets when the low-kill ran out of space? I also wondered if she knew just how many animals did get put down over there? Or if she could wrap her mind around just how many more animals we took care of on a fraction of their budget, all without the privilege of selective admissions. I’m guessing she didn’t. To her, I was a black hat. The other fifteen bucks were presumably looking to make their home with a white hat.
Circumstances vary from one community to the next, but in that community at that particular time there were exactly two-shelters in the area; one low-kill and one will-kill. The low-kill had begun with aspirations of no-kill policies and still maintained enough ties with the no-kill movement benefit from its reputation. We were open to any animal someone wanted to bring in; they could and did turn problem animals down. When they filled up, we got the overflow. When we filled up, first we turned to the phones, then we turned to the needles.
What so few of the local no-kill advocates in town seemed to realize was that when we were putting animals down it really was a community affair. If we were putting healthy animals down, odds were high that both shelters were full and all the fosters in town were overflowing. Hell, by then more than a few kind-hearted people had already taken more home than they could afford to feed. It really wasn’t a decision made in a vacuum, and when an adoptable animal went down it was literally because we couldn’t find anyone with the will and the resources to care for it.
By the time I left the shelter I had long since come to think of the total impact of the two shelters in terms of the total animal population for the region. We were in competition for resources and public support, but both shelters contributed to the overall care of animals throughout the region. Our shelter was more efficient, but they could offer a reasonably higher guarantee of survival for any animal successfully placed with them.
…at least they could when they had their act in gear.
In some ways the competition between our shelters may have improved the odds of survival for the unwanted animals of the town. The no-kill movement was a positive force at our own shelter and I knew it. It was one of the reasons we partnered with Petsmart and Petco, went to countless adoption events, advertised adoptions widely, and even began working with Foster agencies. No-kill advocates had developed a lot of the techniques we used to help adopt out our animals, and pressure from such advocates had helped to ensure we used them. In that respect at least, no kill had a very positive impact on our own shelter. Still, some of its advocates could prove damned clueless about the details of animal welfare.
If anyone really wanted to help the animals in our region, a dollar in our donation box was at least as good as it was in that of the local low-kill shelter.
Arguably better at the time.
But you can’t tell some people that.
I mean you really can’t.
So, I opened the door to head off to work earlier today and this fellow was sitting outside. He stayed long enough for me to get my camera and snap a few pics. Being totally free of superstition and all, I immediately decided this fellow was trying to tell me I have been a jack-ass for letting my blog go like this. One of my students ended up giving me a ride. She figured it was the same owl that’d been scaring her dog and said he was probably in town looking for food.
She’s right of course, but I’m going to commence rebloggination anyway.
…starting with this guy.
I don’t know why I didn’t post this way back in August. Maybe it’s because the video quality is so bad, or maybe I just didn’t notice that it was a video. Anyway, I have a small clip of some Polar Bears from Barter Island, and for all its poor quality, it is kinda neat. I present it here for your enjoyment.
(Please pardon the crappy sound.)
Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.
I’ll bet you’ve heard it too.
But did you hear it from somebody with a face not 6 inches distant from the bared teeth of a large growling dog?
No, the dog wasn’t aggressive. You’d probably bare your teeth too if a perfect stranger picked you out of a crowd, strode up quickly, and proceeded to throw his arms around your neck without the slightest warning. Okay, maybe you would just shove the man away, but that is the privilege of hands. The dog didn’t have that option, and sitting on a short leash, it really couldn’t get away from the man either. No, the dog’s temperament seemed fine to me; it just didn’t know what else to do about the situation.
In fact this was a very patient dog; it had done its very best to tell the man to go away.
The man just wasn’t listening.
A minimally observant person would have noticed from the dog’s posture that it was already nervous, sitting there in a crowded pet store with dozens of people moving about. This was the first hour of an adoption event; we were still trying to get all the animals squared away and establish a routine for the day. Despite walking the animals before and after transporting them, we had already had our first accident in a cage. This fellow was sitting on a leash while someone tended to the mess and others (myself included) shuffled animals left and right into the portable kennels we had set up for the occasion. We tried to keep things calm, of course, but it was simply in the nature of such events. The room had a lot of stress to go around at that particular moment and this dog was definitely feeling it.
The man didn’t have a clue.
A minimally observant person would have noticed the dog’s tail, angled as it was a bit downward, almost tucked under him. He would have noticed the whites of the dog’s eyes, something you don’t see so often from a contented canine. A minimally thoughtful person would have realized these signs added up to a moment one ought to respect the poor animal’s boundaries. Of course, a person with minimal sense would have refrained from hugging an animal less than one minute after seeing it for the first time, let alone a dog that was clearly stressed. But of course there was no need to pay attention to such signs, or to observe normal protocols like a chance to sniff the hand, or at least to observe the man long enough to gauge his intent; our man just had a way with animals.
What could possibly have gone wrong?
At the onset of the hug, a few additional clues ought to have brought this man to his senses. Minimally effective ears would have detected the sound of the dog growling. Hell, I could hear the dog growling from across a row of cages and well past a number of talking people, but the man in question either didn’t notice this sound or chose to ignore it and all the other signs that his affection had proven anything but welcome. Either he didn’t see the dog baring its teeth or he lived in a world where that was a good sign. The man seemed perfectly oblivious to the final warnings he was getting even as he cooed nonsense at the dog, desperate as it was to get away from the assault of an idiot’s love.
That poor dog had been doing its best to tell this guy to leave him alone, but none of that message was getting through. There really wasn’t anything left for the poor animal to do but bite him.
Who the Hell could blame the poor creature?
Probably everyone, actually, at least in practice. See, that was the part that really disgusted me as I envisioned the horrible face wound that was surely about to open up in the middle of a Petsmart. It would be ugly. There would surely be stitches, and I wasn’t at all sure the man would come away with both eyes intact. But I also knew that the dog would not survive the long-term fall-out from this event. I could see myself in a room with a kennel tech, helping him to put down this poor creature guilty of nothing less than defending itself. Whatever injuries this guy’s own foolishness would earn him, they would likely mean the death of the dog.
I was in charge of this adoption event; all of this carnage would of course be my responsibility.
So, there I stood, with a dog-attached leash in one hand and cleaning materials in another, several cages directly between me and the unfolding disaster, and a small group of folks engrossed in conversation blocking the aisle. I had no quick way of getting to the dog or the human, and I thought surely the bite was coming at any moment. So, I chose what I hoped would prove the right volume and tone to get the oblivious man’s attention and asked him to please step back from the dog.
Completely oblivious to the dog’s teeth, the fellow turned and told me not to worry, he had a way with animals.
And the dog bared it’s teeth just a little more.
As I listened to the fool talk and struggled to find words he would actually pay attention to, one of my volunteers turned around to see what had me so alarmed. Upon catching a glimpse of my expression, she quickly followed my own line of sight to find the dog still baring its teeth mere inches from the smiling man. A moment later she pulled the animal back away in one smooth but firm motion. Her eyes met mine and we both gave a sigh of relief as she showed the dog into its newly cleaned cage. The animal-loving man moved on to pester another dog, one that didn’t seem to mind.
I still cringe when I think about that smiling face inches from the dog’s teeth. To this day, the man doesn’t know how lucky he was. How lucky I was.
How lucky the dog was.
The image comes from the Naperville Animal Hospital.
Did I mention that I used to work in a conventional Humane Association? For those that haven’t already read between the lines, this means I worked in a will-kill shelter. So, this dog that had just landed in a dangerous place.
Of course a pure breed of most any kind will generally adopt itself in due time, and we were fortunate to have enough room to give animals plenty of time most of the year. But space was tight when this guy showed up in our kennels. The dog wasn’t in much danger, but the kennel-space he took-up could mean the difference for one of the dogs who was. Keeping him at the shelter, at least at that particular time, could well mean some dog with less pedigree would go down.
A few minutes of googling and a few phone calls later I found myself talking to a woman who ran a rescue facility devoted to malamutes. After introducing myself I told this woman that we had one in our shelter and asked if she had room to take it off our hands.
A moment passed and then she began to cry; “I really don’t, but I don’t want you to put him down.”
It turns out this lady was keeping about 40 dogs herself, which is a lot to do without a paid staff or a dedicated facility. She might have had some help, but this woman was no professional, at least I didn’t think so. Like most rescue organizations and foster-care providers, I imagine this lady was doing this on the side, and I had little doubt that it was eating up her savings right along with every moment of spare time she didn’t really have. It was a labor of love, and her cracking voice told me just how much that love had already cost her.
I didn’t want to supply the dog that broke this woman’s back (or bank account), and it wasn’t necessary, at least not with a pure-breed (and malamutes are gorgeous dogs). A few more phone calls would land a home for this guy. And that is exactly what happened in this instance.
But that cracking voice on the other side of the line betrayed a stress common to those in the animal welfare business. Most anyone working in the shelter industry has more than their share of critters, some far too many, and every day such workers face the question of whether or not to take one more home. Even the hard-asses of our shelter took an animal home from time to time. One of my co-workers had a real menagerie in her small house, and with four furry room-mates in a mobile home I was pushing the envelope on excess myself.
It can be a very tough call, knowing that you can take at least one pair of sad eyes out of the racket and give it a loving home, but that you can’t take them all. So, just how far will you go, and how do you make that decision?
The part where reality seriously twists the knife for me is this. The line from what you can do about such things to what you can’t do is actually seamless. You would never know this from the way people talk about it. Asked to consider adoption, folks would tell me that they were at their limit or they would say; “I just can’t take another one home,” etc. But the truth is that most of them really could take one more in if they wanted to.
What people are really referring to with all this talk of hard limits is something more along the lines of excessive costs and overly onerous burdens. People speak of absolute limits because the implication that one really could do otherwise is disconcerting. It’s a damned terrible thing to think about (especially for someone who cares enough to get into the animal welfare business); but the reality is that long before you reach the moment you really cannot do one more thing personally to help, you will reach a moment when you simply don’t want to, the moment at which the cost is higher than you are willing to pay. Even with enormously high stakes such as the death of a companion animal, the point at which most of us will say ‘no’ falls well short of the moment when we really are at the limits of our ability to do something about it.
People simply aren’t machines; we don’t reach a clear limit and then go off with a great big clank; instead we accumulate negatives and increase our risks until one day we make the decision to stop, …and maybe take a step back.
Those that don’t? Well maybe they go clank after all.
I once knew a young woman who cared for forty something cats, countless birds, squirrels, snakes, lizards, dogs, etc. Her life was devoted to the care of animals, and if she could help, she would. In this woman’s case, perhaps the moment when she would say ‘no’ really was the moment at which helping was no longer possible. She was a one-woman shelter without a non-profit status (much less a staff). …and she was one serious illness away from becoming the next hoarding case on the news.
I can only hope I am wrong about that.
But of course the issue is not at all confined to animal welfare practices. What got me thinking about this were some comments in an article on Chick-Fil-A by Jennifer McCreight (the Blag Hag). the piece shows nowhere near the same level of stress that I heard coming through the phone that one day at the animal shelter, but for just a paragraph or so it occurred to me that she was dealing with the same sort of problem.
I could originally understand why someone wouldn’t boycott an organization that they disagree with politically. I bet there are things I buy that support things I hate, mostly because I don’t know any better, partially because I can’t financially afford to boycott everything.
These words resonate for me, both because they reminded me of the agonizing decisions folks used to make at the animal shelter, and because it reflects another sort of problem that I think about from time to time.
Suffice to say that the question of guilt-by-consumption has crossed my mind a time or two. I wonder how many of my clothes have been made in sweat-shops, how much the animals I eat have suffered, or whether any number of corporations I have patronized might have played a role in this or that political atrocity? …just to name a few thoughts that occur to me off-hand. Reading Jen McCreight’s discussion, it struck me that the issue of consumer politics really does raise the same dilemma that used to haunt me so much working at the shelter.
I am well aware that many of the products I would otherwise purchase are associated with activities I want no part of, but the question is what am I prepared to do? I can of course choose to deny my dollars to some folks in specific instances, and I can even seek out more information so as to identify more of these cases than I will get through the natural flow of information coming my way. But somewhere along the line I will choose to buy something the production of which involves real suffering by someone (or something) who doesn’t deserve it. I would love to believe that I will do so because I simply can’t afford to do otherwise, but that just isn’t literally the case, at least not in the particulars. If I, just like McCreight, cannot quite opt out of all the politically suspect transactions in my life, I can almost always do without this one or that one.
I could go on to discuss other examples, but hopefully the point is made. People typically describe our commitments in terms of limitations and boundaries, but our actual judgements are made in terms of priorities and opportunity costs.
Deciding the extent of our personal commitments to a given cause may not always be as painful as it was for that lady running a malamute rescue (and truth be told I think it is exceptionally difficult for a lot of folks working in animal welfare) but it is often a bit discomfiting. Our language reflects this tension.
…or rather, it pointedly doesn’t.
Is belief a choice?
I don’t think so.
It is certainly common enough to speak of belief as a choice, but could I choose to believe that I was not sitting in a chair right now? (I am.) Could I choose to believe that the music playing at this moment (Sky-Fucking-Line-of-Toronto) had been recorded by The Kinks? (It was The Rugburns.) Could I choose to believe that my cat, Auto-Kitty (pictured to the left) is a Siamese? (She is of course a Tortie.)
Mind you, I am not asking if I could tell you that Auto-Kitty is a Siamese. I most certainly could. I am not asking if I could play some special word-game in approaching the subject and define ‘Siamese’ in such a manner as to include cats with a tortoise-shell coat. I am not even asking whether or not I could embark on some long-term project to convince myself that my little Auto-Kitty was really a Siamese. …though I really don’t think I could do that either. No, I am asking whether or not I could choose to believe, right here and now, that a cat I know to be something other than a Siamese was in fact (using a conventional understanding of the term) actually a Siamese?
The answer is ‘no’.
I think it is safe to say, dear reader, that we could come up with a range of similar propositions for you, claims that you could not choose to believe, at least not without a complex long-term brain-washing process to get you there. You could probably assert these claims, but you could not actually believe them.
So, there is at least one respect in which belief appears to present a limit to our choices. Somewhere in the question of what one believes, we all encounter an emergent property which is beyond the control of our immediate will. …Okay, at least the vast majority of us do.
No, it is not my intention to suggest that we have no choice at all with respect to beliefs, but rather to suggest that the choices must in some respect live with this emergent property, the one which defies our power to shape it at will. Truth be told I think we could probably put a range of different propositions on a scale of sorts. Auto-Kitty’s non-Siamese status is, for me at least at maximum (or near maximum) resistance to the whims of my personal belief. For you, perhaps, taking my word for it, there is perhaps cause for doubt about the matter, and it might be reasonable to say that one’s response to doubt involves a degree of choice.
More to the point at hand, we could perhaps find a range of propositions about subjects inherently difficult to resolve, full of ambiguity, and perhaps even loaded with more heuristic than factual value. One might get to say that he or she has a bit more choice in such matters. But I still think it is worth knowing that somewhere in our mental landscape, we normally encounter a limitation, a point of resistance to the free play of our choices.
I should add that I do think personality is another variable. Some people seem far more capable of choosing what to believe than others. I should also add that in at least one respect this is far from a virtue.
Well, what I am getting at is a trace of the larger question of Beliefs with a capital B. I don’t mean beliefs such as; What color is the chair? What kind of cat is that? or Is there too much chili paste in the chicken red curry? No, I mean questions like; Do you believe in God? How about reincarnation? karma? …The Holy Trinity? …you get the idea. Because people often speak of these beliefs as a choice.
The notion that belief in god is a choice is a particularly common fashion of speaking, and that fashion of speaking can be very misleading. It makes of belief a moral decision, and side-steps the epistemological questions about that belief in favor of arguments from consequantialism. One must, according to this approach, choose whether or not to accept or reject God, all of which actually begs the question of whether or not She actually exists.
But I don’t wish to go too far down this particular road at the moment. I am more interested in fleshing out how the issue affects self-presentation in matters of belief.
Okay, I am thinking about how this affects me!
You see, I often think back to these days of my own deconversion, and I realize that I have become accustomed to speaking of the process in unnecessarily mystical terms. I sometimes say that “I lost belief in God at around the age of 18,” or I may explain that “I chose to reject religion at that age.” Perhaps I will say that “I lost my faith,” and so on.
I don’t think this language is at all unusual, but the more I think about it the more I realize that they are not accurate descriptions of what happened at that time in my life at all. It would be far closer to the truth to say that I never really had faith at all. It would be more precise to say that I could find no aspect of my thought process which has ever answered to the concept of ‘faith’ as it is normally used in connection to belief in God.
Still further, I think it would be more accurate to say that I never really believed in God. Oh, I wanted to! As a young teen I REALLY wanted God in my life. I read. I prayed. I meditated. I studied. I did everything I could to ‘find God’ as they say, and the truth is that I just never did. I found a great deal of speech about him, but that speech never resonated with me on any personal level, nor did it point to anything in the objective world that struck me as a good candidate for a deity. When the day came that I finally came to see myself as an unbeliever, it was less a rejection of some viable notion than it was a concession that no such concept could be found in my mental landscape.
It was less a choice to reject belief than an acknowledgement of a mental state over which I did not really have a choice.
This was about the age of 18 or 19, and by that time I had come to know a number of approaches to the subject of God and religion. But these were always bracketed concepts in my own mind. They were ideas that someone else believed in, definitions of God that fit someone else’s beliefs, …or at least their claims. When I embraced my role as an unbeliever, the decision changed absolutely nothing about my beliefs. It was a change in my self-presentation, a decision about how best to describe the beliefs (or the lack thereof) that I already had.
For me at least, I could no more choose to believe in God than I could choose to believe that Auto-Kitty is a Siamese. I could say that God exists of course, but short of equivocation, I could not mean it.
I could deflect the question and say that I do not know whether or not God exists. Better yet, I could grunt and change the subject.
I could choose to put forward a variety of labels for my thoughts on the subject. So, for example, I could probably describe myself as either an ‘atheist’, an ‘agnostic’, or even an ‘agnostic atheist’. I could add the qualifiers ‘weak’ before ‘atheist’ or ‘soft’ before ‘agnostic’, or I could leave them off according to taste. Any of these approaches would be an equally accurate description of my take on the matter of God. I am somewhat inclined to believe that the label ‘non-cognitivism’ would work as well, though I would have to read-up a bit more on that approach to the issue before deciding once and for all on the label. But let us be clear, what I am choosing here is a label and a certain amount of baggage that goes with that label. What I am not choosing is what I will or won’t actually believe.
I have a little more wiggle room on the issue of surety. I could say that I am certain on the matter or that I am open to the possibility that a god does exist. The cognitive hazards of container metaphors aside, both of these could be a reasonably accurate description of my attitude on any given day. Choosing one or the other term would in a sense help to make the issue normative; it would give me an incentive to try for the attitude I had adopted as a self-description, and to avoid the other. Either way, I do feel like I have a little more choice in the degree of certainty I wish present my approach to this issue to others.
Indeed, I have lots of choices about the way I package my lack of belief and explain it to others. I also have lots of choices about what my (non-)beliefs mean to me and how they will shape my actions in the future.
What I do not have a choice about is what I actually believe on the subject. Somewhere in there, the power of choice simply escapes me.
Okay, I lied about what Auto-Kitty was trying to say in the title. What she was actually trying to tell you with that little meow of hers is that in the picture above, she is more comfortable than you or I or any other person in the whole of human history will ever be. She just wanted you to know that.