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The Case for Compassion

Guest blogger B.J. Rogers challenges you to take a chance the next time you overhear this most challenging of conversations.

 

We’re a field of caretakers. We take our charge to provide care and kindness to the animals who find their way to us very seriously. Given that most of our organizations rely on the public’s trust and generosity, that’s exactly how we should approach our work. Of course, there’s a moral imperative, too; living beings deserve our compassion and our care.

“I hate people.”

“People suck.”

I own it—those words have passed my lips on more than one occasion in the 20 or so years I’ve been working in the human service sector. In almost every instance, I didn’t actually mean either of those things. What I really meant (most of the time) was “I’m frustrated,” “I’m confused,” or “I just can’t wrap my head around that decision or action or ‘choice.’” I have a degree in English. I’ve been a communication professional of one kind or another for most of my career. I’ve got the words, but I still chose those ones in moments of anger, despair and disbelief.

Today I want to own the irresponsibility, the hurtfulness and the sheer lack of empathy that drove me to those words—and the thoughts and assumptions on which they were founded—in place of more measured language.

A 14-year-old cat is surrendered. A grey muzzled dog is left tied to your building’s front door.

You’d be a tiny bit heartless not to feel sadness for the animal. The life they’ve known—in some cases for many years—has just been disrupted in a powerful and significant way. Their people are gone. Their world of familiar sounds and smells and spots gone, too.

Even reading about the idea of that change is a little gut-wrenching, no? We feel those feelings because we love animals—and we have some core value or belief about the way in which they should be treated. We’re caretakers, after all. Simultaneously, some of us begin searching for a cause, for someone to blame, for someone to bear the brunt of our frustration and anger and sadness.

I overheard a conversation of just this kind the other day—and it broke my heart a little, for the animal whose life was experiencing a real interruption, sure. Mostly though, my heart was breaking at the thought of the place someone, a person or a family, must have reached to feel as though the only option they had was to hand their 14-year-old family member over to an uncertain future at a local shelter.

What conditions—financial, health-related, housing, safety—must they be experiencing? How compounding must the loss of a longtime companion be to the struggles, trauma or difficulties we know absolutely nothing about?

We judge them for their “choice.” We can’t believe they’d lie. We hardly take a moment to wonder, how much pain must they be in? How excruciating must it have been to feel as though they had so few choices—or no real choice at all.

I deliberated a lot before I inserted myself into that conversation and I was apologetic and awkward and nervous when I did. It went something like:

“Uh... I’m sorry... I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. And I... I’m butting in ‘cause I just find it fascinating... and it’s making me think of my days as a shelter staff member.”

It was inelegant at best—maybe downright rude to butt in—but I felt a commitment to the people in the equation, to their dignity and their reality and all the stuff happening in their lives that we know nothing about. So I tried to ask genuine and open questions, offer a different perspective, and challenge some of the assumptions being made.

I really truly believe that we’re bound to continue chasing our proverbial tails in trying to “solve” the challenges our field and our communities face when it comes to animal welfare if we fail to make our common humanity a central value and foundational component of the work we do.

This is not the first time—nor likely the last— that we’ve written about people deserving the benefit of the doubt. But my call to action this time is to embrace the awkwardness and the nervousness the next time YOU overhear the conversation. Your insertion may or may not have a lasting impact, but your silence will.

And if you find those words still slipping out of your mouth, consider your own struggles, the times you felt that you had no options (plural!), but just one course or “choice.” Have you ever made a decision that you wish could have been different? Would you hope others could consider the totality of your reality before passing judgment?

So long as we want to help animals, we have to cultivate our compassion toward people. I’m convinced it’s the only way—and it’s one time where having just one option feels just fine.

 

To explore more about the people side of animal sheltering, check out B.J.’s workshops at the 2016 Texas Unites for Animals conference this April 23-25 in Austin. He’ll also be giving the keynote address, “A Matter of Trust: A Human Service Approach to Animal Welfare.” (As usual, this largest regional animal welfare conference in the U.S has a stellar line-up—download the brochure here.)

 

B.J. Rogers, CAWA, ASPCA Vice President, ProLearning, is a former shelter chief executive whose experiences working in politics, higher education, LGBTQ youth advocacy and animal welfare have convinced him that people are the solution, not the problem.

 

 

Related Links

Blog: “Karma Kitchen”
Getting to Know: B.J. Rogers
Webinar with B.J. “Smile, You’re Saving Lives!”

 

Comments

Comment

I fully agree. I find it shocking that people who claim to have so much compassion for one living thing can so instantly and completely condemn another without even attempting to find out how they came to that decision. I always comment that you can't patently hate people when you rescue animals because your work is just as much with people as it is with animals, and if you dismiss the people whose story you don't know and pass up a chance for education, you are only doing part of the job. Animals will continue being abused and abandoned until people are educated about their needs and their own options.

Comment

I have often wondered (and I am not in the shelter business) if people believe that the best thing they can do for their elderly animal is turn the animal in at the shelter for a humane end. People talk about culture. When I was a child, 50 some years ago, the culture was the people who cared tied up their dogs. We do not know without asking. Do people bring their animals to the shelter for a humane end that they can't afford at the vet? It is expensive to have a vet euthanize your animal. Maybe they do not tell the shelter that, because they think the shelter won't accept the animal. I am not talking about every circumstance, but I wonder. Every time I read about the senior animal left and good people rallying to save a life, I wonder if the family were monsters, or if they thought they were going above and beyond to do the very best thing they knew to do.

Comment

Sixteen years ago I made a heart wrenching decision to give up my three senior cats. I still tear up over it. If I knew then what I know now I would have found a different solution. I would have appreciated someone being caring enough to brainstorm a solution with me. I have learned so much over sixteen years and I spend much of my time trying to help keep families together or getting them reunited.

Comment

Thank you for sharing this author's insightful thoughts on your blog. She reflects the frustration, that all of us involved in animal rescue , experience every day, and how we often need to step back and consider the "human element" in our efforts to save and protect innocent animals.

Thank you to the ASPCA for providing the resources and support that we need, on the "front lines" of animal protection and for your efforts to educate the public on the national crises of animal abuse and neglect. Your leadership is greatly appreciated !

Best regards,

Robert White
Owl Hollow Farm / Owl Hollow Equestrian

Comment

So I guess I disagree, there is one thing to surrender a pet that is healthy , socialized etc, for reasons that are beyond your control. Those I can understand. When I have an animal come in because he was beaten and has broken bones, 12 cats that are surrendered to us because we could not spay/neuter that exact day for this man, all cats totally feral so all had to be euthanized, sorry but the words I HATE PEOPLE will flow out my mouth. There are things that are inexcusable when it the treatment of animals, I don't care what is going on in your life, abuse yourself, not animals or others. JMO

Comment

Can I say I hate shelters that "have to euthanize" because their was no spay/neuter available that day? There are 2 sides to every story. Did that man trap these kitties hoping to stop additional litters?

Comment

Finally to see a "dog related agency" actually try to be kind to humans! I wondered if I would ever see it and thankful I now have!

A man at an adoption event asked me "what kind of people give up their dogs? Who can do that?" I responded "dead people, sick people, people in dire straits, people who've lost their job, family. Should I go on?" He said, "Some people just do it cuz they don't like them." I asked him "Do you really want someone to keep a dog they do not like? What kind of life is that for a dog?" End of conversation.

Comment

I volunteer at a large municipal shelter. For the most part I do all the write ups for the cats that are posted on 7 websites. There are times that senior cats are surrendered for the most heartbreaking of reasons like death of owner or sudden homelessness and I can do a write up that will break your heart and very often that cat will get adopted. 9 out of 10 times I am very empathetic as I realize there were no other options. Other times it is hard to not keep anger out of my write ups like for the 10 year old cat that was surrendered because "we got new carpeting and cats make a mess".

Comment

Not to state the obvious, but it would be really, really hard to take care of pets without people. I need 1300+ adopters a year, good and kind adopters, to give homes to animals. And I am deeply grateful to each and every one of them for showing up. They take the blind animals, the ones with diabetes, the ones with 3 legs, the ones that are old and the ones who can't sit still. Our adopters don't care. They have love and kindness in their hearts. And they do not mind one bit taking over for someone who is struggling, for whatever reason. And our donors give. They give and give and give again so that we can provide surgery, heartworm treatment, vaccines, special food, shelter, care and a host of other things the animals need. Our volunteers show up, rain or shine or snow to help the animals. I have one volunteer that is at the adoption center almost as much as my staff! It is hard to see that and not appreciate people. I love people.

Comment

With an attitude like that Laurie, I bet they love you right back!

-B.J. Rogers
ASPCA Vice President, ProLearning

Comment

It took me many years as a shelter volunteer to come to that conclusion that you have reached in this blog - people are a huge part of the equation and instead of condeming them we need to understand what brought them to this point in life and what they may be feeling - the heartbreak and fear and sadness. Those sentiments still come out of my mouth sometimes - I'm not perfect - but I try to remember that I don't really know what happened to bring everything to this point. Compassion for each other leads to compassion for the animal world, indeed the planet. It is being ground out by fear and hate born out of that fear. And it will always be reflected in our treatment of those who are in our care. So I really agree and thank you, B.J. Rogers, for having the courage to write about this and act on it. I hope I can do the same.

Comment

Deb Hamilton, I think you might be missing the point here. Sure, there are people who suck, but to say "I hate people" means ALL people and all people do not suck. Think about all the wonderful people who come to the rescue to help save animals, the staff, volunteers, donors, sharers, etc. Yes there might be a small percentage of people who abuse and neglect animals but the overwhelming majority will try to help, not hurt. I run an open admission shelter so I see all the things you're talking about too, and I have to say I LOVE PEOPLE because without people who care (and there are a lot more of them) we'd never save any of them.

Comment

I cannot tell you how many times, during the course of a horrendous exotic animal abuse case that lasted from 2006-2014, I said the exact same words--"people suck" and "I hate people". Like BJ Rogers I would mentally acknowledge my frustrations of the case by reminding myself that it was an amazing group of "people" who worked tirelessly alongside me that turned the tide of the animal case. As rescuers, we see the best of what humanity has to offer--and sadly, we also see the worst.

In the end, we are all in this together and we must focus on the goal. Be the voice for those who cannot speak--whether it be animals, children, or the elderly.

Comment

Beautifully written piece! And I wholeheartedly agree. I have no idea what others go through in their lives, when I remain open and interested rather than judgmental and closed off I am surprised by the results. I'm not a religious person but this prayer of St. Francis seems fitting, especially since he is the patron saint of animals:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

Comment

Thank you for your comment. I needed to remember that. It brought tears to my eyes.

Comment

I am the Executive Director of an equine rescue. The "I hate people" phrase is a bit different for horses. Some example horse owners that do not follow vets recommendations. Example: Fairly young horses on grass 24/7, overweight, ridden maybe 3 times a year, and they wonder why their horses are borderline to founder. Another example: "Could you please take my aged horse, he/she cannot perform any longer, I need to get RID of it and get a younger horse". This animal has worked and given this person many good years and they want to treat it like trash and throw it away. One more example: I couldn't afford to feed the horse so I let it do without hay or grain." Our organization is pretty well known in this area and we have helped folks temporarily with both feed and grain. Did they bother to ask or look for help? NO. Those are just a few reasons why "I hate some people". Going on a seizure or surrender doesn't bother me. I let law enforcement handle the people, I totally block them out, I am there to help the animal and that's what I focus on and getting the heck off their property.

Comment

I hear your frustration, Darlene. I guess my suggestion is to consider not only the assumptions we make about what people have or haven’t done or tried (or about their intentions in general) but also all of the “stuff” that might be underneath what they feel comfortable telling us. In other words, sometimes it’s just easier to say “I don’t want this anymore,” than to acknowledge the potential embarrassment or guilt that comes with compromised finances and a situation that may have gone beyond what was ever intended. Sometimes people fail – and I’m not suggesting we simply give overt neglect or cruelty a pass – but, in my experience, most people want to do right by their animals.

Admittedly, we all process scenes and circumstances differently. On a seizure I assisted with last month, I was bothered tremendously – both because the animals were in need of care, and because the conditions the people were living in were truly horrendous. I couldn’t help but wonder, what difficulties – financial, mental health – must have led folks to live in such squalor. I pained for the animals, but I pained for the people too.

-B.J. Rogers
ASPCA Vice President, ProLearning

Comment

I have a background as a trade association manager. Mainly it was managing people and volunteers. I did it for 23 years successfully and then decided to pursue my love of animals by accepting a position at my local animal shelter. Brutal reality followed. Until people are educated that animals are not a commodity but sentient beings we will always have the issues of animal neglect and abuse. The throw away mentality exists in a large segment of our population. Owning a pet should be a privileged and not a right. I've seen enough in 4.5 years of being at my shelter to believe owning an animal should come with a test just like a drivers license. I have 4 dogs and one cat 3 of them from the shelter. I had as many as seven at one time but many were animals that had very little time left and I tried to give them a good life of what was left. You get to know the true character of a community by what you see at your local shelter. It will change the way you perceive life.

Comment

Thanks for the comment, Ed. Just to be clear – there’s a distinction in my thinking between overt or intentional cruelty/neglect, and the type of trouble people often find themselves in when unexpected things occur in their lives (though I still tend toward the inclination that we ought to consider the circumstances or history that leads people to perpetrate cruelty and neglect – since I’m convinced those conditions usually warrant our empathy as well). I agree, working at a shelter will change the way you perceive life; for me though, it reminded me that people want to help, try really hard to do right by animals, and that we’ll get closer to our goals working together than working at odds.

I do think you’re making a couple of leaps here. Specifically, I think it’s anecdotal at best to suggest that the “throw away mentality exists in a large segment of our population.” I’ve not seen any research to support that assertion. In fact, more and more we’re finding that when people are given the opportunity to keep an animal or to improve the condition of their pets, they’re eager and grateful for the opportunity to do so. Lastly, and then I’ll descend from my soapbox! : ), we simply disagree about pet ownership. To say it should be a privilege is to deny millions of people – who may not pass some arbitrary assessment – the joy and comfort that comes from the companionship of an animal. You may not be suggesting so, but the slippery slope would suggest that only the privileged should have the privilege, and I just can’t get behind that sentiment.

-B.J. Rogers
ASPCA Vice President, ProLearning

Comment

Thanks for the great article. Yes, there are some people out there who are heartless towards animals, but the vast majority are not. I believe that it is far better to err on the side of compassion. Far better to be kind to the few who don't "deserve" it than to be unkind to those that do.

Comment

I think the general outlook of people in this article is a little too rosy.

Echoing what Deb Hamilton said When an animal comes in "because he was beaten and has broken bones, 12 cats that are surrendered to us because we could not spay/neuter that exact day for this man, all cats totally feral so all had to be euthanized..." Really, what about these folks?

Please don't accuse me of "irresponsibility...hurtfulness and...sheer lack of empathy" when I have completely human feelings about situations like these.

Some people are simply sociopaths and psychopaths who do not care if they hurt or kill an animal or a human. They have no remorse, and they never will. Some actually enjoy the torture they inflict on others, they will always seek more, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it.

They themselves have zero interest in changing. They would find our attempts to "understand them" curious, or even humorous or contemptible. Our efforts at compassion here are simply wasted.

To be unaware of people like this, and to ascribe my own imaginary understandings to them which they would never deserve, is not only naive, it is dangerous- because we all have to be on the alert for people like this. Not only in our work with animals, but in the rest of our everyday lives.

I admire your compassion and your willingness to look at different facets of this issue, I really do. However, another universe of human beings exists in which situations which you've described above simply do not apply.

Comment

Hi Percy,
I hear your caution and your vigilance.

All the same, just to reiterate – while I think that most everyone in our society deserves our empathy (and to be treated with dignity), I understand and agree that there are people in our world responsible for truly egregious and incomprehensible neglect and cruelty. Though those folks have probably suffered mightily in their lives too, I’m not suggesting we make it a practice of overlooking their behavior.

Acknowledging those people exist, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual cites a dramatically lower rate of the degree of mental illness you’re referencing – more like 1-3% vs the 10% you’ve suggested. No matter really, we don’t disagree that there are people in our world capable of atrocious acts. Where we differ, I think, is in how we approach a life and a world in which those things are possible – even if relatively rare. My take is we start with the benefit of the doubt; selfishly, it's a more pleasant way to live and move through the world. More generously, it’s the same extension of courtesy and humanity that I’d appreciate (and expect) from my fellow community members.

-B.J. Rogers
ASPCA Vice President, ProLearning

Comment

I work in rescue and although I know there are many people with legitimate reasons to give up their pets, I also know that a lot of people are looking for the easy way out. Do people actually believe it's in the best interest of a 16 year old dog to find it a new home because it's having accidents now and they don't have time for it? It is not in the best interest of the dog, but it is definitely more convenient for them. Too many stories like that...

Comment

I often am offended when people suggest that animal advocates 'care more about the animals than they do people'. In my experience, that is simply not true. The amount of effort, time, patience extended to the people in terms of helping them to rehome their unwanted pets is extraordinary. Most advocates I have worked with spend more time with the people than the animal involved. That said, I have very little tolerance for some of the actions of people when it comes to them asking for our help. I'm not talking about the elderly woman who is going into a nursing home and can no longer care for her animal, or the man who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and needs help finding a new home for his animal, or the soldier who has just learned he will be deployed for a long time overseas and needs help finding a foster or a new home for his pet. These are the kind of stories most advocates are more than happy to help with.... The stories about a divorce and neither can take along the family pet (what if it was a child?), moving (why move to a place that doesn't allow your pet), sudden allergies (that they didn't experience for years....and now can't tolerate their pets).....these are the stories that give pause.... I think advocates would agree it is more than frustrating hearing these because the situations have so many other options, other than taking your pet to a shelter. Owner surrenders in crowded shelters are killed first. That is what drives us to 'hate' these people. Because when they turn over their pet they are in fact saying to the shelter 'you have my permission to kill my pet'. That doesn't sit well with folks working ungodly hours, in a neverending stream of animals.... Perhaps every person that uses the service of a shelter should be required to volunteer for a year, to help them better understand and prevent it from happening in the future. Spay/Neuter, Adopt, Volunteer, Donate. BE A PART OF THE SOLUTION.

Comment

I love this! So many times I find myself hurting for the PEOPLE when I overhear staff members frustration.

I also try to remember that we are an industry wrought with Compassion Fatigue, and most nonprofits do not have the resources to help their employees navigate this.

This is definitely a symptom of CF; the feeling of trauma around you and not seeing the potential backstory. And in a field where it can just be very exhausting emotionally, we need to be there for each other!

When a staff member is venting to me, i validate their emotions coming from a place of caring for animals and then add "maybe theres more to it?" to gently remind them that perhaps there was more trauma and circumstance that impacted the PERSON and not just the animal. We are fortunate to be caring for the animal, but we have an opportunity to take care of the person for a few moments as well!

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