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.”
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.
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