Monday, April 14, 2008

Best Friends article

At the top of this page, two young people are seen clinging to each other amid the horror of the bombing of two pet markets in Baghdad.

At the bottom of the page, a young man relaxes on a dog bed with a snoozing pit bull curled up on his chest.

One headline speaks of carnage, the other of kindness.

It was the front page of the New York Times on February 2, and both are stories were about animals.

In one, we learned that the pet markets of Baghdad are good terrorist targets because families go there for a little relief from the misery of a seemingly endless war. (Full disclosure: The pet markets are not much fun for the "pets.")

And in the other, we were introduced to the four-footed victims of football star Michael Vick and his friends, whose idea of pleasure was making innocent creatures tear each other apart.

The young man in the bottom photo is John Garcia, one of the people here at Best Friends who are helping these same dogs build a new life. He'd probably want you to know that snoozing with the dogs is only a small part of his work! But it's an important part. At first, many of the dogs were terrified of people. Georgia, who'd been used for forced breeding, kept barking at her doghouse and rubbing her nose raw. Oscar would cower at the back of his play area. Cherry had burns on his back and was so scared of being on a leash, he had to be carried outdoors at walk time.

The healing of the dogs at Best Friends will take time, as will the healing of the people in Baghdad story - the civilians, soldiers and animals whose bodies, minds and lives have been shattered by the traumatic violence they experience every day.

But for Georgia, Oscar, Cherry and the other "Vicktory" dogs, 22 in all here at the sanctuary, the healing has at least begun.

It's worth noting, though, that they almost didn't make it to Best Friends. Two of the largest national humane organizations publicly called for them to be killed. No doubt, these very public leaders thought they were doing the right thing, but here are are, yet again, having to combat the humane establishment's belief that the best way to help animals is by killing more of them.

For those of us who began Best Friends, more than 20 years ago, our starting point was that killing the animals was simply not an option.

Back then, the animals we rescued included cats like Benton, who was missing an eye and had a club foot, and dogs like Victor, an old mutt rescued from life on a heavy chain at a run-down trailer park.

At a time when more than 17 million homeless pets were being killed at shelter every year, Benton and Victor were the "unadoptables" of their day. And the received wisdom of the humane establishment was that the upstart no-kill movement was a passing fad - the foolish idealism of a new generation of grassroots rescuers with little experience of the "real" world.

Today, homeless animals like Benton and Victor are a breeze to place in good new homes, and fewer than four million homeless animals are now being killed in shelters each year. The spay/neuter and adoption programs that were beginning to be put in place 20 years ago have worked miracles.

But there are still those remaining four million dogs and cats.

With millions of abandoned pit bulls being dumped at big-city shelters, many of them comes from the same background and culture as Georgia, Oscar and Cherry.

(The next largest number are cats. Some are alley cats, others are homeless pets. And it can be difficult to tell the difference. Both are terrified, cringing at the back of their cages, and lashing out at the people who have "captured" them. So the easy, accepted and most promoted solution is just to kill them all.)

This "next generation" of shelter animals is as much of a challenge today as the likes of Benton and Victor were 20 years ago. And in spite of all the progress, we are yet again hearing the same chorus of impossibility from the humane establishment that we heard back then. And yet again, they're missing the point.

No-kill is not some idealistic, futuristic goal. It's not what happens at the end of the campaign. It's where we have to start. It's how we begin.

And it's not that stopping the killing is a better way.

It's that stopping the killing is the only way.

That's because it's only when you take killing off the table as a way of "helping" the animals that you really start looking for new ways that are truly going to work.

And that's why any organization that claims a leadership role in the humane movement has to take that position, once and for all. It's up to the leaders to find the solutions - to be real agents of change, to open the way to a new generation of animal protection.

Here at Best Friends, with a group of dogs rescued from the deep trauma of sadism and murder, destroying them is not an option. So, rehabilitation, healing and redemption have to take its place. As a result, we're already learning how to diagnose and treat animals suffering from serious neglect and abuse in ways that will benefit animals in shelters everywhere.

As long as the humane establishment accepts killing as a solution, there will never be a solution. And the sooner they take killing off the table, once and for all, the sooner shelters will adopt the real solutions.

The same applies in all areas of life. As soon as we make it unacceptable to experiment on animals as a way of finding better medicines, the sooner we'll find truly better medicines. The sooner we close down factory farms, the sooner we'll find better, healthier ways of feeding ourselves (and saving the planet).

And the sooner we take killing off the table as a means of relating to people whom we don't like, the sooner we'll bring an end to war as a way of bringing about peace.

Sure, terrorists need to learn that strapping bombs to women and sending them into pet markets is never going to accomplish their supposedly spiritual goals. But even those of us who lay claim to the word "humane" need to understand that it's up to us to take the lead, set the agenda and, once and for all, stop the killing ourselves.

You can help bring an end to the killing of homeless animals by joining the Best Friends Network at

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