What Do They Have To Prove?
As I write this I am surrounded by a group of peacefully sleeping dogs. There are some shelter dogs, some rescued off the street, one from a hoarder, two from Katrina, another semi-feral. Our home is, in a very real way, an extension of the Sanctuary and a bit of a throwback to how Best Friends got started those many years ago. My wife Silva and I are tremendously privileged to live here at the sanctuary and be able to share our home with these amazing animals and that’s not even counting the cats! Each of them is unique and each of them has a story and a personal narrative that goes to making up their personality.
Teddy for instance, was a mangy Katrina puppy. He came to our Tylertown emergency shelter about 6 weeks after the storm blew through the city from somewhere on the West Bank of New Orleans. The West Bank communities had suffered severe wind damage and loss of services, but suffered none of the levee breaching flooding that destroyed the Lower Ninth and other communities across the river. We guessed his age at about 4 months. He was the eighteen hundred and fourth dog to arrive at Tylertown and appropriately was identified as BF 1804.
As a homeless 10-week old puppy following the storm, Teddy had to survive on a combination of smarts and cutes, both of which he has in abundance. He was turned in to one of our volunteer trappers in mid October ‘05 by some demolition workers who said he had been begging food from their encampment for some time. His time on the streets shows to this day in some of his demeanor and mannerisms...he stands on his hind legs and paws the air when he greets you, he growls playfully, barks and cocks his head when he wants your attention. But it wasn’t all fun and games on the barren streets. He also growls menacingly and turns quickly to confront a possible threat if approached from behind. But that’s part of his story, his personal narrative.
I joke that Teddy seems to be on the cusp of a breakthrough in intelligence by the way he really works at figuring out the language puzzle. He stands in front of you and runs through a range of expressions, gestures and sounds to get his message across. It’s a fascinating cross between charades and performance art...”sounds like, three syllables, first word...” all emanating from a pile of white hair. It’s a fascinating and ever changing show.
In our world though, Teddy’s life only has value as property. If lost, he would be held as lost property and if not claimed or adopted, he would be killed.
I have no doubt that Teddy, and all animals, think, reason, make decisions and choices and experience a range of emotions. Science catches up with the obvious in dribs and drabs and scientists are routinely "surprised" to learn just how intelligent animals are. That's why studies documenting cognition in animals constitute news as per the cover story of a recent issue of Time Magazine and the controversy surrounding a Harvard professor’s studies of cognition in monkeys. These studies are important in that they help refute the rationale for humankind's general disregard for the rest of the animals on the planet, but the idea that animals should have to pass a human-based intelligence test to be accorded the respect and consideration that we ourselves expect is an idea that seems to benchmark the limits of our own intelligence.
But you and I know that their lives do count. Best Friends has always portrayed the animals in our care as having rich, full lives. We have chronicled their relationships with their animal friends along with their interests, likes, dislikes, and jobs (usually self-appointed). In short we understand that they have valuable lives and an appreciation of themselves as individual beings. And while we have always taken a bit of literary license and enjoyed the quirky and nonsensical factor regarding individual animals, there is nothing basically untrue about any of it. It's a fact that every animal lover understands and conversely, it’s something that those who want to use or abuse them deny.
It’s absurd that it is left to the animals and their advocates to prove the obvious, intrinsic value of their lives. Of course they couldn’t “prove” the value of human life either, so Thomas Jefferson simply declared it to be “self-evident” and that we were “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights”. We have declared the same for the animals with our actions and our rhetoric but we have a way to go in elevating the value of animal life to the broader public.
When that is achieved, the public sector will design and fund a sheltering and life-saving system that doesn't depend upon a universe of kind people – the rescue community -- re-purposing their lives to a task that should be a given for a civil society; the respect for and protection of the lives of all living creatures.
Adoption, spay/neuter, innovative programs, progressive shelter management and other best practices are elements of the invaluable, life saving work in which all of us are engaged. At the same time, though, we must address the more fundamental cause and engage the wider public to change the system that accepts the killing of homeless animals and the way of thinking that condones it. We have to expand the conversation beyond spay/neuter and adoption to one that elevates the value of an animal’s life, not based on intelligence or utility or even on how much we love them, but on our respect for the intrinsic value of those lives. Then we will truly be on last mile of the road to No More Homeless Pets.
Best Friends Animal Society