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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Criticism: Constructive and Otherwise

There has been a lot of discussion on this blog’s Facebook page over the last month or two about the role of public criticism of local shelters in getting communities to No Kill. Pretty much everyone agrees that criticism has a role. The difference of opinion is on the issue of when criticism is helpful and when it is counterproductive and hurts No Kill progress.

This is not a simple question because it gets into the whole issue of how to bring about change in local government. The answer to the question is going to be different depending on the circumstances. In a small town, all it may take to reform the shelter is an offer to foster kittens and hold adoption events. In New York City, however, you have a local government that has been doing animal control since 1807 and has a whole bureaucracy built up. Getting a city government like that to change can be a major undertaking and requires a lot of political skill.

Another consideration with the use of criticism is that once you start making attacks on the local shelter director you have burned that bridge forever. If you make attacks in the name of “No Kill” you have just created a shelter director who hates the very sound of “No Kill.” So before launching attacks on the shelter director, local advocates should consider whether a sincere and determined effort to help the shelter improve has been made and has failed.

Making an effort to help the shelter before criticizing it is a no-lose proposition. If the effort succeeds then all is well. If it fails, that failure will turbocharge a reform effort made up of volunteers who have been prevented from helping the animals. When you have 10 or 20 volunteers who have been forced to stand by while animals are needlessly killed, you have the nucleus of a group that will have both knowledge and determination.

Once a decision to publicly criticize a failing and recalcitrant shelter has been made, what type of criticism is helpful? That depends on the audience. Criticism of a shelter based on its statistics and practices may be very effective when directed at a city council or county commissioners, but it must be accompanied by constructive and specific recommendations for change. A shelter director from a nearby No Kill community, or a No Kill consultant, may have more of an effect on community leaders than local advocates could have.

If the audience is the general public, criticisms based on statistics and best practices may convince a few people but most people will not pay attention. And a shelter director can deflect that type of criticism by saying that the critics do not understand the unique circumstances of the shelter, that the shelter’s intake is different from other shelters, etc. Most people will buy those excuses.

No Kill advocates can take a lesson here from the fight against factory farming. Several years ago the Pew Research Center put out a report that was a blistering indictment of the factory farming industry on every front – harm to the environment, harm to public health, cruelty to animals, putting small farmers out of business, and negative health effects on workers. That report was chock full of facts and statistics, but it had nowhere near the effect on the public that the clandestine videos taken by organizations like Mercy for Animals had around that same time. A video of a calf being beaten, or a baby chick being thrown alive into a grinder, has more effect with the public than all the statistics in the world.

It’s the same with the local shelter. Arguing that a 50% live release rate is below the industry standard may not  get you very far with the public. A photograph of a mother dog and her litter of puppies killed by mistake while a rescuer was on the way, or a pet killed because its microchip was not scanned, will get headlines and make a deep impression on the public. You can’t get that kind of documentation, though, unless you are involved with the shelter.

What I’ve said so far applies to a failing shelter that will not change voluntarily. Once a city or county government or shelter director decides to make a sincere effort to get to No Kill, then criticism becomes a whole new ballgame and different considerations apply. When a credible No Kill effort is underway, criticism becomes a balancing act. Every word of public criticism against a shelter while it is trying to get to No Kill will hurt the effort, because it will have a tendency to decrease the number of volunteers, the amount of money donated, and the goodwill of the community. The more effective and on point the criticism is, the more it will hurt the effort. So the advocate has to make a decision whether the criticism will do more harm than good, and has to think about how to phrase the criticism so that the constructive aspect is emphasized and the destructive aspect is minimized.

The advocate in this circumstance must be sure that he or she knows the shelter system thoroughly and is competent to balance the harm the criticism will cause against the benefits. A good example of constructive criticism of an ongoing No Kill effort is this blog by John Sibley on the subject of New York City’s nightly kill list. Sibley has dealt with the NYC shelter system for a long time and is thoroughly familiar with it. The criticism acknowledges all the progress that has been made, and it discusses the reason why the kill list was started and the fact that it has been effective. Then it discusses the downside of the list and argues that today, the harm outweighs the good.

An example of unproductive criticism of an ongoing No Kill effort would be an analysis made by someone who has never been to the shelter in question and never talked to the director, where the analysis was made based only on statistics and current practices and only skims the surface. This type of criticism can hurt the shelter but not help it. Very typical of such criticisms are statements like: “The shelter should be open longer hours,” or “they need to institute a TNR program,” or “they should be having off-site, free adoption events each weekend.”

A shelter director who is making a sincere No Kill effort is likely to be thoroughly familiar with the advantages of longer hours, TNR, and off-site and reduced-cost adoption events. And if by some chance the director doesn’t know about those things, a private communication would be sufficient. But No Kill programs often have barriers that are not obvious to a bystander. An advocate who did some research might find out, for example, that a local ordinance forbids TNR and the city council doesn’t want to overturn the ordinance because they are concerned about bird kills. With that knowledge, the advocate could write something constructive that used facts to help persuade city leaders that TNR is good for cats and birds.

Why do we have such a problem with unhelpful criticism by No Kill advocates, i.e. pointless criticism of shelters that are in the process of transitioning to No Kill or have achieved No Kill? A good deal of it is no doubt because killing animals, even when it is true euthanasia, is a very emotional subject and people tend to write about it reactively rather than strategically. Another reason may be the effect that some No Kill leaders have on their audiences. Most No Kill leaders today are convinced that cooperation works and that divisiveness is counterproductive. There are some leaders, however, who seem to encourage advocates to look at all but a handful of shelter directors as enemies who cannot be trusted. We should not be surprised when the followers of those leaders conclude that shelter personnel are routinely faking statistics and just waiting for chances to kill animals. If we have No Kill leaders who mock cooperation and say that fighting is the only way forward, or who say that a shelter director who is not saving 98% just doesn’t care enough, then we can expect No Kill advocates to conclude that no-holds-barred criticism is a good thing regardless of the context.

The idea that No Kill advocacy always requires confrontation and that cooperation is useless traces back to the mindset of the 1990s. There was a time some 15-20 years ago when many elements of the traditional shelter industry fought against No Kill, and the fights were often bitter. I can understand how No Kill advocates who were active back then find it hard to forget. But that was then and this is now. Today it is not an exaggeration to say that No Kill practices are generally recognized as industry best practices. We still have people in the shelter industry who dislike the term “No Kill,” but that is usually because of the divisiveness associated with No Kill, not because of No Kill’s ideas about the best way to run a shelter.

Criticism based on that old “white hat, black hat” divisiveness is destructive because that world no longer exists. That doesn’t mean we all have to love each other and sing Kumbaya. It does mean we need to focus on what is happening today, not what happened in 1996, or 2006. In fact, No Kill progress has been moving so fast that events of even five years ago are ancient history. People who cannot keep up with this change would do us all a favor by retiring from the movement.


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