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August 01, 2011

Confronting Cruelty, Creating Change to Help Animals

In a story last week in The Courier-Journal, on the appointment of HSUS staffer Justin Scally to run Louisville’s animal services program, the reporter described our organization as “controversial,” uncritically accepting the false characterization of our animal protection work from our critics, led by multi-millionaire lobbyist and snake-oil salesman Rick Berman.

It irritates me to have a credible news outlet label a broadly supported group like The HSUS as “controversial” in the context of a piece about the appointment of a capable HSUS staffer to lead the effort to drop euthanasia rates in the city. There’s nothing the least bit suspect about our broader work to eliminate the killing of healthy and adoptable dogs and cats, or about our aggressive adoption and spay-and-neuter efforts. I am confident Justin will do a great job and breathe new life into the city’s program.

Severely matted dog rescued from a Tennessee puppy mill by The HSUS
Kathy Milani/The HSUS
A dog rescued from a squalid puppy mill by The HSUS.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with The HSUS being deemed controversial among individuals involved in factory farming, trophy hunting, large-scale commercial dog breeding, and many other sectors that cause harm to animals. Being controversial by challenging animal abuse is precisely the point. In Latin, “controversy” means “to turn things around,” and that’s our goal.

But controversy is the starting point, and not the end game. We want to move toward broad acceptance of humane principles. And there’s no better example than the recent agreement between The HSUS and the United Egg Producers to embark on a plan that would provide more space for egg-laying hens by outlawing barren battery cages, add nesting areas and other enrichments to their housing so they can behave like birds, and establish a national labeling program so consumers can make informed choices. Together, we’re committed to passing federal legislation to achieve these objectives.

In this way, today’s “controversies” quite often become tomorrow’s social norms. Dogfighting and cockfighting—not to mention seal killing, whaling, and other abuses—were also once viewed as acceptable. Now they’re anything but that.

The history of our nation has been characterized by struggle over a host of social concerns. It was reformers who led the way in abolishing slavery, outlawing child labor, providing for women’s suffrage, and ending segregation. In the early stages of these movements, they were labeled as cranks or even heretics. Over time, though, their ideas triumphed and they became heroes, embodying the noblest principles of justice, courage, and vision.

As I write in my book, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, we cannot suspend our broader social values of decency and mercy in our conduct toward animals. We must treat our power as a call to responsibility. We must logically apply our anti-cruelty principles in a world where animal abuse is still widespread.

A lot of our work isn’t the least bit controversial—our unceasing raids on squalid puppy mills, our veterinary programs that bring relief to dogs and cats on impoverished Native American reservations, or our lifesaving care centers that treat and rehabilitate horses and wild animals by the thousands.

But The HSUS does so much more. In addition to confronting cruelty and demanding that people act with conscience in all of their dealings with animals, we are driving reform and showing a new way forward.

As Robert Chenoweth, then chairman of the board, said at The HSUS’s first annual meeting in 1955, the humane movement “needed a national society that would stand, absolutely, on humane moral principles—an organization that would unequivocally, vigorously, adamantly oppose any and every kind of cruelty, no matter by whom committed and without concern for who might be offended or alienated.”

The late Mr. Chenoweth’s vision was right in 1955, and his notion is still right more than a half century later.

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