by Myles Chadwick
I was speaking to a group of animal welfare professionals recently about something that we at Emancipet believe passionately: People love their pets and given the opportunity will take care of them as best they can. This simple idea guides our outreach programs, our customer service policies, and even where we locate our clinics. During the talk, I explained that we see our role in animal welfare as being one of service. We want to serve pet owners, who we know to love and care for their furry friends, despite not always having the means to afford or even access to veterinary care. Our biggest work is building an infrastructure of clinics inside the areas that are most in need, creating programs to bring people and their pets in for their very first vet visit, and to make that visit transformative. In order to attempt to do this, each one of us must learn to strip away our judgement of others, especially those we serve.
After my talk, I was approached by a man who worked in city government and who wanted to challenge the message that I had been sharing. I had told a story about a man who brought his injured pit-bull to a non-profit animal hospital that was attached to a limited intake animal shelter. When told that he must neuter the dog in order for the hospital to help him, he chose to relinquish rather than neuter his dog because the spay/neuter message was new to him, and it scared him. Tragically, the pit-bull didn’t make it to the adoption floor because he had behavior issues that barred him from being an adoption candidate.
The gentleman took issue with my story’s central thesis, which was that the ideal outcome would have been to treat the dog without the neuter, and let him return to his loving home.Just because this pet owner didn’t want to neuter his dog in that moment, did not mean that he did not deserve to have him, or that he didn’t love him. I know now from many experiences at Emancipet that we would have stood a better chance of becoming a trusted resource, one that he might listen to in the future, by letting him think about the information, instead of presenting an ultimatum when he needed our help the most and then taking his dog away.
Without missing a beat, my interviewer responded that the dog was better off than it would have been in a home with someone who couldn’t afford to take care of him properly. And so I asked him: “Are you saying that “poor people” do not deserve to experience pet ownership?” He confidently replied that he did – and my heart sank a bit.
As I have moved through animal welfare over the last 10 years, I have often tried to reflect back on what I knew before I was an “expert”. The fact of the matter is that I could not have told you why spaying or neutering was a good idea, just that you were supposed to do it. All my cats lived outside more than in. My mom, who loves animals and helped me learn to care for them, performed first aid on my pets if they got hurt because unless she assessed it was life threatening, we could not afford to go to the vet. And I do not come from a systemically poor background, just a lower middle income family with a lot of bills.
When I think about the standard of care in my own home growing up, and our lack of solid pet health literacy, it boggles my mind to think about people who are living in truly hard situations, in communities without healthy food or affordable doctors, let alone veterinarians. It also helps me remember that I loved my pets and that they loved us. My cat Caspur had about a dozen abscesses (from fighting) over the years that my mom drained and cleaned herself. Caspur lived to be 23 years old and was in love with my mom right up until the end. Should she have taken him to a vet? Yes! Could she afford to do so? No! But I know that Caspur was happy, and that my mom still misses him every day.
These are the memories that help me bridge the gap of understanding why people who do not have enough for themselves take care of animals. They remind me why it is not crazy that people sometimes don’t know what a skinny dog looks like, or why a microchip is important, or what parvo is and how to prevent it.
Our work should be about creating social change around pet ownership in the communities that have been left behind by our field and by veterinary medicine. Doing this well, whether working in intake at a shelter, as the ED of an advocacy group, or a vet for a low-cost wellness clinic, means learning to step outside of ourselves, our experiences, and getting really curious about the people we hope to serve. Ultimately, the best way to do this is to go into the community and talk to the actual people your organization wants to work with. But, if you are having a hard time with the foundational belief that people love their pets and are doing the best that they can, a great way to dip a toe into this issue is to read about systemic poverty, and all of its symptoms.
We strongly recommend two books to anyone looking to build their empathy and understanding for people living in poverty in the United States. The first, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, is by Linda Tirado. In it she explains what it is like to slip from the middle class to the working poor and its effect on her psychology, her body, and her decision making. The second, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, chronicles the lives of several residents and landlords in Milwaukee, WI moving from eviction to eviction, trying to find stability in a system that seems hopelessly stacked against them.
These books are not animal books – they are about people- and we think that this movement is about people too. The people that we need to support in order to keep animals out of shelters, and in order to foster more love in the world.