Before the recent presidental election, there was talk in the media about the “Bradley effect”—the difference between what voters say to pollsters and the way they mark their ballot in the privacy of the voting booth. As it turned out, in this election, the polls were accurate; people voted for the candidate they publicly supported.
The humane movement has been living with its own Bradley effect, the notion that despite all evidence to the contrary—the people we see at the dog park, the people we talk to in the lobby of our veterinarian’s office, the number of successful books and movies about animals, the amount we spend on our pets, the demographics that show the immense compassion of a pet-loving nation—Americans are irresponsible and somehow don’t care enough about animals. This is followed by an equally unconvincing corollary: Shelters in this country have no choice but to put to death roughly four million dogs and cats every year.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do approximately 165 million dogs and cats share our homes, and not only are we spending more than $40 billion per year on their care and comfort, but study after study confirms that people will cut back on their own needs during periods of economic downturn rather than curtail the care they provide for their animal companions. The success of “no kill” does not depend on winning the hearts and minds of the American public. We don’t need to gain their support because we already have it.
While voters were electing a new leader to move us in a new direction, they also banned confinement cages for chickens. During the same election, Massachusetts voters ended Greyhound racing. In 2007, Oregon voters followed Florida’s 2002 lead and banned gestation crates for pigs. And in 2006,Arizona voters passed a farm animal protection statute banning veal crates, while Michigan voters defeated a measure to increase hunting in the state. In short, we have discovered that despite the things that separate us as Americans, people in all walks of life want to build a better world for animals.
What makes some of these votes especially significant is that Americans not only care about dogs and cats; they also care about animals with whom they do not have a personal relationship. And if, despite all the forces telling them that voting for these laws was a bad idea, they voted for them anyway, we need to put to bed once and for all the idea that dogs and cats need to die because people are irresponsible and don’t care enough about them.
The lesson here is that the leveraging of this love can and should be used to effect change. Specifically, it can be used to end the tragic policy of killing companion animals in U.S. shelters. Many communities are doing so— some are in the North, some are in the South, some are in what we call “blue” states and one of the most successful is in the reddest part of the reddest state.
As the New York Times noted just after the election, “Even as we celebrated our first black president, we looked around and rediscovered the nation that had elected him. ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,’ Obama said, and indeed, millions of such Americans were here all along, waiting for a leader. This was the week that they reclaimed their country.” It is a new year, there is a new president and we have new hope. It is time for animal lovers all over this country to reclaim our movement, too. A no-kill nation is within our reach.
Photograph courtesy Nathan Winograd