Tom Cushing

Tom Cushing works to place stray animals and lawyers into new situations where they may prosper. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Culture: Reviews
Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters
Create Space, 210 pp., 2009; $13.95
Irreconcilable Differences

Nathan Winograd discomfits a lot of folks. By his steadfast devotion to no-kill principles and relentless advocacy, he has demonstrated that it is possible—and ethically imperative—to end shelter killing of healthy or treatable animals. Not just someday, either, but now. Many of those distressed thereby have built careers that acceded to expediencies, assuming most deaths were inevitable and the fault of a careless public.

Winograd is an admirer and intellectual heir of the visionary Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA and equally controversial in his day. Although a more conciliatory approach might lead to quicker conversions, Winograd instead seeks to drag people from the great middle ground of animal advocacy toward him, and past where they could go if allowed room for philosophical compromise. Starting with the title of his new book, he does little to signal any change in tone.

In Irreconcilable Differences, he writes clear and rigorously reasoned essays on 16 topics. Many make excellent reading, as he develops keen insights on timely issues of feral cats, the “underground railroad” of shelter animals from highkill areas, unnecessarily difficult adoption processes, and the fact that movies celebrating our pets should be welcomed and anticipated.

He further strengthens the case for nokill in other essays, developing comparative economics of shelter operations, and running the population numbers to show what is required to end most shelter killing. With 17 million new pets sought every year, the achievable challenge is to link a minor fraction of those seekers with the three to four million healthy pets who die behind bars annually. He also finds hope and vindication in the overwhelming approval of Prop. 2 in California (regarding treatment of food animals), as demonstrating latent critter love just waiting to be tapped.

A few entries are future-directed. His treatments of the ethical implications of spay abortions and a deeply personal rumination on true euthanasia (as distinct from the term’s misuse in shelter killing) reflect profound reverence for all life. Perhaps he is ahead of this curve, too, but I wonder whether other species cling to life in quite the way humans do. They have little conception of what might await them, and no reason to fear it.

One problematic passage involves his familiar theme of HSUS fear-mongering. In it, he attributes numerous quotations in the organization’s Animal Sheltering magazine to HSUS itself. While generally supporting HSUS positions, those benighted opinions actually come from author Jon Katz, in an interview.

Those who regret the rancor between no-kill and the sheltering establishment may find a glimmer of hope in the concluding essay, “We’re on the Same Team.” Most of that essay sets up a dichotomy between the no-kill and broader animal rights movement on one side, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on the other. Winograd castigates PETA for many of its policies, including the slaughter of thousands of companion animals in its custody.

Emphasizing the common philosophies of animal rights and no-kill, Winograd writes, “On the issues of dogs and cats, we can no longer afford to be a divided movement; the division is hurting our ability to achieve success.”

There is another, similar point to be made. In a 2009 San Francisco Town Hall meeting, no less an influential figure than Wayne Pacelle of the HSUS acknowledged no-kill as substantially raising the sights of the sheltering community regarding the life-saving results that can be achieved. Is it too much to hope for a movement unified around the principle of compassion, and adopting the proven strategies Winograd espouses?

Culture: Reviews
Saved: Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transform
Da Capo Press, 212 pp., 2008; $25.95

Lost in the hubbub over the First Puppy’s privileged origins and his new owner’s subsequent donation to a humane organization is the fact that coveys of committed volunteers have always formed the backbone of the rescue movement. Their labors of love are performed on the “micro” level, far from institutional concerns that can cloud the lifesaving mission. Often impelled by life experiences, rescuers find unanticipated rewards in the work—the redeemed animals provide comfort, joy and deep meaning in the lives of their saviors.

  Such is the message of Saved, a compilation of 28 vignettes describing the lives and deeds of a diverse group of these animal “activists” (in the truest sense of the term). We meet Randy Grim and Quentin, a dog who survived the local shelter’s gas chamber and now helps Randy patrol East St. Louis, Mo., looking for strays who might otherwise not be so fortunate. And Lori Sarner, of Palm Springs, Calif., who founded the Pegasus Riding Academy for riders with disabilities, and her horse, Cimmaron.   There are also legal advocates, such as the Virginia couple who lobby their legislature to end the annual shelter killing of 135,000 dogs and cats in that state. Or the late Mary Warner, who, through dogged determination and advocacy, shed light on organized animal theft rings and their trafficking of people’s pets to unscrupulous labs.   Then there’s the tale of Maricopa County, Ariz.’s, controversial sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and his program to rehabilitate stray animals, teaching employment skills to inmates in the process. Tough-guy Joe is shown in a photo, clearly smitten, cradling a kitten. Say what you will about his general approach to civil liberties, in this case he appears to be on to a program that is crucially helpful to all concerned.   Saved also contains smaller stories that are no less meaningful. There’s Elton Ackers and the canine PeeWee, who help each other recover from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, and Walt Kuchler finding solace in his formerly abused horse: “I lost my boy to drugs, and my horse saved my life. Animals are God’s gift to us.”   For all the poignancy of its content, the book’s emotional impact is undercut a bit by the author’s journalistic style. There is much good reporting on these pages, but less storytelling. A poem (“A Dog Sits Waiting”) inserted into one of the sketches was much more moving than the worthy tale itself.   The common thread of the book, woven across species, purpose and geography, is that the humans who have reached out to animals in need have found themselves rewarded in great and sustaining measure. They are united by the purity of motive, the guilessness and emotional clarity of the animals they help. And they all find therapy in the connection. As Jane Goodall writes in her foreword: “I well know the healing power of animals … My own life has been enriched by a long succession of rescued dogs. How rewarding they have been.”   There may be inspiration in these stories for folks who have considered helping in this work. Numerous ways to do so are illustrated here; innumerable other possibilities await the energies and particular talents of passionate volunteers. As Saved amply demonstrates, the rewards will be bountiful, and surprising; they far exceed the effort.


Culture: Reviews
Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals
University of Chicago Press, 208 pp., 2009; $26

As a child of the ’60s, I learned about humankind’s separation from and dominion over “the animals.” Toolmaking, morality and opposable thumbs were said to be elements of that separation. Well, we still have those thumbs.

Our other human conceits are falling away, however, under carefully devised studies with outcomes that reveal the richness of “lower” species’ lives and social interactions. Sustained observation in native environments, most identified with Jane Goodall’s primate work in Gombe Reserve, has joined statistical analysis in the toolkits of respectable scientists. The approach has proven useful in demonstrating the breadth and depth of animal behaviors as well as variability within species and social groups. It seems that the more we learn, the smarter and more sophisticated our companions on the planet become.

In Wild Justice, ethologist Marc Bekoff and bioethicist Jessica Pierce carefully review and organize the evidence and propound the theory that many species (including, of course, canines) exhibit moral behaviors in terms of their capacities for cooperation, empathy and justice/ fairness. This is no soft-headed, sentimentalist tome. The authors—both of whom are PhDs and take pains to employ the language and constructs of science in their attack on traditions opposing anthropomorphism— argue convincingly for a continuity of morality across species, and for less separation of humans from the rest of the earth’s creatures.

The book is rich with examples of animals acting selflessly or according to species-specific social conventions. We learn the stories of Binti Jua, the celebrated gorilla who rescued a small boy after he fell into her zoo enclosure, and lesser-known tales of elephants protecting an injured comrade; a “midwife” bat (who was observed repeatedly and effectively assisting other bats in difficult births); and Libby, the service cat for Cashew, an elderly dog. In addition, the authors discuss what is not yet known, proposing tests of their hypotheses and avenues for further exploration by their fellow academics.

As dense with information as this book is, it remains readable by nonscientists, and its philosophical implications reach far beyond scientific confines. If Bekoff and Pierce are right—conceptually and /or specifically—their work raises very real policy questions for the broader society. If nonhuman nature cannot be dismissed as mechanistic or just “red in tooth and claw,” then what does that mean for humans as stewards of the planet? Can we continue to rationalize our current approaches in laboratories, feedlots, shelters or the open oceans? If other species share our moral space, are they intrinsically worthy of greater respect in the law than their current status as mere property?

Dog partisans will be among those least surprised by these findings. As a group, we’re not hesitant to ascribe “human” motivations to our canine companions. Although the authors defend their work as much more than “stories told at the dog park,” perhaps it will provoke those kinds of philosophical inquiries in that venue as we watch our charges demonstrate some of the behaviors described in Wild Justice.