A little serious, a little satire, and all opinion on animal welfare.
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One of the most recent NRA alerts warning of the decline of America’s greatness if Pennsylvania passed SB 626, the pigeon shoot ban, included three very telling points.

First, the mention of pigeon shoots has become increasingly oblique in them, never mentioned specifically and instead referred to as “organized bird shoots.”

Second, they do not  actually ask their supporters to call legislators to defend pigeon shoots.  Instead they ask supporters to call in support of “sporting traditions”.

Finally, in an almost desperate tone, the NRA says, Your legislators are claiming that they have not heard from you!  Make no mistake, if they are not hearing from you, it means they are only hearing from extremists who want to destroy one of the Keystone State’s traditions.  We need to make our voices heard.” Legislators aren’t hearing from pigeon shoot supporters?  Maybe that’s because there really aren’t any.  Or maybe it’s because the out of State “sportsmen” who are driving the dregs of this “proud tradition” are too busy beating up women.

It is hardly a surprise that these non-sporting spectacles for profit would lead to violence outside the shooting ring.  When pigeon shooters assert their “Second Amendment rights” by launching trapped pigeons from catapults for target practice, it is to be expected that those who oppose these shoots will assert their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and express their opposition.

Increasingly, shooters are getting violent outside the shooting rings.  For months protesters have been verbally harassed, had their property damaged, been pushed and shoved, even notoriously had a gun pulled on them in the middle of a busy Bucks County street.  Until now, the response from the authorities, authorities who often block charges against pigeon shoots under current cruelty law, has been to ignore it or even charge the victims.  They chalk it up to protesters “asking for it”.  That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  “It’s a shame she was raped, but what was she doing in that alley at night, anyway?”

But as the attacks have grown more severe, the protesters have been becoming less “in your face” and more peaceful and quiet in their demonstrations.  It is increasingly hard for anyone to say the victims of assault are “asking for it.” And like so many other peaceful protests movements in the past, this only seems to inflame the opposition more.

Now the pushing and shoving has turned to punching and blood.  Two of the most active pigeon shoot ban advocates have been attacked, on camera, by the proud pigeon shooters.  If the NRA wants to protect Pennsylvania’s centuries old traditions, I’d like to suggest we leave violence against women off the list.  One pigeon shooter from New Jersey doesn’t seem to agree and is filmed climbing inside the car window of one female activist and taking swings at her head while screaming profanities.

He didn’t like the fact that she was lawfully documenting who went to shoots (and if they are so above board, what’s the problem with getting your picture taken?).  She wasn’t in his face, screaming, or waving signs.  She was sitting in her car quietly across the street.  But he decided that he was not just man enough to violate real sporting tradition and shoot birds in a box, he was man enough to beat up a woman.

Then, another activist, Steve Hindi of SHARK, was whipped on the head and bloodied.  I will be the first to say Steve is no Martin Luther King or Gandhi– actually the second because I’m sure he’d be the first.  In fact, I think he’s generally the definition of strident and we don’t find one another particularly likable.  But is being unlikable an excuse for being beaten?  Many find me entirely unlikable but I don’t expect those who don’t like me or what I say or how I say it should have the right to whip me.  And wasn’t whipping the go-to method for controlling protesters in Selma, Cairo, Johannesburg, and Darshana?  Could these shooters become more of a caricature of violent oppression?

I must think that at some point these attacks on defenseless protesters must garner some sympathy even from those who would just as soon not have the protestors around.  Just as the images of attack dogs and water cannons made even those unsympathetic to King question the response, is it not time for our local and State police and DA’s to question their own inaction in the face of this violence?  If it was me or you at a pigeon shoot, or a rally in Washington, D.C. or at the grocery store, being punched, whipped or threatened with a gun, wouldn’t we expect to be protected by the authorities?  Wouldn’t the authorities expect it?

And now that we know what is happening at the handful of shoots still being held in Pennsylvania, who will our legislators side with?  Will they side with the mere dozens of people who profit from shoots in Pennsylvania by hosting the mere scores of tough guys from other states who come to shoot?  The NRA themselves told us that “their” people aren’t even calling in support of the shoots.  Will the legislators side with brutes and victimizers who cap off a day of shooting by punching women and whipping men on the street?

Or will the side with the millions of Pennsylvanians who oppose these shoots and want them to end.  The animal advocates and sportsmen alike.  The animal rights activists and hunters alike.  The vegans and the meat eaters alike.  When so many disparate people and groups oppose a practice, even if it’s for various and differing reasons, it’s no longer called a “radical fringe” like the NRA would claim.  It’s called a consensus.

It is a good sign that the attack on the female activist led to actual charges against the attacker this time, even if it was merely for harassment rather than assault.  But what about the rest of the incidents, past and future?  Where is our “no tolerance” policy for violence when it is directed at pigeon shoot protesters?

I’m not a marcher or protestor by nature.  But if there are many more photos like these, I may find myself standing on the street in solidarity with the protestors, whether I personally like them or not.  And you can damned sure bet that if someone whips me, I’m going to expect my DA to file charges.

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I bet that got your attention.  I thought I’d take a page from the NRA playbook.  They figured out long ago, and quite effectively, that the best way to get what you want (or block what you don’t) is by terrifying people and making every issue about something it isn’t. 

That’s exactly what they’ve just done again with the Judiciary Committee passage last week of Senate Bill 626, which would ban block and tethered shoots of non-game birds in Pennsylvania.  They take a half-hearted stab at standing up for the shoots themselves.  Then they go right into the claims of all the things that SB 626 is supposedly all about.  They proclaim it is a stealth proxy war on, well, on just about everything.  

According to the NRA, this bill is about more than pigeons.  It’s about dove hunting in Michigan, bear hunting in Maine and New Jersey, hunting in national parks.  I had no idea the Pennsylvania legislature could write laws for New Jersey, Michigan, Maine and the federal government!  But the NRA seems to think we can, so it must be true.  Let’s start with annexing Acadia National Park.  I love that place! 

They claim that this is an effort to end Pheasant stocking in Pennsylvania.  We must be reading different bills because the SB 626 I just re-read specifically exempts game birds.  Maybe they don’t know what a pheasant is. 

They lay the blame for this effort to ban the unsporting farces that are pigeon shoots on “radical” national groups.  If that’s so, I’ve been paying my State and local taxes to the wrong place.  I thought the Humane Society of Berks County was a private, independent charity formed in 1900 and proudly based in Berks County, PA.  The funny thing is, the NRA is itself a national group based in Fairfax, Virginia.  They must feel so conflicted.  That’s a mere George Washington stone’s throw from Washington, D.C.  Maybe it’s that proximity to D.C. that makes the NRA so out of touch with what Pennsylvanians want. 

And after all that misdirection and fear mongering, they provide the coup de grace: they encourage people to call their Senators on the next Committee to hear the SB 626.  Not to oppose passage of the bill or to defend pigeon shoots.  No, they want us to tell our Senators that “Pennsylvania has many longstanding traditions dating back hundreds of years and Pennsylvanian’s stand by those traditions”.  Seriously?  This is about standing behind traditions from centuries gone by and not the actual thing the bill addresses?  Now I understand how this works! 

Allow me to grant that the NRA is utterly correct.  Because that lets me say the following:  Call your Senator and tell them that opposing SB 626 is a stealth, proxy attack on our modern values.  The next step by radical national groups is to revive slavery, take away the right of women and non-landowners to vote, or return us to indentured servitude; heck, maybe they’d like to bring back the monarchy.  “Hundreds” of years ago we liked the King just fine here in Pennsylvania.  And I hear there is a darling wedding happening soon. 

Of course, none of what I just said was intended to be a factual statement.  And I have a feeling that nothing the NRA had to say was either.  

Let’s stick to the facts:  Trapping pigeons in New York City, bringing them to Berks County, launching them from a mechanical device to be (ineffectively) shot by people from out of state who are illegally betting while children are enlisted as “wringers” to gather the wounded, twist their heads off, and dump their bodies in the trash, is not sport.  It’s not the proud tradition any hunter or sportsmen I know was raised into. 

I don’t want “radical” national groups telling us what to do in Pennsylvania either.  But it’s not these groups that have convinced the sportsmen and hunters who live in Berks, who support the HSBC, and who serve as volunteers for the HSBC, that these shoots are wrong.  

They know they are wrong because their fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers who hunted, who killed what they shot and ate what they killed taught them the difference between sport and cruelty for fun and profit.  We know which pigeon shoots are, thank you very much. 

The NRA and their members who share their political agenda have every right to oppose this bill and they should.  But they should not lie about what the bill says or intends, nor about who is behind the effort to ban pigeon shoots.  And that is exactly what they are doing. 

The next vote on SB 626 may come as early as next Tuesday.  Please take a moment to call or email your Senator, the Chair of the Appropriations Committee, and Committee members by clicking in the right spot and tell them what you think about the “proud tradition” of pigeon shoots and SB 626.

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Early this afternoon I was fortunate to witness a glimmer of hope for the likelihood of a more humane Pennsylvania and I was given a reminder about who the originators of the humane movement sought to protect from victimization.  

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly in support of SB 626, a bill to expressly ban mechanical trap and tethered shoots—pigeon shoots.  In true bi-partisan fashion, Republicans and Democrats, rural and suburban politicians, passed SB 626 out of committee.  The bill was prime sponsored by Republican Senate Whip, Pat Browne, co-sponsored by many from both parties, and received only three Nay votes on the committee, and even those were cast by proxy, saving them from proudly standing tall to throw their pro-cruelty vote against the bill in public. 

Four Senators spoke in support of SB 626 and they ranged from a self-professed hunter (and tofu eating non-hunter) to a proud, card carrying NRA member.  Regardless of their views on food, hunting or gun rights, they knew that pigeon shoots were simply wrong.  Not sporting, not valued tradition.  Wrong.  And when the vote was taken and yes after yes was announced I was among those beaming with happiness that this ridiculous practice of pigeon shoots was one huge step closer to the Governor’s desk for signing.  You can imagine how the people who have been working to get even this far for decades felt.  Many were openly crying with joy and relief. 

But as happy as I was for the vote, tears did not come to my eyes.  Maybe it was because they had already been used for the woman who had just told the story of her son who was sent to a military style boot camp prison on a minor non-violent charge by one of the corrupt judges in Luzerne County who took millions to slap chains on children and subject them to cruelty for money.  

She told her story of being tricked, like thousands of other parents had been tricked, into declining counsel before going into a courtroom operating under the basest of corruption.  She saw her 17 year old star athlete, her only son, imprisoned with violent juvenile offenders, only to emerge broken and ruined.  Ultimately, he committed suicide.  James Baldwin said, “It is a rare man who does not victimize the helpless.”  One would have hoped it might have been less rare for a judge.  Having three young daughters of my own, I can’t imagine the feeling of guilt she must feel for being unable to protect her child.  We all expect to outlive our pets.  We don’t expect to outlive our children.  

Immediately after telling her story, the Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a group of bills which would probably have protected her son and many of the other children who faced the same judicial abuse.  Then they passed the pigeon bill.  In a few short minutes they did something to protect the victimized, human and animal. 

That’s what made me reflect on the origins of the anti-cruelty movement.  Many forget that cruelty against children was often a key part of that effort.  Even now, the American Humane Association has two divisions, one to prevent cruelty to animals and one to prevent cruelty to children.  Then, as now, the helpless need protection from victimization because cruelty knows no bounds, no race, no gender, no class, and no species.  It was true over 100 years ago and its true now. 

Many legislators talk about having other important issues to tackle and it’s not always merely an excuse to avoid taking on animal cruelty.  There are other important issues to address, like the corruption of the juvenile justice system.  As animal advocates, I’d encourage us all to remember that.  Save some outrage for the corrupt judge, the rapist, the perpetrator of family violence and understand that some people place these outrages a little higher on their personal list in importance. 

But for the legislators, who all too often claim that there are more important issues, remember that cruelty doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  The victimization we allow or commit against animals is witnessed by children who grow to perpetrate it- or allow it to be perpetrated- against others.  

Children raised in sporting families are supposed to learn respect for life and for the lives they take.  They are supposed to have compassion and be humane if they are going to take the life of an animal.  The forms of these values may not match perfectly with the values of the same name held by animal advocates, but they are values, similar values, nonetheless. 

But if the children of hunting families learn values from hunting, what do the children who are raised to snap the necks of pigeons learn?  One of the sub-cultures of pigeon shooting involves “wringers”, young boys who pick up the wounded birds, snap their necks and then throw them, wasted and unused, into the trash.  That doesn’t count as respect, compassion or humaneness by either side’s definition. 

And the children put through this pigeon shooting rite of passage aren’t existing in an absence of values; they are learning that it is fine and fair to do things because you feel like it, because they can make money on it, because they have the power to victimize the helpless.  They are learning to be victimizers. 

Maybe they will grow up to be animal abusers.  Maybe they will grow up to ignore it when they see it.  Or maybe who grow up to go to law school and move on to victimize the two-legged helpless.  

There were two types of bills moved out of committee today.  One helped pigeons.  Both helped children.

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This past Friday a couple senior members of HSBC staff and I attended meeting of animal welfare executives hosted regularly by Penn Vet School and Michael Moyer, head of their shelter medicine program.  It was a great meeting, as always, and I’ll be talking more about it in the future.  But it also led to an interesting meeting as we walked back to our parking garage at the end of the day.

Walking out as I walked in was Joe Banner, President of the Philadelphia Eagles.  We had met twice at the meetings held by the Eagles following the signing of Mike Vick.  I re-introduced myself and thanked him for the $50,000 grant HSBC received via the Eagles TAWK Grant Program and told him it had helped lots of animals and people in need.  He said something like, “I think we kept our word on that.”

I have dedicated maybe more than my fair share of time and words to condemning the NFL, and the Eagles by extension, for hiring and aggrandizing violent offenders since they signed Vick.  Being someone with three young daughters, I don’t limit my disgust over the hiring and hero worship to Vick.  Roethlisberger deserves as much or more and the two are Pennsylvania’s East/West coast poster children for the triumph of money over values in the NFL.  The NFL doesn’t seem to understand that that fans invite them into our living rooms and as a rule, I don’t welcome animal abusers and sex offenders into mine.  A $50,000 grant didn’t change my mind on whether signing Vick was the  right thing to do, even if it was the Eagles’ right to do it.  The grant program was their pound of flesh given to pay for the problem they had bought.

However, when we were first at those meetings and people were saying they were strictly for show and the Eagles would follow through on nothing once the cameras turned off, it was Joe Banner’s word which kept me coming to the meetings.  He was honest when he said their evaluation of Vick’s rehabilitation and his hiring was different from ours (and how!) but that they realized they had “bought a problem” and that they were going to do something significant about that problem.

I wrote then that the verdict of that commitment would hang on how true Banner was to his word.  “I think we kept our word on that,” he told me Friday.  Joe, I think you did, too.

Joe, the grant program you set up was one of the largest animal welfare contributions ever made by a corporation not involved in veterinary or pet services.  The grants were given with no strings attached and no requirement for advertising or nice-making on the recipients’ end.  You have given grants to lots of places, even those who were less judicious in their scorn of the Eagles’ decision than even I have been.  Your money has been doing good that would not have been done had you not granted it out and, as some claim, the media attention to the Vick signing may have led to an increased awareness and reporting of dog fighting (although the other correlation offered is that Vick’s notoriety simply increased the amount of dog fighting to be reported).

It may not have been as much as some wanted.  It may not have been in the form some wanted.  But you said it would be substantial and meaningful and it was.  We in the animal welfare world demanded our pound of flesh and you carved it out without whining.  You, Joe Banner, kept your word and, in a world of weasels, I thank you for not being one.

I still won’t be having your friends in the NFL over to my place for beer and chips on Sundays as often as I used to, though.  I just don’t like the way they keep looking at my dog and my daughters.

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No.

Although I have become associated in Pennsylvania with the call for a divestment of animal control services by animal welfare organizations, I got my start in animal sheltering at a place which did animal control and did it well.  Thanks to the right demographics and a thoughtful service and billing model created by a former executive director, animal control services were provided in a way which were, at worst, welfare neutral for the animals and revenue neutral for the organization. 

In the charitable animal welfare world, being able to provide a service for animals that didn’t actually cause them greater harm and didn’t bankrupt your agency was a wild success.  Through some subsequent tweaking of the model, my staff and I were able to improve on the service even more over my time at that organization.

So, when I came to Berks County, I was a firm believer in the role of a strong animal welfare based animal control program and knew that I could bring a model which would drastically improve the quality of service delivery for people and animals here.  And for the time the HSBC still offered these services, we did just that.  Unfortunately, Berks was neither the ideal demographic nor situation for making any long term improvement to animal control services.  In fact, what I found was a circumstance which led animal control to be both vastly worse for animals in our care and vastly worse for our organization’s financial wellbeing.

Berks was among the only Pennsylvania counties which still had an archaic Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement contract for dog catching which provided a pittance in exchange for freeing the State Dog Warden from having to do his job.  This pittance was split between two organizations, as was dog catching responsibilities for municipalities within the county.  These municipalities generally offered a “donation” on top of the State funds, with a few (notably the City of Reading) having a formal contract for service.  Since the State contract mandated dog catching services under its contract with the two organizations, these services needed to be given regardless of whether the municipality provided an additional cent for service.

In some areas of Pennsylvania, this might not be an issue.  If a municipality had a choice between poor service (stray dog pick up during business hours and cats when it was convenient, if at all) and excellent service (24/7/365 on call service for all stray animals and much more) and the added price was only $1,000 to start, the municipal officials would consider it a no-brainer and take the better service for their residents and tax payers.  If you could go further and show them there was a way to create ordinances and programs that would reduce the stray burden- and their associated costs- further, they’d be all over it.

However, if you’ve spent more than an hour in Berks, you now that some of our residents and maybe many more of our elected officials are chea….OK, let’s not say that, let’s say thrifty.  Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?  Heck, for that matter why buy the carton if you can just suck the milk right from the dairy truck sent by the State?  In Berks, a majority of municipalities wanted just as much milk as they could fit in their mouth and was provided for free.  Cats?  If it’s not free, we don’t want to deal with it.  But do us a favor and get those ferals under control.  After hours, qualified staffing, helping injured pets, finding new ways to decrease the number of strays, good reporting so we know how much service is actually being provided?  Unless it’s free and comes with fries, no thanks.

The HSBC came to the difficult realization that we were being taken advantage of by State and municipal governments (not all, but many) and that usury was bankrupting us and leading to a euthanasia rate among strays that was double that of surrendered animals and double what is was in counties where animal control was provided professionally and in partnership with local municipal government.  Crippling for the HSBC and twice as deadly for strays?  It was an unpleasant decision, but a necessary one: we had to get out of the dog catching and euthanasia for hire business in Berks.

We turned our efforts to programs which would diminish the causes of animals entering shelters in Berks as strays or surrenders.  Veterinary services reaching over 10,000 animals outside out shelters each year, strengthened adoption services, Ani-Meals on Wheels, PetNet, Military Mutts foster program, adoption partnerships, cruelty and neglect prevention programs, emergency response services.  We did all this while we waited for what we saw as the inevitable collapse of Pennsylvania’s animal control “system”.  If you’ll permit me a very arcane Isaac Asimov analogy, we have been kind of like Hari Seldon’s Foundation.  We saw the crisis coming, knew we couldn’t stop it alone, but knew we could hasten the recovery by being a stronger organization and being prepared.

For those still struggling under the old system, we have nothing but sympathy.  We know how hard the job is and we respect others’ decision to keep doing it the old way.  We just think that the old way is wrong, bad for animals and our organizations, and the path to a collapse of the system of animal control, such as it is in Pennsylvania, especially in this economy.

While some denied the validity of our prophesies of doom, they are coming true.  In counties where the burden of animal control was being unfairly placed on charitable animal shelters, more and more started to ask themselves, “Why are we going bankrupt offering municipalities animal control services at a loss that require us to kill two out of every three strays we take in?”  And the next thing you knew, that shelter was out of the dog catching and euthanasia for hire business.  Suddenly, everyone thinks there is a crisis.  Now those who had been warned for years of the fall are screaming for the need to find a solution and, ever so charmingly, telling charitable animal shelters that they are obligated to catch and kills strays.  Isn’t that sweet?

Fortunately, there is a way out, even if it takes a crisis to lead us there.  The HSBC has already put out the only radically different proposal for equitably funding animal control services through a public/private service partnership that shares the costs and responsibility and places the work in the hands of those best equipped and experienced to do the job (see “A Modest Proposal”).  The good news is that it is also a model for providing truly humane animal control, not the “sweep the corpses under the rug” model employed in most places.

I only hope that in one, or even all, of the counties facing a crisis due to private shelters pulling out of animal control will seize this opportunity to break the old mold and create a new way forward that is good, fair and humane.  Some seem to be on that path.  If they do, government can get the services they require, people can get the help they need, animals will be rescued instead of rounded up, and we will all work together to find solutions.

 Humane animal control does not need to be an oxymoron.  We just need to stop being morons about how we do animal control.

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