GUEST COLUMN: Treat your colleagues as you would a cocker spaniel by Kate Myers
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1999:
In California, a board
member resigns from the local
SPCA and influences a major donor
to withdraw support. A splinter
group forms in the community. This
brings a media war, culminating in a
criminal investigation and a lawsuit.
In New Mexico, a citizen
brings cruelty charges against the
local animal control agency, after
witnessing alleged improper and
inhumane animal handling. Again,
the media is involved and, again,
As accusations between
opposing factions fly back and forth,
in the background one can almost
hear the animals saying, “Excuse
me, we need some help here!”
Discord in the animal welfare
field is not new. Twenty years
ago, the American Humane
Association and the Humane Society
of the U.S. practically demanded
allegiance. Conferences were held
at opposite ends of the country, at
conflicting times. Staff did not talk
to each other. Animal care professionals
were asked which organization
That situation has mellowed.
HSUS and AHA now work
together. But the history of animal
welfare is littered with other internal
controversies, some of which were
part of that dispute: injection vs.
decompression; early spay/neuter;
mandatory spay/neuter laws; education
vs. activism; no-kill vs. traditional;
veterinarians vs. low cost
spay/neuter; animal control vs.
humane societies; the list goes on.
All of these issues are
valid points of contention and should
be thoughtfully and fully explored.
Conflicts are healthy. What is
unhealthy are the sometimes vicious
and long-lived feuds they spawn.
There are people who don’t speak to
each other because of their disagreement
on the decompression chamber
15 years ago. People who were at
odds over passing mandatory
spay/neuter laws a decade ago clearly
remember the nasty public fights,
complete with name-calling and
accusations. Shelters don’t trust veterinarians
who vocally opposed
early spay/neuter surgeries.
What makes us so angry
that we alienate potential allies and
vilify those who don’t agree with us?
T r a u m a. The issues are
complex, but the root lies in the
traumatic nature of animal causes
and vulnerability of the stakeholders.
As one worker said, “This isn’t a
job, it’s a lifestyle.” When people
become so identified with their
cause that they cannot remember
where it stops and they begin, they
become vulnerable to the trauma
they live and observe. We react to
this trauma in a variety of ways.
There is a lot of pain out there.
Innocent animals suffer and die.
People abuse, use and discard precious
living creatures. There is callousness,
cruelty and horror. It
must be someone’s fault. If it isn’t
yours, it must be theirs. In animal
welfare there is usually an easy target:
the other group, the industry,
or the individual who opposes our
side. It is a small step from disagreement
to blame: “If only the
vets would support our clinic, the
problem could be solved; if animal
control would do more education,
they wouldn’t have to kill so many
animals; if the AKC would do
more investigating, puppy mills
could be eliminated.”
Each statement has an
essential truth to it, but the anger
and frustration that blaming behavior
generates harms everyone involved.
Blaming makes people defensive,
and defensive people have a hard
time listening. They attack. And
you defend. The situation escalates.
The original goal is lost in a cloud of
accusations and reactionary rhetoric.
Thriving on crisis.
Everyone knows at least one crisis
junky. If there isn’t a problem, they
make one. If there is a problem,
they make it personal. Traumatic
events trigger psychological and
physiological responses that are not
entirely unpleasant- –a d r e n a l i n e
surges, muscles tense, thinking
becomes focused. Some people
become hooked on this feeling.
They enjoy confrontation for confrontation’s
sake; righteous indignation
is their stock in trade.
Each of us has felt the rush
that fighting the good fight can generate.
It is what keeps us going
against great odds and unbelievable
stress. But it can also become detrimental
to communication. Trauma
can become a way of life. We begin
to search for faults in others,
becoming hyper-vigilant and sensitive.
(Just try using the word d o g –
catcher with the next animal control
officer you meet.) Instead of seeking
common ground, we seek bones
of contention––because fighting can
be more exhilarating than talking.
Creating distractions. It
is painful to focus on the trauma we
encounter. It takes a physical and
mental toll. It is sometimes easier to
focus on how wrong others are than
it is to deal with the problem.
If the fight becomes about
whether or not the local shelter
should be killing dogs and cats, the
focus is taken away from the fact of
doing the killing. Media interviews,
depositions, underground activities,
and secret meetings remove us from
the reality of the pain. Scoring
points against the opposition can
become the goal.
These reactions are normal,
natural responses to trauma.
But, in order to begin dialogue within
the movement, we need to recognize
these trauma responses for what
they are and move beyond them.
• Become mentally fit.
Just as with physical fitness, maintaining
mental fitness takes effort
and concentration. The traumatic
nature of our work demands that we
be more mentally fit than others
are––just as a professional mountain
climber needs to be more physically
fit than an accountant.
• Make mental health a
priority in your organization.
People who are traumatized have a
hard time identifying problems and
seeking help. Institute a mental
health program in your organization.
• Be a leader in compassionate
behavior. Stop name-calling,
blame-placing, righteous indignation,
gossiping and rumor-spreading.
Ask the others around you to do
the same. Treat those other groups
as if they were cocker spaniels: with
patience, love and gentle communication.
You know how hard it is to
train a cocker spaniel!
• Stay out of the media.
Don’t initiate a media fight. If
someone else attacks you, respond
to the facts and resist the impulse to
badmouth them. The goal is to open
a dialogue, not to create enemies.
Adversaries don’t tend to just go
away; they wait for the opportunity
to do unto you. Use the media only
as a last resort, and understand the
dangers and consequences of publicly
“dissing” the competition.
• Contract with a mediator.
This can be an individual (most
communities have a mediation
agency), another organization, a
disinterested third party or an
agreed-upon representative from an
interested group. A mediator can
help you work through the feelings
and get to consensus.
• Learn about mediation
and negotiation. Read books or
take classes in communication,
active listening, mediation skills, or
negotiation. If you planning to be a
leader in the animal movement,
these skills will be necessary.
[Psychologist Kate Myers
specializes in training and consult –
ing with animal help organizations.
“I worked on the front lines in ani –
mal welfare for 20 years and have
made most of the communication
mistakes possible,” she writes. “It
would have been easier if I had
learned some of this up front. My
goal is to help agencies treat people
as well as they treat animals.” She
lives in Redondo, Washington, with
her husband, two cocker spaniels, a
cat, and a rabbit. She may be con –
tacted at 206-213-6026, or >>only –