There’s a narrative in the animal welfare community that’s been particularly irking me lately. With millions of homeless and unwanted animals across the United States, shelters facing budget cuts and declining donations, many regions are facing a crisis with animals in need of homes, and nowhere to go. Yet, this is rarely covered. The media occasionally discusses shelter crowding and related issues, but what it usually focuses on is animals with A Story. And every time it does, the coverage inevitably notes that once the story of the animal was publicised, requests to help, and often to adopt, flooded in from all over the nation, and sometimes from different countries.
Apparently a homeless and unwanted animal becomes important when ou attracts the attention of a journalist and can be hyped up in the media. And apparently people who mostly do nothing about the crisis with animal shelters in the United States suddenly feel inspired to adopt by reading a story. I wonder, you know, what happens to all the people who can’t adopt these animals; do they go to their local shelters and decide to bring home a dog or cat, to save an animal who needs their help but doesn’t have a flashy narrative? Because I suspect that they don’t.
And I also have to wonder what they were doing before. Where are they for the homeless animals in their community? Where are they when animals in their own community need help? Where are they when shelters in their own communities need help from members of the public and issue appeals for assistance? Why does a homeless animal only matter when ou comes with a horrific, frustrating, angering story attached?
I think this speaks to a larger problem in the United States when it comes to how people think not just about animal welfare issues, but also social justice for humans. And that is the tendency to personalise it and make it an individual problem, rather than to examine the institutions that lead to it. It’s the tendency to think that things can be solved by addressing situations on an individual level, rather than by confronting the much larger systems behind them.
When people focus on one homeless animal to the exclusion of others, that animal certainly gets help. When members of the public donate thousands of dollars so a dog can have expensive orthopedic surgery, that dog certainly gets help, instead of a death sentence. But what about all the other animals? This country euthanises millions of healthy dogs and cats every year because no one wants them. It kills millions of animals because it doesn’t know what else to do with them. How does helping one animal, one sad case, address this problem?
It doesn’t. If anything, it makes the situation worse because people feel good about themselves for sending $10 to the fund to help the cat with horrible injuries from animal abuse, and then their sense of civic duty subsides and they can return to whatever they were doing before. They don’t have to stop and wonder why so many animals are homeless, they don’t have to consider their own complicity in the situation animals face in the United States.
When people publicise and talk about these sad cases, they miss the fact that thousands of cases like this are happening right now, are ongoing, and no one’s talking about them. Maybe the abused animal escapes and dies quietly in the woods somewhere. Maybe the shelter takes one look and euthanises because it doesn’t know what else to do and knows, in that cold hard metric you learn when you work for shelters, that the costs for care would be too much to justify with hundreds of other animals in need. Maybe a member of the media doesn’t happen by to put the animal on the front page and suggest that readers of the paper help out by sending some money the shelter’s way. Money often earmarked specifically for that animal, so the shelter can’t do anything to help the other animals it has, and ends up sitting on a pile of funds it cannot use.
Personalising institutional violence is a way to make people feel good. It turns it into a small, digestible thing that is easy for people to cope with because they don’t need to think outside themselves. They can send money to the appeal or talk about how sad it all is over brunch and then forget about it. For animal welfare advocates, who work with cases like this on a daily basis, who struggle to get people to pay attention to the huge problems with the way this country handles animals in need, it is a frustrating, constant reminder that the only way to get any attention is to parade an animal with A Story before members of the public to get them to care.
Every animal has a story. Every animal matters. And we all play a role in the way this country deals with animals, from the number of animals your county shelter kills each week because it doesn’t have enough space to, yes, the animal that ends up in the paper because the abuse ou endured was so horrific and unusual that even shelter workers, used to the acts of people who treat animals like disposable objects, blanched. We are all a part of this.
And we are all complicit in the fact that people feel obliged to personalise the stories of abused, abandoned, and unwanted animals in order to get people to care. This is on us. It is our need for animals with Stories that drives this. Every time people flock to help a single animal they read about in the news or saw on the television, while ignoring the other animals that need help, well, that’s on us too.