Obama’s words for the no-kill movement

Francis Battista

Kitten hugging another kittenNo, the president didn’t actually talk about the no-kill movement, but he did give a rather interesting speech recently at the Howard University commencement that I think will resonate with a lot of us about how we go about our work of ending the killing of pets in shelters. Trying to blog about anything even closely related to national politics never really seems like a good idea, especially these days, but I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge, so here goes.

Love him or hate him (indifference seems to no longer apply when talking about how we feel about any politician), the president said some things in this speech that you might find interesting. Consider this quote:

And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100-percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you are still going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want … change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.

Now before you start trying to apply that to the dysfunction of Congress, don’t think about that quote in political terms. This is a powerful statement that applies to so many people fighting for no-kill programs in communities across the country.

Moral purity is a personal, self-referenced stance, not a coherent strategy, and it can put the brakes on progress in all sorts of reform movements. If you’re an animal activist, you can stand on your soapbox all day and call people murderers or worse. (Yes, that actually happens around the country far too frequently.) But that kind of action doesn’t bring about change, it just starts arguments. You might as well not say a thing — in fact, keeping your peace and posting some photos of shelter animals for adoption on Facebook is likely to accomplish more than throwing around righteous vilification. We may feel good about ourselves as we stand on that soapbox, but the animals, at the end of the day, are no better off and more of the people you need to get what you want done are turned off.

Compromise doesn’t mean abandoning principles or goals. Rather, it’s a tactic to move the state of play closer to our goal when other avenues are blocked.

Even when we are able to leapfrog our opposition and achieve rapid success, it makes no sense and accomplishes nothing if we go out of our way to make enemies or alienate people who we may have to work with in the future. Apart from anything else, that kind of personal negativity is just a time-suck. It is possible to call it like we see it and advocate for change without insulting people — something we proved in the context of public protests as Best Friends staged peaceful demonstrations outside pet stores with puppy mill animals for sale.

The truth is that unless you’re in a position to take over your shelter system contract (like Rebecca Guinn in Atlanta or Brent Toellner in Kansas City, both of whom will be speaking at our upcoming conference), you’re going to need to partner with the same people who are involved in running the shelter in your community and inserting your personal attitudes into the mix just complicates things.

Don’t think this is some kind of kumbaya singalong session, but would you yell at a frightened, aggressive dog? Really, what I’m talking about is learning to treat frightened people like you would a frightened animal — with patience and gentleness.

There is a phrase I hear far too often: “I love animals, but I really hate people” (or some version of that same sentiment). It can be easy to fall into that “I hate humans” trap. Animals have admirable qualities that many humans will never possess. Animals don’t judge us, they love unconditionally, and they’re always there when we need them. That’s fine, but the animals can’t help themselves, so if we want to do something to help them, we first have to relate positively to people.

Finally, I will leave you with another quote from the same speech by President Obama:

Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.

No-kill is bigger than any single one of us. Let’s all hitch our wagons to it and, together, Save them All.

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Francis Battista

Co-founder

Best Friends Animal Society