Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Privilege, Class, and Animal Cruelty

Note: I'm still working this out in my head, and I welcome other thoughts from people in (and out of) the profession. I'm not playing the apologist, or making excuses, just trying to view a bigger picture from my years of experience.

Most animal control officers (and probably police officers, I don't know), know that there are some neighborhoods that you get to know intimately during your job and some neighborhoods that no matter how long you're working your area, you will still need a map for, because you just don't go there very often. I've realized that these neighborhoods seem to break down around class lines. This is not a hard and fast rule, but a general discussion can be had about class and animal cruelty, as well as the definition of "animal cruelty" and the role of the animal control/humane services officer.

I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood. I'm not sure I ever saw a "pound truck" in my neighborhood. It was a quiet neighborhood and felt a little suburban, though it wasn't, and was on the edge of both a wealthier neighborhood and a more impoverished one. These are the kind of neighborhoods that I almost never visit as an animal control officer. The kinds of calls that we get from these neighborhoods are for loose stray dogs with tags. I generally don't have time to look for an unconfined dog (I'm NOT the dog catcher), and if we don't get a repeat call, in this type of generally wealthy neighborhood, the dogs are brought home by neighbors who know each other. We might get wild animal calls or dog bite calls, or neighbor dispute barking dog calls. With the exception of the bite calls, which can be handled over the phone unless they're in progress, these are not cases of animal cruelty.

There are middle class neighborhoods, with solidly built houses and many home owners, and we do get a fair amount of calls in these neighborhoods- more loose dogs which causes more dog fights and bites, many more barking dog disputes, sick cats etc. There are some animal cruelty calls which tend to be more of the neglect type- a dog is underfed, no dog house, etc. The houses are closer together and it's easier to see what your neighbor is doing. I live in one of these neighborhoods now, and have called on my neighbor who had their dog tied up (illegal in California, unnecessary in this case!). An officer went out, the dog hasn't been tied up since then. This kind of "cruelty" calls are common in these neighborhoods.

And then there are the neighborhoods where people are just getting by. This is where the bulk of our work takes place, and where we encounter the most "cruelty" situations. I have "cruelty" in quotation marks here, because, though I have seen some serious instances of animal cruelty and abuse and neglect, I have never heard or read or seen any serious discussions of the systemic problems that lead to these things. I am not talking about an individual act of violence: someone hitting their animal over the head with a baseball bat is animal abuse and cruelty, no quotation marks at all. It occurs here, there, everywhere, across class lines, as does human abuse and cruelty, but I'm not experienced in that. The kind of "cruelty" issues that I see in the poorest neighborhoods of my jurisdiction are often systemic, and this is what I want to talk about. It's possible that this is just an excuse: duh, themacinator, you just proved yourself wrong: if the rich (mostly white) people where you grew up could find a way not to abuse and neglect their animals, why can't the poor (mostly POC) people find a way to do it right in the other neighborhoods?

Well, I don't think it's that easy. And I also want to put out there right away that this is not just about the whatever-they're-calling this economic bad time. Animal cruelty/neglect is not a recent problem since George W. Bush. If I could blame it on him, I would, trust me. It's easy to blame poor pet stewardship on foreclosures and the economy, and many people have, but I'm unwilling to go there. People who have the resources and education to make pet ownership work do, even with limited financial resources. People who don't have the right type of resources don't. This is not always about money- think about the rich person who buys a dog and surrenders it to the shelter because it barks. Emotional, intellectual resources and a little time would help this rich person keep their dog. Or they could surrender it to a shelter and blame it On The Dog. On the other extreme is the transient gentleman who works with multiple people and keeps his dog for 15 years, until is is no longer feasible. The dog dies humanely, neutered, microchipped, licensed, in the arms of one of his previous rescuers (true story). There are resources, even they aren't green. It's finding them, using them, and wanting them.

Or having them available, amidst the day to day of just getting by. This is what I'm wondering about in lower-middle, lower, and I don't know the word for basically just surviving, neighborhoods. The kinds of calls that involve people having injured animals- maybe hit by car- and taking the animal to the vet but leaving without accepting treatment because they can't afford the vet bills. The kinds of calls where there are dogs chained to trees in the back yard because there is no fence and the landlord won't build one. The kind of house with roosters for fighting. It's really easy (especially in the rooster case) to say that obviously, this is animal cruelty, and maybe, if we're feeling generous, animal neglect, depending on the severity of the situation. It's easy to say that owning animals is a privilege not a right and that people shouldn't have animals if they can't feed/treat/house them, etc.

But it's not that easy to live like that. First, people love animals. The bond between people and animals is uncontested at this point, and I'm just not sure that I think we should cut people off from pets because they are poor. (See above case of transient person and 15+ year old dog.) Second, animals fall into people's laps. My sister/daughter/brother/baby daddy brought this dog/cat/rabbit home. I didn't really know what to do with it, so now it's here. And I'm doing with it the best I can. That's real. People end up with their pets, and they may or may not have had previous education on what is best for their pets. And in the neighborhoods I'm talking about, in the economic situations I'm referring to, they may not have the resources to GET the education on what is best for these pets. In areas where it's easier to get liquor than groceries (see my previous posts about food), it's not really easy to get good information about proper animal caretaking. Many people in these neighborhoods don't have access to cars, and public transportation is shoddy. There are a lot of elderly people who get "stuck" with their kids and grandkids pets. These same elderly people may not have access to transportation, or the internet to do research. They may not be able to adequately exercise the pet. They may not even LIKE the pet, but they care for it as best they can.

So, when the call comes in that a dog has been lying in the backyard, unable to stand for a few days, and I respond, and the dog really can't stand, let's say it's a situation like the above. (I'm making this one up as I go along- not to protect the innocent, but as a hypothetical). It's a large rottweiler mix, and it's clear that his back legs aren't working. Maybe he's tied to a tree, maybe not. He has water, and is in decent weight. Grandma is home, and during our conversation, grandson shows up, but grandson doesn't stay there. He left the dog with Grandma months ago. Grandma can't drive or walk the dog. She doesn't even go out in the backyard. But it's her grandson's dog, and she doesn't really feel she can do anything with it (she can't physically, but she doesn't feel the dog belongs to her- it's HIS dog). He thinks it's HIS dog and why are we there? In the meantime, ownership has fallen through the gaps, and no one has taken the dog to the vet. Grandma is on fixed income, grandson isn't working, and the rottie is possibly dying in the backyard.

This situation sucks, and happens all the time. It's cruelty, I think, and it's neglect. But it's also not that Grandma is a bad person, or even that grandson is a bad person (though chances are that he had the resources to make better decisions if he's young and able bodied, at least in this scenario). Grandma did not set out to let rottie die in the backyard. Grandma thought she was helping her grandson out, it's what families do. She doesn't even know where a vet is. Sometimes these dogs look terrible, like pictures would make you cry. But there's people involved in these stories, and in my opinion, systems at the heart of them. Systems that are failing. Some people, especially in the no-kill movement, want to blame the shelter systems, but I think it's a lot bigger than the animal welfare movement. It's systems that force people to choose what mouths in the family to feed. It's systems that force people to make choices about whether or not to provide veterinary care to their pets based on funds. It's systems that, like making booze easier to purchase than vegetables, make it really easy to buy a puppy or kitten, but don't provide the equivalent of "owner's manuals" about vaccines and lifelong pet care.

Sure, you can "find what you need." Same as finding vegetables. They're out there. But they're not easy to access. Education and access go together. The more I think about it, the more I feel that in most areas, including animal welfare, education and access come with money, and privilege. This doesn't excuse bad behavior, or cruelty. It IS another way to look at what we do, how we do it, and how to approach people who may be treating animals in ways that we don't approve of.

So what is the role of the humane/animal control officer? The letter of the law often allows for prosecution, sometimes up for felony charges, for the neglect and cruelty that I see. Sometimes, I believe that this is appropriate. For example, I think that the rampant rooster fighting that I deal with is also a question of class. Almost all of the rooster owners that I have encountered are in poor neighborhoods, and the uproar when the birds are seized is always in terms of the "love" for the birds. This is hard for most people (including me) to grasp, as the same men (always men) who claim to love the birds will later fight them in a gruesome manner. What is also at stake is a lot of money: money that they paid to get and keep the birds, money they might get from selling the birds, money they may owe on the birds, and the major money made at cock fights. This is a pretty cut and dry case, and I would argue that this is an intentional act of cruelty.

But I'm not sure that I can accept the California Penal code definition of cruelty as is, without further analyzing the situation. (See PC 597 for full text.)
(b) Except as otherwise provided in subdivision (a) or (c), every person who overdrives, overloads, drives when overloaded, overworks, tortures, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance, drink, or shelter, cruelly beats, mutilates, or cruelly kills any animal, or causes or procures any animal to be so overdriven, overloaded, driven when overloaded, overworked, tortured, tormented, deprived of necessary sustenance, drink, or shelter, or to be cruelly beaten, mutilated, or cruelly killed; and whoever, having the charge or custody of any animal, either as owner or otherwise, subjects any animal to needless suffering, or inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon the animal, or in any manner abuses any animal, or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or shelter or protection from the weather, or who drives, rides, or otherwise uses the animal when unfit for labor, is for every such offence, guilty of a crime punishable as a misdemeanoror as a felony or alternatively punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony and by a fine of not more than twenty thousand dollars ($20,000).

Failure to provide... deprive of necessary sustenance... It's so easy to say, so easy to say that DUH it's obvious. When written out like this, I can almost hear myself arguing against myself.

With that, I'm closing this out. I've been writing this for days, and I'm just throwing it out there. Animal Welfare, like anything, should be taken in context.