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Many here in Toronto, and in the rest of Canada as well, have this past week been mourning the death of Jack Layton. His character and his spirit have touched something in many people regardless of their political stripes. It's good to be honoured by one's own family and friends but it's really something to be honoured by one's opponents. I've been hearing this a lot: "I'm a conservative but I really liked Jack Layton ..."

For me, Layton was always about social justice and I think he was successful at getting his message across because the message he delivered was a positive one. He talked about solutions and didn't just focus on the problems. His personality wasn't about fear-mongering or scapegoating or riding the rising tides of hate and paranoia. Offering a helping hand up was more important than wallowing in stories of suffering. I think that's what made him a successful leader and what helped turn the NDP, under his leadership, into the official opposition in Parliament for the first time in the party's history.

I think that's an example we can follow in animal welfare.

It's easy enough for people volunteering and working in animal welfare to be overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable mountains and it's easy enough to lose sight of the goal and just start spitting back words of contempt for the "enemy" because it seems that is all one can do sometimes to relieve the stress and anger. I know I do that too often myself.

The solution to ending homelessness for our pets won't be found by only ranting and raving about how cruel people are and what poor pitiful lives abandoned animals lead. We need to change the points of view of our audience and we won't be able to do it just by trying to make them feel guilty or sad or angry. Screaming at people only makes them shut down, turn away or scream back. We need to present our animals in the best possible light. We need to convince people to adopt because adopting is the best choice, not the fallback choice, not just the choice which alleviates guilt.

Sure, guilting someone into action sometimes works with a small minority of people but it doesn't work consistently and certainly isn't as successful or as rewarding as introducing future pet owners to the wonderful friend an adopted animal can be.

To the cynics out there, of which I count myself depending on the day of the week, look at it this way. When the people of the planet go to Walmart and hand over their billions to the associates in blue, do they do it because they feel sorry for all the Chinese/Mexican/third world factory workers who make the merchandise on those shelves or because they think they're getting quality products with good enough service at a decent price?

We owe it to our homeless animals to provide at least that level of service and more. Most shelters and rescues follow that theme already in their listings for available animals - stressing the positive, not over-emphasizing the negative histories. This positive attitude must come across in all aspects of dealing with the public, not just in pet descriptions. Our words and actions regarding homeless animals on social media sites, in private, in public, at work, amongst friends will affect the way those animals are viewed.

I'm not suggesting we brush stories of cruelty under the carpet - that too is a reality which needs to be exposed - but, in the end, we can either present homeless animals as objects of desire and have crowds lining up for them or make them objects of pity and have a handful of concerned activists show up.

Whether we support animal welfare or the environment or social justice, we need to continue spreading hope, not despair if we want to succeed. I think those were some of Jack Layton's last written words, or close enough. He always believed the goodness of people would prevail.

I may not have as much confidence in humanity as Layton did, but still, I sure hope he's right.

6 Comments to “"Optimism is better than despair"”

  1. Joanne says:

    Fred, BINGO, make the animal an object of desire. I have often suggested to rescues with respect to black coloured animals....don't promote them as no one wants them and they are the last to be adopted and first to be euthanized. You have to alter peoples’ perception. Sympathy may work some of the time but desire and want work much better. Market them as the simple basic black dress, elegant, classic, timeless. I even suggested taking pix of them in a single strand of pearls. No one listened. I think promoting them as emminently desirable, sleek, sophisticated would be helpful in promoting their image as something positive. The letter goes tomorrow...I was waiting for the Layton hoopla to die down and maybe, just maybe the letter won't wind up in the trash. Fingers crossed.

  2. Flossy says:

    Fred, your blog brings optimism...that is what it has given me for all these lovely creatures....I could honestly cry from joy.

  3. Lynn says:

    I agree, Fred, and thank you for your post. I've struggled with that and often find myself (out of desperation, I think) quickly going to the "do you know how many animals are killed every year!?" Because I'm not sure where else to go when faced with someone who doesn't want to spay/neuter their pet or who wants to give it up because they're moving, etc. But I saw that at Best Friends, they focus almost solely on the positive and I've tried to incorporate that idea into my own work because it seems to work for them. I think what's lacking (maybe you can help ;-) is a decent set of positive arguments/comebacks when faced with things like "I refuse to take away my dog's manhood" or "she's so cute, I just want her to have one litter" or the whole "it's just a dog" mentality. I'm actually fairly new to all this and I find animal welfare people an exceptionally high-minded group who tend to push their ideas down other people's throats with little compassion or understanding of where that person comes from. We have to understand the mentality and thinking behind those on the "other side" in order to argue effectively. Anyhow...I could go on, but Thanks for writing this. I think the conversation needs to continue.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I rejoined the political process after years of abstention to help Jack Layton win the leadership of the NDP, and I find his last letter inspiring.

    That said, I do not for one second believe he intended to that we present any person or creature as an 'object of desire.' Jack was not afraid to stand up for the oppressed and marginalised, and to say, loudly, these people are being oppressed and maginalised. He was not afraid to point to suffering, even to rub noses in it. He did not say 'these people are objects of desire' or 'wear your aboriginal/gay/disabled neighbour with pride!'

    Think! An object can be tossed away when it wears out or becomes outmoded. A living creature is a lifetime commitment. A little black dress goes conveniently in the closet when not needed: a big black dog has needs whether convenient or not.

    The whole reason we have these problems is *because* other animals are seen as being 'lesser', as being objects that can be acquired and disposed of as we see fit. Do we really want to plug into that, agree that they are objects, but *desireable* ones?

    What happens, then, when desires change?

    No,no,no,no! We must stand *against* the commoditisation of life, any life, all lives. If not for the sake of those lives, in the knowledge that if those lives are objects, how long before ours, too, are objects?

    When Jack said "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world." he was not saying we should not make our outrage at injustice and cruelty every bit as obvious as his was. He *was* saying we have to hope, to work, to believe that we can change it.

    And if we cling to hope, work, and faith, even when we know better, we *will* change the world. Not just ours, but that of those around us.

    It's not a finite struggle, and there is no final victory. But it is worth every second of it, every hope dashed, every love betrayed, for that one moment when one person, regardless of species, looks back at you with some hint of love and understanding of all that you have done. They could even be dying, of AIDs, of panleukopenia, of parvo, but that moment when they let you know that they know you are there for them is even worth the loss you suffer alone afterwards.

    Not objects. Living, feeling, loving, hoping *subjects*. Worthy of love and kindness for their own sakes, and not any other reason.

    Believe it!

  5. Fred says:

    Anon, agreed but the difference is that you chose a different definition for object of desire than I have. I'm implying an emotional permanence whereas you imply something transitory. Maybe I should have been more clear.

    I don't like the commidification of life and all that implies anymore than you but if given a choice between raising the worth of homeless animals in the eyes of the public, even if it includes the use of marketing methods which may somewhat commidify these animals, versus sticking them in a gas chamber, I'll take the former every time. We can strive for the ideal but until we get there, if we get there, I'd rather save a life than spend time wondering if what I'm doing is idealistically sound.

  6. Joanne says:

    Thank you Fred, well said. What I meant was to do whatever is necessary for a person to see an animal as valuable and worth saving. It if a cute picture that pushes someone to adopt an animal, so be it. It is all about altering peoples' perception of animals. I really don't care what Jack Layton said or did. It is irrelevant with respect to adopting out and saving animals. I wonder if Mr. Layton even owned an animal. As a matter of fact I don't think I ever heard him speak out about animals and the abuse they suffer. If you want to talk about the most helpless and marginalized in society, then that is animals. Don't think Jack ever urged anyone to donate to a rescue or adopt an animal. As a matter of fact, his last request, the request of the family or the NDP party was for donations to the NDP think tank. You have to make someone want that animal, want to give it a home, want to love and care for it and sometimes it takes a clever marketing ploy. At least Stephen Harper has rescued cats and I believe his wife lends her support to cat rescues. Olivia Chow...not at all.

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A request

The reason for this blog is to help get specific dogs adopted from TAS but equally important is to try to normalize the idea of shelter dogs being just as good and just as desirable as any other dogs including those which are regularly merchandised by backyard breeders, puppy millers and those few remaining pet store owners who still feel a need to sell live animals. The single greatest stigma shelter animals still face is the belief that shelter animals are substandard animals. Anyone who has had enough experience with shelter animals knows this is untrue but the general public hasn't had the same experiences you've had. They see a nice dog photo in a glossy magazine and too many of them would never think of associating that dog with a dog from a shelter. After all, no one abandons perfectly good dogs, right? Unfortunately, as we all know, perfectly good dogs are abandoned all the time.

The public still too often associates shelter dogs with images of beat up, sick, dirty, severely traumatized animals and while we definitely sometimes see victims such as these, they are certainly not the majority and, regardless, even the most abused animals can very often be saved and made whole again.

Pound Dogs sometimes discusses the sad histories some of the dogs have suffered. For the most part, though, it tries to present the dogs not as victims but as great potential family members. The goal is to raise the profiles of animals in adoption centers so that a potential pet owner sees them as the best choice, not just as the charity choice.

So, here's the favour I'm asking. Whenever you see a dog picture on these pages you think is decent enough, I'd like you to consider sharing it on Facebook or any other social media sites you're using (I know many of you do this already and thank you for that). And when you share it, please mention that the dog in the photo is a shelter dog like so many other shelter dogs waiting for a home. If we can get even five percent of the pet buying public to see shelter dogs differently, to see how beautiful they are and how wonderful they are, and to consider shelter dogs as their first choice for a new family member, we can end the suffering of homeless pets in this country.