Tom Van Winkle
Have you ever wondered why some organizations, groups or movements drive deep seated, lifetime loyalty from their members? Groups where even when something unsavory is found in their ranks, members make excuses and defend the group as a whole. Please understand, I am not talking only about the easy targets I am sure you are thinking about right now. There are thousands of examples that cross all spectrums from social, to political, to business organizations. The point is, why do we defend our groups when some members do something that doesn’t match our values, mission, etc. and why do some groups attract a greater amount of defense than others? For anyone reading this with a background in psychology or philosophy, I know there is no one simple reason for this phenomenon, but I am going to focus on one theory as it relates to the point of this blog.
One reason members of groups will defend its honor, and even go to the extremes of defending individual members who have strayed, is because of what they had to do to become a member themselves. People who go through a hard time together share a greater bond. They understand the hardships each has undergone and have respect for others who have endured what they have experienced. This may be an extreme situation such as surviving a horrific event or it may be making it through pledgeship of a fraternity or sorority. Humans are social creatures and we bond with others who have shared characteristics. One such characteristic is a shared experience, so we bond with those we can relate to in terms of what they have been through. It follows that the harder or more intense the experience, the stronger the bond. I will use myself as an example.
Over the years I have joined the membership of many organizations. These are groups that are doing work I support and I have been proud to support their efforts through my financial contribution. There are others though, where my involvement was more than just a paid membership. In college I joined a fraternity, and after college I was accepted into special training programs, volunteered to be on boards of directors and participated in team sports. Of all the organizations and activities I have been involved with over the years, it is the ones which required more from me that I am still closest to. In other words, the ones that caused me to work harder and required more from me physically and/or mentally are the ones closer to my heart. It isn’t that I don’t condemn individuals who do things that don’t align with my group's values, it is simply that I am not as willing to turn my back on the whole organization and in fact, am much more inclined to put the effort forward to redeem the group's positive stature. Ok, so where am I going with all of this?
There is an industry of which I have been intimately involved since 1997. One that I, and countless others, have given their proverbial blood, sweat and tears. One where no one can say is easy physically or emotionally. Yes, you guessed it, I am talking about helping homeless animals. This work has been so intense that, right or wrong, it has become part of my identity. I have walked dogs, cleaned kennels, cared for the injured and been the CEO. When I hear someone say something bad about an animal welfare agency or someone working in my industry, I immediately get a pit in my stomach because that is “me” they are talking about. Just as I am fiercely loyal to my university, fraternity and high school, I am fiercely loyal to the animal welfare industry. It follows that while I don’t necessarily agree with every individual of my groups and I know there are those I just don’t like very much, it doesn’t sour my view of the organization as a whole and in fact, these individuals make me want to do more to uplift the image of said organization.
I am far from the only person who feels this way about animal welfare. There are thousands of people who feel the exact same way as I do and are working every bit as hard as everyone else to provide the best they can for animals in need. Some are in situations where they have more or less resources at their disposal than others, so they are able to do more or less than others, but it isn’t because of their commitment to their work. So my question is, why aren’t we coming together as an industry to have the same level of support for each other? Why is it that I can wear a T-Shirt with my high school name on it and someone completely unknown to me will go out of their way to introduce themselves yet this same courtesy is not shown to those in my own industry? Why do we tolerate the public “raking over the coals” of those in our industry? If someone writes something negative about my university, there are thousands of responses from alumni, yet horrible things are said about our peers and colleagues and we say nothing. I don’t know the answer, but I do know we need to change.
For those who can give examples of other animal welfare groups you work with, I say hooray for you. I truly mean that. I am happy to hear when individual organizations can work together, but ask yourself this question. Would you publicly defend one of your partners if they were attacked on social media? Would your group welcome another rescue, humane society or animal control agency without knowing someone personally who worked or volunteered there? If an agency reached out to you for help and you weren’t able to assist at that time, would you circle back with them when you did have the resources they needed? Is your organization working solely for yourself or do you see that you are part of a greater cause? Do you realize that the work you do impacts thousands of other agencies everyday and in turn, impacts tens of thousands of animals everyday?
In the past, my stance was, live and let live. If a humane society, animal control or rescue wanted to simply do their own work and not engage with others, that was fine. While we may not be helping as many animals as we could collectively, this individual agency was helping some animals which is great. The past couple of years have changed my viewpoint. Those who don't understand the important role they play in the animal welfare industry and who aren’t willing to work with others in our field should step aside and let someone else take the reins. Animals are dying every single day and it is not because:
An agency is doing a bad job,
There isn’t enough money,
The people who have to euthanize the animals are bad people.
It is because of our inability to look beyond our 4 walls and proactively work for our shared mission.
Yes, some agencies can do a better job. Yes, many agencies are underfunded. And yes, while I don’t believe anyone enjoys euthanizing animals, there are people who have been doing it too long and should be removed from that activity. These are individual challenges that must be addressed, but it is our unwillingness to commit ourselves to solving this together that is causing us not to make the progress we need.
One last question - what will you do this week to help our industry as a whole?