What do a dog bite and a social movement have in common? If you are in Austin, you probably have heard about Neville, the Austin Pets Alive! dog. He is a two year old little retriever mix dog that has been sentenced by a judge to “be destroyed” after he bit a child on the face. It is pretty clear he was scared by the child who surprised him from behind while trying to hug him. The child clearly had nothing but sweet intentions. The family filed a “Serious Bodily Injury” determination and the judge agreed and sentenced Neville to be killed.
What happened next is fascinating. The local news stations got ahold of the court ruling and ran a story. The public rallied to save Neville, garnering more than 50,000 signatures on a petition within four days. He is not safe yet, but a group of volunteer attorneys are working around the clock to pursue all legal remedies.
So where is the social movement? A successful petition can scarcely be called a social movement in and of itself.
The social movement is much bigger and deeper than just Neville and involves the end of animal care and control in shelters as society has come to know it. The best way to describe the vast majority of shelters, both nonprofit and municipal, is as institutions with every connotation that the word “institution” evokes. Much like the human institutions that have been created to handle the elderly and infirm, the mentally ill, the convicted, and even the orphans, animal shelters were created decades ago to do away with a problem that was unsightly to the public and for which there was not better answer at the time. The institution to remove and kill animals from the streets was created due to public demand for governments to fix a problem. It is not surprising that although those institutions have progressed to be more positive than they were 50 years ago, they still have layers and layers of institutionalized knowledge, practices, and philosophies around controlling loose animals by killing them to unravel. Neville’s sentencing is the perfect example of a bureaucratic system that routinely takes a life without hesitating based on one isolated incident even with plenty of evidence to suggest that it was a provoked bite. There is no political win for an elected judge in sparing his life. He might hurt another person if freed but he can’t if he is dead. It is the safe way to go.
The link between Neville and the institution of animal sheltering is in that ingrained thought process that animals are not worth the expense and uncertainty to save them. And there is an underlying assumption that the public would want them eradicated. The response that Neville received from average citizens, the ones that haven’t been involved in sheltering, the ones that can see right from wrong without the lens of “the way it has always been done,” shines a light directly on where we are as a social movement. Fifty thousand people don’t want this dog to die even after he bit a child in the face. That speaks volumes about how the average citizen sees the value of the life of a dog. The general community no longer believes that dogs and cats should be exterminated to make life easier for humans. There is public demand for life saving alternatives to the solutions that government came up with eons ago. The public will carry this movement over the finish line and into a No Kill USA. People created the institutions that kill pets. And probably a lot fewer than 50,000 people are responsible for that. The power of social media to pull the people together that demand better is changing the game. There are plenty of people, if each picks up a small piece of the work, to undo what has come before.
Austin Pets Alive!’s job, as a No Kill leader, is to help channel that rally cry towards the solutions that have been proven to work in Austin and move them across the country.
Like many other cutting edge ideas, Austin is the incubator of the end of killing pets. What started as an organizational mission is now the mission of the entire city. This is a new era and this social movement is ready to spread like wildfire. Once again, today, I’m proud to live in Austin, the safest city in the world for pets.
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