Four Heroes

So I’m here in Washington, DC at the No-Kill Conference put on by The No-Kill Advocacy group, and I’m listening and talking to mostly like-minded people. I, of course, have an overwhelming feeling of pride and feel fortunate that you all have given us the resources to be where we are at this point in time.

Oreo’s Law is a huge topic of conversation here, and we’ve learned a lot from it. “The Movement.” I didn’t realize I was part of the movement until Paul Berry used those words at Pets Alive in 2007, which seems so far in the past when I look at it now.

It’s never really been a “movement” to me. I’ve always seen it as a simple recognition of our moral responsibility toward companion animals. We have a moral obligation to each and every one, and we should not allow anything to get in the way of that. Pets Alive has been successful because that is the overriding tenet that controls everything we do.

There were four people speaking here today that really connected with me personally. Really touched me deeply and really helped me to understand that this is truly a movement in the purest sense. It’s a shift in ideas, in foundations, in manners of thinking and acting. And that’s what we’re witnessing.

We don’t have to kill adoptable animals. That is something that all of us respect, understand, and appreciate. Even the ASPCA, which has put itself out there as the kill shelter poster organization because of their words and actions, pays lip service to the idea that killing should be a last resort.

We all believe this. It is part of our core and flows logically from the stuff inside of us we call our morality. There can be no moral equivalence for death, which is a nice way of saying we don’t throw around the phrases “fate worse than death” or “better off dead.”


1. Rich Avanzino

Kerry was reluctant to go to a seminar today called Using the Law to Save Animals, because she thought it would be too dry. Boy was she wrong! It was given by a guy named Rich Avanzino, now the President of Maddie’s Fund. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Maddie’s Fund, it is the largest funding source for no-kill in the history of no-kill. It was set up by the couple who started PeopleSoft, an HR software system designed to get Human Resource people off of mainframes and on to PCs. Great idea. Very profitable idea. Maddie was their beloved rescue dog, and Maddie’s Fund was set up to help make the USA no-kill.

Rich has an impressive resume that includes being President of the San Francisco SPCA. His list of accomplishments is truly amazing, and it starts with the story of Sido, the little Collie mix that started the no-kill movement. And Rich has been called the father of no-kill, a title he has truly earned.

To make a long story short, Sido’s caretaker, Mary Murphy, committed suicide in 1979. As part of her will, Mary specified that Sido be killed. The SPCA and Rich were not about to let that happen.

“The law says a pet can be destroyed like a piece of furniture,” he told the Anchorage Daily News. “We’re saying that’s wrong.”

WRONG. Not illegal. WRONG. Morally reprehensible. They saved Sido and she lived with Rich and his family until she died on her 16th birthday.

What absolutely blew me away beyond words was his reaction to talking about Sido. Let’s remember this happened three decades ago. I was sitting in the last row and I could see the pain on his face and hear his voice crack as he talked about it. This is someone who has been in animal rescue and animal welfare his entire life, is an attorney that has argued and directed animal law cases, is someone with a true presence, and is the financial lifeline to the no-kill movement, making him a very powerful man.

And he was still pained by the death of this dog that he saved and loved.

Kerry and I and the rest of us at Pets Alive talk often about how anyone could kill animals — how they could kill animals like Oreo who could have lived. It happens hundreds and thousands of times per day. And it came to me in that instant that they are incapable of the compassion and empathy displayed by people like Rich and you and me every day.

One of the board members in the Brick shelter asked me why I would care about the FIV cats. Why was I making such a big stink about 6 cats? Would that person ever get up before a group and still feel the tremendous loss of an animal they saved thirty years ago? Do they ever go to bed and wonder about the animals that went home, grin ear-to-ear and kiss their own animals on the top of their heads?

Are they ever haunted by the animals that didn’t get saved? The endless parade of pictures and emails and people begging to save the animals they are morally responsible for? Do they ever shed their own tears, feel their own voices crack, feel the debilitating wave of sadness for that one soul that was snuffed out that didn’t have to be?

No. I would argue that they have to be incapable of all of that or they simply couldn’t kill an innocent animal, or even be an accessory to killing an innocent animal.

Ironically enough, Rich ushered in what should have been a golden age for San Francisco and its animals — a no-kill community. His successor destroyed both the organization and no-kill. That would be, of course, Ed Sayres of the ASPCA, Oreo’s killer.

Sayres inherited an SPCA with a strong infrastructure, departments that had become the envy of the growing No Kill movement, and a fundraising apparatus that had amassed an endowment of over forty million dollars.

When he got through he had squandered money on stuff like trying to figure out how to contact dead animals and they were now losing $3,000,000 a year. And he demolished no-kill in San Francisco.

Wonder how he sleeps?


2. Micah Kellner

Micah is an anachronism — a politician with a moral compass. That’s why he, like the rest of us, got rolled by the ASPCA (without help from other organizations who will remain nameless) when it comes to the law he authored — Oreo’s Law.

I had the same a-ha moment I had with Rich when Micah was giving his speech today at the conference. I lived the story but I was captivated by what was being said. I kept glancing over at Nathan Winograd who was even more involved than me, and he was rapt as well.

Micah is a foster home for cats. He heard about Oreo from one of the organizations he works with. Later on when Jane Hoffman of the Mayor’s Alliance wanted to club people who supported Oreo’s Law she spent a lot of time seeking out Micah’s friend to ostensibly try to put them out of business. I include that to illustrate that with the dirty tricks they are trying to play on his friends, imagine what kind of stuff they’re trying to stab him with?

Did I mention that the ASPCA is in Micah’s district? That’s a lot of money and a lot of power up against you. And Micah didn’t cave. Why? Because he was doing the right thing. Because someone had to do it and he was that someone. Period.

We lost. But in January we’re coming back and we’re taking no prisoners.

How do you think Micah sleeps at night? I wondered at lunch today if Jane Hoffman climbs into bed with the thoughts of the thousands of animals SLAUGHTERED at the CACC every day because she is more interested in keeping her power than doing the right thing. Again, not the legal thing. The right thing. She can’t possibly be capable of the empathy and compassion necessary because if she did she wouldn’t be able to handle the abdication of moral responsibility for those souls whose blood is on her hands. She couldn’t lie to our faces and then bring those lies into the New York Assembly to kill Oreo’s Law and 25,000 animals a year with it.

We hold the moral high ground here by a huge, incontrovertible margin.

Even Micah’s legislative pals made fun of him because while they were trying to come up with a budget for New York he was reading Nathan Winograd books and as they said, “playing with animals.” I smiled today thinking that he managed to get Oreo’s Law written and into committee and they still don’t have a budget.

Go Micah. I am honored to know you.

If you live in his district, vote for him. If not, find some other way to support him because we need more people with moral clarity in government, especially in New York.


3. Nathan Winograd

I totally identify with Nathan — people say the same things about him they say about me. They call us obnoxious, say we go too far, they “agree with what we’re saying but not the way we’re saying it.” When the naked, unvarnished truth is a monster unleashed by one of us and slowly gnawing a hole through your torso you tend to try to distract everyone from the monster by complaining that he needs a haircut. That’s what crap like those sentences mean to me.

I think Nathan is a genius. I think he has worked tirelessly, pounding away at person after person, organization after organization, leaving them no choice but to think about the monster instead of the haircut. That’s something I’ve always been able to do as well.

No one ever notices the fifty things you try to do before you go after someone. No one ever says “it’s a real shame Nathan had to bludgeon Ed Sayres, but Ed probably should have listened when Nathan gave him one hundred opportunities to get on the bus before it ran him over.”

Again, I’ve been there. Every time someone confides to me that they would love to work with us but are afraid to deal with Nathan I burst out laughing and shrug. He’s the team, babe. Get on the bus or get under it. Those are your choices.

I met his lovely wife Jennifer today. Very sweet woman. She told me that when they all turned on him he was really upset. Yeah, that’s another one of my faults. It hurts when you put all your passion into something, and you pour out your heart and soul to try to get across the feeling that makes Rich’s voice crack when he looks at Sido’s picture in his own presentation, or makes Micah grin from ear to ear when he mentions the cats he fosters, or when Nathan actually giggles about the slide in his presentation that shows his own animals.

Can any of us picture Ed Sayres feeling that feeling, let alone conveying it? If so, how could he possibly kill the animals that bestow the unconditional love to us that makes that feeling possible? How could anyone who in any way grasps that passion and that feeling allow any companion animal to suffer when they could be in a great home?

I know exactly how Nathan feels. It hurts me deeply when I make a cogent, brilliantly thought out argument and someone tells me back that he’s surprised I can see past my Big Mac. Shrug. People suck. They don’t understand that you can’t fight the truth forever. It swallows you up.

Nathan, my friend, we always have your back. We are doing the right thing, and you are fueling the machine. Thank you so much for all that you do.


4. Michael Mountain

I saved Michael for last because he’s a standout in this group of amazing people. He saved something so precious to me I can’t express it in words without being overcome with emotion. He is largely responsible for Pets Alive’s doors being open today. His ideas and his principles are the ideas and principles that have rebuilt Pets Alive. Kerry and I owe Michael a debt of gratitude that we can barely express, let alone hope to repay.

Michael Mountain is an icon of the no-kill movement. He, like Rich, was one of the engineers of the no-kill movement, and his successes have saved an incredible number of animals and made it possible for all of us to do what we do, while paving the way for no-kill’s next level.

Imagine how difficult it would be to leave the labor of love that you worked tirelessly on for decades. I’ll tell you — I am not the man Michael Mountain is. Michael Mountain is a man of tremendous integrity, unwavering passion and principle toward animals and the no-kill movement, and the humility to always put the cause before himself, something I am not sure I could do.

Person after person came up to Michael today while I was standing with him chatting. Many of them (mostly young women oddly enough) expressed to him that he was their hero. They asked if he was still with Best Friends. He answered with a “No” that left no doubt that he had nothing else to say about the matter. That’ s it. It’s over and it’s no longer important.

I can’t tell you how many people told me that Oreo’s Law would have passed this year if Michael were still President of Best Friends. That is one hundred percent true.

Best Friends is an organization that we love like a big brother. It hurts us tremendously to watch them turn into just another big humane organization…watch their soul being torn from them. I cannot imagine how Michael must feel.

Michael, if it helps at all you will always be the father of the child Pets Alive has become. Standing on its own legs, awkward and unsure. We know we always have the principles, the passion and the moral clarity that made your Best Friends our inspiration, and made you the New York Yankees of the no-kill movement.

And at the risk of making a very poor analogy, you’ve fathered many children that are all trying to make you proud.

Thank you for all you’ve done for the no-kill movement. Thank you for everything you’ve done for Pets Alive and for always being there for us.

Those are four heroes. I’d also like to mention Sido and Oreo who helped these heroes change the world.

This is simply about understanding in your heart, feeling in your soul that the killing is wrong. It’s not about sitting behind your desk and ordering your own staff who is begging you not to kill Oreo to “shut up and do your job.” It’s not about attorneys, officers of the court with a code of conduct and a code of ethics, lying to the public and state legislators to protect your own power, knowing that you are signing the death warrants for 25,000 animals.

It’s about understanding on a metaphysical level that the death of these beings, these sentient creatures that are aware that you have killed them, is morally reprehensible and wrong.

It’s about loving these creatures and accepting responsibility for their safety and their souls. These heroes have sacrificed and led and saved millions of innocent lives.

What will you do to honor them?

No more excuses.
No more compromises.
No more killing.
No-Kill now.

Filed in No-kill, Why we do this by Admnistrator on Aug 01, 2010.  There are 9 Comments

9 Responses to “Four Heroes”

  1. Judith Says:

    Well said! I felt so honored to be in the company of such tremendous people this past weekend, people who don’t accept excuses.

    It was my personal pleasure to meet both you and Kerry. I am so grateful for your support and the wisdom you so willingly shared with us based on your own experiences. You both honor these pioneers and your heroes as you pay it forward.

    Thank you for helping a fledgling organization like Last Chance Animal Rescue find a way to move through the excuses to negotiate a better outcome for the animals.

  2. Brigitte Says:

    This weekend was truly amazing and a powerful call to action. Your blog really captures that spirit and I thank you! One thing I’m puzzled about: the criticism against Best Friends. I don’t know anything about it, but I sincerely wish, probably naively, that organizations would recognize the power of collaboration and see the way they are all diminished by failures to get along and share resources. It’s depressing. ASPCA’s actions against Oreo’s Law were shameful and reprehensible. If something like this has happened with Best Friends, the truth needs to be told, not just hinted at. But truly, thank you for your powerful testaments to some true heroes of the movement.

  3. Christie Says:

    Extremely well said, Matt.

    This weekend was amazing – such great learning opportunities, not to mention those moments of staring at our idols. 😉

  4. Honor Says:

    Well said Matt, as usual. I’m so glad that you and Kerry were able to go to the conference. And I am also very happy that Micah Kellner was invited to speak. He wasn’t my representative when I lived in NYC but I still feel a slight ownership of him, having lived and voted for so many years in such a great city. What a great advocate he is for the unfortunate animals of NYC. I’ve dealt with city animal control and found it useless. I know (unfortunately, in the 80’s the pit bull I found and took there was killed. I didn’t know better at the time. And couldn’t have researched it better. Relied on PHONE CALLS).)
    Every day I look at our boys adopted from Pets Alive. I think of what could have become of our little black pit-retriever or our (loud) finnish spitz-retriever mix (we prefer “spitzer” only as a joke–no political interpretation intended) and am grateful for the chain of people involved in saving both from certain death. This chain of well-wishers ended at Pets Alive, Our dogs have enriched our lives and our children’s’ lives immeasurably.
    Thank you for all you do . We are ever grateful, as I’m sure many, many other folks are. (reference: the alumni picnic).

  5. Cheryl Says:

    Thank you, Matt, for sharing this excellent post. I so wish I could have been there and witnessed what you did. I find it odd however, that no one wants to talk about how Best Friends betrayed the no-kill movement, the animal rescuers coalition and the entire animal loving population when they helped to defeat Oreo’s Law. How can this be? And yet, I am not all that surprised. During the 24 hours leading up to Oreo’s death, when those of us in the rescue community were working our butts off trying to save her, Best Friends responded to inquiries that they could not interfere in any way with anything the ASPCA had decided on. Little did we know at the time that this was more of an organizational mantra than simply a statement of their position on a single doomed dog.

    I look forward to January. We are with you.

  6. Admnistrator Says:

    Ah, Best Friends. We’re done taking them out to the woodshed. They understand they screwed up. There’s a major expectation that they will be with us come January. You can read the details in my blog Best Friends – Welcome to New York.

    If not we’re going to spank them much worse then we already have. I was HUGELY impressed with Rich’s statement that one of the reason’s Maddie’s fund is set up the way it is is so that organizations can apply peer pressure to other organizations to get them on board.

    And that’s what we’re going to do in January. But we’re gonna do it NEW YORK style.

    Thanks for caring.

  7. Admnistrator Says:

    Also in addition to what Matt said, Best Friends did not even KNOW about Oreo until after she was dead. The ASPCA never reached out to them to ask for advice or to take her in, so you can’t beat them up for not stepping up to take her….they were never asked.

    Also when we first started Oreo’s Law support letters, I called Micahel Mountain and asked him for a letter of support which he IMMEDIATELY wrote for us, and it is on our web page http://petsalive.com/oreo … So while I despise the decision not to take a stand on Oreo’s Law by Best Friends and they destroyed my faith in them on that, Michael is certainly not responsible, nor can they be blamed for not taking Oreo in.

  8. Kathi Says:

    Excellent article, I have read about all these people but you have put a touch on your writing that knowone else has. I am proud to be a supporter of Pet’s Alive and it is a priviledge to be able to read your heart felt stories. Thank you for all you do.

  9. Cheryl Says:

    Matt,
    This quote was sent to me yesterday from Michael Mountains’ new Zoe Nature Newsletter that a friend received:

    “Twenty years ago, 17 million homeless pets were being killed in shelters every year. Today, it’s fewer than 5 million, and almost all the humane societies and shelters are on board the no-kill movement.”

    So tell me is Michael living on a different planet then the rest of us or did those of us who witness the slaughter at animal shelters every day with no relief in sight miss something monumental?

    I am interested in your response to this extremely positive spin on an extremely grim situation.

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