An Open Letter to Dr. Haston (CAO of PetSmart Charities)
Update: After I published this blog post I did receive a response from Dr. Haston, who explained that he had been delayed from responding to his emails by illness. He sent thoughtful responses to many of my questions, but preferred I not publish them here.
A month ago I attended a presentation by Dr. Roger Haston sponsored by the NYC ACC at SVA. The title of the presentation was “Animal Welfare in NYC: Issues, Solutions and Conversations.” (There was a missing oxford comma after Solutions, but I let it slide). The presenter, Dr. Haston, is the Chief of Analytics at PetSmart Charities. He’s also on the boards of National Council on Pet Population and Shelter Animals Count, according to his profile on the PetSmart Charities website. I thought there were a lot of really important pieces of information in the presentation, and I agreed with a lot of what was discussed. However, I also had some follow up questions. I am publishing the contents of this letter here as an open letter.
Hello Dr. Haston,
My name is Samantha and I attended your talk at the SVA Theater about the Future of Animal Welfare in NYC. I am not an animal welfare expert, but I am a volunteer, foster, pup parent, and general dog enthusiast. I definitely agreed with a lot of your talk, including your outlines of the problems distinguishing animal welfare from animal rights, the current socioeconomic divide in the rescue community, and the way that “no kill” rhetoric often fails to achieve what it was intended to.
I wanted to follow up on one part of your talk that I was anticipating (as it was advertised in the event description) and which you touched on but did not spend a lot of time on, and that is the dilemma of the "blocky-headed whatevers" as you called them. As you mentioned, pit bulls are disproportionately brought into shelters, and disproportionately don't make it it out. I believe you stated that it's estimated that 40%-45% of shelter space is occupied by pit bulls. However, what I didn't hear was any sort of solution for what to do about this problem. I'm wondering if you have any ideas on the subject.
As you stated, we've tried to rebrand and relabel pit bulls without success. You also stated how much the rhetoric we use matters. I noticed that often when talking about shelter inventory running out in your presentation, it was in reference to “dogs people want.” There’s no shortage of pits in shelters, and it's directly tied to the social issues you stated are the future of animal welfare. So how do we stop pit bulls coming into shelters and how do we get them out?
You mentioned the hidden high cost of free spay/neuter clinics and vet care still being barriers to pet ownership. More accessibility to free or low cost veterinary services will surely help. So will widespread education about responsible dog ownership. Part of that is training. Often the lowest cost training and puppy socialization programs are at large pet stores, like PetSmart, which is, of course, the for-profit business your company, PetSmart Charities, is a part of. However, PetSmart doesn't allow bully breeds into their training or socialization classes. Do you think this is perhaps one step that could be taken to reach more people when their bully breeds are still young and help avoid behaviors that often lead to shelter surrender?
Another thing I noticed in your presentation was a lot of rhetoric around breed, especially around pit bulls. You talked about a low inventory of the types of dogs that people “actually want to adopt.” You also mentioned the inconsistent shelter supply, as "one day I get a puppy, the next day I get an aggressive pit bull." When you put up the slide about the tragedy of Antoinette Brown, you mentioned that she was killed by a pack of "stray pit bulls" not "stray dogs" as the tweeted headline itself stated on the screen behind you. However, there's no way to know what breed a stray dog truly is unless it was DNA tested. I would just like to raise this to your attention so you can be more cognizant of it the next time you give the presentation. Choosing to assume that a dog bite came from a pit bull is part of the problem, and up on the stage you are in a unique position to reinforce or not reinforce that supposition.
Not all aggressive dogs are pit bulls, and not all pit bulls are aggressive dogs. They're just dogs, like any other dogs. Their size of course means they can do more damage if they bite, but they're not more likely to bite than any other dog. Their disproportionate rate in shelters and the "deep human social issue tied to the pit bull problem" (as you stated) make this a very complicated issue, but as you also stated, the words we choose matter. The words you choose matter.
You talked about public safety being a huge issue- I agree. As a self-proclaimed responsible pit bull advocate (I would love to borrow your terminology and call myself a "socially conscious pit bull advocate"), I hate the myth that pit bulls were nanny dogs, or the insistence that all pit bulls are sweet and make great pets. Some truly do not, and placing a large, powerful, unsafe dog with an adopter is a huge tragedy, both for the adopter and for all other pit bulls out there who will be judged by those actions. You talked about the adoption process being too stringent- how do you walk the line between public safety and responsible rescue?
On a slightly separate topic, what are the lines of the 5 freedoms regarding rescues that utilize boarding, and the shelters that release dogs to these rescues to keep their live release rate up? Whose responsibility is it to make sure those rescues are responsible and adhering to those freedoms?
I know that there are a lot of questions in here, and I don't expect that you'll be able to answer all of them. I hope it's clear that I'm interested in civil dialogue and none of this email was meant to be incendiary or disrespectful. Thank you for your work in animal welfare, and for the talk last night. I look forward to finding and reading your presentation on live release rate as well.
If you are interested in viewing a version of the presentation from that night that was filmed at a separate event, it is available here.