“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” —Immanuel Kant
Late 19th-century New York City wasn’t a good time or place to be an animal. Socialite fashions included whole stuffed creatures such as sparrows, otters, and foxes. One matron made headlines by attending a Vanderbilt dress ball in a stitched-up display of the heads and tails of white cats—dozens of them. Mysterious ladies from the Midnight Band of Mercy were famed for their chloroforming of stray cats, which they carried in baskets and then discarded in piles on street corners. It was an equally perilous time for dogs. Hunted by patronage-appointed “dog catchers,” captured canines were taken to the East River, put in cages and drowned 24 hours later. To get a pet back from the extortion scheme, one would have to make it to the river in time and then pay double the city’s fees.
One hundred plus years would seem to make a difference. Along with a formalized citywide shelter system for strays and abandoned pets and tireless volunteer organizations, there’s a growing nationwide effort led by Maddie’s Fund, a California-based animal welfare fund, to promote the adoption of healthy animals from shelters instead of putting them down wholesale. The process is called “no-kill.” More than anything, no-kill is what Maddie’s Fund recognizes as a “rally cry, a slogan for a movement,” that advocates for saving “adoptable (healthy) and treatable dogs and cats, with euthanasia reserved only for non-rehabilitatable animals.” Although people may believe this is currently practiced in shelters, it isn’t; with 48-hour lodging limits, animals are killed regardless of their potential to be adopted. In contrast, no-kill highlights the systematic difference between humane euthanasia versus simply making room in overcrowded and disease-ridden kennels.
While this philosophical shift in animal welfare is significant, “no kill” as a catch-all motto comes with its own liabilities, potentially implying to the public that shelter systems are “safe” for strays and unwanted pets to be left in. Clearly, this is not the case in a severely overpopulated shelter system. Nevertheless, the public still hears “no kill” and assumes there’s no killing. Last year, in the day following an announcement by the head of New York’s Animal Care and Control (CACC) agency that the city was moving towards “no kill,” intake at the shelters reportedly spiked 80 percent.
Although there is debate among animal welfare groups, what “no kill” advocates do recognize is that the shelter system has its limits and “no kill” is a policy benchmark for change, not a final outcome for all. Non-rehabilitative animals will still get the needle; and some say it’s better to be put down than to be left to the psychosis and hell of cage life. In any case, the longer animals stay locked up, the more they become antisocial. Frustration turns into aggression and, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the animals become even less adoptable.
Yet while cities and states argue, define, and debate possible legislation for “no kill” regulations of the public system, it is the nonprofit volunteer shelters that actually offer any real hope that “no kill” might work.
The Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition (BARC) located on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg is a lively place. On any given day, you can enter BARC’s funky front pet supply shop known as BQE and be greeted by all sorts of dogs and cats lolling about, sitting on cash registers, sleeping in windows, welcoming you near the stacks of treats, bones, and pig’s ears. With its own smells and rhythms, BARC is much more than an animal shelter—it’s a community of dedicated volunteers who run the store, support the kennel, walk the dogs, feed the cats, and help out in any way. Its mission is “to provide a safe haven for homeless animals and find permanent, loving homes for these animals.” Once in BARC’s care, animals receive quality food, shelter, and medical attention from a licensed vet, from vaccinations to spaying/neutering.
Founded and operated by Vinny Spinola, Anthony Spoto, and Debbie Williams, BARC began as a pet food store on Metropolitan Ave in 1987. With luxury condos and boutiques everywhere, it’s easy to forget that 20 years ago the neighborhood was so barren that people came to the area just to abandon animals. “There used to be packs of stray dogs that roamed around,” Spinola says. The small community of artists that lived here then began to bring found animals into the store and ask for advice; there was only one vet and he was in Greenpoint. “We started a rescue group, then a foster home program, and then, as more and more animals came in, we were forced to become a full-blown shelter.” Currently, BARC houses over 60 dogs/puppies and 250 cats/kittens for adoption.
Unfunded by any city, state, or federal agencies, BARC has struggled to survive throughout its growth and location changes solely through income generated by the store, as well as through adoption fees, individual contributions, grants, volunteers and the donated property of those who run it. For anyone living in the neighborhood long enough, BARC has been an essential part of the community, and local fundraisers have been an essential part of its income, from doggie parades to calendars featuring neighborhood boys and their pets, from holiday parties to commemorative walks. When Clovis the dog passed away in February, Amanda Taylor, the owner of Clovis Bookstore, organized a fundraiser for BARC at Iona, which generously opened its bar for a $20 donation to the shelter in Clovis’s honor. With a packed house, music, poetic eulogies, and a New Orleans-style funeral procession by the Hungry March Band, it was a classic Williamsburg celebration as much as a loving wake. It also was emblematic of what BARC as a place inspires.
“There’s a strong sense of community,” Spinola says, “it brings people together. The volunteers are the core elements and we wouldn’t be able to do it without them.” At BARC, every cent goes directly to the animals, unlike at shelters with administrative costs or a paid staff. “Here the owners pick up shit and do everything, and we welcome everybody to come and do what they can. Everything helps, every visit anyone can make is better for the animals, they become better socialized and it’s a needed release.”
BARC is a proactive no-kill shelter. It will not only take healthy, adoptable animals, but also makes a point of rescuing “treatable” animals from the city’s shelter system, even those with behavioral problems. Although it can be hard to get animals that have not previously been in a domestic environment adopted, BARC tries to provide counseling services for behavioral training for difficult animals. Going against what has developed into a prejudice of sorts, BARC is now one of the only shelters to take in pit bulls.
In fact, BARC is so well known and respected as a no-kill kennel that public shelters call them all the time to let them know about healthy, treatable animals in the system. “We go there for one animal and end up taking out twenty. You feel bad and want to take them all home,” says Spinola. And because BARC does between 1,000–1,200 adoptions a year, they still require financial stability to deal with the volume. “It’s always been difficult to get money but donations and grants were growing up until 9/11. After that they went down dramatically.” Although they receive support from corporations, foundations, and individuals, “it always continues with volunteers,” says Spinola, “It’s getting a little bit better but it’s always a struggle, one that’s not fully understood.”
While BARC is supportive of the no-kill protocol outlined by Maddie’s Fund, Spinola and others don’t see it as the complete answer. “We still have our own agenda,” Spinola says. “We take treatable animals from the street, and give a chance to those who have behavioral problems.” Still, “I wouldn’t take a dog that would go crazy and be unhappy in a cage for a long period,” he says. “We sometimes get 75 calls a day and many of them are saying ‘I’ve had my dog for 14 years and have to give it up, should I bring it in the shelter?’” In such cases, BARC would advocate euthanasia. As Spinola advises, “Isn’t it better to spend time with the animal, hug it and take it to the vet to be put down rather then drop it in a shelter where it will feel rejected and live with a broken heart? Isn’t it more humane to take them to a vet, pet them and have them put down?”
The danger of no-kill is that people will think no animals are destroyed and not address the root causes of why the shelters are overcrowded to being with, Spinola says. “There needs to be more awareness. We need to cut off the supply by enforcing breeding laws, creating more programs of pediatric spaying and neutering, and by licensing breeders so there are more penalties for those that feel they can make a buck by breeding dogs in their back shed.”
Of course, the best way to find out what BARC is about is to visit the store, walk a dog, volunteer, and look at the animals on their website at www.barcshelter.org. And the best way to support and encourage the further development of the no-kill movement is to support BARC and volunteer-run shelters like it directly.
The no-kill movement is, no doubt, an important progression from the time of canine drowning and feline chloroforming. Ironically, while rehabilitation is increasingly accepted throughout the nation’s animal shelters, its presence as a guiding framework for social policy is notably absent from debates regarding our larger public institutions; incarceration rates are epidemic, recidivism is high, and capital punishment, while banned in most industrialized countries, is still accepted in much of the United States. Thus, to update Kant’s statement, what does our treatment of animals now say about the way we treat humans?
MEGHAN MCDERMOTT is a Local Editor and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.