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When a Humane Organization Sounds like a Tin Pot Dictator

The ASPCA’s attack on ‘extremists’

Mustang Sally, one of the adoptable dogs being cared for by Austin Pets Alive!

A document entitled The Tactics of the Extremist Agenda, along with advice on how to deal with public officials who may be sympathetic to these extremists, was made public yesterday – and promptly disappeared from sight.

The document began by smearing various grassroots groups as members of the “Extremist Agenda”, and accused them of setting up “proxies” in their communities to act on their behalf, “slandering” local organizations and their directors whom they deemed to be “sympathetic to the status quo,” and “installing a puppet regime.”

This paranoid view of the grassroots wasn’t coming from the government of Hosni Mubarak or Bashar al Assad in response to the Arab Spring. It was coming from the ASPCA – our nation’s richest and most powerful SPCA.

The Tactics of the Extremist Agenda and Engaging Public Officials could be found in the ASPCApro section of the organization’s website until yesterday, when they were made public by attorney Ryan Clinton, one of the pioneers of the no-kill movement in Austin, Texas. The ASPCA has not yet commented on the documents or their reason for taking them off their site.

The driving forces behind progress in Austin are two groups: Austin Pets Alive! and Clinton’s own FixAustin. As regards being “extremist,” they can only be accused of doing extremely well at saving homeless animals in their community.

Three years ago, determined to do something about the depressing kill rate at the city shelter, they launched a new initiative to make Austin a no-kill city, focusing on the homeless pets being killed at the City of Austin Town Lake Animal Center. Since then, they’ve made enormous advances – in some months reaching a save rate that’s over 90 percent.

But the ASPCA specifically names Austin as one of the cities harboring an Extremist Agenda.

Grassroots groups that spring up in the face of status-quo killing aren’t seeking fame or fortune. They’re not radicals. They’re doctors and lawyers and mothers and fathers who are heartbroken about the pointless deaths of so many homeless pets in their own neighborhoods. And they’re fed up with old-guard, do-nothing, establishment organizations that spend much of their time and their donors’ money killing more animals.

Six years ago, when Austin residents were becoming increasingly frustrated at the shocking number of deaths at the city’s Town Lake Animal Shelter, the Austin Chronicle chronicled a day in the life of the shelter:

The euthanasias begin shortly after 10 am on a Wednesday in early October; by 10:32 the shelter is down about a dozen cc’s of pentobarbital, and 20 cats are dead. They lie stretched on their sides in a neat pile – heads toward the buzzing refrigerator that holds the medicine, feet toward the freezer that holds the dead.

The following year, Clinton formed FixAustin with the goal of turning the status quo around. Last year, the City Council passed a resolution to save at least 90 percent of animals brought to the city’s shelters. And by the end of the year, with the help of new shelter leadership and Austin Pets Alive!, whose mission is to rescue from shelters any animal that is about to be killed, the Town Lake shelter had reached that goal.

The new shelter leadership, incidentally, would be what the ASPCA is insultingly referring to as a “puppet regime.” And, overall, this highly successful, cooperative, energized campaign to save lives is what the ASPCA is calling an “Extremist Agenda” that should be replaced with its own branded programs, inexplicably named No Harm No Kill. (Are the local no-kill groups harming the animals?)

Clinton and his colleagues have done so well in their own home town that they’re taking the Austin Pets Alive! approach on the road. Two weeks ago, the Christian Science Monitor published an article, syndicated nationwide, about their success in Austin and how it can be implemented in other communities.

“Most shelters are in out-of-the-way places and do a poor job of communicating their needs. Then the shelters complain that it’s the public’s fault that they have to kill as many animals as they do,” Clinton says. “There are no excuses here.”

Because so many communities are asking Austin Pets Alive! how to make a no-kill policy work for them, the group recently formed American Pets Alive!, says Ellen Jefferson, executive director of Austin Pets Alive!.

Formerly a state assistant solicitor general, Clinton … has been named one of Texas’s best appellate attorneys under 40 years old seven times by Texas Monthly magazine.

“Everyone needs an advocate,” he says of his animal welfare work, in a modest and lawyerly way. “And this was a solvable problem.”

For its part, the ASPCA offers this advice to cities who are approached by the likes of Clinton and Austin Pets Alive!:

It is important to remember that if the Extremist Agenda establishes itself in your community, there will eventually be a call for policy changes that will implicate your local public officials. The distinction between the Extremist Agenda and No Harm No Kill is not only about caring for animals, but also about public policy that impacts how a community addresses animal welfare needs.

… It may be helpful to point out the slanderous tactics of the Extremist Agenda while maintaining a reasoned, calm and cooperative tone.

Large, well-heeled organizations like the ASPCA are staffed by good people who want to help animals. But the leadership has a tendency to become arrogant and paranoid and to see the grassroots as their enemy. The ASPCA isn’t a Middle East dictatorship, but The Tactics of the Extremist Agenda could easily have been written by one of those regimes.

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