Superheroes are an amorphous bunch, and it’s about time we defined ourselves

Heads up for today’s blog. While I am going to do my best to make it useful and hopefully entertaining, my aim is to get you thinking about what you know and don’t know about some of words and labels we use in our sector, when talking about each other. If you decide to read past this point, you’ve been given fair warning that clarification is sometimes painfully specific and non-entertaining!

To get us started, I’m heading back to 2013, when the Australian Institute of Animal Management and Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities held a joint conference in Alice Springs. Day one of the AIAM conference included presentations from both organisations to a packed room.

Norm Hewitt gave a phenomenal key note presentation on our individual power to positively influence others.

Then, Jan Allen introduced us to One Health and provided a vivid glimpse of life for Indigenous Australians in remote areas, highlighting how little people like myself knew about Indigenous culture, and how deeply wrong some aspects of my formal education had been!

Nell Thompson, the National Coordinator of Getting 2 Zero then got up and made a strong case for the benefits of working together to achieve joint goals in companion animal care and we all found ourselves shuffling tables to mix up the room and complete a group exercise.

In those days, I wasn’t cocky but I was familiar enough with the lay of the land to be confident in what I knew. I’d nursed in the vet clinic of one of Australia’s largest shelters, trained dogs and provided post-adoption support to owners, taught under-graduates about companion animal welfare and management, and was building my skills as a researcher in this space.

As a consequence, I’d built relationships with like-minded people across the spectrum of the companion animal world and was enthusiastically on team ‘Let’s All Be Friends’. So, I promptly sat down next to the burliest and least impressed looking AMO I could find, who was sitting alone on an empty table making zero attempt to encourage anyone to join him.

What I hadn’t learned yet was that you don’t try influencing people and building relationships by picking the least receptive person in the room and barging right in… you can probably imagine how well the next 10 minutes of my life went.

After sitting in silence while everyone found their seats, we began introductions around the table. When his turn came, my neighbour made it known that he wasn’t a fan of ‘animal welfare people’ and commented on some less than stellar behaviour from his local Animal Rights advocacy groups.

Seeing my opportunity, I jumped on in and explained (well, OK, maybe lectured just a smidge) that the science underpinning animal welfare assessments and philosophy of animal rights arguments were inherently different. Then, I explained how advocacy movements can be supportive of one, the other, or both, and sometimes the concepts are mutually exclusive as is sometimes the case in the world of sheltering.

He responded by informing me that he didn’t care. So I doubled down and gave him more detail – that’s how one educates others, right?

I’m 100% confident that he was not prepared for, nor seeking, an in-depth discussion with an annoyingly energetic young scientist intent on impressing the nuances of language use, or how often people conflate the ‘all things considered, greater good’ of ethical positions, with the internal barometer of our own morality, and how often neither position aligns with our laws around treatment of companion animals.

All credit to him, after initially blowing off the clarification as unimportant, my neighbour begrudgingly gave me a platform to say my piece. He didn’t even look like he wanted to throw food in my face even though I possibly deserved it, just a little bit 😉

For several years after this, I persistently approached every interaction with people from different rescue groups and shelters, pounds and councils in the same way. Listen and wait for my moment, then clobber them an ‘education’ on the ways we all differ and are similar to make a case for working together towards ‘Best Practice Companion Animal Management and Welfare’.

At the time, I thought I was tweaking my approach and trying to be mindful of how I came across to others. Looking back, I was very stuck in the idea of ‘fixing’ others by educating them, whether they welcomed that education or not.

Reality is, there is only so much nuance you can tweak in a one-sided conversation and my efforts were largely a frustrating failure, leaving me at logger heads with the very people I was trying hard to reach. Of course, those who already understood my perspective and agreed, could also see nothing wrong with my approach, and so asking for help on how to do better from my peer group wasn’t very useful.

Therein lay my problem. Nothing is quite as effective at stifling relationships and roadblocking success, than creating your own silo and filling it with like-minded people, while talking at everyone on the outside under the guise of ‘educating’ them.

Heads up… if this all is sounding oddly familiar, you should probably have a read of ‘What’s The Go with RPO?’ because we’re often still taking this approach when trying to change pet keeping practices in our communities.

I had lost count of the number of times that upon learning that I’m a scientist who specialises in companion animal management and welfare, someone immediately dismissed me as a ‘pick your stereotype to effectively cut off the conversation’, when I finally stopped and realised that perhaps there was more going on than people simply not understanding or disliking animal welfare science.

So, I got curious… my background in behaviour science taught me that people’s beliefs underlie their attitudes and yes, we all think about animals differently, but the sheer speed and vehemence of so many of these reactions indicated something more emotional. So, I started asking them ‘why is that?’

When a fantastic AMO from rural Victoria, who co-founded one of our most successful and sustainable community-Local Government partnerships, visibly recoiled upon learning where I lived and what I did, I asked why. I learned that his life was turned upside down and his children’s safety threatened by an animal rights advocacy group who were based not far from my home. The group was angry that, despite his best efforts, he was unable to shut down a local puppy farm that he too felt strongly should not exist.

When an Animal Advocate who helped build the movement pushing for companion animal welfare reform in our country responded with anger to my suggestion that they try to work with their local council rather that constantly butt heads with them, I asked why that was. I learned that they indeed had worked hard to build that relationship through fundraising and creating avenues for pets in their pound. And while their money, time, and energy was taken and used in that same facility, the promised changes to how the facility ran  never happened and all attempts to hold the people involved accountable were met with increasing hostility.

The stories of great work, passion, frustration, emotional trauma, and fear went on, with few people not having a personal and memorable reason for reacting, instead of thoughtfully responding, when they were challenged about their position.

And, when I looked back on my own career, I realised how my own experiences in our sector had shaped my trajectory too.

The nights of closing the shelter and leaving in pairs, phone in hand, because of threats of physical harm from Animal Advocates or from angry community members.

The distress of dogs and cats brought in by the dozen every day, often in traps or on catch poles, their experiences of sheltering so completely at odds with my formal education in animal care and welfare.

The never ending ‘How Much Suffering is Hope Worth‘ discussions about whether it is more humane to end the life of an animal suffering in a shelter with no reasonable expectation of getting out, or keep them alive in case their ‘unicorn forever home’ came along one day.

The judgement from people I considered friends, when they learned that I had been actively involved in the euthanasia of literally thousands of animals, from dogs, cats, and pocket pets in the shelter, to mice, rats, chickens, and calves in a research setting (Note: Killing Schrödinger’s Feral Cat is a brilliant exploration of the human side of terminal animal experiments).

I recognised myself in the impulsive, protective reaction of dismissing anyone who resembles those caused you harm, because like almost all long haulers in our broader sector, I’ve got that t-shirt too.

I’m also incredibly lucky though, as from the safe distance of research and teaching I got the chance to be curious without being vulnerable. I came to meet, know, and develop friendships with fabulous people from all walks of the companion animal sector, and through that experience, I found communities where these very people were working towards a future where the super heroes all travel together on The Magic School Bus and get stuff done!

In the years since then, I’ve met even more hard working, passionate people in this space and I’m certain that, if we can all commit to being a little more curious and a little less reactive, we’ll come to appreciate how much we have in common, and how much our differences can be assets. Even if we aren’t all great friends.

In fact, now days I much prefer my future to be full of people who don’t always agree and do always hold each other accountable in a way that friends and colleagues who think and feel the same as us, simply don’t. There is much to be said for getting curious and throwing open the hatch of the silo!

So, I encourage you to hook into your emotional intelligence and get curious about your reactions to to each other, and if you don’t know the difference between animal welfare, animal rights, and animal ethics, here is a quick intro by a less annoyingly enthusiastic academic that will hopefully clear things up!


The featured photo is Cabbage, a slightly NQR little dude who is now an adult living happily as a pet, completely oblivious that cats and kittens just like him, who are born on the street, have been one of the most hotly debated topics in our sector for nearly a decade.


This article has 3 comments

    • DianaR Reply

      Thanks Suzanne, St Francis spoke very wise words. The older I get, the more I appreciate the words of ‘our elders’ from various walks of life. There is often so much more to what they say, than simple face value.

  1. Maria Espinosa Reply

    Reactivity and/vs creativity (also compassion) are two very important and opposite concepts for Buddhist philosophy. Uncomfortable thoughts that automatically trigger negative emotions which avoid appreciating and acknowledging what is happening with openness and creativity… They make a lot of sense with this great reflection.

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