The myth of the “irresponsible public”

Rove in joyful hope.

If you are at all interested in the welfare of companion animals and read blogs or rescue sites, you’ll quickly realise that one of the most common, if not the most common, theme is the “irresponsible public”. Over and over again passionate advocates of companion animal welfare rail against the “irresponsible” public; tell stories of people surrendering their animals for the most minor of reasons; fill their pages with sad tales of animals abandoned, ill-cared for, unclaimed or lost. By the time you’ve been reading for a while you’ll begin to believe that Australians are at worst cruel, at best careless, of the well-being of their pets. Maybe after a while you’ll begin to despair we’ll ever make a dent in the 250,000 companion animals who die every year in Australian pounds and shelters.

But here’s the central puzzle. Here you are, reading this blog, or our Facebook page, or one of the many other rescue groups’ Facebook page, because you care about the welfare of animals. Chances are you’ve adopted a rescue pet, donated time, money or goods to a rescue group, campaigned for animal welfare reform and against breed specific legislation and love your own pets and care for them happily and kindly. Aren’t you a member of the public? A kind, concerned, compassionate member of the public? Aren’t you here because you’re a kind, concerned, committed and compassionate member of the public? But in all the concentration on the unkind and the uncommitted it seems that the good people get forgotten.

I think this is a warped perspective, not because rescue groups are negative people, but because of human neurology. It’s about the way humans remember things. Research shows us that we are much more likely to remember the bad things than the good things, “… whether an event is pleasurable or aversive seems to be a critical determinant of the accuracy with which the event is remembered, with negative events being remembered in greater detail than positive ones.” (Association for Psychological Science. “We Remember Bad Times Better Than Good.” Science Daily, 28 Aug. 2007. Web. 13 Dec. 2011.) So for rescue groups the bad experiences seem to make more impact than the good ones; and if you’re reading our blogs and Facebook pages or websites, that’s the perspective you’ll be getting.

Now you might argue that confronting the worst of human behaviour with regards to companion animals isn’t a bad thing, that we’ll be spurred to action by the horrible pictures and sad stories. But in fact, the opposite happens and we tend to detach. It’s why the TAC have had to progressively increase the graphic nature of their ads; if we can’t help and the problem seems over-whelming, we turn-off the TV or turn over the page.

There is another way of looking at things.

Antonio Gramsci advocated “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” If we take this seriously – the dynamic mix of analysis and emotions that propels activists – then a useful mantra and way to explore this could be through a joyful hope, rather than fledgling states of depression that are more prevalent in community and social narratives for change.

In this regard, hope itself is an interesting concept and political idea. Without it there is despair, and a sense of futility. Yet, hope is often conceived as future-oriented: “I hope it will happen”; “I hope things will get better”; and so on. This is an important aspect of individual and collective hope. At the same time, hope needs to be considered as the “future-present” where it requires the ordinary elements of daily life and activity – that spark of hope, which enables different histories, emotions, and experiences to enter present conversations on revolution, freedom, and activism. When hope becomes a striving toward the future, without recognition of what is in front of us – how we feel, understand, and work toward change – there is a loss of connection and dissatisfaction.

This is where something like a joyful hope is much more peculiar to the language of individual and social activism. Joy emerges in the moment, and provides a counterbalance to a future-oriented hope. For Nietzsche, a joyous state of mind and activity is able to affirm and accept even the painful and destructive elements that we may encounter. [..] So to live for a joyful hope is to move toward the emergence of things as they happen – giving meaning to those moments of spontaneity, and an openness towards the future.”
(Barker, C., Martin, B and Zournazi, M, “Emotional self-management for activists” in Reflective Practice, Vol. 9, No. 4, November 2008, pp. 423-435.)

Shel from the Saving Pets blog says,

Groups who spend their time criticising their community for their faults are missing awesome opportunities to tap into their compassion. Groups who spend their time ruminating on how the public is the ‘problem’ and advocating for laws to ‘teach them a lesson’ build barriers between themselves and their community, and ignore the reality which is, overwhelmingly, the public are good and kind and pet loving… and the solution to reaching ‘unreachable’ goals.

The shelters who will see success in the future are those that promote saving lives in the face of obstacles. Those groups who will thrive in the future, are those who believe in serving and involving their public and who refuse to be content with ‘blaming and killing’, instead taking the time to advocate to their communities on behalf of the pets.
Those groups who will lead us into a future where shelters are a safety net for animals, are those who recognise the ‘good’ people in the community, make up 100 times over for any ‘bad’ people in the community and that engaging the good people should be the focus.”

So let’s pick up on Shel’s last comment that the good people in the community make up 100 times over for any bad people. It turns out that she’s pretty much exactly right, and to prove it, I’ve done some calculations.

As at 11.14 am on the 13/11/2011 Australia’s population was 22,789,387. If we assume that the figure of 250,000 companion animals killed in pounds every year is basically accurate (we don’t know for sure, there are no really good statistics nation-wide) then let’s do some calculations based on another assumption, that there is a one-to-one relationship between each of those 250,000 animals and a human being. If we run the figures, it turns out that 250,000 is about one percent of the total population of Australia, so the reality is that only 1 in every 92 people in Australia is the “irresponsible public”.

The other 91 people are amongst the animal loving population of Australia who “spend almost $1500 a year on their pets, outstripping many other average annual household costs, including electricity ($1440), eating out ($1460), alcohol ($1040) and public transport ($260). In 2010-11 Australians spent almost $796 million on buying pets, $2.8 billion dollars on pet food, $2.1 billion on vet bills and around 1.1 billion on professional services including grooming, boarding and training. http://www.news.com.au/money/money-matters/australians-spending-up-on-pets/story-e6frfmd9-1226151433811#ixzz1gNJZ73ei

In their 2011 Annual Report RSPCA Victoria (this is only for Victoria) reported that they received $152 833 65 million dollars in donations and bequests, which is $706 650 thousand more than they received in the previous year. And of course the RSPCA isn’t the only animal welfare organisation in Victoria who receive donations, and Victoria isn’t the only state in the nation, so even the roughest calculation makes it clear that Australians are donating a considerable chunk of their hard-earned income, in straightened financial times, to organisations looking out for the welfare of animals (companion animals and others).

As they say, money talks, and these figures are saying loudly and clearly that Australians love animals, they are willing to spend money on their own pets, and on those who less fortunate. So when we, as rescues, spend our time complaining about that one percent of the population who do the wrong thing, we risk alienating the vast majority (91 out of every 92 people) of caring and compassionate people (after all, would you choose to shop at a store which spent all its advertising talking about how badly dressed or unattractive its customers were?); but more importantly we risk losing joyful hope and the ability to move toward a future where we can save those 250,000 lives.


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