“Yahoo!!! We won,” was the message from an exuberant London Cycle Group following a Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee meeting at which it had made its persuasive arguments in support of the establishment of an advisory committee.
It was a far cry from the response a week earlier by some animal rights and/or welfare advocates when they were confronted with a similar situation. In both cases, staff recommendations had not met the hopes and expectations of the activists. In the case of the former, staff had recommended against establishing an advisory committee, and no wonder, since doing so uses up a lot of staff time and resources with no sign of reinforcements to lighten the load. In the case of the latter, animal activists had wanted a no kill policy in dealing with homeless pets and staff had recommended a very gradual reduction in the rate of euthanasia.
But in both cases, too, councillors had listened to the members of the public, heard their concerns and arguments, and directed staff to accommodate them. Nancy Branscombe in her usual no nonsense approach led the way on both issues. When one of her colleagues suggested establishing a taskforce to assess the efficacy of having an advisory committee, she rejected the intermediate step. Why not just go ahead and do it? Likewise, when staff proposed moving to a live release rate for strays of 70% over five years, meaning that 30% would be killed, Branscombe wondered why they couldn’t simply establish a “no kill” policy as the first principle; everything else could flow from that. London could be a leader.
But where the cycling enthusiasts rejoiced over their victory, a small contingent in the gallery at the Community and Protective Services Committee last week booed and hurled insults and epithets at the staff and committee members below. Those who did so were no more than a half dozen or so of the nearly full gallery; most of those in attendance were pleased and appreciative of the progress that had been made. Still, it left a bad taste for many who witnessed the debacle, especially some members of the media.
So how does one explain the difference in the reactions?
A number of factors are worth considering.
First, the matter of animal welfare and animal rights has moral salience. Many of those who advocate for animals have witnessed horrendous instances of exploitation, neglect and abuse. Many have intervened to protect the victims, dedicating their lives and incomes to alleviating suffering. They have picked up the slack for an indifferent public.
Second, the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee was formed as a result of years of lobbying to establish a task force which would examine how the treatment of animals was handled by the city. Central to this concern was activity of the for profit private company, Urban Animal Management (UAM) which was formed to meet the city’s “need” for animal control thirty years ago when the London Humane Society discontinued providing that service. Over those thirty years, tens of thousands of cats had been rounded up and killed by the company that professed to practice care and control. Now, for the first time, the contract for animal services had gone out to tender, rather than simply being renewed. Hopes ran high that the rescue groups would have a formal role in providing animal services.
Third, establishing an advisory committee is a relatively simple process; council just has to agree to do it. Or rather, ask staff to set it up. The legal implications are minimal.
Not so the process for issuing a call for expressions of interests or a request for proposals. Interventions in the process may subject the city to legal action if bidders feel that their interests have been jeopardized. It’s a serious business.
And so it happened that council, meeting as the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee, could respond to requests for delegate status by cycling enthusiasts in a fairly relaxed manner. It wasn’t a public participation meeting but there were several delegations on the agenda and, what the heck, why not let anyone else who had something to say do so? Branscombe made it clear from the outset that she had no concerns about letting them all speak and apparently neither did any other councillor although the mayor did suggest that it hadn’t been billed for public participation so some interested parties might be missing out. Nevertheless, he let them go ahead and all were heard.
For the animal welfare crowd, it had been a different story. Theirs, too, had not been circulated as a public participation meeting, but their delegations had been included on the agenda. It was their opportunity to express their concerns about the current provider, the stories they had heard from previous employees about practices employed, the animals that had been put down needlessly, the suffering they had observed.
Alas, it was not to be. Some warnings from the city solicitor, issued behind closed doors, eliminated any opportunity for the delegations to make their presentations. There were concerns that letting them do so could put the city at risk of legal action by the service provider whose lawyer was in attendance. Who knew what connections the scheduled delegations might have or what they might say? The committee was not about to take any chances. Anyone who violated the purchasing policy, it was pointed out, could be disqualified from ever being considered for a possible contract.
In all likelihood, the disappointment and frustration that ensued blinded some of those in the gallery to the real gains that had been made: a veterinarian that would report to the city, money for spay and neuter, an adoption centre for cats, an rewards program for dog licences and cat identification, microchipping, relaxation of the limits on cats per household, relocation of feral cats to barns. Many of these things had been advocated by the rescue groups for years. And the biggest of all, at the insistence of the committee, a shelter where no animal would be turned away and where "no kill" would be the first priniciple.
It was a massive victory, but a few didn’t get it. They understood only two things: they didn’t get to speak and the private contractor that had put down thousands of animals would be paid more than $10 million over the next five years. It was viewed as offering the best value for money, not the coalition of rescue groups that had worked so hard on an alternative proposal. As the committee voted to accept the staff recommendation along with the "no kill" and "open shelter" provisions, as well as a statement of support for including the funding in the 2014 budget, shouts of “We got nothing” and “We want nonprofit” could be heard from the gallery.
“What’s the use of sitting here for hours if you don’t get to speak your mind,” yelled one.
“You’ll get the same support from the community that you’re giving now,” another chimed in.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” a third admonished. “We don’t get free speech here.” A few expletives were added for good measure.
It embarrassed most of those who had waited patiently and hopefully in the gallery. While few were pleased with that the contract was still with the same provider, most appreciated the tremendous gains that had been made. London would become a no kill city! London was hiring a vet that would triage the animal in its care and ensure that no dog or cat would be put down without good reason, that the focus would be on prevention of homelessness and providing appropriate accommodation. It was a moment to celebrate, a moment that was marred by the thoughtless outbursts of a few.
And the battle had not yet been won. The matter had still to go to the council as a whole. Would the reaction of a few cause the councillors to reconsider the tremendous strides that had been made.
It’s a worry for those who have struggled long and hard for animal welfare. An email circulated in advance of the council meeting on Tuesday illustrates the anxiety.
“I hope that people can act like intelligent beings so as to not embarass the rest of us...as happened the other night,” it reads. “Sadly, the action of a few lumps all activists as ignorant...”
I share in that hope. The animals deserve nothing less.