By Tatiana Garrett
Spending my whole life around animals, I’ve met a lot of “animal people”—I love animals, so I’m proud to call myself the same. There are some truly amazing animal people out there making a difference in the world, but the animal kingdom can also attract some eccentric individuals. I’ve met others that have had negative experiences with other humans, and as a result have chosen to surround themselves, both at work and at home, with animals instead of people. I would like to take this opportunity to send every animal person a message: If you truly love animals, you must love people too.
If you’re reading this and shaking your fist at the screen yelling, “There is no human worthy of the love that I give my pets!” well, please read on before dismissing my statement. One person cannot save every animal out there. If animal people only interact with other animal people, then there is no hope for the thousands of animals sitting in shelters currently unable to find homes, and there is no hope for the species on the brink of extinction.
Change for individual animals or species can only be brought about through action, and action comes through education and inspiration. If animal aficionados isolate themselves from people, there will be no one to inspire the masses to advocate for animals. As a Humane Educator, I realize that I’m a little biased. It’s my job to help people live more compassionately and to inspire others to care for every living being.
A few months ago, an email came to me from another shelter. They were forwarding a message from a woman asking if she could adopt an un-spayed cat so that her children could witness the “miracle of birth.” The shelter employee sending the message was hoping to disseminate the woman’s name so that no one would adopt to her. I can understand why any shelter employee would be appalled at someone looking to purposely bring a litter of kittens into the world, but to simply deny the woman an adoption wasn’t going to help.
I responded to the list with some encouraging words highlighting the opportunity for education in a scenario like this, and I reached out to the woman, politely explaining that because there are so many unwanted/homeless cats, no shelter could or would adopt out an intact cat. I offered her information on humane topics that would be of interest to her children, recommended videos of animal births, and suggested that the family volunteer to foster kittens for a local shelter as a way for the children to learn a great lesson about responsibility and care.
It can be challenging for some animal care workers to maintain a positive attitude towards people. My heart goes out to front-line animal shelter staff that receive pets because they “no longer match the furniture” and animal crimes officers that are the first responders to dogfights. People can do some pretty atrocious things, and maintaining a positive attitude is easier said than done. The best animal advocates will know themselves, develop strong coping skills, and recognize when they are burned out. It can be exhausting work to see every person as a potential ally, but every person has the capacity to help animals.
Inspiration requires empathy and an understanding of where others are coming from. During a presentation I gave in a Chicago high school, I had a young man interrupt my anti-dogfighting presentation to tell me that he fought dogs and sold drugs to feed himself. He said I valued the dog’s life more than his because I was speaking against dogfighting.
Instead of recoiling, I calmly explained that I do not value animal life over human life. I mentioned that the fast food restaurant on the corner had a “help wanted” sign posted and told him that it was a cop-out to say that there was no way for him to feed himself without hurting others. I went on to say that, “Choices in life that make you a better person, the choices that make you a man, are usually more difficult. Being a better person is about helping others, not making easy money off of pain and suffering.” I’m not naïve enough to think that I changed that young man, but when I finished speaking to him, three girls seated behind him yelled, “Yeah!” and tapped him on the back of his head. If I allowed the disgusted animal person in me to take over instead of addressing the young man on his terms, it would have been a lost opportunity.
If you truly love animals, you’re fighting a war against abuse, neglect, and exploitation that needs compassion and humanity to win. It’s up to animal people to spread their compassion to other humans until the war has come to an end. There are people that don’t see how magnificent animals are—when an animal person encounters such people they should see them as a potential ally who is merely unaware or may have been deprived of compassion themselves. Preaching and judgment is not likely to inspire an ally. Animal people know the patience that it takes to rehabilitate an animal, so they should treat others with the same patience, empathy, and compassion.
Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails” on Watch312.com.