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Bias in the World of Animal Sanctuaries (and Beyond): Does it Matter?

When I was a high school English teacher, I worked for about six months at Delmar High School. I only worked there for six months, even though I was paid for twelve, because about halfway into my contract, a group of about 25 sets of parents had banded together to oust me. I’d known it would be a hard year my first day with my fellow teachers when I was told that some students were allowed to opt out of learning about Greek Mythology because their Christian parents didn’t want them “getting ideas,” and that a novel about the Vietnam War was no longer taught because it gave a “negative impression” about the war (it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone, anywhere, still thought that war had been a good idea).

On my first day I was confronted by a student, in front of the class, about the issue of hunting. (The other teachers were already aware I was vegan even though I never actually spoke to them about this – we all know that it only takes not eating flesh to make some people hate your guts.) This boy raised his hand, told me he hunted deer, and asked me what I thought about that. My first reaction, to be honest, was that I thought his question was enormously inappropriate given that I was trying to communicate the structure of the class, not facilitate a discussion about ethics. However, I’d already learned, loud and clear, that to remind these students of proper conduct in a classroom wasn’t smart in a school district that didn’t impose consequences upon students for doing things like fist-fighting in the classroom (literally). So what I said, instead, was that this was between him and his own conscience. He had nothing to say to that, so I resumed my explanation of how I taught English.

The next morning before school started I was called down to the principal’s office. This boy’s mother (who was, incidentally, a cop) was on the phone, screaming and crying hysterically about how I had imposed my views on her son, and I was not to do that ever again. Your son is 16 years old, I replied. Had he asked me about almost anything related to ethics, I would have told him the same thing; at some point, students need to be pushed to think critically, learn for themselves, figure out what is right and wrong, once they are given all of the information from which to work.

No, she responded. They are not to be allowed to do this. They are to be told what is right and wrong, and what is right is what we teach him at home and what he’s learned so far in school, and you are not to oppose that. I asked her if she didn’t think a public school was the exact correct place for students to learn that the world is far bigger than their little tiny corner of the world, and she said no. No, it’s not. By the time I hung up the phone, I was so angry I was shaking. That was just the first of countless incidents of that kind.

Soon, students were leaving chicken wings on my papers while I was away from my room. They screamed “God Bless You” when anyone sneezed, and asked if they could pray in class, because they learned I was not a Christian. They spread rumors, in the form of faked letters between me and another female teacher, that I was a lesbian (a true rumor, but not one I’d ever confirmed as sexual orientation is not a protected category in Delaware). I could write anecdote after anecdote, including the time when I was taken to task by a group of students for teaching “too many things black people write” when I reviewed with them a past standardized test that asked questions about King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail;” but I’ll just say that over time, it became literally impossible for me to teach. I left in the middle of the school day one day and never returned.

The school board offered to buy out my contract, because they knew (as a result of the principal and superintendent lurking outside my classroom enough times) that I had never once imposed my views upon anyone, but instead had tried to expose my students to a variety of perspectives – again, something that’s absolutely necessary if they are ever to learn to think for themselves. They could not, therefore, fire me, as I’d done nothing wrong. Even the students who hated me the most had admitted I was a good teacher. But, as the superintendent told me, the administration was not willing to back me against the force of conservative parents who wanted me out of there. So they found extra money in the budget and paid me to not work while they paid a long-term sub to replace me for the balance of the year.

I went to my union immediately, but they told me there was nothing they could do, even though they knew this was discrimination (largely religious discrimination). I called every lawyer in the area, and even tried to contact the ACLU (who never called me back). I had documentation, I had written records of every incident that had occurred, but no one would touch my case. So, I was left with the wreckage of a new career – just under five years as a teacher on the Delmarva Peninsula and no one would hire me. I went through an enormously difficult time in my life, filled with rage and helplessness. I couldn’t look at teenagers without wanting to do violence to them. I seethed with hatred at the provincial, fundamentalist assholes who seemed to surround me no matter where I went. I developed sleep apnea and other physical manifestations of stress. Eventually, I went to therapy for a few months to try to resolve these issues and move on.

I did move on. I found work online that eventually paid me many times the amount of money I had earned as a teacher. I was, therefore, able to buy a new coop for the chickens, have two duck ponds dug and landscaped, have the back yard fenced in for the dogs (who soon enough learned to dig their way out again), and do other much-needed things for the sanctuary. Cash is indeed a powerful tool. And eventually, I was even able to see teenagers as individuals and not a monolithic force out to get me.

But I learned other important lessons that still inform my actions today. The one that relates to the topic of this blog post is the danger inherent in building self-esteem, as opposed to building self-efficacy. The students I taught at Delmar (most of them) had been told from day one that they were super special. They were taught to believe that no matter what they did, they were totally awesome. They were raised in the belief that just because they ate, breathed, peed and slept, they were just terrifically amazing people. And they knew it. Thus was born a generation of empty, self-entitled destroyers (my own term).

When a person believes that they are great simply because they are, there is no motivation whatsoever to act according to an ethical code. There is no reason to feel guilt over doing something hurtful because hey, I’m great no matter what I do. There is no reason to learn from past mistakes and thus change one’s behavior because the core belief is that it simply does not matter; if you are already great, why bother?

Pondering this issue as I did for years (obsessing is more like it), I came to the conclusion that while thoughts and beliefs are a critical part of what makes us who we are (whatever that is), they aren’t nearly as important as actions when it comes to defining what makes a “good person” or a “bad person” (please understand that I use these terms for convenience and not because I believe that what comprises an ethical person is a black and white issue).

My favorite example is what I call the NPR People. There is a whole group of people who listen to NPR obsessively. Forget for a moment that NPR has become, as Pattrice Jones aptly named it, Nationalistic Propaganda Radio, and consider the station to be a bastion of progressive, left-leaning thought. So, these folks listen to NPR sometimes hours upon hours each day. They can tell you exactly who is being toppled in what country, who’s toppling them, what social media have helped in the revolution, and what ramifications that might have for everyone from child soldiers to Barack Obama.

So, they make good conversationalists, these classic NPR people. And their thoughts and beliefs are terribly forward-thinking and progressive. Yet what are they DOING? How many times do listeners hear something on the radio and actually change something in their lives as a result of it? I’m not talking about easy changes, such as buying fair trade coffee instead of Folger’s. I’m talking about actual, significant changes to their behaviors. Are they giving up their cars because they learn about yet another manifestation of global climate change? Are they cutting back on breeding because they hear the latest report on over-population? Are they all buying used clothes because they know that children in certain other countries are being chained to machines to create affordable new clothing?

Some are, to be sure. Those would not be the people I call the NPR people. But be honest: you know these people. You might even be one of these people. Either way, think about this dynamic! It doesn’t matter what you believe if your beliefs don’t affect your actions. Conversely, if your beliefs are wretched – oppressive, violent, dangerous – and if you act counter to those beliefs, where’s the harm?

In the end, what matters are your actions, far more than anything you think or believe or feel.

That doesn’t mean that thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are not critical. Of course they are. But when one can identify particular thoughts or beliefs that are not conducive to an ethical life, one can still be an ethical person even if one cannot root those thoughts out of one’s head.

And that leads us back to animal sanctuaries. We need to first understand that everyone who works at an animal sanctuary has our own biases. Most of us bond more closely with members of one or more species, even though we work with many species. Some of us might value spontaneity, even though the animals with whom we work mostly value routine. Some of us believe that nothing is more important than good health, while others of us believe that “good” health can be relative, and sometimes carries too high a price (such as in the case of “broiler” chickens who, to gain another year or so of life and mobility must essentially be kept hungry much of the time). Some of us believe freedom is paramount, while others believe safety is paramount. So on and so forth.

Whatever the bias, we all have them. Some of these biases might even be truly wretched, as opposed to the ones I’ve listed above. Who knows what lurks inside peoples’ minds? We are rarely honest enough to divulge such things, especially when our lives are conducted in the public eye. However, that doesn’t always matter when it comes to the treatment of the individuals in our care. What matters, instead, is that we know that we have biases, that we are willing to examine and admit to these biases, and, if needed, that we are willing to behave counter to our biases if rational, clear thinking exposes them as faulty when applied to a particular individual or group.

I live with three rescued dogs. I love them terribly. I’ve known them for many years. And yet once they pass away (nothing I’m looking forward to, I might add), I don’t want to live with dogs again. I’m not a “dog person,” whatever that is. I don’t enjoy walks, playing, or the other things that make their lives enjoyable, and we don’t live in a place where I can turn them loose to find these activities on their own. Does that make me a bad person? There are plenty of dog people who believe that this does, in fact, make me a “less-good” person, if you will, than I would be if I sincerely loved the company of dogs.

But I don’t agree. I counter my bias as much as I can given my workload. I take the dogs outside often, I let them crowd me on the couch even though I would prefer to have my own space, I go on walks with the two who like walks. Not as often as I should, but then again, even if I was a dog person, I wouldn’t have the kind of time to devote to walks and such as would be ideal. So, in this way, my bias – my preference to live with individuals who don’t need me so much – is irrelevant because I counter it. And that’s what matters. That I am aware of this bias and counter it to the extent that I act right.

I don’t always succeed. No one does, despite what they might tell you. ;-) But regardless of what we are doing, whether it’s working with animals in a sanctuary setting, deciding upon a purchase, a means of transportation, or anything else, all we can do stry. Actually, it’s more than all we can do. It’s what we must do. Rooting out biases is an admirable goal, but while you’re at it – before you’re at it – work on changing your behaviors to better care for the world around you.

14 comments to Bias in the World of Animal Sanctuaries (and Beyond): Does it Matter?

  • This is a good post. I too have been burned alive and live with it. You have come through and I am happy for you.
  • bravebird
    I’d love to hear your story if you care to share….

    Also, it occurs to me that my chain of thought is unclear (which is often the case with me). Basically, I think that the phenomenon of empty self-esteem is analogous to the existence of bias in the sense that feeling good about yourself in the absence of actions that make you a good person does not make you a good person; and having biases that, if acted upon, would make you a bad person does not, in fact, make you a bad person. It is our actions that count, not our thoughts and feelings, whether we are talking about self-regard or being an activist….

  • mari cooper
    Great post!!
  • bravebird
    Thanks so much!
  • What an excellent post… You have most definitely ” risen” above a lot of crap …and it is OK NOT to be a “dog person”…I can’t stand their constant neediness, but I live with 4, that are not mine ( I would never have a dog in my life i am too selfish)and i make daily compromises so that I can enjoy them and their owners as well………..OFF course here for a moment….. have you by chance rescued any Geese from up North ? The photo of the Goose on the News page looks like Gussie… my lost/dead? Goose. Hope all is well at the Sanctuary and all is thriving, and green houses and gardens are bursting with Veggies..What do you folks do with all the Eggs from all the “girls”? And are you doing anymore cooking schools??? I hope so……………., Love to all, Nita.
  • CQ
    Oh, my, so many interesting ideas!

    First off, though I’ve never been an NPR groupie, I found myself last year listening to the station for an hour or two every few days — at no set time. But when I heard a fluffy feature on a matadora (woman bullfighter), I was stunned — and livid — beyond belief. I called and emailed the NPR ombudsman and told her that was IT, I would never listen or even click on their website again. I’ve stuck to that “threat” — and haven’t missed a thing. Proving that I think “actions” are important, even if it’s just parting ways with a “friend” one decides is unethical. Beyond that, I’ve enjoyed backing up my ethics with all possible actions that I hope improve earth, from selling my little-used car and walking everywhere to going 100% veg, from going the paperless bill route to recycling (it bums me out that I can’t recycle almond milk cartons).

    Second, I’m so glad you stuck to your principles, bravebird, and didn’t let fundamentalist parents and spoiled kids force you to change your teaching style or substance. One proof that you were in the right may’ve been the unexpected, better-paid position that came along; it could be regarded as a reward for being true to yourself — a reward you unselfishly used to help the animals.

    Third, on thoughts and actions. Yes, I agree that thoughts without actions are, as one writer expresses it, clouds without rain. Sorta just hanging out there, not accomplishing much (except providing shade on a hot day!). My take on the team of thought and action, though, is that if ethical thinking doesn’t underlie the ethical actions, the truth is eventually going to come out, undermine the unethical individual (or organization) and impact friends, customers, donors, etc. negatively.

    Let’s say that a national animal welfare organization swoops into a hurricane-battered city to rescue its stranded animals, and donors both locally and around the country clamor to give money to that organization, whose actions seem so noble. But then the organization, after compiling millions of dollars, some of it the result of fooling people into thinking it’s the LOCAL shelter (which has a similar name), suddenly pulls up its tent and leaves the city prematurely, abandoning thousands of animals who still need shelter, round-the-clock care, placement in foster or adopted homes, or reunion with their original humans. It has raked into its flush coffers more money than any other organization that remains on site, yet it declares its mission accomplished weeks — if not months — before before the other organizations, who are ethical in thought (motive) AND action, leave the scene. I’m not naming names, but it’s well known that this is a true story.

    My point, and I’m sure it’s one you’d agree with, is that the ideal is the combo of ethical thought AND ethical actions. That pairing makes for a powerhouse that can truly change the world for the animals it serves, one compassionate thought and one resulting and consistently compassionate action at a time.

    Fourth, I totally get your point about dogs. And I think the fact that you went out of your way to “do” for the dogs when you didn’t necessarily feel like it comes from a place of unselfishness. For many years, I enjoyed being needed by the canine species, whose members, as you say, like to have their affections returned and like to be on the go. Then I headed into a phase of my life where I didn’t want to be needed in the same way. I still had a dog, though. I learned a lot about patience and fortitude and in fact was FORCED to fully value his friendship before he passed away (it seems like he would’ve stuck around until I DID learn that lesson). I still adore dogs, but more than I want them around me, I want them to be somewhere where their neediness is truly — well, needed!

    Thanks for all the insights. And for the links you added to connect your thought chain. All of it resonates with me.

  • CQ
    Have you heard of the Institute for Humane Education, in Surry, Maine, bravebird? I thought of your teaching days when I read this by its founder, Zoe Weil:
  • bravebird
    I have indeed — she’s amazing! I have no desire to go back to the classroom — that will probably never come back to me — but she does amazing work….
  • bravebird
    Nita Marie, we do have some geese here, but none from a “wandering” situation — all from “happy” egg farms…. So I hope Gussie is alive and well somewhere still! We actually cook up about 2-3 dozen eggs a day and feed them back to the birds — they need the calcium and other nutrients they contain, plus they just plain love them. :-)

    Filming a new episode on Monday the 8th!!! Aram was studying for, and taking, the bar exam so we were unable to do one sooner but he’s out of study-prison and ready to go! Thanks for asking!

  • bravebird
    Hey, CQ!

    I know exactly what you are talking about with the rescue situation — our big “friend of animals” acting like it always does. Sigh. And I completely agree with you about both thought and action being very important. After all, most people can’t sustain the strength of will to resist thoughts that run counter to their actions, so if only for that reason, we need to work to reshape any thoughts that are contrary to justice. I just know that sometimes, certain thoughts are very stubborn, and I hate to think people are working on changing them in the absence of changing their behaviors. And of course, it steams me more the other way around — when folks believe that “good” thoughts are a substitute for “good” actions.

    Thank YOU as well for your insights, always!


    P.S. I am not at all noble when it comes to living with rescued dogs. It’s a long story, and I have definitely not always been uncomplaining about it, so I would hate to give that impression. ;-)

  • Thank you Bravebird, for sharing the harrowing details of your journey.

    My first shock and disappointment was to hear the oppression of academic freedom. It brought to mind the recent news that Slaughterhouse Five has been banned in Mo. schools. Silencing thought and literature in the education system is a telling indicator of how suppressed we truly are.

    I totally agree with you on your point of building self-efficacy as opposed to the limited, “self-centered” ideas of self “esteem”. And my haven’t parents and educators gone out of their way to develop the latter? I’m referring to elaborate birthday parties where hundreds are spent on a two-hour catered events complete with hired performers, animal acts, etc. I don’t care what your income (judgmental me says) – To me this is excessive. But parents compete with each other to see who can outspend each other… The more money, the more “wonderful” the child, I guess.

    Kids today also get “prizes” for simply attending a sporting events… Yeah, that would include “the losers” too. Oh, and no one “fails” tests either… The just have a “no pass” grade.

    I could go on and on with lists that show how kids have been made to be “special” beyond any requirement to teach them how to be so. Why should they have to actualize when nearly any and everything they do is protected/sacred?

    I know the fault lies with the adults… But like you and your relationship with dogs is less than ideal… Well, hope it doesn’t make me a “bad” person for avoiding most kids/parents as well?

    Finally, your intended point is not lost. Unless beliefs are acted upon – they’re meaningless. Like everyone here, I can’t count the times I’ve heard someone say they think one way, but fail to extend those ideas into deeds… Usually it’s consumption habits… And that makes the dissonance that much more harmful and intolerable.

    It’s no secret that little-boy hunters and adult carnists know the implications of being unable to “walk the walk”… And guess just like pretending Slaughterhouse Five never existed, they can do that with their own denials as well. This self imposed prison of non-thinking? It’s obvious that the “cure” is much worse than the disease. :/

  • bravebird
    Bea, you are so articulate about this issue. I recently was told of a graduation that a friend of mine attended for his son — FROM KINDERGARTEN. He sent me a photo of his five-year-old kid in a cap and gown, and all I could do was laugh and ask him if he didn’t find that absurd. He was kind of upset with me but REALLY? How absurd is that? I’m with you also on not wanting to spend time with most kids and their parents. While the fault is not the kids’ (at least until they are older), such upbringing really does shape them into little people who are very hard to be around — well, except for their peers and other cheerleading grown-ups as well.

    I hadn’t heard about Slaughterhouse Five being banned. Wow.

  • J. Sclafani
    So much of what you touched on, is critically important for many to read about.

    I was truly horrified by your experiences while in that dreaded school. I mean really- what era are we in? Is mankind making any progress at all? Your story causes one to wonder about that exact question!

    I did feel compelled to say, that the comment about loving dogs but not being *a dog person* is being misconstrued by those who should know better: YOU ARE SHOWING A LACK OF SELFISHNESS BY KNOWING YOU CAN’T GIVE DOGS THE KIND OF LIFE THEY IDEALLY DESERVE.

    Now- maybe someday, you will have some predestined- fated event happen; and without planning to, you stumble upon an ideal dog: the one who wants nothing more, than to do whatever you want to do. A doggy soulmate- so to speak. My attitude is never say never. You just have no way of knowing what the future has in store for you. :-)

    Then again- maybe not- and that is okay.

    At least your are mature enough- aware enough and selfless enough to know, you would surely help save an animal in peril, but yet you know you could not give them a true forever home.

    You seem to truly feel you are not able to give them what most dogs need. {Frankly- every dogs’ needs vary, so that is kind of a blanket statement, but I get what you are trying to convey}

    I am sorry that some people cannot see beyond their *own* preferences and desires to understand that what you are doing, is an act of kindness and consideration to a canine that needs a home.

    No need to explain yourself to the people with deeper perception and insight. (And the ones that don’t *get it*, are really not worth trying to explain it to.)

    Getting back to that dump of a school you got stuck in, along with the with horrid kids and even more horrid parents: I have no idea how you got through all, that but you did- and in the end, things turned out in your favor.

    A sort of * All’s Well that Ends Well”…..even if it was one tough road to travel, while waiting it all out as you went through all that harrassment :-(

    Honestly- I think your employment issues deserved their day in court, but hey, you are out of there and it is part of the past. A nightmare that will grow more distant as time moves forward and you become determined to never look back.

    You are in a far better position than I bet you could have even imagined back then, when you probably sat at your desk asking,” What on earth am I doing here?”

    Again, I have to say, your experiences described in this piece, offers several powerful messages.

    I hope you give permission to share your story- with your name credited- so that others can see, how sadly, way too many narrow minds exist in this world and the people who possess those backward minds,unfortunately help to make this place called Earth,a much harder place to live than it already is.

    Always follow your heart and listen to your gut. Rarely will they fail you.

    You found your way out of a scholastic hellhole and into your own little Utopia.
    Thank You for all you do to help animals and promote animal welfare! :-)

  • bravebird
    Thank you for your kind and helpful words! And yes, you are right, everyone’s needs differ — of course, as the dogs with whom we live get older, their lives are most likely happier in the sense that I doubt they would want to wander for hours in the woods even if they could. Plus we’ve fenced things differently so they do get more time outside and they do like that.

    I think you are right, people have no idea of the true state of affairs in this country in terms of narrow-mindedness — people who are not immersed in it, that is. I would have loved to fight the thing in court but no one would take my case — the ACLU didn’t think it was worthy of a precedent, I guess (I can only guess because they never called me back) and no other lawyer would touch it. Ah well — as you say, all’s well that ends well.

    Love your email address. :-)


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