Toward a more inclusive Mother’s Day

Friends For Life

“When animals express their feelings they pour out like water from a spout. Animals' emotions are raw, unfiltered, and uncontrolled. Their joy is the purest and most contagious of joys and their grief the deepest and most devastating. Their passions bring us to our knees in delight and sorrow.”

Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy - and Why They Matter

In 1870 abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” a call to action that asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace.

What is motherly love, and are humans the only ones who can experience it? If you have spent more than a moment watching an animal parent its young, you have seen the bond that they feel firsthand. Mothers will sacrifice food and even their very lives to care for their babies.

Schooled by a street cat on love

In 1996, a fire burned out of control in a NYC building. The firemen watched as a mother cat ran out from the inferno carrying a single kitten in her mouth. She placed the kitten on the ground and then did the unthinkable: she ran back into the fire. She emerged again, this time ears partially burned off, fur singed off and eyes blistered shut from heat and smoke. She was carrying a second kitten she placed next to the first. Without hesitating, she went back a third time, a fourth and a fifth time -- each time returning to what firemen believed would be her certain death. The waited and watched. “Scarlett“ the cat, finally came out of the building again. As she placed the fifth kitten with the others she touched each with her nose to make sure they were all accounted for. Then she collapsed.

And we shelters, for all our resources, galas and staff, cannot manage to run programs that save kittens weighing under 2 lbs? We cannot seem to manage the heart and commitment of this underfed street cat? “It is too hard to find fosters, too expensive, too inconvenient, too much administrative paperwork, too much a departure from the way we’ve always run our shelter…”


Scarlett and all but one of her kittens survived and were adopted into loving homes after weeks of medical treatment. They survived, in part, because the fireman took them to a No Kill shelter.

At traditional shelters kittens weighing under 2 lbs. are killed. Nursing mothers are killed. Pregnant mothers are killed.

This discussion does not stop with kittens.

A local private shelter that recently raised nearly $1million from Houston donors, has the policy that pit bull dogs or those suspected of having pit bull linage are killed without even a cursory behavior evaluation. This means puppies. It means mothers. It means family dogs, friendly dogs and senior dogs who may have lived a whole lifetime being loving companions. In this lethal shelter model, we think we can know everything about who they are and everything about who they could ever be in an instant. We think we know it all right now and we are willing to bet their lives on it. But are we also betting something we don’t even realize we are losing? 

No Kill is a shelter model—but it is more.

Does our tacit approval to exclude someone –anyone— as “other” bleed into the collective world view? Does it somehow change us once we decide we can draw a line—us/them…worthy/unworthy…safe/unsafe…genetically acceptable/genetically unacceptable. “Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity, “ said George Bernard Shaw. Unfortunately, the animal shelter system that kills millions of adoptable animals a year as business as usual has proven him right. 

The next “ism” that divides us: speciesism

The issues that reconcile us to the "atrocity” of exterminating a breed or crossing baby creatures off the "saveable" list  is more than a discussion of a shelter model. It represents our time in history to take a run at the final “ism” than must fall before we can hope for anything like the peace that Julia Ward Howe envisioned.

And lest you read this and think , wait, I thought I was on an animal shelter blog, what’s all this? Hear me out.

Sexism and racism are all too real today but both have been elevated to a level of discussion in which no one who can hope to be taken seriously can trot out those bankrupt philosophies and not, at the very least, expect pushback from people who think and reason. There is another arbitrary valuation line we draw: the belief that a member of another species is here “for” us not “with” us. Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker on the idea: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men."

Once we step over that line of "disposability" with anyone, it is easier to step over it with everyone. Every “other” we think we can identify lessens us. Erodes our empathy.

A Social Movement’s Leading Edge

There was a time that each great social movement contained a murky leading edge, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t own black people, but they shouldn’t vote.”

“There should be civil rights but ‘women’s place in the movement is “on their backs.” “Ok, Civil Rights includes women. But definitely not the gay ones.”

It is as if we had to have each expansion of inclusiveness wrested from our grudging, exclusionary fists. Why?

I guess change is scary. If women vote what will change? What if we cannot enslave someone to work our business? What if the female soldier standing next to me has a girlfriend back home?

In this Movement, the leading murky edge sounds like this:

“Animal lives have value. But not all animals.” “We should set up a shelter to help animals live, but not bull dogs. Not cats who sneeze. Not shy dogs. For sure not tiny kittens we have to bottle feed.”

So the question becomes, what if we stop using animal shelters to systematically exterminate the beings we are here to protect?

We are riding the leading murky edge of a social movement. Now is the time to push through this last wall. 

Just like the South seemed to be a main stage where civil rights played out, animal shelters will be the place that speciesim will play out. They contain animals most of us know well. We have histories and memories with dogs and cats (and ferrets and rabbits and birds and hamsters...) Never underestimate our power to make change when we get emotionally engaged. These creatures are our family. When most of us really sit with the fact that animal shelters have become the leading cause of death for animals in the United States, we will not have it. 

Shelters are the stage for this tectonic shift because they are accessible to us—we can take direct action to change the course of what happens in them. This minute. Not start a discussion or a book trip to the rainforest—but get in our cars, drive to a No Kill shelter and adopt an animal. Make a space for that shelter to keep yet another animal safe. And another. Get out our checkbook and donate to a No Kill program that is going to buy kitten milk instead of Fatal Plus. Volunteer to be a foster parent or help at the shelter that treats treatable conditions. You. Can. Change. This. System. Now.

The Mother’s Day peace we all crave starts the moment we stop pre-judging each other’s children. 

When we look at other people’s children through the eyes of their mothers—and see them as the unique, irreplaceable souls they are the world is reborn. Let’s expect more of all shelters and rally around those who are doing the right thing. Your direct action will pave the way to a new future.

So what’s your direct action?

Expect more of us as shelter directors. Know that we have a choice as we steer the ships we sail. The policies can change the very instant we choose to change them. Do not do business with us until we change. Period.

Your To Do List:

  • 1.Support No Kill shelters by adopting from them.
  • 2.Support No Kill shelters by donating to them.
  • 3.Support No Kill shelters by volunteering with them.

This Mother’s Day, stand with mothers of all species. It’s time.