Who are you working for?
Most in the rescue field wouldn’t hesitate. We are all working for the animals.
But what kind of animal welfare system do we have, and are we really fighting for a better one?
Shelters and pounds still kill pets unnecessarily. Shelters and pounds still neglect pets who need care and protection.
Every single shelter staff member or rescuer would have one – or a heartbreaking collection – of personal examples where pets were betrayed by the system and suffered harm. Terribly atrocities happening every single day and we are there to witness it. It breaks our hearts. It breaks our spirits. And it drives us slowly crazy.
So why are we so reluctant to talk about it?
A ‘whistleblower’ is a person who exposes misconduct, or even potentially illegal activity occurring within an organisation. Whistleblowers may make their initial allegations internally (to management or board members), then if unable to find a resolution, externally (to regulators, law enforcement, the media or advocacy groups).
In legend, whistleblowers are regarded as heroes – people who stand up and fight for what they believe is right. The reality could not be more different. It is the unfortunate fact that whistleblowers frequently face reprisal for being brave enough to stand up to try and right some wrong and suffer enormous personal cost when they do come forward. With very few exceptions, whistleblowers will lose their jobs or be forced to resign, with the victimisation often coming from otherwise normal and reasonable work colleagues, or bosses. Sometimes the reprisals are at the hands of their employer, sometimes from related organisations, and even sometimes under law.
Whistleblowing is considered by some as the most effective of all possible methods for stopping illegal or corrupt activities within organisations, and a powerful mechanism for bringing about a more ethical climate in our organisations. Effective whistleblowing has made a significant lasting and positive impact in many areas of our society.
But it is a rare beast in animal welfare.
The animal welfare industry in Australia is estimated to generate several hundred millions of dollars a year in revenue. It employs thousands of people. While thousands more work in a voluntary capacity, alongside pounds, in the form of community rescue groups.
Tens of thousands of sets of eyes and ears to what is going on, and going wrong with the animal welfare system. Yet just a handful of investigations of conduct take place each year, nearly always driven by an external pet owner who has lost a family member by a failing system.
We – the animal welfare people – are complicit in covering up the industry’s deepest, darkest and most abusive secrets. Us! The ones who identify ourselves as ‘animal lovers’, and those who claim to care more than most.
I get dozens of contacts a year from people working inside the animal welfare system who can see where it is going wrong. They want to share their stories, but they rarely if ever are willing to step up and take their information public.
Ostracism, harassment, threats, withdrawal of support, stalking or even physical assault – that’s what we fear.
Not only the retaliation, but also the fear of losing friendships. We fear we will lose our jobs. We fear that we will have to speak to the media. We fear that people will judge our decisions. We fear that we will be ‘sued’. We fear being ostracised, or not being allowed to continue to help pets.
We don’t want to be the messenger who gets the shot.
WE should be the ones cleaning up our industry, yet practically no major drive for reform in the last ten years has come from those inside the industry – reform has nearly always come from the outside in.
– A pet owner whose pet is ‘oopsie’ killed.
– A volunteer foster carer who enters the system only to be repulsed into action.
– A pet lover in the community who FOI’s their local pound stats.
Or some other person we would consider an ‘outsider’, is the one who stands up and says ‘NOT GOOD ENOUGH’. They’re the ones who start a revolution for change. We’re happy to go along with it when it happens – but not to start the fire.
What does this say about us as ‘animal welfare’ people? If we know these abuses are happening at the hand of our peers and we don’t say anything? What does it say about us if we are standing silently by, while abuse, neglect or harmful policy is killing animals? Are we really ‘working for pets’, or are we working for personal advancement, friendships and a long career in the industry? Why are we so happy to be complicit in the abuse?
What is our moral responsibility? And do we want to continue to work in this industry, if a major change isn’t going to take place?
And it absolutely will not take place, unless those in the industry are willing to stand up and demand that change.
There are a lot of people inside organisations who will intimidate, bully and personally threaten a whistleblower in an effort to stop them coming forward with their concerns.
Which is why we should give those who actually do, our full support.
Unfortunately, many groups claiming to be working in animal welfare like to further the notion that we should all ‘just get along’. They like to paint the rescue world as simply ‘a bunch of backbiting bitches placing their ego ahead of the animal’s needs’. And that anyone who rocks the boat is doing so for personal gain, glory or infamy.
(The great irony being, most people bringing this stuff to the public’s attention would rather stick their fingers in a paper shredder than go through the emotional upheaval becoming a whistleblower causes in their lives).
This condemnation of dissenters simply feeds back into the loop of victimisation of whistleblowers – which of course is EXACTLY what those threatened by the revelations, want.
Seeing a peer torn to shreds, stops other people from feeling that they will supported in challenging abusive practices and further gives credence and cover to those in power who would rather the status quo remain exactly as it is.
In short, even more pets suffer while those with the power to stop it look the other way.
Animal sheltering and welfare desperately need people willing to be courageous on behalf of pets. We need insiders – the people who are caught up in this terrible system – to start to take more of an ownership to exposing the issues they face.
"The problem is that something is seriously wrong and no one is able, or willing, to do anything about it.
‘Whistleblowing: a practical guide’
If you want to help fix the problem, it is important to work out exactly what you think the problem is, and why you think it’s a problem. Then, look at who is willing to discuss the issue;
A characteristic of suppression is the avoidance of open discussion. Rather than welcoming an opportunity for dialogue and debate, the focus is put on the other person’s behaviour or on official procedure. Alternatively, interaction is avoided altogether.
Gathering quality information is the best protection you can give yourself. Not only does it lend validity to your position, it can be used to defend you, should you suffer any reprisals at a later date. Collect evidence to back up every detail.
Video, photos, memos, reports, paperwork and keeping a diary of important dates, meetings and discussions, can all help pinpoint issues. It is important to do this in a subtle way, BEFORE you take any of your claims public, as it can be very hard to gather the information once parties are alerted to your efforts.
Do others in your organisation feel the same way? It’s always easier to work with like-minded others, rather than completely alone. Be subtle in your enquiries.
You may find many of your coworkers are cynical, or the practices so entrenched and accepted as ‘the way things are done’, that they are unsupportive.
Covering up mistakes by colleagues can be motivated by the desire to protect the group’s reputation for good work. To begin an analysis of the source of a problem, ask “who has something to gain?”
Another possibility is that they have tried to fix the problems themselves and failed. Or they may know if anyone tried to stop the problem, they would get no support or even come under attack, so it’s just easier to let it continue.
Mobilise those people who are on your side. Meet and develop a plan on what you believe the problem to be, and how to potentially solve it.
It can be very helpful to get the opinion of an outside party to verify your concerns. Is there industry professionals who can support your position? Ask whether they believe the problem is as serious as you think.
If the issue is with behavioural assessments, seek the advice of a well-respected veterinary behaviorist. If the issue is with policies and procedures, make an appointment with other similar organisations and ask for their details of their own policies, in an effort to determine industry ‘best practice’.
There are many groups supporting shelter and rescue to access resources. PetRescue.com.au are a great place to start, and have lots of skills and industry experience. Here at Saving Pets, I can also help connect you with like-minded people, or advise on ‘next steps’.
Obviously, the very first step is to broach your concerns about particular issues, with those who can potentially help you solve them. First line management, then upper management, or even board level. However, often these parties are already aware of the issues and tolerate them. They may be complicit, or even helping cover up the problem.
While it can be beneficial to be seen as having tried to fix the problem internally, chances are if the problem has existed for a long time, you won’t have been the first to try this approach. You DO NOT have to continue to work with formal, organisation approved channels if they aren’t bringing about the change needed. Largely these grievance processes are designed simply to wear you down emotionally, in the hope you’ll just ‘go away’.
If top managers are involved, be prepared, as it is predictable that they will use cover-up, reinterpretation, or intimidation to tackle the problem – you – and to try and deter you from taking further action.
They will likely reward those who are complicit, while making reprisals against you for expose their corrupt behaviour. Their language against you will be inherently negative (snitching, leaking, emotional, bitching, unreasonable, naive) , while their descriptions of their approach will be overwhelmingly positive (pragmatic, ‘we can’t save them all’, experienced, strategic, ‘we don’t want to see children hurt’).
The key point here is to expect these behaviours, and plan accordingly.
If it can’t be resolved internally, then you may need to go to outside of the organisation, to the media or an advocacy organisation.
Obviously, being anonymous reduces your risk of reprisals and comes at much less personal cost, however in building your case you may have already identified yourself. Maybe the workplace you are in, is so small as to make hiding your identity practically impossible. Bosses will go to amazing lengths to find out who is leaking information – are you personally good at being deceptive under pressure?
Assess how realistic it is that you will be able to keep your identity a secret throughout the entire process. If you’re going to be found out anyway, it may just be easier, and give you more opportunities, if you are just upfront from the start.
Generally, you will be unable to simply ‘leak’ information to the media. They will want to know who you are and why your story is important.
Spend time working out which journalists in your local media work in your area of interest. Start building a relationships and be ready and available for interviews. You may be able to secure multiple stories across mulitple platforms – newspapers, tv and online – especially if you have compelling photographs or video. Remember however, media exposure isn’t the goal – change is – so the media is simply one avenue.
Journalists also need to present a ‘balanced’ story – so after they talk to you, the next call they make will probably be to your enemy! This discussion can inadvertently tip them off as to who you are, so plan accordingly.
Why go to an activist group rather than a journalist? Usually the reason is that the group has a special interest in the topic and will be willing to put the time and energy into making the best use of any information you give them. They may be happy to pick up your information and run with it, while keeping your details confidential.
A story on television might be seen by lots of viewers, but few of them will do anything about it, whereas a story in a group’s newsletter might stimulate a campaign…. The combination of concerned insiders (the leakers) with committed outsiders (the activists) can be extremely powerful.
Activist groups may also have existing websites, media/social media/or PR campaigns and lobbying efforts. They may also have people willing to confidently speak to the media on your behalf.
Some contacts include; The Pound Reform Alliance (National & VIC), The Paw Project (National & SA), SoCares (NSW), Lawyers for Companion Animals (National & NSW), Death Row Pets (National).
You blow the whistle. The problem gets looked at, and solved. *dusts hands*
Yeah, probably not. The most likely responses;
1. Complaints and complainants are ignored. A powerful establishment can tolerate a bit of dissent, as long as no one takes any notice.
2. Complainants are attacked. If the complaints become too loud, or are taken seriously by too many people, an attack on the complainants is mounted.
3. Reassuring statements are made. If the pressure is too great to ignore or suppress, then the problem may be acknowledged and said to be being dealt with. Often this is just public relations.
4. Procedures are changed so it is harder to detect and document the problems.
5. A few superficial improvements are made. To ease the pressure, some new policies might be announced, or a few individuals sacrificed – but the situation is really unchanged.
6. Steps are taken to genuinely reduce the problem.
Most whistleblower challenges never get past steps 1 or 2.
The biggest risk is getting stuck at 3, 4 or 5.
Your aim is to push and fight until you reach number 6.
If you’re thinking about coming forward, know that there are people and avenues who will support you. The journey will likely be long and full of shit rubbish fuckery, but you will know you did everything you could to make the world better for our companion animals.
 Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics – A comparative analysis of whistleblower protection