Sunday, July 05, 2009


A board member at a cat-rescue shelter confided in one of my readers that, during the past six months, six cats had been allowed to starve to death at this "non-kill," not-for-profit shelter.

"The cats wouldn't eat," my reader reports, "and the employees and management made no effort to locate foster homes which might have mitigated the problem. These poor cats, once people's pets, died painful, lonely deaths in their cages, basically not attended to properly, if at all."

My reader, who has volunteered at the shelter for the past year, feels compelled to blow the whistle to her local media about the starved cats who suffered such painful and inexcusable deaths. Her goal, she writes, would be to shed light on how poorly the shelter is run. She fears, however, that such publicity would cause donations to the center to dry up.

She has a bigger worry, though: The shelter's board members have signed a "loyalty oath" promising not to disclose any information about shelter operations to anyone not a member of the board, on penalty of dismissal. If she contacts the media, she fears, it will be clear who told her the facts and her informant will be removed from the board.

This board member, who is facing personal financial troubles, occasionally receives free care for the nearly dozen cats she looks after. Losing her seat on the board, and the free or at-cost medical care from the shelter, would be a hardship.

"Do I just go to the media," my reader asks, "and let the chips fall where they may?"

If her informant is then dismissed from the board, my reader wants to know if she is ethically obliged to assume her vet bills.

"Deep inside I know I am, aren't I?" she asks.

My reader clearly has competing issues here. The biggest question is whether her concern for the shelter cats' well-being should outweigh her concern about her informant's possibly getting in trouble _ and losing medical care for her own cats _ as a consequence of revealing the conditions at the shelter. And, of course, she's worried that speaking up on the cats' behalf might hurt the shelter's donations ... which would be bad for the cats.

If my reader's concerns are justified and her information is correct, both of which seem to be the case, she has an obligation to act. Her informant _ both as a board member and as a personal protector of cats _ the rest of the board and my reader herself, as a shelter volunteer, are united in their desire to help cats. Letting this situation continue would be unjustifiable for all concerned, which is probably why her informant mentioned the matter in the first place.

My reader should confront the board, but not until she has enlisted the assistance of those in the community who would help her to do so. If this means going to the local media with the story, she should not hesitate to share her evidence of wrongdoing.

Her informant may be exposed, but she's already been compromised: As a board member, she should have used her position to call attention to the deplorable conditions. The welfare of the shelter's cats must be a higher priority at this stage.

And my reader has absolutely no obligation to assume her informant's vet bills. Doing the right thing does not imply personal responsibility for anyone who may suffer as a result. If she feels sorry for the cats and wants to help out, she obviously can do so, but it's a matter of choice, not obligation.

Will airing of the shelter's problems hurt donations? Probably, but hopefully the shelter's board, whether the same board or a new one, will make every effort to demonstrate that these problems are in the past. In any event, to allow donors to unknowingly contribute to a poorly run shelter that negligently kills cats would be unconscionable.

Everyone involved with the shelter has a responsibility to hew to the mission of the organization, which is to protect the welfare of the cats under the shelter's care. The right thing for my reader, her informant and the rest of the board to do is to make sure that cats are not starved or mistreated while in their care. Any other political, financial or personal issues must be secondary.

If they cannot do this, then they have no business running an organization of this nature.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


mary said...

Of course this should be exposed. This is deplorable and moves into the level of hoarding rather than sheltering. There is illness here and there are always rescue groups who will help. If we don't know, we cannot assist. There is something very wrong with the head of this organization if she/he is not able to ask for help. No mentally healthy person could allow this to happen and I suggest that the whistleblower, 1. is protected under law and 2. has an obligation to come forward. It sounds like her/his skills in knowing how to make approprrite decisions is compromised too and you may need to be the one to take charge and get assistance for the cats in this place. It is no longer a shelter.

Mary Shepherd
London ON Canada

Anonymous said...

Sometimes human beings and animals stop eating. This often happens at the end of a terminal illness, in advanced dementia, and for severely depressed individuals. In humans, if you treat the depression, appetite may return. In animals, I don't really know. To try to force-feed these animals (or people) or initiate an artificial means of nurishing or hydrating them may really in effect be prolonging the dying proces rather than saving a life.
It's important to know what you are dealing with before passing judgement on actions taken.

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