A blog by spcaLA president, Madeline Bernstein

Dec 29, 2009

Are Politicians Born With Their Fingers and Toes Crossed?

As a high profile CEO I am often asked to speak about the issue of leadership. Are leaders born or taught? Are there ethical responsibilities required of a good leader? What is the skill set involved, and so on and so forth. Frequently, the questions come to me from students forced to find the answers as part of an end term project or as part of their search for a mentor. In thinking about these issues and brooding about our future leaders, I must ask – are politicians born with their fingers and toes crossed?

I understand the ethereal quality of campaign promises and the motivational character of stump rhetoric. I understand that it is impossible to control all variables and not be able to affect a pledged outcome. I absolutely understand the prerogative to change one’s mind. I do not, however, understand breaking promises that can be kept, the denying a past statements despite the fact that they can be resurrected, edited and converted into an ad in a matter of minutes, and the apparent notion that expected leadership skills and ethics don’t apply when said “CEOs” are government officials.

We are in a difficult time. Two wars, a poor economy, global warming, nuclear arms threats, increasing poverty pockets, terrorism, a pandemic and a nation that simply distrusts every other word uttered by our political leaders, media pundits and even government officials vouching for the safety of swine flu vaccines.

On the eve of a new year, can we not ask our politicians, from the top down, to resolve to lead from the front of the pack rather than the foggy dark of a back room and to simply tell the truth? As the most visible leaders would they not set an example to those in the private sector as well? Could they not say:

I campaigned on this promise – but I couldn’t get it through this session.
I promised to do this but I changed my mind for the following reasons.
The system didn’t work and I’m looking into why.
I made a mistake.
Or, as Steve Martin put it – excuse me.

The consequence of not so resolving is a nation suffering from stagnation, fear, protectionism, and an inchoate sense of isolation. Simply put – the populace remains frozen in place in a heightened state of distrust and a psyche that rationalizes any action to survive – or win. This example of leadership produces nothing at present, and murders future generations of leaders by teaching them nothing.

Dec 20, 2009

Buy And Give Simultaneously

In a holiday season set against a landscape of recession, unemployment, fear and malaise, discretionary funding is small while real needs are great. In fact, the demand for charitable services is increasing exponentially in an inverse ratio to the ability to supply them. Animals and people need more help than ever before, and there are fewer resources than usual to help them.
One solution is to buy and give simultaneously. Shop in stores run by charities. Purchase items that share a percentage with a cause you support. Make corporate and personal holiday donations in the names of employees, friends, and family. Buy a little less than usual and share the difference where it matters.
These are just a few of the multitude of ways that you can still indulge yourselves while helping those who can't.
Remember, if everyone gave a little something, it could mean everything to someone or a pet with nothing.
Have a happy holiday season and thank you for all your support.

Dec 13, 2009

Poaching Is Bad For Elephants And SPCAs

Did you know that your spcaLA created an at risk youth anti -violence program that is being used nationally in states like Oregon, Kansas, New York and Georgia, and internationally in Europe, Australia and Canada?  Piloted, and ongoing in Southern California schools, we work with youth, using shelter dogs, to teach them conflict resolution, anger management and empathy.  Empathy is the cure for violence against animals and people. It began here with your spcaLA.
Did you know that your spcaLA has a domestic violence program that assists victims who need to leave a violent situation, but won’t if they have to leave a pet behind? This program has assisted pets from as far away as Florida because no other spca has such a comprehensive program.  You have it here with your spcaLA.
Did you know that your spcaLA developed a comprehensive shelter management software program that is being used throughout our country and, just recently, at a shelter in Dublin Ireland?
Did you know that your spcaLA has a state of the art disaster response unit that responds locally to fires, (most recently the Station Fire-the largest fire in California) floods and earthquakes as well as nationally when requested.  We were one of only 8 first responders called upon to assist in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Ike and only one of 2 (the other was a Missouri SPCA unit) deployed to Galveston – the worst affected by the storm.
Did you know that every SPCA in the country is a separate legal entity despite confusing commercials and advertising campaigns? The New York spca was the first to form in America in 1866 and aptly named itself. Your spcaLA opened its doors in 1877. Throughout the country different spcas were allowed to form as the laws in each state so permitted. However, only one spca solicits donations away from all the others under the misimpression that they are an umbrella entity that sends funds to non existent chapters.  It is the same with any humane society not based in Los Angeles. Their funds are not mandated to support the animals in our community based upon the zip code of the donor.  Though there are now complaints, inquiries and investigations into the ethics of such fund raising tactics – the responsibility ultimately lies with you, the consumer/donor, to know where you are donating your hard earned money despite attempts to confuse you. spcaLA applauds work that is carried out on behalf of animals any where in the country and hopes that you can afford to donate to multiple organizations. Your choice must still be an informed one. 
Your spcaLA actually has a local, national and international footprint with boots on the ground serving animals that need us.  In these trying economic times it is particularly critical that we work together, and educate others who are confused about where their funds are going so we succeed in our mission.

Dec 6, 2009

Friends for Life and Ever After.

Freud maintained in his book "Jokes And The Unconscious" that essentially there is no such thing as jokes and that they all conveyed truths wrapped in a safer form of communication, or,  in most cases, revealed a persons' real opinion - even if news to that person. Someone sent me the following joke: 
A  dead traveler and his dog were walking along a road. They came to a high, white stone wall  along one side of the road that looked like fine  marble with a mother of pearl gate, which led into a place with golden streets and remarkable beauty.  He and the dog  walked toward the gate, and saw a man at a desk.  The traveler called out, "Excuse me, where are  we?" "This is Heaven, sir," the man answered.  "Would you happen to have  some water?" the traveler asked.  "I'll have some ice water  brought right up."The man gestured, and the gate  began to open.  "Can  my friend," gesturing toward his dog, "come in,  too?" the traveler  asked.  "I'm sorry,  sir, but we don't accept  pets."
The traveler  thought a moment and then turned back toward the  road and continued on. They came to a dirt road with an open gate and saw a man leaning against a tree.  "Excuse  me!" he called to the man. "Do you have any  water?" The man pointed to a pump with a dog bowl beside it.  The traveler and the dog drank."What  do you call this place?" the traveler  asked. "This is  Heaven" the man answered.  "The man down the  road said that was Heaven  too" said the traveler."You mean  the place with the gold street and pearly gates?  Nope. That's hell" said the man.  "Doesn't  it make you mad for them to use your name like that?" said the traveler.
   "No," said the man.  "We're just happy that they screen out the folks  who would leave their best friends  behind." 
This joke reminded me of the incredible human animal bond shared by people and their pets. A bond so strong that some would choose death rather than leave their pet behind during a disaster evacuation, risk bodily harm to save a pet in danger and would grieve for a lifetime after the loss of this cherished family member. Our work is to obtain such a relationship for all homeless pets, support humans in their effort to provide such and to allow this bond to flourish free from acts of cruelty and derision. It is not a junk bond and certainly no joking matter.

Nov 30, 2009

You Can't Always Get What You Want ...

This piece was inspired by some letters to the editor (Long Beach Press Telegram) written to complain about spcaLA denying a person's applicaion to adopt a pet. An abridged version of this was submitted to the newspaper as my response.
Occasionally, an adoption is denied. Sometimes the client becomes angry, writes a letter to the editor, asks friends to also write – all in an attempt to make it appear that it is a widespread problem. It is not unlike a neighborhood panicking over multiple coyote sightings that turns out to be one coyote seen multiple times. An adoption denial is not a common occurrence and is always done in the best interests of the animal.

spcaLA has been in existence since 1877 and has been combating pet overpopulation for 133 years. The main contributors to the problem are ignorance of its causes, bad habits and lassitude in the willingness to solve it. Despite significant progress, pets continue to be purchased from unscrupulous vendors, allowed to remain unsterilized, and permitted to roam outside sans identification. This is due to the belief that pets are disposable commodities – endlessly replaceable and lacking value. We have even been called enablers who make it guilt-free for others to give up on a pet as our shelters are too nice and our staff too compassionate! Of course, it is far better for a pet to end up with us rather than struck by a vehicle, attacked by feral strays or simply left sick and starving to die a slow death on the street –all possible if placed in the wrong home. After all – where do these unwanted pets come from? Some from people who were not ready to adopt in the first place.

We rehabilitate and provide many animals a chance at a home whether it is through rescue groups, adoptions, transfers to other cities and so on. The effort to medically rehabilitate and provide behavioral stimulation to the animals is gargantuan and must not be wasted with lax placement guidelines. The brief pre-adoption questioning and discussion is designed to assess the readiness of the prospective family to commit to the pet. The staff has no crystal ball- only the drive to find a compatible family and an ever present optimism that the match will last. When such commitment is lacking, it hurts us all.  For example, some allow cats outside (against our adoption policy unless supervised or confined to a secure space) without identification, making it impossible to find the owner should the cat become lost. We must then use our limited resources to find that cat a new home, perhaps at the expense of a cat who never had one. Instead of giving every animal an opportunity for a family, we are giving some multiple tries, and others, no chance at all. Should we deny the adoption if the client insists that cats must roam? I submit we should. Allowing it does not move us forward to towards our goal.

These adoption policies, which served to consummate tens of thousands of successful adoptions over the years, will continue until we awaken the blissful ignorance of those who do not accept the responsibilities commensurate with adopting a pet. They will continue, so that to the best of our ability, every homeless pet will have a good home and our shelters will not be revolving doors and dumping grounds. Blithe letters to the editor will not change that.

They say ignorance is bliss – for whom – us? Certainly not for unwanted pets.

Nov 23, 2009

postscript to domestic violence blog - what about men?

A comment was made that men who are victims of domestic violence do not have the same help available as do women. spcaLA’s Animal Safety Net program regularly helps male victims of domestic violence, victims of same sex relationships, and victims of elder abuse. In fact, we have discovered that in traditional under reporting groups such as men, Asian women and parent victims – using the existing cruelty towards, or fear of future cruelty to the pet  often provides cover for getting help. In other words, those who would not report harm to themselves will report harm to their pets and seek to protect them. As a result – spcaLA’s program frequently aids these vulnerable but invisible victims.

As a society we have an obligation to treat a victim as such without regard to gender, race or lifestyle and ensure that all victims have access to Domestic Violence assistance programs. In each community we need to make sure that resources are fairly allocated to both traditional and nontraditional victims so that everyone is helped. Carl Rowan said “It is often easier to be outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home.”  

We need to get our own houses in order ….


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Nov 8, 2009


I find myself  trapped in an existential pit.

In thinking of  the gargantuan efforts to increase pet adoptions, reduce the national euthanasia rates, and dig out of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of animals - the question dawns on me. Am I spending my time finding homes for pets who actually have homes but are lost, or homes for the truly homeless pets? I fear it is the former. This is particularly true with cats as they are deliberately allowed outside to roam, for some misguided purpose, with no collars (lest they hang themselves) and no way to find their humans should they stray.  I then must use our resources to find a cat who already has a home, a new one, perhaps at the expense of a cat who never had one.  Instead of giving every animal an opportunity for a family, we are giving some multiple tries, and others, no chance at all.
Imagine if humans accepted the responsibilities commensurate with adopting a pet i.e. to safeguard,  meet their needs and to love them for their entire lives. Imagine if humans placed sufficient identification on their pets to maximize chances of reunion after accidental separation or disaster. Then imagine if all the funds, food, medicine and cage space were freed up for those pets who truly needed a home rather than for those just needing a different home with a more committed owner/guardian.  This effort alone would result in a substantial decrease in the number of animals in shelters, the amount of euthanasia and would propel us forward in our resolve to end the pet overpopulation crisis. As an ancillary benefit, we would learn to value the pets we have, thereby reducing the market for unscrupulous breeders. Only then would we begin to live an ethic that treats companion animals  like family members rather than like disposable commodities or Doritos. 
It would certainly help hoist me out of my existential pit.

Nov 4, 2009

A Zoo Is No Place For An Elephant

The zoo is no place for an elephant. Elephants are majestic creatures that love to walk, need mental stimulation, crave friends and enjoy grazing and problem solving. Elephant experts, well informed state of the art zoos and specialty veterinarians concur that health issues and death are certain consequences of an insufficient zoo space. In the 21st century many enlightened zoos have made a policy decision not to keep elephants at all. Yet, it is now, that the LA Zoo has decided to spend $42,000,000 dollars on an exhibit that experts have already declared obsolete and insufficient.

Councilmember La Bonge continues to chant that children need to see elephants and therefore $42,000,000 dollars is an essential expenditure for this cage. I respectfully submit, that the message children will learn from seeing elephants in such an exhibit is that it is ok to keep large roaming animals in a confined space. Bob Talbert said “teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best”. Let us use the $42,000,000 dollars to improve and expand other deficient exhibits, send the lone remaining elephant to sanctuary and “teach our children, and parents, well”. (Crosby Stills Nash and Young)

Nov 1, 2009

Don't Drink Your Own Kool-Aid

   The animal welfare/animal rights tent has many planks, factions and a cast of diverse leaders. As such a leader myself, I frequently study the styles, methods and track records of other CEO s both in and outside my industry. What I find interesting in a cause based mission driven organization, is the ability of the CEO to ascend to cult leader status thereby blurring the distinction between the accomplishments of the organization and his or her persona. The healthy leader understands this and remains grounded - the narcissist does not.
   The narcissist CEO believes the public praise  for the good works performed is for him/her and quickly becomes addicted to the adulation.  This addiction to the high becomes so acute that it subverts the mission of the organization to the full time job of feeding the leader's habit. The addicted leader believes in and can no longer distinguish between the public relations Kool-Aid and reality, but worse, he/she cannot make judicious business decisions that are neither tainted by nor designed to satisfy the addiction.  The result over time leads to the neglect and pollution of the actual corporate purpose and the deterioration of the leader's ability to make moral and ethical corporate decisions.
   Unlike the listener of Carly Simon's "Your so Vain" fame who would think this piece is about him/her - the narcissist CEO - thinks - no way this is about me! Unfortunately, the constituency in my business, abused animals, cannot voice their complaints or participate in an intervention.  They cannot remind the narcissist that the work of the organization is required to serve them. They are instead silent victims - yet again.

Oct 26, 2009

A Tale of 2 Woman's Nations

I feel obligated to make a comment during this week of the Woman's Conference. There were women supporting their families and this nation before Madison Avenue created the slogan of women aspiring to "have it all".  The world is full of women, with children, and husbands, who work multiple jobs to keep their families afloat. These jobs often involve physical exertions, are without health insurance, and are of the sort that dock pay if absent from work. Consequently, a child who needs to stay home from school with a cold poses a challenge wrought with conflict, heartache and, of course potential financial penalty should the woman choose to stay home with her child.  These women "have it all" - career, husbands and children. This is not the Madison Avenue campaign I remember.

These women are not the Maria Shrivers of the world. They are not me. They have no choices.

I grew up with brothers and parents who made sure I had the same advantages as the boys. This meant I had  the same education,  had to learn Judo, and was the only girl in my Manhattan high school class who was forced to get a driver's license as my father insisted I drive myself on dates with boys. Yes, I took advantage of all of this, went to law school, invested in my career and, yes, when it was time to have a family I had resources and choices to allow me to "have it all". I could also choose not to "have it all".  The key is the freedom to choose - a freedom that many women lack.  I had help and opportunities that many women who live a backbreaking existence in order to sustain their families do not have. Like all working mothers,  I agonize over work and missing a school event - but my family's survival doesn't hang on my decision.

These women, who have no choice but to "do it all" must be saluted and supported. Many of them would not be allowed off from work to attend the conference without losing pay.

Oct 8, 2009

My First Blog

This is my first blogging attempt so I thought I would introduce the Sheprador.  I have been quite frustrated with the onslaught and popularity of designer dogs like “Cockerdoodles”, "Labradoodles", "Puggles" and the like. While adorable, they are still mutts, and a fad that has created more profits for for puppy mills and unscrupulous breeders. The irony, insult and stupidity of the thing is that shelters everywhere are brimming with unique, lovable, and, might I say, stylish mutts of every kind who need good homes. It is problematic enough that shelters already combat the notion that pure breeds are more desirable, though 25% of our residents are in fact pure breeds) but really - do we have to compete with fake pedigrees i.e. specially ordered, manufactured mutts?  

In response to this, spcaLA has introduced our own, exclusive Designer Dog!  At our shelters one can find the Chihuerrier, the Sheprador, the Lapitty with exclusive new breeds emerging daily. We even offer papers of authenticity with each adoption.

I am thrilled that people are realizing the great advantages of adopting a mutt. But - come on - let's not encourage making more dogs until every adoptable homeless dog first finds a home.