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09/02/2007 Entry: "Hoarding and do-gooding (Pets Alive)"

ONE OF THE MOST MOVING ANIMAL RESCUE STORIES I ever read was "Just an Old Golden Retriever" by Sara Whalen. Also known as Brandy's Story, it relates how Whalen woke up to the worth of animals and became a rescuer. She became such a rescuer, in fact, that she founded the Pets Alive Animal Sanctuary in New York, which cared for hundreds of domestic critters of every age and condition.

A happy ending for all, so it seemed. Then this spring, the twist emerged.

Whalen neared the end of a two-year fight with cancer. The board of Pets Alive cried for help. The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary of Kenab, Utah, had to step in to rescue the rescuers. It turned out Pets Alive was populated by 500 -- 500! -- neglected, near-starving animals. Skin-and-bone horses. Dogs standing in their own feces who hadn't seen daylight in weeks. A skeleton staff had been trying, and failing, to care for them all.

It wasn't merely that Whalen had been sick and unable to properly run the sanctuary. Hers was a typical -- though much larger scale -- story like the ones you hear about old ladies being found living in buses with 80 diseased cats. Starting from a sincere desire to help animals, she eventually became convinced she was the only person who could help them. She refused to complete adoptions, reasoning that she could give the critters a better home than anybody else. She became distrustful of all people (it's easy to do when you see so many abusing and neglecting their animals). She alienated and drove away volunteers and staffers who tried to warn her where she was headed. And finally, she sank toward death too stubborn and and single-minded to make any succession plan -- because, after all, no one else (in her own eyes) was fit to succeed her. Much denial going on everywhere.

Just like the crazed old ladies in the buses, she was so fixated on her own mission to rescue the animals that she no longer could perceive the animals themselves, and their actual needs.

Thank heaven for Best Friends. The vet bills alone for Sara Whalen's animals came to more than $150,000. So if you want to give a small donation, I'm sure that great sanctuary in Utah could use it right now. Or so, for that matter, could the revived Pets Alive (which has now found homes for half its animals). Several times the little group I work with has been called in to rescue eight or a dozen critters from people like Whalen. But 500? I can't even imagine.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened. After Hurricane Katrina, some rescue groups sent lost and homeless animals to a sanctuary called Every Dog Needs a Home (EDNAH). This was what the desperate rescuers were sending the animals into.

I've known several people who are like this on a smaller scale. In fact, I think most people in animal rescue utter a little prayer now and then that we, ourselves, won't ever go that way.

This got me thinking about the nature of do-gooders in general. You hear these stories about animal rescue. But what about those who see themselves as rescuers of people?

These days, few "people rescuers" have direct control over masses of needy charges. But when they do, you occasionally hear similar stories. But only occasionally -- because the desire to "save" people is considered so noble and good that nobody wants to criticize the do-gooders, even when they actually do no good at all.

These days, people-do-gooders tend to focus on forcing help upon others via government. They become activists or perhaps get jobs in state social service agencies. When government gets involved, few of the needy are warehoused like animals in sanctuaries or little Dickensian orphans. The harm is diffused (look at nearly ever inner-city -- and into that one vast warehouser of the poor, the prison system). Yet the harm is no less grotesque. Millions are turned into helpless, resentful dependents, lives blighted, initiative and sense of self-empowerment stripped away.

Plenty of "people rescuers" -- like most animal rescuers -- are good folk. But talk to enough of them and you soon meet the fanatical element, the element that believes, "My way is the only way. Anybody who differs with me or points out that my way isn't working is wrong, bad, evil. People can't possibly take care of themselves. They need me, me, me to take over their lives." You meet those who'll exaggerate, lie, abuse, and even torture people in the name of "doing good."

It's all the same thing, I'm afraid. Yet in animal rescue it's considered a sickness or a crime. In "saving humanity," it's nearly always seen as a heroic virtue -- no matter how destructive the consequences.

Posted by Claire @ 11:25 AM CST

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