Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tales From the Animal Rescue Trenches

Today I thought I'd publish an excerpt from my book LET NO DAY DAWN THAT THE ANIMALS CANNOT SHARE and send you a "blast from the past" -- a little entertainment at my own expense. This is from the chapter Burro-ing In: Animal Advocacy 101. If you like it, there's more where this came from. You can get the book at Authorhouse.com (or at amazon.com if you like paying more -- didn't think so...)

Here we go:

From 1981 to 1985 I worked as a Field Service Representative (later as a Field Service Director) for an animal advocacy agency in Sacramento, California. It was right up my alley -- advocating for critters -- so most of the time I was in seventh heaven.

A significant part of my job involved visits to grade schools, high schools, colleges and universities where I would throw a spotlight on individual or collective environmental or cultural challenges which threatened the wellbeing or continued existence of animals, domestic and wild. My expertise spanned diverse issues, including agribusiness farming practices, puppy mills, animal research, the use of leghold traps, and so forth.

One time my sole colleague on the wild horse issue, along with our agency's Public Relations expert, were called to Washington DC to testify before Congress about the fate of bands of wild horses that roamed public lands. They flew off and were gone. Wild horses were one of my issues, too, but I stayed behind -- happily so, because I was a relative newcomer to the animal welfare wars and didn't yet feel secure enough to tackle a vitally important Congressional hearing.

As luck would have it, our organization had a previous commitment on the same day as the congressional hearing. We were supposed to be providing a "burro expert" for a television show. Our burro expert's comments would be broadcast as a rebuttal to comments made by a representative of the Bureau of Land Management regarding the wild burro/land management (read "cattlemen's association") challenge. There was just one small problem with our commitment: our only bona fide "burro expert" was on the aforementioned trip to Washington D.C.!

That morning the head of the agency called me into his office to say I would be the day's burro defender during the television shoot with the camera crew. More than a little panicked, I cleared my throat and reminded him that burros were not my issue -- that wild horses, not burros, were my field of expertise. That would be no problem, he assured me: the land use controversy was essentially the same for both species and I could "review the finer talking points" on the way to the burro ranch (85 miles away). I would handle it just fine, he assured me, expressing great confidence via a smiling, relaxed demeanor.

Oh, and by the way, he added parenthetically, the drive to the site would take just over two hours and the camera crew would be waiting for me the moment I arrived. In other words, high-tail it out of here, go home and get changed into cowboy duds, and take off so I could do those burros and the agency proud.

Ooooh boy...

I was a nervous wreck. How, I wondered, was I supposed to drive a car AND study a position paper? (My first duty to this mission was, of course, to arrive alive.) I also knew I wasn't adequately versed in camera crews, interviews or debates, much less in hosting a burro visitation party! I have never even met a burro!

But there was no one else. I was the last, best hope of burro-kind that day. (By this, you might guess that things didn't look too good for the poor burros...)

When I arrived at the ranch (a gathering place for burros that had been taken off the land and were scheduled to be adopted by animal lovers in the region), the camera crew was gathered and ready to roll. A ranch hand had loaded a small pick-up truck with a couple bales of hay. We all piled in -- I was in the back with the bales, an interviewer and a cameraman -- and headed for the field in which dozens of skittish burros were domiciled.

The cameraman told me to go ahead and chat it up as we drove to the site. I let them know, right away, that I was simply a stand in for the real expert, and that my expertise was with wild horses, not burros. I told them during this short drive that the wild horse species, eohippus, had actually evolved on the North American continent but had become extinct -- possibly due to predation by dire wolves, the American lion and saber-tooth cat species that shared the land, or by Native Americans later on -- and so when they were brought back to the Americas by the Spaniards, they were returned to their native lands -- ergo, they were not an "exotic species," as BLM claimed. This detail, in my reasoning, made the wild horses "natives," part of the ecosystem. I said that wild horses had as much right to claim public lands as rabbits, coyotes, antelope, and cactus and far more right to it than millions of head of introduced cattle.

As we entered the field where the burros stood gazing warily from a distance, a crew member whispered to me, "How will we get close enough to get decent shots of them?" Naturally, I had no idea... but this was no time to be caught without a ready answer, so I suggested confidently, "Just disguise yourself to resemble a bale of hay-- like this!" I held a couple large flakes of hay in front of myself, up high and down low. No one laughed. So much for warming up my audience...

Thank God! My humorous, half-hearted suggestion worked like a charm! The burros had been fed from the truck for several weeks following their round-up and were accustomed to the routine of having hay fall from the rear of the vehicle. I held two flakes of hay in front of me and stepped off the bumper into the field: a cameraman followed suit.

So there we were: two flakes out walking in a field, surrounded by nuzzling, contented burros. The cameraman just about lost his mind, getting some of the best closeups of wild burros ever obtained. Viewers of the program saw burros from as little as two feet away, at times jiggling the camera in their quest for another mouthful of hay.

It was a coup of immense proportions. My organization was thrilled with the resulting intimate footage. I was just relieved that we got some!

I was less thrilled to see the show. While others stood around congratulating me on how natural and comfortable I looked and how wonderful the show was, I was mortified to discover that the editor had included my defense of wild horses as natives, but had edited the statement to make it seem as though I had asserted that burros were a native species, too and were therefore not an exotic creature at all. The BLM rep, of course, countered that claim unequivocally, saying he had no idea where I got such a preposterous idea. Missing entirely was my actual defense of the burros' right to remain on American public lands. I had said, "Burros were instrumental in opening up this continent. Prospectors used burros, trappers used them. Burros have as much right to exist on this continent as do European settlers and other immigrants. Without the help of burros, horses, mules and oxen, our settlements would have been limited to places where only rivers could take us."

To this day -- thirty years later -- I still sometimes run across that old interview -- and blush every time. If I could re-edit it to its original, unedited content, I would be fine with it... but not the way it runs now. It seems my "native burros" claim will dog me as long as I live -- and I didn't even say it!

This adventure became an invaluable lesson. These days if I feel uncertain when given orders, I stand firm and state my case. Beguiling me -- even with my "natural ability to charm a crowd" -- doesn't get terribly far with me any more. Until I know for sure what I'm doing, I balk mightily. I guess that makes me reliable: I won't take on a task unless I'm 98% sure I can do an exemplary job -- and that I can face myself in the mirror (or on a TV screen) forever after!

LOOKING foolish is okay, when it's by design (as is the case with this piece), but BEING foolish has never been a target of mine.

Alas -- all too often I somehow manage to hit the bulls-eye anyway!

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