A Time For Gathering Stones Together by Ed Boks

The following speech was given to over 300 animal welfare advocates in the LA area on Thursday, February 9th, 2006. The speech was well received by many and a source of upset to others. A mixed reaction to such a frank discussion concerning the rescue and humane community by an “outsider” was anticipated. The important point of this talk was, and is, that I embrace the local community, I recognize everyone’s importance and value to the effort, and I want to work closely with everyone wanting to help. In order for us to accomplish our shared No-Kill vision we all have to get past our differences and focus on how we can help each other. 

Hello, my name is Ed Boks. I’ve had the good fortune to meet many of you already, and I look forward to meeting the rest of you this evening and in the days and weeks to come.

During my few weeks in Los Angeles I have been exposed to a lot and I think I have learned a lot. I’d like to share tonight a little bit about what I’ve learned. How many agree that sometimes it takes an “outsider” to see what is really happening in a community? Isn’t it true that sometimes you can be so involved in a situation and circumstance that you can’t see the forest through the trees? That’s why so many in business rely on consultants to tell them what is happening in their organizations.

I don’t consider myself a consultant. I’m what you might call a troubleshooter. Where a consultant may be adept at analyzing a problem, making recommendations, and then getting out of Dodge, a troubleshooter, like myself, has to work the problem until he can find and implement workable solutions. He’s accountable until the job is done. He has to produce.

I have some experience in this respect. I have actually worked a couple of problematic animal control programs. I understand there are a couple of you here this evening who have some questions about those situations, and I welcome your questions. There is nothing about my experiences in Maricopa County or NYC that I am afraid to talk about. I will tell you up front that in the final analysis, significantly fewer animals were dying in those communities when I left than then I arrived, and programs and people were put in place to continue those trends.

Unlike a lot of consultants I’ve worked with, I don’t have the luxury to take credit for my successes. I am all too aware that I can’t do anything without the help of others. Now, like it or not, I’m here, in LA. Some of you are pleased that I am here, some are concerned, and some are withholding judgment. Whatever your opinion, I can tell you tonight that I will not be successful without your help. And LA Animal Services will not be successful without your help. And you will never realize your vision for LA’s animals unless you are willing to help in a constructive way.

We are dealing with a huge societal problem; a problem we all feel passionately about. There are just too many animals dying needlessly in our City. This is a problem that will take all of us working together as a community to solve.

But before we can solve that problem, I think we have a little bigger problem we’re going to have to tackle first. I’ve been in LA a little over a month now. Everywhere I go folks I meet for the first time ask me what I think of LA. How many would really like to hear my assessment of the LA animal welfare community? Keep in mind, my perspective will only be good for a short period of time because the longer I’m part of this landscape the more I become just another one of the trees in the forest. So before I am fully assimilated, let me tell you what I see.

I see a condition that I have seen in many other communities. I refer to this condition as the Oscar Wilde Syndrome. This is not a condition unique to LA. In fact, I think it is endemic to the entire animal welfare industry. I call this condition the Oscar Wilde Syndrome because it is best described by something Oscar Wilde once said about himself. He said, “It is not enough that I succeed, my friends must also fail.”

How many would agree with that diagnosis?

As human beings, we tend to be “meaning making machines”. We abhor situations that provide no meaning and situations we don’t understand. That’s why a lack of communication is so dangerous, and I admit LAAS has to do a better job at communicating with the public, because when you aren’t transparent, then people tend to make up their own meanings. And when we find ourselves in situations we don’t understand or don’t have enough information, we begin to assign our own meaning. And it is just human nature, that when we have an opportunity to assign our own meaning, we tend to make ourselves “right” and everyone else “wrong”. Which makes sense, right? After all, we get to assign our own meaning and we’re not likely to make ourselves wrong, are we?

Think about the word “meaning” next time you’re around someone who is just plain mean. What makes people so mean? I’ll tell you what I think makes some people so mean is the meaning they assign to those around them. What makes people mean is the little universe of “meaning” they lock themselves into over time. What is tragic is to watch that universe shrink around them and get smaller and smaller because most of us just don’t want to be around that kind of meaning.

This Syndrome is pernicious. When one is in its clutches it is not enough to dispute ideas, we have to also find fault with the person who holds any idea we don’t agree with, then we have to ridicule and slander. This is how battles of ego develop. How many have been involved in animal welfare for ten years or more? Have you ever noticed during all that time that there are some real colossal egos at work in our field? Mine included.

How many in this room would admit that you have an ego? Thank you for your honesty! Can I share a rather radical thought with you? Did you know that 150 years ago, the ego didn’t even exist? The ego is a meaning that a fellow by the name of Sigmund Freud developed and we all bought into. Why? Because we have to have meaning. We are like Adam and Eve when God told them to name all the animals. We have all been assigning names and meanings to everything that moves in our lives ever since.

Ever since Freud named the beast within us “ego” it has been preying mercilessly on all it disagrees with. Not that people weren’t cruel to one another before the creation of the ego, but with a handy ego, at least now we feel we can understand our aberrant behavior. The more we can understand it, the more we tend to justify it. Its amazing the behavior our ego lets us justify. We feel so righteous. And we are, we’re self-righteous…

There once lived an itinerant preacher about 2000 years ago, and he warned that a time would come when men would kill one another and think they were doing God a favor. That’s pretty extreme justification, no? Do we see that happening anywhere in the world today? We in this room couldn’t get to that point, could we? After all, we’re all “no-kill”, right? It’s interesting; this preacher went on to say that if you hate your fellow man, you are a murderer.

Can I be candid with you all? I’ve been in this community for six weeks. I have spent a lot of time with a lot of folks, and not enough time with a lot more, but I have to tell you, I have not met anyone that I didn’t fall in love with. You are all amazing.

Do we have any original StarTrek fans here? Remember the episode when Kirk encountered these two guys from another dimension that are exact opposites, but they look so much alike that no one can tell them apart? They were mirror images of each other. One was black on the right side and white on the left and the other was white on the right side and black on the left. And these two guys hated each other, beyond all reason. They were so repulsed by each other that at the very sight of their mirror image they were provoked to wanting to kill each other. The crew of the Enterprise couldn’t find any remedy except to lock the two of them into a parallel universe where they were destined to fight and claw at each other for eternity. Anybody here want to be trapped fighting with each other for eternity?

I have some good news for you. There is a cure for the Oscar Wilde Syndrome. The Oscar Wilde Syndrome is a lot like alcoholism. Once you can admit to your self that you have the disease, you are on the road to recovery. But also like alcoholism, when you can’t admit you are in its clutches you remain trapped in it.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of the rescuers that went down to New Orleans to save the lost and abandoned animal victims of Katrina. I’ve heard one common concern from all of them, and that was: how much more they could have done if egos had not gotten in the way. Personal and organizational egos, fighting for funding, the spotlight, and recognition. And many of the animals ended up suffering more, not less.

Right here in Los Angeles we live with a Katrina like disaster every day. But because our disaster has so blended into the backdrop of most people’s everyday lives no one outside of this room seems to notice. And we’re so busy fighting among ourselves that no one is likely to notice any time soon. Let me give you just one example of how our collective dysfunction is affecting the animals in LA. The number of animals rescued from LAAS by our rescue partners in January 06 compared to January 05 is down 24%.

The good news is euthanasia was also down 25%. But what could we have done if all the rescue groups had just been able to function at the same capacity as last year? And I’ll tell you right now, last year’s capacity is not good enough. We have got to do better if we expect to achieve no-kill in Los Angeles. We have to work together.

Among our combined efforts well over 100 animals a day are rescued from the streets and allies of LA. Many of these animals end up with Animal Services where they are killed. I’m hoping that tonight we can say together that that is no longer acceptable, and say it without condemning each other, but by helping each other end it.

If the same resources that Los Angeles residents sent to Katrina animal relief were sent to us in this room, what could we have accomplished here? In the same way, if all the resources we expend in attacking each other were spent helping each other help the animals, what could we accomplish here?

Tonight, I’d like to propose a different kind of reality to you. I’d like to enroll you in a different possibility than the one you are living in now. Do I have any takers? Anyone interested? Imagine this: what if we create in Los Angeles an animal welfare community without egos?
Imagine, instead of always trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong, or who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, we determine instead that every one of us is indispensable?

Because each one of us is an indispensable piece of the puzzle and we will never solve this problem unless we solve it together. When we exclude any piece of the puzzle we immediately begin to create the illusion of right and wrong, good and bad that will only keep us fighting among ourselves forever.

Imagine: a community without egos. Some of you who know me are probably tempted to say, “Fat chance, Boks, you have the biggest ego in the room.” I will cop to that. But what I am proposing is so important to me that I am asking you all to call me on it. Whenever you see me do or say anything that puts my ego before the animals, tell me. All I ask is that to whatever degree you hold me responsible for being a part of the solution in LA, you hold yourself equally responsible when someone points out your ego may be getting in the way.

If I fail, you fail. If you fail, I fail. If we succeed, we succeed together, and if we succeed, we will succeed spectacularly.

I was encouraged to come to LA several weeks ago by a friend who lives here. While we were talking he shared a passage with me out from the Book of Ecclesiastes where it says, “there is a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones together”.

I submit the time for throwing stones is over and it is time now that we begin to gather stones together because together we can succeed where we have only known failure and frustration in the past. We have a lot of work to do, and I would like to get started tonight!