Don't Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice From a Zen Master

Friends For Life

“Our actions are part of who we are. It's not that we are inert things who do stuff. Rather, the stuff we do and who we are are inextricably woven together.” 

Brad Warner, Don't Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan's Greatest Zen Master

American Sōtō Zen monk Brad Warner is an entertaining speaker. It’s not usually something that one expects from a Zen priest but neither is the fact that he is also a punk guitarist. Both surprises are a nice bonus. He sat on a cushion, legs crossed and seemed more like a friendly, unassuming sci-fi nerd sharing some cool stuff he learned than a priest who had grasped some of the deepest truths about being. But there you have it.

He took one of the most complex, (some say the most complex) ancient Zen texts and created an accessible, respectful, meticulous translation, years in the making.

This past week the Houston animal community Facebook World made it worth dusting off a copy of Master Warner's book and taking a fresh look. 

Last week, an outside group took it upon themselves to post a picture of the front of BARC shaming just about everyone in the equation—people working at BARC, people accessing the system to drop off animals, people using low cost wellness and the comments even roped in no kill advocates. The venom got so thick that BARC had to make a statement and the Hou Chron published it. There is a lot of uninformed armchair FB chatter in the last few days with some people calling the BARC staff and clients terrible people and calling the no kill advocates wingnuts. 

Noise like that doesn’t save lives. It distracts. The snapshot went viral along with inaccurate and unkind comments—maybe because we live in a time that meanness gets so much attention. A very wise woman once said, if you can’t be a helper, at least be quiet and let the people who are getting things done get them done in peace.

What was another choice open to this person who posted the shaming picture?

In other words, what does save lives?

  • Understanding that snapshots and rhetoric are not the full story is a great start.
  • Civil conversation that leads to fostering, adopting and rescuing translates into immediate gain.
  • Groups that may not agree on everything can work together to figure out what they have in common and get that done change things. FFL has partnered with BARC since 2013 in Healthy Pets Healthy Streets (HPHS.) It is the first 9 (and only) public/private partnership of its kind to deliver free spays/neuters to the highest need areas in Houston. So far, Friends For Life, through our Fix Houston initiative, has provided over 3,500 free cat surgeries. 64,000 cat births have been prevented so far. BARC has provided thousands of free dog surgeries. Together, we are stabilizing populations and creating sustainable change. Our teams blockwalk together, hold events together and support each other.

So if you’d like to learn more about how you can help, sign up to volunteer foster, check out adoptables or find out where you can read up on and check out no kill stats, please jump in and contact us. If you think you'd like to meet any of the cool new BARC dogs @ FFL (see below) or any of our other animals, please reach out. 

Our contact: or 713 863 9835.

If you want to agitate, demoralize people who are trying, say mean things, call names, shame people or just generally be a jerk, then please write all of that stuff in an email and send it to yourself. 

But we'd love to hear encouraging, kind things. Because this is hard. In fact, below is a fascinating podcast discussing some of what happens when humans must "play god" and make extremely hard choices.

Allocating finite resources where the non-recipient may die is the hardest thing that the human psyche can bear. They found in a study involving a broad cross section of people that everyone thinks they know how they'd allocate resources -- theoretically. But the details. The face. Knowing the players. Could you cut off oxygen to one chronic patient and give it to an acute patient because that was what your construct dictated? Doctors had to make just such choices in post earthquake Haiti.

Could you look at a kennel of dogs and wrestle with who lives and who dies? Who can you afford to treat and where does your budget end? How hard would you work to find answers if you knew their lives depended on it? Our guess is that you would not just kill all the pit bulls immediately. You wouldn't accept that nursing babies must die. You wouldn't be ok with the healthy seniors getting the euthanasia needle and kittens with patches of ringworm being gassed. You'd say, "There must be a better way. Can't this be treated? Can't we find fosters? Can't we come earlier or stay later? Could we build a nursery or a ringworm isolation room? Could we just wear gloves and provide care? Could we neuter and vaccinate and return that feral cat instead of putting a needle in his heart?"

Your mind and your heart would race to find creative solutions. And now you are starting to see what drives the No Kill Movement. We know the answers to all of those questions is, "Yes." 

Do not think that there are not shelter staff who cry on the way home from work at night. My experience is that no one wants to stop the killing more than the front line people who do it. But they do not set policy. Someone in an office or a boardroom who will never see the animals decides that. If you want to lean on someone --lean up the chain as a donor, volunteer or adopter.

So be encouraging to the people who are trying to work on the front lines. Be slow to shame clients using the system we set up and invited them to use. Some clients are jerks, for sure. But we don't get to hang out a shingle saying "bring us your animals and we are going to care for them" and then make people feel crappy about doing that. There is a sign hanging on my office door that reads:

"Your job is not to judge. Your job is not to figure out if someone deserves something. Your job is to lift the fallen, to restore the broken and to heal the hurting."

Our experience with implementing Thinking Outside the Shelter is that when the dialogue includes asking how we can help with questions like, "Is there a way that we can help you meet a need that will allow you to keep this animal? " it works. 

Last year we gave away over 11 tons of free food, hundreds of hours of free behavior consults and thousands of free surgeries. Most of those animals never came into this program or any other shelter. They stayed with their owner/rescuer.  That' s a win. Sometimes it is really as simple as that.

Be quicker to hold shelter directors accountable for what happens inside their shelters. Question and challenge boards, city councils and commissioners courts about the policies that either strangle or empower good directors. Mostly, demand transparency from all shelters both public and private. It's ok to ask questions. Why does your shelter kill all the pit bulls? Why can't you tell me how many animals you killed last year? Why can't a foster adopt? What shelter were they shipped to out of state? Was it no kill? Why can't I track them there? What happens to cats with ringworm at your shelter? 

If a shelter will not release euthanasia numbers, if you cannot track an animal--ANY animal all the way through their system to verify the details of their outcome, there is a reason and a problem. Asking questions and demanding accountability helps everyone.

Asking respectful but insistent questions of management about transparency at shelters makes a difference--and is ok--way different than just lobbing mean commentary. Shelter directors who take responsibility for furnishing transparent data on intake/euthanasia and adoption must become the norm. 

What about No Kill "wingnuts?

Even if you don’t believe or fully understand how No Kill can work, there are over 200 No Kill communities in the U.S. doing it. There is data to be examined. Any of us in the No Kill  Movement invite your questions and would be delighted to share resources with you.

There are entire No Kill countries. It is no longer a matter of if the equation works. It is about application.

Even the Humane Society of the United States, one of the most conservative animal organizations in the country, has publicly said there are more homes out there than the numbers of animals we are killing.

At their national sheltering conference, HSUS’ Vice-President for Companion Animals admits that there is a huge market for shelter animals that vastly exceeds the number of animals killed for lack of a home (17 million homes vs. 3 million killed.)

But please do not misunderstand that to mean we think we can just sit back and wait for the throngs to pour in to adopt and poof-we are all no kill. It takes massive, consistent effort on multiple fronts. The HSUS numbers just tell us it is possible--not guaranteed. Success involves aggressive TNR (trap neuter return) and SNR (shelter neuter return) programs. It involves dispelling myths about pit bulls and going to the mat to keep animals in homes. It takes nursing bottle babies and putting dogs in play groups.

  • We must take a new approach to marketing. Pleasant, clean shelters and great customer service are a start. Transparent records are a must. We have to open ringworm and upper respiratory treatment wards, fill empty cages (go count empty cages to see whether shelter rhetoric matches reality,) rehab behavior dogs, engage volunteers in missions that are inspiring, not soul-killing, get veterinary services to people for animals before people get animals to us, meet people at the door bringing animals in and "Think Outside the Shelter" by offering them animal food, free spay/neuter, medication, training, crates and other ways to hold onto their animals. It doesn’t always work. But sometimes it does.
  • Partnership works. Fiddler, Darla,Dani, Addie, Ellen and Beverly were pulled from BARC by FFL last Wednesday and enrolled in our program. The saves don't have to make FFL wonderful or BARC bad. They simply make the dogs alive. Now on to the next thing. 
  • Addie
  • Dani
  • Beverly
  • Darla
  • Ellen
  • Fiddler

No one has all the answers. By choosing not to “be jerks,” we get to learn from each other—and help each other to save lives. And let's face it, these dogs don't care what t-shirt the person saving their life is wearing. They just know they are safe. 

#nokillshelter #workingtogethersaveslives #FFLARMY #healthypetshealthystreets #fixhouston