Monday, July 2, 2018

When Good Charities Go Bad

So someone once asked a question I found fascinating.  They said, "If you could take a million dollars from any non-profit, charitable organization, without anyone knowing, without getting in trouble... would you?"

The reason the question fascinated me was because it was clearly meant to be a real head-scratcher, but the answer seemed so childishly obvious that I found it confusing that anyone could actually need to think about it.

The answer is unequivocally yes, because, I immediately pointed out, just because something has the title of "charity" or "non-profit" does not make it inherently good.

Preach it, Red.

There are lots of charitable organizations I like (you can see a list on my "wishlist" tab), but many I don't.  Some are simply ineffective.  Take, for example, the Wounded Warrior Project.  A great charity except that only 18 cents on the dollar actually goes to the veterans the charity is designed to help; 20% alone is spent on advertising costs.  And others I have issues with on a more personal level, such as how Farm Sanctuary sold my information to PETA (who I consider a borderline terrorist organization that is doing more harm than good in advancing views on ethical animal treatment) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, who has sent me enough address labels to last me through sixty lifetimes.

This brings me to today's topic, which is bunnies.

I have a bunny.

My bunny weighs about as much as the sum total of all of the address labels that the Animal Legal Defense Fund has sent to me.

Winibelle is seven years old and a curmudgeony cunt of a rabbit.  I like her, don't get me wrong, but I don't know much about rabbits and I've been flying by the seat of my pants since she was somewhat impulsively adopted from a friend seven years ago.  I've tried my best to make her life a good one and I think overall she's doing pretty good.  Perhaps even above-average.

You're probably wondering why I went from charities to bunnies.  The answer is that here in Los Angeles, there's a bunny rescue group called Bunny World Foundation, which rescues and homes bunnies.  I know about them because a few years ago I joined their FaceBook group hoping for pointers on making my asshole rabbit's life better.

I left the group/page within only a month or two because they posted a lot of anti-animal testing PETA propaganda.  As someone who has worked in animal research, this is a moral grey area for me with a lot of complex concerns on both sides.  The simple fact of the matter, though, is that both humans and animals benefit from medical testing.  While I'm very anti-testing for cosmetic purposes, I am fully in support of investigative research and medical trials.  After all, if we didn't test medicine on bunnies, we'd have no bunny medicine.  It's a very utilitarian way of thinking about ethics and as something of a moral relativist, I can understand that my viewpoints may strike others as cold.

But then again, I wasn't the one posting memes with pictures of mutilated rabbits.  PETA is a bunch of stone-cold killers who believe that the ends justify the means, so I feel like we're on equal ground here, morally speaking.

Anywho, I left after posting that a) I did not want to see graphic and disturbing images on my wall, and b) I strongly oppose PETA's methods.

I had learned nothing except that I was doing literally everything wrong.  The group was very judgemental and their favorite past-time seemed to be trying to push another bunny on me, even though I said multiple times that I am over capacity on animals in my household and I doubted my ability to be financially responsible for an animal that lives ten years and requires a lot of attention.

According to the bunny group, I was a terrible person for only having one rabbit.  Rabbits are social creatures who need other rabbits in order to be truly happy.

 My argument that my cat is trans-rabbit was not met with enthusiasm.

I was also feeding, grooming, housing, playing with, looking at, and referring to my rabbit incorrectly.


There was a distinctively cultish vibe and I was happy to get away.  As the years unfolded, Winibelle's done just fine, and I forgot all about Bunny World Foundation until recently.

See, a friend of mine just moved from Boston to L.A. and, excited to set down roots, decided to adopt a bunny.  We went to a bunny adoption together to look at bunnies; while there I suddenly remembered the group and its fearless leader, Lejla Hadzimuratovic, the "bunny lady" of L.A.  Immediately upon getting to the adoption event, I was hounded to adopt or foster more bunnies by a lot of bunny-pushing rabbit fanatics.  Meanwhile, my friend, who had already put in an application for adoption, was asked to furnish pictures of her bunnies' new home (which she had, fortunately), and was then informed that Bunny World only adopts out bunnies in pairs.

More bunnies = better

I advised my friend awkwardly to not get bullied into two bunnies, but she did, of course, and here the real fuck uppery begins.  See, before this moment, Bunny World was one of those ineffective charities that's run by volunteers doing their best, and makes harmless mistakes such as giving the wrong address for the adoption event.  (They sent us 2 hours out of our way and failed to ever provide the actual address, which we were eventually able to look up online.)

But it was only after my friend had adopted 2 bunnies that the more sinister side of Bunny World came to light.

The bunny in the above photo is Dennis Hopper.  He and his wife (formerly Raisin and now Rabbit Downey, Jr.) were a pair-bonded couple who came home with my friend after her "donation" of $400.  (Two hundred per bunny, to cover costs such a vet fees, neutering, and spaying.  A reasonable thing to expect an adoption fee in return for a clean bill of health.)

By the way, here's a picture of Robert Downey Jr. cosplaying Rabbit Downey Jr.
The story is about to get dark so take a moment to appreciate this.

Dennis was called a "lop bunny" because he had one floppy ear, although it was immediately obviously to me that he was a regular bunny with one broken ear.  It seemed odd that the bunny people couldn't tell this was a rabbit who had had some sort of ear trauma as a baby that had resulted in broken cartilage.  Especially since they were the self-proclaimed rabbit "experts."

Dennis fell ill within a week.  My friend took Dennis to the vet immediately.  Rabbits, as prey animals, are very good at hiding symptoms of illess or injury, so generally, by the time they're symptomatic at all, they're moribund.  Sure enough, Dennis passed away the same evening he was taken to the vet.

My friend called Lejla to talk to her about Dennis.  According to the vet, Dennis had died of a gastrointestinal infection.  (I wasn't told the diagnosis but I'm willing to bet anything it was coccidiosis.  Remember, I worked with large colonies of lab animals for about 8 years.)  Dennis had been subclinical but appeared to have been sick for a long time, probably over a month, before succumbing to his disease.

My friend (let's call her Maxine for now) relayed this information to Lejla, who replied that Dennis had obviously died of a spinal injury due to improper handling.  (For those who don't know, rabbits can break their backs from kicking too hard if they are being restrained poorly.  This is a common cause of death for rabbits in households with children.)

Horrified that she might have accidentally hurt her rabbit, Maxine asked the vet for X-rays, which revealed no broken bones.  She called Lejla back to tell her that Dennis had not broken his back, after all, and that the vet quite adamantly insisted Dennis had been sick with a parasite.

Lejla had already posted to the private FaceBook group, however, that Dennis had died from a broken back, although it wasn't Maxine's fault, because she was an "inexperienced owner."

According to Lejla, Dennis had died because he'd been hopping around on hardwood floors.

According to Lejla, all bunnies from Bunny World are given health screenings and wouldn't be adopted out if they were sick, so, clearly, Dennis's death was Maxine's fault.

Bunny World posted this on their FaceBook page one or two days after they told Maxine how dangerous hard wood surfaces were, by the way.

Lejla then called the vet and asked for the body back so a different vet could perform a necropsy.

Let's recap!
  • Lejla saw pictures of the house Dennis would be hopping around in, and approved them.
  • Dennis was not at any point restrained in such a way that he would casually break his own spine.
  • The vet confirmed there was no spinal injury and that Dennis has intestinal parasites, and, from the look of things, had had them for a while.
  • Lejla told everyone Dennis had died due to owner negligence after being told cause of death.
  • Lejla tried to take the body for a necropsy after cause of death had been determined and my friend had both X-rays and exam notes, which she was more than willing to share.
  • Cherry on top: Lejla is not refunding the $200 for the sick rabbit she pushed onto my friend, who, remember, only wanted one rabbit to begin with.
It's important to understand that coccidiosis is very common.  Rabbits are very susceptible to bacterial and protozoan diseases, and even the best owners may overlook an illness until it's too late, because rabbits can be very stoic and often don't show any symptoms.  Also, in a HUGE colony like Bunny World's, where you have lots of rabbits interacting and being dragged to adoption events on a regular basis, diseases are highly transmissable, and outbreaks are expected.

My issue, the reason for this post and my total RAGE at the situation, is Lejla's handling of it.  She threw my friend under the bus, in the face of a LOT of evidence to the contrary, to protect her own image.

She would rather be seen as the Infallible Bunny Guru than admit that she made a mistake and missed an illness in one of her bunnies.

Sometimes, you just gotta bite the thistle and own up when you mess up.

By refusing to admit her error, she is preventing other rabbits from getting treatment, and possibly condemning them to a similar fate as Dennis.

Maxine tried to call up Dennis's foster family to at least ask them to get their own rabbits treatment for parasites and assure them that Rabbit Downey Jr. was doing okay.  She discovered at this time that Dennis Hopper and Rabbit Downey Jr. were not pair-bonded after all, but had been in separate families all along and had only known each other for two weeks.

So Lejla not only refused to admit her error, tormented a bereaved pet owner, and possibly sentenced a bunch of rabbits to death to fuel her own ego, but she also lied to get more rabbits adopted.

This is a case of good intention having a bad outcome.  Lejla loves rabbits and wants to help rabbits.  But her ego is so out of control and her whole personhood so wrapped up in being a "Rabbit Whisperer" that she is now actually causing potential harm to rabbits.  The exact opposite of what she set out to do!

There are two cautionary pieces of wisdom we can take from this story.

First, when adopting, get to know the organization.  Maxine informed me that she's picked up on the cult-like vibe of Bunny World since, after adopting, they added her to the FaceBook group and have been hounding her to ask me to come and join them and foster bunnies for them.  

Even though my house is all hardwood floors.
Here, we see two more victims of my terrible pet parenting, their death by sunbeam clearly preventable.

Maxine could have gotten a bunny from the Los Angeles shelter for about $10, but she went with Bunny World because she felt they would provide a healthy rabbit to her.  She was duped by words like "rescue."  Which brings me back to my original premise, that just because something has a good name, like charity or foundation, does not mean it's necessarily good or effective at what it does.

The second piece of advice is for people to examine their own motivations periodically.  Ask yourself what your core values are and whether or not you are living up to those. 

 Preach it, Judy.

Lejla's core value is, supposedly, to help bunnies.  But her actions were designed to protect herself, to absolve herself.  As far as I know, no bunnies were taken in for parasite testing; no bunnies were given medication; no quarantine was set up, even as a precautionary measure.  

Sometimes, being good means owning up to mistakes.  It means doing the harder thing and eating crow and being embarrassed and having to fix something.  It means staying true to one's core value(s) at the expense of one's personal pride.  That's a very hard thing to do.  The best charities understand this; the best charities grapple with the delicate balance between total transparency and admitting to fallibility.  The best charities are not cults of personalities; they do make mistakes, and they own those mistakes, and they do their due diligence to try to stay true to their values.

Bunny World Foundation is not one of those charities. 

Conversely, the "kill shelters" that so many people loathe do their best to maintain the most humane conditions for their animals and to give as many animals as possible the chance to be adopted.

So, if you're reading this and you happen to be in Los Angeles and you happen to want a bunny (please note: you don't; they poop like 300 times a day), then my advice is to adopt from the shelter before you adopt from Bunny World Foundation, because they have hopped fairly far from the path they had initially set out on.

No comments:

Post a Comment