homeless man with cats

Interview with Dorri McWhorter – Part 2

This is the second of a 3-part series. Last week, Dorri McWhoter and I chatted about the many fun and creative ways that black women are changing stereotypes about pet parenting, and how women in general have been more responsible for human-dog coevolution than men. You can catch up with Part 1 here. –Courtney Wennerstrom, Director of Content

C: Everyone who is familiar with your work at the YWCA, and particularly with your programs that mentor women and girls, understands that you invest in socially-conscious business models. So I’m curious and here’s a two-part question: how do you define those models, and is there room to include companion animals in them? I guess what I’m trying to think through with you is how we can make space for pets, you know, culturally, philosophically, or literally in our professional lives?

D: Sure. Where do I start? First, on the social enterprise model, we define it quite simply that we are creating a value for all stakeholders involved, where it’s not one stakeholder over the other that gets priorities in any type of interaction from a business perspective. Our goal is to ensure that we are mindful about how we are maximizing value for all the stakeholders, so that it’s always a win-win-win…so it’s not a “well, this person wins but the environment loses,” type of situation. For us, it is now being defined more appropriately as stakeholder capitalism, which I think is appropriate because social enterprise has really taken on a notion–where we really are creating value in society at large when we pay attention to everyone–versus “we make money here and give it there”.

C: I like that because as a former an 18th-century scholar, I was always fascinated by Adam Smith’s notion that we wouldn’t really need to worry about the ethics of capitalism because the market would regulate itself based on the period’s conception of benevolence and sensibility. And then of course, that never happened… so… is this part of what gives you a passion for business, instead of say, for nonprofit work–because business is the area where compassion and equality are needed most and you’re trying to get it back in there?

D: (laughing) Was benevolence ever in business? I would argue that it was never there in the first place.

C: (laughing) Yeah, I should have clarified that we need to get it in there in the first place!

D: I really do love business. I’m really fascinated by how we help each other, and exchange and co-create value together to continue to advance society. To me, that’s the ideal role of business. And unfortunately, those who have done it before us, haven’t’ figured out yet how to make that happen. SO having said that, when we think about companion animals…I have this philosophy that everything and everyone has a value, and companion animals also have value. And because of that, there is a space for them, and I do think we have to be very deliberate about what that looks like. And not just humanize them as much as hold compassion for them. You said it earlier…they are sentient beings, period. We should not have to humanize them to have compassion for them. We can appreciate dogs for the value they bring to the world as well, and not just for their value to us.

C: That’s beautifully put. You make me think about something. I have been fostering a husky mix who looks like a coyote, and who came from a horrific hoarding situation. She is totally unsocialized–almost feral–and is terrified of humans. I am an experienced husky mom and foster, but I have never dealt with a feral dog before. Unfortunately, she managed to escape from my yard while I was watching her, and we are trying desperately to bring her home. It’s so hard because she has no concept that humans are a source of protection or love. So while I want her to want to come back to me, that thought is not even in her framework. So I am having to understand that she is her own being who is also making choices. We have a dedicated search team looking for her, but we cannot think of her as a dog who is attached to humans. And I’m learning so much from her…like she matters as her own unique being, not because of my (non-existent) relationship with her–so I love what you said about not having to figure out a sentient being’s relationship to us to understand their innate value. On the other hand, the human-animal bond is also extremely powerful–so we are constantly negotiating this dichotomy.

D: It’s the same thing about women, right? Men often say, and it really bothers me, that they care about women’s empowerment “because they have a mother”–but yeah, how about because a woman is also a human being, and therefore you should care, period. Regardless of whether you have a distinct relationship to women–as a daughter, grandmother, sister, or whatever–you shouldn’t need that to be able to care about someone. So it’s like this with your foster dog…and it’s true for other animals too, besides dogs. I don’t have a zebra, for instance, but I can care about zebras. For me, it’s just about appreciating beings and their purpose on the earth. However, if we do have a bond, we can and should optimize and maximize it. I am all for that.

C: Yes! I so agree!

The Takeaway: If we are mindful, and consider animals as sentient beings with their own value apart from our relationships with them, we can include them in everyday spaces of exchange and commerce. Doing so is radically important and reflects an attitude that humans, pets, wild animals, and even the environment all deserve respect, bodily autonomy, and legal protections, regardless of their relationships to us or to those in power.

C: Ok, so let’s change subjects again. I want to think through something with you, especially considering your mission to help families. You may already be aware of this, so stop me if I’m being redundant. Right now, animal welfare professionals are trying hard to switch from an adoption-driven to a community-based sheltering model in which relinquishing pets is the absolute last resort for anyone experiencing hardship, financial or otherwise. So for a very long time, we have invested most of our energy in finding new homes for dogs and cats whose families are struggling, instead of figuring out how to keep them in their already-loving homes. The problem is that people often surrender their pets out of desperation, in hopes of giving them the veterinary care they cannot afford themselves. Maybe a senior pet needs $2,000 worth of dental work, which is prohibitive, so they give their pet to a shelter to ensure they get the treatment they need. But everyone involved, including the pets, their humans, and shelter staff, suffer horribly from that unnecessary separation. As an industry, we are realizing that people may just need a pet-retention grant or a donation of nutritious food or whatever, to keep pets with their families. Of course, there are a lot of biases that go along with separating pets and people in the first place–racism, classism, and other assumptions about who should and should not have companion animals. And you’re such a great person to talk about this with. We both know that pets are family, so we need to think about what that means. Okay, so they need to be included in our insurance plans. Or, if someone is fleeing domestic violence or experiencing homelessness or other adversity, their pets also need consideration in social services. I’m just wondering if any of these new animal welfare models gel with the work you’re doing at the YWCA?

D: (Taking notes and nodding) All of them, actually. One of the things, going back to something we discussed earlier, is that innovation needs to occur in these models. Since these models are no longer effective or no longer optimizing what we want–for humans and animals to be together–the quality of the answer depends on the quality of the question. The question we were trying to find answers to before–how to get dogs out of shelters–needs to be turned around. So if we ask what people and animals need in that relationship to keep pets out of shelters, it might lead to a different answer. At the YWCA, when we talk to people about households for family support services–and you are making me think more inclusively–I don’t think we ask about pets and we probably should. Because as we look at support strategies, we should understand if there are pets in the household. My team could tell me I’m wrong, but I am not aware of doing so. When we are looking to build resiliency in families, if we understand where their pets are, then all of those things you mentioned apply. Whether it is pet-retention grants, the insurance to help reduce the cost of medical and wellness care, or even safety, clearly–which is a huge issue for everyone, including myself–all of these matter. Before my husband, I was with an abusive partner who chose to abuse my dogs too.

C: (gasping and inadvertently interrupting Dorri) That always happens!

D: Yes…. and if it weren’t for me wanting to get my dogs out, I probably wouldn’t have left as fast as I did–because I was like I’ve gotta get my dogs out, I’ve gotta get my dogs out. And of course, at the time, I had 4 dogs. I spent so much time at the shelter during this time, and saw myself in these little dogs, and wanted to rescue them–but they also became a catalyst to get me out of that relationship, especially since I needed to get them away from him. So my point is, that safety piece is real for so many people. From a housing perspective too, there is a gentleman across from our office building that appears to be homeless, and has a dog with him who just sits with him all day while he asks for money. So it’s just fascinating, and in terms of our services, I would say yes, that there is a space for animals and we just haven’t actively incorporated it yet.

C: Everything you’re saying makes sense, that you haven’t incorporated it yet, because it is a relatively new idea that will hopefully proliferate in culture. I also really appreciate you sharing that, Dorri. I’m sure that was an incredibly difficult experience. Your story also reminds me of Carol Novello’s book, Mutual Rescue: How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You, Too (2019)–which recounts story after story about how pets have given their humans the strength to leave violent partners, and about just how much they help us recover from trauma, facilitate our connection with one another, and live better lives in general. Have you read it? (shaking her head no) I highly recommend it.

D: Oh! I will put that on my list.

The Takeaway: Society is starting to understand that pet parents think of their pets as family members, and ought to integrate them into all human and social support services to better honor the human-animal bond and keep families together. In learning how vital pets are for our emotional and physical wellbeing, we find that there are many wonderful opportunities for human and animal welfare agencies to partner and collaborate!

Stay-tuned next week, for the final installment of my interview with Dorri McWhorter, when she explains her vision for how to make meaningful change, and shares her views on animals and spirituality.