OUTING BAD BREEDERS OR ONLINE BULLYING?
On the face of it, social networking forums for outing bad breeders are a good idea, right? They identify backyard breeders, breeders who sell sickly kittens, and cat hoarders. I’ve found that it’s not that straightforward because such forums can be full of those with axes to grind or grudges to pursue. These forums may do some good, but they do much harm by deterring breeders, who may have had a change of circumstances or poor health, from asking for help. Breeders overwhelmed by a reversal of fortune are too scared of vilification to reach out for help. Ultimately the breeders remain overwhelmed and depressed and the cats suffer because of online bullies claiming their moral high ground.
Let’s face it, people have committed suicide because of online bullying. And other people jump on the bandwagon of what they view as a cause or crusade.
PHOTOS DON’T LIE – BUT THEY DON’T ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH
Here’s one example. Breeder X has a cluttered and disorganised house. The stuff has come from the homes of deceased relatives, or a relative – and their stuff – has moved in due to divorce. X reaches on a social network, offering to pay hir friends to do a clear out. The “friends” the money up front, but instead of cleaning up they take close up photos and videos of the caged cats waiting for the daily clean - the litter trays are soiled and the pens are messy. This is done on X’s property without X’s consent. Instead of helping X, they post photos and videos to social media with added allegations of dead cats and kittens, sick cats living loose in squalor, cat poop all over the place etc etc.
Maybe you think photos and videos don’t lie. Photos and videos also don’t show the whole truth. They may show close-ups of the untidy cage and the not-yet-cleaned litter tray, and a close- up of some clutter, but they don’t show the context. Where are the dead animals? Where are the sick cats limping through a hoard of stuff? Those things don’t actually exist, but by showing close-cropped images of the worst things they could find, they leave the viewer to imagine even worse scenes and to be outraged. X complains that the images are unrepresentative, but is blocked from communicating. X is labelled a “cat hoarder” but this is far from the truth. X may be a “stuff hoarder” but there are plenty of people who know that the cats are actually well cared for, not living in filth (and they use their litter trays overnight!) and are not caged 24/7.
Even before the hired help took the money and the photos and ran, X was in contact with the local Animal Services body outlining situation, the clean-up plan and a schedule of inspection. S/he is not hiding anything. S/he and some trustworthy friends are clearing out stuff and s/he has found suitable homes for several purebred cats. Some are being neutered before rehoming. They are genetically valuable cats so they aren’t being given away free to other breeders.
Meanwhile, on social media, posts claim s/he was tipped off about the Animal Control/Services visit and had cleaned away the (non-existent) dead cats and the (non-existent) sick cats living in the supposedly filthy hoard. S/he has time-stamped posts proving s/he was in contact with Animal Services before any of the allegations hit the breeder-bullying groups – but why let the truth get in the way of a crusade? The groups claim s/he only “handed hirself in” to Animal Services because of the viral images online. An “anonymous tipster” claims the situation was going on for 40 years but the tipster was too afraid of retaliation to report it … none of which is true, but this is social networking and wild claims get shares.
What is really going on? The cat breeding world is sadly full of politics, grudges and vendettas as well as helpful people. X previously had a run-in with Breeder Y who runs one of the breeder-bullying forums. It got highly visible or legal and Y lost. Y lost face and wants to ruin X’s reputation and hir cattery by spreading allegations. The close-up photos, possibly taken by Y’s cronies who friended X, are a godsend and, all Y has to do is make sure they get circulated, along with false claims of dead and sick cats living in a verminous hoard for decades. The internet explodes. Petitions are started using those few images. Anything to the contrary is shouted down because “look at the photos.” Any images showing the context are dismissed as having been staged because X knew Animal Control was onto hir.
A lot of people get caught up in the outrage and unwittingly find themselves becoming pawns in Y’s campaign of hate.
HIDDEN AGENDAS, SILENCED VOICES
When you see close-cropped images and videos accompanied by claims of dead, dying and sick cats living in squalor, ask yourself what the poster has got to gain from the claims. Are they trying to destroy a rival or pursue a vendetta against the breeder. Where are the photos or videos of the dead cats and sickly kittens in the squalid hoard? What does the person who posted the images have to gain from their target’s downfall? All too often it isn’t about the welfare of the cats, it’s about destroying somebody.
It is too easy to hear only one side of the story. The target of the campaign may be blocked (social media sites generally have a “block this person” function, or an “unfriend” function) from responding to allegations so hir voice is silenced.
HEARING ONE SIDE OF THE STORY ONLY
And here is another case I was involved in. Buyer “A” bought a young pedigree cat from Breeder B. The cat was neutered and had the standard vaccination and was healthy when it left the breeder’s premises. A few months later, A began an email and web campaign alleging B had sold hir an unhealthy cat, citing an illness that affect the cat throughout its lifetime. B, who was known to be a responsible breeder with a good reputation and an interest in the long-term welfare of hir cats, offered to take back the cat and reimburse the buyer. A declined the offer and continued hir online campaign.
It was ascertained that “A” worked in cat rescue and regularly took in stray cats, including potentially unwell cats, but did not keep these quarantined away from her pedigree cat. The pedigree cat was frequently exposed to pathogens and parasites which could have caused the illness and its long-term effects, however the owner chose to vilify and harass the cat’s breeder rather than accept any responsibility for its condition. S/he could not sue the breeder because the fact of its exposure to strays would have been revealed.
Over several years “B” was the target of an email campaign alleging hir to be a bad breeder who bred and sold unhealthy cats. As a result of the harassment and allegations and attempts to ruin hir good standing in the cat fancy, B suffered stress-related ill-health and was unable to continue breeding.
In this case, the buyer refused to accept hir own part in hir cat’s illness and maintained a campaign against a reputable breeder. The internet makes such bullying tactics easy.
IN THE END THE ANIMALS SUFFER
Social networking is a great way of being in contact and asking for advice and even practical help. It is also full of false friends with their own agendas. If breeders or hoarders – or anyone else who has become overwhelmed due to physical or mental health issues – is scared of asking friends for practical help then the situation continues unchanged and the cats will suffer.
Maybe, on balance, the bad breeder forums are counter-productive because they attract the wrong sort of people – people who want to post inflammatory content, and start campaigns and online petitions, people who believe out-of-context images without question and who are not interested in what is really going on. The online mob is baying for blood and anyone with a grudge against the target of the hate is rubbing their hands in glee. Anyone who tries to inject some sense or facts into the forum is shouted down.