By: Arthur Yu
Executive Director/President of the Peninsula Humane Society, Ken White, has almost 40 years of working with and for animals under his belt. After getting a masters degree from San Francisco State University, he began working with animals through the San Francisco SPCA to develop a curriculum for school children about animals and the environment in 1978. As many d.tech students have an interest in animals, The Dragon sat down to talk to White about what it’s like making a career out of animal welfare.
Q: What moment shifted you towards animals?
A: I was hired by the San Francisco SPCA…to develop a curriculum about animals, and I had been working with what became [known as] pet therapy. There was a moment that I will always recall. I was with a little boy at UC San Francisco. He was an oncology patient, and I had with me one of my dogs. And the child who had been…not communicative, reached out to this wonderful dog and started to relate and started eventually to ask me questions. This was an incredible breakthrough from a little boy who really was not responsive at all. That was the moment that [I] said, not that this is something I want to do, so much as that I had a recognition that there’s a tremendous amount here that can be done with people and animals and. That maybe that’s where I wanna spend my life.
Q: What’s the proudest moment of your career?
A: I’ve seen and been part of sending bad people to jail. I have seen people punished and I’ve seen people get off scot free. The piece that I think is probably most satisfying, that I would say I’m most proud of, is helping change laws related to animals. Nothing anyone of us does is done by ourselves, but I was one of the very key players in changing laws in Arizona in a very meaningful way. Arizona was one of many states that had allowed cock fighting. There was, when I was living and working there,an annual event…called the Kemper Marley Classic, named after a really horrible man… It was a three day weekend event [where] some six thousand roosters would fight to the death. Arizonans including the Arizona Humane Society had tried for over thirty five years to make it a crime, and it kept dying in the legislature. Working with two other people, we created a group called Citizens Against Cock Fighting and I became the public spokesperson for that. and the head of its board of directors. I had death threats. Someone fired bullets through my office window. I had one of our ambulances blown up by a stick of dynamite. It was pretty ugly. We got enough signatures to put on the ballot and we won by sixty eight percent of the vote, making cock fighting a felony in Arizona.
Q: What was the most difficult incident?
A: Frankly, the most difficult never has to do with being scared for your own safety. The most difficult has to do with the emotions surrounding seeing how animals are hurt and abused. I have seen, in terms of cock fighting, … roosters whose bodies are sliced with the blade. I’ve seen them bleeding, heard them gasping for air. I know we’re on tape so we can’t show them, but these are souvenirs [places box of homemade rooster claw blades onto table]. These are fixed to the leg of a rooster. It’s trained to fight another rooster who’s wearing a similar things on its leg. And you know, you’re not a rooster, I’m not a rooster, but we have skin. It’s not hard to imagine what that would do slicing into your skin. This blade here is you know it’s it’s needle-sharp. It’s three inches long. This is a short knife shaped like a scythe. These are stainless steel blades that are designed and sold for no other reason than to allow a rooster to inflict horrible harm on another rooster for their profit in the twisted pleasure of the people who are watching. That’s hard.
Q: How would you describe your interactions with other abusers?
A: It’s terrifying. There was this person, years ago, who used a shotgun to settle an argument in Daly City and killed somebody. And when the police went into his home, they discovered a fair number of animals. There were kittens and dogs and some exotic animals. There were tarantulas, and I think some reptiles that were really horribly neglected and abused. I got to go into the San Bruno prison and rearrest this fairly frightening looking man who was in there for attempted murder. I am a 63 years old white Jewish guy. And I’m confronting this guy who was a skinhead three times my size.
There was [also] someone who was smuggling weapons into South Africa and smuggling back from Africa exotic animals, mostly reptiles, and selling them here in the Bay Area. His animal crime was such that we got to go into his house on a search warrant. Because of everything else he was accused of doing, we had Alcohol and Tobacco, Firearms, the SWAT team, and all these other law enforcement groups, and they followed me into the house, because I knew how to handle the snakes that everyone was worried might be around on the ground. He was not in the house, but there were well over a hundred reptiles in the house. I stood in a courtroom with this gentleman while he was being accused, and … at one point, he looked across the table at me and made that gesture where you cock your hand like a gun and put the thumb down to fire.
Q: What do you think drives people to the point of abuse?
A: One of cliches we hear a lot, and I think most cliches are popular because they are true, is the world is filled with grays. There is no black and white. And I think for the most part, it is true. But I do think there is black and white also. I remember, very clearly, a case where a person was duct taping kittens on freeway off ramps so that they get run over by people driving. That’s black. And at the same time, there were people who were stopping their cars and trying to rescue the kittens, at risk of being rear ended by another car. That’s white. In my line of work, we see extremes. And I can’t say I really understand what motivates someone to be incredibly kind, generous, and selfless, but I am grateful. Nor can I fully understand what motivates someone to be armed, sadistic, mean and cruel.
I cannot accept, but I can understand how an animal gets neglected. When someone’s life gets busy, they didn’t really understand what an animal needs, they just aren’t that empathetic. And so an animal goes without the best food or medical care. I don’t tolerate it, but I can understand how it could happen. What I can’t understand, which I think your question is asking, is those people who go out of their way to do something intentionally and almost creatively cruel. It makes me think that evil does exist and that’s the only answer I can give.