The fur has been flying on our Facebook page this past week. It all started with a short but punchy letter we published a couple of weeks ago regarding city council’s decision to spend $8-million to rebuild its animal shelter, currently run by Regional Animal Protection Society (RAPS).
The letter writer was decidedly derisive about RAPS and described council’s decision as lunacy. Many thought his comments were “hurtful” and “insulting.” But it was this sentence, “In 11 years, from their (RAPS’) bid of under $100,000 to an $8-million taxpayer-funded upgrade?” that had some RAPS supporters taking issue with me for failing to check the facts.
They have a point. The bid was triple that but, more importantly, some felt the sentence implied RAPS’ contract has ballooned from $100,000 to $8 million — which is certainly not the case. Or that the building belongs to RAPS, which is also not the case. Perhaps because we’ve done earlier news stories on this particular council decision, I understood the letter to be talking about two different things, the city providing funds to run the shelter and now investing in upgrading the actual building, which the city owns. But if others didn’t read it that way, I apologize for the confusion.
In his second letter, he says, “If a shelter has a static population of 500 cats…” and proceeds to calculate the cost of feeding and housing them. He doesn’t say Richmond’s shelter actually has that many cats, but, again, readers may have been left with that impression.
In fact, the shelter is not authorized to house more than 40 cats at any one time. Granted, the RAPS-run Cat Sanctuary is home to almost 500 cats, but the sanctuary is not funded by the city. It’s supported through donations and social enterprise. Again, the letter doesn’t specifically say otherwise, but people may be left with that impression.
There were a number of other points in the letter that RAPS defenders challenge, and they do so with eloquence so I’ll leave them to it (you can find those responses in the Letters section of the News' website).
What I’d like to address is our responsibility at the News in terms of publishing letters. In this case, the writer makes three key points: cats should be licensed, operating a no-kill shelter is too expensive and an $8-million upgrade to the animal shelter is lunacy. I don’t agree with any of them — well, maybe he has a point about licensing — but they’re valid arguments. Moreover, he’s not alone. Many question the priorities of a society that, at large, spends what it does on pets when children go to bed hungry.
At the News, we aim to strike a balance between allowing people to voice their opinions, while ensuring accuracy and decency — but it can be tricky. If we thoroughly researched every letter to, not only check facts, but also provide context and balance, we wouldn’t publish many letters.
I don’t mean to shirk my duties, but nor do I want our hands all over the letters pages. That’s the readers’ space to contest ideas, which is exactly what’s happened in this case.
As the CEO of RAPS said to me on the phone, “this is a great opportunity for us to get our message out.” And exchanging messages is the very raison d’etre of a community newspaper — particularly the letters pages.