An expected adversary, Craigslist of South Africa becomes an animal welfare ally

As we shot through the streets of Pretoria, South Africa, Smaragda Louw of “Beauty Without Cruelty” explained to me the purpose of today’s visit.

Junk Mail is South Africa’s largest online advertising medium, akin to the United States’ Craigslist. Animals for sale, trade, rent and “other” comprised the fourth-largest category of its ads, equal with household items and properties.

Smaragda and the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) Cora Bailey, who heads our dog and cat project in Johannesburg, had drawn together a group of animal welfare campaigners to see what might be done about Junk Mail’s role in online animal trade.

Also on IFAW.org: China's Twitter, called Weibo, helps generate momentum for animal welfare

They had waited months for this appointment, and I happened to be in South Africa to work with the veterinary staff at our South African project partners in Johannesburg and Cape Town. It was fortunate that I was able to join them.

When I was invited to come along for a meeting with Junk Mail, I anticipated a slick business man condescending to our visit across an expanse of polished mahogany, and our obsequious entreaties about animal welfare just bouncing off his gloss.

What could be in it for him, I thought, to stop selling animals through his massive online marketplace?

Inside the tall, glass foyer of Junk Mail’s office building, we were joined by a lawyer, a public relations person and support staff from the South African National Society for the Protection of Animals (NSPCA). A winding staircase swept us up the open floor plan into the glass corner office.

Felix Erken, the managing director of Junk Mail, presented as anything but the disdainful foe I had anticipated. His energy and affability filled the room when he entered. He shook everyone’s hand, fussed over coffee and tea, and then sat among us in a circle with his arms wide and face alert, open to our stories.

Smaragda’s presentation awed him.

He interrupted her narrative to ask questions, took notes, and read each slide carefully. She took him through the ghastly conditions of puppy mills; undercover exposés of unscrupulous animal breeders, dog thieves and wildlife hawkers; and the staggering statistics of dogs and cats who are euthanized in shelters because there are no homes for them or they are breeding animals who are wrung dry.

She laid out the brutality of the dog fighting industry and other animal ‘sport’ and how the internet trade allows them to flourish.

She summarized statistics and the circumvention of laws with impunity.

Then she bore down.

She displayed ad after ad that came from the web pages of Junk Mail and revealed the lies, travesties and cruelties behind those ads.

The images of starved, sick, wounded, soul-destroyed animals silenced the room so that not even a chair creaked.

“Well,” said Felix when the screen had gone dark.

He sat with his forearms flat along the arms of the chair and his athletic hands gripped the black plastic. He was visibly moved. He had considered himself “pseudo-aware” of animal cruelty and puppy-mill issues, he said, but had not realized the extent of the business and its reaches into social depravity, endangerment of the public and the decimation of wildlife species. He certainly didn’t think it all was so closely tied to his business.

But Felix is a solution man, moving forwards, proactive, for a future better and brighter.

“We’re of the view that most people are scrupulous and honest, and the intention is not to be malicious,” he said. Of people who buy animals online, he said hopefully, “Most of this may be just ignorance, and people just don’t know.”

He had not realized that the offers for sale of a variety of wildlife species that were posted on Junk Mail were illegal. “Of course I want to understand if we’re doing harm,” he said. He immediately asked his staff to check the listings carefully and to remove anything that was illegal.

As for the next step, he needed our help. “Bad things happen when good people do nothing,” he said. “So teach us how to make this right.”

And here is where he inadvertently and quite rightly shone the light on what we forget.

As animal welfare people, we are often so busy protesting and defending that we sometimes don’t realize that the solution is also up to us. It is up to us to bring forth the ideas. Raising awareness is the first step, and when we are fortunate, our message falls on a receptive, compassionate mind. But then we have to be ready with the answers.

I shared some suggestions with Felix, to which he was receptive:

  1. Advertise animal care services, behavior management consulting, training, grooming, pet care products, and veterinary health services. (“You explained that part of marketing is the education of consumers about the products that they buy and sell,” I reflected to him.)
  2. Present fact sheets on animal trade online, about animal welfare and trade laws, and responsible animal care. (We will help you.)
  3. Since you expressed Junk Mail’s commitment to social responsibility, advertise dog and cat adoptions from reputable charities like the NSPCA and CLAW (we will help you to screen them.)

But he needed case studies as well: business people in his position who had exchanged animal sales for an alternative and watched their businesses thrive not only in spite of it, but because of it.

He is influential in a forum of international online marketing executives, he confided. Business people need numbers, facts, trends, examples. If we can provide him these, he will work on his colleagues as well. 

Back at my computer, I got to work.

IFAW policy experts connected me with colleagues in Europe, where the issue is boiling. I shoveled it all back to Smaragda and Cora, who added information on South African animal protection laws and input from the NSPCA, and packaged the resources for Felix. 

Not a week had passed since our meeting when Smaragda forwarded to me an email from Felix.

  • Junk Mail had already removed all the advertisements and telephone numbers of the nefarious animal traders that were mentioned in Smaragda’s presentation.
  • It had deleted all advertisements that they now realized were illegal.
  • It had included all legal information in its proofreading policies, and set up training sessions for the Junk Mail team on the following Monday.
  • It was eliminating the terms ‘for sale’ in the Pets category: “It’s superficial, I know,” he added apologetically, “but it’s a start.”

Junk Mail is South Africa’s largest online advertising medium, akin to the United States’ Craigslist. Animals for sale, trade, rent and “other” comprised the fourth-largest category of its ads, equal with household items and properties.He wrote that he had been thinking about the issues that we had brought to his attention, and was discussing them with his team. “It will be good,” he wrote. “I will come back to you on what we intend to do to invite your feedback, suggestions and advice before proceeding.”

And a month later, when Smaragda and her group visited Junk Mail again, they found this notice standing tall and bold in red and black at the front of the receptionist’s desk.

What was in it for Felix was an opportunity to lead consumer behavior in a way that swings the moral compass of society.

We had anticipated an adversary and instead found an ally rich in talent and motivation.

--KL

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Experts

Cora Bailey
Director, Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW)
Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Dr. Ian Robinson, Vice President, Programs & Int'l Operations
Vice President, Programs & Int'l Operations
Gail A'Brunzo, IFAW Wildlife Rescue Manager
Wildlife Rescue Manager, IFAW HQ
Hanna Lentz, Program Officer/Campaigner, IFAW HQ
Program Officer/Campaigner, IFAW HQ
Jan Hannah
Northern Dogs Project Manager
Kate Nattrass Atema, Program Director, Companion Animals
Program Director, Companion Animals
Veterinarian, DVM, PhD
Veterinarian, DVM, PhD
Nancy Barr, Program Director, Animal Action Education
Program Director, Animal Action Education
Rebecca Brimley, Program Advisor
Program Advisor
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters