My wife, a Principal, was recently telling me about a tabletop exercise her district puts employment candidates through. The applicant is asked how he or she would handle having to schedule students for the various levels of math class by the required March deadline when the test results for the students’ individual levels are not available until April. Apparently, most applicants try to work their way through this Catch 22.
Kim said she’d hire the first person who would simply ask, “Why is March the required deadline?” And I said, “Oh, you are giving applicants the Kobayashi Maru and you want to hire Captain Kirk.” This got me thinking about two things.
First, that there is hope of marriage for the Star Trek geeks out there (take heart, boys). The second thing which occurred to me is that the Humane Society of Berks County has been taking, and beating, the Kobayashi Maru repeatedly for the past eight years.
For those of you who had better things to do than immerse yourself in Star Trek multiverses, the Kobayashi Maru is a test given to command track cadets in Star Fleet which can’t be beat. Cadets must face a no win situation. They must either leave all the people aboard a space ship, the Kobayashi Maru, to be destroyed by Klingons, or attempt to rescue the ship and be destroyed themselves and start a war. The point of the test is not to win, since it is created to be unwinnable. The point of the test is to see how the cadet reacts to the certain death scenario.
Only one cadet ever successfully beat the test: James Tiberius Kirk. And he did it by cheating. After failing twice, he reprogrammed the computer running the test to change the rules, allowing him to beat the test and save the ship and himself. He was the first one to ask, “Why is March the required deadline?”
It seems as if every single thing we do in animal sheltering is a version of this test. Want to save this one? OK, then this one will die. Want to do this? That’s not allowed. Every action, idea, and response is subject to strict rules and parameters which seem almost designed- usually by us in the sheltering world- to ensure our failure. And our failure is life and death in reality, not in a computer simulation. Most of us have never simply asked ourselves why we can’t break the rules. I, and HSBC, was as guilty of that as any for years. Now, the first thing we ask when given “the rules of the game” is, “Why?”
I remember when we first figured out we could reprogram the rules. It was early 2005 and the cat and kitten season was rapidly approaching. We knew that very soon we would be killing cats by the hundreds just to make space for the next round of cats to come to us. Our staff was brainstorming ways we could avoid the no win situation we faced. At some point someone, I like to think it was me, said, “Why don’t we just give them away?” and the response was, “If only we could do that, but we can’t.” Why not?
Why not? Why couldn’t we just give them away? Because it was against the rules. Our rules. Because they’d be terrible adoptions and people wouldn’t appreciate the animal if they didn’t pay. Says who? Don’t we screen our adopters? Because no one else is doing it and someone else would be doing it if it was something we could do. By that logic we wouldn’t have the light bulb. Why not? Let’s reprogram the computer and decide the rules now allow us to give them away. Let’s see if we can beat the test in the summer of 2005.
This may not seem like much now, when everyone, and I mean everyone, has some sort of free, two for one, reduced price, free to seniors, black cats free on Friday the 13th, type program. But in 2005 we could not find a single “establishment” shelter in our region or even nationally which had a full blown, public, heavily promoted program of giving animals away. It was taboo. We all did it on a case by case basis or had some tepid little thing or another, but it was like sneaking cigarettes behind the barn. We weren’t puffing away out there in public for the whole world to see. What we put in place was like walking in to church, breaking out a cigar, and lighting up in front of the choir.
We received hate mail from the public. We received hate mail from other shelters. Hell, I got hate mail from some of my staff, who just couldn’t accept that we were doing it. It probably didn’t help that we went 100% and called the program “Free To A Good Home”, the most dreaded of newspaper ads.
But you know what we didn’t do? We didn’t kill a single cat for space that summer. Or the next summer, the year we won our first national award from AHA for Best Industry Practice for Innovative Adoption Programs. Even at the award presentation, while the crowd stood and applauded our success, a co-presenter jeered us from the podium for breaking the rules. Of course that simply spurred us to continue and expand the program. In 2007 we began expanding the program to include every older animal, every animal with a health problem, and every animal with us longer than 60 days.
That’s why we haven’t euthanized any animal strictly for space since 2007 (and for those keeping track, that was before we dropped our animal control contracts and, yes, we still euthanize animals for other reasons). Interestingly, if you look around now you will have trouble finding a shelter which does not have some version of this program. We changed the rules of the test not just for us, but for everyone. When it came to space driven euthanasia, we beat the Kobayashi Maru. And we did it by cheating.
Now I know I cart out this well-worn chestnut fairly often to describe how awesome HSBC and our brilliant staff are. That’s still the case, but this time it also describes the moment we became serial cheaters on the Kobayashi Maru.
Trap/Neuter/Release Programs, 2006: You can’t do that, those people are crazy, we have to kill ferals. Why? We became the first shelter in the region (though surely not the first anywhere, but we were early adopters) to have an open TNR partnership, the Feral Cat Initiative, and we even paid for the non-profit status application by the group of “crazies” we partnered with to help them be more effective. We save lives we did not save before. Now this sort of program is the norm.
Dropping Animal Control, 2007: You can’t do that, we’ve always done that, everyone does that, killing strays is just what we have to do. Why? We looked to the few models out there- PSPCA and ASPCA’s New York shelter- and decided that signing up to be dog catcher didn’t mean we signed up to be dog killer. When local and State government wouldn’t work with us to find ways to save animals we invited them to take their euthanasia contracts elsewhere, and they did. Since then Delaware County SPCA, Humane League of Lancaster County, and PSPCA (which had along the way gotten back into the dog catching business) either fully divested or are moving away from animal control, along with others across the state. We save lives we did not save before. Oh, and the State just screwed over everyone who was doing animal control by cutting off all funding to their “partners”. Nice job, Harrisburg.
Vet Services to the Public, 2008: You can’t do that, area vets will go insane and burn us down, we can’t afford it, it’s just not done (literally, this one was just not done anywhere by an organization our size). Why? We became the first shelter our size in the nation and only one of about 25 of any size out of 5,000 nationwide, to offer a public veterinary practice. We save lives we did not save before. Now virtually every shelter in the region is opening a practice, planning one, or considering doing the same. HSBC is asked to speak about it at national conferences and receives national press coverage for this “cheat”.
From how we have designed our facilities to deciding what services we offer, what staff we hire, what policies we put in place, how many facilities we can have and how we get them, and how we can survive a recession in a world without the “usual suspects” of funding for animal shelters like wills and bequests, we’ve been cheating over and over. We haven’t solved every problem and not every great idea has been entirely ours but I am very proud of the fact that few, if any, places can say they have done more than we have in the past eight years to change the rules of the game for the better. Every time we face a no win test, we ask, “Why?” and try to reprogram the test. We don’t always succeed completely, but we rarely fail completely either.
Finally, the last rule that we have learned to break is the one which prevented collaboration. We now view any partnership which will help animals as always trumping any ideology, any history, or any grudge we may think is insurmountable. Just as HSUS (no relation) partners with the meat industry, which would seem to be mortal enemies, in order to help animals today and in the future, HSBC has learned that don’t have the luxury of letting ego (which we have plenty) or the past wrongs of others (of which they have plenty) stand in the way of a good, working partnership. After all, if Kirk can find his way to the undiscovered country or bring himself- in the interests of diplomacy, of course- to fraternize with alien ladies, we certainly can.
We took a grant from the Philadelphia Eagles which helped create our VetMobile and Mobile Adoption Unit (Adoptimus Prime), when everyone else was spitting on the ground at Lincoln Field. Now those organizations are lining up for grant money. We’ve been at odds, seriously, profoundly at odds, with people like Bill Smith from MLAR and Steve Hindi from SHARK over policy and tactics, but we’ve also worked together when it served the interests of animals and out of respect for their genuine, and mutual, concern. Even while we railed about the Department of Agriculture and Dog Law, we worked with them to take in dogs which needed help and homes.
That’s because the biggest barrier we face in our Kobayashi Maru scenarios is the barrier we create for ourselves. I can’t work with him/her/them. Because of what I think they did me, I won’t allow us to partner. I, me, mine are the biggest hurdles we face in making a difference for animals. But they are the easiest to overcome because we can reprogram ourselves whenever we want. That’s why the HSBC and I will work with anyone and any group which wants to make a difference for animals together. Hell, lots of people work with us despite my well established credentials of being a complete jack ass half (most?) of the time. That’s because no matter how big the divide, there’s common ground and a solution to the Kobayashi Maru to be found if we just try to find it.
Now please excuse me, I have to go find my gold command tunic, wait for the green paint and metallic silver body suit to arrive in the mail and hope that Kim has been practicing her lines: (Quizzically) “Captain, what is this thing you call love?…”