I Beat the Kobayashi Maru

February 29th, 2012 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

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?…”


You may not be aware of it but there is a good chance you are on one side of a war in which you didn’t even realize you were a combatant. It’s a war that the other side thinks you declared. Like most wars in which we find ourselves, not exactly sure when it began or who we are really fighting against, there is a majority in the middle wondering what is going on while the fringes on both sides fight an existential battle to the death.

It’s a war over animals. And this week, USA Network, which is airing the Westminster Dog Show, suddenly became Alsace and Lorraine in a jostling over territory.

Westminster Dog Club and its annual pure breed extravaganza have long held a funny place in the hearts animal welfare do-gooders. It is the place for top form breeders to show that what they do is as far separated from what back yard breeders and puppy millers do as the Beatles are from the Monkeys. But just like the Beatles, the show probably also serves to inspire anyone with a dog, a little ambition, and a total lack of self-reality to believe that their dog might just breed the next champion. Or least a few $1,200 puppies.

We watch the show like a conservative, closeted politician uses an airport bathroom. With fleeting enjoyment before post-pleasure self-loathing makes us rail on about immorality of the act in which we ourselves have just indulged. One minute we are watching unneutered testicles swinging in the wind, cheering on our favorite class of show dogs. The next we go back to Facebook and sign some mandatory spay/neuter legislation petition. Good old American self-contradiction.

So we shouldn’t be any more surprised than Progressives were when all those Tea Partiers showed up, completely pissed off about the things those pinkos had been saying about them, very personally saying about them. “What? They were actually listening to the stuff I was spouting off?” Alec Baldwin was overheard saying, in utter dismay. Because, yes, all those breeders, farmers, pet store owners, hunters, and anglers have been paying attention to everything we’ve been saying about them.

We know that when we say that every pet should be mandatorily sterilized we mean that in a somewhat esoteric sense. Of course, not every pet. If that were the case, in a couple decades there wouldn’t be any left. We mean every pet owned by some other jerk- you know, especially the ones with funny sounding last names. They didn’t think we really meant all of them, did they?  We just didn’t say it that way. Or that we meant it when we said we’d move to Canada if Bush was re-elected. Because we all know that was just us talking a little smack.

The problem is that they were paying attention every time we vilified them, threatened their livelihoods, said mean things about the quality of their parenting, or worst of all, acted superior to them. Because if there’s one thing people love, it’s some smarmy self-righteous know-it-all with all the answers, with answer number one generally being, “Because I know better than you.” You know, like I’m doing right now.

Oddly, Westminster still provides support to ASPCA with their day ruining St. Sarah commercials. Good Lord, how sad ARE those Pedigree commercials?

When Westminster fired one of their long-time sponsors, Pedigree Dog Food, they believed they were firing back, not taking the first shot. And you know they meant it since they were choosing to not accept their sponsorship money. When someone turns down your money, they really, really mean it.

They really believed that Pedigree’s shelter adoption campaign, chock full of enough sad faced shelter doggies to make Sarah McLachlan cry, “Uncle!” was part of a Psy-Ops campaign against their very existence. They seem to believe that there is actually an effort to bring an end to dog breeding at any level, not just by crappy and cruel puppy mills. Why would they want to have a sponsor who is using their curb appeal to promote its pet food by running ads which they think vilify them and their membership?

Paranoid? Yes, more than a little. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that there are animal advocates out there who are bat-crap-crazy, say all kinds of super nutty things, and they truly, deeply mean every single word. And just like Democrats have Kucinich and Republicans have Paul, who they love to cheer on but know that they’ll never actually vote for in a big election, the main stream animal folks like us have been known to cheer on the fringy elements, just for a little harmless fun.

However, this knee jerk reaction on Westminster’s part is truly self-defeating- for all of us- because it actually moves those of us in the center closer to the fringes. Instead of watching the show and telling ourselves that that is the way breeding should be done and that we should also consider adopting from a shelter because those sad dogs need a home too, we go knee jerk and turn away from them and the amazing dogs they have to show us. They make us the enemy they think we are because a few snotty comments we’ve made at their expense made them feel bad. We should never underestimate the power of simple hurt feelings.

Poor USA is stuck in the middle. They just thought they would get some ratings on their “we like happy people” network by showing dogs and getting the added benefit of airing some paid pro-shelter dog commercials for Pedigree. Instead they probably can’t air the ads because of their Westminster agreement, pro-shelter people are all bent out of shape at them for airing the show at all, and they are now a scrap of land being fought over by two competing sides in a fight USA certainly doesn’t have a dog in, if you’ll forgive the phrase.

Let’s declare a détente. Even Ronald Reagan worked with Gorbachev where he could while he was trying to overthrow the USSR. Let’s recognize that neither side is facing imminent collapse and try to effect what change we can in our little cold war, but let’s leave the Olympics, or elite level dog shows, out of it. They can show their spectacular dogs and we can all kind of wish we had one. They can let us run our shelter adoption commercials knowing that they won’t stop people from getting pure bred dogs if they actually want them but it might inspire a person to adopt a dog who really needs it.

We won’t call them the Evil Empire; they won’t call us the Great Satan. And then we can both get back into that airport bathroom for a little innocent, guilty fun.


I Know How You SHOULD Feel

February 8th, 2012 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

You should feel that The Clash is the only band that ever mattered or ever will.  You should feel that, despite the fact that he keeps making the same daddy-issue movie over and over, Wes Anderson is one of the greatest directors ever.  You should feel that Egon Shiele is obviously a greater artistic talent than his teacher, Gustav Klimt.  You should feel that David Bowie’s Panic In Detroit is the best song ever recorded.  I know who you should vote for in the next Presidential election.  Maybe you’d like me to enlighten you as to what is the one true religion?

Egon Schiele's "Death and the Maiden". Awesome.

Of course, I can’t actually make you feel any of these things because all of these things are qualifiable.  There are no metrics for determining what the greatest band ever was.  I have lots of reasons why I feel the way I do but you might think Bon Jovi trumps The Clash based on album sales.  I’d think you were delusional, but I can’t prove your belief wrong.  We feel, believe, love and hate the things we do, just because we do.

Unfortunately, so many arguments in animal welfare end up ignoring the fact that we can do many things but we can’t snap our fingers and change what people feel.  Worse, we often tend to glom on to some bit of the quantifiable to make an argument for someone else believing the qualifiable.  While we can use genuine facts and data to change policy and mandate different behavior, rarely, if ever, have they been used to change values and opinions.

David Bowie's "Panic In Detroit". Awesome.

I have been in meetings where animal welfare professionals have actually said things along the lines of, “If only we could make people adopt pit bulls.”  I imagine we could, but what those pit bull loving professionals are actually saying is, “I wish we could make people love pit bulls as much as I do.”  We can’t.  Nor should we.  Me, personally?  I like medium sized, long snouted dogs like Labs and Setters.  I like the natural behavioral traits of dogs bred for hunting.  I don’t dislike them but pit bulls just don’t do it for me esthetically.  No amount of facts or data is going to make me attracted to something I’m not or make me decide I want Petey the Pit Bull over Treetop, my Yellow Labrador.

We can use data to change how we deal with pit bulls.  In Reading, where we had a de facto pit bull restriction ordinance, we changed our behavior by looking at the facts surrounding the supposed bite epidemic everyone felt we were in the midst of.  The facts told us that pits actually bit a rate lower than their percentage of population and all the bites came from unsterilized pit bulls.  These facts changed HSBC’s behavior, as we refused to enforce the ordinance (which was later found to be unconstitutional, as well).  If the City truly wanted to improve public safety, those facts could have been used to craft a better policy which would have targeted the real source of bites, unsterilized and unlicensed dogs.

The Clash. Awesome.

But those facts couldn’t be used to change the minds of people who just don’t like pit bulls, or fear them, or just don’t want to adopt them.  That’s because these things are all based on qualified beliefs.  People don’t like pit bulls for the same reason they don’t like this painting over that painting, this music over that music, this candidate over that candidate.  It may be entirely irrational, it may be unsupported by facts, it may be counter to their own interests, but it is what people feel.

When we overturned racist Jim Crow laws in the South (and opened the doors of the non-legislated cages in the North, don’t feel too smug about being a Yankee), we changed what actions and policies were permitted.  But that didn’t make racists run out and hug a non-white the next day.  It took fifty years for this country to elect a black man President.  It took that long for what the majority of us feel to catch up with the laws and policies which controlled our public actions regarding race.  It can take generations and it is why we should all expect the first gay President to be elected in about sixty years.  No, that’s not quantifiable and you don’t have to believe that.

Feral TNR is another notorious case of conflating the quantifiable with the qualifiable.  Without a doubt, Trap/Neuter/Release has shown the most promise for decreasing the problems associated with feral colonies and feral euthanasia.  After decades of in-fighting by animal welfare professionals, the overwhelming opinion among us now is that TNR should be a key arrow in our quiver.  However, TNR advocates ignore a very important point when they present TNR as the one true path or use the handful of facts we now have about its effectiveness to tell the public that they should want to have feral cats around.  The fact is that some people just don’t want to have feral cats around.

These TNR advocates believe that their value judgment that an improved feral cat colony situation is preferable to mass round ups and killing of ferals so the people who don’t want a feral cat pooping in their flower bed are simply wrong and need to readjust their feelings.  Only they don’t have to.  And trying to force people to feel something they don’t makes them stauncher in their opposition.  When we stopped banning interracial marriage we didn’t mandate the neighbors had to approve of it.  We just said they couldn’t stop you or me from doing it.

Petey the Pit Bull? Pretty cool, I guess.

We must stop fighting wars against feelings and start fighting battles in support of facts and effective policies.  Don’t oppose pit bull bans because your pit bull is a love bug and everyone else should think so.  Fight them by showing that pit bull bans don’t work effectively by the numbers, or that the problem isn’t what it is claimed to be by the numbers, or that there are other more effective ways to achieve the desired public safety outcomes by the numbers.  When our society doesn’t crumble around us, in a few years or decades, we’ll all be wondering what we were worried about, just like we don’t remember the hysteria of the seventies about killer German Shepherds or Doberman Pinschers.

Stop trying to make people love feral cats and target the policy makers who are increasingly spending money on killing them and offer a cheaper way to handle the problem.  Share with those who hate ferals that TNR may not solve their problem but it will surely improve it, while doing the same old thing obviously hasn’t worked for them.  And stop acting like anyone and everyone has to love pit bulls or feral cats as much as you do.

Let’s think about this in the long scheme of things and work to change minds first and worry about hearts later.  Put some thought to the first Presidential ticket featuring a talking pit bull in 150 years.  That might sound crazy but what do you think George Wallace would have said about an Obama Presidency in 1940?