It turns out that most people are terrible at self-assessment and have a superiority bias. Across populations a person’s IQ falls on a very neat bell curve with half of the population being on one side of the curve’s average or the other. But if you ask 100 people if they are above average or below average, most will estimate themselves to be above average when in reality one in two should select below average. The same pattern shows up in assessing if we are above or below average in our leadership skills or virtually any other measure put before us. It reflects a flawed self-assessment and demonstrates an illusion of superiority.
That’s why animal shelters and those in animal welfare should not feel too bad when they do the same thing when evaluating their shelters, their efforts, and their successes and failures in our field. Like IQ, we can be expected to think we are better at our jobs than we are. We think the work we are doing is more effective than it is. We think our shelters are superior to the one next door. If we want to know how what our IQ is we can be tested and know precisely where we fall on the bell curve. However, that’s something we can’t do in sheltering.
Even when we are shown evidence of falling short or being on the below average side of the animal welfare curve, we come up with reasons for those shortcomings which are intended to mitigate our responsibility for our under performance. We kill more than them because we take harder to place animals than they do, or they have more resources, or they lie about their numbers. It’s not us, it’s something else. It must be something else, because we’re so damn good at what we do. It is kind of like saying, “My IQ isn’t below average, that IQ test was just really hard.”
Until we recognize, identify, quantify, compare, and evaluate our own efficacy in animal welfare, both within our own walls and across the field, we will remain the instituitional equivalents of churches. Having a faith based world view is fine when it comes to religion but our work to prevent unnecessary euthanasia of animals in our shelters requires science, not faith. Faith and belief tell us why we should do the work we do. How we do the work to save lives needs to be grounded in fact, data, and science. You don’t get to the moon using scripture.
Animal welfare “scripture” is the basis for too much of what we do in in our shelters, when we should be using the scientific method. The church used to believe that the sun and moon revolved around the Earth until scientists proved it did not. That didn’t disprove the existence of God, it just disproved an unfounded belief in our physical world.
In the same way, we can disprove many of the beliefs in animal welfare- pets as gifts have a greater failure rate, black cats adopted at Halloween get tortured, Disney movies cause massive spikes in breed intake, big black dogs face disproportionate euthanasia odds, that reaching No Kill in the real world is as easy as arithmetic or completely impossible- but that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be careful giving pets as gifts, some people torture cats, black dogs get euthanized, or that No Kill is neither desirable nor attainable.
We can still believe and we can still worship our animal welfare scriptures and tenets, but if we want to get to the moon, if we want to reach 90%, 95%, 100% save rates everywhere, we need to put away the animal welfare bibles, stop turning to the animal welfare prophets, and stop praying for an end to the flow of animals coming through our doors.
We need to start breaking out the calculators, spreadsheets, statistical models, the analytical and testing tools, and do the critical thinking required to get us to our goals. We can’t all be great or we wouldn’t all still be here doing what we are doing.
Believing something can be done is easy. Proving it can be done is tough. Doing it is hard as hell.