Using Your Head in an Industry Built on Heart

October 18th, 2013 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

My wife and I work in two very different worlds.  I’m in animal welfare and she’s in education (no jokes about children being little animals, please).  Despite that we find ourselves having the same conversations about how to make progress in our two industries and we find rather bizarre parallels.  Dogs or kids, we are both in sectors which tend to be dominated, despite all claims to the contrary, by emotion, tradition, and personal preference rather than by analytics, innovation, and best practice.

Schools and kennels are still built on models created 100 years ago which are more about controlling our charges and ease of management than to benefit the animals or kids.  Our worlds are populated by self-righteous saints who insist that they are here for the animals/kids so how dare anyone question their motives, techniques or performance.  Both our industries are based on outcomes- learning or save rates- yet both industries fight against efforts to quantify our successes or failures and are loath to share that data with the world.

Both worlds seems stuck in self-reinforcing loops of failure where all point the finger at someone else for our shortcomings, rarely take personal responsibility for our role in our failures, and even more rarely actually focus on the things which bear the brunt of failings and should be the singular reason we are in our jobs: the children and animals.  City schools whine against accountability because suburban schools have it easier, just the way open admission shelters whine against no-kill shelters.

And it’s true!  The children of entrenched poverty are a more challenging population to show success if compared against a Main Line population, just as the animals of an animal control facility are more difficult to adopt successfully compared the Golden Retrievers of DVGRR.  Or are they?  How will we know if we don’t actually look at our data, share our data, and hold ourselves accountable?  And shouldn’t we also have an honest conversation about what success is, depending on the school or the shelter?  Isn‘t it a total red herring to say we must not track and test students in a poor school because they don’t match up against a rich school? Just as much as it’s equally unreasonable to say we expect equal outcomes immediately for both schools and equal adoption rates for two types of shelters?  But does that mean we should expect nothing and no progress because we can’t match someone else’s success?

The animal welfare industry hates showing their numbers and evaluating their own performance because we know that most of us have accepted a status quo which results in dead animals.  We are defensive because some in the industry who don’t face our challenges make moronic, simplistic claims about math saving the day.  But the fact that some suburban dilettante volunteers at a shelter which restricts admission to only the most adoptable pets and has vastly more resources to ensure 100% placement for adoptable animals does not mean that we are off the hook for the open admission, low resource shelters we may run.

If we kill half our dogs, shouldn’t we strive to kill at least one percent less than half our dogs?  Two percent? Five percent?  Shouldn’t we use our data to figure out which populations we can save so we do better and better?  Shouldn’t the 100% no-kill shelter strive to extend that 100% rate to a greater number of animals and not just stop at a percentage? Without that data, without using our heads in support of our heart based missions, we are merely churning through animals the way some schools churn through kids.  We are not here simply to have animals pass through any more than schools are a place for kids to pass through.  We’re supposed to actually do something for them to improve their lives and their outcomes.

Schools teachers fear testing and data will be used punitively, and sometimes it will be and sometimes it should.  The same is true for shelters and the staff and directors which run them.  But the world not knowing you aren’t doing as good a job as you could be doing doesn’t mean you are actually doing a good job.  It just means you can tell yourself you are, that you are so big hearted, and no one can contradict you with any facts.

My wife and I both use the same criteria for approaching our jobs.  We look at a dog or a child we are responsible for and we ask. “What would I expect to be done if this was my child or my dog?”  Not in the abstract, but literally, if that was my child’s class or my dog’s kennel, would it be good enough?  In both our experience the answer is almost inevitably, no.  We would want more for our child or pet.  We would want someone held accountable for failing our child or pet.  That is what our hearts demand.

Our heads tell us that it’s the data that makes it happen.  If a child falls back under a teacher, there is a problem and it may just be the teacher, administrator and school, not the child.  If a happy, healthy dog can’t find an adoptive home, it might just be kennel tech, executive director and shelter, not the fact that it’s a pit bull.  If no one is keeping track, how can we know if we are succeeding, let alone failing?

I welcome the day of mandatory reporting of shelter statistics, just like schools have to publish their data.  I welcome the day all shelters have staff meetings where they are pouring over spreadsheets, not petting dogs.  I welcome the day that donors actually ask, “What exactly are you doing with my money which will actually save more animals?” instead of just sending Sarah McLachlan a tear-stained check.  Hard work and hard questions?  You bet.  But the alternative is failing the animals we are all here to help and that is a far heavier burden for us to bear.

When we start using our heads more, our hearts wills be lighter.

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10 Responses

  • Terry Ward says:

    So much wisdom and humor and common sense in this blog…
    Things which are sadly lacking in this whole homeless pet schmegeggy..
    I wonder if i might lean on you with a question.
    Alas, it is my particular ranting soap-box which will undoubtedly be seen as a question with it’s own answer.
    Please forgive me in advance.
    But if you have the time i would be grateful for your thoughts..

    Do you believe there is an answer to the problem of homeless pets?

    If all of us who are immersed in rescue were to pretend we just dropped in from outer space and looked at this whole pet-shelter mess as a piece would we not see that the whole thing is simply chaos.?

    There are just too many animals…

    We are breeding..and bleeding.. cats and dogs like a sliced artery.

    We are producing cats and dogs like Purdue produces chickens.

    We are in a economic mess. it’s better yes, but there are many many poor folks and always will be.
    Veterinary costs are now astronomical and getting worse.
    The vet payment-plan is a thing of the past.
    40% of households do not/will not have a cat or dog.
    A substantial percentage of animals are returned to the shelter from which they were adopted.
    You can get any frikkin animal you want free or for pennies on Craigslist .

    There are thousands and thousands of dog and cat breeders breeding millions and millions of animals.
    SOMEONE is buying these animals or there would not be so many breeders.
    It is not madness and no one is wanting to see that the Emperor is as nekkid as a Sphynx cat?

    There seem to be no realistic solutions.
    Compulsive spay&neuter could be a solution but this will run head-on into property law and it will NEVER happen on a large scale.
    Limiting breeding/regulating volume pet breeders would be a solution but the farm interests snuggled up in bed with the AKC and the NRA will NEVER allow this.
    There appear to be no no solutions.
    I see only band-aids…
    And no one, however passionate or experienced, wants to admit that their particular homeless pet solution
    is a bandaid affixed to a hemorrhage.
    Plenty of folks like the illucid Nathan Winograd will take our money and claim they are not really peddling band-Aids.
    And now the larger animal protection groups are attempting to ‘solve the problem’ by limiting shelter admissions, or nuking the concept of open-admission altogether.

    Unless I were in a position to create policy, which I am not, all i can do is deal with the animals in front of me, as many
    as i am able to practically care for.
    Is there ANYTHING you can tell me that will put the fire out in my hair?

  • Terry Ward says:

    Tried the water, but now that the hair is gone the head begins to explode.

    Rhetorical or not, in my experience, it is what most everyone involved in rescue feels.
    The practical response is, yes, just put one foot down and the other foot will follow.
    We do what we can do.

    But what about the inevitable burn-out?
    Burn-out is human nature.

    There are more advanced souls-and you appear to be one-who can detach from results and just move on doing what you do best.
    Everyone does not have such a gift.
    I am looking for the positives and do not see them clearly.

    • Karel Minor says:

      Thanks- I think. I do not think I detach from the results at all. I think that I recognize that the results are improving dramatically and will continue to. When I started professionally in animal welfare over twenty years ago there were nearly twice as many animals entering and dying in US shelters. The industry standard was the view that feral cats were better dead than living on their own, breed driven euthanasia was standard, the “there’s nothing we can do so why try?” model was standard, puppy mills and pet shops were considered a given, animal welfare was considered a fringe politic force, talking about animal welfare in non-western nations was laughable, and the list can go on and on. In only 20 years- a fraction of the now 150 year history of the western animal welfare movement- we have seen more positive change that in the prior century. To not recognize this and see it as a trend to built on joyfully is not lacking the ability to “detach form the results”, it is ignoring the actual reality: Things are better and getting better.

      I don’t agree burnout is humane nature and I don’t necessarily think it’s even bad. Not everyone can or should do something forever. If our goal is to create a humane culture, we can give ourselves permission to hand that responsibility off to others to carry. I had a two year “burn out” hiatus that brought me back with a new vision. I have at times come close to repeating that- although I will say I think we often allow ourselves to conflate having a shitty job or position or tough financial year or asshole co-workers with actual mission burnout and I don’t think they are the same- but circumstances within and without of my control kept me where I am. That’s not advanced, it’s just circumstance and choice.

      I think we should hope for the best, expect the worst, and when we get the worst remind ourselves that the worst is far better than old best, then work to improve even that. Also, I do want to apologize for taking your first comment too lightly and a bit flippantly. Sometimes one of my more effective means of moving on is distilling a lot of seriousness down to a little humor, for better or worse.

  • Terry Ward says:

    Thank you.
    Always good to ask in this insane climate of internet snark.



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