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.