Assuming the Best of People

March 18th, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

The other day on the radio I heard a Philadelphia Councilwoman describe her inspiration for offering an ordinance which would require more trashcans. She used a well-known facilities management chestnut about Disney World having trashcans every 30 feet because Disney figured out that’s how close they needed to be to “keep people from throwing their trash on the ground”

"It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

That’s not exactly how I recall hearing the trashcan story. The version I heard was that Walk Disney got a hotdog from one of his stands at the new park, walked while eating it, and when he was done eating it and was left with the empty paper tray in hand he said, “This is how far a trashcan needs to be from where ever a park goer gets food or drink.” It’s basically the same thing except the difference between Walt and the Councilwoman is that he assumed the best in people and she assumed the worst.

In her world, the absence of a trashcan meant a person would simply throw their trash on the ground because we are innately uncaring pigs. Without the can to cajole us into doing the right thing, we’d do the easier, wrong thing. In Disney’s world, he knew that a person wants to do the right thing, wants to throw trash in a can. By having one close at hand, he was helping us to do what comes naturally, and what comes naturally is to look for a trashcan.

This is a glass half full or empty world view with a real impact and one which we engage in all the time. Do we think teachers don’t want to teach and need to be forced to do their jobs or do we think they need the training and support to do what they want to do well? Or kids learning? Or criminals recidivating? Or politicians governing?

Or, in our world, pet owners properly caring for their pets?

For 100 years the animal welfare world has proceeded from the point of view that people default to bad. They will be bad caretakers, they will surrender pets, they will not claim strays, they will not provide veterinary care, and they will breed their animals unless we are there to steer them into going against their nature and actually doing the right thing. We, at every turn, insulted anyone with an animal, even those who did us the favor of coming to our doors to support us and adopt the pets in our shelters, by presuming the worst of them.

For the past decade Humane Pennsylvania shelters have been proceeding from exactly the opposite point of view. We’ve believed that people want to do the right thing by their animals- and ours- and simply need to have that natural instinct facilitated. We stopped proceeding from a starting point of, “You are bad and the answer in no unless you can prove to us you are not.” This difference in approach was expressed through specific changes in our programs and policies.

We recognized that people didn’t not get (grammar police, hush!) their animals sterilized after adoption because they wanted litters, they didn’t do it because it was inconvenient and sometimes even a small inconvenience can derail best intentions. So we simply starting sterilizing everything before adoption. If spay/neuter is SOOOOOOO important, why weren’t we doing it? Instead of thinking people wanted to discard their pets at the drop of a hat we looked at why animals were relinquished. If someone’s granny was sick in the hospital for a month, maybe they couldn’t keep her nasty little poodle and maybe surrender wasn’t the easy thing, it was the only thing. What if we provided them with emergency foster programs? If we had an animal with a health problem which wasn’t being adopted, what if we helped people make the decision to adopt by providing them with free or reduced vet care for the pet so they wouldn’t need to worry about the cost? If we were out of space, what if we incentivized adoptions by literally giving them away so people knew how important adoption right now was? What if we gave them access to affordable, high quality veterinary care for their own pets at home? What if we assumed that people in disasters might be able to care for their own animals if we just asked them what they need rather than essentially forcing them to give up their pets to emergency shelters? Or maybe if we just smiled at them and treated them like they weren’t secret sociopaths?

The list goes on and on. All of our approaches fundamentally come down to assuming people want to do the right thing and will, if we can just make it easy for them to do it, not easier for them do not do it, or do it someplace else, like a pet store or a puppy mill.

Increasingly, we are seeing others joining this fun new party where everyone is viewed first as friend, not foe. Some of the programs which we pioneered, or at least pioneered in methodology and implementation as many were secretly offering these pro-people programs on the sly like they needed to be a secret, are being emulated by organizations across the country. HSUS has Pets for Life. Shelters are routinely offering no cost adoption promotions. There is a whole organization which does nothing but emergency and military foster services, which is super cool (I did note with a chuckle that they claim to be “the ONLY”- why do we all feel the need to be the only? – organization offering these programs. We were recognized by the Harvard School of Government in 2006 for our PetNet program which was expanded from a domestic violence foster program to a full disaster/emergency/medical/military foster program in 2004, so maybe they aren’t “the ONLY”…).

But the one which warms my heart today is PETsMART Charities’ announcement yesterday that it was reprioritizing its grant programs away from just being sterilization centric and beginning to focus on community veterinary access. This is the cornerstone of Humane Pennsylvania’s approach to our animal welfare programs and we are the ONLY- just kidding, couldn’t help myself- we are one of the organizations which have been on the cutting edge of this new approach. OK, to be fair, we are the only animal welfare organization in Pennsylvania with a nationally accredited, public, community veterinary hospital, with our second hospital expected to be accredited later this year. That’s just too cool not to brag a little. And I hope that soon, accredited Pennsylvania non-profit vet hospitals will be nothing to brag about because they will be commonplace.

What is so awesome about this new approach is that it makes our work fun and exciting, not a total bummer because we view our work as essentially hopeless in the face of all these Philistines we are forced to deal with. Instead, it’s a party that everyone is invited to join in on: pet owners, government, other organizations, everyone. Welcome to the party, PETsMART! Grab a drink and let’s help people do what they want to do- take good care of their pets! Woohoo!

Walt Disney knew this. He knew that when you assume everyone wants to have a great time and do the right thing, you were half way there. Just a few well-placed trashcans and a smile could make it a magical day. He knew that every boy and girl wanted to be a Prince and Princess and they’d act like it if we led with, “Hello, Princess!” instead of, “You better behave, little girl.”

Finally, we in animal welfare are doing the same. This is going to be so much fun! And, please, have a magical day!


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9 Responses

  • Terry Ward says:

    The elephant in the room has, for some time, been the mind-numbing costs of both responsible veterinary care and the necessary preventative meds.& blood tests.
    Faced with paying the vet or paying the rent has ended my rescuing days for good.
    Alas, we will never know how many desperate owners must resort to euthanasia because of astronomical pay-up-front-or-else emergency care.
    And I’m certain I’m not the only pet owner who is in this position..

    • Karel Minor says:

      Agreed! And much of our efforts have been on the two ends of the spectrum and not the middle, where modest efforts and deliver a disproportional return. That’s why we are such vocal advocates for non-profit, mission based, vet hospitals.

  • Terry Ward says:

    The oligarchical state veterinary boards will become very nasty indeed if this trend grows legs.
    Alabama being the case in point.

    ” For the past few years, the Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (ASBVME) has been trying to get the low cost spay-neuter clinics shut down
    ASBVME vice president Sam Eidt offered that low cost spay-neuter clinics aren’t needed because Nathan Winograd has proved pet overpopulation is a myth “

    • Karel Minor says:

      I think we should view them like a nasty old dog facing its final breaths- with understanding that they see the end of their tunnel coming and a gentle, “Shhhhhh…It’ll all be over soon.” Then we buy their practice.

  • Erin stack says:

    I totally agree with this article. My mom ( age 90), has been taking in feral cats for years. Recently she asked the vet she uses all the time about the cost of shots and neuter for her latest addition. This male kitty had been living in the yard for quite some time. When it got too cold my mom had to bring him in. He sprayed all over and was destroying the house. Anyway, the vet gave her a price of 800$! That seemed a bit high for a long time elderly customer who is living on a fixed income. I contacted a local rescue group who gave the shots and neuter for 72$. Thank God for these people. Without them Bertrand ( cat) may have had to go back in the yard, contribute to the endless kitten population or possibly froze to death. Chances are my mom would’ve allowed him to destroy the house rather than allow this to happen. It’s a terrible choice to have to make.

  • Steve says:

    I remember reading the same ideas in the 1998 report from PetsMart Charities Adoption Forum entitled, “In Adopters We Trust.” At that time the rescues and limited admission facilities decried the ideas as inhumane and dangerous. Funny how we have come full circle today.

    • Karel Minor says:

      Barely full circle- this still gets kneejerk opposition today and is still viewed with the “we’re not Sears, the customer is not always right, I’m here to protect MY/OUR animals from YOU” mentality. Our biggest threat is from our own people.

  • Mary says:

    What an interesting perspective. Karel, always admiring your initiatives from afar. After years of being with a large shelter and doing many follow up calls post-adoption, 95% are positive, eager to tell you happy “tails” and email photos and many times they stay in touch and a year later a Christmas or Halloween pic shows up in my inbox. So I know and have data supporting your positive way of thinking. Do you think social media plays a role in the “everyone is bad” mindset? I for one know I could certainly post “happy adoption” stories on the daily and will. As shelters we certainly don’t want to go the way of banks-prove to me you don’t need the money and I’ll lend you some. Excellent blog.

    • Karel Minor says:

      At the risk of bolstering the charge of being deeply cynical which I received on one of the session evaluations for EXPO last week, I think social media just gives nasty people an outlet they didn’t have before. I think the “everyone is bad” mindset originates from a too large percentage of “our” people who are just mean-spirited, uncharitable jerks who think they are better than their clients and get off on the power they have. I have modified my percentages slightly (I used to say solidly half) but I think upwards of half the people in shelters should be fired. That’s not cynicism, that’s recognizing how we can best and most effectively move toward greater positivity.

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