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  • Mike Fry

Identifying the Sources of Inertia that Weigh Down Shelter Reforms

I recently wrote about the fact that a significant amount of inertia exists in society that weighs down or inhibits people or organizations from adopting new technologies, including animal shelter reforms. Specifically, I wrote:

More animal-friendly branding aside, to this day, a great deal of inertia exists to keep the industry from evolving from "dog pound" to true "animal shelter," and it comes in many forms and from a variety of sources.

That blog was more broadly about what keeps people from changing. In this post I will identify some of the most pervasive sources of inertia in the field of animal sheltering.

The fact that something is a source of inertia should not, in and of itself, imply that it is a bad thing. For example, our Government is intentionally structured in such a way as to make it difficult to change laws. Our law makers are required to have fields of vision that are many miles wide, but only inches deep. I say that because they are dealing with everything from public works and infrastructure to zoning and law enforcement. The number of things that must be "on their radar" is enormous. The ability for them, therefore, to dive deeply into each of them simply does not exist.

The best lawmakers, therefore, rely heavily on input from expert stakeholders when complex or challenging topics arise. That dramatically slows the pace of change in Government entities. While it is frustrating for people seeking change, the slow pace of change in government is actually a good thing, because it provides stability and continuity in our governance. While it makes it difficult to change laws to improve the lives of animals in municipal animal shelters, it also makes it difficult for new law makers to come into power and gut the protections that are currently in place. In other words, the structural inertia of government, while frustrating, is, overall, a good thing, particularly if the expert stakeholders from whom they seek input are working hard for rapid, progressive change. Unfortunately, there are other sources of inertia within the field of animal sheltering that exponentially exacerbate what can seem like the stagnancy in government, and they don't necessarily have counter-balancing benefits.

Through most the decade of the 90's I had the privilege of working for Doctors Mike Lombardo and Robert Eichinger, two of the top gurus of leadership and organizational development. Through their research and teaching, one thing I learned was that organizations learn and develop much like individual people do. However, the larger organizations get, the more difficult it is for them to continue their organizational learning and development. As a result, larger organizations have a tendency to be slow-moving, inflexible and resistant to change. As organizations grow, staff thinking and vision generally becomes more compartmentalized. Therefore, moving new ideas, thinking or technologies through large organization can be, and often is, impaired by size. As organizations grow and the staff becomes greater, there is a tendency for internal politics to begin outweighing other things, like the organization's vision and purpose. Managing staff and politics and bureaucracy can become cumbersome and challenging apart from the work of fulfilling the mission of the entity.

In animal sheltering, that is a problem because the loudest voices are huge organizations with giant staff resources and massive budgets. Virtually all of them appear to have been weighed down by their size and seem to be having difficulty adapting to the new and rapidly changing realities of animal sheltering.

Case in point: No Kill advocates have known for at least a decade that pet overpopulation is a myth. There are actually plenty of homes seeking to acquire new pets to save every shelter animal. More specifically, there are dramatically more homes looking for new pets than pets needing rescue from shelters, which is why animal shelters can transition to a No Kill model of sheltering very quickly.

Research has proven that every year about 24 million Americans acquire a new dog or cat. That is three times the number of dogs and cats that enter animal shelters. Yet, not every pet that enters a shelter needs a new home. Some have homes but are lost and need to be reunited with their families. Some are feral cats and need TNR services. And, sadly, a small number are irremediably suffering or seriously dangerous and truly benefit from humane euthanasia. When you put all of the numbers together, there are nearly six times as many available homes for shelter pets as there are pets that need rescue from them.

In spite of this, the sheltering industry has - for decades - looked at poor performing shelters, where intake was higher than live outcomes due to management and policy issues, and drawn a wrong conclusion. The industry incorrectly decided that there were not enough homes for all of the pets entering animal shelters, when, in fact what they were looking at was localized shelter overpopulation caused by shelter management. As a result of this incorrect assessment, the general consensus in the field was that the best most animal shelters could do was adopt some pets to new families and destroy the rest. Virtually all of the major animal organizations in the USA and beyond perpetuated that mythology for decades, without any objective research to back it up, while also perpetuating the policies that prevented people from adopting from their local animal shelters.

Beginning in about 2008 and 2009, No Kill advocates started expecting the national conversation about so-called "pet overpopulation" to dramatically change. That was when Maddie's Fund, the Ad Council and Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) came together to, relatively quietly, announce that they had done the research that proved overpopulation was a myth. They did not use those words. However, their research showed there were more than enough homes for the animals entering animal shelters. It was the kind of news No Kill advocates thought should be shouted from rooftops and put on the front pages of newspapers everywhere, because it substantially called into question the core justification animal shelters had been using for decades to destroy millions of pets annually. It implied a fundamental and significant shift was needed in the animal sheltering paradigm.

Yet, nearly 10 years later, shelter directors all over the USA continue repeating the fallacy that shelters have to kill because of pet overpopulation (link, link & link) and then, the big national organizations that actually know better, and that profess to speak on behalf of the sheltering industry, fail to correct the public record, usually remaining silent. Worse yet, they sometimes attack local No Kill advocates who are pushing for change in those same very shelters that could be reformed. They say those advocates are being divisive or worse, while not pointing out that the killing taking place in the shelters is abhorrent and unnecessary.

The failure of the big national organizations to loudly and passionately call for reforms in animal shelters that continue falsely using the excuse of "pet overpopulation" to justify the killing of millions of animals represents an extreme form of inertia the inhibits forward progress in the field. When coupled with shelter directors (who are often considered "expert stakeholders" by government officials making decisions about their animals shelters, and that are perpetuating myths to justify continuing to do exactly what has always been done) you end up with enough inertia to inhibit any forward movement at all.

Efforts to break past this inertia, and bring a new paradigm to animal shelters in various places are, happily, succeeding in communities all over the USA. Typically, they are doing this by breaking away from the inertia that would otherwise weigh down their efforts. Sadly, that often means local advocates working for reform in their shelters, like Steve Shank in Lake County, Florida, Aubrie Kavanaugh in Huntsville, Alabama or Davyd Smith in Colorado have needed to distance themselves from some of the largest animal welfare organizations that profess to speak for the sheltering industry. They are the Ryan Clintons of today. And, they are supporting and training a next generation of advocates that will bring No Kill to places like Pueblo, Colorado and Newark, New Jersey tomorrow. They are the true boots-on-the-ground voices for shelter animals. They are the ones who see the faces of shelter pets still losing their lives today because of the inertia that inhibits progress. They are the ones who shout, "our house is on fire," because they see the continual loss of lives in our nation's shelters (due to old and outdated beliefs and lack of leadership) to be the crisis that it is. The big, national organizations should listen to them, learn from them and support them.

#shelterreform #leadership #transitioning #transparency

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