The Top 10 Lessons I Learned Trying to Change the World
A simple and solitary entry on my calendar for the day read, rather audaciously, "Change the World." The day was June 11, 2012 - the first national No Kill adoption day titled Just One Day. The goal of the day was simple: get animal shelters that would otherwise have killed animals that day to try a new way of operating for Just One Day. Instead of sending animals out the back door in body bags, we asked them to have their "euthanasia" technicians put down their syringes and, instead, pick up cell phones and cameras to post them on social media, to share them with their local news organizations and to market them for adoption. I believed that if they did that, they could empty their shelters out the right way, without killing any healthy or treatable animals. I also believed that if they tried this new way of operating for Just One Day, they would never want to go back to doing things the way they used to do them. And, here is the thing: It worked.
The first year I hosted Just One Day, I got about 1,000 organizations to take the Just One Day pledge. Governors, mayors and other elected officials signed proclamations declaring June 11 a day of No Kill and, more importantly, shelters that participated ended the day empty. Pictures and videos of empty shelters flooded the Just One Day social media.
The adoptions from Just One Day more than zeroed-out a day of killing in US animal shelters. The event quite literally changed the world, as several animal shelters realized they actual could operate that way all the time and stopped killing animals. The event also inspired other national animal shelter adoption events, each saving tens of thousands of animals every year. On June 11, 2012, the World, in fact, did change.
I have spent the last 20 years working to change the World. Just One Day is just one example of how I did that. I have worked to close puppy mills, to pass laws benefiting animals by, for example, making it illegal for animal shelters to kill healthy pets when humane alternatives were available. Fundamentally, I have worked to change the cultural zeitgeist that said killing was some kind of dark but necessary kindness and I have also worked to save as many animals from terrible situations as possible along the way.
It has not been an easy path. Swimming against the cultural current never is. In spite of the difficulty, looking back at how much has changed fills my heart with hope and inspiration in ways that are hard to describe. I am also amazed by how much I have learned along the way. Following are the 10 biggest lessons I have learned trying to change the World:
Number 1 - The Human Mind is Both an Amazing Gift and a Terrible Burden
Humans like to make up all kinds of reasons why we are supposedly better than or superior to other animals. We have used everything from our opposable thumbs to our ability to use tools as a way of claiming superiority to other species. I don't believe any of that is true. I do, however, believe that there is one important distinction between humans and non-human animals: humans have extra lobes to our brains that other animals do not have. These lobes are big because they do something that is very complex and that is remarkably helpful and that also carries a terrible burden.
From the times we born we are taught to begin categorizing everything around us. Our parents and our schools teach us games like "Which of these things do not belong" and in a variety of other ways train us to compartmentalize the world. A very simple example of this is the idea of gender. Science tells us that we all begin life in the womb as female and that then some of us, based on a mix of genetics and hormones in the body make more or less of a transition toward male, physically, mentally and/or emotionally. This results in a rich spectrum of gender that looks something like the image below.
In spite of the fact that we know this to be true (note: after all many people and animals are actually born with a mix of both male and female reproductive organs) we teach our children that there is only male and female. We teach them to categorize all gender into these two choices.
Once these categories are established, we fit everything we see into those categories, and we end up seeing people as either men or women. We also conform our actions and behaviors into the categories we use to define ourselves.
All human cultures do this, though they sometimes use different categories. Some Native American cultures, for example, recognized up to seven different genders.
Once our brains have categorized the world around us, we perceive the entire world through the filter created by those categories.
When we encounter something new, we instantly assess it based on all of the categories our brains put it into. We do not need to experience this new thing to "know" things about it. Instead, we make all kinds of assumptions about it, based on the arbitrary categories we put it into.
This allows our brains to do remarkable things, like making super-fast decisions based on limited information. On the other hand, it encourages us to do very dangerous things, like making super-fast decisions based on limited information. It also allows people to see the world as they want to see it, rather than how it is.
When I began advocating for No Kill policies in animal shelters, I did not understand this fully. I wrongly assumed that people would want to embrace a way of sheltering that did not result in the needless killing of millions of animals annually. But, by re-categorizing the destruction of healthy animals as "euthanasia" (i.e. "merciful" killing) our culture at large had been able to avoid accountability for the broken sheltering systems it had created.
This same dynamic applies to all of our present-day social crises. It is true of every issue, be it needless killing in animal shelters, the mass extinction of species globally or the rampant excessive use of force by law enforcement: they are all created and perpetuated by our failures to see what is real because we are perceiving the world through arbitrary and often irrelevant categories that we have been taught to see. This means that fixing them is both simple and hard. In most cases, fixing them is as easy as changing our minds to see the world through a different lens. But, changing their minds is very difficult for most people.
Number 2 - All Crises End
For people involved in animal rescue, this is an important lesson, because there sometimes seems an endless stream of crises that range from actual life and death disasters like floods, tornadoes and hurricanes to the more mundane, like the volunteer bottle-baby-feeder was a no-show and there are dozens of hungry mouths to feed and no time to feed them. Whatever the crisis it is always helpful to remember that all crises end. Furthermore, when they are over, they often end up not being quite as bad as they initially seemed. In fact, some golden opportunities initially present themselves as crisis.
I remember one very cold December afternoon when I was informed that the furnace at the shelter I was running had died. The unit was more than 20 years old, was not repairable and was going to cost more than $20,000 to replace. Nearly half of our building was very cold and the forecast was calling for record sub-zero temperatures. It was a crisis, for sure.
Fortunately, two things I had learned about all crises ending kicked in. The first was something I learned from Beth Nelson, producer and co-host of Animal Wise Radio. In my 10 plus years of working with Beth on the radio, at the Minnesota Legislature on proposed legislation, and on other issues, when crises would strike she would frequently ask, "how can we use this to our advantage?"
The second thing was something I read in the book Twelve by Twelve. In it, author William Powers describes a three step process he uses when faced with a challenge. He calls it See - Be - Do. The idea is that the initial, often emotional, response may not be the best one. The goal is to take in the information, to "see" it in a non-reactive, objective way. The next step is to commit to not doing anything imminently. Of course, if your hair is actually on fire, this approach is not the best. The fact of the matter is, however, even in crises it is rare they are as bad as our hair being on fire. Some time to simply exist in the presence of the new information is almost always very beneficial.
In the case of the Minnesota mid-winter dead furnace my initial reaction could have been to chew out the shelter staff that might not have been maintaining the system's filters the best they could. Naturally, doing that would have helped no one. After relaxing and simply being with new information for a bit, and looking for the opportunity it presented, I sat down and wrote a combination blog post and press release about the shelter animals whose winter heat source had just died. I posted it at about midnight.
When I woke up in the morning I was delighted to see the post had gone viral. I had multiple inquiries from TV stations wanting to meet me at the shelter to cover the story and donations were already coming in pretty well. But, the story kept spreading. By the time I met the first reporter at the shelter, we had space heaters set up so the building was chilly but safe and donations were coming in every few seconds and multiple people had come in person to drop off checks in excess of $1,000 each.
The fact was, I needed to tell the reporter, we had already brought in more than enough money to pay for the new furnace and one was on order and would be installed within a matter of days. They ran the story anyway, as a holiday goodwill success story and the money kept coming in. It turned out to be the best fundraiser I ever did. The crisis that seemed devastating when I heard the news was a minor inconvenience for a few days that resulted in a new energy-efficient furnace and extra money in the bank.
Number 3 - Humans Are Capable of Profound Generosity & Extreme Selfishness
No one is either always generous or selfish. We are all a mix of both at different time. In my work I have experienced the extremes of both, from greedy puppy mill operators who inflict unimaginable suffering for profit to people who selflessly give of their money, their homes and their hearts to help others. As a result of my experiences I have concluded that people who give of themselves more often are happier and healthier and they are the kind of people I prefer to give to and hang around with.
Number 4 - Life is Better When You Make it About Something Other Than Yourself
If done right life is an uncomfortable and messy mix of feelings, pains and dilemmas. If it was easy, it probably wouldn't be worth doing. And it is far too easy to get bogged down bemoaning the challenges we face. One sure way to avoid doing that is by making your life about something other than yourself. The truth is that where we put our focus in life grows. Focus on your pains and they grow. Focus on your delights, and they grow.
Modern society has taught us to think too much about what we don't have, don't look like or should be. But, when we take on a purpose or mission that is bigger than and outside of ourselves those petty grievances mostly disappear. They are replaced with feelings of being connected, fulfilled and joyful.
Focusing on ourselves disconnects us from the world. Focusing on something outside of ourselves connects us. Connection bring peace, joy and happiness.
Number 5 - Everyone Makes a Difference, Whether They Know it or Not
Many people say they wish they made a difference in the World. But, the fact of the matter is that we all make the same amount of difference. Every choice matters. Every action counts. On every issue, from killing in animal shelters to climate change, everyone contributes something.
By questioning what differences we want to make, rather than whether or not we will make a difference, we empower ourselves to make healthier and better choices.
Number 6 - People Would Rather Be Right Than Happy
See Lesson 1! The ways that we categorize the world around us help us to create our belief systems and narratives that we live by. In order to continue believing our beliefs, we need to experience them as real. As a result, being wrong about our beliefs is a challenge to the "reality" we experience. Our brains treat this as a threat to our survival.
As a result, people would rather be right about a depressing reality - like the imagined "need" to kill millions of healthy animals every year - than to change their minds to take on a belief system that is more empowering and joyful.
We very likely would do well to eliminate the idea of right and wrong. Lily Tomlin famously said that reality is nothing but a collective hunch. We would do well to remember that and to hold onto our beliefs more lightly. Rather than framing our beliefs in terms of right & wrong, I try to think of them in terms of effective or ineffective.
If we hold our beliefs lightly and periodically ask if they serve us, we can do better at changing our minds and our lives for the better. A great question for animal shelters to ask is this: Does a belief that killing shelter animals is an unfortunate necessity serve to help them move out of that self-imposed and dark reality? The obvious answer is that it does not. It, in fact, keeps them trapped in the darkness of killing.
Number 7 - Honesty is Kindness
Many people have a relatively undeveloped sense of kindness. Far too often this prevents them from saying things that can and should be said in honest and adult conversations. Not being honest in order to be kind is actually not kind at all. Telling the truth is usually the kindest thing a person can do, even if the truth is difficult to tell or to hear.
Number 8 - Bigger is Not Better
Organizations, like people, seem to seek power and influence. This causes them to seek to grow in size. Unfortunately, larger organizations are often clumsy and cumbersome and slow to adapt to change. Today's largest animal welfare organizations are the most behind the times and contribute the least value to most important topics facing humans and our non-human friends.
Number 9 - Animal Shelters Can Save the World by Serving as Role Models for Other Needed Social Change
A quick scan of any news feed will show you that the world is suffering from a long list of issues that stem from a common and false belief. The ways that we treat the environment, wildlife and each other are largely the result of our failure to see the interconnected nature of ourselves in the world around us. That we are all connected to each other and everything on Earth is not a new concept. Chief Seattle said it well when he stated:
"Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect."
Animal shelters that understand this connectedness are no longer be able to see the unnecessary destruction of animals, using a process that literally turns their bodies into toxic waste, as acceptable or kind. More importantly: by shedding the old beliefs that result in needless killing, animal shelters can demonstrate that embracing a new world view is possible. We can let go of the negative and dark beliefs that separate ourselves from the world. We can be truly responsible stewards of the animals in our care and also show the rest of humanity how we can be responsible stewards of the planet, too.
Whether the issue is climate change, the mass extinction of species, the use of unnecessary force by law enforcement or the needless killing of shelter animals, the underlying issue is a failure to understand that what we do to others we, ultimately, do to ourselves. As de facto standard role models for how we treat the non-human world, animal shelters could help shift our societal belief toward seeing and embracing a shared destiny of hope and connectedness. Whether or not they believe this, understand this or chose to follow the path forward that it implies will make a difference (See Number 5). The question is what difference will they make.
Number 10 - Everything I Have Learned Could Be Wrong
I share these lessons with the hopes that more people can use them to go out and change the world. If you do, I promise you will be glad you did!