Beyond the Band-Aid

(I first wrote this in Feb 2012. I have added some information And modified it a little, but it is still valid.)

 

Solving the Companion Animal Welfare Crisis

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root” ~ Henry David Thoreau

 

We’re euthanizing more than a Million companion animals a year in our shelters, never mind all the ones that die as strays, or die from hunger, or die from disease because their ‘owners’ are either ignorant or don’t care because the animal represents little more than a source of income. If you don’t think that’s a crisis, you need to think again – the consequences to a society that allows such events to occur include health risks (in some cases epidemic in nature), increased incidence of injuries resulting from dog bites, and of course the social effects of a lack of sensitivity to animals. The inherent cruelty to animals in the overall scenario is horrific, and widespread, and to say that there is a crisis is to make an understatement.

Many people involved in Companion Animal Welfare in South Africa share a viewpoint concerning the solutions to this crisis. It goes something like this: If we all just work together, to rescue and rehome more animals, then more and more animals will be saved and the crisis will be averted.

Before I show you why this is hopelessly and emphatically wrong, let me be clear that the role of Rescue/Rehabilitate/Rehome organisations is a crucial one, and in many cases the actions of the people working in such organisations heroic. The mindset of the ‘rescuer’ is necessarily emotional, since they seek to help that ‘visible’ dog, the tangible one that makes them feel good about themselves, and it would be inappropriate for them to invest time in intellectual internal dialogues as to whether saving this dog or cat or horse was more important than another animal not visible to them.

What effect does the ‘hands-on’ animal welfare worker or organisation have? Currently, according to rather optimistic estimates, of the companion animals that come into being, 1 in 10 find homes.

homed1

 

It’s a dismal picture. If you achieved a result of 1 out of 10 for an exam, would you constitute that as success or failure? And I believe this is a very optimistic estimate; it’s probably closer to 1 in 15…

In order to assess the effects of operational effectiveness in addressing this crisis, it will be necessary to digress for a moment.

‘Operational Efficiency’ was the focus of Management Consultancy in the early 90’s and invariably we would go into organisations and conduct two week analyses, finally presenting a proposal which would detail the current ‘inefficiencies’ in their organisation and how we could affect their bottom line through improved systems and communication. It was seldom we would be able to promise more than a 10% improvement unless the organisation was in a truly shocking state. In some cases, we would suggest an increase in operational capacity in certain components or with regard to a certain process, for example sales and marketing. It was an anomaly to find an opportunity by so doing that would yield more than a 10% increase in the bottom line. In most cases, an increase in operational efficiency does not automatically lead to an increase in organisational effectiveness, measured by the organisation’s bottom line. And capacity increase is only useful if it is competent capacity, which often takes time to become so.

BUT let’s assume that even given that the companion animal welfare sector is disjointed, has no common vision or ethos, is incompatible in respect of policies, processes and procedures, has many incompetent and irresponsible personnel and is for the most part driven by emotion, that ‘operational improvement’ is not only possible, but probable, even in light of the fact that there are no objectives, no guidelines, no clear roles and responsibilities, and no competencies in respect of managing the improvement process and formalising it. Let’s also assume that somehow sheer willingness and commitment override all these obstacles, and a virtual miracle happens and a 25% improvement in efficiency results, coupled with a 25% increase in capacity because there are more people and organisations involved in welfare, ignoring for a moment the requirement for training and mentoring…

That’s a 50% improvement. And let’s say this all converts to ‘more animals homed’. If we increment our 1 in 10 by 50%, we now have 1.5 in 10:

 

homed2

 Wow.

The nett effect of the difference is that we are still failing, but by a little less…

Fact is, operational efficiency cannot be improved in the year following by the same amount; only small incremental improvements are possible when there has already been such a huge improvement in one period, so the opportunities after this will be much smaller. Capacity may be increased every year, but given that 25% was already unlikely, further increases are somewhat remote. So the opportunities in respect of operational improvement are a little limited in scope. Even given a further 10% increase in both per annum,  the picture in 5 years might look like this:

 homed3

…but it would not. Because what we have not included is that the companion animal population has been growing in the meantime, because we have only addressed one part of the cycle, that of the rescue/rehabilitate/rehome process. The actual picture would look like the graphic below, because the growth of numbers in the animal population is greater than the volume rescued and rehomed, and that ratio is getting worse. Every year, there are more and more animals and insufficient welfare resources to absorb the growth:

 homed4

To understand why, let’s examine the ‘cycles’ and see how they interlace:

cycle

Download the animation for the above picture: BandAid

The breeding of more animals than are necessary gives rise to the rescue process, and the rescue process creates a negative feedback loop every time an animal is sterilised: if the breeding process did not take place, rescue would become unnecessary.

IF THE BREEDING PROCESS DID NOT TAKE PLACE, RESCUE WOULD BECOME UNNECESSARY.

This is key to our understanding of the overall process, and must be the core of any proposed solution. When a welfare organisation sterilises an animal, they put a ‘dead stop’ to the breeding process, and in this manner create a ‘negative feedback loop’ that acts against the overall breeding cycle. Unfortunately, rescue organisations and shelters deal with such a small volume of animals that the effect of this activity is limited.  This is understandable – they are focused on rescue, rehab and homing of individual animals, not on aggregate issues. It is impossible to think about aggregates (totals or overall perspectives of a given phenomenon) without giving due consideration to Capacity.

Capacity Considerations

If we think about the Welfare process, there are specific roles for each stage of the welfare process in the cycle that results in the crisis our companion animals face:

bar

Wherever we apply a given resource, we enable that particular part of the welfare process. But there I another important part of capacity considerations that many do not see: what is it that we gave up by committing resources to that process? You cannot commit a given period of time or amount of money to two activities at the same time, so what do we sacrifice every time we dedicate a resource to a given activity? What is the ‘opportunity cost’ of that investment? Where SHOULD we concentrate resources? Will it help, for example, to increase the number of Websites or Facebook groups? In my opinion, these are already oversubscribed and for the most part duplicate all the same information to the same people, and perhaps new people should network and support existing web and Facebook infrastructure rather than create yet another group. The reason I say this is this: if there IS duplication, surely one could add more value by doing something that is scarce rather than an activity in which we already have too much focus? The rescue and rehome sector is already oversubscribed in many areas; organisations are competing for scarce homes.

The ONLY sustainable solution

Obviously one’s own resource base and abilities is an important constraint, and not everyone can focus on legal and political issues or rehabilitation, both of which require specialist knowledge.  But it is important to marry one’s own potential to the needs of the whole, and it is here that we must ask a fundamental question: where will our efforts have the greatest effect? Where should people donate? What can I do that will bring the most sustainable results? There is NO question which one of the activities above will bring lasting change, and it is a winner by so far that everything else is almost unimportant: Sterilisation.

I do not speak here of the sterilisation done by welfare orgs when they rescue and rehome; I am talking about a specialised focus on mass sterilisations, because that is the only way we are going to turn this scenario around. It is not an activity that is especially rewarding, since the result is that something will NOT happen afterwards, so the process is not ‘visible’ and emotionally gratifying to the same extent as delivering a dog or a cat to a new home.

The reason why so many people new to welfare become rescuers and rehomers is that it IS emotionally rewarding to some extent, although it can also be very tough. Networkers also get involved because it’s relatively easy to do and gives them a sense of personal satisfaction, and of course everyone contributes in their own way, but it makes no sense to add new rescuers when there is insufficient capacity in the shelters and fosters to absorb the additional animals rescued. One rescuer told me recently that she cannot just drive by, and of course she is right; but if you have a choice how you will invest your time and money, is it not wiser to employ it in a manner that increases capacity for an activity that has scarce resources?

One of the problems here is that we have no ‘big picture’ perspective. At any point in time, the needs of the total system are not known definitively – we can only apply an intuitive understanding to assess what types of activities need resourcing. But if we are not discussing these issues, we expose the resourcing problem to randomness and chaos is the result. Chaos inevitably results in failure, and arguably the conditions we face are an illustration. Someone said to me recently that they have been in welfare for 20 years and I am telling them nothing new. The current scenario is hardly something to be proud of – as individuals, you may have done a wonderful job. As a collective, you have failed. However heroic your efforts – and there are MANY heroes – you have not addressed the core problems by focusing on root causes. Some will argue that these big picture problems fall outside of the scope of the individual, and they would be right. But this does not mean you can escape responsibility for the failure. It should be obvious that large-scale and long-term solutions can only be addressed by a collective, and yet you seek to ‘do your own thing’ – surely you must recognise that this cannot obviate the crisis? Welfare is a ‘Band-Aid’, not the radical reinvention necessary.

There are approximately 9 million companion animals in South Africa, and this is a conservative estimate. Easily 70% of these are unsterilised, and the excess animals created by indiscriminate breeding per year number in the hundreds of thousands. The existing capacity in mass sterilisation, plus rescue organisation sterilisations, adds up to less than 5000 a year. Hopefully, you can see the problem…

Unless there is an urgent, prioritised, coherent strategy for addressing the root cause – the breeding cycle – the condition “more animals than homes” will continue to be the limiting factor in the current crisis. One does not avert a crisis by employing crisis management, one does so by focusing on the core problem.

There is a further compelling reason why ‘Improved Welfare’ and ‘More  Welfare’ cannot be anything more than a Band-Aid: Neither will increase the capacity for homes. More homes (currently, 37% of SA homes include companion animals) will be the result of a culture change that will take more time than you may think. In Change Management  in large organisations, culture change takes between 3 and 7 years to bring about – how long do you think it takes for a nation? We’re talking decades, not single-figure digits…

Solution Set

So if ‘Improved Welfare’ and ‘More  Welfare’ will not solve the problem, what will?

The Rescue and Rehome process has matured to the point where, even though there are still ‘reputable’ organisations that don’t do it properly, it is quite robust and has been benchmarked so that any new organisation and individual can apply it without too much difficulty. This means that there is a base for the collective that must take this beyond the Band-Aid. The welfare sector itself must be regulated so that the possibility of animals ‘slipping thru the cracks’ can be avoided, thereby strengthening the public trust in and support of the sector

The change in culture and society’s behaviours that will enable an increase in the number of homes for shelter animals as well as reduce the population of unwanted animals is something that will arise from education, an activity that is hopelessly undersubscribed – we badly need more educators and programmes and we need to lobby Government to include animal welfare education in school curriculums.

We need changes in legislation to enforce compliance while the education process is going on – one educates ignorance and legislates non-compliance while learning is taking place. Such legislation needs to focus on limiting registered breeders and creating high barriers to entry to the industry, outlawing private breeding, pet shops selling animals, and other measures that will reduce the numbers of unwanted animals. In addition, it will be necessary to find innovative ways of policing this legislation.

These three core objectives, all of which will impact in varying degrees on the future of companion animal welfare in SA, can only be driven by a collective, and it is this collective, the animal-loving public, that provides both the impetus, the credibility and the focus for these objectives. There is a need for building capacity in mass sterilisation, given that the Government seems incapable of doing so but is willing to support private sector initiatives, and if the public wants to solve the problem rather than tread water while the tsunami of overpopulation continues to flow, then organisations that focus on mass sterilisation are the ones to support.

 

Derek du Toit

Hopeful Foundation