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Don’t give in to “no-win” scenarios
They are designed to groom communities for killing
“I don’t believe in no-win scenarios.” – Capt. James T. Kirk.
Recently, a director at Austin Pets Alive posted a hypothetical: what would you do if you ran a shelter and were facing dire consequences, including packed kennels, maximized foster homes, nowhere to transfer animals, and 100 intakes for every 50 adoptions. Although phrased (manipulatively) as a call for ideas, it is instead a way to groom the community for one of two scenarios: killing (what she euphemistically refers to as “tough decisions”) or requiring people who find animals to deal with it themselves or re-abandon them on the street (what she elsewhere euphemistically calls “community sheltering”).
Here’s the shortened version (the complete version is here):
The shelter is full. Like really full. And they keep doing adoption and foster events and asking the public for help and trying new ideas to get animals out of the shelter alive. For every 50 they get out, 100 come in. There is physically nowhere to put new animals. Pets are co-housed and temporary crates are full. Transport and transfer options have been tried and failed, especially for big dogs of all breeds and adult cats — two groups that most need a lifeline.
This is not a shelter that is 'sitting on dangerous dogs’ or serious behavior cases. They've made tough decisions about the animals that pose a threat to public safety and the long-stay animals are there simply because of their size, housing restrictions, or the fact that people are slower to commit to adoption right now. This shelter also invests in spaying and neutering pets before adoption and their community provides free spay and neuter services so they're maximizing sterilization efforts.
Money isn’t increasing this year and there are no plans to build a new facility. In fact, the department will be lucky if they maintain its current budget.
The situation has hit a pivotal moment. There are no empty kennels or spaces anywhere, and there is a line of people at the door, waiting to bring animals in. Remember, this shelter is doing almost everything it can to engage the public — they've removed barriers, made it easy for people to help, and are open on evenings and weekends for adoptions and foster placement. They have engaged volunteers, fosters, and community partners.
What would you do?
Welcome to the Kobayashi Maru.
In Star Trek, the Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise designed to test Starfleet Academy cadets on how they would react in a no-win scenario. In other words, no one survives the Kobayashi Maru. Commander Spock explains that the purpose of such a test is to teach cadets that they must accept the inevitable outcome of death. Like the Austin Pets Alive hypothetical, it was created to close off all possible alternatives to that killing. It is a mind game — a “cheat” in the words of Capt. Kirk — with predetermined conclusions: abandonment or the shelter’s incinerator.
Those who posit Kobayashi Maru hypotheticals are not seeking solutions to real problems. The people who pose no-win scenarios have been running shelters for many years and know what they need to do. They want absolution. They want the community to conclude for itself what these directors are already committed to doing. By describing exhausted shelter workers who have left no stone unturned to find alternatives to killing animals, and contrasting them with the irresponsible public lined up outside the door to increase their burden even more, they also want to shame critics into silence.
But what if we refused to accept those parameters? What if we refuse to be shamed for standing up for animals facing death? What if we — like Capt. Kirk, who beat the Kobayashi Maru by reprogramming it for success — refuse to play their rigged game and take a closer look at whether or not it accurately portrays the circumstances?
Deconstructing Austin Pets Alive’s No Win Hypothetical
Recently, the same Austin Pets Alive director who posted the Kobayashi Maru narrative hosted a nationwide zoom call in which she promoted the idea that shelters should breed puppies for “adoption” or partner with breeders to sell purposely-bed puppies. In response to pushback by No Kill advocates, she claimed that the nationwide “pet shortage” was a “real issue” for her “respected colleagues” at shelters across the country and we “should give them the benefit of the doubt.”
If things look so hopeless in Austin (or elsewhere) — if “For every 50 they get out, 100 come in” — why is she giving a forum to people who propose that shelters breed animals or partner with breeders? How can “Transport and transfer options” fail if her “respected colleagues” in other shelters are facing a “pet shortage”? Why can’t Austin (or others) just send animals there?
That’s not the only misrepresentation in her hypothetical. Does Austin Animal Center — the city shelter — do “adoption and foster events” as she claims? Have they “engaged volunteers, fosters, and community partners”? Is lack of “money” or failure “to build a new facility” the problem? In other words, is the Austin city shelter doing all it can and should?
That’s the finding three weeks ago of the Austin Animal Welfare Commission, which passed a vote of “No Confidence” in Don Bland, the city shelter’s director. They did so after determining that volunteer, rescuer, and staff “involvement and satisfaction with working at the shelter ha[ve] fallen drastically in recent years” because of a failure “to provide needed services to prospective adopters.”
Among the findings, the Commission determined that leadership at Austin Animal Center fails:
“To adequately manage or support lifesaving foster and volunteer programs and to engage the willing public to help”;
“To provide adequate services to help reunite or assist taxpayers with lost or found animals”;
“[T]o provide or substantially reduced animal-related services to the public on Sundays”;
“[T]o implement data-driven, best practices to alleviate the ongoing space crisis”;
“[T]o tell the public about or market the ‘long stay’ dogs, despite lengths of stay in excess of one year”; and,
“[T]o accept help from or collaborate with Austin animal stakeholders that could provide immediate, free help to solve the problems the shelter is facing.”
The Commission also found that shelter leadership alienates “partnership organizations, volunteers, and other stakeholders, which has contributed to shelter overcrowding and lack of volunteer support for shelter pet care and adoptions.”
Despite such failures, the shelter is one of the best-funded in the country, with a per capita spending rate of $12 per person. That’s over double the national average and 12 times the rate of how much taxpayers were spending when I achieved No Kill as a shelter director. Money isn’t the problem. Neither is the lack of plans “to build a new facility.”
Austin not only already built a new shelter — the one Austin Animal Services is currently housed in — it expanded it over the years. In addition, the City Council allowed Austin Pets Alive, a private non-profit organization, to use the centrally-located, high-traffic old shelter so that there are two shelters working to save the lives of Austin animals instead of one. The City Council had just one condition: that Austin Pets Alive use it to save at-risk animals at the Austin pound. But Austin Pets Alive threatened to abandon the facility if the City didn’t modify its original agreement and allow it to bring in out-of-county animals, even though it is now saying that there is not enough space for Austin animals.
Clearly, the reality is not the same as the hypothetical. Austin is not exhausting alternatives to killing or abandonment. So why pretend otherwise? Why import animals if Austin animals face such dire life and death consequences? Why posit a hypothetical that leads to only one conclusion: No Kill is impossible, despite Austin placing 98% of the animals year on year and the growing number of communities with sustainable placement rates of 99%?
What happened to the city where:
Placement rates of 98% were common (without turning animals away or dumping them on the street);
Commission findings of gross incompetence and dereliction of duty would have been unthinkable;
Austin advocates refused to accept excuses and instead demanded results; and,
A “can do” attitude instead of the current defeatism resulted in Austin being one of the safest communities for homeless pets in the United States and a beacon of light and hope for others around the country.
What happened was that reformers of the status quo became enablers of it, the city hired a shelter director with a troubled history who brought it with him to Austin, and the leadership of Austin Pets Alive flipped the organization's mission on its head. Instead of defending animals, Austin Pets Alive became a voice to enable their killing, abandonment, and abuse. The result is that Austin and Austin Pets Alive are no longer an inspiration but a cautionary tale.
The corrupting influence of power
As I have documented elsewhere, Austin Pets Alive is a textbook example of how the power of leadership — for good or, as in this case, harm — can have a profound impact on an organization and a city. Over a decade ago, a few individuals, myself among them, spearheaded a campaign for a brighter future for Austin’s animals by fighting the rhetoric and excuse-making coming out of Austin Pets Alive and the city shelter today, ushering that dream into reality.
Yet for reasons that have nothing to do with the animals and everything to do with money, power, friendships, and most importantly, a bid to become the leading public relations front for animal (kill) shelter directors, Austin Pets Alive is erasing the success that Austin achieved, the inspiration it once offered, and the message it used to present to the nation. Austin’s success required hard work, dedication, imagination, steadfastness, honor, honesty, and courage to stand up to those who would harm animals by demanding that they do things differently. It required putting animals first. These are qualities that Austin Pets Alive leadership now lacks.
And so, by necessity, Austin Pets Alive’s director must operate in a way that pretends what once used to be, never was. She must strive to make everyone forget (beyond cynical fundraising pleas) the success achieved when Austin animal advocates rejected the very no-win hypothetical she now promotes to justify poor performance in Austin, at the National Animal Control Association (where she sits on the Board), and at kill shelters Austin Pets Alive now partners with and speaks for.
Appeasement to these partners means saying whatever they want her to say. One day, she’ll promote her colleague’s claim that a pet shortage exists so they can sell puppies; the next, she’ll resurrect the pre-No Kill canard about caring shelter workers doing the irresponsible public’s dirty work with a pet overpopulation so severe that only two outcomes are possible: killing, which many of her NACA colleagues do, or turning dogs loose on the street to potentially die there, as Austin Pets Alive prefers.
For years, I collaborated with and highlighted the work of individuals associated with Austin Pets Alive. It stemmed from a monumental error in judgment. I thought we were all working to protect animals, but they were working on their careers. I thought we were all No Kill advocates and they turned out to be mercenaries. I thought we were trying to build a truly humane society, but they wanted money, power, and status. What I mistook for a revolution in Austin was merely a changing of the guards. And now that they have revealed their true colors, they have made Austin Pets Alive — promoter of breeding, defender of abuse, apologist for killing, and the “brain trust” behind leaving or re-abandoning animals on the street — one of the most profound threats to animals in shelters today.
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