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Finding a new source of inspiration

Abby Volin urges animal welfare to move on from the "starfish model"

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I’m going to make a bold statement that may rankle some feathers, especially in the rescue community, but among many in the sheltering world as well: We need to move on from the “starfish model.” You know what I’m referring to—the notion that, although we can’t save every animal, we can still save the one in front of us and that alone is important enough. For many of us, the starfish story is the perfect analogy to explain why we got into this line of work and is often used to illustrate how organizations operate. But does it serve us to still approach the problem of animal homelessness using this lens? (Spoiler alert: No.)

We in the animal welfare movement have made huge strides for pets in the past 40 years by reducing the number of cats and dogs who enter into the homeless animal system and increasing the number of people who acquire their pets from shelters and rescue groups. Euthanasia numbers have plummeted while pet ownership has skyrocketed. This is an incredible achievement!

And yet, in the past 15 or so years, progress seems to have slowed. It’s happening in smaller and smaller increments. We’ve taken care of the low-hanging fruit that gave us the most impact for our efforts by normalizing spay/neuter for all pets, creating and implementing TNR, utilizing low-cost/high-volume sterilization clinics, passing legislation that focused on protecting pets, shifting the use of shelters from an animal control “pound” mentality to concern over animal welfare and changing social norms on how people view shelter pets to make owning one a badge of honor. But now, I submit, we’re at a crossroads.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when animal welfare and protection folk see an animal who we think needs help, we think only to rescue. When we see a never-ending stream of animals coming into shelters, we think that the problem of pet overpopulation is caused by “irresponsible” people. When not enough animals leave the shelter through the front door, some think that the problem is an uncaring or abusive staff (although thankfully this view is much less common than in recent years past). And really, neither of these statements identify the main cause of animal homelessness or euthanasia. They’re nothing more than red herrings that distract us from the real issues, such as a lack of access to information, housing barriers, poverty, resource deserts and many other problems that are deeply engrained in our society.

Rescuing animals can take us only so far. While aggressive spay/neuter efforts and progressive adoption campaigns are crucial components of creating a humane community, we simply can’t rely on rescuing and adopting to end the needless euthanasia of adoptable animals.

So what comes next?

Inspiration for a new framework comes, again, from folklore—the Drowning Babies in the River tale. The story goes like this:

One summer in the village, the people in the town gathered for a picnic. As they leisurely shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, they saw more babies and were pulling them out as fast as they could. They were exhausted, and the whole town had to work together to keep more babies from drowning. So when people saw two of the townspeople starting to run up the river bank, they shouted for them to stop.

“Where are you going?" they yelled. "We need you here to help us save these babies!”

“We are going to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

I love this story. The first time I came across it, I think I could actually hear the giant lightbulb going off in my head. The story makes the point that by just focusing on saving the individual, we miss the opportunity to address the root of the problem, and that actually ends up putting many more lives at risk. (Note: By no means am I the first person to connect the “starfish” story with the “drowning babies” one and encourage nonprofits to shift from a reactive model to a proactive one. But I think it’s an important point that’s worth highlighting.)

So what can we do to stop the proverbial babies from being thrown into the river in the first place? A lot, it turns out. Implementing surrender prevention programs that aim to keep pets in the homes they already have is key. This may mean starting a pet food bank, lobbying your local representatives to create funding streams for spay/neuter programs and repeal any breed-specific laws, reaching out to underserved communities, working with local housing companies to create better housing policies, starting a high-volume low-cost spay/neuter clinic, creating a transportation infrastructure for those without transportation options, working with animal trainers and behaviorists, creating a pet helpline, starting a nonprofit veterinary clinic, transporting animals to communities that have fewer animals—the list can go on and on!

Before you get overwhelmed with the thought of all of this, remember that each organization doesn’t have to be everything to everyone. Nor should organizations be duplicating the efforts of others in the community if they’re not needed. The first step is meeting with all community stakeholders and conducting a community assessment. It’s incredibly difficult to solve a problem if you don’t have a firm grasp of its scope. By bringing everyone to the table, you’ll also have a better idea of the resources you have available and what’s still needed in your community. The structure of many traditional pull-foster-adopt rescue groups allows them to be nimble organizations that can shift focus without too much red-tape, making them potentially great candidates for filling in service gaps in the community.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we back off the idea of sterilizing every animal we come into contact with or stop pushing the envelope when it comes to implementing progressive adoption policies and practices. While organizations are working on keeping “babies” out of the river, inevitably many will still come down that river and communities will still need organizations focused on fishing them out. But instead of transferring animals in to our organizations in a random, haphazard manner, for example, we need to start doing it with a targeted and purposeful approach.

We won’t be able to transform communities overnight. In the meantime, though, we need to start thinking collaboratively and acting deliberately and strategically in our communities, even for organizations that are “downstream.” Because pooling our resources and working together is our best way forward in getting to zero.

About the Author

Abby Volin is the former Public Policy Manager for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), where she focused on policies and programs that protect pets and keep them in their homes. In her previous role at HSUS she developed programs specifically designed to meet the unique needs and challenges experienced by rescue groups. Prior to joining The HSUS, Abby worked as a litigator and was involved of all aspects of operating a rescue group in her spare time.