“Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.” —Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Science of the Learning Organization (1990)
Mental models exist at the individual, organizational or group, and even community or societal levels. There was once a prevalent mental model in the United States that justified slavery. There are competing mental models about the role of government in society and whether government should help poor people or get out of the way of entrepreneurs. Those different organizing ideas–mental models–drive very different plans of action. Animal sheltering and rescue practices reflect underlying mental models, too. And the mental models driving shelter and rescue practices are a matter of life or death for the animals under their control.
The high-kill mental model is based on the underlying beliefs that there are too many animals and not enough homes, that people are irresponsible and it’s their fault that shelters “have to” kill so many animals, and that since shelters have to kill, the best they can do is to kill “unadoptable” animals quickly so they don’t languish hopelessly in shelters. You can see that mental model at work in Stockton, where no resources are “wasted” taking photos of the cats or trying to get pit bulls or cats adopted, where they are simply processed through the system, without much care, since they are destined to be killed anyway. I’ve posted this before, but this collection of quotes from Stockton’s director, Pat Claerbout, is a crystal clear illustration of the high-kill mental model.
The “no kill” mental model, by contrast, is based on the beliefs that there are enough homes for all the animals coming into shelters and that the shelters’ job is to gain “market share” among people who will get a new pet in any given time period. The programs of the No Kill Equation do deal with decreasing intake in the short and long term, through pet retention and spay/neuter, but they also address care while in the shelter, marketing and community relations to promote foster and successful adoption. The biggest difference between the high-kill mentality and the no-kill mentality is what social scientists call “locus of control.”
The high-kill mental model is based on an external locus of control–the idea that the problem is out there, out of the control of shelters, and all shelters can do in response is control the stray population through killing. The no-kill mental model is based on internal locus of control–the idea that shelters can do a lot to save animals, and that they should! Even if you think there are too many animals and not enough homes, though, if you care about those animals, don’t you have an obligation to at least make a real, sincere attempt to do what has worked to transform other communities from high-kill to no-kill. Isn’t every healthy and treatable animal worth at least trying to save?
This blog is based on findings from my own research as well as the research of others. My own mental model is being challenged lately. Until last week, I had three rescued dogs in boarding (by the way, all three really need good homes)!
Now I have two in boarding and one in foster at my house, which is making life really, really stressful for us. Sadie’s stress level and behavior in boarding made us have to take her home to foster, where we have to keep her apart from our dogs because two of ours are not guest-friendly. I thought we were going to have to kill her (it wouldn’t be euthanasia, as she is not hopelessly suffering). While no one could say we haven’t tried to find her a good home, a bunch of people did say we have to keep trying to find her the right home. And they’re right. I had to recover from my intial panic-driven thought that we were out of options, and I’m glad people intervened to make me take a deep breath and reconsider, though I am very low on creativity right now and ideas for finding homes are much needed!
I appreciate that some people challenged my thinking, just as I challenge the high-kill mentality. What I hate though, is being almost alone in the effort. We really need a shelter, an agency and community where the leadership believes in saving lives and is dedicated to creating a community that does save lives.