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May 06, 2013

The Path to Change, One Step at a Time

At The HSUS, we confront the biggest forms of cruelty, much of it legal: from tens of thousands of animals sent to horse slaughter plants, hundreds of thousands suffering in puppy mills, millions killed for their fur, to hundreds of millions spending their lives in extreme confinement on factory farms.

Add it all up, and the numbers are so daunting that it might seem more practical to throw up our hands in surrender. After all, how can we possibly overcome industries whose collective revenues and political giving dwarf those of the entire animal protection movement?

The answer, for The HSUS and its many partners, lies in our ability to see beyond the statistics and pinpoint their root causes. It’s in our ability to appeal to both head and heart, using research and data and a strong sense of empathy and moral obligation to chip away at systemic animal abuses. We don’t just tell people how many pigs spend their lives in factory farms; we show what it’s like to be crammed into crates so small the sows can’t even turn around. And we don’t ask our constituents to make over an entire marketplace in one day; we enlist their help in converting one farmer, one supplier, and one retailer at a time.

Switch

This combination of logic and compassion, along with a strategy for “shrinking the change” down to feasible steps, is an exceptional recipe for progress in any arena, according to bestselling author Dan Heath, the keynote speaker at The HSUS’ Animal Care Expo in Nashville –  the nation’s largest gathering of animal welfare professionals. “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades,” writes Dan and his brother Chip Heath in their groundbreaking book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.”

It’s not enough, the Heaths say, to speak to a person’s rational side (by simply citing the numbers of animals euthanized as a result of low spay/neuter rates, for example). And it’s not enough to appeal to their emotions (showing an image of an animal being euthanized, without providing a broader context of the numbers of homeless animals subjected to the same fate). To truly make a change, they argue, you have to do both.

And to make it possible for someone to act on what they’ve learned, the Heaths add a third ingredient – the need to “shape the path,” or tweak the environment. In one inspiring example from the child welfare movement, they describe the efforts of Jerry Sternin, sent to Vietnam by Save the Children to fight malnutrition for six months. With few resources and little time, Sternin made a lasting impact that eventually bettered the lives of more than two million people.

His method? Rather than focusing on the intractable problems identified by previous researchers – poverty, sanitation, ignorance about nutrition – Sternin found the bright spots and sought to mimic them. In this case, that meant examining a small number of families with healthy children and finding out what they did differently. The answer, he discovered, was surprisingly simple: the mothers were giving the children smaller meals more frequently and feeding them two additional, easily accessible, nutrient-rich ingredients. Before long, Sternin had recruited those mothers to start cooking classes for their neighbors, launching a homegrown answer to what had previously been perceived as a global problem.

As we approach the opening of Animal Care Expo tomorrow, I can’t help but think of how much our outreach program for pet owners exemplifies this model for change. For years, the animal protection movement sounded the alarm about high euthanasia numbers, low spay/neuter rates, and what some deemed “irresponsible” pet ownership. While our collective efforts – on both the national level and in local animal shelters – did indeed drive down euthanasia numbers, at a certain point over the past few years we began to realize that making a broader impact would require an entirely new approach.

Enter Pets for Life, a research-based initiative built on the principle that many people would care better for their pets if only they had the resources. Dismantling years of assumptions about people’s motivations, our research team concluded there was something else afoot: Many underserved areas are not just food deserts without good grocery stores, but also veterinary deserts without places for people to bring their animals for care and services.

By “shaping the path,” literally to their doorsteps – bringing the clinics directly to people and the animals they want to help – we’ve reached thousands of caring individuals in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia who would do anything for their animals if given the chance. Through our mentoring program that trains local groups to implement the model in other cities nationwide, we’ll reach thousands more.

At Expo, we’ll be spreading the word again about this game-changing program – and sharing other forward-thinking ideas with some of the pet welfare field’s brightest minds. We are lucky to be joined in these conversations by Dan Heath, whose book is a tool for anyone who wants a truly practical guide to changing the world, one step at a time.

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