Turning on a dime: The small price of change

January 26, 2017

It’s no secret cats love paper bags… but that’s not all they have in common. Find out what we mean in this post from Million Cat Challenge co-founder Dr. Kate Hurley.

As I write this, there are big changes in the air. A few days ago we saw the inauguration of a new president of the United States. The next day, protest marches swept across the U.S. and the world. Sometimes change happens like that – on a big stage, with a roar.

In light of all these dramatic events, the subject I planned for this week’s blog seems embarrassingly trivial. But I’m on deadline, and it’s too late to change topics now, so here goes: Let’s talk about my trash can.

Here’s what it looked like in 2016:


What does this have to do with change, or cats, or anything? Maybe not much, but there was a lesson here for me and I’m hoping it will be helpful to share it.

For starters, you’ll notice the trash can is fastened to the side of my garage shelves instead of sitting on the floor or tucked under the sink. The astute among you might guess this is because I have pets* who run my life and can’t be trusted to stay out of the garbage unless I strap it out of reach.

You’d be right about that.

This means it’s a minor hassle to take the can itself out when it’s full. It involves unwinding those Velcro straps and slipping them through the little holes I poked in the back of the can, then repeating the process backward when I’m done. Not a huge deal, but it takes a couple of minutes, so instead I always used to line it with the paper grocery bags I got at the store. Then I just pulled the bag out when it was full, chucked it, and put in a clean one.

Now, I like to think of myself as a good person. One who not only accommodates a houseful of wayward shelter pets, but who cares about our whole ecosystem. I try to live with a modest footprint. I recycle. I donate to worthy environmental causes.

Yet in spite of these values, I rarely used to bring my own bag to the grocery store. I felt a little bad for the trees and the increase to my carbon footprint, but my rationale was that if didn’t take my groceries home in a paper bag, I’d just have to buy plastic ones to line my can.

Then the 2016 elections rolled around. Along with all the big ticket drama, there was a proposition on the California ballot to impose a 10 cent fee on single-use grocery bags.

Of course, I voted for it. I figured 10 cents a bag would be a small price to pay for the beneficial impact the ban could have on the environment.

But then a funny thing happened. Instead of being asked, “Paper or plastic?” when I was checking out (and getting to feel vaguely righteous for choosing paper), the standard query became, “Did you bring a bag, or would you like to buy one?”

The new question wasn’t much different from the old one, yet it was a world apart. It reminded me every single time of my own values and those of my fellow California voters.

And it wasn’t just a theoretical reminder; I don’t know if they were motivated by the dime or the environment but overnight the number of people bringing reusable bags seemed to increase ten-fold. Instead of feeling righteous with my little paper bag, I felt guilty as I watched my fellow shoppers unfurl their virtuous cloth sacks.

Finally, after all those years of paper bags, it turns out just a little more guilt and a few more dimes was all I needed to get creative.

One day, I got caught at a store that only offered sturdy reusable plastic bags. I shelled out my ten cents, took it home, and lined my trash can, like so:


Unlike the paper bags, it didn’t fall apart when I tossed something a little wet in there. When it was full, it finally occurred to me that, instead of tossing it out with the trash, I could easily pull my new sturdy plastic bag out of the can, dump the trash out, and re-use it. No need to fool with the Velcro straps or deal with the can itself.

I know that’s not earth-shattering progress, and I’m not congratulating myself for it. In fact, I feel pretty sheepish. After all, I could have figured this out at any time, or come up with any of a dozen other solutions to my trash problem that didn’t involve disposable bags.

But I have a reason for confessing all this.

When it came to my trash, all it took was a little cost and peer pressure to get me to find a solution that was there all along. The solution I found was truer to my own values, and allowed me to feel a teeny bit more like the person I want to be. And that’s where I think there might be some useful news for us in shelters.

Surveys tell us that most North Americans are basically fond of cats. Even those who don’t especially like them wouldn’t want to cause them needless suffering or death. Yet all too often, the public continues to march into shelters bearing cats and kittens far in excess of our ability to ensure capacity for care or positive outcomes for all.

Why? For the most part, these basically good people are simply trying to solve a problem the best way they know how.

So often, the biggest objection to policies like managed admission, capacity for care, or return to field, is that the public will never accept such changes. But what if the public is just doing what they’re used to when they bring us more cats than we can readily handle? And what if just a small tweak could push them to find another, better answer? This is what we can accomplish with even modest fees for the behaviors we want to discourage, and reasonable questions for the outcomes we’d rather see.

Just like they did for me and my trash bags, such small changes can add up to more than the sum of their parts. Even people who can well afford it may realize they’re not making the socially preferred choice when they’re told there’s a fee for drop off but if they can wait for an appointment it’s free, or that a cat can be sterilized and returned at no cost but there’s a fee to bring it in for euthanasia.

And just like me switching from feeling pretty fine about my answer to “paper or plastic” to a little uneasy about my answer to “Did you bring your own or do you want to buy a bag?”, it can make for a different experience if every person calling about a litter of orphaned kittens, instead of being first asked, “Where did you find them?”  is asked, “Can you hang onto them until they’re old enough for adoption?”

The first time, the answer to the request to make an appointment, foster orphan kittens, or any number of things we want the public to do might be a terse “No.” The first bunch of times I was asked, “Do you want to buy a bag?” my answer was an awkward yes. But eventually I worked it out, and in time, a whole lot of people might do the same for cats.

With a little help from us, our customers might find the answer even faster than I did. The grocery store clerk wasn’t particularly invested in my bag choice or helping me brainstorm my trash situation, but if we combine some help and guidance in a new direction with a gentle nudge away from the old one, we can get where we want to be all the quicker.

In the end, the person might figure out a better answer to the problem they’re trying to solve by bringing a cat to the shelter in the first place.

To me, that’s part of the beauty of Alternatives to Intake and Managed Admission. It’s not just for the cats, though it helps them, of course. It’s not even just for the sanity of the shelter staff, though that’s so important, too. It’s for those very customers we have been so reluctant to challenge with new ideas.

Managing admission in any form creates a pause between problem and old solution, an opportunity for countless individuals to think and stretch themselves just a bit, and come out the other side feeling a little more like the person they want to be.

And maybe sometimes that’s the way big change happens – not with a roar, but with a million quiet conversations. When we truly commit to the values we hold dear, who knows what new answers we might find?

*Including a terrier who can unlock cabinets and chew through metal cans.



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1 Comment »

  1. I actually found this article very relevant to what’s going on in the world at large, as well as to solutions for shelter overcrowding. Thanks, Dr. Hurley. You’re doing good work.

    Comment by Elisabeth Lindsay — January 28, 2017 @ 3:15 pm

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