The Adjacent Possible
August 14, 2012 by Nathan J. Winograd
No Kill Conference 2012 brought about 800 animal lovers from 44 states and 10 countries to the George Washington School of Law in Washington D.C. The most successful shelter directors, animal lawyers, shelter veterinarians and shelter reformers nationwide shared insights and strategies to end the systematic killing of animals in our nation’s pounds and shelters. The attendees heard from directors of open admission shelters with save rates of better than 98%. They heard from lawyers who have passed laws making it illegal for shelters to kill animals in a wide variety of contexts and who have successfully saved the lives of animals who shelters were determined to kill. They heard from veterinarians who are pushing the envelope and saving animals who would have been considered non-rehabilitatable just a few short years ago. And they heard from reformers who have succeeded in passing laws to end the needless killing of animals in their community. In the keynote address, I welcomed attendees, shared our movement’s successes, described the increase in No Kill communities throughout the United States and indeed the world, and laid out the vision of the conference: reaching higher.
Welcome. You are among friends here. And they are all available to you to share in this great revolution that is taking place in communities across the country. Here, you will find shelter directors who are saving nine out of ten animals entering the open admission, animal control shelters they oversee. They have heard and rejected the excuses of why every community can’t do the same.
Here, you will find animal lawyers who are pushing the vanguard of litigation and legislation to give sheltered animals the right to live. Here, you will find animal activists who are challenging the killing in their communities through campaigns for reform that harness the power of the internet, the media, by promoting No Kill candidates for elective office, and even by taking over animal control commissions to set shelter policies themselves. Here, you will find shelter veterinarians who are redefining the concept of “humane euthanasia,” saving animals who would have been labeled “non-rehabilitatable” just a few, short years ago.
A little more than a decade ago, No Kill was a dream. There was not a single No Kill community. Today, animals in roughly 200 cities and towns across America are cared for by shelters saving over 90% of all intakes and as high as 98%. And we are poised to make it a reality across the country. This weekend, we will celebrate that achievement together because here, you will also find a reflection of yourself. People who share your values, who believe—as you do—that killing animals is never an act of kindness, especially when those animals are not suffering. Beyond celebration, our goal is to give you the tools to create similar success in your own hometown. And to inspire you to believe it is well within your reach even if it is hard to see the goal from where your community is today.
For those of you who are advocates living in communities where the local shelter is still killing; who are rescuers and animal lovers that find the door to the shelter closed to you despite their claim of an open door philosophy; who work at shelters that still have a long way to go, it can be very easy to get cynical and discouraged—to hear from some of the speakers and hear about their 90%, 95% even 98% save rates; to see your situation as not hopeful by comparison; to see the road as too difficult or even impossible to climb. Take heart.
Every community that has achieved success was once steeped in killing, was controlled by a “good ole boys” network, had a media and city council that appeared indifferent. In short, a situation that seemed impossible to overcome. But they did it—individuals just like you because they refused to give in to cynicism and defeatism. Cynicism breeds inaction because it creates the illusion that the problem is insurmountable. It allows the status quo to continue: “They are too powerful.” “Our City Council ignores us.” “No one cares in the South.”
Moreover, cynicism fails to recognize progress. Working/volunteering in shelters and rescuing animals puts us in the trenches. And in the trenches, we can become myopic. It is difficult to see the big picture; to see the tremendous progress we’ve made. In 2005, the No Kill Advocacy Center held its first No Kill Conference. Two dozen people attended. Today, we have over 800 from 44 states and 10 nations. In 2000, there wasn’t a single No Kill community in the U.S. Today, they dot the American landscape.
Those of us who have seen a community turn around quickly and dramatically have seen with our own eyes what is possible. But 12 years ago, before the creation of the first No Kill community, it was impossible to see how we could ever get out of the quagmire of killing. Our perception was wrong. With the creation of the first No Kill community, our perception also changed. Ellen Jefferson of Austin Pets Alive explains…
“Unless you have a roadmap or you have someone else you can look to and say, ‘Well, they did it, this is how they did it,’ it is hard to imagine what it could be like.”
And even though there was a time when we didn’t know how to stop the killing, we knew it was wrong. And we broke off from the pack and set about to do something about it. Because when we turned to the large national groups for advice on how to end the killing, we got nothing. We were told by men like Roger Caras, the former Vice-President of HSUS and CEO of the ASPCA that: No Kill is so impossible, “it is not worthy of a passing daydream.” And so we set about to do it ourselves. And we did.
We created a No Kill community. We created the model to achieve it. And now we are sharing it with the world. And now we have No Kill success in urban communities and rural ones, in large cities and small ones, in public shelters as well as private shelters, in politically liberal areas and the reddest parts of the reddest states. We have a half dozen in Texas, more than that in Viginia, and still more than that in Michigan. We have No Kill communities in California and Nevada, in Kentucky and Wisconsin, in Indiana and New York, in New Jersey and Minnesota, in Iowa and elsewhere.
Once we discovered and put that solution into play and we achieved No Kill success, other opportunities became possible. It was no longer hard to imagine what it could be like. And from that new vantage point, we saw other opportunities to push the envelope even further. And we started asking, if we can save these animals because they are healthy or treatable, why can’t we save others? Like dogs with severe behavior problems, animals with cancer, cats with panleukopenia, and more.
We opened one door, we liked what we saw, and that opened up all sorts of other attendant possibilities—a term sociologists call the Adjacent Possible. Think about it this way. There was a time before the invention of the wheel. In this world, there was no cart. There was no bicycle. No car. And no roller skates. But once the wheel was discovered, these pathways became clear: the door to the cart, the bicycle, the car, and the all-important roller skate appeared right in front of us.
The “strange and beautiful truth” about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them, each new innovation leading to more innovations. Think of it as a house that expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with a door. Once you open that door, two new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point, each of those rooms have new doors of their own, too. Keep entering the new rooms. Keep opening the new doors. And eventually you’ll have built a palace.*
Before the Declaration of Independence, there could be no emancipation. Before emancipation, there could be no pushing at barriers. Before barriers were pushed, there could be no civil rights. Before civil rights, there could be no Barack Obama. Each success, each milestone opens up new doors; doors that didn’t appear before because we had yet to open the doors that led to them. But once we did, the next logical step became inevitabile.
What are the possibilities now that the keys to ending the killing have been discovered? Now that we can imagine what “it could be like,” now that we have brought that into fruition, what else can we do that would have been impossible to conceive of? What other doors can we open? Let’s ask Ellen Jefferson again.
Once Ellen Jefferson saw what it could be like, she not only recreated it in Austin, Texas; helping to save 91% citywide, she pressed further—opening new doors that appeared before her. In other words, she explored the Adjacent Possible by doing things no one had done before, such as setting out to save all shelter puppies with parvovirus. With a parvo puppy save rate of 85%, they are close. And while they are doing that, they are opening other doors, too. Jefferson also asked, “What if we allowed people to adopt out sick animals?” Why treat them in the shelter when they could be treated at home with their new adopters? They even take them to offsite adoption events and that includes animals with ringworm by putting the “fun in fungus.”
Meet Bonney Brown of the Nevada Humane Society, a shelter once steeped in killing. Under her leadership, she ended the killing of healthy and treatable animals. She is now exploring the Adjacent Possible also. Forget everything you ever thought you knew about hoarding and hoarders. Forget everything you ever thought you knew about whether the animals can be saved. Why? Because when life gave Bonney oranges, she opened new doors.
The Nevada Humane Society took in 54 orange cats from an alleged hoarder. At a traditional shelter, animals from such households are often killed, while the shelter director claims that there is simply no choice because they don’t have the space for such a large influx and the animals are often traumatized and sick. But under Bonney, the Nevada Humane Society is not a traditional shelter. They turned the challenge into an opportunity. Bonney Brown explains,
“Once you eliminate killing as an option, humans—we are incredibly creative. Creative thought and bringing creative solutions and not looking at anything as too far out to try has been a big part of our success.”
As with the 11 other hoarding cases the shelter has handled since it embraced the No Kill philosophy, creative outreach to the public resulted in loving, new homes for all the animals. None were killed. They also have a new system for hoarding cases that is unlike any other. And the shelter reaps the rewards from a grateful public, too. The people of Reno were so touched by “The Great Orange Cat Rescue” that the shelter quickly raised all the money it needed to cover medical care for the cats—and most of it from individuals who had never donated to the shelter before. One man who loved orange cats was so moved by their response that he sent them a $5,000 donation just to say, “Thank you.”
And so while this conference will celebrate and teach what our speakers did, what they are doing, and how you can do it, too. It will also explore other adjacent possibilities. It will open new doors. Like Aimee Sadler, the dog behaviorist who reached 90% and then decided to push on 98%. Or Kerry Clair at Pets Alive of New York who pushes even further to use hospice care for hopelessly ill animals rather than kill them, lifetime sanctuary care for those animals who need it, and has even adopted out dogs with bite histories successfully and safely. Or like the groups which are working to save and adopt not only dogs and cats, but all animals in shelters – regardless of whether they are classified as domestic or wild.
Ideas that the “experts” will tell you are impossible. The same thing they said about creating No Kill communities. The experts said it could not be done. They criticized. They engaged in character assassination. They even tried to stop us. But we did it anyway despite the “experts.” So if you are going after grand challenges, as we are in the No Kill movement, “experts” may not be your best co-conspirators. Henry Ford once said,
“None of our men are ‘experts.’ We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert. Because no one ever really considers himself an expert if he knows his job. Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, is a state of mind in which nothing is impossible.”
Remember this: The large groups are large, not necessarily more talented. They aren’t built to be nimble. Nor are they willing to take large risks. They aren’t willing to place the big bets that breakthroughs require. That is not true of small groups. With no bureaucracy and a passion for saving lives, small groups consistently outperform larger organizations when it comes to innovation and lifesaving.
Compare: In 2010, the ASPCA took in roughly 140 million dollars and adopted out only 3,389 animals. That is a stunning $41,000 per animal saved. During the same time period, a New York No Kill shelter and sanctuary took in $635,000 and saved 2,932 animals. That is $216 per animal—or the equivalent of the ASPCA saving 645,040 animals. A No Kill animal control shelter in New York took in $356,000 and saved 2,315 animals. That is $154 per animal—or the equivalent of the ASPCA saving 910,353 animals—almost 1 million animals.
Innovation requires significant tolerance for risk, for failure, and for ideas that come from what at the time seem outrageous. “What if I ran an animal control shelter and saved all the animals?” Twelve years ago, every one of us in this room would have dismissed it as a pipe dream. Today, it is within reach across this great nation if we fight for it. “If an idea is truly a breakthrough, then the day before it was discovered, it must have been considered crazy—otherwise it wouldn’t be a breakthrough.”
You need to be a little crazy to change the world. If you don’t believe in the possibility of changing the world, then you’ll never give it the effort required. One thing that makes this conference unique is not only how much the speakers know, but how much they are still learning and experimenting. Several of the speakers at this conference were once sitting where you are. They took the ideas they heard and ran with them, improving, challenging, pushing forward. Remember Henry Ford: “Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible.”
Welcome to Washoe County, NV. A community where two animal control officers killed animals every day—15 barrels full a day. Every day they would be emptied. And every day they would be filled up again. Meet Mitch Schneider, the recently retired director of Washoe County Regional Animal Services. He was approached about making Washoe County, NV a No Kill community. Listen to what he had to say…
“They asked me point blank, do you think it will work here? And I told them quite honestly, I did not. I really believed that it was only something that could exist in a very affluent community where the impounding and abandonment rates were much lower.”
But he was willing to try as he explains: “So it took a little bit of work. I had to check some of my traditional thinking. And surprise, surprise, here we are.” Despite a per capita intake rate that is four times higher than Los Angeles, five times higher than San Francisco, and 10 times higher than NYC, by taking risks, by keeping traditional thinking in check, here we are: In 2011, Washoe County finished with a 94% rate of lifesaving.
You need to take risks and to buck traditional thinking. That doesn’t mean there aren’t solid roads and good protocols to guide your way. There is only one model that has achieved No Kill success: the programs model of the No Kill Equation—foster care, offsite adoptions, socialization and behavior rehabilitation, medical care, working with rescue groups, TNR, pet retention, progressive field services, marketing and adoptions, high-volume neutering, and leadership. If you want No Kill success, that’s the way to go. That doesn’t change. And while there is no point recreating the wheel, there is a lot of room for innovation.
Meet Ryan Clinton of FixAustin. In Austin, TX, Ryan decided to make No Kill a reality in his home town—a city that took in 23,000 animals and was only saving 45%. Using the No Kill Equation and working with Ellen Jefferson and others, Austin saved 91% in 2011. Ryan also explored the Adjacent Possible. In other words, he created something that did not exist, could not exist until No Kill became a reality. Ryan created a replicable model of smart, political advocacy that can break through the gridlock and do for your community what he did in Austin, Texas: taking a shelter that was killing six out of 10 animals to one saving nine out of 10 by taking a Mayor and City Council that voted 5 to 0 against No Kill to one that voted unanimously for it. If you want success, use it. It works.
If you want to double adoptions from 5,000 to 10,000 a year as Bonney Brown did, listen to her. But when it comes to pushing the lifesaving envelope even further, when it comes to reaching higher, when it comes to redefining what an SPCA or humane society can and ought to be, explore the Adjacent Possible. Give yourself permission to fail. Stomach the criticism and prove the Naysayers wrong. And be willing to take risks.
Without risk, without learning from failures, there is no progress. A bit of wisdom which comes from Nicolas Cage talking about Thomas Edison in the film National Treasure:
“You know, Thomas Edison tried and failed nearly 2000 times to develop the carbonized cotton filament for the incandescent light bulb. And when asked about it he said, ‘I didn’t fail. I found out 2000 ways how not to make a light bulb,’ but he only needed to find one way to make it work.”
Like Thomas Edison, you’ll create light, where there is darkness. Like the animal lover who became informed about the No Kill movement and walked into the lobby of his local shelter and even though he did not work there and boldly announced: “There will be no more killing in the shelter!” And then proceeded to make it come true. Meet Peter Masloch. In Allegany County, Maryland, the shelter in Peter Masloch’s community had an 85% death rate in 2010 when he made his bold announcement. In 2011, Allegany finish with a 94% rate of lifesaving.
Meet Kelly Jedlicki. In Shelbyville, Kentucky, Kelly made a decision to fight for a No Kill community. Today, Shelby County celebrates its fourth No Kill year. Last year, they saved 98% of cats and 94% of dogs.
Meet Mike Fry. In 2012, Mike wanted to erase one day’s worth of killing across the U.S. and asked shelters to help him do so—to create a No Kill nation for Just One Day. Almost 800 shelters and rescue groups answered the call including Kern County Animal Control, a shelter with a history of fighting No Kill. They stayed open for 11 hours and saved 100 animals—one every seven minutes. So did Houston’s BARC, the city shelter. Normally closed on Monday, they stayed open and placed 231 animals. In Amarillo, Texas, the director of animal control reported that the computer system could not keep up with the number of adoptions: “The parking lot has been full since 10:00 this morning, it continues to be full. I’ve never seen so many people come out here all at one time, in one day.” Seventy-eight animals went home from a South Carolina shelter. Another shelter adopted out 94 dogs and 37 cats. In an Arizona shelter, 88 out of 100 dogs and 28 out of 30 cats were adopted by 11 am. In still another community, they ran out of animals. Yet another reported staff crying: they had never seen so many animals going out the front door in the loving arms of families. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Upwards of 9,000 animals were saved that day; many of whom would not have been saved in years past—erasing one entire day’s worth of U.S. killing.
Meet Pam & Mike Kitkoski. They have a lot to be smiling about. In Rockwall, Texas, the husband-and-wife team began marketing and adopting out shelter animals because the shelter itself refused to do so. The result? Adoption rates of over 95 percent in their community.
Meet Karl Bailey. In Seagoville, Texas, Sgt. Karl Bailey, a police officer, took over an animal control shelter. He had no formal experience. He was not familiar with the No Kill movement. He started as the new boss of Seagoville Animal Services in January 2011. One minute later, he abolished the gas chamber. His second minute on the job: he ordered the killing to come to an end. Minutes 3 through 525,949 made up his first full year. He spent those saving lives. Fewer animals lost their lives the whole year than they used to be killed in just one week. He finished with a 98% rate of lifesaving. When someone asks you how long it should take to achieve No Kill, tell them about Sgt. Bailey. And then tell them: 120 seconds.
No Kill advocates come from all walks of life. In Seagoville, a police officer led the charge. In California, it’s a college professor. In one Kentucky community, a nurse spearheaded the effort. In Nevada, it’s a marine working with a corporate retail buyer. Though they have different backgrounds, different skills and a different focus, these activists shared a commitment to end the killing in their community and the determination, creativity and flexibility to see it through.
The 33 speakers you have access to this weekend also come from all walks of life and all took different paths to breaking new ground for animals. Their story can be your story. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish if you give yourself permission to try in this, or any other field. You can quite literally change the world.
Meet Lewis Hine, a mild mannered man with a camera. He ended child labor in the U.S.
Meet Thomas Clarkson, a college student. He ended the British slave trade.
Meet a preacher plagued with self-doubt.
Meet a diplomat who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.
Meet a former slave.
Meet a small business owner.
The future is what we make it.
Whether you are an attorney, an animal control director, a veterinarian, a rescuer, a volunteer, a shelter employee, an activist, or someone who just loves animals and wants to do their part, you are part of a larger army of compassion that is sweeping across this nation in the noble battle for the heart and soul of our nation’s animal shelters.
Keep defying conventional wisdom. Keep pursuing your dreams. Keep refusing to take “No” for an answer. Keep taking risks. Keep opening new doors. Keep entering new rooms. Keep exploring the Adjacent Possible. And together we will build a palace.
Reach for the stars.
* The concept, ideas and some of the metaphors about the Adjacent Possible are from the book, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. They also come from Steven Johnson.
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