Editorial: Strategies for changing the world

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2006:
In the 1940 Walt Disney animated cartoon feature Dumbo, The
Flying Elephant, the first and perhaps still most vivid screen
depiction of circus animal handling produced for a paying mass
audience, a troupe of drunken clowns speculate that if circus-goers
laugh at an elephant made to jump from a platform made to look like a
burning building, they will laugh twice as hard if the elephant has
to jump from twice as high.
Activists in every cause could be accused of committing the
same logical fallacy, presuming that if a problem is exaggerated or
described as a crisis it will get more attention, resulting in more
effective response.
However, Che Green, executive director of the Seattle-based
Humane Research Council, pointed out in the November 2006 edition of
the HRC newsletter Humane Thinking that, “According to a study
recently published by Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council,
the most effective strategies for encouraging behavior change are
those that are motivational and informative rather than negative,
such as those that induce fear, guilt, or regret.”
In other words, exaggerating a bad situation is not the best
way to make it better.

Continued Green, “The authors examined 129 behavior changing
experiments and identified 33 different strategies used to modify the
intentions and behavior of more than 65,000 people during the course
of their experiments. The study confirmed the established,
widely-accepted theories of behavior change, which suggest that
there are three factors that must be addressed in order to induce a
change in behavior. These include an individual’s beliefs about what
will happen if s/he acts in a particular way; what an individual
believes others think s/he should do, or what an individual believes
others should do; (and) confidence in one’s own ability to achieve
“An individual’s intentions and behavior can be changed about
60% of the time,” Green summarized, “by addressing these three
factors, according to this newly published meta-analysis. The most
effective strategies seem to include: 1) prompting practice; 2)
setting specific goals; 3) generating ‘self-talk’; 4) gaining
agreement to a behavioral contract; and 5) reviewing behavioral
“The least effective strategies identified by the analysis
were the incitement of fear, guilt and regret,” Green wrote. “For
instance, the research team found that scaring people about the
health risks of certain behavior is not as effective as providing
them with the motivational tools and knowledge necessary to encourage
alternative types of behavior.
“Animals may be better served,” Green projected, “when
advocates deliver a message that encourages members of the target
audience to change their behavior in a positive, yet incremental
way. The messages should boost self-confidence while also presenting
enough information and support to allow people to make the change on
their own.”
Green did not entirely dismiss the use of scare tactics, in
certain circumstances.
“According to a 1998 study conducted by researchers at
Michigan State University,” Green recalled, “fear can be an
effective motivator in public health campaigns, if the message is
also presented with a recommended action. In order to be effective,
the study found that the message must also include information about
specific health benefits and how to go about implementing the
suggested behavioral change.”
This research, as Green recognized, has potential
application to issues from promoting pet sterilization to persuading
people to quit eating meat and wearing fur.
It also suggests boundaries, if not limits, to the use of
statistics to “prove” anything in a manner translating directly into
personal change.
Statistics may persuade someone to make a change of diet,
dress, or pet-keeping habits, but the decision will usually be
influenced at least as much by what “everybody” in the person’s
family, neighborhood, or workplace does.
In that context, “confidence in one’s own ability to achieve
something” may mean not confidence in one’s own actual ability to
stop eating meat or wearing fur, but rather confidence in one’s
ability to maintain social status, after making choices that diverge
from the values of one’s peer group.

Fake fur is a real problem

People who give up meat often report feeling social stress in
connection with family gatherings at which a roasted animal or chunk
of meat is the focal point. Vegetarian and vegan societies,
lifestyle magazines, and singles clubs have evolved to help those
who feel ostracized to find a replacement peer group.
The social effects of giving up fur–and social pressures to
start wearing fur–are much less well-documented.
As the resurgence of cheap fur trim on garments demonstrates,
however, there also seems to be little currently effective peer
pressure against wearing fur. The more fur is worn, the more people
seem to be willing to wear fur, especially in the traditional
fur-wearing neighborhoods of New York City, Chicago, Montreal, and
Toronto, where fur never quite faded out as it did elsewhere in
North America during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
As anti-fur campaigners debated in the 1980s and ’90s, but
seem to have forgotten, endorsing faux fur merely contributes to the
visibility, acceptability, and popularity of wearing real animal
pelts. While there may be no lack of general recognition that
trapping wild animals or raising and killing them on fur farms is
cruel, the individual fur wearer may deny that cruelty was involved
in producing a garment which might be marketed as fake fur or rabbit
raised for meat, even if the fur actually comes from a dog or cat.
Fifteen years of soaring fur sales in the 1970s and ’80s
ended only after the major national animal advocacy organizations
changed their message from “wear only fake fur” to “don’t wear fur,
or anything that looks like fur.”
Then U.S. retail fur sales plummeted from $1.85 billion to
$950 million in only five winters. The traditional retail fur trade,
whose staple was the $2,000 mink coat, is still at that level,
adjusting for inflation, and the typical price of a mink coat is
still $2,000, manufactured now in China instead of New Jersey, but
the surviving traditional furriers are increasingly self-confidently
anticipating that the fur-trimmed coat buyers of today will evolve
into full-length mink buyers tomorrow.

Numbers test conventional wisdom on “pet overpopulation”

“I’m looking for the numbers that prove…,” information
requests to ANIMAL PEOPLE often begin.
We welcome the opportunity to share information, and usually
can e-mail prompt responses. Yet often the numbers don’t “prove”
what the callers want to establish. Frequently the data calls into
question the very premises behind the arguments that the callers want
to make. Quite often, the numbers suggest rethinking a tactical
For example, among the data most frequently requested from
us is “proof” that “mandatory” dog and cat sterilization reduces
animal shelter intakes and killing of homeless dogs and cats,
and–usually received as part of the same inquiry–that reduced
shelter intakes and killing translate into lower animal control costs.
Despite possible local exceptions, neither hypothesis holds
up as a broad premise.
“Mandatory” dog and cat sterilization does not really exist
because, even where laws have been passed to try to achieve it, it
is a goal which cannot be enforced by existing or affordable legal
mechanisms. Further, because enforcement is inherently weak, any
influence that such legislation might have cannot be measured.
The problem is that “mandatory” dog and cat sterilization
relies upon licensing for enforcement. Nationally, studies of
licensing compliance show that only 15% to 25% of dogs and a
negligible percentage of cats are licensed. Only a few U.S.
jurisdictions can demonstrate licensing compliance of as high as 40%.
Yet more than 70% of pet dogs are sterilized, nationwide,
and more than 85% of pet cats, ranging from about 70% in the South
and lower Midwest, to more than 90% in the Northeast and along the
West Coast. Therefore, licensing compliance would have to be from
two to six times greater than it is, depending on the region, for
“mandatory” licensing to have any visible influence at all. In
theory, including licensing in the cost of sterilizing a dog or cat
would be more successful, except that adding the licensing fee to
the price of surgery might become a disincentive to sterilization.
Proponents of license-enforced “mandatory” sterilization
typically propose that dog and cat licensing should be pursued more
vigorously, but enforcing any law that is routinely broken by more
than about 5% of the public tends to be hopeless, because taxpayers
are unwilling to invest in–or put up with–law enforcement at more
aggressive levels.
What demonstrably does work to further increase sterilization
compliance are targeted free or subsidized sterilization programs,
with animal transportation to and from clinics included, directed at
the non-compliant portions of the pet-keeping population. These tend
to be the oldest pet-keepers, the youngest, and those with the
least household income. Putting the funding necessary to enforce–or
even pass–“mandatory” sterilization into targeted sterilization
instead would seem to be an obvious shortcut to the goal.
Yet proponents of mandates tend to forget how we came to have
much higher rates of pet sterilization than of licensing in the first
place, when licensing laws had a 150-year head start. The short
answer is that pet-keepers were sold on sterilization as advantageous
to themselves, their animals, their community, and the
environment. Selling licensing has not been as successful in the
U.S., though selling licensing as a low-cost means of ensuring the
return of lost pets has proved conspicuously successful for 20 years
in Calgary, Alberta, which now has 90%-plus dog licensing
compliance. ANIMAL PEOPLE has spotlighted the Calgary success four
times in seven years without any U.S. cities attempting the same
approach, possibly because the Calgary numbers seem impossible by
U.S. standards.
Proponents of either “mandatory” sterilization or any sort of
taxpayer-subsidized sterilization program typically build their pitch
to politicians on the premise that fewer incoming animals will permit
animal control budget cuts, or at least hold down annual increases.
Superficially, this sounds reasonable, but actuality is exactly the
opposite. Just killing animals is relatively inexpensive, especially
when the public brings unwanted litters to shelters by the tens of
thousands. As shelters receive fewer surrendered and found animals,
animal control personnel are able to spend more time responding to
calls that require them to spend time afield. Staff time per animal
handled shoots up. As killing decreases, moreover, impounded
animals spend more days apiece in cages. The animal volume falls,
but the number of days on which each cage is full tends to remain the
same. Thus fewer animals require, cumulatively, the same amount of
A parallel myth is that reduced shelter killing brings
increased revenue associated with doing more adoptions. This may
happen, for a time, as prospective adopters are demonstrably much
more likely to visit shelters when they do not have the feeling that
choosing one animal to adopt is condemning others to die, but as the
numbers of incoming puppies and kittens fall, adoptions tend to
follow killing in a downward trend.
What all of this means is that programs intended to further
reduce shelter killing need to be introduced and promoted for what
they can realistically be expected to do, rather than with promises
that cannot be kept and expectations that cannot be met.
The present 10-year plateau in shelter killing may indicate
that we are approaching the point of having to redefine the problem
long described as “pet overpopulation,” to more accurately
understand the aspects we are still dealing with.
The plateau in the numbers of animals killed does not
actually represent lack of progress, since the numbers of pets and
pet-keeping households are growing, even as shelter admissions and
killing hold even. Relative to the total numbers of dogs and cats in
the U.S., anti-“pet overpopulation” efforts have never been more
In some parts of the nation, however, some numbers appear
to have bottomed out while others are rebounding. The owned dog and
cat populations are, overall, both reproducing at or below the
replacement level, but the intake of pit bull terriers and pit mixes
is up fivefold in less than a decade, and total cat intake is
holding approximately even. Pit bulls and outdoor cats, presumed
feral by many standards, now make up at much as 75% of some big
cities’ shelter animal intake.
Approximately half of the two-plus million dogs killed in
shelters in recent years have been pit bulls and pit mixes, with the
percentage rising as the numbers of other dogs coming into shelters
continues downward. The Humane Society of the U.S. has estimated
that as many as 400,000 pit bulls per year are used in connection
with dogfighting. As the total U.S. pit bull population appears to
be about 3.5 million, based on samplings of classified ads, it
could be that more than one pit bull in 10 is bred or used for
fighting (if the HSUS estimate holds), and these dogs, or their
offspring and litter mates, may constitute a grossly
disproportionate number of the pit bulls who are impounded for
violent or menacing behavior.
How many of the two-plus million cats killed in shelters have
been true ferals may be vigorously disputed, but the most easily
handled cats are adopted out first, while the least gregarious have
the worst prognosis. Neuter/return to control feral cat populations
has achieved impressive results over the past 15 years, but there is
increasing resistance from birders and others to practicing
neuter/return in many of the places where cats are most abundant and
problematic. Often the opponents successfully seek legislation to
keep cats indoors, or on private property, and to forbid using
neuter/return. The predictable result is more shelter killing and
more feral cats to be “controlled” instead of fewer.
Perhaps “pet overpopulation” does not really describe the
plight of feral cats and pit bulls bred for fighting. Perhaps new
tactics and strategies must be developed to prevent their births, and
The numbers do not exist yet to “prove” that any new approach
will work any better than those used now. But the numbers do seem to
indicate that something new is needed to make further progress.

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