The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

The official blog of The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

Infrastructure building, Lifesaving programs, Management team support

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Cognitive bias

Work in animal sheltering or rescue long enough and you'll develop what is known as cognitive bias. What does that mean? In the animal shelter and rescue world, it means that our minds create sides, good and bad, and we classify each person in black and white, on one side or the other. People surrendering their pets are "devils", people rescuing pets are "angels." As we experience different situations in our work, under this bias we ignore or misclassify what we see, choosing unconsciously to only recognize what fits in with our belief system. What is that belief system? That most people are unkind to animals, and that all animals ending up at shelters are neglected and abandoned.

It is human nature to believe that what one experiences is what everyone experiences, and that our individual everyday world is the whole world. Logically, we know this is false, but our minds don't always work logically. Take animal shelters. Most shelter workers believe that if they stopped doing what they are doing, their community would fall apart, that dogs and cats would roam the streets sick and injured, neglected and abandoned. Here's a newsflash: this is false. Why? Because animal shelters only see 1-5% of the animals in their communities. 1-5%, folks. Yes, what we do has a significant impact on the animals and people coming in our doors, but it has almost no impact on the community as a whole. Some of you will stop reading right now because you don't want to believe this. That's your cognitive bias talking, because we are saying something that doesn't fit in with your belief system, but beliefs can do more harm than good, so please keep reading.

Another harmful fallacy is that all animals ending up in shelters are unwanted. This belief leads shelter and rescue workers to make immediate assumptions. A cat walking down the street must have been dumped, a skinny dirty dog must have been neglected in the back yard. In reality, the cat was probably hanging out in his own neighborhood, and the dog was probably lost and on the run for a week or more. If you look at the facts instead of your beliefs, you will see a clearer picture.

Cat owner reclaim rates are a dismal 2% across the country for reasons we'll discuss in another blog post. Cats reclaimed from shelters are, in the vast majority of cases, "found" within two blocks of home; in fact, many were picked up next door or across the street from their owner's house. A belief that these cats need help causes them to end up in an animal shelter where they may be euthanized for space or because they develop medical and behavioral problems as a result of confinement and stress, or they may sit for weeks or months waiting to be adopted into a "forever home" ... when they already had a home. Dog reclaim rates are higher at 20%, although that is still a poor figure. Through our work in shelters and with Missing Pet Partnership we have learned two important facts: 1) that it doesn't take long for a dog to look bad and 2) that dogs quickly revert to wild behavior when on the run. A skinny, dirty, skittish dog could have been, and probably was, a beloved, well-groomed pet who became lost and displaced for any number of reasons and whose owner desperately wants him back home.

What's the harm in these biases? The harm is that they influence our decision making process. Instead of actively looking for a stray pet's owner, the finder will keep the animal, assuming that it is unwanted and all the above. This is harmful enough in a shelter environment, but at least animal shelters are public places where owners -- although not without difficulty -- can come and look for their missing companion. The harm is greater when private individuals or members of a rescue group find animals and take them home, choosing not to report the animal to the local shelter or in any public forum, believing the owner doesn't "deserve" the animal back.

Processing this new reality can be difficult for those entrenched in their beliefs. After all, for decades the shelter world has been blasting its members with rhetoric like "Until there are none, spay or neuter one," "Stop shelter killing, spay and neuter your pets," and "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Start by questioning your assumptions, every time. Question everything, and seek facts. When a finder says the cat they picked up must have been abandoned by someone moving, ask why. Do they know for sure a neighbor has moved? Has a house recently been vacated? How do they know the cat was owner by that person? When a stray dog enters the shelter looking bad, check lost reports going back several weeks and in different areas. Unlike cats, dogs will travel far when they become lost, seeking food, shelter, and mates. Understand that your attitude, your approach to your work, is a choice. You have the power to influence the animals and people with whom you come into contact in a positive and progressive way.

What about the other 95-99% of animals in the community, the ones we don't see? It may come as a surprise to shelter and rescue workers that the majority of people are kind to animals and solve their own problems. We can help them continue to do so, as will be discussed in the next blog post, "Trust your community."