Sunday, February 8, 2015

What it is to be a TNR change agent

Note: This post was edited about an hour after originally being posted.
Note: I'm sure no one would ever guess I was once a copyeditor. Wow...the typos! Sorry...more edits.

I've joined a couple of Facebook groups on TNR. This is something I've tried to avoid doing because then my Facebook feed has even more cat stuff on it. However as we gear up to be something more than a one-person hit-or-miss rescue, it is helpful to see the questions that other rescuers are asking so I can be sure our resources answer those questions. I also would be living in old cardboard box if I don't take steps to see what new things people are coming up with.

All-in-all reading the pages has been a great help. The people running them are progressive and helpful. However I was---I don't know...I'm not sure of the word---shocked? Saddened? to find there are a very few, but very vocal "I know everything, I've done this longer than you and have caught more cats than you and you are WRONG if you don't agree with me" people out there attacking other people on the page---something I had previously seen in mainstream animal welfare/rights, but not-so-much in TNR.

(We break up this holier-than-thou post with a bit of cuteness brought to you by Oliver-the-one-kidney-kitten):

I hadn't seen that attitude in TNR before, because the people I deal with--even if they have different ways of doing things--are so happy just to be able to share our concern for outdoor cats that when we talk we are saying "I've found this can work" or "Wow, I'm awful with nets, how do you manage to do that?" or "that's incredible that you keep cats in crates rather than traps--do you have any problems with them escaping?"

Now--full disclosure--most cat people, including myself, do feel they do know the best way to do things. Like cats, we tend to be convinced of our own infallibility--until we make a serious mistake.

Yet, I know from my past experience that I can be wrong, or if not wrong, I have seen someone do something in a more-successful manner and have thought "Wow, I need to try that."

I have told quite a few people the following story, but I don't think I've told it on the blog. Some you new to the story will still immediately see what is coming. Others of you will be surprised:

I've had aquarium fish for quite a bit of my life. I also worked for a biology department where I cared for a fresh and saltwater aquarium room. I'm no aquarium expert but I have the basics down. I'm very partial to goldfish, which need lots of space and lots of oxygen, and it bothers me greatly that people who don't know this keep them in tiny bowls until they die after a year or less. These fish can live for decades when cared-for correctly. It really tweaks me that they are often given away as prizes at fairs. One year I had a booth at a local fair and kids kept walking up to my booth holding big goldfish in plastic bags which they had "won"at another booth. They had not received care instructions, just a fish in a bag. I gave every kid a long lecture about how much space the fish really needed, how to age the water or treat it before putting their fish in, and that they "should not just put their fish in water out of the tap or the fish will immediately die" due to chlorine.

A few parents kind of looked at my oddly, but I was being nice, not preachy, so they just nodded their heads. Usually the kids were alone, since it was an indoor fair, and they listened with fascination. One even went back and asked for a smaller fish, because all he had at home was a gallon bowl and his current "prize" fish was at least two inches long.

It was probably a month later when I was silently ranting about this whole issue in the privacy of my brain as I cleaned my own goldfish tank and was treating my water for chlorine tap water was well water, not municipal water. There was no chlorine in my water, or in the water of any of the kids I was speaking to at that fair. There had been no chlorine in my water for over a decade and I was still treating it as if it was chlorinated

I had grown up in areas with chlorine-treated water. My last country home had a water tower that was treated with chlorine because the local wells had been contaminated many years earlier during a flood. I had managed an aquarium room in a city with chlorinated water. But I had not had chlorine in my own water at my current home for over 15 years, and I was still treating the water! I had become so entrenched in my belief that "tap water was bad" that I was not even remotely open to the concept that some tap water (while there are still other concerns about it, such as ph) was probably NOT going to kill a goldfish out here in the country. I'm sure there were lots of puzzled parents who tried to get those poor fish out of bags and into something larger that they had filled with probably-safe tap water from their untreated well, and their kids were yelling "No, Mom! The lady at the cat booth said that would kill it!!!!"

If my sudden awareness of my stupidity had not been so incredibly illuminating, I probably would have been writhing on the floor in embarrassment. I hadn't just made an error---I'd been making the same error every week for a very long time! Instead I mentally pull this memory out whenever I feel like "Whoa...that person is wrong" so that I hopefully give what I might say out loud a second thought.

I am not always right. None of us are "always right." Things that are "right" in one instance might not be "right" for another. When we start preaching to people that "you are wrong and you are so wrong you are hurting animals" we need to be pretty certain that we are correct.

And even when we are certain our way is an improvement over the way we are criticizing, we need to be sure that we are offering our input in a manner that will be likely to convince the other person that our way has merit. Telling someone they are WRONG WRONG WRONG! is going to cause them to shut down and shut you away, and look for ways to fight back and say "No, I'm RIGHT!"...not listen and think "Hmmmm...maybe I could learn something here."

Grassroot activism is always so interesting to watch. When it starts out, people with diverse beliefs but with the same end goal get along really well. Then, as the movement gets bigger, "leaders" emerge who promote "best ways" to do things. This leads to division, and the larger group breaking up into smaller groups. Some people are fine with this and are happy to see the momentum moving inevitably toward the common goal, sort of like people of different races, religions, sexual orientation etc. working together toward a goal. We may get there differently, but we all want that one thing we are all working toward.

Breaking up into different groups can also lead to infighting, however. Effort that is put into saying "our way is the best way...your way will take too long!" can take away from the effort needed to reach that wonderful end goal. Sometimes it's better to just keep moving along the way you believe and leave the door open to those are going a different way.

There are also "Change Agents." Change agents are people who push the envelope and put themselves on the line to say something new and different that others in their group believe but are afraid to say. Or the change agent may have come up with an entirely new idea that is so different they are the only one saying it and they risk themselves to say it aloud. We need change agents to move forward more quickly, or we would just slog along toward change at a very slow pace. These people risk their reputation, their jobs, and in some cases even their lives, by speaking up.

There are also agents who also step forward, but they promote change not by justifying the actual good outcome of their own work, but by calling others who disagree with them evil or wrong. They gather supporters not by being an example of their own belief and by welcoming anyone who will stop to listen to them, but by saying "You don't want to be an evil-doer, do you? Then you should do as I say, because if you don't, you are evil."

Change Agent: Thank you for stopping to really listen to what I'm saying. People who really care will stay to listen. I hope if you walk away I've given you something you might use in the future. If you disagree, that won't stop me from continuing to speak. Those of you who are staying, let's change the world! Let's do it today! People will stand in our way because they have known only one way, are blinded by their own beliefs, or are under pressure from peers. It won't always be easy, but let's go!

Egoist: It's a good thing you are stopping to listen to me, because I am right! What I am suggesting is easy! I did it, and I say it was easy! And if you walk away, you are proving that you are an evil person because you will not make this easy change! You are giving me permission to call you wrong, publicly, because you will not agree with me! All people who stand in our way do so because they are inherently bad people. Those of you who agree with me, you must shun those who walk away!

Change Agents: I've thought about this a lot. I've made mistakes along the way. What I've done, and what I've seen others do, has brought me to this place. I want to teach you what I have learned. We may make more mistakes along the way, but I strongly believe this will change the world for the better.

Egoist: I know this because all good intelligent people would know this. I've made no mistakes following my beliefs. All you have to do is XYZ and you'll be just like me. You should want to be just like me and the people who believe in me. If you question me after I've shared this with you, then you are probably not a good intelligent person.

Most of the time, a person is a little of both-it's rare for a person to keep their ego out of the mix when they are stepping forward with something they feel strongly about. The question is: which way does the balance end up tipping, over all? Toward helping others, or toward promoting myself?

Am I speaking up to help others, or am I speaking up because I like to tell everyone else how right I am?

I have done both, frequently. I use the "delete" key a lot. It's not too hard to tell the difference if you are being mindful of what is coming out of your mouth or fingers. Still, it is very difficult to remain mindful every moment of every day. Especially when something ignites your disbelief or lots of kids with goldfish in plastic bags at a fair.

The trigger may be a just one. No animal should be given away as a prize in a contest to people unprepared to take care of that living being. But we (I!) need to be sure that what we respond with is accurate and helpful.

I think we all need to tattoo a reminder of one of our mistakes on the back of our hands, to remain mindful of just what "teaching" and "helping" really mean.

Therefore, if any of you see a tattoo of a goldfish on my hand any time in the future, you'll know exactly why it's there.


  1. Good post.
    It is very true as well.I hope that it is people like you, willing to put animals before ego, that will prevail. It is what stray animals (all animals) deserve.

    1. Thanks! I probably should clarify that I don't consider myself a change agent. Perhaps once, when I had the Cat Out Loud blog and was doing a lot of speaking on feral cat issues, primarily to the wildlife control and rehab community. Right now I feel I'm one of the TNR army and I'm pleased to see how many of us there are. One person I have a lot of respect for on the national front is Bryan Kortis, a founder of Neighborhood Cats and now with Petsmart Charities. Very straightforward, matter-of-fact, boots on the ground but "bigger picture" oriented. He helped create a tidal wave of support for feral cats, and I don't think I've heard him say "me." It has always been "we." There is a substantial basket of other people as well, but he is one person that strikes me as someone who stuck his neck out near the very beginning and changed the "cat people are crazy" stereotype to "we are getting things done and it is working."

    2. :I think I met that guy, from Neighborhood Cats. Laura then of Hubcats Boston, who sent me my first drop trap, which was awesome, made by her and her father, invited me to a San Francisco feral cat conference. I was not bright enough to understand how far it really was to drive down there. I was so tired when I arrived that Friday night, I dozed through the first hours of the conference Saturday and finally had to go back to the motel Laura had purchased for us (two beds) and allowed me to stay there. I missed everything due to exhaustion. But she was friends with Bryan and we all had dinner that night. I thought they were so worldly wise and exotic being from New York and to be sitting in San Francisco for dinner, I felt so inadequate and in awe of everything. The next day was the difficult drive home again. I would not do such a thing again, but oh well. I did it that summer.