“You mean they kill animals in this country?”

Social change, as sociologists define it, is any significant alteration in behavior patterns, cultural values and norms over time. The goal of Best Friends and the no-kill movement is to influence the behavior patterns and cultural values of Americans as they relate to those animals who we call our pets.

In the early days of Best Friends, some young Germans touring the high desert canyons of southern Utah came across a mama cat and her weak and dehydrated kittens. They gathered them up and tried to provide what relief they could, but some of the kittens were barely holding on and they needed immediate veterinary attention. After inquiring about help at the nearest town, the tourists were directed to our sanctuary, which was more than an hour’s drive away. Once they arrived, we thanked them for their efforts and got to work, administering fluids and nourishment to the stressed mama and her kittens.

In those days, we didn’t have many visitors or regular tours, so we scrambled to arrange a drive around the Sanctuary with one of the founders who knew a little German. As they went from animal area to animal area, a look of obvious confusion grew on the faces of our German guests as they chatted among themselves. Then one of them asked in halting English, “Why are all these animals here?”

When it was explained that most were rescued from shelters or the streets, their confusion only deepened. Why were we rescuing animals from shelters? Explaining what seemed to be the obvious, our guide patiently elaborated on the route and the reasons why most of the dogs and cats came to Best Friends, and that most, if not all, would have been killed had they remained in a shelter. At that point, the Germans did a collective jaw drop and one of them said, “You mean they kill animals in this country? In Germany it is illegal to kill dogs and cats.” That’s when the founder’s jaw dropped.

It was an “aha!” moment of epic proportions. The killing of pets in shelters was not an inevitable side effect of keeping dogs and cats as household pets. There was, after all, a societal benchmark for our no-kill dreams and aspirations. All we needed was some social change!

Obviously, the United States is not Germany, but we are every bit as much a nation of animal lovers as Germany is. So how do we translate America’s love for our pets into real change at a community sheltering level?

Social change is required to create and sustain a no-kill community. Fortunately, virtually all of the mechanisms and work needed to end shelter killing are themselves implements of the social change required.

Think about it. Promoting shelter and rescue adoptions to the level needed to make a difference means changing the way the public acquires pets — by communicating through advertising, social media and word of mouth. I can no longer count the number of television ads and shows that identify a featured pet as having been adopted. An adopted pet now has a certain cachet and the act of adopting a pet has a glow of social responsibility. In communities where more and more people are walking around with beautiful adopted dogs, more people want one of their own, which drives a counter-intuitive process.

Rather than exhausting a limited pool of potential adopters, high-volume shelter adoptions (one of the cornerstones of a no-kill campaign) actually increase demand for pet adoptions. Another major benefit of high-volume shelter adoptions in communities where dogs and cats are fixed prior to adoption is the prevention of unwanted litters. More fixed pets adopted into the general population mean fewer dogs and cats who need to be spayed or neutered, and fewer unexpected puppies and kittens born.

And what of spay/neuter? One of the challenges of a no-kill campaign is to deliver low-cost and free spay/neuter resources to underserved communities. Letting residents know that such services are available and affordable, or free, requires very basic ground-level marketing, such as distributing door hangers and flyers. That kind of grass-roots activity creates public awareness, demand and community expectations that previously did not exist in a segment of the population.

As pets become a more significant part of a community’s identity through pride in ownership of no-kill achievements, the more businesses begin catering to pets by allowing employees to bring pets to the office, creating pet-friendly outdoor dining areas or even having a dog treat cookie jar on the counter. Maybe you’ve noticed a rise in pet-friendly hotels and doggie day-care businesses and cat hotels that specialize in boarding and pampering cats.

These gradual societal shifts in behavior and expectations create more pet-friendly ecosystems that indirectly help to cement the hard-won gains of a community’s no-kill efforts.

All of this adds up to social change — not top-down social engineering, but rather bottom-up change that aligns with public values.

We don’t need to become Germany to end shelter killing. Together, we Americans can Save Them All.

Cat Dog