Passionate statistics: pie charts and companion animal rescue

If you read much about animal rescue or follow a lot of Facebook about animal rescue, you’ll possibly come away with the impression that rescuers are like Florence Nightingale in the Crimea; toiling away knee deep in gore and horror, reeling from one story of despair and misery to another. Drenched in the blood of innocents, rescuers pause in their heroic mission only long enough to expose the irresponsible public to their lamp of truth. dawsonsml

In the absence of public hangings they call for harsher legislation, more punitive measures, bigger fines, even public shaming. They present their lot as an unending welter of damaged and abused animals and you can only conclude that animal rescuers must be a special breed of human; more committed, more loving, more sensitive, more caring, and just downright more responsible than everybody else. You’ll read a lot of comments about rescuers as angels and heroes. Rescuers are praised for  “their refusal to be intimidated, the sense of lives lived always at the passionate end of the emotions.” (1)

I used the example of Florence Nightingale quite deliberately, because I think there is a real parallel between the nursing profession and volunteer rescuers.

Florence Nightingale went to the Crimean War to reform battleground care. “During her first winter at Scutari, 4,077 soldiers died there, ten times more from illnesses such as typhus, typhoid, cholera and dysentery, than from battle wounds. Conditions at the hospital were fatal to the men that Nightingale was trying to nurse: they were packed like sardines into an unventilated building on top of defective sewers.” (2)

In truth for all Nightingale’s hard work the death rate did not fall until after she had left the Crimea and a sanitary commission arrived and flushed out the sewers and increased ventilation, “She had helped them to die in cleaner surroundings and greater comfort, but she had not saved their lives.” (3)

In fact Nightingale’s biggest success wasn’t while nursing soldiers on the battlefield, but afterwards when she recognised her failure. Nightingale’s resultant campaign for reform was fueled by pages of careful statistical analysis. Her primary weapon was an 830 page document which contained vast tables of statistics about who died, where, when and why. In fact Florence Nightingale invented the pie chart as a visual representation of statistical values. She used that representation to expose the causes of the mortality rate for soldiers. Her statistics showed that soldiers died of diseases caused by poor sanitation and lack of ventilation.

Florence Nightingale’s figures showed that the common narrative about soldier’s deaths was wrong, and that actions driven by good intentions, passion, hard work and commitment weren’t enough – without a solid evidence-base, all that effort was largely wasted.  Rather than better nurses what was needed was better drains. Nightingale’s lasting achievement was not her nursing but her numbers. “Her report and commission had an enormous impact, leading to systematic changes in the design and practices of hospitals. By the end of the century, Army mortality was lower than civilian mortality.”  (4)

The tradition of Nightingale, as an ambitious and determined medical statistician has been largely overshadowed by her legend as the most womanly of women, celebrated in Longfellow’s turgid poem, “A Lady with a Lamp shall stand/In the great history of the land,/A noble type of good,/Heroic womanhood.” This narrative of gender-based vocation and heroism influenced the training and employment of nurses well into the 20th century. Like many professions which are made up of a majority of women, nursing was characterised as a vocation, “the discourse around service, privilege and responsibility shows they did not see nursing as merely an occupation.” You might write poems about heroic and noble women, but you generally don’t pay them well or allow them to influence policy or legislation and nurses have had a long, hard struggle to achieve professional recognition. (5)

Now what do medical reforms in the 19th century have to do with volunteer animal rescuers in the 21st century? Quite a lot I think.  For a start, like the nurses in the Crimea, the majority of animal rescuers are women.  Women who volunteer their time, their money, their energy and their commitment to a seemingly unstoppable flow of animals in need. And like 19th century nurses, many rescuers see their work as a vocation, “My job is to assist God’s creatures. I was born with the need to fulfill their needs.” (6) The trouble with working from a sense of vocation is that it’s easy to get carried away by emotional thinking, and even easier to see any challenge to that thinking as threatening rather than enlightening.

Rescue is an activity started by love, fueled by passion and often maintained by a form of rage against all those people who don’t seem to care enough about their pets.  I think it is fair to say that some rescuers derive considerable satisfaction from this identity, which often spills over into onerous adoption policies (because most people just aren’t special enough). If, as a rescuer, you identify with the idea of being more compassionate and more caring than the general public, it’s difficult to build a new paradigm based on trust. In other words, if you believe strongly in the old stories, it’s hard to learn new ones.

If you think I’m being funny about the rage part, here are some comments from a Dallas, Texas newspaper where an opinion writer was being a little facetious about looking for a rescue pet. (7)

“You never, ever EVER should adopt/purchase a living animal as a “Christmas present”. Irresposible (sic) to the core. Don’t worry. Once your little princess (and you) get bored of the dog, you can just dump him off at a shelter/rescue organization and your example will underline why these organization perform what you perceive as extreme screening actions; so that abandoned animals are not placed in the hands of individuals like you.”

“This ‘man’ should be tied down and branded on his forehead and then castrated! This is exactly the type of human that is creating most of the issues in our society. Brand his forehead so that all animal lovers will know to NEVER allow this man to have an animal and castrate him so he doesn’t breed this mentality! I don’t care how many degrees you have.”

And my favourite, “… a sense of humor is not going to get you a pet!!!”

My point here is not to disparage the incredibly hard work that animal rescuers do. Rescue groups across Australia are doing the heavy lifting in saving the lives of companion animals, and the situation would be even more dire than it is without their tireless commitment to saving just one more life. (8)

However, as Florence Nightingale discovered, hard work and commitment to a cause aren’t enough. Without an evidence-base, without research, without the numbers, without the statistics and without a strategic understanding of the wider scheme of things rescuers are doing the equivalent of cleaning up the hospitals. They’re bandaging over the wounded with out-dated paradigms when they should be opening the windows and flushing out the drains of old thinking.

It is frustrating to see the same, tired old narratives being recycled by rescue groups in the face of good evidence otherwise. For example, it’s very common to hear rescuers decrying the idea of spontaneous adoptions (otherwise known as impulse buying) and use this supposed failure of responsibility as a reason for onerous and intrusive pet adoption procedures. However, there is good research which tells us that people who adopt on impulse are no less, likely to retain their pets than anyone else. (9)

There are a whole swag of other shibboleths which rescues use to frame their practices but which may have no basis in fact. The saddest story of all is the one that rescuers tell each other and their audiences. The story which starts “if only” (people were more responsible/realised pets were for life/didn’t treat animals as disposable/stopped breeding/behaved better/desexed their pets) and ends with, “the killing won’t stop until then.”

After 25 years in the animal welfare field, I fail to see how anyone that works in this line of work cannot be concerned with data. Yet I’m well aware of the many programs and protocols carried out every day that have no basis in fact. Our adoption rules are filled with examples: no pets to families with small children, no puppies to people who are old, no black cats at Halloween, no pets as gifts – it goes on and on. I can’t imagine the number of homeless animals in this country that have missed the opportunity to be adopted because we have accepted as fact belief systems that have no data whatsoever to back them up. (10)

In the last few years there has been a proliferation of new rescue groups across Australia – new groups spring up from the splinters of old groups, taking with them not only  a passion for saving lives, but the same stories. Rescue has gone mainstream; people are now about as likely to buy their next pet from a rescue group as from a pet shop or a breeder. Pet Rescue has nearly 8,000 pets available for re-homing today; last month it facilitated the re-homing of over 4,000 pets.

Could we find homes for even more pets if, as an industry, we were willing to base our processes and policies on good research rather than tired narratives?  We’d really hope so. There is little sadder as a rescuer than to see a huge divide between good people who just want a pet, and responsible rescue groups who just want good homes for their pets, and realise that what is keeping them apart are dark narratives built on suspicion and anger. (11)

Companion animal rescue should be mature enough by now to start throwing off old beliefs of blame and shame, and start caring about evidence and research. There is good work being done in associated areas which can illuminate what we do. In Australia, Saving Pets (12) is a wonderful source of useful statistics and new thinking, while Maddie’s Fund,  (13) the National Canine Research Fund (14) and the ASPCApro (15) in the US all have ongoing research programs which are informing huge changes in animal welfare management. So the challenge for all of us is: are we willing to be wrong about that?

But, if you’re willing to be strong enough to be vulnerable, to be strong enough to lose face, to be wrong, to not be so sure of yourself, you’ll pass through to the other side and…wow.  The view is incredible. If it helps, you can assure yourself that you can always go back. Ask anyone you know who has been on the other side if they want to go back–not even kicking or screaming. They just won’t go.

The benefits are priceless. It’s a brilliant question…is there anything that you are willing to be wrong about? Something that could potentially restore a relationship, create new ones, or even better the world somehow? All I ask is that you just keep it in mind and consider the potentials. (16)

Florence Nightingale didn’t change the world by caring more than anyone else, she changed it by a passionate commitment to the data. There’s a powerful lesson here for us, as animal rescuers.



1. (Crowther, M. Anne. “Why Women should be Nurses and not Doctors.” 2002: 25 pars. Online UKCHNM. Available at:


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5. (Hargreaves, Janet (2005) The Good Nurse: Discourse and power in nursing and nurse education 1945 -1955. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield, UK.


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