The Problem with ‘The Starfish Story’

You’ve probably heard The Starfish Story. There are several different versions. The one I first remember hearing went something like this:

A man is walking along a beach and comes along a stretch on which hundreds of starfish have washed up. In thebillmary distance, he sees a little girl picking up the starfish one by one, taking them to the water’s edge, and throwing them back into the ocean. As he approaches her, he sees that she has only managed to throw a few back, and asks her, “Why are you doing this? There are so many starfish; how can you possibly make a difference throwing them back one at a time? How could your efforts even matter?” The little girl looks at the man and says, “It matters to the ones I throw back.”

It’s a great story, right? It hits all the right buttons, inspires us, and makes us feel like we can carry on when things feel impossible.

But I’m starting to feel like it’s also a dangerous story, especially when it comes to animal overpopulation.

Every shelter that has made positive inroads toward curbing animal overpopulation in their communities has also received calls from animal lovers in other communities that have not been so fortunate. Those calls are frequently accompanied by pleas for intervention. Thanks to an incredibly supportive community, the Santa Fe animal shelter is no different. We get those calls, and they are heartbreaking.

These calls are difficult for us because they largely come from areas where the community leaders have done little or nothing to address overpopulation. I believe taking those animals and propping up those communities without asking for evidence of that community’s plan to solve the problem is worse than not taking them at all. That’s where the problem with The Starfish Story shows up. Let me explain.

The main problem with the “it matters to the ones I throw back” approach is that it also matters to the ones we don’t throw back, and in some ways, it matters more to them because their suffering continues. It gives us a chance to feel like our efforts, while incomplete, mean something. The starfish story doesn’t make the community of starfish feel better at all.

If we save a few — those who may be the easiest to rescue — it means turning our backs on the neediest.

Our task in animal welfare usually feels endless. But it is only in our effort to do something impossible that we have the chance to do something remarkable.

The mandate of many communities is to deal with animals as cheaply as possible. If there’s no compelling reason to spend more money, do more training, or make animal welfare a higher priority, then most community leaders won’t. Meanwhile, that community is still collecting tax dollars from its citizens, those leaders are still getting re-elected, and other communities still have to step in. But if we all come to your beach, who throws the starfish back on ours?

In our metaphor, the starfish didn’t show up on the beach by accident. The animals in our communities who need our help are usually there through some combination of ignorance, malice and apathy. Those are the real enemies, and dealing with them is the first step in saving the masses of starfish. It is tiring work to change the heart and mind of a community.

We must recognize that it isn’t someone else’s responsibility to save starfish. The responsibility belongs to each and every one of us each and every day. It matters to all of them, not just the ones we help.

The Starfish Story means something different to me now than it used to, and Santa Fe has a lot to do with it. Today, The Starfish Story isn’t a comfort; it’s a call to action. It should not make us feel better. Because the simple truth is that it’s not enough. The Starfish Story should motivate us to get every person in that imaginary seaside town down on that beach and start throwing back starfish by the dozens and by the hundreds. If we want to make not just a difference but a change, we have to mobilize groups – our friends and neighbors, our communities and our leaders – to work collectively not just for a few starfish today, but for all the starfish still to come.

Bill Hutchison, the Santa Fe Animal Shelter’s former communications director, is currently working on a doctorate in English at the University of Chicago, specializing in animal studies. Mary Martin is executive director of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and a licensed veterinary technician.