Open Adoptions and Beyond: Strategic Pet Placement
The world of sheltering and rescue is characterized by abundance in many ways: abundant caring, good will, bright ideas, and plenty of opportunities to create positive change. Alas, we are also endowed with an abundance of challenges: in many areas, unwanted and homeless animals still abound, and the community’s need for education and assistance with basic pet care can seem bottomless. The one thing most shelters are not blessed with is an over-abundance of resources. In the context of limited resources and virtually limitless challenges, wise allocation of time, space, energy and money becomes literally a life and death issue.
In most communities, we simply can’t afford to solve every social, environmental, ethical and humane issue associated with companion animals. In fact, we most likely couldn’t even agree on what all those problems are and the best solution for each one. Nor can we afford to provide unlimited care for every animal that is temporarily without a home, or find a traditionally defined “perfect forever home” for every animal, of every temperament and in any condition, that might appear on a shelter’s doorsteps. However, in any community, no matter how few resources exist, we can do something. Even capture, transport, minimal care, euthanasia and disposal of an animal is not free. In many cases, better care and better outcomes can be equally or more cost effective. Best of all, affordable practices that save lives are accessible to every community, not just a lucky few. This is what we need to achieve if we are to truly create the No Kill Nation that many of us aspire to.
Getting farther by letting go
Most of us are familiar with the “Serenity Prayer”, which implores “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s interesting that this prayer is often – though inaccurately - attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. In our world of serving homeless animals, accepting the things we cannot change often feels like it takes more courage than changing the things we can. It can certainly be more painful. However, the animals and communities we serve rely on us to make this difficult distinction. If we are to succeed, we cannot afford to pour our precious resources into attempting to control situations that simply can’t be controlled, or trying to fix problems that can’t be fixed with the tools we currently have at hand.
While difficult, setting aside the struggle to achieve the impossible immediately releases our resources to invest in the possible – and suddenly broadens the horizon of what “possible” includes. Doing what we can, rather than endlessly struggling to do what we can’t, is more humane for our staff and volunteers as well as the animals. Every success can galvanize yet more energy and investment from the enormous pool of good will and concern for animals that is nascent in every community. In time, the very thing that was once so far out of reach may even become attainable. And the shelter and community can both be happier places in the meantime.
Open adoptions: from deciding to guiding
When I started out in animal sheltering as an adoption counselor, careful adoption policies were the gold standard. I labored to ensure that every animal I placed went to an “ideal” home: a caregiver with the time, money, space and knowledge to provide optimally for that animal. People without fenced yards, who didn’t have their landlord’s permission, those who lacked the wherewithal to provide high quality food and expensive veterinary care or had plans to let their cats outside, all were summarily rejected. Those who were unwilling to labor through the hour-long paperwork and interview process or who shied away from our adoption fees were likewise easily dismissed as lacking the commitment to care for a pet. I loved the feeling that I was safeguarding the animals in our care and holding up a model of pet ownership from which our community could learn.
As fun and empowering as it was to feel like “the decider” of who could and couldn’t have a pet, there were some problems with this approach. Most obviously, we weren’t able to find “ideal” homes for every animal in our care. As much as I was committed to our tough screening process, it broke my heart when an animal for whom I’d denied an adopter ended up being euthanized when no other home could be found. And as hard as I tried, I couldn’t screen out all the “bad” adopters – I could only screen out the ones who didn’t lie or couldn’t fake paperwork. Sometimes our process actually seemed to encourage people to lie, in which case I lost the opportunity to even have a conversation about plans to chain a dog, declaw a cat, or whatever other situation might have concerned me.
The other problem, which now seems so obvious, was that I couldn’t stop all those rejected adopters from getting pets. I just stopped them from getting a pet from our shelter. Like it or not, there are plenty of free and cheap pets available, especially of the species and breeds that fill shelters. If we find them on the street, so can anyone else. There is no long line to wait in, no lengthy forms to fill out. There is also no interview with a caring adoption counselor, no spay/neuter surgery or vaccination, no microchip or ID tag thoughtfully provided. Our rejected adopters may even maintain a market for the breeding we most hope to discourage. If they can purchase a pit bull pup for $50 down the street, and if someone can make a cool few hundred by breeding their pit bull, our generous offers of “low cost spay/neuter” or even “pay to spay” are more likely to fall on deaf ears.
The “open adoption” concept was developed to address exactly this dilemma. Rather than screening applicants to decide if they’re worthy, adoption counselors have conversations that aim to match the person with the right pet. Removing barriers to adoption will benefit “good” pet owners because all the barriers were un-necessary anyway - good pet owners will take good care of their pets no matter how many or how few hoops they jump through. Having good pet owners adopt shelter pets instead of purchasing them obviously benefits the animals and the shelter as well. Open adoptions also may increase the number of pets adopted to “bad” pet owners. This will also benefit shelters, people and pets, perhaps even more! Hard to believe? Here’s how this works…
Strategic adoptions: building bridges with at-risk pet owners
People who are likely to be considered “bad adopters” are those with limited resources or knowledge to provide important elements of care for their pets. They might be people with a different cultural background than most of the folks working in animal welfare, with different ideas about the role of domestic animals in our lives. Many of “these people” do love animals and want pets, however. When they obtain a pet, where I live it is relatively likely to be a pit bull, Chihuahua, or cat – the same animals that tend to overpopulate shelters are also the most likely to be widely available for free or cheap in the community. If not adopted from a shelter, often these pets will be un-vaccinated, un-altered, and un-identified (since someone who does not do these things is a big part of our definition of a “bad pet owner”, right?). They will not have been screened for behavioral soundness and the owners, again by definition of being a “bad adopter”, are unlikely to have the wherewithal to train them – so these pets are more likely to create problems for the owner and neighbors. They will be subject to the health risks associated with being intact and unvaccinated, and will belong to people with the least ability to deal with the resulting problems (parvo, pyometra, hit by car when out looking for a mate...).
Unidentified, intact animals who have behavioral problems and whose owners don’t know much about taking care of them are also at most risk for ending up where? In the shelter, of course. Since they didn’t adopt from the shelter, it’s likely that the owner will never have had a positive experience of a shelter (or perhaps any experience of a shelter) and will therefore be unlikely to come reclaim their pet. At best, we will have to work to spay/neuter, vaccinate, microchip and rehome the animal. At worst (and commonly in many communities) the pet will be euthanized – it will be just another unruly, intact, young adult pit bull, or yet another sickly, pregnant cat in the height of kitten season.
On the other hand, consider this scenario: we remove all obstacles for “bad” pet owners to adopt a pet from a shelter. In fact, we actively go out and seek these owners with marketing and offsite adoptions. This does not cause them to get pets when they otherwise wouldn’t have, but may cause some to get a shelter pet instead of a pet from another source. If they do get a shelter pet, they may be relatively likely to adopt one of the pets we have a harder time placing: in California, that would often be a pit bull, Chihuahua, or cat. At any rate, whatever pet they adopt will be screened for behavioral soundness, vaccinated, microchipped and altered. Even if the new adopter has no further ability to provide veterinary care, these factors remove the great majority of serious health risks for young animals. If they do have problems with the pet or the pet gets lost, the adopter will at least be aware that the shelter exists and will have had one positive experience there. As a result they are more likely to contact the shelter for help before a behavior problem escalates, or to come looking for their pet should it become lost.
In the worst case scenario, the “bad pet owner” will be unable to keep the pet and they will return it to the shelter. This is less likely than if they had gotten the pet from another source, so it does not result in additional pets entering the shelter. It just means that some pets entering the shelter will have been adopted from there in the first place rather than purchased or acquired somewhere else. This should not be seen as a failure. The pet will be vaccinated, altered, and microchipped – so at least we can know its history and be able to more promptly rehome the animal.
Accepting the risk
There will always be people who adopt animals and then don’t take good care of them or even abuse them. It’s devastating when this happens: when I worked in adoptions, I personally did the counseling for a black and tan rottie-mix puppy whom the adopters subsequently relegated to the back yard, allowing the little pink collar I placed on her at adoption to embed deeply into her neck as she grew. The adopters were convicted of animal cruelty, and the dog was returned to our care much the worse for wear. This happened in spite of my best efforts, our stringent adoption standards, substantial fees and the many hoops people had to jump through to adopt.
I can still see that dog’s face. However, when this happens, we need to go back to the first principle that we can’t control whether or not people get pets, only to some extent whether they get pets from us or somewhere else. People who are going to abuse animals, will abuse animals. Obviously we would never adopt to someone with a known history or obvious risk for animal abuse, but beyond that the best we can do to protect animals is to give each pet-owner combination the best possible chance, under their actual life circumstances, to forge a successful bond. Intact, badly behaved pets whose owners know little about pet care are at most risk for abuse. By encouraging shelter adoption, we can help ensure that those with the least ability to cope with these problems obtain altered, friendly pets and know that we are here as a resource should problems arise.
Meanwhile, the conditions in most “bad adopter” homes are still far better than either death or life in a cramped kennel or overcrowded cat room. Even if we were not euthanizing behaviorally sound animals in shelters, it would still make sense to try and support those least able to provide good care by ensuring that they adopt from a shelter rather than purchasing or adopting from another source. However, especially in the context of the true alternatives we can offer at least some categories of animals in our care (pit bulls, Chihuahuas, and cats again), targeted adoptions to a wide range of pet owners are a clearly preferable alternative for animals, adopters, shelters, and communities.