Animal Welfare Should Tear Down Walls to Pet Ownership
Recently, a nonprofit rescue organization I work with asked me to update its adoption application, and as I reviewed the questions, I wondered why we even asked certain things. Why did we need to know where someone worked? What was the point of asking if the cat would have full access to the house when the family was at work, or if she would be allowed to share the person's bed? How did such things help us achieve our fundamental goal of making happy matches between pets and people?
As we've noted in recent editorials and this week's town hall and vlog, we are still an industry where applications are used to eliminate people from the pool of potential adopters. Beyond that, we have established systemic constructs like punitive, costly return-to-owner fees designed to limit who deserves to have a pet—all while about 347,000 dogs and cats are dying in our shelters every year.
It is hard enough to battle social issues influencing pet ownership like prohibitive pet deposits and limits on dog breed for renters and homeowners. Sure, we are working on those problems, but closer to home, we need to get out of our own way, stop applying arbitrary definitions of who is "a good owner" and empower people to keep their pets even if they need help to do so.
Ditch the application
It's time to jettison applications entirely in favor of open-ended adoption conversations—a concept classified as "progressive" even though we have been talking about it for at least 20 years.
Palm Springs-based rescue organization ForeverMeow found that getting rid of its three-page questionnaire in favor of having a conversation revealed more information about an adopter than any application could ever facilitate.
"We get to know the person better, versus desperately trying to break down the facade of someone trying to 'pass' a screening process and being treated with suspicion," says cofounder Leigh Kirk. "The adopter feels like they are talking to a supportive friend, which lends itself to trust."
Adoption counseling staff at Jacksonville Humane Society ditched the application in favor of a technique that executive director Denise Deisler characterizes as "shut up and listen.
"This is about what people need from us, not what we need from them," she says. "And that means we don't need to spend 20 minutes telling them how to be a good pet parent. Let's face it, once people have their heart set on adopting a certain dog or cat, they are mentally making their Walmart shopping list, or fighting about whose bed the pet is going to sleep in. They aren't listening to our advice on how to trim a cat's nails."
Deisler also does not allow staff to deny adopters without involving a manager to double-check their instincts, which are usually informed by prejudices counselors may not even realize they have.
"People say all the time 'I use my gut,' but your gut sucks," she says. "The gut is the last thing you should be using. It has all those messages you have heard all your life that you didn't realize were biased and racist."
Bias does not just get in the way of animals leaving the shelter; it plays a role in why they are impounded or relinquished. Strays often make their way into the shelter because they wandered out of a yard without adequate fencing or were seized because neighbors filed noise complaints. Those pets often don't go home with their owners because they can't afford the cost of reclamation, not to mention buying new fencing or paying citation fees.
In many cases, owners never even show up to search for their pets because they've already experienced discrimination from the system.
But a broken fence or a too-small paycheck does not mean an animal isn't cherished as part of a family, so nonprofit organizations and shelters are increasingly eliminating those barriers to pet ownership.
"So we've placed a staff person within the shelter to offer whatever it is someone needs to keep their pet, from covering pet deposits and return-to-owner fees to flying a dog across the country to be reunited with his family," says Leanna Taylor, executive director of The Arizona Pet Project (AZPP) in Phoenix, which has helped nearly 5,000 pets and their families stay together since starting a shelter intervention program in 2016.
Asheville Humane in North Carolina has offered an ever-expanding range of resources and support to keep pets in homes and out of animal shelters since 2011, including providing help for sudden illnesses or injuries through the Veterinary Assistance Program (VAP). One recent recipient of VAP support is a man named Lee, who lives on a fixed income and could not afford to have his dog emotional support dog Gunner seen for sneezing that he thought was due to allergies.
"Gunner means everything to Lee, who took the bus to our facility for an exam," Emily Gelb, senior manager of community solutions. "It turned out that a previous dental extraction had left a hole in Gunner's gums, and there was an oral fistula that was causing the sneezing. We gave Lee a voucher and transportation to our next affordable pet care clinic at Appalachian Animal Hospital and got Gunner taken care of."
Such care not only directly prevents the surrender of pets, but it also preserves the kind of close relationships we want for every animal.
Merge animal and human services
If the kind of help offered by these organizations seems more like social services than animal sheltering, that's because there is a natural intersection. Because as beloved as they are, pets often make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to access much-needed human resources.
"Our clients often face very complex issues, so our Community Partnerships branch works closely with a variety of social service agencies, religious institutions, local government, private businesses, and other community agencies. We cross-train our staff so that our team and the staff at these other agencies are better equipped to provide referrals," says Emily.
AZPP recently added a second position in partnership with Lost Our Home Pet Rescue to work directly with agencies serving domestic violence victims and people experiencing homelessness. Asheville Humane provides temporary boarding for pets whose people are in similar circumstances and for individuals entering mental health or substance abuse programs.
"We also participate in a range of events like homeless outreach clinics and community engagement socials held by the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville to build relationships with marginalized communities and break down the many barriers that exist in accessing services," Emily adds.
Minneapolis-based My Pit Bull is Family (MPBIF) offers tools for pet retention through its North Minneapolis Pet Resource Center, where a fair amount of the clientele are people who are in a constant state of crisis decision-making ("Do I feed my kids or pay my rent?"). MPBF deliberately tossed aside the kinds of qualifying requirements that can be used to narrow who "deserves" resources, according to executive director Shannon Glenn.
"We do not turn folks away due to income requirements, or whether their pets are spayed or neutered or up to date on vaccinations," she says. "Our programming helps break down barriers by ensuring that families at any income level can have quality food and care for their pets. We provide information on resources even if they're not pet-related, as well, because we believe in creating relationships."
Focus on people—not just pets
The trust built in treating people like they deserve to have a pet is invaluable, especially if they can no longer keep their furry family members. They'll be far more likely to reach out for help with their dog or cat if they know they'll be met with respect and not judgment.
"When people come to see us, we are assuming that they will acquire a cat, and we'd prefer to have them adopt one from us," Leigh says. "We believe strongly in building an ongoing relationship with our adopters, so if they experience a challenge with their new fur friend, they are more apt to come to us for help as opposed to struggling with it on their own."
That is especially if a cat needs to be rehomed, as was the case with tuxedo cat Riley. For four years, Riley was part of a loving home that underwent a marriage, a household move and the addition of other pets to the family. When they ended up living in non-pet-friendly housing required as part of the husband's job, they reached out to ForeverMeow with the devastating news that they would have to find a new home for Riley.
"We took Riley back, and now he's in a new home where he has been renamed Panda and lives with a little girl who is his new BFF," she says. "Apparently, the two are inseparable, and the daughter reads to him every day. This speaks to providing rehoming support to adopters when retention is not possible."
Although Denise is supportive of working with adopters in such instances, she also sees the need for animal welfare organizations to move away from perpetual ownership over any animal that crosses their doorstep.
"I want to get rid of the message that people should always bring the pet back to us because the shelter is just the waystation between homes; it is never the owner," she says. "While the pet is the responsibility of the person who is adopting it, we can provide support. And for that reason, our adoption conversation is not the end of a relationship, it's always the beginning."
Senior Writer, Best Friends Network
Best Friends Animal Society