Lessons Learned from Maddie’s Free Pet Adoptions Event

On May 31 and June 1, Maddie’s Fund sponsored a free pet adoptions event in various parts of the country. Research studies show animal welfare groups can increase adoption numbers without compromising the quality of the homes by waiving fees. People can use the money instead to pay for other substantial costs, such as vet care and pet supplies. In order to save lives now and encourage animal welfare groups to offer such promotions in the future, Maddie’s Fund pays these organizations a substantial per adoption subsidy. Specifically, shelters and rescues receive $500 for healthy younger animals, $1,000 for older animals or ones with certain medical conditions, and $2,000 for older pets with certain medical issues.

Three northern and central New Jersey animal shelter organizations participated in the event. St. Huberts, Liberty Humane Society and Associated Humane Societies’ Newark and Tinton Falls shelters ran the promotion. All three organizations should be commended for participating and choosing to save lives. However, we should also look at the experience and see what areas these shelters can improve upon to save more lives in the future.

Too Many New Jersey Shelters Did Not Participate

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the state’s animal shelters failed to take advantage of this opportunity. Frankly, people who donate to these shelters should question their leadership on why they chose to not take on this opportunity to save lives and receive significant grant money from Maddie’s Fund. Whether the low participation rate was due to not knowing about the event or ideological reasons (i.e. “free adoptions are bad”), the end result is less life saving. The low participation rate shows we need to promote this event better to shelters and hold shelter leaders accountable who choose not to sign up.

Adoption Numbers Increase Significantly

The following table summarizes the participating shelters performance during the Maddie’s Fund event. In order to provide some perspective, I compared each facility’s adoption rate during the two days to these shelters’ most recently available adoption rates. Additionally, I also estimated the percentage of each shelter’s animal population adopted during the promotion by using each shelter’s adoption numbers and the most recently available shelter population numbers. The actual adoption numbers may differ if the shelters revised their totals or did not report some adoptions on their Facebook pages, but the general trend should not be different.

Maddies Results Revised

Each shelter significantly exceeded their typical adoption rate during the event. St. Huberts and Liberty Humane Society adopted out animals at over 20 times their typical two day adoption rate. The two AHS facilities, which reported far fewer adoptions, also adopted out significantly more animals than normal.

AHS-Newark’s improvement may be better than these results indicate. Based on my experience with the shelter, I suspect transfers to rescues might be included in their 2012 adoption numbers. Also, the shelter’s reported 12/31/12 shelter population number seemed extraordinarily high. The shelter reported having 300 dogs and 225 cats (maximum claimed capacity), but a July 30, 2009 Office of Animal Welfare inspection report stated the facility was at full capacity with 325 animals. If we assume half of AHS’s 2012 adoptions were really transfers to rescues and the facility only had 325 animals, AHS-Newark would have adopted out 160% more animals than normal and 4% of its shelter population.  Thus, AHS-Newark may have done a bit better than the table above suggests.

Types of Animals Impacts Adoption Numbers

St. Huberts large number of adoptions may be in part due to the types of animals it takes in. St. Huberts has largely shifted from being an animal control to a rescue shelter. Additionally, St Huberts remaining animal control contracts are in wealthier areas which tend to have easier to adopt dogs (i.e. fewer pit bulls). As a result, St. Huberts probably has more highly adoptable animals than the other three shelters.

Additionally, St. Huberts may have potentially rescued a larger than normal number of animals in preparation for the event. Shelters have a strong incentive to bring more dogs and cats in with the $500-$2,000 subsidy for adopted animals sourced from the local area.

Nonetheless, St. Huberts still did an excellent job during the event. Specifically, I noticed St Huberts adopted a good number of adult pit bull type dogs in photos posted to the St. Huberts Facebook page.

More Adoption Locations Results in More Adoptions

St. Huberts adopted out animals at numerous locations and provided more people the chance to adopt. St. Huberts adopted dogs out at its two shelters and cats were made available at the two facilities and eight off-site adoption locations. Six of the eight off-site locations were at pet stores in retail centers. These retail centers are in high traffic areas and therefore attract large numbers of potential adopters. Thus, St. Huberts made it convenient for people to go and adopt an animal.

Open Adoptions Process Verses Overzealous Screening Leads to More Adoptions

Open adoptions promote matching people with the right pet and providing excellent customer service. St. Huberts and Liberty Humane Society utilize an open adoptions process. The Humane Society of the United States, ASPCA, Petsmart Charities and of course most in the no-kill movement strongly advocate using open adoptions. Specifically, these groups note overzealous screening ends up turning people off from adopting and often doesn’t match people with the right pet or properly educate the adopter.

Open adoptions are even more important during a busy event with large numbers of people. Long and cumbersome adoption procedures can create long wait times for people to adopt which may make them leave. Additionally, shelters with a reputation for difficult adoption processes may attract fewer people to these events due to fear of a long wait time and/or an unpleasant experience. Thus, open adoption processes likely lead to more people coming to the event and more of those folks leaving with a new family member.

How AHS Can Do Better Next Time

While AHS adopted more animals than they typically do, AHS can adopt more animals at future events. Liberty Humane Society, which is an open admission shelter servicing an urban area in Hudson County, adopted out more than 3 times as many animals as both AHS shelters combined per the table above.  Liberty Humane Society’s performance relative to its typical adoption rate was over 4 times and nearly 700 times as great as AHS-Tinton Falls’ and AHS-Newark’s results. Additionally, Liberty Humane Society has far fewer financial resource than AHS. For example, Liberty Humane Society’s and AHS’s net assets per their most recently available financial statements were approximately $197 thousand and $10.7 million (including $7.8 million of cash and investments). Thus, AHS performed far worse than another nearby inner city shelter with less financial resources.

AHS can promote this event better. Liberty Humane Society’s volunteers actively promoted the event, which included plastering the local area with flyers. Strangely, the very popular Associated Humane Popcorn Park Facebook page, which has nearly 50,000 likes, did not promote the event or participate for that matter. The Associated Humane Popcorn Park Facebook page often posts stories about the Newark and Tinton Falls shelters, but did not do so this time. This critical mistake likely resulted in much less foot traffic at AHS facilities during the event. Thus, AHS should promote the event heavily in the communities it serves and on the Associated Humane Popcorn Park Facebook page in the future.

AHS’s adoption process focused on vigorous screening and paperwork may reduce the organization’s ability to process large numbers of adoptions. AHS’s web site describes a pretty long adoption process, which includes not adopting puppies or small dogs to families with children under 5 years old. Additionally, the process involves significant paperwork and “screening” which suggests a cumbersome procedure. Adoption processes such as these often makes an adopter feel disrespected and may decrease their satisfaction with the shelter and adopting in general. Cumbersome adoption processes in an event like the Maddie’s free pet adoption weekend where adoptions must occur during the two days can create a significant bottleneck. For example, people may have to wait at the shelter a long time while veterinarians are called and paperwork is reviewed. Additionally in my past experience with AHS-Newark, the shelter did not alter most dogs until an adoption was approved. People typically would bring the dogs home at a later date after the shelter spayed/neutered the animal. If people met unaltered dogs or cats at AHS during the Maddie’s free pet adoptions weekend, the animals may not have been able to get altered until after the event.  As a result of AHS’s adoption policies and procedures, the organization may not have been able to process adoptions fast enough to adopt as many animals as St. Huberts or Liberty Humane Society.

AHS should move away from its existing adoption process to a procedure focused on making excellent matches. Two great examples are the ASPCA’s Meet Your Match and the Center for Shelter Dogs Match Up II programs. Both programs offer lots of free materials online to help shelters implement these programs. KC Pet Project, which is Kansas City’s open admission shelter, provides an excellent example of how one shelter implements these types of programs. In fact, KC Pet Project has had tremendous success in similar events exemplified by its adopting 228 animals during a 3 day $25 dollar adoption promotion.

KC Pet Project Empty Kennels

Thus, AHS has lots of available information to implement a more efficient and effective adoption process.

AHS-Newark needs more volunteers to better promote its animals. Until recently, AHS-Newark had virtually no volunteer program. Currently, the shelter has a small group of hard-working volunteers doing great things. For example, the volunteers run an excellent Facebook page, do offsite meet and greet events, pack walks with a few select dogs, dog behavioral evaluations and post animals to Petfinder.  AHS-Newark needs additional volunteers or staff to post dogs onto Petfinder. As of today, AHS-Newark only had 60 dogs and cats on Petfinder which likely represents a small portion of the animals at the facility. For example, this would only be 11% of the shelter’s total population if the shelter currently has as many animals it reported having at December 31, 2012 per AHS-Newark’s 2012 Shelter/Pound Annual Report. Additional animals need to get onto Petfinder in order to properly promote all of the animals and not just a select few.

AHS-Newark needs to expand its volunteer program to make animals more adoptable and to facilitate adoptions. Currently, the shelter’s volunteer program is fairly limited. AHS-Newark should seek to emulate Nevada Humane Society whose volunteers contribute over 2,500 hours per month to the organization and conduct a variety of activities. AHS-Newark could greatly benefit by expanding its volunteer base to socialize more animals. Better socialized animals and volunteers knowing more animals well would facilitate adoptions at the Maddie’s event by properly matching families and animals. Furthermore, additional volunteers allows adopters to meet more dogs outside the kennels where the dogs show better.

While the shelter’s space is limited, the organization could find a way to create a playgroup program. Playgroups are a common theme for large shelters who save pit bull type dogs at a high rate. Specifically, these programs make the large dogs, which AHS has lots of, more adoptable and show better in kennels. During the Maddie’s free adoption weekend event, dogs regularly participating in playgroups would seem more attractive to adopters.

Finally, AHS should adopt animals out at multiple locations in future Maddie’s Fund events. Both the Tinton Falls and Newark shelters could increase cat adoptions by holding the event at multiple high traffic locations, such at various Petco, Petsmart, and Pet Valu retail stores. Additionally, AHS-Newark should adopt dogs and cats out at the Union Square adoption center location in New York City. AHS-Newark’s large amount of animals may overwhelm adopters based on recent research and some adopters may not want to visit an inner city shelter. Thus, AHS would likely increase adoptions by adopting animals out at multiple high traffic locations.

Animals Depend On Us Always Improving

Overall, all three organizations adopted more animals than normal during the Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days event. Each organization should evaluate their performance and see how they can better their performance at future events. At the end of the day, animal welfare groups should always strive to improve. Lives are at stake and the animals are counting on you doing the best you can.

No Kill Success is Contagious

Recently Merritt Clifton argued Reno, Nevada’s no kill success came at the expense of surrounding communities. According to Mr. Clifton, the region’s open admission shelter stole adoptions from nearby areas resulting in little net life saving. Clifton used Nevada’s mediocre adoption rate outside the Reno area as the basis for his argument. Is Clifton correct or is this yet another one of Clifton’s meritless arguments? Alternatively, can successful no kill open admission shelters cause other nearby communities to save more lives?

Nevada’s Population Distribution Refutes Clifton’s Claims

Nevada’s primary population centers outside the service area of the Reno, Nevada shelter are very far away. Approximately 86% of Nevada’s population outside the Reno, Nevada shelter’s service area in Washoe County reside in the county where Las Vegas is located. Las Vegas is approximately 450 miles away and around a 7 hour drive from Reno. This is as about as far as Elizabeth City, North Carolina and Ottawa, Canada are from New York City. Do people believe adopters in New York City are regularly visiting shelters in North Carolina and Ottawa, Canada? As a result, Clifton’s argument is completely wrong.

The Las Vegas area’s primary shelter has a history of poor performance and depresses statewide adoption numbers. Recent statistics show roughly half of the shelter’s 40,000 impounded animals were killed. This high kill rate is even more astonishing given Washoe County, Nevada’s open admission shelter takes in nearly 80% more animals per capita and saves 90% of its animals. Thus, Nevada’s other primary shelter performs poorly and that is the reason for the state’s mediocre adoption rate.

Shelters Near the Highly Successful Reno, Nevada Shelter Are Doing Well

Several large shelters within reasonable driving distance of Reno, Nevada are succeeding. The Out the Front Door blog reports Carson City, Nevada’s open admission shelter is doing very well and is in the nearest large population center to Reno. Additionally, Douglas County, Nevada is another reasonably close population center and its open admission shelter saved 98% of its animals. Furthermore, Nevada County, California, which is one of the closest large communities west of Reno, saved 99% of its impounded animals over the last three years. Therefore, open admission shelters reasonably close to Washoe County, Nevada’s highly successful shelter are saving and not taking lives.

Austin, Texas’s Success Leads to More Nearby No Kill Communities

Austin, Texas is the largest no kill community in the country and several nearby cities are also saving lives. Austin, Texas has been a no kill community since 2011 and saved from 91%-95% of its animals each year since then. Shortly after Austin, Texas became a no kill community, Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter, which serves Williamson County, Texas and is located just north of Austin, achieved no kill status. Despite taking in nearly 7,500 animals a year, dogs and cats only stay 11 and 15 days at the shelter. Taylor, Texas, which is just northeast of Austin, saved 93% of its animals in 2012. Pflugerville, Texas, which is also located in the Austin metro area, saved 98% of its animals in 2012 despite the city prohibiting trap, neuter, release. Georgetown, Texas, which is also just north of Austin, saved 85-90% of its animals in recent years. San Antonio, Texas, which is about a 1 hour and 20 minute drive from Austin, recently reported an 81% save rate, which is up from 32% in 2011, and a 90% live release for cats in March and April 2014. This shelter services an area of 1.3 million people and took in over 32,000 animals during fiscal year 2013. Kirby, Texas, which is also in the San Antonio metro area, saved 94% of its animals in 2013. Thus, the success of Austin’s no kill effort led to high save rates in many other nearby communities.

Animal Ark Inspires Positive Change in Minnesota

Animal Ark’s high level of success led to significant improvements in nearby large cities. Animal Ark, which is located in Hastings, Minnesota, has an adoption guarantee arrangement with a local impound facility where Animal Ark takes animals not reclaimed by owners. Also, Animal Ark accepts owner surrenders subject to a waiting list. Animal Ark saved 99% of its 700 impounded dogs and cats in 2013 and takes in about 16 dogs and cats per 1000 people. Additionally, the shelter reports a length of stay of just over a month. Animal Ark’s short average length of stay is impressive given virtually all animals were adopted and no animals were reclaimed by their owners, which tend to have very short lengths of stay, due to the local impound facility holding animals during the stray/hold period. Also, Animal Ark gets its animals quickly out of the shelter despite it likely needing to rehabilitate relatively more animals due to the organization’s very high 99% save rate. The shelter’s director, Mike Fry, is a vocal no kill advocate and argues for positive change in Minnesota and beyond. Recently, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota’s Pets Under Police Security (“PUPS”) shelter reported a 98% save rate. Similarly, St. Paul, Minnesota’s animal control facility reported a 90% + save rate recently as well. Additionally, Minneapolis’s animal control shelter, which has a sordid history, recently hired new management and pledged to change its ways. As a result, Animal Ark’s success adopting out animals has not hurt, but helped nearby shelters.

San Francisco Area Success

San Francisco has a long history of no kill initiatives. In the 1990’s, Richard Avanzino, who now leads Maddie’s Fund, and Nathan Winograd nearly made San Francisco the nation’s first no kill community. During this time, innovative programs, such as an adoption guarantee agreement with the city’s animal control shelter and frequent off-site adoption events, were developed. Unfortunately, the city regressed after both men left the San Francisco SPCA.

The no kill spirit lives on in the San Francisco area and success is being achieved. Based on 2013 reported statistics, San Francisco Animal Care and Control and the San Francisco SPCA collectively reported an 85% save rate for local animals assuming all negative outcomes were for San Francisco animals. Berkeley, California, which is located on the other side of San Francisco Bay, saved 90% of its animals in 2013. Alameida, California, which also is on San Francisco Bay, reported a save rate of 91% in 2013. Thus, communities in the San Francisco Bay area are saving animals at a high rate despite their close proximity to each other.

Boulder, Colorado Region Shelters Save Lives

Open admission shelters in the Boulder, Colorado area are saving their animals at a high rate. Longmont Humane Society, which serves several communities in the Boulder area, saved 93% of the 3,536 dogs and cats impounded in 2013. The nearby Humane Society of Boulder County, which took in 7,669 animals in 2013, reported a save rate of 89% in 2013 (91% if owner requested euthanasia are excluded). The Humane Society of Platte Valley, which is also located in the same metropolitan area, saved 94% of its 1,475 dogs and cats impounded in 2012. Thus, large open admission shelters in close proximity to each other in Colorado are saving animals at a high rate.

Successful No Kill Communities Can Drive Significant Positive Change Elsewhere

No kill communities drive positive change elsewhere directly and indirectly. Successful no kill open admission shelters can directly help nearby communities by rescuing animals. However, these no kill communities help much more by inspiring and/or pressuring poorly performing shelters to improve. The following quote sums it up perfectly:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

By changing another shelter’s policies, you can save far more animals than you could rescue directly. The animals you can rescue is limited to your shelter’s excess physical space and foster homes. However, by improving other shelters’ policies you can help far more animals. For example, consider a shelter with a 100 animals and 10% excess capacity due to efficient life saving programs. This shelter would be able to directly pull 10 animals. However, what happens if that successful shelter’s efforts were replicated by two other similar sized shelters and the euthanasia rate dropped from 50% to 10%? The successful shelter would save 80 or 8 times as many animals by getting other shelters to do the right thing verses pulling animals directly. Thus, no kill communities can dramatically increase life saving by getting other communities to do the same.

Creating no kill communities, promoting your success, offering help to other communities, and challenging those shelters who refuse to do the right thing are key to saving the most lives. Austin Pets Alive is a great example of an organization leading its community to no kill and helping others do the same. In early 2012, Austin Pets Alive formed a new organization, San Antonio Pets Alive, to help San Antonio achieve no kill status. Subsequently, San Antonio’s live release rate increased from 31% to 81%. In most cases, poorly performing shelters are reluctant to change their ways. In these cases, more vocal advocacy, such as what Animal Ark has done in Minnesota, is needed. Such advocacy does the following:

  1. Puts direct pressure on government run shelters (and private organizations who operate government owned shelters through short term contracts) to improve through political pressure on elected officials
  2. Puts financial pressure on private shelters as donors become more informed and demand their money be efficiently used to save lives

Unfortunately, the animal welfare community generally prefers unity even when many shelters are clearly doing the wrong thing. At the very least, successful shelters should publicize their statistics and success. This puts subtle pressure on the under performing facilities to do the same. However, vocal advocacy and comparing and contrasting their shelter’s performance with poorly performing facilities who refuse to change is needed. While private citizens can advocate for change, the credibility of advocates is much greater when a reputable animal welfare organization is leading the effort. Thus, we need successful no kill communities and their animal welfare organizations to inspire, assist, advocate and pressure other communities to save lives.

Sometimes you need to fight for what you believe in. Saving lives is certainly one of those fights you should take one.