Recently, I criticized Cumberland County SPCA’s practice of spaying obviously pregnant cats in a Facebook post. Specifically, I stated the shelter clings to the objectively false “too many animals not enough homes” narrative when it justifies spaying visibly pregnant cats. While spaying obviously pregnant cats is common in animal welfare, there are organizations heavily involved with TNR that do not do so. When a pregnant cat is spayed, the shelter kills the mother’s kittens via a forced abortion where the kittens suffocate to death or, if the kittens can breathe on their own, by taking them out of their mother and injecting them with Fatal Plus poison.
Despite my post laying out clear data on why Cumberland County SPCA does not have to kill these kittens, I received largely fact-free criticisms from several people working at Cumberland County SPCA as well as certain individuals in the rescue community. For example, people claimed pet overpopulation exists and cited shelter killing and rescues having trouble adopting out cats and kittens as support for these claims. Does Cumberland County SPCA and any New Jersey animal control shelter really need to kill these kittens?
Market Research Data Proves Shelter Killing is Unnecessary
No kill leader, Nathan Winograd, has preached that shelters do not need to kill due to “pet overpopulation” for a decade. While national groups, like HSUS and the ASPCA, opposed Mr. Winograd and the no kill movement for several years, even they agreed that more than enough homes exist for the animals coming into shelters in 2014. As you can see in this video from HSUS Expo 2014 citing data used by the Shelter Pet Project, approximately 17 million people in the country will acquire a dog or cat each year and would consider obtaining that animal from a shelter or rescue. Around 3 million of these animals are killed in shelters each year. If shelters can increase their market share by adopting out dogs and cats to 3 million of those 17 million potential homes, shelters will no longer kill healthy and treatable animals. Thus, shelters and rescues must persuade 18% of these 17 million households to choose to adopt.
The HSUS Expo 2014 also had Dr. Emily Weiss from the ASPCA and Todd Cramer from PetSmart Charities support the concept that more than enough homes exist for shelter animals. During their presentation, they touted customer friendly adoption processes (i.e. open adoptions). Furthermore, another speaker showed how many shelters and rescues would refuse to adopt to the other presenters, who are obviously good pet owners, using overly restrictive adoption polices that drive potential adopters to breeders and pet stores. Therefore, the idea that shelters do not have to kill is supported by both the leaders of the no kill movement and the traditional animal sheltering industry.
New Jersey Animal Shelters Have More Than Enough Homes for Cats
The American Pets Product Survey, which is the original source of the information above, recently issued updated data. Using this data and demographic statistics, I was able to compute reasonable estimates of just how many pets New Jersey residents acquire each year relative to the number of pets state shelters kill in a year.
The table below summarizes the New Jersey cat adoption market. Initially, we must estimate the number of cats that live in New Jersey households. Based on the 2017-2018 American Pet Products Survey, 94,200,000 cats live in the country’s households. By taking the percentage New Jersey households are of United States’ households, we can estimate 2.5% of the 94,200,000 cats in U.S. households are in New Jersey homes. Given the home ownership rate in New Jersey and the country are identical and fewer residents in New Jersey (15%) live in homeowners associations, condos and co-ops compared to the country as a whole (21%), New Jersey residents do not face greater pet owning restrictions than the country as a whole. Therefore, using estimates in New Jersey based on national data is reasonable.
We must then compute the number of cats in New Jersey homes and how many cats New Jersey residents acquire each year. To do that, we multiply 2.5% by the 94,200,000 to estimate 2,384,490 cats live in New Jersey homes. Under the assumption cats spend 10 years in a home and people replace those cats, we can estimate New Jersey residents acquire 238,449 cats each year. While the average cat lives longer than 10 years, many people acquire adult cats and cats also become lost. Therefore, the average time a cat is in a home is likely around 10 years.
Next, we must compare New Jersey animal shelters’ share of the market to the averages of several high performing animal control shelters. Based on the data above and recent statistics from Virginia’s Lynchburg Humane Society, Nevada Humane Society’s Washoe County and Carson City facilities and Kansas City, Missouri’s KC Pet Project, these shelters have 47%, 34% and 22%, respectively, of the cat acquisition markets in their communities. All three organizations serve more challenging areas than the average New Jersey animal shelter as shown by their communities’ poverty rates (Lynchburg Humane Society: ~16%, Nevada Humane Society: 13% and KC Pet Project: 18%) exceeding New Jersey’s poverty rate (10%). Furthermore, a greater percentage of households are rented in these three areas (i.e. more pet restrictions) than New Jersey. If New Jersey’s animal shelters obtained the average of these three shelters’ cat market shares (35%), New Jersey animal shelters could adopt out 82,294 cats each year. Given New Jersey animal shelters needlessly killed 9,138 cats in 2016 (i.e. total cats needed to reduce all state animal shelters’ kill rates to 8%), New Jersey animal shelters would only need to adopt out 9,138 or 15% of the additional 59,056 cats these shelters should adopt out.
Clearly, New Jersey animal shelters can adopt out far more cats then they do.
Cumberland County SPCA Has More Than Enough Homes to End the Killing of Cats
The same analysis for Cumberland County yields a similar result. As you can see below, I used Cumberland County’s number of households as a percentage of New Jersey’s households to compute the number of available homes in the county. Based on the average percentage (35%) the three benchmark animal shelters above make up of the cat adoption market, Cumberland County SPCA could adopt out 1,306 cats or nearly two and a half times more than the 547 cats the shelter adopted out in 2017. In other words, the shelter could attain a no kill level cat live release rate of 92% (i.e. a proxy for no kill status) and even rescue a little more than 100 additional cats from other facilities if it simply replicated the average cat adoption market share of these three role model shelters. While Cumberland County Animal Shelter does take in more cats than the average shelter in the state, this analysis shows more than enough homes exist for its cats.
State Has Plenty of Homes for Shelter Dogs
New Jersey shelters have even more homes available for their dogs than cats. Based on the average dog market share of the three benchmark shelters (23%), New Jersey animal shelters could adopt out 47,430 more dogs than they do now. Since the state’s animal shelters needlessly killed 2,168 dogs in 2016, they’d just have to reach 5% of the 47,430 additional dog adoptions to ensure every New Jersey animal shelter had at least a 95% dog live release rate. Furthermore, data from the 2017-2018 American Pets Products Survey indicates New Jersey animal shelters could adopt out 36,156 medium and large size dogs. In fact, this exceeds the 33,463 dogs the state’s shelters impounded in 2016.
Cumberland County SPCA Can Adopt Out Many More Dogs
Cumberland County SPCA also has many more homes available for their dogs. Based on the three role model animal shelters’ average market share of the dog acquisition market, Cumberland County SPCA could adopt out 507 more dogs than they did in 2017. Since Cumberland County SPCA needlessly killed 42 dogs (46 dogs may have lost their lives if the four dogs the shelter listed as “Other” outcomes died) in 2017, they’d just have to reach less than 10% of the 507 additional dog adoptions to ensure the shelter had at least a 95% dog live release rate. Furthermore, data from the 2017-2018 American Pets Products Survey indicates Cumberland County SPCA could adopt out 574 medium to large size dogs out a year. Thus, Cumberland County SPCA could adopt out many more dogs and stop killing healthy and treatable dogs.
Plenty of Homes Exist in My More Conservative Analysis
Each year, I use a model I created to target the number of dogs and cats every New Jersey animal shelter should adopt out, send to rescue and rescue from other facilities. You can read more about these models for dogs here and cats here.
New Jersey animal shelters could adopt out far more dogs and cats than they unnecessarily kill according to my model. Specifically, New Jersey animal shelters could adopt out over 32,000 more cats or four times as many cats than they currently needlessly kill. Similarly, the state’s animal shelters could adopt out nearly 12,000 more local dogs (i.e. excluding transports) or five times more than they currently needlessly kill.
While Cumberland County SPCA impounds more cats than most New Jersey communities, the same trend holds for this shelter. Specifically, Cumberland County SPCA could adopt out 712 more cats while it needlessly killed 549 cats (630 cats if we assume the 81 cats classified as “Other” outcomes died). Interestingly, rescues and other shelters pulled over 150 more cats than my model targets for Cumberland County SPCA. Thus, Cumberland County SPCA received more than enough rescue assistance.
Cumberland County SPCA’s dog data is ever more favorable. Specifically, Cumberland County SPCA could adopt out 209 more dogs per my model while it needlessly killed 42 dogs (46 dogs if we assume the four dogs the shelter classified as “Other” outcomes died). Furthermore, the rescue community did more than their fair share by rescuing around 120 more dogs than I target for Cumberland County SPCA.
Reaching Adopters Requires High Quality Customer Service
Frequently, I see regressive shelters and certain rescues complain about too many animals and not enough homes while these organizations make it difficult for people to adopt. Many shelters and rescues create an adversarial relationship with potential adopters by requiring various documents and other hurdles to “prove” their worthiness to adopt. Some examples are as follows:
- Home checks
- Landlord references and/or home ownership documents
- Veterinary references
- Personal references
- Household pet veterinary records
- Mandating all family members go to adopt the animal at the same time
- Requiring existing household dogs go and visit the dog a family wants to adopt
- Requiring fenced in yards
- Barring families who work from adopting
- Not allowing families with children to adopt (when the animal does not have serious behavior problems)
- Denying adoptions when an existing pet is not spayed/neutered even when the shelter/rescue will alter the adopted pet.
While I could write paragraphs on why these policies end up killing shelter pets, the Humane Society of the United States’ Adopters Welcome guide provides excellent explanations on why these policies do not work along with supporting studies. The key points about these policies are as follows:
- Make potential adopters feel like criminals
- Cause people to provide “the right answers” and not share other information
- Reduce the number of good pet owners who can adopt
- Extend the time animals stay with shelters and rescues that ultimately lead to increased killing for space, more stress and behavioral deterioration in shelter animals and higher disease rates in shelter animals
After adopting out animals the conventional way through rescues my spouse and I fostered for, we switched to an “open” or conversational based adoptions process similar to the HSUS Adopters Welcome policies. Instead of using a check the box adoption approval process, we develop relationships with adopters. We spend a good amount of time talking with the adopter, getting to know them, and helping them determine whether the pet is a good fit. As a result of the relationships we develop, the adopters almost always become “friends” with us on Facebook and we often see the pets enjoying life in their new homes.
Why Many Shelters and Rescues Ignore Data That Saves Lives
So why do shelters ignore the clear evidence that more than enough homes exist for homeless animals, particularly in New Jersey? When shelters and their staffs kill animals, they must rationalize this fact especially if they love animals. If not enough homes exist, these individuals can then say they have no choice. This rationalization, which may have been true decades ago when shelter intake was far higher, is embedded in the culture of many shelters and even many rescuers. Thus, these people will often get angry when they learn killing shelter pets is in fact avoidable.
The reasons many rescuers also believe in pet overpopulation is more complicated. As I indicated above, some long-time rescuers may still view the world as it was decades ago when pet overpopulation really did exist. On the other hand, some rescuers may require the pet overpopulation myth to rationalize their close friendships with individuals running kill shelters. Finally, some cat rescuers, particularly those practicing TNR, may see the large numbers of community cats and be frustrated they can’t find homes for every one of them. While finding a home for every single community cat is not realistic, community cats do in fact thrive outside. Therefore, some TNR practitioners may conflate community cats with those in shelters to incorrectly conclude not enough homes exist for the much smaller number of cats in shelters.
Shelters and rescues frequently use onerous and counterproductive adoption processes due to the people they typically encounter not representing the pet owning public. Many shelters and rescues often deal with people who must surrender their animals as well those that may abuse their pets. However, this is a tiny percentage of the pet owner population. For example, New Jersey animal shelters impounded 67,594 dogs and cats in 2016 from the state while 4,655,071 dogs and cats live in New Jersey homes per the estimates above. In other words, only 1.5% of the dogs and cats in New Jersey homes entered a shelter as a stray, an owner surrender or in a cruelty seizure in 2017. However, even that estimate is too high since shelters impound many community cats with no owner. If we just look at dogs, New Jersey animal shelters only took in 1.1% of the dogs in New Jersey homes. Even this number may be too high since many dogs arriving at shelters were lost due to an accident and the owner quickly reclaimed the animal. If we exclude all reclaimed dogs from these calculations, only 0.6% of dogs in New Jersey homes would end up in a shelter. Thus, many shelters and rescues are judging potential adopters based on around 1% of New Jersey pet owners.
Many shelters and rescues may use overly strict adoption processes due to personal reasons. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered some people running shelters and rescues who believe they are morally superior to others and/or are on a power trip. While these people may claim their adoption processes are there to protect the animal, I find they enjoy having power over people who are emotionally attached to an animal they want to adopt. In extreme cases, I’ve seen overt racism involved. Finally, I’ve found some individuals running shelters and rescues to lack people skills and openly claim they hate people and love animals. While there is no crime in having that view, organizations would save more lives if they have individuals who like people interacting with adopters.
At the end of the day, the animal welfare movement must make logical decisions based on objective data rather than myth and folklore if we are to end the killing of healthy and treatable animals. The sooner we do that, the sooner will will achieve a no kill New Jersey and a no kill nation.