There are not nearly enough shelter pets for everyone in the U.S. who plans to get a pet this year. This is ok because some owners, about 1.5 million, are already set on an alternate source (a breeder usually) for the new pet they plan to get within the next year. Of course many, about 5 million, are determined to adopt the pet they will be getting this year. Since we have an estimated 8 million pets entering shelters in this country every year, we have plenty of animals for these 5 million owners to choose from. But there is a third group of people, about 17 million, who are planning to add a pet to the family within the next year and are open to the possibility of adopting from a shelter as a source for that animal. We have only about 3 million shelter pets left in the total estimated population who are healthy/treatable and available for adoption. As is plain, if we were to convince even half of these 17 million homes to adopt from a shelter, we would be coming up short by millions of animals. Even if we adjust our estimates (to allow for a tough economic situation) and suppose that there are a million more pets being taken in by shelters this year and a million less homes intending to add a new pet, we still wouldn’t have enough shelter pets for even half of those open to adoption.
So why are an estimated 3 million healthy/treatable shelter pets being killed each year? Obviously there are more than enough homes for them so that is not the answer. Are we failing to get the message out to enough of the target market that shelter pets are good and adoption is a positive experience? I don’t think so. While marketing is an ongoing effort, I believe we’ve done well in this area – definitely well enough to convince at least 3 million people who were already open to the idea of adoption anyway.
The short answer is this: The reason 3 million healthy/treatable shelter pets are going into the dumpster each year instead of home with people who want them is because shelter directors are killing them instead of doing their jobs.
The longer explanation is multifaceted and involves the entire community:
1. Shelter staff and volunteers drive the public away by blaming them for various mythical crimes such as failure to neuter and pet overpopulation. People are further driven away when they know the facility kills animals and every pet they look at might be taken to the kill room if they don’t adopt him. It’s too overwhelming for compassionate people to enter this kind of environment. And of course no establishment is going to attract customers if the service is lousy, the place stinks and/or the merchandise is displayed in the equivalent of a dungeon.
2. Shelters and rescue groups turn down applicants they deem unfit for pet ownership. While I support having adopters providing a picture ID and a completed adoption application so they can be checked for prior animal cruelty convictions, I find it objectionable to deny adopters for such reasons as having a job, not having a fence, having children, or being unable to pay a $350 adoption fee. It is not possible to determine the quality of life a pet will have by using an arbitrary list of criteria such as is commonly used by many shelters and rescues. There are responsible pet owners who will never lose a pet regardless of fence quality, type or lack thereof just as there are responsible pet owners who will lose a pet regardless of fence status. Similarly, there are irresponsible pet owners who work outside the home just as there are irresponsible pet owners who work at home or are unemployed. By refusing to let pets go home with the people who want them, shelters and rescues are keeping cages occupied that could otherwise be freed up to save the next pet in need.
Recently I heard a teenage girl being interviewed on a TV show. She said she practiced Satanism. When asked why, she responded, “Because it’s the only religion that accepts everyone.” Setting aside my own religious views, I have to admit she makes a good point. No one wants to be harshly judged or rejected. And as with religion, pet owners have the freedom to choose where they will get their pets. You know what groups in the pet world “accept everyone”? Pet stores. Irresponsible breeders. People giving away dogs and cats online or in parking lots. The people being turned away by shelters and rescues will get pets from somewhere, probably a source that does not provide continuing education and assistance, and they will likely move into the group who will never be open to pet adoption. Win? For whom?
3. Shelters don’t allow adopters to see, touch and fall in love with their pets. Some shelters are never open to the public for adoptions, others are only open when most people work. Some facilities only allow visitors to see a portion of the animals there and/or don’t allow adopters to touch the pets. All, some or none of the animals may be posted online for adopters to see using good, adequate, or horrible photos. Every shelter, especially those in low traffic locations, should be bringing animals to daily offsite adoption events in high traffic areas but many hold no offsite adoptions whatsoever. The bottom line: If people can’t see the animals, how will anyone be able to save them?
4. Shelters are killing animals based upon arbitrary criteria such as breed, coat color, heartworm status, age, weight and number of days spent in the facility. By assuming for example that people don’t want Pitbulls, or that there are too many tuxedo cats on the adoption floor already and therefore marking these pets for killing, they are unavailable to be adopted by people who want them. It sounds obvious, I know.
Somewhere out there right now, I imagine there is an adopter looking for a tuxedo cat because he wants to adopt a kitty and he happens to fancy tuxedo cats. There are plenty available in shelters so no problem, right? Let’s say this adopter only wants to adopt a pet he meets in person and feels a special connection with. So he visits his local municipal shelter. They do in fact have two tuxedo cats but he doesn’t make that connection with either. In the kill room however, they have just killed a tuxedo cat (for being one too many) who happened to be a very vocal pet. The adopter’s last cat was also a talker and in fact, had he met this one, he would have likely felt that special connection he was hoping for and adopted him.
My point being that shelter directors have no way of knowing which particular animal will cause an adopter to fall in love. By operating on the assumption that they do know, they are preventing pets from being matched up with the people who want them. Contrary to the belief of shelter directors who kill based upon arbitrary criteria such as coat color, adopters are not looking for any pet whose fur is of a particular color – they are looking for an individual pet that appeals to them in a unique way. The more pets available for adopters to meet, the greater the likelihood they will find that special animal they want to take home.
You know how this owner will be able to meet lots of tuxedo cats? By visiting every pet store in the county. And the more he meets, the greater the chance he will fall in love with one.
5. Shelter directors see killing as an option for controlling the population. If a compassionate director committed to saving animals’ lives was put into place at every pet killing facility, killing healthy/treatable pets would not be an option. Instead, the director, staff and volunteers would have to work their tails off to get animals out the door alive by any responsible means. This is what the directors, staff and volunteers at open admission no kill shelters do every day. It’s hard work that requires dedication, creativity and flexibility but it is the only ethical approach toward shelter population control.
By killing the approximately 3 million healthy/treatable shelter pets that an estimated 17 million people planning to get a new pet are open to adopting, shelter directors are driving those 17 million people to other sources. Pet stores (supplied primarily by puppy mills) and profit driven breeders stay in business because there is a reliable market for their products. As long as there is a profit to be made, these undesirable sources for pets will remain plentiful. Killing healthy/treatable shelter pets ensures that puppy mills will continue to meet the demand for pets that shelters are not. If shelter directors would do their jobs and start getting every healthy/treatable pet in their care out alive, the demand for pets from alternative sources would be reduced. Put into simple terms, if shelters really want people to adopt, they need to let them.
Remind me again how the so-called irresponsible public is to blame for shelter pet killing?