In our years of volunteering in Philadelphia animal shelters, we have seen many animals come back to the shelter after adoption, either through their owner surrendering them or, worse, showing up as a stray. Some of these animals simply got away from their owners and are reclaimed but others show up emaciated or sick and their owners never come looking for them. We always ask ourselves, “could this have been prevented?”
Every time a horrific cruelty case is in the news, it is usually followed by an intense online discussion about whether shelters should do a better job of screening potential adopters. Rescue and shelter policies vary widely. Most foster-based rescues generally have detailed adoption applications and require references and home checks to ensure as much as possible that their animals are going to appropriate homes and the new owners are up to speed on the best way to orient the animal to a new environment and introduce him to family members and other pets.
In contrast, at most shelters, including open admission shelters but not necessarily limited to them, the trend has been away from detailed adoption applications and toward open conversations. Few shelters have the luxury of doing home checks. They may or may not require children or other resident pets to come to the shelter to meet the potential new family member. Leading national organizations such as the ASPCA have been advocating for policies that reduce barriers to adoption sometimes referred to as “open adoptions.” That means a very simple adoption application, no vet or personal reference checks, no home checks – a hassle free process designed to give nearly everyone a chance to adopt. The theory is that this maximizes the number of adoptions and minimizes euthanasia. It asks shelters to assume that the vast majority of people will be at least moderately responsible pet owners. Those who support this approach, admit that, of course, a small percentage of animals will end up in dangerous and even life-threatening situations but they rationalize that either 1) it is worth it to get the additional adoptions that an easy application process provides and/or 2) a more arduous adoption process may not have screened out those irresponsible or cruel adopters. It is true that we all know examples of adopters who looked fine on paper and even seemed sincere in person who turned out to be neglectful pet guardians (or worse). In addition, people who know they would not pass a screening process can circumvent it by simply having a friend or family member complete the adoption application.
When rescues utilize more intense screening, they often get criticized for having adoption application processes so arduous (e.g. mandating a 6 foot fence, requiring a vet reference which has the effect of screening out first time adopters, etc.) that good adopters get turned away. For this reason, supporters of open adoptions also argue that, If the adoption application process rejects potential adopters, the adopters will not necessarily not get an animal; many will simply go to backyard breeders and the shelter thereby loses its connection to that adopter and any ability to provide education to help them become a responsible pet owner. This argument presumes 1) that education and resources are actually provided and 2) that these potential adopters that might otherwise be rejected will take advantage of these resources. Neither of those assumptions is necessarily true.
In our view, if shelters choose to have no or minimal screening of adopters in order to maximize life saving, they have a responsibility to educate and provide support to new adopters. An open adoptions policy should be coupled with: 1) active help from staff or experienced volunteers in choosing an animal that is a good fit; 2) counseling (both orally and in handouts) at the time of adoption about training methods, how to introduce a new animal to strangers and other pets and where to go if problems arise; and 3) follow up calls to every adopter to answer questions and offer resources. With limited budgets, many shelters simply cannot allocate sufficient resources to give each adoption this level of attention. For this reason, it is crucial for shelters to work cooperatively with volunteers to be able to offer this kind of help to adopters to maximize the chance that every adoption is a lasting and happy match.