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Pet Adopters – To Screen or Not To Screen?

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.

A Voice for Quality-of-Life for Shelter Animals

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Animal shelters serve a variety of purposes. They take in stray and surrendered animals; they provide veterinary care, they sometimes seize animals who have been victims of cruelty or neglect and they often educate the public on humane treatment of animals. Most shelters prioritize either minimizing the average length of stay for an animal or maximizing the number of lives saved through adoption or rescue or both of those. Since most shelters are nonprofits that always struggle to raise the funds necessary to support all aspects of their mission, the quality of life for animals in shelters often falls to the bottom of the list of priorities. Of course, the animals’ basic needs including medical care, food and shelter must come first but too often quality-of-life is relegated to the status of “optional,” viewed as a luxury they simply cannot afford. In addition, many granting organizations – those that provide critical funding to animal shelters – are increasingly requiring that shelters seeking grants demonstrate and quantify how many more lives will be saved if a particular grant is awarded. This funding for lifesaving is certainly valuable but it adds fuel to the argument that the only thing that matters is getting the animals out the door alive and any expense that doesn’t directly accomplish that should be cut.

Because of this, in many shelters (but certainly not all), enrichment and out of kennel time, other than for cleaning purposes, is left entirely to volunteers. There is little or no staff time allocated to take dogs out or give cats any human interaction.   It is seen as not vital to life saving because, even if a dog doesn’t get outside or a cat gets no human interaction in a day, they will still be alive when you get back in the morning, so it is not necessary to expend those resources. And this decision can then repeat itself day after day.  While it is easy to understand the need to conserve resources and use them efficiently, we at Hand2Paw believe strongly that providing a decent quality of life during an animal’s stay in the shelter is a vital part of every shelter’s mission and, in fact, a moral imperative. If a shelter decides that it must rely on volunteers to provide enrichment and exercise, then management should develop a strong volunteer base by communicating and collaborating with volunteers frequently and respectfully. Some shelter managers view volunteers as an intrusion and often criticize them for not following rules and procedures or not understanding the big picture.   But it is within the shelter’s responsibility and capability to establish regular two-way communication that avoids these problems and puts mental stimulation and physical exercise back on the priority list. Even if the number of lives saved remains the top priority, enrichment and out of kennel time is still valuable. Studies have shown, for example, that dogs who get out of the kennel enough to remain house trained in the shelter have lower stress levels, making them easier to adopt out and less likely to be returned. That study is discussed here on ASPCA’s blog aptly titled “Talkin’ Poo.”

You will see more on this topic in posts to come, as it is Hand2Paw’s mission to help fill this need and be the voice for quality of life for shelter animals.  What is your view?  Please join the conversation.

Why should you do something if you can only do a little?

So many of the problems we face seem insurmountable. People become convinced that the choices they make and the actions that they can take as individuals won’t have any meaningful impact. I don’t believe that that is true for any of the world’s problems that we face and I can prove that is not true for shelter animals or homeless youth.

Let’s assume that you have your own family, a job, a home to take care of and feel that you do not have any extra time to volunteer in an animal shelter or take responsibility for the guidance of a homeless young person. With the limited time you have, is there still something you can give that would make an impact? You bet there is and here are some ideas to get you thinking.

For the animals, how about you try one of these

1.  Foster kittens. Kittens are short-term fosters, are easy to adopt out and most need a home for just a few weeks until they’re big enough to be spayed or neutered. You can work with a shelter or rescue that will take you take them from you and place them for adoption in a retail location and your job is done. Fosters directly and immediately save lives.

2.  If bringing kittens into your home is too much, how about doing a linen drive among your family and friends or at your workplace? You will directly impact the quality of life of an animal waiting in a shelter who would otherwise be sleeping on a tile floor or newspaper in a cage. It only takes one trip to drop them off and you’re done.

3.  You can be an advocate. Speak up to your friends who are considering going to a breeder or buying an animal on the Internet.  Tell them that they are unknowingly supporting keeping the parents of those puppies in cages with no access to the outdoors, no human contact and often without necessary vet care. Be nice, be firm, do your research and offer them options.

For at risk youth,

1. Can you become a remote mentor? Partner with a young person who needs guidance. Check in with each other by phone or email once or twice a week. You can help keep them on track and let them know that someone cares about what happens to them.

2. What about an evening of service with a few friends? Service is easier in pairs or groups. Do you know how to do anything that one of your parents taught you that you could pass on to a young person? A craft? How to cook a great dish for a crowd? Young people living in a shelter would love to spend an evening having a caring adult pass along some family wisdom. You pick the night. Everybody can give one evening.

3. Have a drive to collect professional clothing so that young people have something appropriate to wear for interviews. Strive for a variety of sizes with everything in good condition – something you would wear yourself. More than once, we have witnessed our young volunteers wearing shoes that are too big and pants that cover their feet because the shelter did not have a sufficient selection of interview appropriate clothes for them.

Do not let yourself sink into the belief that what you do does not make a difference. Remind yourself that, if everyone did just one thing, the world would be a happier and more comfortable place for everyone.