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Dangerous Traditions, Damaging Beliefs

Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

I’m driven to find new and novel ways to solve the problems facing animals in our shelters and our community- to a fault at times.  That’s because this desire to race ahead of the curve means I forget that the battles waged in years past are, in fact, not always behind us.  I forget that because we think we have found a solution or relegated an outmoded idea or policy to the scrap heap, everyone else has, too.

I had a harsh reminder that this is not the case when someone forwarded me a blog piece from another animal shelter recently.  The premise of the piece was that adoption specials, reduced or free adoption, and adoption promotions were bad.  That not charging full price led to bad outcomes.  And that this fact was born out by “research and experience”.   When I read all this (and there was much more) I was honestly shocked that anyone would still take this outdated view of pet adoptions.

However, it made me reflect that HSBC spends so much time looking forward that we sometimes forget to look behind us to see how many people haven’t been keeping up.  It was also a reminder that I have not always been as progressively minded as I try to be today.  Animal welfare has changed a great deal in the twenty years I’ve worked in it and I have not always been on the right end things myself. 

When I started in animal welfare twenty years ago, I worked at an open door shelter, the type often referred to by mean people as a “kill” shelter.  We did animal control and took surrendered pets so we had lots of animals.  We had all the old mind sets so we euthanized lots of animals.  I was trained from day one to accept that state of affairs as I should expect the tides.

Like most then, it was a place which did not adopt around the week before Christmas for fear of “bad” adoptions.  We did not adopt black cats around Halloween.  If an owner surrendered a pet and had a change of heart, we’d refuse to return the pet, even if it was likely to face euthanasia.  If someone couldn’t pay the owner claim fee for a lost pet, we’d keep it.  After all, if you were a deadbeat your pet must be better off with us, even if that meant better off dead.  If you arrived to adopt early or late, the doors stayed locked.  You wouldn’t ask Sears to open for you, would you?  And the price was the price.  Period.  After all, if we don’t charge, why would anyone value the pet?

The worst thing was the open belief that we could do nothing about the euthanasia situation we faced.  With a set of irrational, unfounded, inflexible and unfriendly policies and beliefs like those, we were probably right.

And I drank that Kool-Aid by the pitcher.  I didn’t know any better, as most people didn’t and some apparently still don’t.  That began to change for me the day I was nearly fired for breaking a cardinal rule:  We did not adopt to college students because college students abandon their animals.  So sayeth the Lord.  Or at least the Operations Manager.

Except I was a full time college student when I was hired.  I was also married, had my own home (a rental- don’t get me started on our rental policy), and in addition to working at the shelter I had my own business.  I knew all college students were not created equal.  So when a married couple who were also full time college students came in to adopt, I broke the rules and adopted to them because there was no other reason they should be denied a pet.  I was almost canned for breaking the rules and reminded that “research and experience” justified the hard and fast ban on college adoptions.

That was the first chink in my faith that “research and experience” was always right.  Over the next few years that chink became a crack and that crack shattered the entire artifice.  I started asking why and demanding proof for every barrier we were placing in the way of a successful adoption.  By that time, I was in charge of operations so I could start making changes when I could prove my case to the executive director.

Black cats at Halloween?  There was no documented case of an adopted cat being sacrificed.  That ban was lifted.  I now offer Halloween Black Cat adoption specials.  Blanket Christmas adoption moratorium?  We improved our adoption screening, did advanced screening, and offered pre-screened “gift certificates”.  We adopted more animals and the return rate was not only no higher, it was lower than the average adoption.  It turns out “the research” also began to show that gift pets have a lower relinquishment rate than ones which are purchased, found or adopted (New, Jr. et al, 188).

Those pesky facts.

There was one notion to which I continued to cling to for a long time.  It was that people had to pay for the adoption.  Despite the obvious logical disconnect in the argument that paying equals value.  First, our shelters are full of dogs and cats, many expensive pure breeds, which were paid for and had great deals of money spent on them in food, care and medicine. Yet they are in our shelters.  Second, if cost equals value, why then didn’t we double, triple, septuple the adoption fee?  Wouldn’t we increase the value to the adopter?  But we didn’t do this.

It was not until I was an executive director and the ultimate responsibility for the lives of our animals rested solely and exclusively on my head did I begin to question my commitment to this baseless position.  In the summer of 2004 when I started at HSBC we had the usual seasonal influx of cats and kittens, leading to the usual seasonal wave of euthanasia so that we could free up cage space.  After that summer I knew that we’d have the same problem the next summer.

My mind finally went to that place that I’d never allowed it to go before.  What if we just gave away the cats which we knew were most likely to be euthanized, the adults.  If we could get just one cage open by giving a cat away, we’d save the cat and we’d open up space for six kittens which would be adopted in a heartbeat.  Why not try it?

There was staff opposition.  Q: How do we explain that the other animals cost money?  A: We are honest.  The other animals aren’t facing impending euthanasia, these are.  Q: What’s to keep people from making bad adoption decisions or getting a cat they can’t afford?  A: If we do that bad a job in our adoption screening, we need to improve our adoption screening (and we did).  Q: What if the people don’t “value” the cats because they were free? A:  Then they’ll return the cat and it might be euthanized later.  But it won’t be euthanized today.

Ultimately, the answer was, “I can’t sign off on killing more cats when there is something we haven’t tried, I’m the boss, and I’ve decided we’re going to try this.  Make it happen” There were some perks to being in charge, too.

At the time we did not sterilize in advance of adoption, as we do now, so the decision was limited to previously sterilized adult cats.  We set the trigger for the program to be the day we euthanized our first cat in the summer strictly for space.  We provided every benefit we offered for every other adoption and all the same requirements and adoption screening.  In order to ensure that there was no misconception that what we were doing was breaking a taboo, we went with most in-your-face name we could think of:  “Free To A Good Home”.

When we kicked off the Free To A Good Home emergency adoption program in the summer of 2005, we put out a press release and the response was overwhelming.  We immediately adopted our every eligible cat and we kept getting them adopted out for the summer.  It was not a large number, only one a day (since it was only for pre-sterilized cats which were not the majority then) but it totaled about 80 adoptions that summer.  Because we could open up a new cage space on a daily basis it allowed us to shift our feline population around internally so that we did not hit the point of euthanasia for space that summer.  The increased public awareness also helped lead to a 17% increase in overall adoptions that year.

We still euthanized cats (and tragically still do).  But we did not have to euthanize one single healthy, happy cat just because there was no room at the inn.  Not one.  It was stunning.  But what about the return rate?  We tracked it.  In the first year there were two returns, both for congenital health problems later found by a vet which could not be treated.  Two out of eighty.  Under 3%.  At the time our standard adoption return rate was pushing 15%.  We saved their lives and then gave them a successful adoption rate more than three times normal.  I knew we hadn’t solved the problem of cat euthanasia but I knew we had made a small step toward that solution.

I nominated HSBC for an American Humane Association Best Industry Practices Award.  I wanted to share our success story because I knew it could be replicated.  In 2006, we were awarded the AHA Award for Adoption Practices at their national conference in Chicago.  It gave me the chance to share the program and the hard data (I came with graphs and charts to prove my case) with others in the animal welfare.  After I presented the data, the room broke out in applause and a few people even stood to applaud.  I could not be prouder and my ego was inflating by the second.

Until the next award recipient took the podium.  He was a very famous animal welfare professional from the west coast, one who I was a little star struck to meet.  His organization has won an award for something and he started by congratulating the other recipients on our award and our innovation.  And then he turned to me, seated next to him on the stage, and derisively said, “…although I can’t say I think giving cats away seems like such a good idea.”  Or something to that effect.  I don’t remember because I was deflating and turning beat red in anger and embarrassment.

It was my first reminder that in animal welfare even hard proof is not proof enough for some.  It also made me wonder how many other good ideas and approaches might be out there untested because the Kool-Aid drinkers and mixers, even the stars in our field, couldn’t look beyond their own traditions and beliefs.

I’ve got that award tucked away somewhere.  Since then we expanded Free To A (now) Great Home to dogs.  We made it a year round program.  We have now expanded it to old animals, sick animals, animals sheltered for more than 90 days.  We have Penny Adoptions for strays.  We have 30 Day Adoption Health Guarantees.  Free adoptions for seniors.  These programs all remain a success, still have a lower than usual adoption return rate, and are some of the many reasons we have not had to euthanize any animal for space in over three years.

HSBC wasn’t the first to have a program like this but in 2005 but we were among a very few and we were certainly the most aggressive in its promotion.  And we got our share of abuse from those in animal welfare who thought this program would lead to the end of animal welfare as we knew it (like that would be a bad thing).  Now virtually every animal shelter has some version of this type of program.  Whether free or reduced adoptions, reductions for special needs animals, or holiday promotions, few if any do not routinely waive, discount or have an adoption price differential.  What was once controversial is now the standard.  Even the organization arguing against these policies previously posted a special rate for seniors.

These different programs might be a matter of degrees, but it’s fundamentally the same thing.  It is disingenuous to pretend it isn’t.

I use that memory of being dismissed by that man at the awards presentation as a driving force to try to find new ways to help all of the animals we still don’t save.  And to be open to new ideas, even when they seem stupid or ridiculous, or come from someone without my level of experience.  I still want my data and my proof for these ideas and claims.  After all, parroting “It’s not rocket science” doesn’t exempt one from showing me the data.  But if there’s compelling proof something works, I want to do it.  To refuse to do so because of personal belief, tradition or ego only means animals will die which did not have to.

But in that drive to find new approaches I still too often forget that there are people and places mired in the beliefs, traditions and arguments of decades ago.  Those beliefs and traditions are damaging and they are dangerous.  And when they stand in the way of getting animals the homes they could have, they are deadly.

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