by Merritt Clifton
“It has often been observed,” New Hampshire activist Peter Marsh told Spay/USA conference attendees in July 2000, “that people tend to resemble the animals they choose as companions. I submit,” Marsh added, “that people who rescue feral or abandoned or abused animals also tend to resemble the animals they choose, not in physical appearance but in the psychological sense.
“Just as feral or abandoned animals or animals who have been abused tend to be frightened and furtive,” March continued, “so we ourselves are often frightened and furtive, and fear the public will think badly of us because we have too many animals, or must euthanize some animals. We don’t invite people into our shelters because we think they won’t understand what they see. Therefore they don’t understand why we can’t give lifetime care to every animal someone dumps on us, or why we are always stressed out and blaming pet keepers for being irresponsible–and we don’t get the help we need to change things. I further submit,” Marsh finished, “that it is time we opened the doors.”
That evening I visited visited the Bosler Humane Society in western Massachusetts.
The site was a wooded former hunting camp, on a private lake.
The cat quarters were appropriately modified wooden playhouses, each with an exercise yard, grouped like a miniature New England village beneath a single high roof.
The dogs in longterm care were grouped more-or-less by size in spacious yards with bunk-buildings, a variety of views, and access at times to a pond. While most were outside when we visited, several were inside watching a John Wayne movie on television. Founder Elaine Bosler insisted that John Wayne movies were canine favorites.
As animal control contractor for the towns of Barre and Baldwinville since 1974, the Bosler Humane Society might have been doing no-kill animal control for longer than any other agency in the U.S. Impounded dogs occupied ordinary cinder-block-and-chain-link cells most of the time, but were rotated in and out of a large exercise yard.
The Bosler Humane Society facilities were neat, clean, attractive, and remarkably seldom visited. Donors, adopters, and people looking for lost pets were welcome, but Bosler made little effort to pull in others.
Elaine Bosler seemed still scarred by the hostility she met 28 years ago, when the only “shelter” she had was, as she recalled, “Twenty-seven dogs tied to 27 trees and scarcely enough money to buy food.”
The Bosler Humane Society has survived and grown with volunteer help, consignment sales, and bequests–but it hasn’t built the high adoption rate it could have, expanded the on-site neutering clinic to handle the volume of animals Bosler dreams of fixing, or completed the new shelter as rapidly as Bosler would like, because the cash flow it needs has yet to be developed.
The Massachusetts animal protection donor base is perhaps the most generous in the U.S. The Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Massachusetts SPCA, for example, have reserves of $104 million and $75 million, respectively, as the two richest animal protection groups in the U.S. and, between them, they have increased those reserves by $150 million during Bosler’s years of operation.
Bosler, however, isn’t even getting a penny for each dollar that either the Animal Rescue League or the MSPCA raises. The Bosler mailing list, compiled from direct contacts, is responsive, according to board president Ann Bent, but as of my visit only numbered in the hundreds because the volume of direct contacts remains quite low.
Draw the crowd
Attracting visitors is the surest way for Bosler or almost any other shelter to raise more money. The more visitors a shelter has, the more volunteers and donors it will attract. Even one-time visitors to shelters and sanctuaries on average donate at many times the level of non-visitors, and can be encouraged to donate as often as 12 times a year by effective direct mail follow-up.
Most visitors to well-reputed shelters, especially no-kill shelters, arrive with a positive preconception of what they will see. They may be shocked by bad conditions, but will usually understand and appreciate honest effort–and what they see depends largely upon how they see it. Successfully attracting visitors who become regular donors begins with presentation. Every shelter should welcome visitors with an attractive sign, stating the name of the facility, the address, and a telephone number that will be answered after hours as well as during business hours.
The sign should also state the adoption-and-reclaim hours, when senior staff are on duty, and the visiting hours, which may overlap the adoption and reclaim hours but can usually be handled by volunteers.
Adoption-and-reclaim hours should include afternoons and evenings, all seven days of the week if possible, from three p.m. (when children get out of school) until 7 p.m. (to accommodate working people).
Visiting hours can be briefer. Wildlife Waystation, of Angeles National Forest, California, has been highly successful in fundraising chiefly from visitors since 1973, offering visiting hours only on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Each visitor gets a volunteer-guided tour.
Tour guiding, incidentally, is among the easiest jobs to delegate to volunteers–especially young volunteers, such as high school students. Volunteer guides should be given an inexpensive identifying vest to wear while on duty, and a specific tour route, ending at whatever attraction seems most successful at inspiring donations, with certain specific things to show guests, and a list of answers to frequently asked questions.
More complex questions can be referred to senior staff–but most questions will be repetitively asked, and will concern either features and policies of the facility, or the life histories of resident animals.
Each question is a chance to solicit funds. For example, at the Bosler Humane Society, “Why do you keep cats in modified playhouses?” might be answered in a manner ending with the explanation that, “If you wish to donate a cathouse, and be recognized for it with a plaque on the door, please take one of our handouts on ‘Donating to the Bosler Humane Society.'”
Such a pre-prepared handout should be ready for volunteer tour guides to distribute. More should be left in a clear plexiglas box, like those real estate brokers use to help sell property, near the welcoming sign. The handout should explain how and where to send money, how to donate material goods, what goods are welcome, and how to leave a bequest to the organization.
Questions about particular animals at Bosler should end with a mention that care-for-life of unadoptable animals costs much more than killing them, as conventional shelters would do, and should mention that contributions may be placed in one of the donation boxes on the grounds.
Any shelter without prominent donation boxes needs to add some.
The life history of any particular animal ends similarly: “It costs us X-amount per year to keep (name of animal). Each contribution helps. Please make yours in one of the pre-stamped self-addressed envelopes we gave you with your tour packet,” which should also include a copy of the shelter’s latest appeal.
The more items people take to read later, distributed with a self-addressed envelope (postage-paid, if possible), the more money a shelter will receive. The envelopes make donating easy, and ensure that all donations are correctly addressed.
Thanking donors increases response–including when prospective donors see others being thanked. On the shelter grounds, an attractive sign or plaque should acknowledge every donated item, from art to zoonotic disease reference books. Prominent thank-yous not only encourage donors to give again, but also inspire others to contribute, and will exempt a shelter which receives quality goods from any criticism of “luxury” by visiting misers who might nonetheless make a bequest.
Access roads, if any, should be kept in good repair. Rough roads discourage visitors–and every dollar they spend on car repairs is a dollar the shelter won’t get.
A shelter capitalizing on visitor traffic must not stink. If a shelter stinks, people will be reluctant to enter, stay long, bring children, return, and adopt pets, because–as Helen V. Woodward Animal Center director Mike Arms has long emphasized in teaching adoption promotion–they will fear that the animal might make their home stink too.
Shelter odors are 90% preventable, with retrofitting and redesign, so as to have floor-level air ducts, to remove odors from the point of generation instead of at nose level; to accomplish continuous air exchange; and to keep all drains automatically flushed.
In the U.S., 80% of animal protection donors are female, most are between the ages of 20 and 50, and women in that age range have up to seven times the olfactory acuity of most men and women over the age of 65.
In short, the animal sheltering donor base tilts toward the very people who are most likely to have a negative response to a bad smell–even though the response may be entirely subliminal.
An occasional bad smell can be turned into an asset with a prominent sign in the problem area that frankly states, “Smell something bad? Please tip us off! We don’t want our shelter to stink.”
A successful shelter should also never be noisy. Noise drives dogs and cats crazy, and drives visitors out, away from the very animals who most seek attention.
Dogs crave company. They want to be part of a pack, so it is quite all right–indeed essential–to house small groups of dogs together. It is also quite all right to let enough of them be together at times, under supervision, to choose their own companions. Once dogs are in compatible groups, however, noise can be reduced by minimizing visual contact among dogs who are not housed together. This can be as simple as alternating the directions in which runs face, so that no dog looks directly at any in different runs, thereby seeming to pose a threat or challenge.
This is not to be confused with reducing the dogs’ mental stimulation and social life. Among mentally healthy dogs, barking is usually reserved to deter intruders–and even the appearance of intrusion can be limited if fewer dogs at a time see any given visitor.
Shelters of older design may have obsolete and ineffective sound baffling. Hanging pressboard ceilings, commonly installed to deaden sound during the 1970s and 1980s, tend to absorb and then re-emit odors, and tend to have discolored, if they haven’t outright disintegrated. They may be ready to come down forever.
What an older shelter may really need to muffle sound may be a high ceiling, with lots of insulation to keep the tin roof from reverberating.
Make a jailbreak
Finally, and almost self-evidently, a shelter successfully attracting visitors should avoid looking like a jail. Cats need vertical space and a comfortable bed. Dogs do better in almost anything but conventional cinder-block-and-chain-link runs, which unconsciously reflect the medieval practice of keeping hunting packs in otherwise empty stalls at the end of a horse stable. When humane societies began sheltering dogs about 130 years ago, they blindly copied the arrangements of hunting kennels, not pausing to consider that hunter attitudes toward animals, including dogs, were and are fundamentally opposite to the humane ideal.
Yet even a shelter which looks like a jail can be shown off to advantage for a while–as part of a fundraising drive to build something better.
Lest there be any doubt about the fundraising potential of attracting shelter visitors, note the visitor-driven growth of Best Friends, whose sanctuary near Kanab, Utah, is several hours away from the nearest big city.
Raising under $3 million a year as recently as 1995, Best Friends in 1999 took in more than $10 million, and by 2012 was raising nearly $50 million per year. Direct mail is Best Friends’ basic collection method, but friendly attitudes, open doors, and the positive experiences of thousands of visitors are what open the checkbooks.