Not every animal can or should be saved.
by Merritt Clifton
Among the most cherished and most amplified of myths afflicting the animal rescue and sheltering community in recent years is the notion that with intensified effort and investment we could adopt our way out of ever having to euthanize an animal who is not already in extremis, on the verge of death.
Boosting adoptions, the argument runs, could avoid the conflicts associated with trying to mandate sterilization of pit bulls, who now account for nearly 40% of shelter admissions of dogs and more than 60% of the dogs killed in U.S. animal shelters, and of promoting neuter/return of feral cats, who are believed to account for up to 70% of the cats killed in U.S. shelters.
Ceiling on adoption potential
Since Americans annually acquire at least four times more pets than the numbers of dogs and cats killed in shelters, the argument runs, merely persuading more people to adopt a pet instead of buying from breeders and stores should end the pet overpopulation problem.
Typically this argument is expressed as the hope that more effective promotion can somehow push the shelter adoption market share of pet acquisition significantly higher than it already is, despite a wealth of data showing that adoption market share probably hit the upper end of possibility close to a decade ago. Only in some regions is there enough evident elasticity left in the pet acquisition market––mainly for cats––to suggest that any lasting net gains are possible.
Some no-kill sheltering enthusiasts actually blog and lecture about the hope of boosting adoption market share to 50% of pet acquisitions or higher.
This runs afoul of statistical reality. Since adoptions are by definition finding new homes for animals who already had at least a birth home, but for some reason came to a shelter or rescue, adoption market share could go above 50% only if large numbers of animals rehomed from shelters or rescues fail in their new homes, and return to the shelters or rescues to be rehomed again.
Market share for pet acquisition is divided among pets obtained from professional breeders, pets obtained from breeders via retail stores, pets born in their homes, pets born in one home and then given or sold to another, pets found at large, and pets acquired from shelters or rescues.
Since every pet has to be born somewhere, and since shelters and rescues are supposedly not in the breeding business, at least half of all pet acquisition will always be other than through shelters and rescues, if shelters and rescues are truly finding “forever homes” for animals.
Adoptions flatlined since mid-1980s
Reality is that despite many innovations and tremendous investment in rehoming, the total numbers of animals rehomed from shelters peaked in the 1980s, when most shelters still received abundant litters of accidentally born puppies and kittens, and often adopted them out unsterilized to avoid having to kill them.
U.S. shelters and rescues rehomed between four and five million animals per year in the mid-1980s, when shelter killing annually approached 18 million dogs and cats; U.S. shelters and rescues rehome four to five million animals per year now, with shelter killing down to just under three million per year.
What has changed
Small increases have occurred since then, through increasingly intensified effort. Most notably, shelters and rescues are now managing to rehome two to three million animals per year who never would have had a chance between 20 and 30 years ago because there were so many younger, cuter, healthier puppies and kittens in line for adoption ahead of them.
While the gross volume of adoptions long ago plateaued, shelter and rescue adoption market share has increased significantly since 1981, when Richard Nasser did the first major study of pet acquisition in more than 30 years, and only the second ever. Overall, Nasser found, shelter and rescue adoption market share in 1981 was just under 15%. Most surveys today put it close to 25%.
In-home births have fallen
The increase, however, has come almost entirely because only a fraction as many pets are born into their homes now. Currently 91% of all pet cats and 83% of all pet dogs have been sterilized, according to the 2013 American Pet Products Association survey. Both figures are nearly twice the norms of 1981. Thus the in-home pet birth rate has plummeted.
Secondarily, because far fewer people allow dogs and cats to roam unsupervised, and thereby get lost to be found and adopted by someone else, acquisition of pets by simply finding them at large has decreased. But the frequency of adopting pets at large, combined with the frequency of adopting pets from shelters and rescues, has barely changed.
In 1981, Nasser found, combined shelter/rescue and stray adoption market share was 19.4% of dogs. In 2013, according to the APPA survey, it was 20%.
Nasser found that 88% of all pet cats were adopted from shelters, stray, or free-to-good-home sources in 1981. The 2013 APPA data put those combined numbers at 90%.
Total adoptions are actually down somewhat in the U.S. as a whole in recent years, and have been declining for decades in many of the biggest cities with the longest established high-volume adoption programs.
The Seattle Animal Shelter and Seattle/King County Humane Society, for example, cut shelter killing by 49%, 1985-1995. Adoptions fell 23%. From 2007 through 2012, the Seattle Animal Shelter cut killing by another two-thirds, while the Seattle/King County Humane Society went no-kill––but adoptions of animals of local origin fell by another 26%.
The Seattle/King County Humane Society rehomed 6,297 animals in 2012, but 3,032 of those animals were imported from other cities, whose supply of adoptable animals will plummet if their sterilization rates improve.
Adoptions by 2014 dropped 4%, to 6,070, even though adoptions of animals from elsewhere rose 22%, to 3,896.
Shelter killing & adoptions fall together
New York City cut shelter killing from more than 250,000 year at peak in 1962-1966 to just 6,872 in 2013 and 6,846 in 2014. But total adoptions, by all New York City agencies combined––including by the North Shore Animal League, which is outside New York City but just a few minutes away––have plummeted from circa 60,000 a year when their numbers top-ended in the early 1990s, to about 28,000 per year since 2010. This has occurred even though North Shore continues to lead all U.S. shelters in total adoptions, as it has for 46 consecutive years.
The San Francisco SPCA and Department of Animal Care & Control together increased adoptions 55% during 1995, the first full year of the Adoption Pact between the two agencies. The Adoption Pact in effect made San Francisco the first U.S. “no-kill” city.
Imports sustain numbers
Yet adoptions in San Francisco since then have fluctuated between just below 5,000 and 6,277 per year, and would be barely 4,000 now if the SF/SPCA had not increased imports of adoptable animals from shelters in outlying communities to more than 2,300 dogs and cats per year. As in Seattle, the availability of adoptable animals from outlying communities will decline if those communities’ sterilization rates rise toward the national norms.
Seattle, New York City, and San Francisco have lowered their respective rates of shelter killing of dogs and cats per 1,000 human residents to 0.7, 0.6, and 1.6––the three lowest rates for any major cities in the entire U.S.
But they are not receiving large numbers of adoptable animals from within their own communities any more. And, as already noted, they can only keep their adoption volume up by importing animals from elsewhere if the communities which still have significant surplus dog and cat intake fail to do enough sterilization to lower the intake.
Adoptions are not down in Seattle, New York City, and San Francisco because their shelters have forgotten everything they learned about marketing several decades ago, or are underinvesting in marketing now.
Indeed, the cost of marketing as part of the average expense of receiving, sheltering, and rehoming an animal in each city appears to have gradually increased from almost negligible 20 years ago to more than half of the current cumulative investment.
This is echoed nationwide. Further, in addition to shelters’ own increased expenditures on adoption promotion, there is now huge promotional investment by national organizations such as the American SPCA, the Best Friends Animal Society, Maddie’s Fund, Petfinder, and PetSmart Charities, meant to benefit all shelters.
The PetSmart Charities in-store adoption program alone in the first five years of the current decade found new homes for more than 440,000 animals per year, helping more than 2,000 shelters and rescues. But all of this successful effort amounted mostly to helping shelters and rescues maintain the adoption volume they already had, back when they had lots of puppies and kittens. It did not increase net adoptions.
Adoption rates vary relatively little
Community adoption rates per 1,000 tend to fall into a much narrower range than shelter killing rates, which today average about 9.5 nationwide and still range above 50 in some U.S. cities of significant size. Both circa 2000 and now, there has been no consistently discernible relationship between adoption rates and shelter killing.
The lowest adoption rates in the U.S., then and now, run between two and four animals per 1,000 people; the highest rarely top 10.
Seattle, all shelters combined, rehomes 4.0 animals per 1,000 residents; New York City rehomes 3.4; San Francisco rehomes 7.3.
There are some exceptional examples, often cited by proponents of emphasizing adoption over targeted sterilization.
The Nevada Humane Society, in Reno, sharing a shelter with Washoe County Animal Control, under recently retired executive director Bonney Brown increased the community adoption rate to a startling 21 per 1,000 people. Yet what this really shows is what marketing professionals sometimes call the “Walmart effect,” occurring when one particularly successful franchise claims an abnormally large market share because it draws from a large surrounding area, with no other merchants willing or able to compete within that area.
The Nevada Humane Society during Brown’s tenure boosted adoptions to about a third of the total for the entire state of Nevada, whose rate of adoption per 1,000 people exclusive of the Nevada Humane Society and Washoe County came to 6.8. Overall, it was 8.9.
Bonney Brown’s success, in other words, was similar to that of the North Shore Animal League more than 20 years ago in rehoming as many as 45,000 animals per year. As other shelters serving New York City became more competitive, some more than tripling their adoptions, North Shore adoptions gradually declined by nearly two-thirds. The total numbers of adoptions for New York City and Long Island remained static for a few years, then slipped into the present cumulative decline.
An oft-cited example of how increasing adoptions appears to have decreased shelter killing statewide comes from Michigan. From 2007 through 2011, Michigan shelters increased adoptions by 13% and lowered shelter killing by nearly 30%. About 9,000 more animals per year were rehomed; about 33,000 fewer per year were killed. But the biggest part of that decrease resulted from 25,585 fewer animals per year coming to shelters. Targeted dog and cat sterilization programs might account for about 78% of the Michigan success.
Unfortunately, as steep reductions of animal control budgets in the Detroit area have taken effect in recent years, it is also possible that Michigan agencies are simply not picking up as many strays as in 2007. Contrary to an August 2013 Bloomberg News report that there may be 50,000 stray dogs in Detroit now, a survey directed by Tom McPhee of the World Animal Awareness Society reported in January 2014 that there are actually not more than 3,000 dogs at large in Detroit, and may be as few as 1,000.
Either way, the contribution of increased adoptions to reducing Michigan shelter killing appears to be 20% or less.
The illusion of winning market share from breeders
The hope that shelters might somehow capture adoption market share from breeders has enticed and disappointed animal advocates since the very early 20th century, when Humane Society of Central New York founder O. Robinson Casey was a popular speaker on the humane circuit. A former professional baseball player, believed in his own time to have been perhaps the original Casey of the 1888 Ernest Thayer poem “Casey At the Bat,” Robinson vehemently denounced “Doggie Millers,” who like fellow former pro baseball player Doggie Miller bred excessive numbers of hunting dogs in miserable conditions.
But 100 years later, no survey yet has showed breeders losing market share to shelters when actual pet acquisition behavior is investigated, as opposed to stated intent. On the contrary, as accidental puppy births have declined, breeders’ market share has predictably increased to just over half of all dog acquisitions.
Breeder market share nearly doubled
Richard Nasser found 26% of dogs coming from breeders in 1981. More than two decades of adoption promotion later, the APPA found 29% of dogs coming from breeders in 2002. After another decade of escalated adoption promotion, the American Veterinary Medical Association found in 2012 that although 47% of people who have dogs claim that a shelter or rescue would be their first choice for getting another dog, 54% of the dogs actually in homes came from breeders, either directly or through pet stores.
What this suggests is that even though claiming to want to adopt a dog has become fashionable, consumer behavior has tilted farther toward acquiring purpose-bred dogs than ever before. This should be no surprise. Again, every dog must be born somewhere, and if there are few accidental births, most dogs will be born to breeders. Dogs will come to shelters primarily after failing in homes. Unless adopted dogs fail in multiple homes, the numbers of dogs rehomed from shelters will always significantly trail acquisition from breeders.
Dogs for jobs
Some adoption market share has been gained by reducing the numbers of accidental home births, and secondarily by reducing the numbers of found-at-large, born-at-home, and free-to-good-home dogs, but people who want a particular type of dog not commonly found at a shelter are no more likely to adopt from a shelter now than in Casey’s time.
This especially includes people who want a specific type of dog for a specific purpose: lap dog, show dog, hunting dog, sled dog, particular kinds of work and assistance, and other dog-related sports. Though the humane community regards many of these uses of dogs as inherently exploitive, and would like to stop them, people engaged in exploitive uses of dogs rarely consider humane opinion while patronizing breeders.
But people who want specific dogs for specific purposes are not the potential adopters whom shelters and rescues most hope to woo. Rather, the sheltering and rescuing community seeks to increase adoptions among the people who say they would prefer to adopt, then acquire dogs from breeders instead.
Home 4 the Holidays
By far the most ambitious effect to win adoption market share away from breeders has been the Home 4 the Holidays campaign, initiated in 1999 by the Helen Woodward Animal Center, of Rancho Santa Fe, California. HWAC president and Home 4 the Holidays founder Mike Arms had already demonstrated the potential for boosting adoptions during the winter holidays during 20 years as shelter manager for the North Shore Animal League.
“I have always thought that the idea we shouldn’t do adoptions during the holiday season was a plot by the puppy mill industry to protect their profits,” Arms has often said.
The importance of the holiday season to dog breeders had been recognized by both breeders and humane societies for more than 70 years. The American Humane Association estimated in 1937 that as many as one million puppies would be presented as gifts at Christmas, at a time when the total pet dog population of the U.S. was only about 10 million.
Adoptions leveled off
By 2008, after a decade of rapid growth, enlisting the participation of more than 85% of all U.S. animal shelters, Home 4 the Holidays participants rehomed 1.2 million dogs and cats. Then the numbers leveled off.
With the help of about 2,700 shelters and other adoption charities, Home 4 the Holidays rehomed 1.3 million dogs and cats in 2012, a new record, but the 2013 total slipped to just under 1.1 million, rising back to 1.3 million in 2014 by expanding the number of participating adoption agencies worldwide to more than 4,000.
The average number of animals rehomed per participating agency fell from 481 in 2012, an apparent high, to 325 in 2014.
The Home 4 the Holidays adoption program helps shelters to promote adoptions for 25% of the calendar year. Comparing the results with PetSmart Charities seasonal adoption data from 2000 to 2006, Home 4 the Holidays appears to have achieved a net increase in shelter adoption market share of about 1%.
No other adoption promotion program appears to have cut into breeder market share by even that much. And unclear is whether the late fall supply of adoptable animals from shelters and rescues will be sufficient to enable Home 4 the Holidays to hold that small gain.
Pit bull adoptions & public confidence
Aggressive adoption promotion has enabled shelters and rescues to boost pit bull rehoming from 13% of dogs adopted in 2003 to 16% in 2013. Pit bulls are only about 5% of all dogs sold by breeders, according to my annual surveys of dogs advertised for sale or adoption. But the relatively modest increase in pit bull rehoming has not cut into the numbers of pit bulls bred and eventually impounded or surrendered to shelters. Rather, pit bull intake at open admission and animal control shelters increased from 23% of the dogs received in 2003 to 37% in 2013.
Rehoming more pit bulls, moreover, has come at an ominous price. From 2010 through November 15, 2015, at least 38 dogs from U.S. shelters and rescues killed people, including 26 pit bulls, seven bull mastiffs, three Rottweilers, a Lab who may have been part pit bull, and a husky.
This was 19 times more fatalities inflicted by shelter and rescue pit bulls in only six years than the sum of all fatalities inflicted by shelter dogs in the 20th century.
For every fatality involving a shelter dog, there are many disfigurements, biting incidents, and cases of shelter dogs attacking other animals. Each of these incidents erodes public trust in shelters as a good place to find a pet.
Thus no one should be surprised that a recent survey funded by the Best Friends Animal Society found that about 60% of respondents between 18 and 34 years of age were more likely to buy a pet from a breeder or pet store than to consider a shelter adoption (46% versus 31%).
Petkeeping vs. aging population
Adoptions might increase, even if adoption market share does not, if the rate of petkeeping increases. But the AVMA U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographic Sourcebook, 2012 edition, reported that 6% fewer Americans were keeping cats and 2% fewer were keeping dogs than five years earlier. While the total pet dog population has contracted only slightly, those Americans who keep cats are now keeping 18% fewer cats than when the pet cat population peaked.
As the U.S. population ages and fewer people occupy single-family dwellings with children living at home, rates of pet acquisition are likely to continue to decline.
Against these realities, a proposed Colorado “Saving Pets Act” sought in 2014 to mandate that shelter animals might only be adopted or kept in perpetuity. According to the preliminary language of the proposed ballot initiative, which drew much activist support but failed to qualify to be put before Colorado voters, shelter animals after the expiration of prescribed holding intervals would have “become the property of the state of Colorado.”
If not rehomed, the proposed initiative language stated, “The animal shelter or pet animal rescue shall shelter the pet animal in its care.”
The “Saving Pets Act” may have appeared feasible to the framers because Colorado already had a statewide adoption rate of about 14 per 1,000 residents, the highest in the nation, and a shelter killing rate of only 5.9.
But there was and is little reason to believe there is sufficient market elasticity in Colorado to rehome many more of the animals killed in shelters, even if they were all healthy and of suitable temperament for rehoming.
Out-of-state adoptions boost numbers
Of the total of 82,605 dog and cat adoptions done in Colorado in 2012, 25,962––31%––were accomplished through transfers among shelters. More significantly, 26% of the total dog adoption volume of 48,265 were transferred in from out of state.
What this signified is that Colorado shelters were already making every effort to move dogs around to give them the best possible chance of finding homes, and had to import 12,600 dogs from other states in 2012 to meet adoption demand that could not be filled with the 10,739 local shelter dogs who were killed.
The situation was less pronounced for cats, but about 19% of the Colorado cat adoption volume involved shelter transfers. More than 5,000 cats were saved through these efforts, but 12,497 were not.
Colorado shelter adoptions increased in 2014 to 96,960: 57,891 dogs, 39,069 cats.
Dog rehoming down
Total cat intake by Colorado shelters in 2012 and 2014 was about the same: 64,822 and 64,521. Cat adoptions increased by about 5,000; the numbers of cats killed fell nearly as much. Thus the reduction in the numbers of cats killed could be attributed to increased adoption promotion––albeit that much of the promotion appears to have involved unsustainable investment. A four-month television adopt-a-cat ad campaign, for example, produced only 167 additional adoptions. Some of the television time was donated, but competitive cat adoption fees did not go far toward paying for the rest.
The number of dogs killed in Colorado shelters fell 45% from 2012 through 2014, to 5,920. But increased adoptions had little to do with the outcome, achieved almost entirely by reducing intake.
Found stray, owner surrender, and impoundments of dogs at Colorado shelters dropped by 8,618 from 2012 through 2014, a testament to the efficacy of spay/neuter.
Further, of the dogs rehomed in 2014, 24,278––twice as many as in 2012––were imported from other states.
The net result was that despite the increase in total adoptions, 2,000 fewer Colorado dogs were rehomed in 2014 than in 2012.
By far the largest shelter in Colorado is the Denver Dumb Friends League. Founded in 1910, headed by 41-year staff member Bob Rohde since 1977, the Dumb Friends League rivals the North Shore Animal League in rehoming volume.
Averaging about 15,000 adoptions per year from 2007 to 2011, the Dumb Friends League has since then seen adoption demand taper off to about 13,000 per year (13,652 in 2014.)
The Humane Society of Boulder Valley and the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, operating the next largest adoption programs in Colorado, each rehome about 6,500 dogs and cats per year, in the former case about 45% of them transfers from elsewhere.
It is difficult to imagine that any of these organizations could do much more to boost adoptions, or any of the many smaller shelters in Colorado could safely accommodate 6,000 more dogs and 8,000 more cats for very long, especially when at least half of the dogs are pit bulls who cannot be group-housed and most of the cats are feral.
Effectively targeted sterilization programs, by contrast, could continue to substantially cut those numbers. Promoting targeted sterilization, to reduce the populations of animals at risk, would be a far more appropriate use of resources than continuing to chase the illusion that every animal coming to shelters can be rehomed, or should be.