I think my husband and I are great pet parents. We both grew up with companion animals and we consider them not things, but sentient creatures of other species who have souls and value. We have never humanized our dogs, but the reality is that we would do, and have done, anything for them and they have lived long and very full lives. In spite of the fact that I think any dog would be fortunate to share our lives with us, many rescue groups simply would not agree. When we lived on our 8 acre parcel for almost 20 years, our property was not fully fenced. Now that we are in our new home, our 3+ acre parcel is also not fenced. We've thought about it, but the benefit v. cost balance just has not been worth it so far. The lack of a fence alone would cause many rescue groups to decline to adopt a dog to us. It matters not that we met our dogs’ every need, they are canine members of our family and they are never outside unattended. No fence = no dog.
I first encountered this unreasonable mindset about animal adoption when I read Nathan Winograd’s book “Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters.” The book contains a chapter called “Good Homes Need Not Apply” in which Nathan sets out the obstacles often used by shelters and rescue groups which keep animals from being adopted using fixed and arbitrary rules that are based more on a suspicion of the public than on a focus of getting animals into homes.
One of these obstacles relates to the concept of adoption fees. Not a week goes by that I don’t end up in a discussion with someone either with a rescue group or about an animal shelter regarding adoption fees. I know of rescue groups which charge high adoption fees because they don’t do enough marketing and fundraising and they are trying to cover their veterinary costs through the fees. I know of other rescues which charge fees which they think separate the good people from the bad people and are an indicator of an adopter’s future ability to care for the animal. The logic goes like this: if you cannot afford our $250 adoption fee than you can’t afford to keep and care for a dog. No $250 = no dog.
On the flip side, I know some in rescue or in shelters who are completely opposed to the concept of fee waived adoptions for similar reasons. The mindset is that if you will only adopt an animal from a shelter when it’s free, that means that you are not financially prepared to pay for that animal’s care for the duration of his or her life. One contact asked me one time, “if we give animals away from free, what does that say about the value of the animal?” My answer was simple. It means that you value the life of that animal more than you value some nominal fee. It means that when it comes to animals in need of homes, we cannot equate cost with value or worth.
A number of articles have been written over the years related to the concept of fee waived adoptions by people with a lot more experience than me and you can find them using a simple Internet search on the topic. In spite of what conventional wisdom may dictate, studies have shown that there is little correlation between the amount of money someone pays for an animal and their devotion to the animal or ability to care for the animal. People take in free animals all the time as acts of kindness and to save their lives. People get animals from animal shelters during fee waived adoptions all the time, not because of the "deal" they are getting as much as the waived fee served as an incentive to act and to be part of something bigger than themselves. We need look no further than a recent phenomenon that happened in Sacramento to see the value in fee waived adoptions. A local businesswoman offered to pay the adoption fees for all pets adopted from the Front Street Animal Shelter during the month of December as an incentive to get animals adopted. When people found out, word spread and people wanted to be part of something special. Some people camped out outside the shelter before it opened. Others arrived hours before opening time, forming a line that wrapped around the block. Not only were all of the animals adopted out, but the shelter was able to import animals from other local shelters and find them homes. This wasn't a situation of people lining up because they didn’t want to pay an adoption fee. It was a situation of people wanting to adopt after hearing about a wonderful event and wanting to do something compassionate. The results have been called "epic." I look forward to finding out how many animals were adopted in this one month alone.
I have a lot of contacts in advocacy and rescue circles and all of this talk about adoption fees led me to a conversation with Denise Mulliken of Fayetteville, Arkansas, recently. Denise and I know each other from No Kill advocacy circles; she and her husband, Frank, are long time supporters of the No Kill Equation and we have a lot in common. I was thrilled to learn recently that not only have Denise and Frank started their own rescue group, but they don’t charge adoption fees at all. Yes, you read that correctly. No adoption fees. I asked Denise to tell me more about House of Little Dogs, Inc., how they function and about the decision to not charge an adoption fee. She shared this information:
The basis for all of our decisions about how we run our rescue has been No Kill. We’re actually pretty new to animal welfare. We didn’t become seriously involved until about four years ago when we met some No Kill advocates here in Fayetteville, started reading about it, reading Nathan’s writings. . .so by the time we decided to get into rescue, I guess No Kill principles were instilled in us: embracing compassion and hope, assuming a can-do attitude, postitive marketing and promotion of adoption, thinking outside the box and trusting our community and looking at our community as the solution to pet homelessness. When Frank and I decided we wanted to run our own rescue, we decided we were going to run it counter to almost everything we’d seen so many other rescues do.
I hope that others in the rescue community and the shelter industry will take some time to think outside the box like Denise and Frank and will consider that the focus should be on putting animals in homes while having some faith that most people are essentially good at heart. An adoption fee is not an indicator of someone’s level of love or commitment or willingness to care for an animal for the duration of his or her life. We have all heard of celebrities who have paid thousands of dollars for animals and then treated them as disposable things. I personally know of people who have paid thousands of dollars for dogs from breeders only to decide the pets were too much work and they wanted to get rid of them. We do better when we focus on our goal – getting animals into loving homes – than when we focus on dollar amounts as an indicator of someone’s capacity to be a good pet caregiver.
I am not suggesting that all rescues function the same way as House of Little Dogs. I think it is perfectly reasonable to charge some adoption fee which does help cover some of the vetting costs so the rescue can remain viable. Many animals in rescue require a great deal of veterinary care and for some groups it makes sense to charge a fee not as a test of someone's good intent, but as a business decision. I am also not suggesting that all municipal animal shelters function the same way and waive fees all the time. I support fee waived adoptions for bread and butter programs like Pets for Vets or Seniors for Seniors or even to move special groups of animals like older animals, pit bull-type dogs or special needs animals. When municipal shelters waive fees all the time as a go-to way to place animals, they can make it harder for the rescue groups in their communities which they rely on to pull animals to compete financially (as many of those rescues are likley charging some nominal adoption fee).
I know this subject can be polarizing. People can be firmly on one side of the argument or the other. I'm just asking you to think about it and about what the adoption fees being charged really mean. What they represent.
We found Aspy, our beloved Eski boy, living in a cow pasture with a herd of cattle in a property adjacent to ours. He was free. But he was priceless to us. And he had a long and wonderful life with us. With no fence.
(image of Front Street Shelter adoption event courtesy of the Sacramento Bee)
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson