No one likes to think of shelter animals as products or inventory, but the reality is that animal shelters housing animals in need of homes are in the customer service industry. They have to work hard to remain in the public eye not only to compete with other sources of animals, but so the public knows they even exist. If I was to take a walk in a large park in my area which is centrally located in the city and stop people to ask them where the animal shelter is located, quite a few would know. If I went one step further and asked them the hours or operation, I think some would know but many would not. If I went even further and asked them what they know about the live release rate, a few may have heard that ours is a No Kill shelter (although it is not), just because progress has been made and people would like to think it is a No Kill facility. If I ended by asking them how difficult it would be for them to reclaim or adopt an animal while the shelter is open, I feel confident I would see more than few looks of confusion or contemplation. It's just not easy here and the reason for that is the shelter is not open family-friendly hours.
Not a week goes by when I don’t receive some email or see some post on social media lamenting the fact that the tax-funded animal shelter in the city where I work only had X number of adoptions that week or faulting owners of animals for failing to come to the animal shelter to find them. “If they only cared enough they would be down here looking every day.”
In addition to being very visible in the community, animal shelters have to - have to - be open family-friendly hours when people can actually get there while the shelter is open. Any shelter which is only open when the majority of the public is at work is setting itself up for limited reclaims of lost animals and adoption numbers which are lower than they otherwise could be. And that’s just a shame. No one expects people who work in animal shelters to work the same hours as other people in public safety departments. But no one who works in an animal shelter should expect to have a 9:00 to 5:00 job either. If that is the kind of job they want, perhaps working in an animal shelter is not a good choice. Any animal shelter which is not open to the public at all should not call the building a shelter. It should be called a holding facility.
Let me give you a couple of examples for the community where I work to explain.
The shelter here is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It is open until 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays - one night a week. It is open on Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. There are a lot of people who work here who commute from other places. For many folks, an hour commute each way is not a stretch. But let’s take the example of a person who lives locally for the sake of argument and let’s say that person has traditional work hours during the day - 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with an hour lunch break.
Person A lives 20 minutes from where they work and they work another 20 minutes from the shelter. If their pet goes missing and they have to go to the shelter to look for their lost pet, it will take them 20 minutes to get to the shelter, at least 20 minutes (if not more) to look for and then reclaim their lost pet, another 20 minutes to get their pet back home and then another 20 minutes to get back to work. That’s a total of an hour and 20 minutes. Most traditional work schedules allow an hour for lunch. The only way this person can reclaim a lost pet is to take vacation time, wait until a Tuesday or wait until a Saturday. Depending on when the animal was taken to the shelter, their pet may have been adopted out by another family by the time they can go look for him or her.
Person B lives 15 minutes from where they work and they work another 15 minutes from the shelter. If they want to adopt an animal, they have two logical choices. They can go on a Tuesday night and hope they can complete the process of meeting potential animals, filling out the paperwork and get adoption counseling by 6:00 p.m. They can also wait until Saturday and go when the shelter is open from 9:00 to 3:00. If they want to adopt a pet during the week, they almost always have to take vacation time. I don’t advocate adopting a new pet and then dropping that animal off at home before going right back to work, but let’s say someone wanted to do that. It would take 15 minutes to get to the shelter, at least an hour to meet pets, do the paperwork and get counseling, another fifteen minutes to get home and then another 15 minutes to get back to work. That’s a total of an hour and 45 minutes.
I know of some municipal animal shelters which are open from 11:00 to 7:00 every week day and have both Saturday and Sunday hours. I applaud them. The municipal animal shelter in Lake County, Florida, is open on Sundays and the shelter director has told me that she "loves" her Sunday hours. I just wish more shelters would take this subject of family-friendly hours more seriously to keep the number of animals in the building as low as humanly possible at any given time. Lives are at stake if shelters do not recognize that the ability to move their inventory - animals - is directly affected by whether or not the public can get to the shelter while it is open.
We tell people that adopting an animal is a lifetime commitment. A process to be taken seriously. If we really believe that, then shelters have to be open when people can get there, take time to meet new-to-them animals and do the adoption process right. Adopters should be screened to make sure the adoption is a good fit and they should be counseled on dog or cat decompression to help set everyone up for success. I admit that I did take vacation time when we adopted our dog. That is because we found him on Petfinder and had to travel 2 hours to reach the shelter where he was being housed. It took the better part of a day to get there, spend some time with him and a few other dogs, complete the paperwork and get him home.
We tell people that if their pet goes missing, regardless of whose “fault” it is, they have to go to the shelter to look for their lost pet. If they cared enough, they would do that not just one day but every day. If we really believe that, then shelters have to be open hours when people can get there. It’s just that simple.
Family friendly hours does not mean more hours. It means different hours. If you are an animal shelter which is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the week, I challenge you to at least try changing your hours for six months to see if it makes a difference. Talk to your city council if you have to get permission. Get public support to try the experiment and encourage the public to contact elected officials to make it happen. Have your employees who interact with the public arrive an hour later and stay open at least until 6 p.m. Make sure the public knows about this experiment using the media, a press release, and social media. Shout it loud and clear. Explain why you are doing it: to help the public by getting more animals back home and by getting more animals into new homes.
If you try this for six months and it does not work, contact me to let me know. I’d like to hear about it.