I'm posting this a little later than I hoped. But I had the amazing opportunity to go to the HSUS Animal Care Expo in Las Vegas last week. I had thought I might write this while I was there, but if you've ever been to conferences, you know that your brain ends up on overload. Then I came home and immediately got sick. This blog post is brought to you thanks to copious quantities of tea and cough drops.
Anyway, while I was busy having a fever, I had a lot of time to lie around and just think about things and process all I learned. I realized that the sessions I went to had a recurring theme: challenging assumptions.
If you've been in the humane world for a long time, you know that a lot of "sacred cows" exist. I know I was told that:
1. You should check adopter housing situations, check references, and ideally do home checks.
2. Never adopt pets as gifts during holidays or black cats at Halloween.
3. Do absolutely everything you can to convince someone that the right pet may be one you think is right for them, not the one the prospective adopter thinks is "pretty."
4. Never discount adoption prices because that lowers the perceived value of the animal. If they can't afford the adoption fee; they can't afford to care for the animal "correctly." Plus, you'll go broke because you're revenue will drop.
5. View returns as the ultimate failure to be avoided.
All of these ideas have been passed down apparently with no data to support them. So a lot of innovative shelters and rescues are starting to ask, "what if?" They are trying new things and then tracking the results.
The Myth of the Perfect Adopter
The data on who adopts and why is fascinating. In one session, Dr. Emily Weiss from the ASPCA did a test of the 50-75 people in the room. She had us all stand up and asked questions. People had to sit down when their answer was yes. The questions included How many of you have lied on an adoption application? How many of you have had to give up a pet for financial or personal reasons? How many people are up-to-date on their pets' vaccinations?
By the end only 5 or 6 people were left standing. Those are your "perfect adopters." Think about the fact too that this was a room full of "animal people." They are the MOST likely to care for their pets. I've pointed out repeatedly that I don't have a fenced yard. If there's just a screening, rather than an actually conversation, I'd be screened out. (And yes, if you're wondering, I sat down on the vaccinations question.)
The bottom line is that instead of thinking of adopters as different, realize that they are US.
Why Do People Adopt?
Dr. Weiss also showed data that offered insights as to why people choose their pets. For dogs, it's looks. For cats, it's personality. Interestingly, I realized that I selected most of my dogs and current cat that way. For kittens, personality was less of an issue because they are all just cute ;-)
Other surprising data showed that people don't value animals less that they get at a discount or even free either from an animal shelter or elsewhere. They love their animals just the same. More of Dr. Weiss' data is on the ASPCAPro.com site (the link goes to her posts on the blog which seems to be where most of her research lives, but you might find more info on other pages as well). Dr. Weiss has done research on food aggression (basically "fixing" it in virtually all dogs) and how to determine if a cat is feral or just shy. As you might imagine, it's not obvious.
Reaching Out to Keep Pets in Homes
The entire "Pets for Life" track of the conference focused on reaching out to under served communities and overcoming barriers to pet education. Judging people based on how they dress, how they look, or the car they drive without having a conversation is unfair. People in trouble go to amazing lengths to keep their animals. Working to help solve the larger societal problems, rather than judging, can help keep more of these pets in homes, and even spayed and neutered.
Getting More Cats Out the Door
In another session, women from three animal shelters (Christie Smith, Potter League for Animals; Sharon Harvey, Cleveland Animal Protection League; Katherine McGowan Shenar, Asheville Humane Society) did a series of cat adoption promotions, including free adoptions, holiday promos, black cat specials at Halloween and found that their revenue went UP, not down. Even though the cat prices were discounted the increase in other adoptions offset the lower prices on cats. The return rate for "promo kitties" also stayed the same. They tracked the data, showed their numbers and were completely up-front about what worked and what didn't to get more cats out the door.
As an aside, the point was made that have you ever actually SEEN any of the supposed satan worshippers with their black cloaks at your shelter looking for black cats around Halloween; yeah, me neither. It's not like these shelters are dumping all their adoption standards; they just were letting regular people who would qualify to adopt a cat any other day, adopt a black cat or a kitty at a discount. And then tracking what happened.
In a session on adopter follow-up with Linda Reider (Michigan Humane Society), I learned why people chose to adopt from her shelter, and that the reason people ended up not keeping their animals depending on the length of time they had the animal. Problems with your customer service appear immediately, health issues appear within 1-2 weeks and behavior issues crop up within one month, but also later on. Most problems were resolvable, but she also encouraged us to think of returns not as failures, but as opportunities for improvement. People already have formed some type of bond with their adoptive pet. We shouldn't make it worse, but rather encourage them to use us as a resource they can turn to.
The Michigan Humane Society gathered this type of information (and a lot more) using a super simple email follow-up system that you can set up with as little as one volunteer. What you can learn from talking with your adopters after the fact can help you dramatically change how you do what you do. And the goodwill you generate by following up with people a week, a month, and even a year later has an amazing affect on your public perception and morale.
The bottom line is that we have to realize that people are going to get pets from somewhere. If you want that place to be your rescue, it's time to start looking at actual data. The next time someone says, "we've always done it that way," ask "why?" And "what if we did something else instead?"
You might be surprised to discover that the things you "know" to be true aren't really true at all. And if you have chucked some of your old assumptions out the window, let me know what happened. I'd love to share you successes and challenges with everyone, so we can learn from each other.