In April, I held my nearly 18-year-old Maine Coon, Frankie, in his favorite living room chair as he peacefully, naturally passed away. I’d stumbled upon him while a cub reporter, working a murder story in Watsonville, Calif. The victim’s family wanted donations made to the local animal shelter, and I went there to do a follow-up story. A 6-month-old one-eyed Maine Coon, who had been brought in off the street at about 4 months old with his injury, stole my heart. The police-run shelter asked me for $10 — one eye, I guess, made him half price from the $20 adoption fee — and I brought him home. He ended up faithfully, joyfully accompanying me across the country and through many phases of my life.
There will never be another Frankie. A month after he passed, though, I was ready to take in another dog-like cat who needed some plush digs and copious spoiling. I searched the listings of some of the local rescues — one had a five-page questionnaire that demanded in all caps that you not put in an application with any other shelter or rescue, lest you waste their time, while another responded to my initial request for information about a cat up for adoption but then dropped contact.
Then on a 3 a.m. curiosity search online around the shelters of nearby cities, I poked through the website of the Baltimore city shelter, Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, Inc. (BARCS). This high-intake shelter had a wide range of dogs and cats, and one in particular caught my eye.
The shelter called him Joey. The foster mom, with whom he was recuperating from surgery, called him Crab Cat. He was found April 4 and brought into the shelter. The year-old kitty had a broken leg and pelvis, was unable to find food, and had crab shells and an empty taco sauce packet in his stomach (I’ve since explained to him that nothing at Taco Bell is edible). He was emaciated, dehydrated, anemic, dirty, and had muscle wasting. He received full medical treatment through the shelter’s Franky Fund. Yeah, that wasn’t lost on me — Frankie, Franky.
They made adoption nice and easy for someone driving up from the Beltway. My emailed application was approved in half a day and I made arrangements with the foster mom to go meet him. We then drove to the shelter to finalize the adoption and, cat in carrier, I was quickly back on the road.
I named him Genghis Khat. Two months after he was rescued from the street by a good Samaritan, he’s racing around this house and raising hell, sacking defenseless villagers, ambushing passing feet, building a mighty empire, etc.
Soon after bringing him home, I noticed that BARCS and other Baltimore-area shelters held an adoption event at the local fairgrounds. Adoption fees were waived and adopters could take home their new pet the same day with photo ID and an approved application. Apparently there were far more adopters than animals. Some Facebook comments were critical of the event, asking how the pets could be going to good homes with same-day adoptions, no home inspection or vet check, etc.
BARCS is a believer in progressive pet adoptions, and they have reason to be. On Thursday, they announced that more than 100 animals had come to the shelter in just the past 48 hours. So they waive adoption fees at other times as well, including Memorial Day weekend. If you adopt an animal with a medical issue, like Genghis Khat, there’s no fee. If you adopt an animal over 5 years of age or a bonded pair, the fee is waived. Members of the military and public safety professionals pay no fees. They have a special program for “working cats” — ones who would live better at a barn, corporate campus, plant nursery, etc. And two pets over the age of 6 months can be adopted for the price of one.
The Humane Society of the United States notes that just 39 percent of pets came from shelters or rescues despite the needs of homeless animals. So they’re trying to coach rescue groups on how to find animals homes without driving away potential adopters. The studies, they stress, show that putting adopters through the inquisition doesn’t guarantee a better outcome, and fee-free adoptions and even gift adoptions don’t have a greater likelihood of failure.
So what is a progressive adoption policy?
“A progressive, barrierfree adoptions policy means that rescue groups approach potential adopters in a non-judgmental manner that allows adoption counselors to get to know the potential adopter, reveal what issues concern the person and determine how to create a successful adoption. Through these conversation-based adoptions, you can build relationships with adopters so that they view rescue groups as a lifelong resource for their pets and return for advice and support when concerns crop up.
Progressive adoption programs put less emphasis on written applications and instead use open conversations to better understand and communicate with adopters. While rescue groups should collect basic contact information and a list of topics that the potential adopter wants to discuss, the application should forgo any lengthy inquisition. When organizations throw up barriers to adoptions, such as landlord checks, home visits, veterinarian checks, fence requirements, and verification of current pets’ vaccinations, it can prevent one of your animals from going to a loving home. But it will not stop a potential adopter from getting a pet from another source. Barriers merely provide a false sense of security. As unsettling as it may be, in reality, you have no control over what happens to a pet from the moment she and her new owner walk out your door and head for home. And despite commonly held fears, agencies that aim for barrier-free adoption policies are not placing animals carelessly; they just take care not to miss out on opportunities to place their animals into good homes.”
The HSUS stresses attitude — not approaching a potential adopter with judgment and suspicion, but with an open mind and appreciation for their desire to save a life. They advise that adopters shouldn’t be blocked from future adoptions if they return an animal whose adoption didn’t work out. Furthermore…
“It is important to make adopters feel welcomed at every stage, including returns, without fear that they may be ridiculed. Above all, it is crucial not to vent about your customers or potential customers through social media, or any other means of communication, as no one wants to adopt from a group that might criticize them. Avoid creating a culture in your organization where people are bad, wrong, or stupid—they are who rescue groups rely on to find homes for the animals, and organizations should embrace the opportunity to share helpful information.”
Another part of a progressive adoption system is not telling an adopter that you’ll pick the perfect pet for him or her, says the Humane Society:
“While there are several programs that help adopters make a match based on personalities and lifestyle, no matching system is perfect and many potential adopters choose with their heart. The avid runner may want a lazy pet around the house. The couch potato may want a more active dog to motivate him to exercise. The adults in a family with young children could be seasoned dog trainers. If a potential adopter wants a specific pet there is no reason an organization should not let the individual try out the adoption.”
People who have a pleasant adoption experience are more likely to recommend the shelter or rescue to others. Shelters that don’t turn away animals have realized they must practice progressive adoption policies to find homes for all of the pets that come through their open doors. Rescues may have fewer regrets in dealing with potential adopters. And more Genghis Khats can mercilessly poke at their human’s shin in a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s time to play with that Horton Hears a Who toy again…