Raising Money and Costing Lives

Best Friends Survey Shows Disturbing Results for Shelter Animals

Last April, Best Friends published the results from a survey it conducted about the pet adoption market. While nearly all people surveyed identified themselves as pet lovers and recommended adoption to others, substantial numbers viewed shelter animals as damaged goods. Respondents believed the following about shelter animals:

  1. Have behavior problems – 65%
  2. Are malnourished – 63%
  3. Are unhealthy – 61%

People mostly viewed adoption’s benefit as saving a life rather than shelter animals being a better value.

Worst of all, young adults (18-34 years old) viewed shelter pets much less positively than other age groups. Specifically, 46% of young adult verses 33% of older age groups viewed shelter pets as less desirable than animals available from pet stores and breeders. Additionally, 38% of young adults compared to 28% of older adults believed shelter animal stayed in shelters as long as needed to find a home.

Animal Welfare Organizations Must Take the Blame for These Results

This survey’s results show animal welfare organizations are sending the wrong message to the public. Unfortunately, Best Friends press release about the survey largely blames the public for being ignorant and remains silent about animal welfare organizations. While Best Friends certainly does some excellent work, no-kill advocates do criticize Best Friends tendency to value collaboration with animal welfare groups over confronting such groups on important issues.

Dr. Becker over at mercola.com analyzes the results quite well.  She mentions some people may not find the specific breed they are looking for at a shelter. Certainly, it is more difficult to find designer dog breeds at shelters. However, Dr. Becker cites some interesting commentary from Mark Cushing, founder of the Animal Policy Group.  Apparently, this is a lobbying group, but the analysis is still insightful. Specifically, Mr. Cushing blames the major animal welfare television ads showing sick and abused animals “rescued” by these groups. We certainly have seen the ASPCA ads with Sara McLaughlin and various Humane Society of the United States ones with emaciated animals. Clearly, these ads convey the message “shelter animals are abused and give us money and all will be ok.” Is there any wonder why 2/3 of people view shelter animals as damaged and almost 40% of young adults think animals in shelters are safe?

Additionally, many shelters do not publish their kill rates or disguise them leading to the disconnect among the public about shelter killing. Most shelters do not want to discuss kill rates due to concerns about fundraising or ego. Others claim nearly all of their “adoptable” animals are saved when large number of dogs and cats are killed. Unfortunately, this secrecy leads to 38% of young adults and 28% of older age groups to erroneously believe animals are safe in shelters. Once again, shelters are putting their self-interests over their job of saving the animals under their care.  The solution is quite simple – mandatory publishing of kill rates (of all animals not just “adoptable”) so people can become informed that pets are not safe at many shelters.

Organizations do not have to send this “damaged goods” message out to raise money. The Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Society (“UPAWS”) in Michigan increased its save rate from 37% to 99% in a few years and raised significant funds during this period. However, UPAWS’s Pet Promoter in Chief argues its better to only make special pleas a few times a year.  Additionaly, UPAWS’s pleas do not overemphasize abuse of the animal, but instead focus on getting the pet well and into a good home.  As a result, the  organization raises needed funds, but does not tarnish the shelter pet brand.

Many Animal Shelters and Rescues Are Responsible for These Results

Local groups replicate the fundraising tactics used by national organizations. New Jersey’s largest animal welfare organization, Associated Humane Societies, frequently makes fundraising pleas for “abused” and “neglected” animals on its website as well as it Facebook pages. Similarly, many rescues highlight the terrible conditions animals were in before the rescues saved them.  Many rescuers whether they admit or not view themselves as heroes and want others to as well. As a result, rescuers highlighting the terrible conditions of the animals makes them feel like bigger heroes.

Shelter operations also impact the public’s negative perception about shelter animals behavior and health. Too many local shelters lack proper enrichment for animals, do not quickly get animals safely out of the stressful shelter environment, and do not provide proper medical care. As a result, people walk into poorly performing shelters seeing dogs acting “cage crazy” or looking sick and develop negative impressions. While we know these “problems” often disappear once animals get into a home, the potential adopter’s experience is tarnished.

Young Adults Pet Buying Trends Are Bad for the Future

Advertisers heavily market products and services to young adults.  Most importantly for pet adoption, young adults develop brand loyalty during this stage of life. Win these people over and you may have a customer for decades. Additionally, persuading older age groups who may be more set in their ways to adopt may be more difficult. Thus, it is imperative to win this demographic so we can have adopters for decades to come.

Recent research indicates young adults are looking for convenience and affordability in products and services. Overly restrictive and intrusive adoption requirements from many shelters and rescues certainly make adoption inconvenient. In fact, some rescues will not adopt animals to young adults altogether. Misguided beliefs about high adoption fees being necessary for good homes also is an impediment to reaching this market.

Shelters and Rescues Need to Show Their Pets Are the Best Product Available

Shelters need to properly market pets individually. After working with hundreds of shelter dogs (most of which were pit bull type dogs), I was always struck by how individual each animal was. Profile writers need to stop talking about the pet’s terrible past and focus on its positive present self. Show how this animal will make the adopter’s life better.  Use language to get people imagining doing all the things they enjoy with the animal. Allow the adopter to feel like a hero by giving this amazing animal a new home. You can read how to properly write pet profiles here and here.

At the end of the day, our goal is to save lives. If shelters continue the failed mantra of “poor abused animal, give us money, and adopt him”, they will only attract a small part of the pet market. Families or singles bringing an animal into a home usually want a well-adjusted animal. Shelters need to make the adoption experience fun, easy and effective by getting to know the adopters and helping them find their match made in heaven.  For example, take a look at the KC Pet Project’s adoption process which helped make Kansas City the fourth largest no-kill community in the nation. After adoption, the shelter should continue being a resource to help with any home adjusting issues.

At the end of the day, it all about the animals and not the money. When you see how an organization markets its animals, you can tell whether it is all about the animals or all about the money.

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