I frequently hear from angry animal advocates who insist that free or reduced-rate pet adoptions harm animals. The fact is that they're wrong, both in their concern about the quality of those adoptions, and in their perception of how those adoptions work to attract adopters.
Their expressed rationale for opposing such promotions, like the one advertised in the image at right, which is being held by the Nevada Humane Society, is that adopting pets to people who "can't afford" them means they will inevitably get sick, suffer, and die because their adopters also won't be able to afford vet care, vaccinations, nutritious food, heartworm preventive, and other basics of good pet care. There is almost always at least a hint of judgment that poor people will be bad pet owners in a myriad of other ways, too.
There are two problems with this. One is that the data we have on free pet adoptions flatly contradicts this belief. People who adopt pets at free adoption events value their pets exactly as much as those who paid a fee, and they also return them to the shelter or rescue group at exactly the same rate, or even a little less.
But the second problem is more related to my field of communications and marketing, and that's the one I want to talk about here. I particularly want to open this up for discussion as I haven't seen anyone else writing about it from this angle.
Free pet adoptions are not aimed at people who otherwise couldn't afford a pet, and that's not primarily who they attract. Just as Nordstrom holds special sales only for its best and, presumably, wealthiest customers, just as car dealers and appliance stores and luxury hotels have special promotions, shelters and rescue groups who do free adoptions know that the "free" part is a marketing strategy, not a hand-out.
Free and special price promotions are designed to be attention grabbers. They also serve to focus people on pet adoption not in a "someday when I get around to it" kind of way, but in a "better go this weekend because it's exciting, fun, and I'll save money!" kind of way.
And just as wealthy people look forward to the Nordstrom annual sale because it's an event, because it makes them feel special, and because they enjoy the idea of saving money, pet adopters respond the exact same way.
We absolutely have to lose our fear of using the language and practices of retail to promote shelter pets. Of course a pet is not a car or an appliance. Pets are living creatures who deserve the utmost respect and care. They also deserve loving homes, and if utilizing the well-worn psychological pathways mapped out for us by retail-focused marketing research helps us get them there, and there is no data to support our fear that free and low-cost adoptions are less successful than full-price ones, how can we justify opposing them?