Shelters and rescue groups typically give two reasons why they need to charge adoption fees for pets: A revenue stream, and to serve as a sort of filter to ensure better, more lasting adoptions by requiring people to cough up some money to bring the pet into their home. Are they right?
Let's look at the two reasons separately.
It's true that most shelters and virtually all rescue groups are dependent on adoption fees, in some cases almost exclusively.
But while that's "how it is" in the animal adoption world, it's important to realize that very few non-profits and causes have a retail or fee-style revenue stream. They instead rely on development -- the competent solicitation of donations, bequests, grants, and endowments -- to fund their efforts.
Animal sheltering is a very messy "cause" these days, with a truly chaotic mess of animal control services being provided by both municipal and private organizations, along with a hodgepodge of private shelters that range from chronically starved of funds to wealthy, and rescue groups that run mostly on volunteer power out of foster homes (although a few maintain some sort of kennel or shelter facility).
In the case of municipal shelters, whose mission is not the welfare of animals but public health and safety, it's easy to see why adoption fees are popular. Their success isn't dependent on getting animals adopted; in fact, it's often impeded by adoptions.
Many such agencies don't even operate an adoption program, and either kill the vast majority of the ufortunate pets who come in or, in progressive communities, transfer them to rescue and private shelter partners. (Of course, some municipal agencies are themselves very progressive and run great adoption programs on their own; I'm just taking a look at the spectrum.)
But private organizations that have become dependent on adoption fee revenue are not helping their mission; they're impeding it. If your mission is to get pets adopted, an adoption fee serves as both a financial and a psychological/marketing barrier to success.
In the practical sense, adoption fees take money that an adopter might spend on pet food, grooming, vet services, or supplies and turns it into an up-front cash outlay that might stretch the family's budget to the point where they decide not to adopt.
I know that's going to get the "if you can't afford a pet you shouldn't adopt one" crowd into a frenzy, but hold that thought for the second part of this post.
In the marketing sense, charging money for adoptions, especially anything more than a very small application or processing fee, taints the whole process, and turns it into a retail transaction. It erodes the "feel good" aspect of adoption over other methods of acquiring a pet.
It also perpetuates bad operational practices in the organization itself. Instead of doing what other causes and non-profits do, and raising funds from philanthropic sources, they expect every adoption to pay for itself and even expect some adoptions -- like those of puppies, kittens, and purebred animals -- to subsidize the costs of other pets.
If your mission is to rescue, medically treat, and re-home pets, that mission is good enough that people will donate to support it. And if you want to do retail to support your mission, well... that's why so many organizations run thrift stores, gift shops, galleries, and cafes.
There's nothing wrong with funding your organization through retail (although you need to consult your tax advisor if you go that route), but your mission shouldn't also be a retail operation. Your mission is adoption. Charging for that mission is exactly as if the Red Cross charged people to enter its shelters during a natural disaster, from a marketing or psychological point of view.
People who adopt see themselves as doing a good deed, and they are. From a marketing perspective, we should be able to capitalize on that, not put a price tag on it.
Ensuring better adoptions
Do people who get their pets for free love them less, or return them to the shelter more easily or frequently?
But that's not good enough for many animal advocates. In the last few months, in discussions of fee-waived pet adoptions, I've seen a total rejection of the data on the basis that they simply can't believe it's true, as well as more specific objections based on scenarios not looked at in the studies that might have a different outcome.
While we should always question data, and there's a difference between "nit-picking" and fact-checking, the main thrust of these objections is always that we need to protect animals from suffering and harm by gatekeeping adoptions with a fee.
The obections usually fall into three areas:
- What if the pet is adopted for free, and because the process doesn't cost money, dog fighters and vivisectionists use it as a free and easy source of animals?
- What if the pet is adopted for free by a person too poor to pay an adoption fee, and the pet gets sick? If they can't pay the fee, how can they pay the vet bills?
- And last, we live in a materialistic society, where the value of things is dependent on their cost. Doesn't that automatically mean people won't value their pets if they got them for free?
Let's start with number one: People getting free pets to do bad things to them.
First, no one has suggested doing away with the adoption counseling/screening process. It is simply cost-prohibitive for anyone interested in large numbers of disposable animals to go through all that time to obtain one single pet.
If your municpal agency is handing pets over without screening or in bulk for laboratory experimentation, or selling them out the back door to dogfighters -- yes, these things happen -- then that is not an adoption fee problem. It's a deep, systemic problem that requires reform at the local political level. Charging or not charging an adoption fee will have no impact on those problems, and any attempt to link the two is either misguided or disingenuous.
Let's look at number two: Poor people who can't afford an adoption fee won't be able to care properly for the pet.
This is probably not true in most cases. Poor people are just the same as wealthy people in their capacity for love and empathy, and will often do extraordinary things for an actual animal they have come to love, even if they have trouble finding the money for a hypothetical animal they have never met.
But let's say it was true. I don't think it matters in a society where half of all dogs and cats who come into shelters are killed because of homelessness. Isn't it better to let the pet have a chance, than condemn that pet (or some other pet further back in the pipeline) to death?
Sure, maybe the pet would be put to sleep later anyway, if he or she has an illness the owner can't afford to treat. But maybe the pet won't get sick. Maybe he or she will be extremely old when they do.
And maybe that rich couple with the late model SUV who adopted a pet from you last year is in bankruptcy this year. If the last few years have taught us anything, it's that economic forces are powerful and unpredictable, both on a societal and individual level.
Is this really a rational reason to deny a lifesaving adoption?
Finally, let's look at the idea that people don't value pets they haven't paid for.
We know this is not true because of the data that exists on this topic, looking at pets acquired for free at special adoption events.
We also know it's not true because the single category of pet least likely to end up in a shelter is a pet given as a gift.
And every one of us involved in rescue should know it's not true because we have houses full of pets we got for free, who we'd do anything for. I certainly never loved my free pets less than my adoption-fee or breeder-obtained pets. I never spent less money on them, treated them less well, or fought less fiercely to save them from illness and injury.
And really, by that logic, pets from puppy mill outlets should be considered the most precious of all, as they cost the most to obtain. Do you believe that to be true? I didn't think so.
What I'm saying is this: Organizations should seriously question whether or not adoption fees are interfering with the fulfillment of their mission.
They should ask themselves if they've become so dependent on an adoption-fee revenue stream that they've overlooked other, more appropriate, methods of obtaining funds for their work.
And they should absolutely look into their hearts and ask if the size of someone's bank account, or the price tag on the pet, is really what they think should and does define "value" in the human-pet relationship, or if they are letting economic prejudice cloud their judgment.