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26 November 2012


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Our local shelters do very limited screening. Their philosophy, right or wrong, is that they are an adoption facility, not a NO adoption facility. You walk in and want a dog, you get one. No checking the landlord, references, nothing. This includes pit bulls, senior dogs, dogs with medical issues, puppies, and dogs with special needs (no cats, no children, etc...). Their return rate is pretty high. I do like the idea of charging, as to me it shows a step in committing. I have found plenty of pets, strays, and they are loved and cherished like you mentioned. But there is also a level of commitment once the money has been put down. And I do believe if someone cannot afford that basic fee, a trip to the veterinarian with a tooth slab fracture, could be a deal breaker for some...


I volunteer for a non-profit animal shelter. I feel an adoption fee is needed to not only cover the costs of animal care but to ensure animals are placed in responsible homes. At our shelter, animals are spayed/neutered, micro-chipped and up-to-date on shots. We cannot rely on donations alone to cover costs of care, utilities, payroll, insurance, vet costs, maintenance, etc. I feel people take an adoption more seriously if they pay a fee. They will take more time to ensure the animal works out in the household. I am proud of our organization which thoroughly screens potential adopters before allowing an animal to leave. Our staff not only works with the animals while they are in the shelter, but also helps new owners with any behavioral problems that arise.

I think if you label something as "free", especially an animal that has already been through so much in it's life, it can be more apt to be disregarded.


Lots of food for thought here! I'm not quite sure I agree, though. I foster regularly for a rescue in the Sacramento area (I suspect you would be familiar with it). It has a permanent facility with kennels as well as a network of volunteers (it is an all-volunteer organization). It's one of the largest breed specific rescues in the country. There are lots of expenses, with vet costs being a major expense (over $100,000 a year).

There are several arguments you make that I doubt (I haven't looked at all your data). I feel there is a strand of either/or reasoning here: either you depend on revenue from the "sale" of the pets or you look into other sources of revenue (like donations, grants, and fundraisers). Why not both? The rescue organization I volunteer for certainly does both--in big ways.

Another strand of either/or reasoning: adopt to poor people who would be turned away by adoption fees or the dogs will be euthanized. Not at all true for the organization I work with--dogs are euthanized only because of intractable pain or serious behavioral reasons. (Dogs that are unadoptable because of their age or medical status live in permanent foster homes or at the "sancturay.") The adoption fees are part of what makes it possible to rescue the dogs--in other words, part of what keeps the dogs alive.

I do find some of the counterarguments convincing. I do think we value more what we pay for, and I do think that the adoption fee is a kind of legitimate basic means test. Speaking ethically, too, why shouldn't the adopter help shoulder the costs of the rescue group so that it can continue its work? I have adopted four dogs from this group, and never resented what I paid (about $300-350 per dog). I've adopted out 20 or so foster dogs--and I've never had a single adopter complain about the payment. That payment often does not cover the costs of the dog adopted (all dogs receive health checks and vaccinations at a minimum).


Arlene and Lynn, you have restated the conventional wisdom that I also stated and debunked. I did it with some data and analysis, neither of which you addressed in your comments.

Lynn, you keep saying "I feel" and "I believe," but beliefs and feelings aren't facts. What evidence do you have to support your beliefs and feelings? I gave mine; what's yours?

Arlene, I believe that the problem rescue groups and no-kill shelters hanging onto pets until the "perfect" home arrives is that the animals you're NOT pulling from the shelters are dying elsewhere while you take your time with your adoption process. No one wants to put animals into unacceptable homes, but a good home is fine. It doesn't have to be perfect. As Dr. Ellen Jefferson says, "Perfect is the enemy of lifesaving."

As to the adoption fee being necessary to pay for the work the group does, I've already said that's "how it is" in the shelter/rescue world. The thing is, a 50 percent kill rate for homeless dogs and cats is ALSO "how it is." Just because groups have become dependent on adoption fees doesn't mean that can't, or shouldn't, change.

Arlene, you ask "Why not do both?" I already explained why not. That was what this post was about, that adoption fees create a barrier to the fulfillment of your adoption mission, as if the Red Cross charged for admission to its shelters during a disaster.

Last, to look at the issue of whether or not we value what we don't pay for... that's just not true. We don't pay for our children or our friends or our spouses. We don't pay for being given shelter during a disaster. We value those things anyway. Just as I valued my "free" pets exactly as much as those for whom I paid something. And since the studies I cited, that so far no one has refuted, find that people value their free pets equally with those they pay for, I'd say the onus is on you to demonstrate that's not true if you're going to continue to allege it.


Christie, excuse my words "feel" and "think". My statements are based on 12+ years experience with a non-profit animal shelter. I didn't realize I had to seek data to post an opinion.

It's not about placing an animal in a "perfect" home, it's the "right" home. As I already mentioned, many of these animals that are in a shelter are abused, neglected or stray. If we place an animal in any home, they could end up the same way. So, in your mind, that's okay? Just as long as lives are saved? Never mind how they're treated or cared for?


Oh please, Lynn. It's obvious I'm not saying that. Read my post again.

And yes, in this conversation, you do need to seek data to back up your opinion. We all have opinions, but if the data shows our opinion is wrong, we owe it to the animals to CHANGE OUR OPINION.


You make a good argument. I am ALL FOR this idea and would love to see a rescue group put this into place.

Sometimes I look at online listings of Beagles in foster care and think maybe I'd like to adopt one because I love the breed and because it would free up a space that they say they desperately need in order to take another dog in need. Then I remember that I don't have $350 lying around.

Lisa Hospets

Our organization, Hospets, does not charge adoption fees. When asked about the fee our response is that we don't like to place a price tag on an animal so we don't charge adoption fees, however, donations to help us keep doing what we do, are always accepted and greatly appreciated but never required.

I find that the donation typically covers or exceeds any cost we have in caring for the animal. In special cases, we will fund raise for vetting expenses etc.


I don't quite understand where the "perfect" home argument came into this--seems like a red herring. I would never argue that any rescue group should wait for a "perfect" home--and certainly the group I work with doesn't eliminate "nonperfect" homes, however you would define that. It does do home visits, but the criteria for adoption are very liberal (which is why it adopts out hundreds of dogs every year).

And the context for my "Why not do both?" was my understanding of your argument that adoption fees somehow preclude attempts to seek vigorously other sources of revenue. My experience certainly shows it does not.

I'm not sure the Red Cross analogy works here--too many differences in the situations. However, in both cases, those being sheltered (the dogs, or perhaps by extension, those who surrender them) certainly are not charged any fees by the rescues.


Excellent piece as usual.

Being forced to operate as an actual not-for-profit or charity would weed out all the raggedy pants rescues who really shouldn't be in the game at all, as well as the scammers who are selling dogs online for a fair bit of money that they've obtained for free.

KerryAnn May

The difference is that the American Red Cross has a development staff, paid big big bucks, that works on raising funds full time. One thing that animal rescues envy about the regular nonprofit sector is their devopment staff. Between working full time, raising children, going to school, and fostering and sitting at PetSmart on the weekends, our current volunteers are spread pretty thin. We've yet to find anyone willing to volunteer any time on fundraising who knows what they are doing. So much of fundraising requires start up seed money we don't have to begin with. Direct mail is expensive. Bequests are great but you have to market that (direct mail is expensive and email is not effective anymore without sending on a regular basis and that takes another volunteer) and payoff is slow and years down the road, foundations favor the really big groups generally. It's tough for grassroots organizations to do it all. We'd love for you to volunteer as our fundraising lead if you think we could raise enough to stop charging adoption fees. Seriously. I'd love to do it.

Vickie Dick

I am all for the no fee adoption. Lots of people would love to save a dog but just can't come up with the adoption fee plus transport costs. As far as vetting, some vets such as the one I use will give emergency service and set up a payment plan, thus we don't have to come up with all the money at once like we would to adopt a dog or cat and pay for transport. And as far as the rescues needing the adoption fee for paying for vetting and things, just how many posts do we see where money is being raised to attract a rescue to pull an animal in need. Some of the chip ins and pledges add up to hundreds of dollars that are supposed to go to vetting the dog etc. Of course every potential adopter should be well screened weather it be a paid adoption or free to insure the safety of the animal being adopted. The life of the animal should come first and foremost rather then the adoption fee. And how many posts have we seen lately where animals where neglected and abused even when a fee was paid by the adopter. So I don't think people take better care of an animal they paid for any better then one they got for free. I have several that I got from people for free and several that I paid adoption fees and transport fee's for, I love all my animals, even the free ones.

KerryAnn May

Lisa, when is the last time you had to have a cats leg amputated? Or a urinary blockage fixed? Or a blood transfusion on a cat? No adopter's free-will donation is going to cover that. Something like that happens weekly in our tiny nonprofit so we are constantly hustling. By you saying that you fundraiser when you for special cases, I am guessing special doesnt happen weekly.

Lisa Hospets

Just a couple of weeks ago we had week long hospitalizations for parvo and pneumonia. Rescuing is a very small part of what our organization does, the majority is providing free food, vetting, grooming, respite care and much more to seniors, disabled and hospice patients countywide who need assistance with their pets. Very little of our funding comes from adoption donations and very little of our expense is incurred by adoptable pets. The majority of our expense is providing free services and it is paid for with donations and grants

andrea fox

I think that while your article made some very good points, I believe that some of it is a bit overly optimistic. The statement "If your mission is to rescue, medically treat, and re-home pets, that mission is good enough that people will donate to support it", is not something that I have found to be true. I have been rescuing animals for many years, from exotics such as lizards and snakes to dogs and cats. I currently only rescue cats and the occasional dog. I get just about 0 donations. I used to occasionally get food donations, but even that has dried up within the last year. People SAY they will donate something when I come to rescue a cat that for whatever reason or another they can't or wont care for any more, but they never do. I had to take on a second job and odd jobs on the side to continue to feed, house and vet everyone. With that being said, the adoption fees I charge do not even cover the cost of the animals being spayed or neutered, not to mention wormed, vaccinated, vet checked, flea treated, and then fed and housed for however many months, or in some cases years it takes for them to be rehomed. I have to recoup something, somewhere, or I would not be able to continue to help ANY of the animals. I am in a rural area, and the closest town is fairly redneckish, so possibly that has something to do with why I do not get any donations. People in this area do not place a very high value on animals of any kind, but I can't imagine that I am alone in my struggle to make ends meet. I do check references..when they have them. First time pet owners don't have vet references I can check, so I have to depend on my gut instincts sometimes from meeting with them and watching them interact with the animals. My gut is not infallible I am sure. This is why in the case of kittens, I charge just a bit more than a frozen chicken. I could not bear to think that one of the animals that I saved and loved would end up as snake or large reptile food, and it does happen. I have waived adoption fees from time to time,and I am sure I will again, but for me, for now, it is an unfortunate necessity. But never, in any of my years as a rescuer, have I based my judgement of "worthiness to adopt" on how much money someone has. It is and always has been based on my desire for all animals to have a safe and loving home, and for humans to be able to enjoy the wonderful experience of sharing their lives with an animal companion.


This is very thought provoking - and convincing.


Hi Christie, Your posts are very thought provoking and I attended your workshop at the NK Conference. I have a question, our municipal shelter staff says they can't screen adopters because they can't discriminate since it is a city facility; therefore, they won't say no to anyone. I don't have a problem with reduced (or no fees) but I do have a problem with absolutely no screening. Any idea how to address this?


Leigh, you'll need to bring this to your local government, the ones who are the bosses of the shelter. Obviously municipal shelters all over the country screen, and I'm sure others in your state do, too, so this may be as simple as getting the local government to tell them to stop being lazy and do their job right.

If not, then it gets a bit more individualized as to how to resolve it. Where are you located?


Andrea, it doesn't sound like you're an organization, but an individual. Is that correct?


I absolutely agree with everything you have written in this article. Some thoughts:

Yes, some shelters take both approaches- our local CCSPCA charges ridiculous adoption fees, has a thrift store, and fundraises, in addition to the tax money they've received for 50 years from the city/county. That adds up to over 6 MILLION dollars in funds every year (3 mil from taxes, 3 mil from donations). Yet, they kill over 80 pets 24/7/365. (from their own reporting, between 30-40 thousand animals a year killed)Over 80 animals per day! Yet, they won't reduce their adoption fees, or owner reclaim fees. And, they don't use any of the 3 million in donations for free/low-cost spaying/neutering.

The truth is, most of the larger shelters aren't in the business to adopt out animals- they are in the business to stay in business... with all their salaries and perks intact.

What the smaller rescues really should do is adopt animals out for free, and spend their time cultivating and stealing the benefactors away from the larger kill shelters. I can's even imagine how many animals could be helped if our CCSPCA's 3 million in donations was being split among rescue groups that actually find homes for animals.

Something that is skirted around here, is that most of the large kill shelters (and quite a few of the smaller rescue groups) expect that adoption fees should cover housing, care and salaries. Yet, successful no-kill shelters are being operated with only volunteers and free adoptions as well as free medical and spay/neuter. They raise funds specifically to pay for the minimums needed, have no bankroll, and yet adopt out more animals than the richer fee-based groups do. There's also the factor of so many people wanting to run a rescue/shelter as if it were their full-time paying job.

In all of my years experience with shelters, and having run my own rescue years ago, I have found no difference at all between how much it cost to buy an animal (because calling it an adoption fee is like me saying that paying a store $10 for a tofurky is an adoption fee) and how well they are cared for. Lower income owners love their pets just as much as higher income owners, but both groups need educating about animal care.

I encouraged an acquaintance to adopt a dog from a new shelter here, for $50 vs the $160 that same dog would have cost at the CCSPCA. Two weeks later, the puppy has parvo, and is at the vet. If my friend had paid $160 for the adoption, he would now have $160 less to afford the vet care. But, in less than 2 weeks, he and his family have made the commitment to expensive treatment. At the CCSPCA prices, that dog would likely not have been adopted out at all.

Children conceived through expensive IVF methods adding up to tens of thousands of dollars do not have less-divorced parents, less rates of abuse than people who got them the old-fashioned 'free way'.

People who like to talk about the 'value' of an animal as a way to ensure its care aren't looking at the big picture. That value system also says new things are worth more than old, or used things. It implies that someone who paid a lot for an old, beat-up bike would take better care of it than someone who got a fancy new bike for free. They also overlook how that system identifies animals as objects, products, and therefore has no place when considering the fate of living, sentient beings.

Please keep on this idea- it is truthful and logical. It never fails to surprise me when people say something cannot be done differently because, well, that's just not how things have been done. Nevermind the fact that that route has failed consistently and miserably. Some people just can't deal with the 'change' part of changing.

KerryAnn May

"Yet, successful no-kill shelters are being operated with only volunteers and free adoptions as well as free medical and spay/neuter."

I would love to know who these shelter are so we can learn from them and borrow their management and fundraising practices.


Hm, a lot of food for thought.
"...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."

That being said, how is a shelter to know when/if they are in a position to wave adoption fees? In my experience, some 'regular' non-profits without retail income, who have competed for and lost grants, are facing one of the worst donation years since the mid 20th century. I hope to find more info in the links of the post, but for now I wonder how many adoptions are impeded by fees, and how many shelters could truly make up lost revenue when 'competing' against one another.

Lisa Hospets

KerryAnn, this group is all volunteer, no kill and say they are completely donation driven. You might want to contact them and ask about adoption fees http://www.save-a-life.org/about/about-save-a-life. Animal Care Foundation in Hawaii does not charge adoption fees (their website is down at the moment with hosting issues). Here is another http://www.capeanimals.org/process.html and a rescue http://oldfriendsseniordogs.com/foster-or-adopt.html

Hopefully Glorybug can provide more examples, I would love to know about their programs and possibly doing a little brainstorming with them.


The argument that rescues are taking funds away from the adopter's budget for vet care and other necessities is only valid if you are not providing those services inclusive of the adoption fee. If the rescue/shelter covers the cost of the spay/neuter, vaccinations, HW test/treatment, parasite treatment/prevention, etc it is far more cost effective (because we negotiate lower rates for these services with our vets than adopters would pay) and we are certain that the services are received (instead of relying on the adopter to get it done.)

Also, I think it is a bad idea to adopt out animals to people with so little disposable income that an adoption fee would be a significant barrier to adoption because if an adoption fee strains the budget, then so would routine veterinary care. I'm not talking about what if the dog needs chemotherapy or orthopedic surgery that costs thousands and thousands of dollars. I'm talking about basic vaccinations and annual wellness care (which costs at least the same as an average adoption fee.) It may be better for an animal to live in a home with a family that can't afford to pay for surgery 5 years down the line than to be euthanized in a shelter, but I don't think it's better for an animal to be adopted by a family who is not going to pay for routine medical care (vaccinations, parasite prevention, etc.) In addition to living out a potentially uncomfortable and possibly miserable existence/slow death, failure to vaccinate, spay/neuter, and administer parasite preventatives are significant public health concerns. I agree that people don't have to be wealthy to care for animals, but they do need to be willing to highly prioritize the needs of the animals even on a limited budget. I know very wealthy people who wouldn't spend $1000 to save their pet's life and other people who are living hand to mouth who would sell a kidney or take out a loan if necessary to pay for necessary medical expenses for their pet. It has nothing to do with income, but it does have to do with budgeting and priorities. If you really want and have the minimum financial means to care for an animal, a reasonable adoption fee is not an impediment.

Finally, I really worry about giving animals away (as some shelters do) because "free" animals can be sold (to dog fighting rings, laboratories for scientific experimentation/vivisection, etc.) by unscrupulous individuals for profit. Changing a reasonable adoption fee curtails these activities by making them unprofitable. The article suggests that this is a problem better resolved through screening and procedural reforms, but honestly, those policies are SO much harder to change and less reliable because people lie. Adoption fees are straight forward: uniform and less susceptible to manipulation.

I do think it is important to balance what a "reasonable" adoption fee is and to assure that it is not cost prohibitive to the population the rescue serves. I think the bigger problem from a "marketing perspective" is that people don't understand the difference between rescues and shelters (and the financial models for each.) Rescues negotiate discounts for vet care, but typically do not have a vet on "staff" or a facility to house our dogs. We have to pay fee for service per dog for vetting and boarding. Many shelters receive a steady stream of funds (albeit limited and often insufficient) from either a government entity or private endowment or both, and they have salaried staff. Their revenue and overhead is more consistent and less dependent upon the number of animals they process. Rescues also tend to take in more dogs with behavioral or major medical issues that are more costly to manage and take longer to place in adoptive homes (most shelters just put those animals to sleep or transfer them to rescues.) So, when adopters ask why they should pay $300 for one of our dogs when they can go to a municipal shelter and get a dog for "free" these are the reasons I supply. Our funding and our operating costs are less predictable and more dependent upon the specific animals in our care and we provide a lot of services (at considerable cost) that shelters do not. Even if we had a staff of full-time paid fundraising personnel (HA!) our ability to sustain a rescue under that model would be less feasible than a municipal shelter which can "give away" animals for free and still remain budget neutral. Many shelters give away unspayed/neutered animals to the public for FREE which ultimately exacerbates the problem of overpopulation. If charging an adoption fee is necessary to make spaying/neutering possible, I absolutely think that is the way to go even if it means that more animals are euthanized in the short term.

PS: The red cross does sell blood that it collects for free to hospitals. Not in times of crisis or emergency, but it is part of their financial model as well.


Christie - Thanks for your reply. I am located in Va Beach, VA. I'm Pres. and co-founder of Friends of VB Animal Control www.beachpetpals.org and also on FB and we have been trying to address this since we formed 8yrs ago. We advocated (and got) a new shelter, vaccinations, a shelter vet etc. The shelter is under the Police Dept and they along with the city attorney say "they can't discriminate". While we have several No Kill (VB is not)shelters in VA, and they are the ones I go to for best practices, they are mostly run by non-profits with the city contract. Any thoughts you can provide would be very helpful. VBAC recently got approval from the city attorney to have reduced adoption fees but the lack of no screening is troubleing and while I don't know the number, we do see many come back. Thank you!


What you need to do is ask the city attorney to cite what specific laws/codes, BY NUMBER, she or he is relying on to make that determination. Then you need to get your own attorney to examine the issue, and determine whether or not they're RIGHT. My guess is they're just making it up, relying on some language in a code somewhere that backs up their desired position, but without the kind of comprehensive legal analysis that would truly answser the question.


Thanks so much!

KerryAnn May

Lisa Hospets, I contacts CAPE and Save a Life. I'm not sure they are great examples or resources. This is what I found out via email.

Cape take in 15-30 dogs a year. The rescues I work with take that in in a month. I'd have plenty of time to fundraiser if I rescued that few of dogs. Save-a-life said they do charge for cats ($25-45, my rescue charges $60-90) and they only take owner surrenders and require that the owners have them vetted before they come into their rescue. They take no major medical cases. Hell, I could not charge adoption fees too if I didn't have to spend money on vet bills. So we are still on the hunt for a recourse to learn from.


We need to look at models OUTSIDE the animal welfare community, because we have ourselves embedded in a model that is not sustainable...

KerryAnn May

I guess a homeless shelter for humans? They are typically funded by churches, the government, direct mail and fundraisers. They don't get user fees usually. Well, some do charge a percentage of their income (no more than 30%) or they have to work at the shelter so many hours a week. Date I say, there is a homeless person overpopulation problem -- never enough beds for all that need space. And some towns don't even have a homeless shelter.

What else?


I stumbled across this post because someone on my Facebook feed linked to your site. I'm an example of your customer, ie the possible adopter of a dog. I'm not a dog rescuer or involved in shelters in any way. I've owned one dog in my adult life and she's amazing. I would spend any amount of money to keep her healthy and well. But she's also nine years old. My heart is going to break when she dies. So I've sort of been thinking that maybe a second dog is in order. I can afford to buy a dog. The $240 adoption fee from my local rescue is not a problem and the dog's vet bills would not be a problem. But I look at the $240 fee and the number of puppies the so-called rescue has available and I think, 'eh, is this just a puppy mill in disguise?' If I have a choice between buying a dog from a reputable breeder where I get to meet the parents and see the conditions the puppy has been raised in and know that it's had proper care from Day 1 versus buying a dog from in front of my local PetSmart...I don't know. So, random sample of one, I think adoption fees might be hurting you in consumer awareness, too. I don't feel like I'm "rescuing" a dog if I'm paying hundreds of dollars to buy it -- for me, it looks like a choice between a cheap animal that no one cares about and a more expensive animal that someone has cared a lot about. Now, obviously, I could go to my local SPCA and literally rescue the next dog up, the one that's going to get killed tomorrow. But even though I know that they're maligned, I don't want to own a pit bull, and that looks as if it would be my likely choice. Anyway, I suspect that if my local rescue was charging $50/dog, I'd have a second dog already -- not because the money matters, but because I'd feel like I was actually rescuing a dog instead of just buying one in disguise.


So I go to craigslist to search for cats to a good home ads. These craigslist ads must be taking business away from the shelters because I've been seeing lots of ads from local shelters there as well. If the adoption fees are waived and I don't get annoying "update" calls from the shelter, then I'd consider it, but don't you dare be telling me that I don't love my cat any less because it is free, or that just because I can't afford the adoption fee that I won't do what it takes to help my cat.

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