“Of all the cities in the United States, only one city currently guarantees that no adoptable dog or cat will be euthanized. That city is San Francisco. And standing between life and death is the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.” (SFSPCA website)
On April 1st 1994, the San Francisco SPCA and the city’s Department of Animal Care and Control (hereafter referred to as SFAC) entered into an agreement named the Adoption Pact. Under this accord, the SFSPCA promises to find a loving home to every adoptable displaced dog and cat in the city. Such an achievement can only be regarded as a major milestone in the protection and care of companion animals. Richard Avanzino, the head of the SF SPCA in 1994, has since spearheaded a campaign to encourage all shelters around the U.S. to adopt a similar policy, assuring that creativity and devotion to the cause will prevail. Currently, there are 700 no-kill shelters of the 5,000 shelters nationwide. (El Nasser)
This idea has sparked a great controversy amongst the animal shelters around the U.S. and worldwide. The Adoption Pact has received a great deal of positive press in the past several years, and little public attention has been given to the concerns many shelters have presented. The San Francisco SPCA states that it will place all adoptable animals in the city, and the adoption percentages they present seem to indicate that this is true. There is increasing public pressure for many animal shelters to adopt similar polices. The same public that resists the idea of euthanasia due to overcrowding also requires that strays not damage their property, endanger their pets, or “suffer needlessly” in the wild. The Board of Directors at the local Albemarle SPCA, in Charlottesville, Virginia, is currently considering adopting the no-kill stance. However, many in the animal care community find fault with the concept of the “no-kill” shelter as it is presented by Mr. Avanzino and argue that these shelters typically present misleading placement statistics. Since many shelters are non-profit, donations are essential to continued functioning and growth. The annual adoption percentages are frequently viewed by the public as a representation of a shelter’s ability to place animals, and are therefore key to encouraging donation. The concern is that in the long-term, shelters that claim to be no-kill are not realistically dealing with the pet overpopulation problem and are drawing funding away from shelters that are forced to euthanize animals because of space constraints.
As a result, I have chosen to examine the San Francisco SPCA statistics as a representative of similar shelters and to compare them to those of the Albemarle SPCA for a similar year. In addition, I open the case that comparing the adoption success of shelters is a complex issue that involves a large number of confounding variables. This means that policy decisions should not be solely based on the results of a particular shelter, but rather viewed as the result of a number of variables.
Both types of shelters are ultimately limited by the threat of overpopulation. Legal guidelines and individual shelter policies limit the total number of animals that can be housed at any given time to prevent stress, spread of disease, and possible fighting. The San Francisco SPCA (SFSPCA) and many similar shelters present the public with amazing adoption statistics, that indicate that well over 90% of the animals they take in are in turn placed in “loving homes”. On the website for the SFSPCA, they presented the 1997 placement statistics that showed that only 1.6% of the 4,985 animals they took in were euthanized. By comparison, the placement rate of the Albemarle SPCA (which currently euthanizes to make space) in 1997 was approximately 50.39% for 4,765 cats and dogs. This would seem to support the claim that Avanzino’s placement program was in fact far more successful at placing animals in their jurisdiction. However, upon closer examination, there are several confounding factors that are typically shared by such shelters that over-inflate their success when compared to shelters that are forced to euthanize animals.
One of the most important distinctions that separates a shelter like San Francisco’s from most shelters stems from a fundamental difference in intake policies. Since both are faced with a greater number of displaced animals than homes, when cages are filled, they are faced with one of two choices: make room or stop taking animals until room is available. The no-kill shelters often close their doors and animals are placed on a waiting list that may require several months for an opening. This is not a real option for many owners who need to place pets immediately (moving, owner dies, etc.), strays that cannot be kept by the finder, and problem pets that are being destructive or aggressive. Typically, communities with no-kill shelters have a pound operated by animal control or another agency that is required to handle the overflow. The statistics for many of these shelters are therefore not driven by the need to accept all animals and allows time for adoption. Warren Cox, of the Dallas SPCA, said “It’s making the rest of us look like cold-blooded killers. And it’s turned into a heck of a fund-raising hype. There is no such thing as a true no-kill organization. You may not kill them yourself but send them to the next organization that will.” (El Nasser) Many community shelters serve as both shelter and pound (for local Animal Control offices) and therefore cannot turn away animals that are brought in. In addition, many workers feel that leaving “excess” animals on the streets only compounds the overpopulation problems that already exist by allowing them to breed, spread disease, devastate local wildlife, and suffer from exposure and injuries. In an article in the New York Times, Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), stated; “But I do think that we cannot condemn the shelters that do euthanize, when there are animals who would be suffering on the streets if shelters couldn’t bring them in because they had no room. I don’t think there will ever be world peace, and I don’t think we will ever have a no-kill nation.” (Nieves)
A second factor that serves to mislead the public is the fact that many no-kill shelters accept only the animals that they define as “adoptable”. On its website, the San Francisco shelter relates, “The Pact states that if the City Animal Control Center is unable to find a home for any of its healthy dogs or cats the San Francisco SPCA will take the animal and guarantee to place him. The Pact also gives the San Francisco SPCA the ability to save the lives of thousands of treatable dogs and cats.” Given these statements, one would expect that all the animals entering the SFAC pound that were not returned to homes would arrive at the SFSPCA. However, the statistics they present for 1997 at their website does not support this. In 1997, SFAC took in 9,444 animals, and only transferred 2,177 to the SFSPCA. This represents 23.1% of the SFAC animals, while 29.7% of animals at SFAC were euthanized for various reasons, the largest category of which was “Non-rehabilitatable” (2,808 animals). These numbers directly disprove the assertion that all animals in San Francisco are given to loving homes. The key is in the application of the definitions of “adoptable” and “treatable”. Many no-kill shelters obscure their inability to place all animals by selectively choosing the most adoptable and thereby increasing their percentages. In addition, the SFSPCA does perform a few euthanasias each year, which they dismiss as “Non-rehabilitatable.”
Most shelters, especially those that serve as the sole animal shelter for a locality (like the Albemarle SPCA), take in any animal that is brought to them from their jurisdiction. These animals represent of a broad spectrum of physical conditions, ages, mixes of breeds and behaviors. Typically, animals with any physical disability or ailment are far more difficult to place, as most adopters prefer to avoid large veterinary bills that may result from specialized care or treatment that the animal may require. Older animals are also hard to place. Many prospective owners shy away from older dogs due to concerns about mortality, fear of potential training problems, and simply the desire to adopt a “cute” puppy or kitten. Animals that have been displaced because of behavioral problems like tendencies to stray, house soiling, etc. require care and understanding that many are unwilling or unable to provide. Dangers inherent in dealing with aggression problems make relocating these animals difficult and fraught with legal responsibilities. As a result, many of the shelter’s cages are filled with animals that will not find homes before the shelter is faced with over-crowding. At the Albemarle SPCA, local veterinarians recommended that cats and kittens that are released into custody be euthanized if they exhibit symptoms of upper respiratory virus. The shelter lacks the facilities to isolate and treat the cats for the required week to two weeks, and they cannot risk exposing healthy cats to this air-borne and potentially lethal disease. As a result of this disease, large numbers of cats are euthanized before they are given a chance at adoption, decreasing the adoption percentage. Another factor that affects the Albemarle SPCA’s adoption percentage is that the shelter offers low-cost pet euthanasia service to the public. These animals must be signed in and counted, but are not up for adoption, which skews the euthanasia percentage. Most no-kill shelters refuse to take these sick animals, and are therefore far less affected by the results.
A third confounding tactic that is often utilized comes from the interpretation of “loving homes” with regard to placement. One method used by many shelters is the transfer of animals to another shelter, rescue organization, or other group. Frequently, these are added to the adoption percentage, but in reality, they do not represent the placement of the animal directly in homes, but shift the onus to another group. In its 1997annual statistics, the SFSPCA does not divide its adoption percentage into this category, so it is impossible to tell from this report how much of the adoption percentage might be explained by this practice.
To adequately compare the SFSPCA to the Albemarle SPCA, we therefore combine the numbers of animals that are taken by both the SPCA and animal control and present the combined totals to determine the overall success of adoption in San Francisco. The statistics for the 1997 year were posted on the SFSPCA website as follows:
|Disposition||Number of Dogs and Cats||Percent|
|Returned to Owner (RTO)||1,549||12.6|
|Euthanized ||0 |
The results of this exercise show that the combined effort of the SFSPCA and SFAC still does not provide homes for almost one-third of the animals that were released to the two shelters. By comparison, the Albemarle SPCA, following its current policies of unrestricted intake from the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, placed approximately 50.39% (a number that is lower than the true percentage if cats with upper respiratory, animals with biting histories, and pets brought in for euthanasia were removed) (appendix A). Given that the sample sizes were in the thousands, it is unlikely that given current policies and conditions either the San Francisco area or Albemarle County percentages would change significantly (see appendix C for calculated variance). It might also be noted that the SFSPCA handled a total of 4,985 animals in 1997, while the Albemarle SPCA handled 4,765 animals indicating that they handled almost the same number. As stated in the introduction, there are flaws in such a comparison, as will be approached in the next section. Since operating shelters vary in policies, community composition, legal obligations, size, funding, etc. from place to place, there are a wealth of confounding variables that occur when comparing any operating shelter to another. Given adequate time and money, it may be possible to construct a statistical analysis that would allow for a more accurate comparison.
Problems with Inter-Shelter Comparisons
One of the tendencies in determining the policies of animal shelters is to examine the success of a plan implemented by another shelter, like the current push for a no-kill approach, and to attempt to apply it. Frequently, these decisions result in problems or may prove ineffectual. By examining the broad range of adoption percentages (from reports of less than 10% to upwards of 90% at no-kill shelters) reported across the United States, it is easy to see how complex it is to determine what aspects can be directly associated with increased adoptions and which may play more important roles in improving percentages. Ultimately, the approaches chosen should also take into account maximizing the welfare of the animals in question, a fact that is sometimes lost in the desire to increase donations and public opinion by encouraging placement at any cost. For example, many people would state that to take a well-loved house pet and have them adopted to become someone’s yard dog (often receiving little attention and all too frequently provided with inadequate shelter and care) is a from of cruelty. Yet, it does count as a home for adoption purposes.
To begin with, there are a number of factors that shape a shelter’s ability to place animals. Among the most commonly cited is simply the need for more room. In a limited experiment, to be presented in the next section, I will examine this effect. Space is only a single aspect however, and it can be drastically affected by other influences.
Public perception and awareness are very important. In a telephone interview with Robin Lovett, Executive Director of the Orange County shelter in Virginia, she stated that adoptions have increased over the past year with a more aggressive advertising campaign coupled with efforts to improve the appearance of the facility. Shelters that seem in disrepair or dirty (often due to lack of funding for staff or improvements) are avoided as being unpleasant places to visit and often subject to public ridicule or scorn. The animals at these shelters face a much harder time in finding homes. Shelters that manage to convey a fun environment, however, prosper. The San Francisco shelter is a perfect example. In addition to the no-kill policy, the shelter provides “…airy, glass-walled ‘apartments’ with doggy futons, televisions, and throw rugs. Cats have elaborate jungle gyms to play in, potted grasses to munch on, and fish videos to watch on their televisions.” Every shelter would want a disposable income to indulge in such a fun and frivolous atmosphere for their residents. Yet increased traffic probably improves adoptions. Media also plays a key role in both educating the public and recruiting potential adopters and volunteers. A good reputation and positive publicity encourages trust in the shelter.
Adoption policies can greatly affect the annual percentage. Shelters that are more critical of the homes they place animals in are likely to suffer from a somewhat reduced adoption rate. In an effort to serve the animal’s best interests, many shelters have policies that include verifying permission with parents and landlords and some even examine the future home for suitability. Although this increases the number of applicants that are denied, many feel that it is more important to make sure that animals are placed in suitable environments. Cruelty cases resulting from inappropriate adoptions can be avoided. It reduces the numbers of returns caused by pets given as unexpected gifts, adopted in violation of leases or permission, and spur-of-the-moment adoptions.
Financial support plays an important role as well. Since many shelters are non-profit in whole or in part, the ability to hire and keep caring trained staff, implement programs, and simply feed and care for resident animals can be greatly affected by donations. Animal shelters with poor funding may not even have buildings, but are forced to rely on scattered volunteers to house animals and many shelters have very limited hours of operation, which further complicates potential adoptions. Shelters where donations exceed minimum operation costs can improve the shelter, much as Avanzino has done in San Francisco. During his time with the shelter, he developed donations to support the facility that now has a $12 million annual budget. The shelter offers programs like doggy daycare, numerous training classes, and programs to assist in veterinary care. (Nieves) It is in this area that many shelters that are required to euthanize fear loss of income to no-kill shelters. Ms. Newkirk, PETA president, was quoted, ”The people who are coming to fund the no-kill shelters obviously have high hopes and big hearts – and deep pockets. But every day, I pray that some of that money will go to the unpopular roots of the problem.” (Nieves)
Another major aspect that can affect long term adoption rates is the institution of a spay/neuter policy associated with adoptions. Most shelters require or perform sterilization of animals that are adopted from them. If shelters promote or participate in such programs, the adoption rate over time should improve, as the overpopulation problem is gradually diminished. There is little disagreement that spay/neuter programs are essential in the long-term solution to pet overpopulation.
Finally, the very nature of the community a shelter operates in plays a role in its success. In areas where the average income and education levels are higher, adoption rates should also be improved. Animals are more likely to be spayed and neutered, donations are more readily available, and more people will have discretionary income to support one or more pets. Cities are more likely to have a large pet population and more strays, causing increased population pressures in shelters and decreasing adoption percentages. Local customs can also play a significant role. Rural areas typically support the idea of keeping colonies of semi-wild “barn cats” to control pests. Virginia allows hunting with dog packs, increasing the number of stray hounds and beagles immensely in hunting season when many are lost.
In the last section, I will conduct a limited regression analysis of how available run-space may be associated with adoption percentages. By sampling from a variety of shelters, it would be possible to conduct a statistical survey that could help relate the strength of the association of many of the above variables to overall adoption improvements. Increased awareness of the relative importance of these factors would aid in developing plans for success and identifying potential problems. Each factor could be analyzed individually, or multivariate analysis techniques could be used to weigh relative importance.
Is Run-Space Associated with Increased Adoptions?
In conducting this experiment, I was limited in the amount of time and money that was available to conduct the survey. The sample statistics were gathered through phone interviews with area shelters. This survey was biased to the extent that selection was by convenience, and subjects were chosen from a handbook of Humane Society members. As such, it is recognized that it may not be truly representative of shelters at large. In addition, the sample size is very small (5 shelters), and therefore, unlikely to yield normal results. However, this problem is used to illustrate a possible approach to untangling the relative importance of some of the confounding variables. With adequate time and funding, the data collection could be refined to reduce error. In the state of Virginia, for example, all licensed shelters file an annual report to the state veterinarian providing basic intake and outcome data. This would be a valuable source document.
The study examines the effect of run-space on the adoption of dogs, since not all shelters handle cats. The shelters in the study are located in Central Virginia, and they operate under the same State and Federal guidelines. Each shelter is also the sole intake facility in its locality, providing some similarities. I transformed run-space into run demand to account for the difference in intake in each area. This figure therefore represents the number of dogs that would need to use each run over the year. Since dogs that were eventually returned to their owners would compete for run-space with those released for adoption, they were included in the total population for calculation of adoption percentage. Calculations for the graphs are given in appendix C.
As we can see above, these four data points indicate that there could be a strong negative association between adoption percentage and available run-space for incoming animals (allowing for a small sample size). In Orange County, where intake far outweighed available space, adoption percentages are low, supporting the hypothesis that more space reduces the need for euthanasia. If this relationship is accurate, then it illustrates a means by which no-kill shelters may help increase the number of overall adoptions in a community. Effectively, they increase run-space, and provide an alternative choice for owned pets that are displaced by circumstance. In the Charlottesville area, a no-kill shelter named Caring for Creatures operates in a neighboring county. The operators have not actively pursued misleading publicity as many no-kill shelters have, and provide a valuable alternative to those hoping for a home for their pet and capable of waiting for space. This phenomenon also would help explain how fostering, with adequate regulation, could conceivably improve overall adoptions as well.
However, in collecting even such a small sample, there is evidence of the complexity inherent in shelter adoptions. When the Harrisonburg County shelter statistics are included in the regression analysis, there is a significant change in the strength of the association.
The Harrisonburg County shelter possessed 38 runs (second only to Albemarle County in the sample), and took in 2004 animals. Yet their adoption percentage was only 32.63% of dogs taken in. It is possible that one or more of the confounding variables mentioned above played a key role in reducing the shelter’s adoption percentages. It may also be that this shelter represents an outlier, but without a suitably large sample size, this is impossible to determine. It is conceivable that with a larger sample size, the curve would prove to be more normal.
The number of no-kill shelters will increase in the United States and elsewhere in the world. If these shelters work with existing shelters that currently euthanize animals that they cannot hold, the overall adoption rates in these areas may increase. If, however, the shelters continue to compete for funding, the potential for tragedy exists. Shelters like San Francisco’s SPCA may continue to boom with televisions in every room and operating budgets that could pay the annual cost of 20-30 shelters like the Albemarle SPCA and served roughly the same number of animals. The key lies in honest representation of policies and statistics. The cost would be to drive smaller shelters to further financial hardship and thereby increase the numbers of animals euthanized in these facilities by increasing the effects of confounding variables above. Ultimately, spaying and neutering, coupled with aggressive education, remains the best way to guarantee that in the future companion animals will have the opportunity to have a home. The statistics indicate that although public image and fund-raising may be increased through favorably altering adoption percentages, the goal of saving lives can best be accomplished by developing a better understanding of the variables affecting adoptions.
Albemarle SPCA. Animal Disposition Record. 1997.
“A city where no adoptable animals are put to death.” Richmond Times Dispatch. 18 January 1999: A5.
El Nasser, Haya. “Animal Shelters going ‘no-kill’.” USA TODAY. 8 September 1997: A3.
Grahme, Betty, Director of the Nelson Co. SPCA. Telephone interview. 2 April 1999.
Nieves, Evelyn. “A Campaign for a No-Kill Policy For the Nation’s Animal Shelters.” New York Times. 18 January 1999: A1.
San Francisco SPCA. http:// www.SFSPCA.COM. March 1999.