Loving Shelters Dogs Into New Lives

Posted on August 23, 2018

Last week, The New York Times published an Op-Ed piece titled, “Are We Loving Shelter Dogs To Death,” which criticizes adoption events like ‘Clear the Shelters’ and argues that shelters aren’t doing enough to address community issues. It also details the heartbreaking story of Valerie, a dog that was adopted from a shelter in Los Angeles, and passed away, after allegedly being abused. As a proud participant of ‘Clear the Shelters’ and a shelter who regularly holds events with lowered – or even free – adoption fees, we want to tell our side of the story.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington (AWLA) has participated in ‘Clear the Shelters’ since the first event three years ago. We regularly hold our own reduced-fee or fee-waived adoption events that have become highly successful at finding homes for pets that have been overlooked or ignored. At most shelters, even though the adoption fee may be waived, the adoption process remains the same. Here at AWLA, adopters must still fill out an application, present a valid I.D., and speak to an adoption counselor in-depth about the pet they wish to adopt.

The author of the opinion piece, Carol Mithers, states that, “no one knows how many of them end up back in the system.” But that is not true. Many shelters and national animal welfare organizations track data of all kinds, including the number of pets that are returned after adoption. (Check out the numbers from Maddie’s Fund here).  Our return rate has not risen since we started hosting more of these events, and nationally there is no data to support the opinion that low-cost, free, or highly-publicized adoption events result in higher return rates. Often, the numbers are lower.

Mithers also states that shelters “create problems of their own by enabling abusers and, far more commonly, impulse buyers.” Malicious individuals are highly unlikely to go through the process of adopting a pet that involves an application, I.D. check, and the scrutiny of animal welfare professionals and law enforcement.  (Especially, too, when one considers the prevalence of “free to a good home” Facebook, Craigslist, and other online posts.) Furthermore, a recent study done by the American Humane Association found those who had obtained a pet as a spur-of-the-moment decision were no more or less likely to retain their pet than those who had spent considerable time researching.

The implication in this opinion piece, and many like it, is that free adoptions are made to people who cannot afford a pet and, thus, should not own a pet.  This is incorrect on many levels. Numerous studies demonstrate that pet owners enjoy greater emotional, and physical well-being, and we believe that these benefits should be available to all people, regardless of income. There are just as many studies showing that financially disadvantaged pet owners love and care for their pets just as well as anyone else. (See, for example, this position statement from the ASPCA).  

We must also address the assumption that the only people taking advantage of fee-waived adoptions are lower-income families. In fact, very often this is not the case – people of all walks of life come to these events because of heightened awareness, better marketing, and the excitement around adoption (which, in turn, leads to harder-to-place pets being adopted). Many adopters end up donating money to the shelter at the time of adoption in place of the adoption fee, and others use the money they saved to spoil their new pet with toys and supplies.

The story of Valerie is heartbreaking. No animal deserves to be harmed, and no shelter or rescue ever wants to find out that one of their animals has been abused. However, this piece, like many that were written after Valerie’s story broke, misstates the facts. The initial allegations were reported by a vet technician at the veterinary office at which Valerie was being treated.  Those allegations, as well as the other assumptions initially made, were later disputed by witnesses, the veterinarian in charge, and the Los Angeles Police Department. As of now, no one has conclusive answers as to what happened to Valerie. As the entity responsible for Animal Control in Arlington County, we are in no way down-playing the fact that there are people who abuse animals and that it is possible something terrible happened to Valerie. However, knee-jerk reactions to these situations and placing blame on fee-waived adoption events will not solve the problems we face.  

We do agree with Mithers on one point: her argument that shelters “need to acknowledge the connection between animal and human struggles before we can prevent so many from coming in” is correct. But she makes the incorrect assumption that shelters are not already aware of this fact and are not doing everything they can to keep pets in homes. In fact, shelters across the country are focusing more and more on pet-retention programs. Here at AWLA, we offer low-cost spay/neuter vouchers, vaccine clinics, and microchips. We have a pet behavior hotline and offer walk-in dog training classes every Sunday. We have programs for emergency vet assistance, safekeeping, and much more. Despite these concerted efforts, pets still need homes. So until the day our kennels remain empty, we will do everything we can to find good homes for our pets, and we will do it compassionately and creatively, follow the data, and include all members of our community.

by Sam Wolbert, President & CEO, Chelsea Lindsey, Communications Specialist, and Amy Schindler, Director of Behavior and Adoptions