In January 2016, the ASPCA Field Investigations & Response Team took on a record-breaking case of animal neglect at an unlicensed facility in Raeford, North Carolina. Although the situation was dire, and some pets came into our care with significant medical and behavior challenges, we have a happy ending to share—thanks to a mega-adoption event, 524 of these rescued animals found homes in less than 3 days! When the last dog left the building, the ASPCA FIR responders erupted into shouts of joy, which still gives me chills thinking about.
The conversation-based adoptions approach
In making this event happen, we thought it vital to use a conversation-based adoption process and waive all adoption fees. As you’ve read here before, conversation-based adoptions (also called open adoptions) is a process by which we focus on talking with an adopter about their expectations to find the right match, rather than using black-and-white policies to guide an adoption. Through research we have learned that conversation-based adoptions are highly successful for the general shelter population, and we have also learned that these methodologies are successful at events for pets who are victims of cruelty. With that said, up until the event in North Carolina, the ASPCA was still hearing many concerns regarding the use of open adoptions.
"Our adopters come to these events to save a life, and they know best as to who will work in their homes—so we leave the choice up to them."
A whopping 97% of dogs and cats were still in homes post-adoption
Once the dust settled, it was important to all of us at the ASPCA to follow up with the adopters. To that end, we launched a follow-up survey. Along with other measures like adopter experience and challenges encountered in the home, we were interested to hear how many animals were still in their homes at the time of surveying—what we call retention rate. (The ASPCA has numerous programs focusing on pet retention for different at-risk populations and, although there is no national average, we generally tend to see a rate around 85%). One major discovery from that survey? A whopping 97% of the dogs and cats were still in the home at 30-60 days post-adoption—96% of dogs and 99% of cats! This is really powerful information in thinking about using the open adoption methodology and highlights the amazing and thoughtful work of our FIR team. You can read more about the survey here.
Just think about it… We needed to get SO many pets into homes seamlessly and safely. There was no application process to adopt a pet, which, I believe, gives the adopting agency a sense of perceived control. There were no right or wrong answers that might result in rejecting a potential adopter. Instead, open conversations took place between counselors and adopters. Adopters shared their expectations for their future pet and talked about what’s most important to them, while the counselors were transparent with the adopters about what was known and unknown about each animal, both medically and behaviorally. From there, the adopter had the choice of which pet to take home that day.
Our adopters come to these events to save a life, and they know best as to who will work in their homes—so we leave the choice up to them. Had we used an application process, those animals would have stayed in the temporary shelter we’d set up significantly longer, as we’d be no doubt turning many away. And thanks to the open conversations, adopters were better armed with the most relevant information about their new pets!
What we learned in the follow-up survey
During the follow-up survey, we learned about pets who had entered their new homes with serious medical issues, all of which had been disclosed to the adopters to help guide their decisions. One dog in particular had just a few weeks or months to live. Our counselors had talked about this with the adopter, who was then able to make those final weeks really comfortable and gently let the pet go. On the surface this may sound like a sad story—however, if the adopter weren’t given the choice to take that dog home knowing exactly what to expect, the pet may have spent his final days in a shelter. If we had decided that we were the best people to care for that pet and kept him under our care in a shelter, he wouldn’t have known the comforts of a home. The open adoptions philosophy allowed him to have peace and comfort, which he likely hadn’t had in years, up to the end.
We learned a lot through adopter follow-up, but I’d say the 97% retention rate is another mark in the ‘win’ column for open adoptions. It’s also a huge win for our FIR team. Conversation with adopters is powerful and impactful, while black-and-white (or yes/no) questions lead to lost opportunities for pets in our care. If this methodology can work for animals of cruelty cases, it’s worth giving a good try with the general shelter population. The solution is not always us deciding how the public can be lifesavers with us, but also letting them decide when and how to save lives with us.
Because when we come together amazing things happen… like finding homes for 524 neglected and homeless pets in less than 3 days.
ASPCA Director, Research & Development Project Operations
Shannon Gramann has worked for the ASPCA for the last 10 years. Much of her work has centered on the adopter experience and the bond between an adopter and pet post-adoption, including research on fee-waived adoptions of cats and conversation-based adoptions. She also focuses on the measurement of community shelter data to reduce risk of dogs and cats in communities across the country. Before working at the ASPCA, Gramman got her start in animal welfare at the Wisconsin Humane Society.
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