A Community Approach to Shelter Animal Adoptions

If whole communities work together, it's better for shelter animals.

A cute white terrier laying on the beach, looking at the camera

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Every community has groups of people dedicated to animal welfare and to looking after stray and unwanted animals. What happens if all these people work together? In the USA, the ASPCA has a Partnership program for communities and a paper that evaluates it has just been published, led by Emily Weiss of the ASPCA.

One of the ground rules of the Partnership program is that shelters that take in at least 80% of the animals in a particular community must agree to be involved. This means that things can really happen at a community level, and it is also means there is enough data about the outcomes for animals in shelters for the program to be evaluated. The program makes grant funding available for projects, and it also includes coaching from the ASPCA about how to measure and track animal outcomes.

The study looked at six communities across the US who took part in the program between 2007 and 2011. The communities were Austin – Travis County, Texas; Buncombe County, NC; Charleston County, SC; Cleveland, OH; Spokane County, WA; and Tampa – Hillsborough County, FL.

It’s a sad fact that not all animals taken in at shelters go to new homes. Some are found to not be adoptable or are euthanized for various reasons including ill-health and lack of space for them. The number of animals that are adopted to new homes, returned to their owners, or sent to a shelter that guarantees adoption, is known as the Live Release Rate. This is the measure that the ASPCA tracked over the five years of the study.

The good news is that on average the Live Release Rate increased from 41% in 2007 to 65% in 2011. In other words, there was an average rate of improvement of 62%. The figure ranged from 18% improvement In Cleveland, to 96% in Austin. 

The biggest improvements were made for cats, which in 2007 only had a live release rate of 31%; by 2011 this had gone up to 59%. The average rate for dogs increased from 52 to 72% over the same period.

The percentages of animals returned to their owners remained steady throughout. This seems to be a more difficult problem to solve. In fact, the authors cite earlier research which suggests that many apparently lost pets have actually been abandoned.

The communities that took part in this project are very different, suggesting that the program can work in many different areas. One of the nice things about it is the flexibility for communities to decide the projects they wanted to work on. They could apply for funding for things like spay/neuter programs, adoption promotions, community engagement strategies, fund-raising activities, better ways of matching prospective adopters with pets,  and so on. 

For example, in Buncombe County, they initially had low rates of returning lost/stray animals to owners, and did not have a trap-neuter-return program for feral cats. They implemented a new TNR scheme, handed out 2000 vouchers for free spay/neuter in neighbourhoods where there were high levels of stray animals, and had a new policy that all stray animals went to one location so people would know where to look for lost pets. They also developed a new adoption process that, instead of beginning with an intimidating questionnaire, started as a friendly conversation and made it much easier to match pets to people. You can read more about their success here

At the start of the study, some shelters did not identify puppies/kittens separately from adult dogs and cats, and did not have clear definitions of stray vs owned cats. Of course, the small number of communities involved makes statistical comparisons between them impossible. Nevertheless, this is very useful – and encouraging – data because of the range of communities involved and the way the data was checked.

This study focussed on the animals, but it would be interesting to also know if staff and volunteer attitudes and experiences changed as a result of the program.

The ASPCA Partnership program is on-going, and you can learn more about it here.

The authors conclude that the program “provided communities with the opportunity to experiment with new programs and procedures and to adjust their strategies based on results. For many organizations this level of flexibility was new, liberating and energizing. Despite the great diversity in approaches, resources, and size and location of communities, the one unifying factor in the path to success was the commitment among organizations to work together to achieve change.”

What one thing would you like to see your community focus on to improve adoption and welfare for lost or un-owned animals? And if you have any success stories, please share them below. 

Weiss E, Patronek G, Slater M, Garrison L, & Medicus K (2013). Community partnering as a tool for improving live release rate in animal shelters in the United States. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 16 (3), 221-38 PMID: 2379568

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