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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Adopting Our Way Out of Killing

Merritt Clifton recently started an online animal news service called Animals 24-7. An article he posted on that website called Why We Cannot Adopt Our Way Out of Shelter Killing has attracted some interest. In this blog post I will set out Merritt’s arguments, as I understand them, and discuss why I think that statistics do not support those arguments.

Merritt begins by arguing that adoptions from shelters can never be more than 50% of pet acquisitions because shelters don’t produce pets, they just rehome them. Leaving aside the merits of this argument, it is addressing the wrong question. The real question we need to answer is not what is the maximum possible market share for shelter adoptions, but whether shelter adoptions can make up enough of market share to accommodate the animals in shelters today who need homes.

The American Pet Products Association national pet owners survey estimates that in 2012 there were 83 million owned dogs and 96 million owned cats in the United States, or a total of 179 million owned cats and dogs. About 85% of people state that if their pet dies they will acquire a new pet, and in addition there are new pet owners joining the market as new households are formed. Even if we assume that people replace a pet only once every 15 years (and the average replacement is probably far more frequent that that), and if we assume that demand is stagnant, that would mean that there is a market for 12 million cats and dogs each year. In reality, the market is not stagnant and replacement is probably about every 6-7 years on average, so demand for dogs and cats is probably on the order of 30 million or so per year. Regardless, since only about 6 to 8 million dogs and cats enter animal shelters each year (and some of those are reclaimed), there are more than enough homes available to adopt our way out of killing.

Merritt does not address these numbers directly. Instead, he makes a series of observations that he appears to believe add up to the impossibility of adopting our way out of killing.  For example, under the heading “Total Adoptions Are Down,” he argues that adoptions have fallen in the United States nationally and in New York, San Francisco, and the Seattle metro area. As for the US as a whole, shelter reform advocates do not argue that old-fashioned, traditional shelters have increased their adoptions – instead, shelter reform advocates argue that they could increase their adoptions if they had good marketing and outreach programs and sufficient community engagement. As for Seattle (LRR 90%+), New York (LRR 80%+) and San Francisco (LRR around 85%), those communities are already close to saving all healthy and treatable animals, so criticizing them for not showing increases in their adoption numbers would not appear to be justified.

Merritt predicts that Seattle, New York, and San Francisco will have further decreases in adoption numbers in the future if they are unable to import as many animals for people to adopt as they have in the past. But this appears to cut rather strongly against his argument. If adoption numbers drop because there is not enough supply to meet the demand, then voila, we have adopted our way out of killing.

The argument that Merritt appears to rely on most strongly is his claim that adoptions nationwide will never exceed more than 10 pets per 1000 people for a sustained period of time. There are approximately 318 million people in the United States currently. An adoption rate of 10 pets per 1000 people per year would mean that we could adopt out 3,180,000 shelter pets each year. It’s estimated that about 6 million of the animals who come into shelters each year and are not reclaimed are adoptable. So, we would need to have an adoption rate of about 19 pets per thousand people in order to find homes for all the adoptable animals.

Adopting out 19 or more animals per 1000 people is not only possible, it is being done in many communities all over the United States. I have a spreadsheet with population data on all the communities listed in the right sidebar. Of the 100 public shelters listed for those communities in 2012, I have adoption data on 89 of them. Of those shelters, 33 reported adoption figures that met or exceeded 19 per 1000 people. And 54 of them reported adoptions exceeding 10 per thousand people. This is an impressive record when you consider that it is only in the last few years that some progressive shelters have started to take full advantage of modern marketing techniques.

You might be wondering why, since the shelters I list in the right sidebar are all saving 90% or more of intake, they don’t all have adoption rates of at least 19 per 1000 people. The answer is that there are other methods besides adoption for assuring live outcomes. The estimate that 6 million shelter animals (translating into 19 animals per 1000 people) need adoptive homes each year is based in part on current rates of redemption. If a particular shelter has higher than average rates of return-to-owner or return-to-colony, the number of adoptive homes needed goes down by a corresponding amount. The fact that many shelters can achieve a 90% or better live release rate without an adoption rate of 19 per 1000 people demonstrates by definition that the 19 per 1000 people rate probably overstates the number of adoptions needed. But the fact that many 90%+ shelters have adoption rates of 19 or more per 1000 people proves that such rates are possible if needed.

Merritt acknowledges that there are shelters with consistent adoption rates that exceed 10 per 1000 people, but he discounts those shelters for various reasons. For example, he argues that Washoe County (including Reno), which consistently has an adoption rate per thousand people of over 20, is pulling adopters from all over Nevada, and this distorts its numbers. He does not give us his reasons for thinking that Washoe County is finding adopters outside of its jurisdiction and, looking at the map, his claim seems highly unlikely. The only substantial population center close enough to Washoe County to be a reasonable driving distance for potential adopters appears to be  Carson City. I have been told in the course of my researches for the blog that Carson City is doing quite well at saving homeless animals, which it could not do if it were losing adopters to Washoe County.

Another place with a high rate of adoptions that Merritt critiques is the state of Colorado. The state of Colorado had an adoption rate of 16 per 1000 people in 2012, based on reports made by public shelters in the state. Merritt dismisses Colorado by arguing that it imported many of the animals it adopted out, and without the transfers its adoption rate would not have been so high. This argument fails for the obvious reason that, if we are looking at adoption rates, the relevant data is not where the animals come from but where they go. If they go into adoptive homes in large enough numbers to produce a high live release rate, then that is evidence that we can adopt our way out of killing. The fact that Colorado can find homes for animals transported in simply means that Colorado (which had an 85% live release rate statewide in 2012) is not only able to adopt its way out of killing, it can help its neighbors do so too.

A more serious argument is that in the case of cats, who are not bred for profit in large numbers the way dogs are, there is no significant commercial market share for shelters to capture. Thus, this argument goes, when shelters increase their adoption numbers for cats they are taking homes that otherwise would have adopted a neighborhood cat, or a kitten from a friend or relative’s “oops” litter. This argument has two flaws. First, if a shelter can adopt animals at the rate of 19 per thousand people or more, then it can find homes for all the animals coming in to the shelter, including the neighborhood cats and the “oops” litters. Indeed, it’s better for those animals to go through the shelter rather than directly into homes, because in a good shelter they will be vaccinated and spayed or neutered. Second, the modern thinking about cats is that in many cases shelter-neuter-return is the appropriate course, and in the future we may see intake of cats in shelters greatly decreased. This is already happening in many communities.

Merritt argues that efforts by shelters to do more marketing are futile because shelters have already made a “tremendous investment in rehoming” without increasing market share. While it is true that many shelters are making more of an effort at adoptions than they used to, and are participating in events such as Home 4 the Holidays, most shelters that have live release rates under 80% are not making a “tremendous investment in rehoming.” A comprehensive marketing program means more than having a Pet of the Week and taking kittens to the pet store on Saturdays.

To sum up, in order for Merritt to prove his claim that we cannot adopt our way out of killing he must show either that (1) there are not sufficient homes available for the number of shelter animals who need adoptive homes each year, or (2) even if there are enough homes available, shelters cannot capture those homes. Merritt’s article does not demonstrate that that the requisite number of homes is lacking and does not show that shelters are incapable of marketing their animals to those homes. In fact, the evidence goes the other way, as I have shown.

Why am I taking so much time and space to respond to the claim that we cannot adopt our way out of killing? Claims such as Merritt is making can have consequences in the real world. For example, someone who believes that we cannot adopt our way out of killing is likely to believe that the only way to stop shelter animals from being killed is to stop them from being born in the first place. I think that spay-neuter initiatives are extremely important, especially the newer efforts that target particular neighborhoods with people going door-to-door. But spay-neuter efforts are just one method for saving lives, and adoption is another method that does work and should not be dismissed.


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