The Future of Sheltering
This is the fifth and final blog in my series on the professionalization of the animal shelter, and it covers an important part of professionalization – planning for the future. The lifesaving movement in the United States, whether you call it No Kill or shelter reform or some other name, has a choice to make about its future. That choice will determine whether the movement continues to expand and save more lives, or whether it will die out. We should not just bumble into this choice without thinking about it. Instead, we need to examine the issue and decide, as a profession, how it should be addressed.
We can’t predict the future, but there are several pet-related trends in the United States that have been underway for decades now and seem likely to continue. One trend is that shelter intake is holding steady or declining on average, even as the human population and the number of owned pets continues to climb.* Another is that people are valuing pets more and treating them more like family members. A third is that adopting a pet from a shelter is becoming a popular way for people to acquire a pet, because people like the idea of giving a home to a homeless animal.** A fourth is that the private sector is increasingly partnering with the public sector to market homeless pets.
If we extrapolate these trends, we come up with the very real possibility that shelters of the future will not have enough pets to meet the demand from people who want to adopt. This is already happening for dogs in many parts of the country, and there would seem to be little doubt that we are headed for a nationwide shortage of adoptable dogs in the not-very-distant future. The common thinking about cats is that their numbers are increasing and that there are tens of millions of outdoor cats, but it is very possible that the number of outdoor cats is falling. Cats are a commensal species, and if we see fewer cats at large in cities and towns, and if shelter intake of cats (including intake diverted for Return-to-Field) is falling, as it seems to be, then the logical conclusion is that the number of outdoor cats is declining, not increasing. In any event, we now recognize that many cats are happy and thriving in their outdoor “homes” and do not need homes with humans.
There are two possible solutions to the problem of shelters of the future not being able to meet the demand for pets, and that is why animal sheltering as a profession has a choice to make. One possible solution is that shelters will continue their current practice of passive intake of animals that come to them as strays, confiscations and owner surrenders, which would eventually result in shelters not having enough animals to meet demand and having to turn away adopters. The other possible solution is that shelters will begin to actively seek out homeless pets so that they can continue to meet the demand from people who want to adopt.
I think this choice is a no-brainer on the merits, and that we should go for option two. If we choose option one, then commercial breeders will move in to capture the market that shelters have abandoned. Commercial breeders care more about making money than anything else – indeed, the managers of a commercial entity are required by their fiduciary duty to maximize value for the entity’s owners. They owe no duty at all to animals, who are just property under our legal system. Commercial breeders, aka “puppy mills,” have earned a terrible reputation for their treatment of animals. If the ultimate result of the No Kill movement in the United States is to abdicate the market for pets to commercial breeders, then that will be a sad ending indeed.
But where will shelters find homeless animals, if current trends continue? An answer for the short term is to use transports within the United States. We already have a booming transport network for homeless pets. Eventually, though, if current trends continue, moving animals around within the U.S. will not be enough to meet the demand for adoption. At that point we will need to begin to import homeless animals from other countries.
Whenever I’ve brought this idea up in the past, some people have reacted by recounting horror stories of rabies, exotic diseases, unsocialized pets, and high costs. Those concerns are real, but we are already importing large numbers of animals into the U.S. each year, including an estimated 400,000 dogs for the commercial market. This proves that we can design and implement safe protocols for importing pets from other countries. In fact, existing laws and regulations mandate a safe procedure for importing animals and preventing rabies and exotic diseases from entering the country.
As for lack of socialization, street dogs and cats in other countries are often extremely well socialized to people and other animals and new situations. And for those who are not, the No Kill movement has demonstrated that people love to help their pets, and needing help in some aspect of behavior does not have to be a barrier to adoption. As for high costs, the massive transport network that has sprung up within the U.S. shows that people will volunteer to fly their own planes, drive their own cars, donate money, and volunteer many hours to save lives.
There are a few non-profit organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, that are currently importing homeless animals to the U.S. on a small scale. One way to prepare for the growth of this practice, as demand requires it, would be for our leading No Kill shelters to begin to reach out to these organizations and familiarize themselves with the process. Major national No Kill organizations may want to begin strategic planning for a future when large numbers of homeless pets will be imported from other countries. There is no logical reason why No Kill should not help animals in other countries — compassion does not stop at the border.
Finally, we need to think about puppies. It’s becoming common for shelters today to have long waiting lists and multiple adoption applications for puppies. I’ve seen puppies with more than 10 adoption applications. In many parts of the country, people who want puppies have little choice other than buying from a breeder. We need to start to think about non-profits breeding puppies to meet the demand from people who want a puppy but do not want to support the cruel commercial breeding industry. Such puppies would be bred from dogs living in homes as pets, and the goal would be to produce healthy and well-socialized puppies, not monetary profit or show-ring winners.
The idea of non-profits breeding puppies to meet adoption demand always brings cries of dismay, which is understandable given the massive struggle that has gone on for decades to reduce the number of litters born. But the world has changed, and we have to change with it. Commercial breeders, here and in other countries, produce millions of puppies each year, with cruel conditions for the breeder dogs and lack of adequate socialization for the puppies. The puppies then go to pet stores that take few or no steps to try to match a puppy’s temperament to the buyer’s lifestyle. Puppies should not be bred commercially, but our legal system allows it because animals are property. We can and should take this market away from commercial breeders.
The pet lifesaving movement in the United States has done its work very well, and in the process it has created an impressive number of great humane organizations and phenomenal shelters. We can’t let that infrastructure, with its cultural construct of treating all pets as family members, go to waste. Nor can we ignore the plight of homeless pets in other countries just because they are on the other side of a geographical boundary. There is much work yet to be done, and resting on our laurels will have to wait.
* The massive spay-neuter effort that got underway in the United States in the 1970s solved what was a very real pet overpopulation problem in those days. In 1970, by our best estimates, shelters were taking in about 5 times as many animals per available home as they are today. There were also far more stray animals in the environment in most places than there are today. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that you could find a new pet in the 1970s just by taking a walk.
** Over the last 25 years, the shelter reform movement has facilitated a major change in how Americans acquire pets. In the 1970s only about 10% of pet acquisitions were from shelters. Purebred dogs were very popular at that time, and many people bought purebred cats as well. Today, it is estimated that about 35% of pet acquisitions are from shelters and rescues (all-breed rescues seem to have been very rare before the 1990s).