The right fit: Many pet shelters choose more ‘open’ adoption

This undated photo provided by the ASPCA shows dog Lola and Adoption Ambassador Lily Draheim in Cleveland, Ohio. Pamela Hercik adopted Lola from Lily through the Cleveland Animal Care & Control's "City Dogs Cleveland" Adoption Ambassador program.   (ASPCA via AP)

This undated photo provided by the ASPCA shows dog Lola and Adoption Ambassador Lily Draheim in Cleveland, Ohio. Pamela Hercik adopted Lola from Lily through the Cleveland Animal Care & Control's "City Dogs Cleveland" Adoption Ambassador program. (ASPCA via AP)

Jillian Behram of Burkittsville, Maryland, has acquired pets in just about every possible way. She found one of her cats as a stray and got the other from a “free to a good home” post on social media. Her dogs have come from a breeder, rescue groups and an animal shelter. Another one moved in with her fiance.

Of all the formal adoption processes she’s been through, the most straightforward was when she adopted Lucy, a pit bull mix, from the Washington Animal Rescue League (now Humane Rescue Alliance) in Washington, D.C., last year. After walking through the kennel, Behram asked to meet all the female puppies from one litter. She had one in mind, and in particular didn’t want the biggest one.

But the puppies had other ideas. “To my surprise, the one I assumed would be the good match turned out to be the worst match, and the biggest one turned out to pick me,” she said. “She couldn’t stop loving on me.” The caretaker agreed. “It was so obvious that he said, ‘that’s your dog.’ “

There wasn’t much more to it. After a chat and some paperwork, “They took my application, and about 20 minutes later she was mine,” she said. “I think I was there an hour a half total.”

This story may surprise pet adopters who recall filling out long forms and waiting days for home visits and reference checks. But many shelters are moving toward more open adoption processes, which they have found to be better for both adopters and pets.

“We’ve stopped policing adopters. We try to match lifestyle with lifestyle and not be judgmental,” said Joe Elmore, CEO of one such shelter, Charleston Animal Society in South Carolina.

Rather than check off a list of black-and-white requirements, they look for the right fit.

“If you’re at home all day and can walk them every hour and play with them, then you can get those high-energy dogs,” he said. If you’re gone at work 10 hours a day, that doesn’t mean you’re rejected — the shelter helps you look for an older dog who’ll be OK sleeping on the couch most of the day.

Charleston Animal Society, founded in 1874, is one of the oldest in the nation, and serves a diverse county of about 380,000 people in urban and rural areas. They are open admission, meaning they never turn an animal away. The change in policy has had an impact on the number of animals they save.

“We’ve seen a big decrease in euthanasia,” Elmore said. “Back in 2007 or 2008, we were putting down upward of 7,000 animals a year, both cats and dogs.” Now it’s more like three or four hundred, including extreme medical cases they can’t save.

The idea of simpler, quick adoptions may be unnerving to some. How can you be sure these are good homes?

Emily Weiss, vice president for research and development at the ASPCA, said there was no systematic research behind the standard questions on adoption applications.

“As an organization, we started tackling the question scientifically: What is the real impact on the bond, or the likelihood of the pet being well cared for, when somebody adopts outside of those parameters?” she said.

Weiss developed a program for shelters called Meet Your Match that moved away from strict rules. “The person fills out a simple survey about their lifestyle. For instance, for cats, one of the questions is, ‘Is your home like a library, middle-of-the-road, or like a carnival?’ “ The answers are meant to open up a conversation about which pet might meet your expectations.

In shelters that implemented the program, adoptions increased and returns decreased, and follow-up studies showed no difference in quality of care. Weiss argues that this kind of process is harder to fake, so it’s actually more of a barrier to people with bad intentions.

“It’s much easier for them to do harm by simply figuring out how to fill out the application correctly, or get their friend to come in for them,” she said. “It’s much more difficult if we have an honest, open, eye-to-eye conversation that’s focused on this individual animal and you as a person.”

Fees are another factor intended to keep the bad guys away. But many shelters now do reduced-fee or free adoption events, and research has shown that their only effect is to put more animals in homes, more quickly. Again, there’s no difference in the return rate or how the pets are cared for.

Weiss observes that people get cats, in particular, from all kinds of places for free. Eliminating fees makes the shelter better able to compete with those sources, and shelters’ vaccinated, spayed and neutered animals won’t contribute to pet overpopulation in the future.

Not all shelters have moved in this direction. Some still have long forms; some under-resourced shelters don’t have the staff for elaborate screening processes.

And you’re still likely to find more involved procedures at private rescue groups, for a variety of reasons, including a focus by some on animals with special needs.

“Because of the dogs that we take into our program, our adoption requirements are pretty significant,” said Heather Gutshall of Handsome Dan’s Rescue for Pit Bull Type Dogs, whose dogs come both from shelters and from large-scale dog fighting raids. “We are the last stop for many dogs with significant medical and behavioral issues.”

Theirs is still a multi-step process involving phone calls, reference checks and home visits, which may take several weeks.

So simplifying the adoption process may not be appropriate for every organization. But if you haven’t adopted in a while, you might find that things have changed at your local shelter, even though the goal hasn’t.

“The important part is finding a good match,” said Weiss. “Not only do we want people to make adoption their first option, we want them to be successful when they do so.”

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