A few days ago I tweeted a link to a blog post by the ASPCA’s Dr. Emily Weiss questioning the shelter dogma that animals should not be given as gifts. In this and an earlier post, Weiss describes her research which suggests that animals given as gifts are no more likely to be given up than animals not given as gifts. That article is open access, so you can read it and judge for yourself. It is a retrospective survey, so there is room for more rigorous science about this topic, but the paper definitely opens up interesting space for discussion and further investigation.
My bosom buddy Julie Hecht posted her thoughtful response on her Dog Spies blog and then ruminated more in a letter to her blogging pen pal Mia. Julie and I got into a conversation about it on Twitter, which unfortunately led to me ranting a bit (not in a hostile way, just in a “I thought about this all so much during my shelter medicine internship and I must let you all know everything I learned!” way). I’ve been thinking since then that 140 character spurts is not the best way to get across what I was trying to say.
Here is the story we tell ourselves about animal sheltering: there are irresponsible people out there. Lots of them. And they have animals, which they don’t value as animals deserve to be valued. They bring the animals to shelters, where people who care more and know more do their best to find the animals good homes. It is the job of the shelters to place these animals in the best homes possible, and to that end they should be very careful about every placement, because animals who have been abandoned once deserve never to be abandoned again.
There is a lot that is true in this story, mainly that animals do get the short end of the stick way too often and that, once abandoned, they absolutely deserve for the rest of their lives to be catnip and sunny couches or steaks and tennis balls. What I question is whether the shelter system that we are able to provide today is equipped to manage them well for long enough to find those homes, and whether shelter workers have the information necessary to predict what kind of home a particular adopter is actually able to provide.
Many, in fact most, shelters in this country are overwhelmed and are still euthanizing adoptable animals to provide space for more animals to come in. There are shelters for which this is not true, more and more of them every year. But they are the exception, and they tend to cluster in particular parts of the country. My friends in New England were shocked when I told them that during my internship I saw shelters where euthanizing healthy kittens for space was common. So given this situation, is it better to hold on to animals until you can find them the home that you think is perfect? Or is it better to take a chance and hope that you can get that animal out of a shelter which may have a 50% kill rate?
That leads us to the question of these lovely shelters which are able to place every medically and behaviorally healthy animal, and often even some not so healthy ones. These days there are plenty of those out there too. What should they think about animals as gifts?
I think that Dr. Weiss’s article makes the point that we aren’t really sure that we have all the information necessary to judge a particular adopter. I don’t think that this particular study makes an open and shut case. But I do think it provides evidence that this is a question worth asking. What do we really know about the home any adopter is going to provide? Is it worth denying an animal a potentially loving home because you don’t trust the word of the adopter?
In her post, Julie argued that there are some cases in which animals as gifts are particularly bad ideas, giving the example of bringing a puppy home to your grandmother who does not have the energy to deal with it. I agree. My suggestion is that shelters should consider moving to more case by case evaluations of particular adoptions, rather than operating on policies alone. If an adopter makes a good case, consider the adoption, even if they are planning to do something like give the animal as a gift. Keep an open mind about what constitutes a good home. But in the case where the adoption is patently a bad idea, then yes, talk the adopter through making a better decision, and refuse the adoption if need be.
In academic shelter medicine, where we like to think about changing everything about shelters because we don’t have to actually operate shelters, there has been a lot of discussion about this kind of change. Outdoor cats? No home visit prior to adoption? No adoption fee at all? Maybe those things are all good ideas. Maybe we really don’t know much about what makes a good adoption or a good home. We guessed, for years, and that was all we could do. But there is more and more research in the shelter community these days. We are starting to apply science (SCIENCE!) to these questions. I hope we can all both keep our minds open and evaluate the incoming research rigorously. It is a fascinating time for shelter medicine and shelter research; as one academic shelter veterinary specialist said to me, when I expressed shock at the overturning of some old principle or other, “Everything is on the table.”
Happy holidays to you and your animals from me and mine!