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ShelterSpeak: Categorizing Animals According to Adoptability

ShelterSpeak: Do you categorize your animals according to levels of adoptability and nonadoptability? Why or why not? And if the answer is yes, what method of categorizing do you use and why? How do you present your statistics to the public?

Christie Smith, executive director
Potter League for Animals
Newport, Rhode Island

The Potter League for Animals does not classify animals as “adoptable” or “unadoptable.” While many shelters are establishing such a classification system—and compliance with at least one state’s law makes it a necessity—it seems to be an artificial way to track animals. We prefer to report every animal that comes into the shelter and then provide totals for the various outcome types—adoption, return to owner, euthanasia. Our placement statistics are reported as the total number of animals adopted or returned to their owners compared to all incoming animals. We have a very high placement rate for an open-admission shelter and, if we chose to, could most likely say that 100% of our adoptable animals are adopted and not euthanized. But animals are still euthanized, and we want to be very clear about that.

As shelters struggle with ways to explain euthanasia and create positive public relations, the general public is especially confused about the language of our profession. No-kill, open-admission, limited admission, low-kill, adoptable, unadoptable, treatable, rehabilitatable, and adoption guarantee are descriptive terms with few consistent or standard meanings. Every organization seems to create its own definitions, making it even more difficult for our communities to understand how we operate. Most confusing are the shelter practices of changing an animal’s status from “adoptable” to “unadoptable” if it is to be euthanized or categorizing animals differently at various times of the year. Whatever the resources or reasons for the lack of consistency, the public doesn’t understand the nuances. Rather than get caught up in the language, the Potter League simply reports all animals “placed” or “euthanized.” It seems very clear and easiest for the public to understand; we refer to it as truth in advertising.

The Potter League monitors its efforts by scrutinizing the reasons for euthanasia. Many years of consistently detailing why animals have been euthanized has been very helpful in designing programs and responses to the plight of homeless animals. Studying why animals are not leaving our shelter alive and creating responses to these problems has been more effective than classifying adoptability. We use this same data to explain to adopters what issues/behaviors cause euthanasia at our shelter.

The Potter League may be outside the norm, but for our small shelter the current system works. As more and more organizations use adoptability standards as the threshold for explaining euthanasia, I would venture that at some point the Potter League will need to change our practices. Shelters often do not ask the foremost question: how is the information to be used—internally or externally or both? Perhaps the best argument for using the “adoptable” and “unadoptable” labels is that they create a consistent and objective way for the staff and volunteers to look at animals. It may make difficult decisions easier to understand for those working in the shelter. But we are waiting for a more universally accepted and understood set of standards before we apply this practice to our communications with the public.

Don Jordan, executive director, and
Virginia Dalton, animal care supervisor
Seattle Animal Control
Seattle, Washington

© L. Pelaez

How “adoptable” is this cat? Some shelter directors avoid the question altogether because they fear it only adds to public confusion; others believe categories of adoptability can be illuminating if definitions are standardized community-wide.

I suppose we do “categorize” adoption animals in some form by displaying as much information about the animal as possible. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one animal is more adoptable than another, just that they are different. Potential adopters need to know if a particular animal is good with children, is good with other pets, prefers men or women, is food-aggressive, etc. The personality or traits of an animal we display will influence potential adopters’ perspectives as to what is truly “adoptable” or “less adoptable” in their minds.

Regarding categorization, technically we only classify dogs as “adoptable” or “not”: if the animal is not safe, they do not even go up for adoption. If a dog passes the “t-test” and is put up for adoption, he remains up for adoption until he’s eventually placed. Most dogs not quickly adopted go to foster care and are usually adopted from there. I must admit that some dogs have taken upwards of a year in foster care before adoption, but that is the exception. I feel that when we put a dog up for adoption, or eventually foster them, the foster families and volunteers need to know that we are not going to take the animal back and euthanize it. For this reason we usually try to wait three days after the animal arrives to t-test it. This helps us see as much of the animal’s true temperament as possible.

Just a note where testing is concerned: Just because a dog is “safe” doesn’t necessarily make him adoptable at our shelter. We do seriously consider the health and age of the dog. It is often hard to get someone to adopt a 12-year-old dog with signs of kidney failure, etc., but most of the routine health issues don’t deter adoptions. If anything, they may make the animal more adoptable to those who want to “rescue” a dog.

Truly, we have dogs that could go just about anywhere, and those who need the experienced adopter. I have observed that the pit bulls or pit mixes often take longer to adopt. We are very selective when it comes to who gets to adopt them. We only put the best of the breed out there, but feel we owe it to the dogs not to set them up for failure in a home where teens could tease and make them aggressive, or where the presence of four kids would mean that the door or gate is constantly open.

Eric Blow, director
Metro Animal Services
Louisville, Kentucky

We categorize our animals as “adoptable” or “unadoptable.” The classification is based on health and temperament. That process is primarily the responsibility of our kennel supervisor and our veterinary technician, although input from other staff members is always helpful and considered. Because of limited space, limited staff, limited etc., not all adoptable animals get their “chance.” We do work with other local shelters and legitimate rescue groups in an effort to place additional “adoptable” animals or “special-needs” animals.

Nicky Ratliff, executive director
Humane Society of Carroll County
Westminster, Maryland

Adoptable or unadoptable? That is the question, and you’ll get almost as many different answers as there are people to answer the question. It depends on where you live, the types of animals in question, the temperaments and ages of animals, the population of the community versus the population of homeless animals, the availability of veterinary assistance for the sick and/or injured, the capacity of the animal shelter, etc.

Each facility, in my opinion, should have criteria of some sort to act as a general guideline (we do). How it is utilized depends on all of the above plus the time of year. For example, a nine-year-old cat may be adoptable in February but not in July. Each week is literally a situation unto itself. That being said I do think that there should be a policy on what will not be placed for adoption no matter what. When people ask for my animal stats, I just give them the raw facts and then explain that some of the ones we euthanized probably would have made good pets for some people but that we just weren’t able to find those special people or that perhaps we ran out of room, etc. I make a list for dogs and one for cats that helps me determine my numbers:

  • Owner give up
  • Stray/At-large

MINUS

  • Return to owner
  • Request euthanasia
  • Quarantine/Euthanasia
  • Adopted
  • Turned over to breed adoption groups

AND THEN

  • That gives me the number euthanized.

Jim Tedford, president
Humane Society at Lollypop Farm
Fairport, New York

We don’t do any formal categorizing of animals based upon adoptability. We make a determination during the initial health exam (shortly after admission) as to whether or not an animal is to be put up for adoption. If there are temperament concerns we might give them a few days of “chill” time and reassess behavior. If there are minor medical concerns we might put an animal on treatment and if he/she responds he/she will be put up for adoption when fully recovered. If an animal has major medical problems and/or an obviously aggressive nature, he/she is deemed unadoptable and is not placed up for adoption.

At this time we report gross statistics. They are published quarterly (in our newsletter). We have considered removing “unadoptable” animals from the count, but have not quite agreed upon what “unadoptable” means. There are certain animals who are clearly unadoptable (e.g., owner-requested euthanasia on a 16-year-old dog), but others might be adoptable with a little intervention. Our only logic in altering the way we report stats is that people tend to only read the euthanasia numbers. They don’t see that we’ve adopted 7,400 animals per year; they go straight to gross euthanasia stats. I feel we owe it to the community to at least explain that there is a significant subset within the euthanasia number who never had a chance in the first place (and, therefore, don’t represent any kind of failure on our part).

If we do remove unadoptable animals from the percentages of animals placed, we will probably include a footnote to explain how we arrived at our final number. I still think it is in the interest of full disclosure to make sure people know how many animals (overall) we receive and shelter.

Bob Rohde, president
Dumb Friends League
Denver, Colorado

The Dumb Friends League has been part of a metro-area initiative to create uniform, universal definitions for words and terms such as “adoptable,” “unadoptable,” and “potentially adoptable.” Through the Metro Denver Shelter Alliance—a group made up of private open-admission and limited-admission shelters, public animal care and control agencies, the local veterinary association, the state agriculture department, feral cat groups, and breed placement partners—we are advocating the use of language that will be clear, positive, and meaningful to both the animal welfare community and the public.

Members of the “Definitions Task Force” have strived for specificity while at the same time recognizing varying levels of resources among different agencies and groups. For example, the use of the term “adoptable” as defined in our draft statement is fairly clear-cut:

Based on health and behavioral assessments; the canine or feline is determined to be healthy and friendly, and is a good candidate to be somebody’s lifelong companion.

But the definition of “potentially adoptable” acknowledges that while organizations such as ours can treat and train animals in need of a little assistance, other agencies may be more limited in what they can do:

The canine or feline is not ready for a new home when it comes to the shelter, but may be with a reasonable commitment of time, effort, or medical care. The shelter’s ability to make that commitment is based on available resources. These canines or felines may include those too young or too shy, those who are sick or injured, and those whose former environment did not include acceptable behavior training.

As helpful as these terms can be when assessing internal programs, however, they often mislead the public when they’re presented in conjunction with euthanasia rates. To curb the confusion, the Alliance is also creating a consistent, universal reporting method that avoids the numbers game; a simple formula for calculating “save rates” takes into account only the total number of animals an organization receives and the total number of animals it euthanizes. (Owner-requested euthanasias and dead-on-arrivals are removed from the equation.)

By standardizing our data collection methods in this way, we hope to dispel misinformation about euthanasia rates and show the public how integral resource levels are to the save rates of different organizations. The bottom line: Everybody will be reporting their numbers in the same way, giving the public an apples-to-apples method of comparison.

 

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