ShelterSpeak: Holiday Adoptions
ShelterSpeak Question: How do you handle holiday adoptions—both at Christmastime and during other seasonal festivities? Are there differences in the way you handle certain species (i.e., not adopting rabbits at Easter or cats at Halloween?) Have your policies about holiday adoptions changed over the past decade, and if so, what caused you to reevaluate them? What is the public’s response to your holiday-related policies?
Nicky Ratliff, Executive Director
Humane Society of Carroll County, Westminster, Maryland
We have changed our policy on adoptions during the Christmas holiday season. We formerly did not adopt the week before Christmas and continued our closed-adoption policy until after the New Year. Then for several years we decided to only adopt animals over nine months old to keep people from adopting the cute little pup or kitten, thinking that would cut off the spontaneous adoptions.
Then two years ago we decided to open up adoptions for all animals regardless of age. We were not receiving animals who had been Christmas gifts, and we haven’t started receiving any since we opened adoptions during that time. We do discuss the benefits of having family discussions before adoptions, and we stress all the reasons adopters might want to assess their lifestyles during the holiday season—but if they feel they will have the time, can provide consistency, keep the animal’s stress to a minimum, and keep the animal safe we will proceed. Many rethink the timing and thank us for bringing our concerns to their attention.
We use PSAs to discourage getting rabbits for Easter through pet stores, but if folks come here and we feel they will provide a good home, we will adopt rabbits to them during Easter. We educate the public about the potential hazards of allowing black cats in particular to be outside during Halloween, but also stress that all animals should be kept inside or very close to home during Halloween. Obviously, policies have to consider the locale they service; not every community can or should have the same policies.
We are very careful about adopting solid black cats or solid white cats during any of the satanic ritual holidays, as both are desired. The citizens generally appreciate the care we take when adopting animals, especially after we explain our rationale, and those who don’t agree quite frankly are of little concern to us. We feel we are very citizen-friendly and try to accommodate them when we can.
Allison Miller, Adoption Supervisor
Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control, Fort Wayne, Indiana
I am so proud to say that we have amazing pet-to-people and pet-to-family matches during all of the holiday seasons. When I first started at the shelter, the adoption center would close down the week before Christmas. Even though the adoption center was closed, the staff still had to come in and take care of the animals—and every day (no exaggerating), I would see 15 to 20 cars pull up to the adoption center doors, get out to see if we were open, and then leave once they realized we were closed.
My big question was: There are all of these people coming to the shelter to get a pet, they see we are closed, so they leave—and WHERE ARE ALL OF THESE PEOPLE GOING?? The answer was obvious—they were going to the nearest pet store because it was open, or going to get a newspaper to look for “free” or inexpensive pets.
I was mortified at this thought! The doors to the adoption center were shut and locked, and all of the homeless adoption pets were just sitting there with lost chances for homes because the staff was too worried that the holidays might be too hectic or that they might be given as a gift. I was willing to take that risk! I decided that we needed to stay open during the holidays, too, and find wonderful, forever homes for our homeless pets. We took the responsibility upon ourselves to carefully counsel and educate our adopters about what it means to have a new pet during the hectic holiday season and about what they needed to prepare themselves for. We made sure that they went home with all of the tools necessary for the success of the adoption.
As of yet, we have not had an increase in adoption returns after any holiday. And many pets have wonderful homes with people/families who just wanted a cuddly companion to share the season with. Does it get much better than that?
Jane McCall, Executive Director
Dubuque Humane Society, Dubuque, Iowa
We have relaxed our restrictions over the last few years after research showed that people did not give up animals they’d received as gifts any more frequently than other adopters. We do screen pretty closely to make sure it is a “wanted” animal, not a surprise for someone. We are especially careful if it is a gift for a child and the person purchasing the animal is not the parent! We are also careful at Halloween on black cats—college students probably wouldn’t be able to get one then. We don’t make a big deal of it to the public.
A few years ago we took in 46 smallbreed dogs from a breeder a week before Christmas, and we did 99 adoptions in just a few days. Only two of the dogs came back due to some problems related to the conditions they were kept in. We actually thought it was great to get all the publicity and adopt not only the breeder’s dogs but also a bunch we already had at the shelter.
Virginia Dalton, Animal Care Supervisor
Seattle Animal Shelter, Seattle, Washington
When holidays come around (including birthdays), we encourage people to purchase an adoption “gift certificate” for the recipient. We explain how choosing a pet is really a very personal choice, and that it will be a big part of that person’s life for many years. We suggest that they go down and buy supplies, toys, and such to wrap along with the certificate. I often share how much fun people have coming in to pick the best pet for them.
As far as cats and Halloween, we are as careful at that time as we are year round. We have not had any real issues around that holiday, and often refer to calendars obtained through cruelty classes that give year-round dates involving animal sacrificing.
In answer to your last two questions, we changed our ideas regarding Christmas adoptions when Mike Arms brought to our attention that pet stores make a large profit during that time on “puppy mill” pets because we won’t adopt out puppies at Christmas. We are still very careful, but our adoption guidelines and applications weed out a lot of problems. The public has been great with all of these ideas.
Stephanie A. Smith, Training and Community Manager
Animal Resource Center of Montgomery County, Dayton, Ohio
We’re a county-operated animal shelter which cares for about 10,000 pets annually.
The holiday adoption return overrun, I liken to an urban legend. Everyone has heard about it, but no one can cite any details or experiences of their own.
Once upon a time, discouraging, complicating, or refusing adoptions— and/or alienating adopters—was touted as the humane thing to do. We were not progressive if we did not attempt to bolt the door against all those horrible, ignorant, impulsive people who thought about adding a pet, from a shelter no less, to their families during the winter holidays.
Being a government agency, we were not too keen on just shutting our adoption doors the week before Christmas. We did reluctantly adopt and labored excessively over each adoption—probably much to the chagrin of those unenlightened masses who came to us thinking that they may be doing a good thing by wanting to give a sheltered pet a home!
Ironically, with the advent of better record keeping coupled with the eventual computerization of stats, we discovered that those Christmas puppies and pets were no more apt to be returned than any other pet we placed.
We work with all potential adopters on any day of the year. We even let a 10- year-old get a black kitten on her birthday— October 31! It wasn’t her fault she was born on Halloween and she had her heart set on the fuzzy all-black one.
We seem to have a handful of practices and policies that permeate our field that fall into my “urban” (read: shelter) legend category. (I would add to that category the stories of those people who came in and seriously wanted a dog to match their couch and all those people in the Cadillacs who take advantage of the spay/neuter programs.)
We need to work on fostering better relationships within our communities and not construct barriers and obstacles based upon ill-founded judgments. I would like to see the percentages go up on shelters as sources for pets, and that’s hard to have happen when the doors are locked.
Barbara Carr, Executive Director
SPCA Serving Erie County, Tonawanda, New York
Today we try to judge each adoption on its merits and not judge a particular adopter or adoption by the holiday or season of the year. A decade ago this was not our practice, and there were laundry lists of reasons not to adopt an animal to a new home, only a few of which actually had to do with holidays. Perhaps we denied many adoptions because we feared the pet might be an unwanted gift, an Easter basket filler, or a sacrifice to evil forces! Or perhaps we just believed, without question, the practices of the day.
After actually looking at the data to determine whether or not there was any fact to base our fears on, we found that there was not. We began to inch towards those frightening holiday adoptions one day at a time: Instead of closing adoptions a week before Christmas, we set the “no adoptions” time to six days. Even with this radical move we did not find any of the animals returned after the holidays. The next year we bravely cut two more days off with the same results—the adoptions were successful!
This radical behavior led us to question our “no black cat” adoption ban that arrived two weeks before every Halloween. Again, no one who worked at the shelter, whether it was for a year or twenty years, actually knew of a case of any black cat being harmed around this holiday. We did know that black cats, being so numerous, did not fare well at the shelter during those two weeks.
By this time we realized we probably had more to question concerning our adoption policies. Over the past ten years we have radically changed the way we approach adoptions. We find that we can maximize great adoptions with our new approach, but at the same time examine each adoption to ensure that we are making responsible, individual decisions.
I feel people are more interested in adopting from the SPCA today than they were a decade ago. One indicator of this is that adoptions have doubled in the past ten years. There are many reasons for this—including our more reasoned approach to adoptions.
Kim Bunker, Adoption Manager
Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado
The Dumb Friends League does not change its adoption policies or procedures for holidays. We interview all potential adopters before adopting an animal to them to find a good match. If we have a concern about a patron wanting to adopt for the wrong reasons or feel that they will not provide an appropriate home or adequate care for the animal, we will deny the adoption at that time. Each situation is looked at individually, and our goal is to find permanent loving homes for all of our companion animals.
The League does not adopt out animals as gifts for other individuals who are unaware of the adoption. We do see an increase in patrons wanting to adopt animals as gifts during the Christmas holiday. We urge these patrons to purchase a Dumb Friends League gift card so that the person the animal is for can choose the animal themselves. We will allow them to put the animal on hold for up to 24 hours for the potential new owner to visit with the animal and decide for themselves if they want to adopt. Most patrons are understanding of this. I have been at the League for five years, and during this time these policies have not changed.
Debra Parsons-Drake, Executive Officer
Suncoast Humane Society, Englewood, Florida
In years past Suncoast Humane Society, like so many other shelters, provided staff with a rigid set of adoption policies restricting adoptions of specific species or breeds during holiday periods. Rabbits were not adopted out for Easter. Cats, in particular black ones, could not be adopted for five days prior to Halloween. Animals adopted in the five days prior to Christmas could not be picked up until after the holidays.
The staff and volunteer adoption counselors liked having hard-and-fast rules. It made the job of telling someone no a little easier—it was policy. But fortunately, like so many other shelters, we have realized that each adoption is unique. The requirements and constraints must be evaluated based on both the animal and the adopter. Rigid policies have now been tabled in favor of flexible guidelines.
An adopter looking for a rabbit for Easter is better served getting the animal from the humane society. Educational materials and sterilization go a long way towards a good start for that animal. Certainly caution must be taken with cat adoptions at Halloween, but during the give-and-take between adopter and counselor, a wealth of knowledge can be gained, and an informed decision can be made as to the safety of the animal in question. One of our best adoptions last year was to an elderly couple that fell in love with a black cat on Halloween!
Christmas poses its own set of challenges. We do not believe that pets should be given as gifts, and we encourage every alternative. In cases where the gift is to a family member, we have become more flexible. We look at each request cautiously and ask lots of questions to make sure this is a welcomed gift and the animal will be provided for appropriately. We are well aware that this is our opportunity to place an animal in a home with appropriate educational material, a support network, and sterilization. Having only changed our methodology in recent years, we are still developing a track record and identifying appropriate trigger points to look for.
Public perception towards our policy has been favorable. It has provided us yet another opportunity to openly discuss animal welfare in general without being perceived as “judgmental.”
Jo Liska, Director of Education
Bloomington Animal Care and Control, Bloomington, Indiana
Until about two years ago, the holidays were a sad time for our critters: No black cats at Halloween, no bunnies at Easter, and adoptions suspended for at least a week before Christmas. Yet we did not have a lot of critters coming in to us after these holidays, and I could find nothing but anecdotal data regarding critters, holidays, and gifts. Potential adopters were not pleased with these policies, and, I am sure, simply acquired companions from different venues. A change in administration and some research turned the tide. Now we use adoption counseling and education as our primary means for helping people make a good match, cautioning them about giving a specific animal as a gift without including the new guardian, and so forth. This has been working well for us.
Chantal Young, Adoption Coordinator
The Winnipeg Humane Society, Winnipeg, Canada
The Winnipeg Humane Society will process holiday adoptions. Our adoption counselors are trained to counsel each adopter in a manner specific to their situation. This means that if someone is looking to adopt a rabbit near Easter, we ask the appropriate questions and clarify information that the person may not have—explaining, for example, that rabbits require around 30 hours of exercise outside of their cage every week.
We’ve previously not processed rabbit adoptions near Easter, or black cats near Halloween, or any pets a week before Christmas. We now know that as we have the most urgent need to place the most animals in our city, we needed to reevaluate the way we did business. Not adopting animals around certain times of the year wasn’t helping us, nor the animals.
Every single person who comes to us to adopt has made a decision not to go to the pet store down the street or to the newspaper for a giveaway. We need to respect the fact they are making an effort and have good intentions. Most people mean no harm. We’ve provided the counseling and information, but there is only so much “hand holding” one shelter can do. We know that backyard breeders don’t care what time of year it is.