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When Size Matters

Nothing creates excitement—or smashes adoption records—quite like the 'mega' event

Clowns, crafts, and face painting were among the fun activities at one of the Central Oklahoma Humane Society’s Midnight Woofness events. A freshly painted Gardner, the son of rescue founder Christy Counts, hops on the back of director of operations Samantha Burnett. Central Oklahoma Humane Society

by Jim Baker

A strange and wonderful phenomenon is cropping up at a growing number of shelters and rescue groups around the country. They’re running out of animals.

“That’s probably been one of the top five moments in my life—to be able to stand in a dog kennel area, and just hear the air exchangers. No whimpering, no barking, no breathing. Nothing,” recalls Suzan Bell, executive director of the Bangor Humane Society.

It was March 30, and the Maine shelter was one of many participating in the ASPCA’s Mega Match-a-thon. It was supposed to last all weekend, but they’d had to cut it short.

“The last adoptable animal left our building at 12:30 p.m. Saturday,” Bell says. They’d adopted out 109 animals in a day and a half.

Other shelters and rescue groups are gleefully reporting the same thing—running out of adoptable animals, or smashing their adoption records, thanks to turbocharged events that typically generate hundreds of adoptions, attracting hordes of people with waived- or lowered-fee adoptions, a party-like atmosphere, and the chance to be part of something special.

Mentor Me

Nobody does the “mega” adoption event quite like the Central Oklahoma Humane Society (OK Humane), a foster-based rescue group in Oklahoma City. In 2010 and 2011, the group put on four such events, thanks to a sponsorship from PetSmart Charities.

Each of these “Midnight Woofness” events kicked off at 12 a.m. on a Friday, and continued uninterrupted till 5 p.m. Sunday—a 41-hour marathon. Each event also topped the previous one, breaking national records for PetSmart mega-adoptions: 388 and 490 in 2010, followed by 565 and 586 the next year.

  • 1) Crowd control—and just keeping people happy while waiting in line—is a top priority at big adoption events. The Central Oklahoma Humane Society’s Midnight Woofness events attract thousands of participants. Central Oklahoma Humane Society

“It’s really about making it fun, and making it cool, getting the community on board with your overall mission of ending euthanasia,” says Christy Counts, OK Humane’s founder and executive director of strategic initiatives. “This is a perfect avenue, because a lot of these people wouldn’t normally go to a shelter to adopt, but they sure will come out to a giant event. So you’re really just raising awareness of the overall issue, and that’s more important.”

  • 2) Amy Shrodes, the director of development, counsels Becky Brady about her foster dog, Slater. They drove an hour to be there when Midnight Woofness opened, and they adopted Slater at the event. Central Oklahoma Humane Society

PetSmart Charities was so impressed by the success of Midnight Woofness that it asked OK Humane to help create the Mega Adoption Mentorship Program, in which the two organizations would partner to provide funding and expertise to five shelters or rescue groups each year, so they could create their own events.

Mentorship is only provided for groups that can meet the minimum goal of 200 adoptions, but grants are also available to organizations that want to do smaller-scale, “Super” or “Targeted” events.

  • 3) People at the front of the line come bursting through the entrance to a Midnight Woofness event. Hundreds of participants queue up hours ahead of time to have a good choice of available pets. Central Oklahoma Humane Society

It’s Getting Crowded

OK Humane has the huge happenings down to a science. Its template helps create a major event, held over a short, finite period of time, with hundreds of adoptable animals available from numerous adoption groups at once—often the same model used by shelters that participate in the ASPCA’s Mega Match-a-thon or Challenge events.

It takes OK Humane four months of planning, and five core planning teams, to pull it off: logistics, marketing, volunteer management, foster/animal management, and creative. Amy Shrodes, OK Humane’s manager of development, has led the planning for each event.

Everything is broken down into shifts and areas of responsibility. There are training sessions, volunteer orientations, and meetings to work out all the details. The day of the event, OK Humane has 27 staff and more than 350 volunteers on deck, plus roughly 200 dogs and 50-60 cats at any given time.

  • 4) Although hundreds of animals find families during all the excitement of Midnight Woofness, it still comes down to just one person connecting with one pet at a time. Central Oklahoma Humane Society

Typically, as midnight approaches, hundreds of people are already waiting in line. Many of them arrive hours in advance, hoping to adopt a particular pet who they’ve seen on a website that lists all the adoptable animals. Once the party kicks off, people can wander from tent to tent looking at pets, and volunteers are there to take animals from their cages for a little get-acquainted time with potential adopters. Those who are interested in a particular pet fill out an application, talk with an adoption counselor, and determine if the animal is a good fit for them.

For staff and volunteers, it’s like being shot out of a cannon. “We process over a hundred adoptions in an hour and a half,” Shrodes says. “It’s pretty intense at that moment, so there’s not as much counseling time, but we do have a lot of people that have seen the event from the news, they’ve been watching the website, and they come with printouts, because they know which one they want.”

  • These two pups conducted a sniff-a-thon at a Jacksonville Humane Society Mega Match-a-thon event, in which three shelters and eight rescues coordinated efforts to adopt out 304 pets in three days. Jacksonville Humane Society

Emily Garman, a longtime OK Humane volunteer, used social media to promote the event, to recruit and communicate with volunteers, and to interact with TV and radio station reporters. During the events, she constantly posted shareable content like pictures and videos, plus adoption total updates, on Facebook to keep the excitement going.

“People stayed up all night, waiting for us to break our record,” Garman says. “I felt like I was posting a lot, almost to the point of being obnoxious, but people were [posting], ‘Where are you? How many have been adopted? Who’s going to be the last one?’”

For Counts, the best part is seeing how the mega events seem to instantly raise the value of homeless pets in the community. “Honestly, it’s looking at the line at midnight, thinking that we’ve got people waiting in line for hours for these animals that a couple of days before were considered not important. And I just think that’s amazing,” she says.

  • Staff at the Bangor Humane Society in Maine celebrate a virtually empty shelter after adopting out 109 animals in a day and a half during the ASPCA’s Mega Match-a-thon this spring. Karen Littlefield/Bangor Humane Society

Bryan and Becky Brady heard about the October 2011 event from a friend and decided to drive an hour from their rural community to Oklahoma City to be there when it started.

At that hour, “we’re normally in bed,” Becky says, laughing, “or at least at home. But we did get out. It was kind of drizzly and rainy and everything, but the event was awesome.”

Her husband spotted Slater, a handsome border collie—coincidentally, Shrodes’s foster dog—and instantly fell in love. They filled out an application, talked to an adoption counselor, and took him home that night.

“He gets plenty of exercise, and we live on 10 acres, and he’s just the love of our life,” Becky says.

Crowd Control: Managing the People Flow

Groups that organize mega adoption events typically come away from the experience with some valuable lessons. The most important of these concern how to handle the sheer masses of people that a successful event can attract.

Two county/city shelters in the Riverside County Department of Animal Services in California—Western Riverside and Coachella Valley—partnered with two other municipal shelters in the county for this spring’s Mega Match-a-thon, finding homes for 442 pets.

“For us, really the crowd control and the parking was the biggest thing,” says Kimberly McWhorter, the department’s program coordinator. “The other thing was coordinating the people once they got here, and just the flow of getting them through the system.”

The moment people entered the shelter, they were funneled to an information kiosk manned by staff and volunteers to help direct them. The staff was split up into teams, with a different team handling each of two buildings housing dogs, and one building for cats.

“We changed the flow of our operations,” McWhorter says. Those who wanted to adopt a cat completed the entire adoption in the cat building, instead getting in additional lines for paperwork and to check out. The process worked the same for dogs.

In case more than one adopter wanted an animal, the staff employed a “first come, first served” policy. Once a pet was in a potential adopter’s arms, he or she had first dibs on that animal. “Most people, even if they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I like that one, too,’ they were more than willing to bend. ‘Well, OK, you can have it,’ rather than, ‘No, it’s mine—I saw it first!’” McWhorter says.

When the Sacramento SPCA had its Certified Pre-Owned Pets event for this year’s Mega Match-a-thon, staff put procedures in place to clarify the process for adopters, says Lesley Kirrene, director of marketing. People were met at a welcome desk, where they were given Meet Your Match forms to fill out, and then briefly met with an adoption counselor, who used the forms to guide them to animals who would be a good fit.

Staff set up large signs directing people to the stations where they would need to go next. To prevent visitors from taking the only cards from individual kennels, staff made one plastic card to stay on the cage, then printed up multiple paper copies for each animal. Adopters brought these copies to where adoption counselors were stationed.

But despite the emphasis on crowd control, the shelter kept its usual adoption counseling in place—and that took time. “People were waiting for hours because of the fact that we weren’t just saying, ‘OK, you like that little terrier mix? Sure, it’s yours,’” Kirrene recalls. And yet, she says, “we had very few people upset by the process, which was amazing to me.”

People who come to mega adoption events are likely going to have to spend at least some time waiting, and organizers often take steps to keep the crowd happy. For Kirrene’s shelter, that means having Starbucks coffee and a veggie tamale truck available. The Jacksonville Humane Society hires a band, holds drawings for prizes, and has clowns and face-painting for children. Other shelters have had dachshund races, a tattoo competition in which people showed off skin art of their pets and other animals, and a classic car show to keep things interesting.

Kirrene has one piece of advice for anyone thinking about hosting one of these adoption blowouts. “I’d tell them to be prepared for, I guess we’d call it the ‘best-case scenario,’ which is the line out front,” she says. “If you come up with something unique enough that catches people’s attention—be prepared. I mean, we were overprepared for our next event.”

Super Mario

OK Humane doesn’t have a shelter, but it’s still able to pull off these mega events.

Each year, Midnight Woofness has been held at a different Oklahoma City PetSmart, taking up the entire parking lot with multiple tents for rescue groups, an air-conditioned trailer for cats, food vendors, and activities.

Shelters and rescues with their own facilities can host mega adoption events right on site—or sites, as the case may be. For this spring’s Mega Match-a-thon, the Jacksonville Humane Society, the City of Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services, and First Coast No More Homeless Pets coordinated adoption events at each of their locations. A total of $20,000 in grants from the ASPCA and PetSmart Charities could be used for marketing that would drive people to the different shelters, raising awareness of their locations.

“So to us, it was about not just the volume of adoptions that weekend, but how could we promote adopting in general, as well as promote all three locations, so that we would get that traffic long after the Mega Match-a-thon weekend,” says Denise Deisler, the humane society’s executive director.

She coordinated the event for all three shelters, plus eight foster-based rescues that participated and were spread out among the locations. Everyone agreed to use the same application form, and to standardize their adoption fees to $25 for dogs or cats ($20 of which covered a mandatory license fee).

The shelters met with the rescue groups in advance, and encouraged them to “prequalify” potential adopters before the event—asking them to take steps to meet the groups’ different criteria (submitting to home checks, etc.)—to streamline the adoption process.

The humane society and No More Homeless Pets had, in the weeks leading up to Mega Match-a-thon, transferred in much higher numbers of animals from the city shelter than usual, and filled up their foster homes, so that they would have plenty of pets available.

The humane society planned to have everything take place outdoors, with tents and tables set up to process adoptions. The organization’s shelter had burned down five years earlier, and its modular units could never handle the crowds that were expected that day. Then bad weather—high winds, rain, and a tornado watch—threatened to derail Saturday’s activities.

But quick thinking and hard work by staff and about 100 volunteers saved the day, as they moved the entire event inside the humane society’s warehouse in less than 30 minutes, and then back outside again after the storms had passed.

Despite all the drama, lines of people were a constant on Saturday, and soon there was a run on available pets. By the afternoon, there were no more puppies or kittens left to adopt.

The collective goal for the event was 250 adoptions, but by the end of three days, 304 animals had found homes.

For Deisler, the last adoption was the most memorable.

It came five minutes after the event was officially over. Walking through her shelter, marveling at all the empty cages, she spotted a lone dog in a bottom-row cage.

“His name was Mario. He is a 10-year-old, blind shih tzu, who somehow, in all of this shuffle, got lost in the process. So I came flying out to my person that was doing Facebook. I said, ‘Do not close the gate, do not close the doors. Post something about Mario. I’ll pay his adoption fee—I can’t go home, and not have Mario go home,’” she recalls.

“So she posted really fast on Facebook, ‘Gosh, last animal left in a cage,’ put his picture up there, and a woman called us immediately, and asked us if we’d wait. And we waited for her to come down, and adopt Mario. I’m telling you, it was the best [moment] of the whole weekend.”

Read the rest of this issue from Animal Sheltering magazine


Learn more about Central Oklahoma Humane Society’s (OK Humane) Midnight Woofness events.

OK Humane’s mega adoption event e-learning portal, with a manual that covers the main points of preparation and execution, a resource library, and photo gallery, is located at The site also contains information about the PetSmart Charities and OK Humane Mega Adoption Event Mentorship Program; the first five groups to participate are Pawsitive Alliance, Kenmore, Wash.; Cleveland Animal Protective League; Animal Welfare Association, Voorhees, N.J.; Mazie’s Mission, Frisco, Texas; and the Jacksonville Humane Society in Florida.

The new Pets for Life Community Outreach Toolkit, an interactive manual created by The HSUS’s Pets for Life program and funded by PetSmart Charities, offers some good advice about setup and flow at outreach events. You can download the entire toolkit in PDF format. Or you can purchase the print version, which includes a flash drive with all the videos and attachments.

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