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Free to good home

It's a phrase that used to scare shelters, but now many are waiving adoption fees to help cats

From Animal Sheltering Magazine September/October 2013

Brittani Andrews (with a friend) holds her new kitty Dora, who she adopted in March 2012 at the Milwaukee campus of the Wisconsin Humane Society, where fee-waived cat adoptions proved so effective that the shelter decided to make them permanent. Like other shelters that have tried fee-waived cat adoptions, the Cleveland Animal Protective League experienced nearly empty cat cages after one of its $5 Feline promotions.People line up to adopt cats during a $5 Feline promotion at the Cleveland APL. The shelter has tried both fee-waived cat adoption events and periodic promotions that reduced the fee to $5, which—interestingly enough—did even better.

Joe Elmore remembers the first time the Charleston Animal Society (CAS) teamed up with the ASPCA to organize the Feline Frenzy, a fee-waived adoption promotion for cats older than 1 year, over a three-day weekend in May 2009.

“It freaked everybody out … the staff and everything: ‘Oh, you know, we can’t do this,’” says Elmore, the shelter’s CEO. “Everybody had these myths going around in their head … that all these crazy people would come in and get the animals.”

But the reality was very different. No dogfighters. No laboratory researchers. Just a long line filled with many senior citizens, some relying on canes and walkers. “It was just kind of like an older population that came out, almost like they were coming for an early-bird dinner at a restaurant,” he says, laughing. “That was a big sigh of relief for everybody, was that monsters would not be coming in and taking the animals.”

The event was such a hit that CAS ran out of “campaign cats” on the first day, and shelter staff had to reach out to shelters and rescue groups—some as far as 100 miles away—to find more adult cats for the promotion. CAS staff headed out to these locations to pick up 73 additional cats.

One hundred and eight cats were adopted during the promotion, compared to just two cats who got adopted during the same, three-day time frame the month prior to the event. Other figures the shelter tracked—total visitors, total animal adoptions, adoption revenue, etc.—were similarly eye-popping.The experience is a common one among shelter staff and volunteers first exposed to the idea of doing fee-waived cat adoptions. Their initial reactions often run the gamut from hesitancy and extreme wariness to disbelief or vehement opposition. Then they try it, and they’re knocked out by the results.

Veterinarian Emily Weiss, senior director of shelter research and development for the ASPCA, recalls the response when she raised the issue of fee-waived cat adoptions in the early 2000s. “I honestly got tons of hate mail. People threatened me at conferences about it, telling me how horrific I was, how could I possibly think those things?”

Even today, she hears the same kind of concerns. “They range from ‘People are just going to feed the cats to their snakes,’ or ‘They’re going to be bait animals,’ or ‘They’re not going to care about them,’ or ‘They can’t afford them,’” she says.

The fear is that if shelters don’t place a monetary value on felines, the community won’t value them either. What kind of adopter is going to show up to take home those fee-waived cats? Will they, in fact, be “monsters” intent on harming the animals? If they want a free cat, can they really afford pet ownership?

Elmore learned firsthand that these concerns are unfounded. And he’s reminded of that every time he sees the photos of smiling seniors and happy families that his shelter posts on Facebook of adopters and their new cats. “I’m like, look, a picture’s worth a thousand words. Does Grandma look like a laboratory researcher that is mutilating animals?” he says, laughing.

We’ve Grown Attached

Weiss was first introduced to the idea of fee-waived cat adoptions when she visited the Wisconsin Humane Society (WHS) around 2002, to consult with the late Victoria Wellens, then the shelter’s executive director. Shelter leadership had decided in 1998 to try waiving the adoption fee for cats more than a year old to prevent them from languishing in the shelter. Five years of follow-up studies showed no difference between the post-adoption experience of these “free” cats and any other animals adopted from WHS. As a result, the shelter made the policy permanent.

Weiss credits WHS in Milwaukee with pioneering the fee-waived approach for cats; before her visit there, she’d never heard of it. The idea, according to Weiss, really came from Wellens.

“Her philosophy was this: People can get their cats anywhere. They’re not coming to my shelter to get my $125-adoption-fee cat; they’re getting their cats from each other,” Weiss says. “They find a stray cat or a free kitten outside the door of the supermarket, and they bring them home into their lives. So her thought was that it makes much more sense to start with what’s working: How are people getting their cats now, and let’s give them the same opportunity here.”Her visit motivated Weiss to take a closer look at what WHS was doing, and find out whether paying an adoption fee actually makes a difference in the bond between adopters and their cats. “There are many folks that said people aren’t going to care for this cat or love this cat the same way they would if they paid for him, as if there was something about paying for the animal that somehow changed the way our heart beats,” Weiss says.

In 2006, Weiss and Shannon Gramann, ASPCA manager of shelter research and development, did a study that compared “the attachment levels of adopters of cats—fee-based adoptions versus free adoptions.”

Their findings, published in Vol. 4 2009 of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, show that attachment to cats adopted from the facility didn’t decrease when adoption fees were waived; eliminating the fees doesn’t devalue the cats in the eyes of the adopters; and free adult cat programs could save the lives of thousands of shelter cats who would otherwise stay in a shelter for months, or be euthanized.

There are a couple of factors that help explain why eliminating the adoption fee can have such profound results for shelters. “I think it’s a really poor model to put a fee on something that people obtain for free everywhere else,” Weiss says. “The public doesn’t understand, ‘Oh, he’s spayed and neutered, he’s vaccinated, he gets all these other great things that shelters provide.’ That’s not where their head is at; it’s where our head is at.”

The other piece, according to Weiss, is that fee-waived cat adoptions offer a great opportunity for shelters to create fun, clever promotions that attract crowds and draw local media attention.“Folks don’t get terribly tired of them. Especially if you can change up the message, you could do those several times a year, or, in many cases, organizations just simply say, ‘All our adult cats, they’re just going to be free all the time,’” Weiss says.

Everyone Gets a Home

In Fairport, N.Y., Lollypop Farm, the Humane Society of Greater Rochester, tried its first free cat adopt-a-thon about three years ago. The shelter waived adoption fees for adults, and reduced them for kittens, but soon decided to simply waive the fees for all cats during its adopt-a-thons.

The most successful fee-waived promotion Lollypop Farm has done was last November, when 165 cats and kittens were adopted in one day. “It was crazy,” says Adrienne McHargue, the shelter’s director of communication and outreach. “We were all exhausted, but we were exhilarated, because we cleared out our adoption room.” A promotion in June 2012 yielded 118 adoptions, followed by an August 2012 event that found homes for 132 cats and kittens.

“When we first started out, I think we were very apprehensive, but we kept telling [staff], ‘It’s the regular adoption process. Don’t let the fact that it’s free sway you,’” McHargue says. “Now it’s just par for the course. We know they’re going to happen, everybody’s excited, and we just grin and bear it during the day, because we know we’re going to have so many cats adopted.”In June 2012, the Seattle Animal Shelter tried its first big fee-waived event, offering cats 6 months and older for free during that month. The goal was to get as many adult cats into homes as possible before the shelter got overloaded with kittens, when adults would be overlooked, their length of stay would increase, and the shelter would see a rise in upper respiratory infections in the fall.

The shelter adopted out 121 adult cats during the promotion, a 44 percent increase over the same time period the year before, according to Kara Main-Hester, manager of the volunteer program and fundraising. “It worked, it absolutely worked. The other thing that was amazing was that the health of our shelter cats is much better, because we had fewer cats at a critical time when we were getting in all these kittens, and so we were able to kind of ride that tide of less stress and good health in our cattery for months,” Main-Hester says.

A major concern that many shelters have about waiving adoption fees is that their revenue will take a big hit. Some shelters make up for this potential loss through sales of collars, leashes, carriers, and other pet supplies in their retail stores. Others write grants, or partner with sponsors, to underwrite the cost of the events. And sometimes adopters donate money, impressed by a shelter’s efforts to help find homes for cats.

“About 75 percent of people do leave some sort of donation,” says Alison Fotsch Kleibor, director of WHS’s Racine campus. The shelter’s had adopters who were so pleased about their experience, and supportive of WHS’s efforts to find homes for more cats, that they’ve donated $100, $500, even $1,000. Other adopters take the money that they saved thanks to the waived fee, and spend it on pet supplies from the shelter’s retail store.

Some shelters actually report an increase in revenue. At the CAS Feline Frenzy, for example, adoption revenue from the three-day weekend was $4,572, compared to $1,985 for the same time period one month earlier—a 130 percent boost.It’s important to remember that the loss of adoption revenue is offset by shelters not having to pay to house and care for the dozens of cats who find homes during fee-waived promotions. “The adoption revenue doesn’t even begin to cover the cost and expenses of the animals while they’re here,” says Terri Inglis, executive director of Homeward Pet Adoption Center in Woodinville, Wash. “It’s better for us to have those animals in homes than to have them here, taking kennel space.”

Got Cats (and Staff)?

To give fee-waived cat adoption promotions a try doesn’t require shelters to make any big organizational changes—but it does take preparation. If they’re not careful, shelters might find themselves running out of cats, or facing some very unhappy staff and volunteers—as well as upset cat advocates in the community.Make sure that staff and volunteers understand the research behind fee-waived adoption, how it’s done, and the success stories of other shelters that have tried it, Weiss says. They need to understand what’s going to be happening—especially that the regular adoption policy will remain intact—and the positive impact it can have on the shelter, the animals, and the adopters. “We’re not going to be just opening up all our cat cages, and throwing cats at people as they walk in the door,” she says.

The same research and data that shelters use to persuade staff and volunteers can also be used to craft messaging to the community. Many shelters have implemented fee-waived cat adoptions without criticism, Weiss says, but it’s wise to be ready with facts that can win over a community and attract adopters.

If a shelter’s done its marketing—using social media, its website, press releases, paid advertising, fliers—it’s not unusual for a fee-waived event to clear out all the cat cages on the adoption floor. That means making sure the shelter has plenty of cats for the event. “Those animals all need to get ready. They all need to be spayed and neutered, vaccinated—whatever your ‘get ready’ is, that’ll need to happen to that cat,” Weiss says. It’s also a good practice to contact other shelters in the area, and find out if they have cats who could be pulled during the promotion, in case your shelter runs out.

Fee-waived promotions tend to bring in the crowds, so shelters have to be ready for the influx of adopters. That means having extra staff and volunteers prepared to do the adoption process, Weiss says. “Make sure that those folks understand customer service, because people are going to be waiting a long time.”

The Cleveland Animal Protective League has done fee-waived cat promotions, as well as promotions in which adoption fees have been reduced to $5. The shelter has found that the $5 adoption events have actually done better, so that’s the kind it tends to do, according to Sharon Harvey, president/CEO.

“I believe whether they’re free, whether they’re $10, whether they’re $5, I don’t think people are valuing the animal any differently. We’re not seeing any change in return rates,” she says. “I think this is a very effective and also humane and necessary strategy to save the most lives that we possibly can.”

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.