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Minding the gap

Surveys by Best Friends Animal Society reveal some surprises in public attitudes toward shelter pets

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2014

Are young adults too busy snapchatting to realize the realities of animal shelters? Surveys by Best Friends Animal Society turned up some surprising results and are influencing the organization’s approach to marketing. The surveys conducted by Best Friends Animal Society have led the group to retool some of its messaging in order to focus on reaching more young people, says Vicki Kilmer, director of brand management and business intelligence.

It’s often seen as a truism that social movements make a little more progress with each generation. Whether it’s attitudes about civil rights, eating meat, or other kinds of social reform, as a younger generation grows up and begins participating in public life, gradual yet seismic shifts in attitudes and policies can occur.

So when Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) got results in some recent public opinion surveys that indicated that young adults are more likely to purchase a pet than adopt one (46 percent of 18-34-year-olds vs. 31 percent of the total adult sample), and more likely to believe shelter animals are less desirable than those who come from breeders, it was one of those “Whaaah?” moments.

It raised the question: Are the kids all right? If shelter and rescue messages are missing the younger generation, what might that mean for future trends?

Telephone surveys conducted in 2012 and 2013 by Ketchum Global Research & Analytics and Braun Research unearthed some good news—for example, respondents almost unanimously believe that having a pet makes people happier, and that shelter animals are lovable, companionable, and sweet—but also many misconceptions. About six in 10 felt shelter animals are poorly behaved (65 percent), malnourished (63 percent), and unhealthy (61 percent).

Overall, too, respondents underestimated the size of the problem: 50 percent estimated that 500 or fewer cats and dogs die each day in shelters around the country (the reality, Best Friends estimates, is closer to 9,000 daily).

Vicki Kilmer, director of brand management and business intelligence at BFAS, explores the data—and what it might mean for BFAS and animal welfare in general—in this edited interview with Animal Sheltering editor Carrie Allan.

Animal Sheltering: Were there particular issues you wanted to get a look at with this survey?

Vicki Kilmer: Generally, we were like, “OK, we know we need to better understand the public’s view of shelter animals if we’re going to better serve the animals we’re trying to save. So we’ve got some question marks there, let’s throw this out in the market and see what we learn.” We think there are misconceptions, but we don’t really know what they are. With these surveys, we really wanted to take a step back, have no assumptions, and get the landscape of public perceptions of shelter animals.

The results you got about the attitudes of young people seemed really counterintuitive and surprising. With so many other social issues, you see the most “progressive” attitudes among young people.

That was my exact thought when I saw the result. I was like, “Wow, I would have expected the exact opposite.” And I certainly wasn’t the only person in the organization to be really surprised by that result, which has led to some questions that we would like to probe further in the future. It appears to be influenced by both an awareness factor and a perception factor. In looking at the different age segments and their understanding that when animals go to a shelter, it’s likely their last stop, there’s a significant difference between the 18-34 age span in understanding that. We don’t know the reason—that’s the missing piece—but there’s clearly a significant difference in awareness that that is the nature of shelters. And then on the perception part, we also saw a significant difference in finding shelter animals less desirable than those from breeders and the perception of “damaged goods.” So we know there’s an awareness difference and a perception difference; what’s driving that is where we have an opportunity for further insight.

I would have thought prior to this study that we would see younger age spans aware of adoption as an option, and more open to that. There were a couple of findings when we did this study—you know, you always love when you initiate research and you get those “aha” things, but then it makes you wish you’d asked like 10 other questions that you didn’t! But yeah, that was really a biggie for us that we did not expect to see.

In the wake of the surveys, is BFAS talking about strategy and marketing and looking at new channels to get your messages to a younger audience?

Yes, absolutely. It’s influenced our targeting, our channels, and our media selection, and we’re really retooling in trying to get to that 18-34 age span that we didn’t realize was such a priority in the education arena until we saw the results. So we’re doing a lot more online. One example of that is that we recently launched a pro-adoption Instagram campaign using little vignettes from these pet celebrities. Little did I know, because I’m not on Instagram, but there are these pet celebrities on Instagram who are just people’s pets that have created this huge following on Instagram, and some of them actually lent their pet celebrities to our campaign. They’re just like these little vignettes about these pet celebrities who were adopted, just sending an adoption message in a fun, light, really short 15-second PSA way—but through a channel we hadn’t really leveraged that way previously. Not that we haven’t been on Instagram before, but this was a very targeted adoption message, crafted just for Instagram. It was certainly influenced by this finding and our need to get this message out to this audience in a way that would resonate with them, rather than taking a standard message we might be using already and slapping that on Instagram.Another thing we’re definitely focusing on with messaging—this has been a hot button of mine for years, one of those things that I really believed in, and it was nice to have the research to say “It’s not just Vicki’s opinion”—one thing we’re messaging more heavily is the fact that a quarter to a third of dogs in shelters are purebred. I talk with people all the time, people who are very savvy and very aware of adoption as an option and support it—but then they say they wanted a golden retriever, so they didn’t go to the shelter. I just think it’s not as well known as it should be, and it may be influencing behavior. We had this high percentage of people who say they would opt to adopt, but there’s not a connection between their stated preference and their behavior. And when we asked about barriers to adoption that was the number one thing.

I thought one of the funny and sad things was the higher number of people who said they’d advise a friend to adopt compared to the lower number of those who would adopt themselves. Do as we say, not as we do!

Yeah, I’ll tell them to go to the shelter! Anyway, we saw breed preference being the number one adoption barrier, but I was kind of surprised to see “cost” be the second. So I’m like, what is feeding the perception that adoption is a more costly endeavor than purchasing from a pet store? Is it related to this sort of “damaged goods” perception that it’s going to cost them more down the line? I don’t know. But that’s one area that I think we’ll want more insight on—I’m glad we included “cost” as a choice, but I certainly didn’t expect it to rise to the top of the examples of barriers.

Given that we’re trying to reduce euthanasia in shelters, but we also want people to have an accurate understanding of what happens to animals who enter them, how do you think people should talk about what’s going to happen in shelters?

It’s definitely a balancing act. Especially with the finding that over half of the survey participants thought that less than 500 animals in shelters died every day. We were like, “Wow, this hasn’t really risen to a level of priority, because people don’t understand the magnitude of what’s going on.”

Fifty percent of Americans estimate that only 500 animals a day die in shelters, compared to the actual number of around 9,000. It’s actually way more pathetic than that, because when you look at how that 50 percent breaks down, the vast majority thought it was 100 animals or less. So it’s like, “Wow, we’ve got a huge lack of awareness—how does that relate to the priority people have placed on this? And would that change if there were better awareness?” Forty-eight percent of survey participants believed that shelter animals just got to hang out at shelters until they find a home. You’ve got this huge dichotomy between the reality of the size of the problem and the perception of the size of the problem.

So at the same time we’re trying to educate on that, the last thing we want to do is point the finger at the shelter system. It’s a balancing act. With our messaging, we try to incorporate how we’re working with shelters, we’re working with network partners to change this reality, and we need you to be a part of that. We need you to change this reality.

About the Author

Animal Sheltering is for everyone who cares about the animals in their community—from shelter directors and animal care and control officers to kennel staff, volunteers, and private individuals working as activists, breed rescuers, wildlife rehabbers, veterinarians and more.