Thursday, April 12, 2007

The high price of animal shelters

Two years ago, our oldest cat died. A year ago, so did our second. Both were elderly; their deaths were sad but not unexpected. They're buried together in the woods in our back yard.

Four weeks ago, we decided it was time to have cats around again. So we visited several local shelters and finally adopted a pair of 3-month-old female kittens: a feisty short-hair calico and an affectionate black domestic longhair with extra toes on its front feet. I'll post pictures later when I get time.

We believe in adopting from shelters rather than buying purebreds for both humanitarian and economic reasons. And while we've always been sort of opposed to declawing -- my wife calls it "cutting off their fingers at the first knuckle" -- we reluctantly decided to have them declawed because we both work and wouldn't be able to spend the necessary time teaching them not to shred the furniture.

What floored me was the cost.

The adoption fee for each cat was $150 plus tax. That included a bunch of veterinary care prior to adoption, plus free microchipping and spaying afterward.

Both had colds -- a common ailment in shelters, where animals live in close proximity to each other -- so a vet visit and some antibiotics cost $50.

Declawing was another $200 apiece -- no charge for the extra toes. They also got their distemper boosters.

So four weeks in, we've invested more than $800 in these two "free" cats.

Declawing was a choice, of course. And the fees in the Twin Cities are far higher than those at shelters out in the country. But that's a staggering amount of money -- and it doesn't even include things like food, litter boxes or litter.

I understand that shelters need to cover expenses, and I don't begrudge them or the vets the money. We love the cats -- even if they keep us awake at night with their playing, or by jumping up on the bed and purring in our ears -- and can afford the cost.

But it has set me to wondering: At what point does the cost of adoption start interfering with their mission to save animals? A lot of families that might otherwise make wonderful homes for abandoned animals simply can't afford to spend that kind of money on a pet. Are the shelters dangerously narrowing their customer base in a pennywise, pound-foolish fashion?

Those thoughts came back to me after reading about research in adoption psychology. This refers to a growing trend among animal shelters to study the psychology of shelter animals, as well as that of people who give up pets and those who adopt them. The idea is to not only match people with compatible pets: the goal includes discovering why owners give up pets (in hopes of reducing the number of abandoned animals) and to develop shelter designs and training programs for abandoned animals that will make them more adoptable. The overall goal: greatly reducing the number of animals euthanized every year.

The article is flawed. It starts out strong, then devolves into a lightweight story about the author's decision to adopt a dog from the shelter he's writing about. But it makes some sobering points:

1. Of the 4 million dogs that enter animal shelters in the United States each year, half are euthanized.

2. The most heartbreaking scene was the description of the shelter's "disposition team", which has the emotionally wrenching job of assessing new arrivals and deciding, on the basis of a few minutes' interaction, which animals get sent to the adoption kennels and which get sent to the canine Treblinka of the euthanasia room.

3. While the main reasons for surrendering dogs are understandable -- biting, aggression, chewing on furniture, inability to house-train, moving, loss of job -- many are downright frivolous and reflect a shocking emotional disregard. Among the examples cited in the article: animals surrendered because they were "boring", or the owners were going on vacation, or the family had bought new furniture and the dog's coloring didn't match.

The most interesting argument the article makes is that pets are being forced to adapt to a changing human culture that they were never bred for. Most dog breeds were developed for specific outdoor purposes: herding, catching rats, hunting. These jobs not only selected for energy and intelligence, but were usually performed in the company of people or other dogs.

But our population is far more urban and suburban these days, and in many families the adults all work -- and work long hours. So those dogs are now forced to endure long days alone in a house or apartment, with the boredom and loneliness relieved only by the arrival home of their humans -- who after a long day of work are often too tired or stressed or busy to deal with the needs of their canine companions.

The article cites some successes -- including one here in Minneapolis, where "socialized" puppies were far less likely to be returned after adoption. Another training program in New Hampshire cut the euthanasia rate in half, while in Ohio an aggressive spay/neuter program has helped cut euthanasia by 40 percent while reducing the number of abandoned dogs by 16 percent.

Still, I was left wondering if there are any real solutions, or if the ethically numbing reality of animal shelters are simply the way things are. As long as adoption is expensive; as long as people have unrealistic expectations of their animals; and as long as substantial numbers of people refuse to have their animals spayed, there will always be more abandoned animals than there are people to adopt them. And that means there will always be disposition teams separating the lucky from the unlucky.

It strikes me that there is plenty of room for either states or private foundations to get involved here. I see a two-pronged approach.

1. A subsidy program to reduce the cost of adoption, thus broadening the base of potential adopters;

2. An aggressive education, subsidy and (perhaps) enforcement program to encourage widespread spaying/neutering of pets. Working with vets, say, to offer pet owners a one-year discount on vet services if they get their pet neutered (with the state picking up most of the difference). Or shelters requiring that anyone dropping off a litter of kittens or puppies must get the mother spayed. Or cities requiring spaying as part of their licensing process except for licensed breeders. The idea is to make spaying the default choice, so that it occurs unless the pet owner is highly motivated to avoid it.

Then, perhaps, shelters can do more of the sheltering part of their job and less of the emotionally numbing work that comes from serving as a triage center for society's carelessness.

Update: Picture of cute kitties added.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you have not noted is that at many shelters, kittens are in high demand and therefore have a high price tag. Adult cats may be as little as $25 or $30, but kittens are purely supply & demand. And in the newspaper, kittens are often free or close to it.

You could have found an adult cat that was already declawed and likely spent a lot less money.

You also comment about how lack of money should not "price out" people who want to adopt. It ~absolutely~ should. If a person cannot afford $150 for a kitten, what will they do when an emergency comes up? Bring it back to the shelter for us taxpayers to pay for? And then just adopt another one since it's only $25 for a new kitten?

I work with a dog rescue. Our fee is $250. My last foster dog had over $600 in vet bills before she was able to be adopted out. Seems to me that paying $250 worked out well. And that was not an exception - it's the norm that our vet expenses exceed the adoption fee.

Finally, my last issue is with this: "We believe in adopting from shelters rather than buying purebreds for both humanitarian and economic reasons"
25% of dogs killed in shelters are purebred (HSUS). There are plenty of cats that have traits consistant with a purebred cat or are purebred that end up in shelters and rescues. Shelters are NOT just mutts and Heinz 57s.

I commend you for rescuing. I commend you for thinking about the 2 million animals killed in shelters this year. But please, realize that the idea of "cheap" animals is dangerous and makes them disposable.

8/24/2008 10:18 PM  

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