Free. People get excited when they see the word in front of most anything – except pets. In recent years, anyone who advertises or seeks a free pet has been subject to attack from seemingly well-intentioned animal advocates and probably alienated about the entire concept of adopting a pet in need. If you are giving a pet away for free, you are scolded for ringing the dinner bell for every dogfighter, animal torturer and other animal abuser in a six state range. If you are looking for a free pet, you are smeared as an animal abuser (because they are the only people who want pets for free and if any doubt, see previous sentence) and told that if you can’t afford to pay for a pet, you shouldn’t be allowed to have one (because you are too stupid to know that pets come with expenses which obviously your broke ass will never be able to pay).
The teensy problem is that all this is wrong, so wrong, totally wrong and wrongissimo. To my knowledge, there is no research that backs up any claim regarding free pets and negative outcomes that exceed the standard amount of negative outcomes which can be expected with all pet adoptions. The data that we do have tells us what should be obvious: people love their free pets just as much as they love pets they paid money for because they bond with the animal, not the sales receipt.
Nathan Winograd has written about the unfounded fears of giving away shelter animals:
From the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine to the ASPCA, from Maddie’s Fund to the experiences of shelters across the country, every study that has looked at the issue has concluded that waiving adoption fees—in other words, giving the animals away for free—does not impact either the quality of the quantity of the adoptive home, but does increase the number of lives saved.
Lives saved. Sounds good.
And to reiterate, people love FREE. All people. As Christie Keith writes:
Free pet adoptions are not aimed at people who otherwise couldn’t afford a pet, and that’s not primarily who they attract. Just as Nordstrom holds special sales only for its best and, presumably, wealthiest customers, just as car dealers and appliance stores and luxury hotels have special promotions, shelters and rescue groups who do free adoptions know that the “free” part is a marketing strategy, not a hand-out.
Free and special price promotions are designed to be attention grabbers. They also serve to focus people on pet adoption not in a “someday when I get around to it” kind of way, but in a “better go this weekend because it’s exciting, fun, and I’ll save money!” kind of way.
Dismissing a group as a whole because of misconceptions about who wants free pets is keeping shelter animals out of homes. And that means resources are tied up, pets are kept in cages or taking up valuable space in foster homes, and tragically for millions of shelter pets every year, it means they end up in the kill room.
This is usually where the folks who like to say “There are fates worse than death” chime in. Let me be clear: There are no fates worse than death. Where there is life, there is hope. While I am in no way denying that animal abusers exist, I know that they represent a tiny minority of pet owners and that at least some of them are willing to pay for the pets they abuse. (Does the name Michael Vick ring any bells?) Most people try to do right by their pets and love them as family members. Most adoption applicants will fall into this category, regardless of the fee being charged for the animal.
While Nathan Winograd advocates for reasonable adoption screening, a practice I too support, he makes clear that even without screening, adopted is better than dead:
[I]n shelters where animals are being killed by the thousands, and where they are horrifically neglected and abused in the process, I’d rather they do “open adoptions” if it means getting more animals out of there and doing so quicker because in truth, there is no greater threat to companion animals in this country than the so-called “shelter” in the community where those animals reside. Shelter killing is the leading cause of death for healthy companion animals in the U.S.
[I]f the worst thing that could happen to them if we gave them away is the very thing that will happen to […] them if they stay at the shelter, is the cost-benefit analysis even close?
Although it is my wish that more shelters would give away more pets more often, I think it’s appropriate to offer some additional lifesaving marketing ideas which could be used in conjunction with or as an alternative to fee waived adoptions:
- Offer low cost promotions in conjunction with holidays and other special events: $4 or $17.76 adoption fees for July 4th or $11 adoption fees for June 11, Just One Day event for example.
- 10 for 10 (can be used with any numbers): Pick out the 10 animals in most urgent need of homes (long timers, elderly pets, etc.) and offer them for $10. As each animal gets adopted, replace him with another so the promotion can run continuously.
- Pay what you will: Offer animals for a fee of any amount of the adopter’s choosing.
- Donations appreciated: Offer pets for free while letting adopters know they are welcome to make a donation of any amount.
- Run promotions based on physical characteristics: Tabby Tuesdays or Big and Beautiful Fat Cats for example.
- Peruse this online book for more marketing ideas.
This adoption promo ad is from 2011 but still a favorite of mine:
Many shelters have been successfully using free adoption promotions in order to save lives for quite awhile. But among animal advocates, there remains a stigma – baseless as it is. Let’s embrace the word free. If you are looking for a word to replace it – one that you can hang your Hate hat on – use kill. The people who needlessly kill animals instead of sheltering them are deserving of your lectures, not the people who want to save a shelter pet’s life by giving them a home.