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Pet adoption policies: More red carpets, fewer roadblocks, empty animal shelters

It’s the early 1990s. You know, back when “ticktock” was something a clock did and none of us had Facebook profiles yet because Facebook didn’t exist. Best Friends is hosting one of our regular pet adoption events at a shopping center in Salt Lake City. Early in the day, an older gentleman approaches me interested in adopting a dog. My first thought is that he looks homeless. Scruffy beard, rumpled clothes, trucker’s hat. I don’t even have his adoption application in my hand yet, but I’ve already made up my mind about who this guy is and whether he is “qualified” to adopt a dog.

Of course, at the time, we had adoption applications specifically designed to reinforce those assumptions. As I scanned his responses on our long, multi-page application, I found all of the information I needed to support my preconceived decision. Fenced yard? Nope. (In fact, no yard at all!) At home most of the time? Nope. Owns his own home? Nope. He lives in a garage. Nope, nope, nope. This guy isn’t adopting one of “our dogs.” Yes, yes, yes, this is the part where I tell you what a complete and total asshat I was about pet adoption in the early 1990s.

After I finished reviewing the application crafted to ensure that folks like this guy fail, the man walked away, sad and dejected. But lucky for me, lucky for us, lucky for the dog he wanted, he didn’t stay away. He came back later in the day, looked me in the eyes and said, “I really connected with that dog. Please let me adopt him. You can come see where I live and see the kind of life I’m offering him.” I hemmed and hawed, but ultimately agreed to go check out where he was living, which was a garage space located across the train tracks in a rundown industrial part of town.

I’m sure you can guess where this is going. This guy’s world was set up entirely to accommodate his last dog, who had recently passed away. He was a truck driver and that dog spent every waking moment of his life with him. Just talking to me about the deep love he had for that dog made his eyes fill with tears. And you better believe I approved that freaking ridiculous application and made sure another dog got to enjoy the warm, love-filled life he was offering. I should have been rolling out the red carpet for this guy and instead I had been putting up every roadblock I could find.

Driving back to the shopping center that day, I burst into tears, knowing that I had been contributing to putting up barriers between loving homes and pets who needed them. That was the end of exclusionary adoption applications for Best Friends. It was also the beginning of a fundamental realization for me that should be required of all of us working to save the lives of dogs and cats: Who am I to say who should and shouldn’t get to share their lives with a pet?

With around 625,000 dogs and cats killed in shelters every year, we need collaborative, community-based efforts to save lives and connect loving adopters and caregivers with pets who desperately need them. If you support or volunteer with a local animal rescue group, encourage them to remove any roadblocks they might be putting up between pets and the people who are applying to love and care for them, to ensure that we’re getting more pets out of our local shelters. There are incredible lifesaving groups across the country modeling this type of inclusive, welcoming and successful approach to adoption. One Tail at a Time in Chicago, Taysia Blue in Omaha, Rockwall Pets near Dallas, Gateway Pet Guardians in East St. Louis, Acadiana Animal Aid near Lafayette and Memphis Animal Services in Tennessee are just a few of the groups leading the way.

Mandi Nieland, one of Best Friends’ incredible regional coalition managers, supports and mentors many of our network partners around the Midwest and Great Plains regions. Mandi has been banging the roadblock-free drum for years and summarizes the urgency of this issue so clearly:

We're realizing the very serious impact of these policies and practices. There’s no debate: High adoption barriers mean more pets dying in shelters. And foster-based animal rescue groups can no longer operate in a bubble, without realizing the impact of their choices on the greater community. We can no longer approach adoptions from a place of no without considering the impact of that decision. We can't ignore the fact that we are often driving adopters away from us and toward breeders and then in the same breath condemning them for going that route.”

Exactly, Mandi. In fact, the pet adoption barriers study that Best Friends conducted in late 2016 confirms exactly that. I think it’s also important to note that when we say “barriers to adoption,” we mean things like home checks, in which a rescue group or shelter requires a visit to an adopter’s home to confirm the person’s “worthiness” to bring a pet into it. When that guy back in the 1990s applied to adopt a dog in Salt Lake City, he shouldn’t have had to drag me to his home to convince me to let him adopt. It was my responsibility to have a conversation with him that would have led to the exact same conclusion.

It’s time to roll out the red carpet for adopters — who comprise all types of people — and ditch the counterproductive roadblocks. And that goes for other ways in which we create barriers and roadblocks for people with pets, too. Take a moment to watch this poignant message from our friends at CARE and decide if your local groups need some help removing these kinds of barriers to connecting pets with people.

ARE WE LOOKING FOR REASONS NOT TO ADOPT from CARE on Vimeo.

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Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society