Free to a good home: How fee-waived adoptions are saving lives

Some animal shelters are reluctant to offer free (fee-waived) pet adoptions, but they shouldn't be. Here's why.
By Cimeron Morrissey

Meet Long Socks, our hilariously weird, geriatric cat, whom we got for free. There may not have been an adoption fee for our “retired” community cat, but I just paid more than I wanted to for special kibble to support his old kidneys (he spit out said kibble).

Some people think free pets are destined to be discarded or end up in voodoo ceremonies, but when we moved halfway around the world, Long Socks came too — he’s family. And the only things being sacrificed in our home are catnip-stuffed animals, which he beheads. Given his on-demand full-body massages, prompt litter box cleaning service (which he supervises) and frequent replacement of his favorite toy mouse whenever it’s slobbered to death, he probably thinks he’s a god with devoted human servants. He may have been free, but to us, he’s priceless.

For animals like Long Socks, reduced or waived adoption fees can mean the difference between living and dying. The tactic is not just a lifesaving tool for pets who are less adoptable due to age, health or behavior issues. Many shelters are finding that reducing or waiving adoption fees can clear out the kennels when they reach capacity, which means they don’t have to kill pets to make space for newcomers. It can yield an array of other surprising benefits as well.

Sounds like a magical lifeboat that every organization should offer, right? But when you mention free adoptions, some minds go to dark places. They have perhaps seen abuse cases or heard Craigslist horror stories (I sure have — maybe you have too?). Rare as those incidents are, it’s enough to scare up resistance, as is the concern that bargain hunters may not value the pets or cannot afford their care. But are those reservations a reflection of reality?

If it’s possible for free and low-cost adoptions to save the lives of at-risk pets — as it did for Long Socks — perhaps we owe it to the animals to step outside our comfort zone and see if waiving adoption fees can be an effective way to help Save Them All.

Long Socks the black and white cat lying down on his side next to several toys while a person pets him

Shelters race against time

Shelters can be physically and emotionally stressful for animals. The longer they stay, the greater their chances of developing illnesses and behavior problems, making it harder for them to find homes.

In 1998, cats at Wisconsin Humane Society (WHS) stayed an average of two weeks on the adoption floor, according to Angela Speed, WHS vice president of communications. Staffers there knew they needed to find homes faster to keep the cats healthy and happy. They decided to try fee-waived adoptions, even though it made them nervous.

“We wanted to get them out of the shelter as fast as possible, but while also making sure that the cats and families were a good fit. So we relied on our usual thorough adoption procedures with adoption counselors and adoption profiles,” Angela explains. “It wasn’t like a drive-through window,” she says with a laugh. But they did want to make adoption more accessible and appealing to their community, and they thought free adoptions might help.

Did it ever: A flood of enthusiastic adopters took home a record number of animals. Angela says, “It freed up resources and allowed us to take in even more pets, increasing the number of animals we could help.” For five years, they followed up with adopters and collected data. The data showed that the adoptions stuck, and there wasn’t an uptick in returns or abuse cases.

Those who have adopted a free pet are probably nodding their heads, knowing that money doesn’t measure love. If it did, then expensive purebred pets wouldn’t end up in shelters, as they do all over the country. But some people remain unconvinced. Luckily, statistics are here to help. Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida conducted a thorough research study of fee-waived adoptions and found that 94% of the adopters had a strong attachment to their pets, and return rates were very low — just 1.8% for cats and 2.2% for dogs.

If that still doesn’t put your mind at ease, how about this: Wisconsin Humane Society has waived fees for adult cats for the past 20 years, and as a result, Angela says, they’ve found homes for about 100,000 felines (7,200 in 2018 alone). And the average length of stay on the adoption floor is now only three days. The staff’s fears never came true, but their dreams sure did.

A man holding an orange and white kitten who is sniffing his face

Waive a fee, save a life

Five years ago, Dubuque Regional Humane Society (DRH) in Dubuque, Iowa, had to kill healthy, adoptable cats simply because they ran out of space. It’s a horrible reality for many open-admission shelters, which are required to take in all surrendered animals, whether they have room or not.

The staff at DRH realized that adopting out cats for free could immediately save lives, but they had concerns common to many shelters. If people couldn’t afford adoption fees, how could they pay for food or vet care? And could the shelter handle the lost adoption-fee revenue? Despite their worries, in 2015 they decided to give it a try. Not one cat was killed due to space limitations, cat adoptions increased by 20%, and the shelter saved more than $130,000 in care expenses because of decreased length of stay.

Today, the shelter has achieved an incredible 99% live release rate, says Laura Merrick, DRH president and CEO, and has graduated to reduced-rate adoptions, since they’ve learned that most community members can bear the cost. But for people who can’t, and for less adoptable pets, the shelter created a program for companies and individuals to subsidize adoption fees.

“We have an electric company that picks a dog every month and sponsors the adoption fee, which helps find homes faster while also helping to cover our costs,” says Laura.

“There are also individual sponsors, like Clare, a 14-year-old who comes in dressed in a cat costume and picks out a cat to sponsor.”

Having adoption sponsors not only gets pets into homes, it encourages community members to become active partners in lifesaving efforts. “We couldn’t get to our 99% rate without the community getting behind our shelter,” Laura notes.

Laura admits that she herself once wondered whether people who couldn’t afford to pay an adoption fee could provide daily care for their pets. “I had to change my mind-set,” she says. “I realized that just because they couldn’t afford the adoption fee on that day, it didn’t mean that they couldn’t provide a loving home for the animal.”

A woman named Gretchen who adopted a dog whose fee was sponsored by the electric company proved this when she asked the shelter to relay her appreciation. Gretchen said this in an email: “She was named Apple and after spending 20 minutes with her, I knew she was the perfect dog for me. (She) is so happy to have a forever home and I am so happy to have her in my life every day.”

Reasons to adopt a pet

Older brown dog lying down on a blanket

Not-so-fringe benefits

In Las Vegas, The Animal Foundation has experienced some unexpected benefits of free adoptions. As a shelter with one of the highest intake rates in the country, The Animal Foundation needs all the help they can get to find homes for the tens of thousands of animals who come through the doors every year. Monthly fee-waived adoption promotions have significantly increased publicity, which brings in more foot traffic to the shelter, creates excitement for adoption and helps educate people about animal welfare.

“On the weekends that we’ve done fee-waived adoptions, we’ve seen an increase in adoptions of 44% to 50%. At one we held, we did 266 adoptions in two days,” says Christi Dineff, assistant director of operations. Local news outlets eagerly promote free adoption events, which introduces the shelter to thousands of people who wouldn’t be reached otherwise.

Smiling young girl holding a white kitten

As Dubuque Regional Humane Society did, The Animal Foundation had some qualms about the program before starting it. For instance, there was the question of whether animal abusers would take advantage of the promotions. “But we realized,” Christi says, “that those people are not coming to shelters, giving us their IDs, getting in our system and talking with adoption counselors.”

She stresses that The Animal Foundation follows the same adoption and counseling procedures as they usually do, and provides the same support to create successful transitions into homes.

The bottom line is that lots of people want free pets, and it’s easy to get them online, in parking lots and even on roadsides. Very few of those pets are sterilized, which increases the chances of them reproducing and creating even more homeless animals. When shelters and rescue groups offer free adoptions, it’s a safer and more attractive option for people and creates better outcomes for them, the pets and the whole community.

Just like fee-based adoptions, the dogs and cats are spayed or neutered and vaccinated, and staffers talk with prospective adopters to help make the right match while also discussing expectations and proper pet care. And as always, counselors have the right to decline politely when it’s not the right fit.

Low-cost and free adoptions also provide an opportunity for shelters to create relationships with community members. People who are drawn in by fee-waived promotions learn about the shelter’s lifesaving work, their helpful resources and programs like trap-neuter-return for community cats. It’s a chance to create a new wave of animal advocates, volunteers and donors. “This helps draw together a community for a common cause: to help save lives and support the shelter and our work,” Christi says. That’s a benefit that money can’t buy.

Smiling woman and toddler holding a black and white cat

Taking that leap

You can help save lives just by encouraging your local shelter or rescue group to try free or reduced-rate adoptions. By all means, send this article to the adoption coordinator. Send emails or post about the topic on social media. Better yet, go talk with shelter staff or rescue groups in person. Help them overcome their fears by focusing on the lifesaving benefits. Offer to subsidize an adoption, help out at a fee-waived promotion event or talk with local businesses to get adoption sponsorships.

Our free cat, Long Socks, is a big fan of fee-waived adoptions. We got him five years ago when he was injured, scared and ancient. Now he’s approximately 900 years old, but still loving life. He wakes us up at 2 a.m. with muffled meows while waddling around the house with a catnip cigar in his mouth, trying to talk with his mouth full. He walks like a raccoon because of arthritis, but that doesn’t stop him from climbing onto our bed to drop his spit-soaked toy mouse in my mouth as I sleep (for safekeeping?), followed by velvety head bumps. And he sticks his paw in our water glasses and stirs while staring at us like a bored bartender.

We adore our spectacularly odd old cat, but let’s face it: No one would have paid for him. If waiving adoption fees for at-risk pets like Long Socks can catch people’s attention and give them the second chance they need, perhaps it’s worth a try. Their lives may depend on it.

Get matched to adoptable cats and dogs

Long Socks the black and white cat

This article originally appeared in Best Friends magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine by becoming a Best Friends member.

Photos by Cimeron Morrissey, Wisconsin Humane Society, Dubuque Regional Humane Society, Sidney Oster, and The Animal Foundation