Call it owner surrender or on-demand dumping of pets, the policy needs to change

We all know the stories: Someone passed away, someone moved, someone lost a job, the dog ate the door, the cat scratched the kid, the girlfriend is allergic, the boyfriend is a jerk, the vet bills are unaffordable, etc. The circumstances surrounding the decision to exile a household pet to the city animal shelter are many and varied. For most of you reading this, it’s not a decision that you can easily identify with, but these and other circumstances are what lead some pet owners to surrender their pet to an animal shelter.

It’s easy to pigeonhole people who surrender pets as uncaring and undeserving of an animal companion in the first place. Even the best shelters can pose a health risk to family pets, not to mention the stress, anxiety and confusion the animal will suffer. My point, though, is not to vilify people who surrender pets. For many who find themselves at the shelter door — leash or carrier in hand — it is a traumatizing conclusion to series of events over which they believe they have no control.

Rather, I want to address the policy that assumes that shelters should be on-demand recipients of those unwanted pets.

I’m not entirely clear on the genesis of this longstanding practice — whether it’s a public health or a humane consideration. But the underlying assumption is that if shelters don’t accept unwanted pets on demand, then the owner will just abandon the animal to the streets, where its life is at risk and it could pose a public health risk.

Rewinding this policy to assess its underlying logic suggests that it rests on two assumptions: Everyone who needs to re-home a family pet should indeed be pigeonholed as uncaring, undeserving and likely to simply put their pet out on the streets. And dogs and cats, per their legal status as property, have no more value to a family than an old piece of furniture. In fact, it’s easier to get rid of your dog or cat at the public’s expense in most cities than it is to get rid of an old mattress.

Both of these assumptions are invalid and harken back to the era of municipal animal shelters being about public health or rabies control, rather than serving as true community resources for the humane care of stray and unwanted pets. They also shortchange the public’s willingness to work with the shelter to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome for pets.

On-demand relinquishment of pets may have fit squarely within the internal operating logic of a 1950s municipal shelter, when an animal’s shelter stay (and, consequently, available shelter space) was determined solely by the coldblooded, minimum requirements of a municipal code. That is no longer the case. Advocates, the general public and municipal leaders now expect much more from shelters, even those operating without a no-kill mandate. In communities that have established no-kill goals as official policy, the expectations for the humane care and safe re-homing of shelter pets are that much higher.

One of the greatest obstacles in meeting the positive outcome goals for a shelter system striving to reduce shelter killing (and achieve the no-kill threshold of a 90 percent save rate) is periodic shelter crowding. In the past, this problem was addressed by simply killing those animals that had been in the shelter the longest, or killing those that some shelter worker deems less likely to be adopted. Killing for space is, by definition, incompatible with no-kill sheltering policies.

The preferred solution is to stay ahead of shelter crowding by utilizing high volume adoption, along with a large and robust foster care network — features that are more characteristic of a shelter that has already achieved or is close to no-kill. However, a new emerging sheltering protocol known as “managed admission” is proving to be a game changer, while also addressing the anachronism of on-demand shelter relinquishment.

Managed admission should not be confused with denying service, selective admission or any other compromise of services offered to the public by municipal shelters. Think of it, rather, as the red or green lights that space out on-ramp traffic access to busy urban highways to reduce highway congestion.

Here’s how it works. Non-emergency owner relinquishments are scheduled by appointment, for a day in the near future in order to help manage flow. Emergency surrenders can still take place on demand, and stray turn-ins are not affected.

Depending on the shelter, owners are informed that their surrendered pets might be killed if they are not adopted. Owners are also provided with other resources, like lists of local rescue organizations and step-by-step advice on re-homing the pet themselves.

Most importantly, for those people who believe they have no control over a pet surrender situation, knowledgeable shelter staff helps them address the issues triggering the surrender. More often than not, the reason given for surrendering a pet is an unwanted behavior or a seemingly insurmountable financial problem that can be solved with available community resources.

There are some interesting case studies of communities that have instituted managed admission policies. Each recounts similar anxiety and fears expressed in the public response to changes, such as accusations of shelters turning their backs on the public, animals being dumped on the streets or surrendered to neighboring jurisdictions as found strays, etc. None of those fears actually came to pass and each community reports that the new policy has helped save more lives and manage their shelter more effectively.

In order to do the right things for shelter animals and ensure that shelters are indeed safe havens for pets between homes, our systems and ways of doing things need to evolve. Managed admission is an easy and meaningful step in the right direction.

Together, we can Save Them All.

Cat Dog

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society