Best Friends Blog

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

Managed admission to shelters helps save lives of animals like this boxer

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.

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Francis Battista
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Foxy Old Crone

    My motto since turning 65? STOP MINDING YOUR OWN BUSINESS. Get involved wherever and whenever you see something wrong, cruel, unfair..and often that means: animal cruelty. Let’s all get involved, to create a kinder, more compassionate planet. However that feels for you, in any way you choose to express it.

  • Tomassina

    I believe that the excessive rates at most animal hospitals here in Canada make it very difficult for people of average means to get help for their animals.We spent over $900 last July for our dear, elderly poodle to be examined and the next day euthanized.
    This week we paid over $800 for our other little dog to be examined & to have his teeth cleaned.
    Our clinic moved to new premises and we seem to be paying for the mortgage!

    • Giorgio2012

      You are absolutely right. I call these grand places vets are building for themselves ‘Taj Mahals’…and their out of control rates do keep some people from getting the necessary care for their pets. Very sad. I had one ‘conversation’ with a vet a few years ago when working with an animal rescue group, that she had a responsibility as a privileged person to help abandoned animals and provide some discounted care. BTW….she had just moved a year earlier to her grand Taj Mahal…and she said she had overhead and staff to pay. Never went back to her again, and steered people away from her also. Such an attitude towards needy animals. Seems they are only in it for the money.

  • Stuart

    I understand the premise but I think this dismisses the reality some people live with. Last Dec a friend passed and left two once feral, now unsocialized, cats. My wife and I tried every resource we could find and no one would take the cats. Best Friends ultimately took them after a long wait. We dropped the cats off in April.
    That meant that we drove over 50 miles round trip every day for over four months to care for the cats. We were fortunate that the house did not sell before then.
    My point is, many if not most people do not have that kind of time and resources to do something like that for four months. Even the most ardent animal lovers have their limits.
    Clearly the goals you proposed here and the greater goal of no more homeless pets are the answer. But we are not their yet. Having had two people close to me pass in the past year, each with two cats, that it does often feel like there is no place for them and no one cares.
    I for one can sympathize with those who feel their only choice is to turn them loose. I don’t agree with it, but I do understand it.

    • Patrick Apple

      I am assuming that there must have been a compelling reason why you and your wife were not able to take the cats in as you sound like an animal lover. We ended up with 2 additional cats (one semi feral) and 2 elderly dogs after someone in the family died. It was a challenge but we are so very glad we did it. The semi feral turned into a real sweetheart. We lost him a few months ago to old age, but what unexpected joy he brought to our household.

    • Giorgio2012

      You certainly went the ‘extra mile’…actually 50 miles…to help those two cats daily. You could have added extra litter boxes and food and water and gone every other day, if the cats were unsocialized and not wanting human comfort.
      Turning the cats loose is a death sentence to a painful slow death. That is never an option. Glad things resolved for you, and yes…it is very hard to deal with ‘unwanted/left behind’ pets.

  • Vixnart

    In the second to last paragraph this statement is made:

    “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.”

    There is absolutely no way to track animals dumped on the street or surrendered to neighboring jurisdictions as strays. Or even turned into the same jurisdiction as a stray.

    I think this policy could help but that statement is very misleading. I would be curious how a study would be done to determine the difference between a stray animal, a dumped animal, or an owner who turns their animal in as a found stray?

    • Francis Battista

      Dear Viznart. Actually, it is pretty straight forward because what is being tracked are aggregate numbers, not specific animals. So, if someone wanting to surrender a cat were to be asked to come back in a few days, but they took their cat to a neighboring jurisdiction as a found stray, their home address is recorded. It is not hard to determine if a new managed admission policy results in more found strays being turned in to neighboring jurisdiction by residents of the community that instituted managed intake. Likewise, tracking the number of street strays from one month to the next is standard practice so any spike in the number street strays would show up in routine data collection. Neither proved to be the case.

      • Vixnart

        They would not need to go to a neighboring jurisdiction. They would merely need to say the animal was a found stray. It happens all the time.

        • Francis Battista

          Exactly, and since there was no rise in these numbers and a trending decline in shelter deaths, it was clear that managed admission had no measurable downside and significant measurable upside. Thanks for raising these questions. There really is a lot of positive feed back from many shelters. The links are only to those that formalized their experience in a report. All of this goes against many reasonable assumptions made in a different era and passed along as best practices. thanks for contributing to the conversation.

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  • Eve

    This ideology pulls antiquated thinking right out of the box of status quo where it has lingered far too long. Our society would benefit from your words, reframing perception not just in terms of viewing companion animals as sentient beings, but also regarding the people who care for them as deserving of a similar caliber of compassion. The problem will never be solved if compassion is only relegated towards one piece of the intricate puzzle. Thank you, Francis, for articulating these ideas!