Can We Adopt Our Way Out Of Killing?

One of the biggest controversies in animal sheltering today is the question of whether public animal shelters can adopt their way out of killing. Yesterday I posted consolidated statistics for Colorado animal shelters for 2012. As I will explain in today’s post, I think the Colorado data provides very strong evidence that shelters can adopt their way out of killing. One caveat — the Colorado data is based on self-reporting by the shelters in the state. I did not see any red flags in the data and it correlates very well with what I heard in my extensive interviews with shelter officials in the state, but I cannot promise that the data is flawless.

First some background. For years now the animal shelter reform movement has had a deep and sometimes bitter division between what I will call the supply-side faction and the demand-side faction. The supply-side faction thinks that we have a pet overpopulation problem and that we will never be able to find enough adoptive homes for shelter animals until we reduce the supply through spay-neuter programs. The demand-side faction believes that there are currently enough homes to save virtually all shelter animals, and that shelters should use marketing and community engagement techniques to increase market share among those who acquire pets.

There is no easy compromise between these two factions because they represent two different world views about shelter animals and the general public. The supply siders think that most people want to adopt young, healthy animals and that they will never adopt the pit bulls and older cats in shelters, no matter how much the shelter promotes them. The demand siders think that although spay-neuter programs are a good thing, they take years to work and will never completely solve the problem, whereas marketing techniques can save virtually all shelter animals right now. Where you stand on this question inevitably affects your beliefs as to shelter policy. The supply-side faction does not see a need to change the way that traditional, high-kill animal shelters operate because they think the problem originates outside the shelter with members of the “irresponsible public” who fail to spay and neuter their pets. The demand-side faction believes that it is essential to change shelter operations from the ground up to emphasize marketing and community outreach.

Each side in this battle cites statistics. The supply-side faction often cites Peter Marsh, who has written a treatise called “Replacing Myth With Math.” Marsh argues that statistics show that euthanasia rates track animal shelter intakes rather than adoptions, and that adoption rates in California over a 15-year period from 1970 to 1995 stayed about the same while euthanasia and intake rates first peaked and then declined. Marsh concludes that the data means that we will make more progress in ending animal homelessness by reducing intake rather than by trying to increase adoptions. Conversely, the demand-side faction cites the ever-growing number of communities that are saving 90% or more of their shelter animals by changing their shelters and using marketing and community outreach. The supply-side faction argues that 90% save rates either are not sustainable or are not generalizable.

How can we settle this question? It’s very simple. The central mantra of the supply-side faction is that the only way to reduce euthanasia is to reduce intake. Therefore, if there is a representative sample of communities that have achieved and sustained a high save rate without reducing intake, then the supply-side argument is effectively countered.

Yesterday I posted a blog about the state of Colorado’s shelter statistics for the year 2012. The total intake of cats and dogs for the year was 159,183, and the 2012 estimate for the state’s population was 5.2 million people, so the rate of intake for dogs and cats in 2012 in Colorado was 31 animals per 1000 people. Colorado is a destination state for animal transports, but even if you subtract out-of-state incoming transfers from the intake numbers, the intake per 1000 people was 28 in 2012. HSUS estimates that average intake of shelter animals for communities in the United States is 30 per 1000 people. Another commonly cited estimate for average intake is 15 per 1000 people. Depending on which number you use — 30 or 15 — Colorado is either at the high end of average intake or considerably over average intake.

Colorado is a typical state in other important ways as well. The state ranks near the middle of the pack for human population, with a population of 5.2 million people. It has lots of tiny, isolated rural towns, but it also has a very large metro area in Denver. The median annual household income for Colorado is about $58,000 per household, compared with about $51,000 for the entire United States. Even the location is average, since it is near the middle of the country.

A supply sider would predict that because Colorado has high intake, it would be impossible for Colorado to achieve and sustain a high save rate without reducing intake. As we saw yesterday, though, Colorado has in fact reported an 85.5% save rate sustained for the entire year in 2012. Colorado’s save rate is much higher than that for the United States as a whole, which is only about 50%. Colorado’s adoption rate for cats and dogs was 52% of all intake and 64% of unreclaimed intake (59% of stray dogs were returned to their owners and 22% of cats were returned to owners or colonies). Unless there is some huge flaw in the data collected by the state, Colorado in 2012 proved that you do not have to have low intake in order to have a high save rate.

The Colorado statistics run counter to another claim often made by supply siders, which is that there has never been a community in the United States that was able to sustain an adoption rate higher than 10 shelter animals per 1000 people. Colorado’s population is 5.2 million. In 2012, Colorado shelters reported adoptions of 82,605 dogs and cats. This is a rate of 16 shelter animal adoptions per 1000 population, and it was sustained over an entire year.

What about the data that Peter Marsh cites, that show flat adoption rates and euthanasias tracking intake rather than outflow? Most of Marsh’s data is old, and his more recent data does not come from communities like Austin, Reno, Charlottesville, and the state of Colorado that have high live release rates and high intake. In short, Marsh looked at old-fashioned, traditional shelters that did not have modern marketing and community engagement programs, and incorrectly concluded from that data that because he had not seen any successful marketing programs, attempts to increase adoptions would be ineffectual.

In addition to the Colorado statewide data, we also have the data from well over 200 individual communities throughout the United States showing that communities can achieve and maintain 90% and higher live release rates. The supply-side faction has argued that these 200+ communities represent only a few percent of the United States population, that they have favorable demographics, or that they are pushing intake off onto other communities. None of those arguments can be made about the entire state of Colorado. In particular, the fact that an entire state has achieved an 85% live release rate refutes the argument that high live release rates can only be achieved by pushing intake to other communities. Colorado is a well-known destination state for transports from other states. Far from pushing intake off onto its neighbors, it is helping its neighbors by taking in thousands of animals per year from other states.

I feel that the data we have so far from Colorado and many individual communities is sufficient to show that communities can adopt (and reclaim) their way out of killing. Although spay-neuter programs are valuable, communities can save 90% or more of their shelter animals right now by reforming their shelters, without waiting for everyone to spay and neuter their pets.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this excellent analysis. Your point about Marsh’s analysis is spot on. If you are looking at poorly performing shelters, then spay/neuter will only lower kill rates since no other parts of no-kill equation are being performed.

    As mentioned in other Colorado post, the comparison with New Jersey is insightful. New Jersey takes in around 1/3 the number of animals per capita and has a kill rate twice as high as Colorado.

    For dogs, the difference is solely due to Colorado’s much higher reclaim rate. New Jersey does not break-out owner surrenders and strays so we do not have a concrete figure % of returns to owners. However, if we assume about 2/3 of intakes are strays which was our experience at the state’s largest shelter, the reclaim is 19% verses 59% for Colorado. New Jersey’s dog adoption rate after taking out returns to owners is 66% and is slightly higher than Colorado. However, that population of dogs is likely more adoptable since many of those dogs were surely someone’s pet who they could not find or worse could not afford redemption fees. Thus, for dogs Colorado’s return to owner performance drives their success for dogs.

    For cats, the difference is due to both New Jersey’s low return to owner and adoption rates. Only 2.5% of all cats impounded (stray and owner surrender) were reclaimed by owners in New Jersey. Only 42% of cats not reclaimed by owners were adopted in New Jersey verses 52% in Colorado.

    Key issues of interest to me are:

    1) What do Colorado shelters/animal control do to have such high reclaim rates?

    2) For cats, do more areas in Colorado implement TNR than NJ?

    3) For cats, are other aspects of no-kill equation, foster kitten programs, adoption marketing, customer service, etc. playing a role in higher adoption rate in Colorado verses New Jersey?

    4) Does Colorado provide more funding per capita than New Jersey for its shelters?

    • Great questions — it would probably take someone on the ground in Colorado to answer them. The reclaim rate for dogs at HSBV is particularly noteworthy. I found the shelter officials in Colorado were willing to talk and very knowledgeable, so they might be the best people to call. Let me know if you decide to do that; I’d be interested to hear what they had to say. I should clarify one thing as to the cat reclaim rate — as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, feral cat releases are counted in with reclaims on the state reporting form, so the actual cat reclaim rate would be less than 22%.

  2. Thank you for this informative post. As volunteers for the municipal shelter in Rockwall, Texas, and now as an independent No Kill advocacy group, we effectively used increased adoptions – and marketing – as the primary path to No Kill. The intake at the Rockwall shelter, for example, fluctuated then increased slightly while the save rate went from 46% to 97% in four years (the adoption rate went from 28% to 70% during that period). Intake continues to increase (community support for No Kill is palpable in the full range of shelter life, from intake to adoptions) yet the save rate remains above 96%. Marketing adoptable pets is fun, effective and vital.

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