Open Adoption

Open Adoption – it’s a topic that’s sure to start a lively discussion among shelter people. But what, exactly, is it? One misconception about Open Adoption is that it is primarily a No Kill program. Although the Open Adoption concept has strong ties to No Kill, the program also has strong ties to the traditional shelter industry.

The North Shore Animal League in New York, in addition to being the first major shelter to use the term “No Kill,” was also the first to re-think traditional adoption criteria. The people at North Shore in the 1970s, including Alex and Babette Lewyt and Mike Arms, were on a mission to push puppy mills out of business. They transported puppies on the kill list of southern shelters to North Shore and then adopted them out, luring people away from pet stores. North Shore pioneered using advertising to promote adoptions, and they were not afraid to adopt out pets on holidays. Mike Arms used to tell his staff that if someone flew in on a broom on Halloween, they could not have a black cat. Otherwise, all systems were go for holiday adoptions. By the 1990s North Shore had also worked out a method of having adoption counselors talk to people to try to find a good fit for each animal, instead of relying on a lengthy and intrusive written application as most shelters did at the time.

The North Shore model was very successful at increasing adoptions, but it was not imitated by other shelters because it was seen as too heavily weighted toward marketing. One of North Shore’s marketing techniques back in the 1970s was to give away a free watch to adopters. That technique was designed to draw people in to the shelter and it did not mean that everyone who walked in would be allowed to adopt. It was nevertheless viewed with horror by the animal sheltering community, who saw it as the equivalent of handing puppies and kittens out on the street corner.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) published guidelines in the 1990s recommending strict adoption criteria. The guidelines recommended that the adoption application ask for two personal references, a veterinarian reference, and information about previous pets, with the goal of learning “as much as possible about the potential adopter’s lifestyle and knowledge of responsible pet ownership.” Shelters were advised to verify an adopter’s identity and check for a criminal record, bar adoption of dogs to homes that lacked a fenced yard unless the adopter could prove that the dog would get adequate exercise, and prohibit adoption of puppies and kittens to homes with children under six years of age. All renters had to provide proof that their landlord would allow pets, and people who were temporary residents in the community were barred from adopting. Adopting a cat to someone who wanted a barn cat or mouser was prohibited. If you wanted to adopt a pet as a gift for someone, you were out of luck – it was prohibited.

The application was just the first hurdle to adoption. HSUS also recommended an interview to “objectively and carefully screen[] potential adopters,” and a home visit with all family members present in cases where there was “any question about the suitability of the new home.” The guidelines recommended that the adoption contract include a requirement that the animal must be returned to the shelter if the adopter ever had to give it up, and a requirement that the animal wear a collar and identification. The contract also included a clause allowing the shelter to inspect the owner’s premises and repossess the animal at any time if the care, handling, or housing of the animal was found to be inadequate.

Why did the traditional shelter industry have such restrictive adoption criteria? Throughout most of the 1900s the United States had a severe pet overpopulation problem. In 1970, for example, it is estimated that shelters had some five times the intake per person that shelters today have. Traditional shelters developed the idea as early as the 1950s that since there were so few homes relative to the number of homeless animals, only the healthiest and best-behaved animals should be put up for adoption. And only the most responsible people should be allowed to adopt. Most shelters could not afford to spay and neuter every animal, and shelter staff feared that if irresponsible people could adopt pets then the endless litters of puppies and kittens would continue.

But conditions began to change. Sterilization techniques were perfected and began to be widely recommended by veterinarians in the 1970s, and in the 1990s effective mass low-cost spay-neuter programs became widespread. Pediatric spay-neuter became available. In the 1970s and again in the 1990s shelter intake plunged as spay-neuter rates soared.

By the late 1990s shelter intake in several areas had declined to levels where the situation no longer seemed hopeless. Richard Avanzino’s success with the Adoption Pact in San Francisco led some people within the traditional shelter industry to start re-thinking adoption criteria. A few studies on various facets of shelter operations were conducted in the 1990s, so that hard data was available for the first time on issues like pet relinquishment.

All these factors led to increased interest in reforming the adoption process. This interest culminated in the American Humane Association (AHA) holding a forum on Open Adoption in 1999. The goal of the forum was to determine if Open Adoption could increase the number of adoptions without increasing the number of relinquishments. The forum’s report noted that in most shelters adoption policies had not changed in 30 years. After making a list of common adoption criteria, several forum participants realized that they themselves would be barred from adopting at many shelters, notwithstanding the fact that they were prominent leaders in the animal welfare profession.

Forum participants wound up questioning most of the common adoption restrictions, finding that there was little consistency in requirements from one shelter to another and little evidence that the criteria increased the likelihood of success of an adoption. In addition to questioning restrictive criteria, they developed ideas for increasing adoptions. One idea was that perhaps a conversation with an adopter could be more effective than a written application or a formal interview. A second AHA forum in 2003 built on the first forum and went beyond looking at adoption criteria to look at programs as a whole.

Today, Open Adoption is one of the increasing number of issues where No Kill and the traditional shelter industry are in agreement. HSUS and the ASPCA are both now promoting Open Adoption. The Open Adoption process is considered key to establishing a trusting relationship between the adopter and the shelter, so that the adopter will be likely to ask the shelter for help if any problems arise. The acceptance of Open Adoption by the leadership of both No Kill and the traditional shelter industry is another hopeful sign that before long the last remnants of the old divisions between the two may be stamped out.

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