Sharing the Love by Letting Go

How a new approach to re-homing animals and engaging the community can help save lives.

It hurts my heart to hear the reasons that some animals arrive at San Diego Humane Society. But I’m grateful we’re able to go to tremendous lengths to help them heal. Every single day our staff and volunteers are hard at work, mending the emotional and physical wounds of sick, injured, orphaned and homeless animals. Sometimes, this healing can take months or even years.

Naturally, we grow attached to these animals. Their stories affect us. Their recoveries lift our spirits. Their unrelenting capacity to love and trust inspires something inside of us.

We form a connection so strong that, sometimes, it can cause us to hug these animals a little too tightly. I’m speaking figuratively of course (but not entirely). Inadvertently, being overprotective of the animals we love, through well-intentioned adoption barriers, can actually deter potential pet parents.

The reality is, San Diego, like most big urban areas, is filled with responsible, animal-loving people who want to open their hearts and homes to pets at our shelter. We want to let them do this!  We want to empower them and provide resources that encourage adoption – not obstruct it. And then we want to stun them with lifelong support to keep those pets in their homes.

Our goal should always be to share the love.

What does that look like for San Diego Humane Society? Well, to start we’ve streamlined our adoption process. Now, rather than a paperwork-intensive adoption application, we conduct a “conversational” adoption process to gauge a person’s lifestyle and needs so we can best match them with a pet. Equally important, this conversation allows us to better match a pet with that person. This approach is inviting to potential adopters and is also more effective; we learn tons about people during this conversation.  Better matches lead to better adoptions, which subsequently lead to fewer returns and more space for other animals. The big take home lesson is that we’re not sacrificing quality or scrutiny. We’re getting to better know the people who want to know our animals better. Instead of time-intensive paperwork, we’re focusing on working together to make the best possible matches. In the end, the animals win because we’ve removed unnecessary barriers to getting them into the great homes they need.

I run into many people who ask me about whether we do home inspections, call in vet records and get a landlord’s approval letter. We don’t. Nor do most progressive shelters around the country today. We stopped doing this because, quite simply, it didn’t work. We got inadequate information, or misleading information, or even no information and that animal waited days to weeks or even longer to go home. How was that helping anyone, human or animal?

I also get questions about our fee-waived or reduced adoption fees through promotions that are lightheartedly fun and relevant to current events. We do these because they work! Not only are people drawn to the prospect of being able to invest more money in supplies and fun toys for their new pet, but this also gives our shelters the ability to showcase certain animal populations. This has been paramount in finding homes for animals who are often overlooked – like senior dogs or adult cats during kitten season.

Year over year adoption rates show that our promotions are highly effective at getting more animals adopted. And these are good homes! One of our best assurances that our animals are in good homes is to contact every single adopter within two weeks of adoption, then two months, then a year to make sure things are going well with their new family member.

Finally, one of the most important policies we put in place two years ago was our “Adoption Guarantee,” which states, somewhat like Starbucks, that you must “Love your new pet or let us know. We’ll always make it right.”  We did this because we realized not every adoption goes the way we hope. Not for the adopter, not for the pet. We want our adopters to have an “escape clause.”  With no judgment, we’ll take that pet back, refund your fee, and help you find a new pet. For us, and for our animals, that adventure outside of the shelter was priceless—we’re able to learn so much more about that animal by what the adopter observed in their home, and that animal had a much deserved break from the shelter for a week or weekend away. Invaluable.

We know these changes are a big shift from the traditional adoption approach, now very outdated. That approach has gone the way of fax machines and flip phones. Working with the animals that we love and have dedicated our lives to, is not a job, it’s a lifelong commitment. For their own health and well-being, we want our animals to find homes quickly and we want those homes to be the right ones. So we’ll continue to find innovative ways to help as many animals as possible. This open approach to adoption is helping us do just that, which is resounding proof that sometimes, letting go a little can be the best way to share the love.