High-volume adoption: THE NORTH SHORE ANIMAL LEAGUE HAS MONEY–– BUT THEIR METHODS DON’T TAKE MEGABUCKS
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1994:
PORT WASHINGTON, New York––At 10 a.m. on a
Friday morning, the North Shore Animal League adoption center
is already as crowded as most shelters ever get. The familiar ken-
nel odor assails the nostrils at the door––and stops one step
beyond. Shelter manager Michael Arms wrinkles his nose and
winces. “That’s very embarrassing,” he says. “That’s the only
place that stinks, and it’s right at the entrance. We think there’s
a problem with that drain,” he adds, pointing. Staff architect
Steve Preston looks uncomfortable. “We’ve had all kinds of guys
in here trying to sort it out,” Arms continues, “and we won’t
stop until we get it fixed, because we think it’s very important
that the adoption center smells clean and fresh. We don’t want
people walking in and thinking, ‘Oh my God, if I get a pet my
house is going to stink.’”
As the tour moves on, Preston lingers behind to peer at
the offending drain in evident frustration.
This is high-volume adoption, and NSAL makes a
point of effective merchandising. That includes a heavy empha-
sis upon rectifying problems that other shelters often cite as
inevitable. NSAL keeps Preston on staff not only because it has
been continuously expanding and renovating facilities for the past
six years, but also because the philosophy of the organization
stresses innovative design––and results. When board president
Elisabeth Lewyt says softly that she never expected her organiza-
tion to accomplish so much when she became involved, 25 years
ago, one senses that whatever her expectations might have been,
this was her dream: to establish the leading adoption center in the
world, to pour millions of dollars into neutering, to put puppy-
mills and catteries out of business, and to teach others how.
NASL, founded in 1944, “was only a house with a
garage and a few fenced runs,” Lewyt remembers, when she
and the late Alex Lewyt began putting their money and
know-how behind it. The story told in the NSAL corridors is
that Mrs. Lewyt––Babette to friends––adores animals, and
Mr. Lewyt adored her. A self-made multimillionaire, via
vacuum cleaner sales and various inventions, Mr. Lewyt
backed his French-born wife with all the funds she requested.
More important than that, he introduced salesmanship to ani-
mal protection, teaching well the promotional techniques
that earned him his fortune in the first place. In 1969, NSAL
adopted out 129 animals. By 1980, the figure was up to
19,906. In 1992, it came to just under 43,000. Tighter pre-
adoption screening and increased subsidies for adoption pro-
motion at 38 affiliate shelters brought the adoption total back
down to slightly under 40,000 last year. The affiliates, how-
ever, cumulatively adopted out 37% more animals than in
the last year before each one joined the NSAL program.
Their adoptions totalled 147,000, about 50,000 of them
attributable to NSAL-financed promotion and staff training.
40,000 animals placed per year
NSAL has taken a lot of heat over the years from
critics of high-volume adoption promotion and sweepstakes
fundraising appeals, but the results speak for themselves.
No other organization of any kind places as many animals in
homes. The runner-up, the PetsMart pet supply chain,
places more than 30,000 animals a year on behalf of approxi-
mately 150 humane shelters, an astounding record in
itself––and does it through 138 locations. NSAL places its
40,000-plus per year from this single Port Washington site, a
multi-building complex about half an hour from Manhattan
under good traffic conditions, occupying most of a city block
but half-hidden on a side road behind storefronts and a pro-
duce market. No other organization subsidizes as many neu-
tering operations: as many as 247,000 last year, among
those done on site and those done at neutering clinics funded
by NSAL in more than 30 other communities. Nor does any
other organization helping animals enjoy comparable finan-
cial independence and security. As the late Mr. Lewyt reput-
edly explained, other animal protection organizations are
supported by people who love animals. NSAL is supported
as well by sweepstakes gamblers.
“You get a lot farther,” Arms explains, “appealing
o people as they are, rather than as you’d like them to be.
Alex Lewyt’s philosophy was that you work with human
nature, not against it. Everything we do here, we do for a
reason, and the reason is because we want to place animals
At 10 a.m. on a weekday, most shelters would be
just opening. NSAL is open from nine a.m to nine p.m. every
day, 365 days a year. “We figure we have to have staff on
duty to look after the animals anyway,” Arms says, “so
they might as well be doing adoptions.”
The NASL night crew does the routine work of
most night crews, and makes frequent patrols of the perime-
ter of the complex. The security guards are instructed to dis-
creetly retreat whenever they detect someone coming, then
return in five minutes. Inevitably they find drop-offs: usual-
ly boxes of kittens or puppies, sometimes a mother with the
litter, and occasionally an older animal tethered to a fixture.
(There are no fences.) Such late-night drop-offs account for
virtually all of the puppies and kittens on the premises.
Arms moves on down the row of cages. The din of
barking is just what anyone would expect, but in the center
of the adoption area, behind thick plexiglas, is a skylit
courtyard, where prospective adopters are encouraged to
play with their potential acquisitions, each of whom is given
a red leash. The red leash is a signal to the shelter security
guards that the animal has not yet been cleared for adoption.
Anyone trying to walk out with an animal on a red leash is
The plexiglas around the play area provides sound-
proofing and creates the illusion of privacy. In fact, the
would-be adopters are under the eye of attendants the whole
time, undergoing the first stage of the screening process.
“We just watch and see how the people and the animals are
interacting,” Arms explains. “If the animal is getting ner-
vous and the people are getting harsh, we step in and say it’s
time to take the animal back to the cage, and when the peo-
ple get up front to the adoption window, they’ll be turned
down. We always take the animal away before we say any-
thing negative, because we don’t want to have anyone get
mad and hurt an animal here.”
There is one attendant per bank of cages; roughly
one for each dozen to two dozen animals. The attendants in
turn have section supervisors, four to a room. Among them
they keep the cages clean, the animals groomed, and the
adoption clients’ interest piqued. Pause even a moment to
admire an animal and a junior staffer is immediately there to
answer questions and encourage contact. Cards posted on the
door of each cage tell whatever is known about the history,
health, and temperament of each animal. That much is con-
ventional––but at North Shore, Arms points out, every com-
mon trait is listed on a preprinted checklist, and expressed as
a positive. Instead of saying, for instance, that a dog needs
a lot of exercise, the card may say he likes to run. Instead of
saying the dog doesn’t get along well with other dogs, the
card might say he’d be a good only pet.
As at many modern shelters, prospective adoptors
must file past the older animals before getting to the puppies
and kittens. This discourages impulse adoptions of young
animals and gives older animals the chance to be seen and
appreciated. The technique works. In 1993 NASL adopted
out approximately 24,000 puppies and kittens, plus 16,000
older animals. So far this year, Arms says, NASL is adopt-
ing out more older animals than young ones, and is even
placing some animals as old as six or seven––an age most
shelters flatly consider unadoptable. Once again the trick is
marketing. Instead of saying an older animal is “old,”
though that fact is not concealed, the information cards stress
housebreaking and good behavior.
Along with the increased emphasis on older ani-
mals, NSAL is promoting mongrels ahead of purebreds.
Advertisements sometimes still tout purebreds, Arms says,
“because you have to cater to people’s expectations to some
extent, but we’re trying to change that. We’re doing more
ads that promote the mixed breeds. We place big display ads
in the classified sections of the newspapers, right next to the
purebred dog ads. If the breeders take out a two-inch square
ad, we take out a four-inch square ad. If they take out four
inches, we take out eight. That’s what you have to do to get
more attention and make people think about a mixed-breed
Meanwhile, no matter what the would-be adopters
come looking for, they see––and take home––mostly mixed
breeds. On this particular day, just a handful of purebreds
are in evidence: one German shepherd, a giant
Newfoundland left by someone with a terminal illness, and an
Akita with a litter of puppies. Of those, only the German
shepherd is immediately available. The Newfoundland is in
the Seniors for Seniors special adoption program, which
matches senior citizens with older pets (see “Seniors for
Seniors,” May 1993), while the Akita won’t go up for adop-
tion until after her mixed-breed pups are weaned.
NSAL has another trick, Arms laughs when some-
one notes that all the dogs in the adoption area seem friendly.
“You go into most shelters,” he says, “and you see dogs
cowering in the back of the runs because they’re overwhelmed
by the situation, and the more fearful they are, the more fear-
ful they get. They can’t see what’s going on from back there.
They don’t give themselves a chance to calm down and make
friends with people who come in, and get themselves adopt-
ed. We do something a little different. We heat the front of
the runs. The dogs run back and forth to exercise, but when
they lie down, they lie where it’s warm, up front. They see
the people. They get petted. They make friends. They find a
home and they’re out of here.”
Design likewise has a hidden role in promoting cats.
“We try to think of every little thing that might help an ani-
mal’s chance of adoption,” Arms emphasizes, “and in the
case of cats it’s their coat. Every animal gets the grooming
necessary from the staff and volunteers, but then we need to
show the animal in the best light. We looked at the cats in the
cages and somebody realized that the brightly colored plastic
litter boxes were taking the viewer’s eye away from the cats.
So we designed our own custom-made stainless steel litter
pans. They cost a lot more, but they help promote adoptions,
they last a lot longer, and they’re easier to keep clean.”
Cleanliness is yet another paramount consideration in
the NSAL adoption center. Poops vanish quickly.
Adoptions are brisk, but by eleven o’clock there are
two dogs or two cats to a cage instead of just one––unless a cat
has an upper respiratory infection. Those cats are kept by them-
“ W e’re going to adopt out 300 animals over the
weekend,” Arms explains, “so on Fridays we have to build the
population up a little.” He isn’t concerned about temporary
overcrowding. “You’d have to be worried about crowding at
any other shelter,” he admits, “because those animals are
going to stay there a week or a month or a year, unless they’re
euthanized. The average stay here is two and a half days.
Over the weekends, when we’re doubled up, it’s shorter.”
Some cats are housed two at a time even when the
shelter isn’t crowded, to encourage multiple adoptions. Cat
behaviorists have discovered that many behavior problems
associated with one cat are minimized in a multi-cat house-
hold, so when two cats seem particularly compatible, NSAL
makes a point of keeping them together in hopes that whoever
takes one will be enticed to take them both. Some cats are
actually designated “double adoption.”
“We’re doing more two-fors all the time,” Arms
says. “When the people have cat experience and know what
they’re doing, it’s good for everybody.”
All afternoon the NSAL vans roll in from shelters
around the country that send adoptable animals they would
otherwise have to put down due to lack of adoption prospects
or cage space. Last year NSAL placed 14,000 animals who
were received from other shelters. The outreach rescue pro-
gram is so successful that the vans are having to go farther
and farther away to pick up enough animals to meet the
demand. The travel can be hard on some dogs and cats, but
they do go first class and get a medical checkup plus groom-
ing on arrival. Scarcely resembling conventional animal con-
trol vehicles, which Arms scornfully refers to as “ice cream
trucks,” the NSAL vans feature gleaming stainless steel com-
partments with individual temperature control, to insure the
comfort of animals of varying coat length. At the insistence
of Mrs. Lewyt, each compartment also has a window.
Laughs Arms, “She ordered that the dogs had to be able to
enjoy the scenery.”
When the vans reach a certain age, they are donated
to shelters in the NSAL outreach assistance program. They
may still have a lot of use in them, for local duty, but NSAL
doesn’t like to incur the risk of a breakdown hundreds of
miles from home with animals aboard. That has happened.
Last year a NSAL van was in an accident––not the driver’s
fault––shortly after picking up 20 animals from the Knox
County Humane Society. Neither the animals nor the two-
person crew suffered injury, but they did spend a night more
than intended in the KCHS shelter. The experience produced
contingency plans for when and if there’s a next time.
Incoming animals go first to the NSAL veterinary
clinic, where they receive any necessary treatment. This can
be extensive. Most of the animals arriving from outlying
shelters are essentially healthy, but dropoffs often have seri-
ous problems. As a no-kill shelter, NSAL tries to heal or
cure every animal who can be healed or cured. This policy
might not make economic sense, Arms admits, but it does
appeal to the public, whose response to requests for dona-
tions largely compensates. The real drawback of the save-all
policy is that the NSAL clinic is often occupied with special
operations, limiting the time available for neutering and
thereby creating a bottleneck. The volume of adoptions and
the speed of turnaround precludes neutering every animal
upon arrival. Consequently most animals are not neutered
before adoption. While NSAL offers free neutering of every
animal it adopts out, the adopter must make an appointment
and bring the animal back, or have the animal neutered else-
where, using coupons NSAL redeems.
This is the most controversial part of the NSAL pro-
gram. Detractors accuse NSAL of flooding the greater New
York metropolitan area with fertile dogs and cats, creating
the very pet overpopulation problem it exists to combat.
Sensitive to the charge, NSAL has increased both pre-adop-
tion emphasis on neutering and post-adoption follow-up to
insure compliance. The adoption contract stipulates that ani-
mals are provided as revocable gifts, who may be reclaimed
at any time if the neutering requirement or basic care stan-
dards are not met. Other terms are listed on the back; the
neutering requirement is in a box on the front. Follow-up at
one time consisted of a direct-mail questionaire. That was
superseded several years ago with telephone calls. Now
NSAL is doing an increasing number of in-home visits, and
is reclaiming several hundred animals a year. NSAL has
hopes of eventually following up every adoption with a home
visit. The bottleneck is scheduling the visits, in an area
where as often as not husbands and wives both hold jobs.
NSAL still dreams of eventually neutering all ani-
mals before adoption. The hold-up, according to Arms, is a
shortage of veterinarians willing to work after hours, in order
to keep the in-house clinic going around the clock and stay
ahead of arrivals and adoptions. NSAL has tried a variety of
veterinary scholarship programs in an attempt to obtain
interns who can fulfill the shelter’s needs. Currenly NSAL is
negotiating with the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine,
which is developing a curriculum for neutering specialists.
Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy director Dr.
Andrew Rowan explains that each student would perform as
many as 40 neutering surgeries under supervision. If the deal
goes through, surgical internships could be done at NSAL.
Meanwhile, NSAL does neuter every animal who
receives any sort of special medical care, including every ani-
mal who arrives with a litter or who is pregnant––after she
gives birth and the young are weaned. Spaying pregnant ani-
mals, Mrs. Lewyt believes, is repugnant and unnatural. An
extensive foster program socializes the young animals and
others requiring special care before they are put up for adop-
tion. Foster care providers receive an allowance of $3.00 per
animal per day. “We get a lot of senior citizens doing this,”
Arms nods. “Their expenses are taken care of and they get
something important to do.”
The foster program inspired Seniors for Seniors.
Back at the adoption center, the second stage of
screening commences as soon as a would-be adopter commits
himself or herself to a particular animal. The animal is deliv-
ered to a large kiosk for temporary safekeeping. “We call it
exit processing,” says Arms. “The most important part is to
separate the person from the animal until we finish the paper-
work and the pre-adoption interview. Then, if we turn the
person down, he or she can’t just grab the animal and run out
the door.” If the adoption is approved, the animal is
returned to the adopter with a blue leash in place of the red
leash used in the get-acquainted area.
NSAL turned down 8,400 would-be adopters in
1992 (19.5% of applicants), and another 8,400 in 1993
(17.3% of applicants). The screening process is fairly conven-
tional, but there are separate questionaires for cat adopters
and dog adopters. The dog questionaire asks 40 questions;
the cat questionaire asks 36. Most screening questionaires
used by other shelters are in the same range, but some run
over 100 questions.
“We like to keep it simple,” says Arms. “We don’t
want to make it so hard for people that they go to a pet store
or a breeder. Even if we turn someone down, if it’s for some-
thing they can fix, maybe by putting up a fence to keep the
dog at home, we want that person to come back.”
Arms is proud of NSAL’s record in competition
with pet stores, ticking off a list of the defunct. There are two
and a half million people in Suffolk County, where NSAL is
located, but the ratio of pet stores selling dogs and cats to res-
idents is unusually low, and a few blocks away on Central
Avenue, one can still see the faded sign where one out-of-
business pet store used to move hundreds of puppy-mill ani-
mals. Two pet stores remain in Port Washington. One still
has an awning promoting purebreds, “but they don’t have any
purebreds any more,” Arms says. “The other one, down-
town, has only been there a couple of months, and I don’t
give it much chance of surviving.”
Pet supply stores in close proximity to NSAL do
well, by contrast––so well that NSAL has acquired additional
buildings adjacent to the present compound, one of which
will become an in-house supply store. The plan is to provide
adopters with the equipment and food they need at a discount.
“We can’t stand pat,” explain Arms and NSAL
International Division chief Bob Commisso, who is in charge
of arrangements with the affiliate shelters and the Spay U.S.A.
national low cost neutering referral program.
Incidentally, Arms underestimated the adoption vol-
ume for the weekend in question. On the Friday ANIMAL
PEOPLE visited, 55 animals were placed. Saturday, the
total increased to 155. Sunday, it peaked at 163.
Three-day total: 373.
This is the screening policy list that NSAL adoption staffers keep behind their counters. It is not shown
to prospective adopters before they complete their adoption forms, and is shown to them afterward only upon request. Certain policies may be waived in special cases at the discretion of senior management.
NORTH SHORE ANIMAL LEAGUE ADOPTION POLICIES
(in effect since 6/12/90)
1. Must be 18 years of age or older in order to
adopt. In some cases, proof of age is required.
2. Must have valid identification with name and
present address. Valid identification consists of driver’s
license, major credit card (MasterCard, Visa, American
Express, Discovery), passport, or current utilities bill.
3. Must have a working telephone in household,
under the adopter’s name.
4. Must be gainfully employed. Unemployment,
welfare and social services are unacceptable.
5. If single and living at home with parents, one
parent MUST be present or reached by telephone at the
time of adoption.
6. If married and not accompanied by your
spouse, NSAL MUST be able to speak with the husband
or wife. If potential adopter is living with a roommate, the
roommate must be notified.
7. If the husband and wife are divorced or sepa-
rated, neither one can adopt an animal for the other’s
household. The person who is going to be responsible
for the pet MUST be present to sign the adoption applica-
8. At no time can a friend, relative, or neighbor
not living in the same household as the adopter be
responsible for the pet.
9. NO GIFT ADOPTIONS!! The person who is
going to own the pet must be present at the time of adop-
tion in order to sign the adoption agreement. If the per-
son adopting the pet has written on the form that the pet
is a gift adoption, the adoption cannot take place, and
the form cannot be changed as to allow the pet to go to
the adopter’s household, instead of as originally stated.
10. Puppies can only be left alone for F O U R
hours a day at the most (adopter coming home for lunch
11. Dogs can only be left alone for the amount
of time stated on the card (adopters can come home for
lunch for dogs fully trained and at least six months of
12. At no time will an animal be allowed to be
ransferred to another household while the adopter is at
13. All animals are to go out as house pets only.
At no time will a pet be allowed to go out to a place of
business. For example, store, factory, office, trucking
business. NO EXCEPTIONS.
14. Pets are to be in the yard for exercise only,
under supervision (not tied in the yard, kept in a dog
house, pen, kennel, run, or in any type of garage,
shed, laundry room, or basement. NO ADOPTION will
take place if there is a dog house on the premises.
15. NO ADOPTION to any person(s) who has
taken any previous pets to a shelter that destroys pets.
16. No dormitory or group living situations, i.e.
schools, communes, group housing, etc. are permitted.
17. No adoption if an adopter or any family
member has an allergy to pets.
18. No adoption to any person who lives in a
city project or government housing. It is against the
rental rules to have pets.
19. In some cases, landlords or rental agents
must be called to verify if pets are allowed.
20. Adopter can only adopt one puppy or dog at
a time, unless otherwise stated. Adopter can re-adopt
after a period of four to six months.
21. If previous animal has died of an airborne
disease, adopters must wait one month before any ani-
mals of the same kind can be brought into the home.
22. NO LARGE DOGS TO APARTMENTS.
23. No person present with an adopter who has
been turned down for any reason can adopt on the same
24. Once an adopter leaves the premises
before the adoption application has been processed, the
adoption becomes automatically turned down. Person(s)
who are with the adopter cannot adopt and also may not
leave the premises.
25. NO PERSONS UNDER THE INFLUENCE
OF ALCOHOL OR DRUGS CAN ADOPT!!!
26. No animal will be given to anyone who
refuses to have the animal spayed/neutered.
27. No new animal will be given to an adopter if
a previous animal was adopted from NSAL and was not
spayed/neutered within a period of six months after the
28. No adoption will take place if the adopter is
referred for mandatory training and refuses to go.
29. All previous pet history must be verified.
NSAL must be able to verify the whereabouts of the last
pet. Adopters with poor pet history cannot adopt.
30. If a person(s) previously adopted a pet from
NSAL and returned it, a new adoption cannot take place,
unless otherwise stated.
31. Dogs are not allowed to go out as guard
dogs or to be used for hunting purposes.
32. If an adopter lives in an apartment in his/her
parent’s home, the mother or father must be called to
verify if the pet will be allowed in the house.
33. All information on the application must be
verified by references. For example, work hours, pet
history, home address, etc.
34. The person(s) who will be taking care of the
pet MUST be present at the time of adoption.
35. To facilitate follow-ups to adoptions, we try
to minimize our adoptions to the Tri-State area.
36. Adopter must have a working business tele-
37. The animal cannot be sold, but may be
given to another adopter with prior NSAL approval.