Who you gonna call? Pet Savers
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1995:
PORT WASHINGTON, New York––If $35 could save
each and every shelter animal’s life, how many would you save?
“We’ll save them all,” longtime North Shore Animal
League board chairperson Elisabeth Lewyt decided six years ago,
committing North Shore resources to saving not only the animals
coming through its own shelter, but also those handled by other
shelters around the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
Since then, North Shore and the two-year-old Pet Savers
Foundation it created with a $6.3 million start-up grant have helped
arrange nearly 170,000 extra adoptions, above and beyond the annu-
al totals the participating shelters achieved prior to North Shore
involvement. By itself, the North Shore/Pet Savers adoption pro-
gram has achieved a cumulative 3% drop in the U.S. euthanasia
rate––an even more impressive figure considering that, big as it is,
it involves barely 1% of U.S. shelters.
North Shore/Pet Savers support of low-cost neutering,
averaging about $3.5 million a year, has undoubtedly had an even
greater impact. No other organization puts anywhere near as much
into neutering subsidies and building neutering clinics. The runner-
up, Friends of Animals, spends $2.2 million a year on neutering,
and that’s far more than all other national groups combined.
Quantifying lives prevented, however, is guesswork.
Quantifying lives saved is a matter of hard numbers. Five shelters in
he Pet Savers program have more than doubled their adoptions. The
average rate of increase among the 36 shelters in the program at the
end of 1994 was 48.7%.
Providing money for advertising is part of the North
Shore/Pet Savers approach. The $5.8 million the adoption promotion
program cost through the first 297 weeks it was running broke down
to $34.83 per adoption: $38.40 per adoption for the first 10 partici-
pating shelters, as the bugs were worked out of the system, and sub-
stantially less thereafter until last fall, when skyrocketing
newsprint prices sent newspaper advertising costs up as well.
Recent adoptions have cost $45.41 apiece in promotional
Superficially, that sounds like a lot. But the typical
cost to an animal control agency for catching a stray, holding
the animal through a mandatory five-day reclaim period,
euthanizing the animal if unadopted, and disposing of the
remains runs from comparable to twice as high in most urban
areas. And euthanizing animals doesn’t encourage happy new
owners to make donations in appreciation.
The promotional cost of adopting an animal is also
comparable to the promotional markup on pets sold through
stores. Pet shops usually spend about a third of the sale price
on promotion. Since adoption fees run lower than sale prices,
promotional expenses amounting to half the adoption fee
aren’t out of line.
North Shore and Pet Savers, executives and staff
stress, are spending money to subsidize adoptions because
they believe––and are proving––that effective advertising is
the key to success. While other organizations recite slogans
such as, “Until there are none, adopt one,” Pet Savers direc-
tor of operations Bob Commisso quietly screens proposals
and, when satisfied, signs checks.
Education is the other key part of the North Shore/
Pet Savers approach. SPCA of Texas executive director
Warren Cox describes himself as one old dog they taught new
tricks. Starting out as a kennel-cleaner in Nebraska back in
1952, Cox has been in humane work ever since––longer than
almost anyone else in the field. He still cleans the occasional
cage, “just so I don’t forget,” and testifies while giving a
night shelter tour about his ambition of introducing the North
Shore approach to Texas, which as a state has one of the
highest euthanasia rates in the U.S. Cox became acquainted
with the North Shore/Pet Savers outreach effort while in his
previous post, at the Greenhill Humane Society in Eugene,
Oregon. The current Greenhill executive director, Mert
Davis, has continued the programs Cox initiated, with North
Shore help, and the two now have a friendly rivalry as to who
can increase adoptions more. As of the end of 1994, Davis
was slightly ahead, 58% to 54%.
“North Shore has done more to help humane organi-
zations than any other organization I’m aware of,” states
Cox. “They have taught us that we can no longer do what we
have done for so many years,” namely euthanize huge num-
bers of animals while claiming to have no alternative, “and
that if we want to help animals, we have to change our way
of doing things; that we have to market and to educate.”
Some of the tactics Cox says he’s learned have
included using an adoption form that “indicates positive
rather than negative information,” giving adopters “an insur-
ance policy that provides free medical care for adopted ani-
mals,” and “incentives and ways to showcase hard-to-adopt
Much of this, Cox adds, amounts to “ways to build
staff morale.” Shelter staff feel good when they’re placing
animals in homes, rather than killing them.
Davis seconds Cox. “We already had a good adop-
tion program when we were accepted into the North
Shore/Pet Savers program,” he says. “Our adoption program
has become even better because of our affiliation with them.
Basically, we doubled our adoption rate. From them we
earned about putting the puppies in the back, so that people
see the adult dogs first. Our adoption rate on adult dogs went
up. We learned about ‘twofer’ adoptions: double adoptions
on cats and kittens. Our adoption rate on cats and kittens
went up. The ads they helped us run in our local newspapers
increased our exposure in the community and increased our
adoptions. The only complaints we got were from a few of
our local pet stores: we were competing with them.”
“I’m 44 years old and feeling every day of it,”
laughs Commisso. An accountant by training, Commisso
spent four and a half years with the Olivetti Corporation and
more than eight years with Columbia House before joining
the North Shore Animal League in March 1987. For six years
he was controller. Putting Commisso in charge of what was
then called North Shore’s International Division was among
current North Shore president John Stevenson’s first moves
after his own appointment.
The financial background serves Commisso well.
He’s the most influential so-called bean-counter in humane
work, now monitoring the affairs of scores of humane organi-
zations, not just North Shore. Last year 49 shelters in all
received funding from Pet Savers, including three in
England, two in Canada, and one in France. In April of this
year, another four British shelters joined the program. Many
more have applied for help than are funded, and the disparity
is increasing as word of Pet Savers’ success encourages
increasing numbers of shelters to apply.
While the number of applicants is sharply up, the
funding available has fallen by 44% in just three years.
“Our goal is to increase adoptions and spay/neuters
internationally via program expansion,” Commisso explains.
Toward that end, shelters are added to the Pet Savers pro-
gram somewhat at the expense of those that are already
included, whose actual support is often less than the amounts
North Shore initially budgets. In 1993, 22 of the 32 shelters
already in the adoption promotion funding program received
less than projected, while five new shelters were brought
aboard. In 1994, at least 18 of 38 got less. Each year some
shelters with particularly promising initiatives get more, but
the trend remains downward.
“As we advised our program participants in late
1994,” Commisso reminds, Pet Savers expansion is current-
ly achieved “through cost savings from media efficiencies,
reflected in smaller and less frequent adoption ads; coopera-
tive grant-seeking; and the start-up of direct-mail fundrais-
ing,” a policy change so momentous as to draw a full page of
coverage from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the leading
news medium in the fundraising field.
Until late last year, North Shore resisted doing con-
ventional direct-mail appeals, preferring to attract money
through sweepstakes mailings engineered by Henry Cowen,
the pioneer of sweepstakes fundraising who also developed
the Reader’s Digest sweepstakes. This enabled North Shore
to avoid competing for donations against other humane
groups. “We’re not raising funds from animal lovers,” the
late longtime North Shore president Alex Lewyt used to tell
staff. “We’re raising funds from gamblers.”
Elaborated North Shore director of shelter opera-
tions Michael Arms last fall, for Amanda Roque of the
Chronicle of Philanthropy, “These donors don’t have to give
money to enter, but many people are willing to donate a few
dollars because they know that even if they don’t win the
sweepstakes, at least their money is going to a good cause.”
Added director of finance Barry Giaquinto, “Our
typical donor is your average American who enters a lot of
sweepstakes, loves cats and dogs, and feels he or she can
spare a few dollars to help a worthy cause. We do not expect
people to dig down deep into their pockets and give us a $25
or $30 contribution when they send in their sweepstakes
entry,” he explained, “but we appreciate every dollar.”
The average sweepstakes gift was only about $5.00
in 1993, but sweepstakes returns accounted for 84% of North
Shore’s all-time high income of $34.3 million. Between
1954 and 1991, North Shore sweepstakes enabled the organi-
zation to grow from a backyard kennel to the world’s richest
humane society (by a narrow margin over the Massachusetts
SPCA), with assets peaking at $59 million. But hard times
hit just as the North Shore effort to share the wealth and
spread its adoption promotion knowhow got underway. From
1990 through 1993, North Shore income increased by
31%––but the cost of printing and mailing each sweepstakes
package grew by 40%, primarily due to postal rate increases.
Fundraising costs rose to more than $10 million a year, caus-
ing North Shore to fall short of the National Charities
Information Bureau requirement that fundraising expendi-
tures should not exceed 30% of an organization’s income
from public sources.
The bottom line was that even as North Shore was
raking in more money than ever before, the start-up grant to
Pet Savers caused it to lose $5.9 million in fiscal year 1993.
Current assets are slightly over $51 million.
While North Shore is far from broke, liquid assets
since the creation of Pet Savers have been less than one year’s
operating budget––much less than conventional wisdom holds
to be prudent for a multi-million-dollar-a-year organization.
The NCIB, for instance, doesn’t hold that reserves are exces-
sive until they exceed twice the organization’s annual budget.
North Shore, by that standard, could appropriately keep
assets of $80 million.
Adding by subtraction, as baseball teams say when
they fire their managers, North Shore paid former president
David Ganz $300,000 in March 1993 to take a hike, and
brought in Stevenson, a nationally recognized expert on non-
profit law who was already on the staff. Under Ganz, who
succeeded to the presidency after Lewyt’s death in 1986, and
is now with the Humane Society of the U.S., North Shore ini-
tiated many of its most successful programs––but because
they were underpublicized, while Ganz pursued a policy of
never responding to a small but increasingly rabid coterie of
critics, some serial killers got better press.
Stevenson opened the doors to media, organized a
planned giving department, increased pursuit of bequests,
and handed Commisso his mandate to do more with less.
North Shore International began 1993 with a budget for grant-
giving of $3.2 million. After cuts, it actually granted just
under $2.3 million. As Pet Savers, it planned to give $2.4
million in 1994. More midyear cuts lowered the total to $1.8
million, roughly equal to the amount that had been budgeted
for shelter adoption promotion grants alone.
More tight budgets are ahead, as the longterm plan
is for Pet Savers to become financially self-sufficient.
The cuts have actually had a beneficial effect on Pet
Savers. While one of the primary purposes of the adoption
promotion program remains introducing shelters to the use of
advertising, advertising tactics are becoming better focused.
Cost-cutting, says Commisso, “has not had any negative
impact upon adoptions.”
Pet Savers has also begun stricter supervision of
recipient shelters. Several that misused funds or misreported
expenditures were quietly cut off. Pet Savers never
announced which ones they were, but word got out quickly
through the shelter management grapevine.
In addition, Pet Savers is a encouraging shelters to
experiment with ways to increase self-sufficiency. For
instance, Commisso explains, “The participating shelter in
Spartanburg, South Carolina, recently volunteered to test our
own current practice of soliciting an adoption contribution in
lieu of a fixed adoption fee. The test was so successful in
increasing adoptions that during the initial test phases, shelter
euthanasia was suspended to meet the demand for adoptions.
While the current contribution average per adoption is low,
and is subsidized by us, it is increasing to the point that the
Spartanburg board of directors is currently exploring ways to
temporarily fund this practice going forward. We are assist-
ing with their efforts via localized grant-seeking. It is antici-
pated that this adoption technique can become a standardized
procedure for all our program participants, increasing adop-
tions while providing self-sustaining income to the shelters.”
Pet Savers’ influence as a teacher is perhaps most
evident from statistics at the Houston Humane Society. In
1991, Houston Humane used a 101-question adoption screen-
ing form, rejected 54% of all adoption applicants, and had a
euthanasia rate of 93%, perhaps the highest of any non-ani-
mal control shelter in the U.S.––although lower than the 97%
rate it posted a year earlier. Houston Humane now has a 52-
question adoption form, a euthanasia rate close to the Texas
norm of about 78%, and has increased adoptions 111% since
receiving $4,173 in advertising subsidies.
The four biggest North Shore International/Pet
Savers programs were already underway when Stevenson
became president: adoption promotion, spay/neuter promo-
tion, disaster rescue, and international grants. Between then
and Commisso’s appointment, the Seniors for Seniors pro-
gram was begun, matching elderly pets with elderly people
and providing essential support services; and North Shore
took over the administration of Spay USA, a national low-
cost neutering referral service begun by Esther Mechler in
1990 from her home in Trumbull, Connecticut.
“Spay USA was started five years ago in my base-
ment,” Mechler recalls. “Because it filled a real need, it
grew quickly, doubling in size each year. We were very for-
tunate that North Shore came along in 1993 with an interest in
incorporating the program into what is now Pet Savers. We
have continued to double in size each year, and thanks to a
sophisticated computer program that they devised, we are
able to handle more calls more quickly. Instead of one line,
we have three. When we receive publicity, an answering ser-
vice helps cover the lines.”
In mid-February, Spay USA was featured in the
Sunday newspaper insert magazine P a r a d e. “We received
8,500 calls within three weeks,” notes Mechler. “Several Pet
Saver staff members pitched in to help ensure that all the
callers were helped within a reasonable time. I would like to
see more organizations offer this kind of concrete help and
direct action to end animal suffering,” she concludes.
A seventh North Shore shelter aid program, adop-
tion transfers, is not under Pet Savers auspices. The
Emergency Rescue Program, as it’s called, takes potentially
adoptable animals who would otherwise be euthanized from
other shelters to the North Shore shelter on Long Island,
neuters and vaccinates them, provides any other veterinary
care they may need, and finds them homes. Initially North
Shore took animals only from the American SPCA and New
York Humane Society. As the North Shore adoption volume
increased while the available surplus diminished in the greater
New York metropolitan area, pick-ups were made increasing-
ly far afield. Since 1991, a specially designed fleet of vans
that give each animal an individually temperature-controlled
stainless steel cubicle plus a window have brought North
Shore loads of pets daily from the South and the Midwest.
Shelters that provide animals to North Shore are
reimbursed for their expenses, and enjoy the improved com-
munity relations that result from killing fewer animals. Some
have used the promise that all adoptable animals will be
placed as a come-on to get the public to bring in whole litters
and mama too, for low-cost or no-cost spaying. Typically
shelters participating in adoption transfer handle more ani-
mals during the first several years, but euthanize less. Then,
after about three years of involvement, intakes plummet, as
the wholesale animal removals and sterilizations diminish the
pool of unneutered mothers left to breed.
The adoption transfer program peaked in 1992,
when North Shore found homes for 43,000 animals. Last
year North Shore adopted out “only” 39,000, in part because
it couldn’t get enough of the animals most coveted by the
public: puppies, small dogs, and purebreds. The over-
whelming majority of the animals North Shore placed were
medium-sized mixed breeds, many of them from three to six
years old––well beyond the range that conventional shelters
consider to be adoptable.
Highly controversial when begun, the adoption
transfer program is now widely emulated. Other major shel-
ters bringing in adoptable animals from small shelters where
they wouldn’t have a chance include the San Francisco
SPCA, the Humane Society of Hennapin County
(Minneapolis), the SPCA of Texas (Dallas), and the North
Texas Humane Society (Fort Worth), many of which learned
the tactic directly from North Shore.
Even comparatively tiny Greenhill Humane is doing
transfers. “When we have space available,” explains Davis,
we bring in dogs from other shelters and are successful in
finding homes for better than 75% of them.”
“By taking these adoptable animals from other orga-
nizations,” says Cox, “we are able to adopt more animals,
talk to more people, neuter more animals, and we hope, put
pet shops and puppy mills out of the animal-selling business.”
The key, as North Shore’s Michael Arms main-
tained for years, is recognizing that many people who don’t
find the animal they want at a shelter won’t pick out a less
adoptable animal from the shelter; they’ll go to a breeder.
The answer to the dilemma is to do everything possible to
persuade the potential adopter in favor of the animals who
most need homes––but at the same time, don’t let qualified
adopters leave unsatisfied and still searching.
Many organizations following the North Shore lead
now import adoptable animals from even farther away:
PetSearch, of St. Louis, flies dogs and cats in from San Juan,
Puerto Rico, while the Animal Foundation International, of
Las Vegas, receives up to 50 puppies a week from the
Johnson County Animal Shelter in Indianapolis, Indiana. As
pet overpopulation comes under control, the pockets of the
U.S. with surpluses of adoptable animals will diminish––but
Arms and Commisso, among others, speculate that the trans-
fers will evolve into an online information exchange network
which will be able to match up prospective adopters with par-
ticular animals, wherever those animals are. If there’s one
Russian wolfhound in a shelter in the state, for instance, and
someone wants a Russian wolfhound, online exchange could
assure that dog of going home, even if the new home and the
shelter are a day’s drive apart.
No knocks from Knoxville
“We’ve been working with North Shore for three
years,” says Vicky Crosetti, executive director of the Knox
County Humane Society, in Knoxville, Tennessee. “Getting
the puppy rescue program started was very difficult because
initially there was resistance from several of our board.”
Crosetti investigated the North Shore program thor-
oughly before prevailing on her board to give it a try. “The
comment I heard most often,” she remembers, “was ‘It
sounds too good to be true. Something is going to go wrong.’
Nothing has gone wrong. The simple fact is that we get in far
more puppies than we can place. They now leave our proper-
ty in a van headed for Long Island instead of in the back of a
pickup truck headed for the landfill. I no longer hear negative
comments from other people in this business,” she adds.
“Instead I get a couple of calls a month from other shelters
asking if I think North Shore would take their puppies too.”
Although KCHS is not part of the Pet Savers adop-
tion promotion program, Crosetti notes that, “North Shore
has been very generous about sharing techniques for screen-
ing adopters, increasing adoptions, and efficiently following
up on adopted animals. I believe what we’ve learned, and are
continuing to learn, has helped us increase our own adoption
rate. We placed 3,404 animals in 1994, up from 1,767 in
1991,” when the arrangement with North Shore began.
Not just money
If North Shore and Pet Savers ceased subsidizing
innovative programs at other shelters tomorrow, would those
programs continue? In other words, are the programs selling
themselves, or is it just the money encouraging applicants to
fill out a form and stand in line.
“We would continue the programs. Absolutely,”
emphasizes Cox. “We know that at some point funding from
North Shore will cease entirely. In fact, this past year, North
Shore funding of our organization has decreased by about
70%, and we are now in the process of looking for underwrit-
ing to continue the advertising program,” which was begun
with heavy North Shore support. “We also are going to have
to look for underwriting for our other programs,” modeled on
North Shore’s, “such as our Seniors Unlimited and our
adopters insurance policy.”
Davis again barks agreement. “We’re increasing our
advertising in the local newspaper now at our own expense,
especially in the pet section of the classifieds. It works.”
Fundraising is never easy. However, Cox con-
cludes, “The North Shore program has enabled the SPCA of
Texas to give more animals a second chance for life.” That
can be sold to donors. Though the Dallas shelter badly needs
a new floor and new paint, it’s an upbeat place. It can be pro-
moted as not only an institution in need, but also an institu-
tion making a positive difference––and being able to say that,
and prove it with numbers, makes a difference in itself.
Advertising and Spay/Neuter Grants
All potential grant recipients must
meet the following criteria:
1. Non-profit status: 501(c)(3) tax-exempt.
2. Provide most recent financial statements.
3. Must be financially stable.
4. Clear of controversial issues/situations.
5. All animals must be vaccinated. Shelter must
provide a medical program.
6. Must have a spay/neuter program.
7. Staff consisting primarily of paid employees as
opposed to volunteers.
8. Must have a vet on staff or utilize a reliable
9. Shelter must be separate from home.
10. Reasonable or no adoption fees.
11. Follow-up care for all animals adopted is a plus.
12. On-site medical center is a plus.
13. Humane education program is a plus.
14. Any organization providing animals for
experimentation will not be considered.
15. Must be available to the public for adoption
purposes a minimum of 5 days; prefer
7 days plus evening hours and holidays.
16. Previously limited in advertising.
17. Environment must be sanitary.
18. Prefer shelter which is reasonably close to
19. Prefer region with a high pet overpopulation
20. Shelters with higher adoption rates are less
likely to be considered for an advertising
grant. The goal of the program is to benefit
those shelters with high euthanasia rates in
an effort to save as many lives as possible.