Editorial: Rethinking adoption screening in the computer age
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2010:
ANIMAL PEOPLE first examined shelter dog and cat adoption
procedures in depth in our April 1993 edition. Innovations we helped
to introduce have increased the pet acquisition “market share” for
adopted animals from about 15% then to more than 25% now. Older
animals and animals with disabilities, then rarely even offered for
adoption, are now among those who usually find adoptive homes.
Unfortunately, many prospective pet adopters still find the
adoption application process unnecessarily intrusive and invasive,
much as they did in 1993.
In business the customer is always right, and in
facilitating adoptions, competing with breeders and stores that sell
animals from puppy and kitten mills, shelters and rescues must
realize that they are participants in an increasingly competitive
Streamlining pet adoption screening to make adopting animals
more pleasant need not require relaxing any meaningful standards.
Yet it will require discarding outmoded ideas about how and why
adoption screening should be done. This begins with recognizing the
nature and magnitude of the changes that have overtaken the adoption
Gina Spadafori, author of the now 27-year-old syndicated
weekly column Pet Connection, contributed a guest essay to our April
1993 edition introducing our readership to breed rescue networking,
a concept which to that point had scarcely been mentioned in humane
society and animal rights literature. Members of many dog breed
fancies, most of them breeders or former breeders, had begun
redeeming dogs of their favorite breeds from pounds and finding
adoptive homes for them, but few at that point were working in
formal partnership with either the pounds or humane societies.
Shelter personnel tended to regard rescue network people as
poachers, who stripped shelters of their most adoptable animals,
then collected much higher adoption fees for them than the shelters
could, leaving the shelter staff to kill the animals who were left
There was in 1993 only one shelter in the entire U.S.
designed primarily to facilitate adoptions, opened in 1991 by the
North Shore Animal League. PetSmart Charities had just introduced
the in-store adoption boutique concept, although Petco had offered
in-store adoptions since 1968. The first adoption centers designed
to resemble shopping malls–Maddie’s Adoption Center in San Francisco
and the current Wisconsin Humane Society shelter–were still three
and six years from completion.
Breed rescuers, often operating through PetSmart adoption
boutiques, successfully challenged the entire concept that adoptions
had to be done from shelters.
Spadafori pointed out that the first edition of a breed
rescue directory, published in 1990, listed about 1,500
participating individuals. The 1993 second edition listed 2,900.
Such a directory today might list more than 30,000 individuals who
help to foster and rehome animals, working under more than 10,000
The Worldwide Web debuted in 1994. Within a year both
rescuers and progressive shelters discovered the value of posting dog
and cat photos to the web. An explosion of interest in shelterless
dog and cat rescue followed. Though many rescuers remain focused on
just one breed of dog, the concept of breed rescue long ago
broadened into home-based placement of any animal, including feral
cats, who might be rehomed if removed from a stressful
environment–especially shelters, but not exclusively–and given
Screening the rescuers
There remains considerable tension between shelterless
rescuers and the sheltering community. Shelter personnel often still
resent rescuers who claim the most adoptable shelter animals,
instead of focusing their efforts on the hard cases. Many shelter
personnel also dislike the term “rescue” itself, feeling unfairly
indicted by the notion that animals have to be “rescued” from
agencies that do the difficult and often dangerous work of
impoundment, and strive to rehome animals, even if those who are
not rehomed promptly are killed.
Rescuers in turn often accuse shelters of needlessly killing
animals whom shelter staff deem unsuitable for rehoming, chiefly due
to dangerous behavior. Animal control shelter directors, in
particular, frequently counter that rescuers often take too cavalier
an attitude toward the risks inherent in rehoming potentially
This is a growing issue, integrally intertwined with
adoption screening, as shelters struggle to cope with pit bull
terrier intake that for the past decade has accounted for upward of
25% of all dogs received and 50% of all dogs killed in shelters. Pit
bull rescuers working to reduce the toll have helped shelters to
increase pit bull placements to 13% of all dog adoptions in 2009,
compared to 5% of dog purchases made through classified ads.
Ideally, the dogs, the public, and other animals are
protected by improved behavioral screening, improved adoption
screening, and careful screening of rescue groups, too. As third
party liability settlements in nonfatal dog attack cases now exceed
$2 million, the use of screening to try to ensure that adoptions are
safe is likely to increase, but whether any sort of screening really
works for this purpose is unclear.
Fatal and disfiguring attacks by shelter dogs have soared
from none reported between 1989 and 2000, to 17 in 16 months at this
writing. Among the dogs involved in the recent attacks were 13 pit
bulls, a Rottweiler, a Great Dane, and a Great Dane/Doberman mix.
Eight of the dogs, six of them pit bulls, had apparently cleared
behavioral screening at shelters, were released to rescuers who had
passed screening, and were then rehomed to adopters who passed
screening. Yet even these multiple levels of screening did not
prevent the injuries.
Shelters and rescuers are also at frequent odds over the
tendency of some rescuers to “rescue” more animals than they can
actually look after. More than 11,200 dogs and cats required rescue
from self-described rescuers in 2007-2009, and 1,915 were impounded
in similar cases during the first four months of 2010.
Typically rescuers want to be exempted from having to go
through adoption screening for every animal they take, but the
experience of many shelters is that rescuers often require continuous
supervision to ensure that they do not become animal hoarders.
Despite the ongoing friction, most shelters now work in
partnership with some trusted shelterless rescues. Together, the
shelter and rescue communities have learned the lesson fundamental to
retailing that more points of sale tend to produce greater sales
volume. In 1993 there were about 7,500 places in the U.S. where
adopters could acquire former shelter animals. There are today
upward of 15,000.
Questionaires vs. credit checking
Cumulatively, shelters and rescues are rehoming about the
same number of animals as in 1993–about four million per year– but
back then the majority of rehomed animals were puppies and kittens.
Today, through the success of dog and cat sterilization programs,
puppies and kittens relatively seldom come to shelters. Most of the
animals who are rehomed today would have been killed in 1993, or
earlier, and are finding homes now through the vastly expanded
adoption network, which gives them much more individual attention,
promotional exposure, and–most importantly–time to be noticed.
The longest article in our April 1993 edition considered
whether use of the then standard 115-question adoption screening
questionaire contributed to high rates of shelter killing.
Introduced by the American Humane Association in 1948, the
115-question screen was adapted from a questionaire probably first
used in the late 19th century to try to protect human orphans from
exploitation and abuse. Prospective child adopters in the West and
Midwest were to complete it in the presence of a clergy member or
town clerk who would attest with a seal and signature to the veracity
of the information before it was sent by mail to eastern orphanages,
who might send back a boy or girl by train.
The questionaire was dusted off and applied to animal
adoption at a time when laboratories were looking toward shelters as
a source of inexpensive experimental subjects, and when denied,
would often obtain shelter animals by ruse.
In May 1994, in our second long look at adoption technique,
ANIMAL PEOPLE published a copy of a 20-question screen developed by
then-North Shore Animal League shelter manager Mike Arms. The
20-question screen produced as much useful information as the old
115-question screen. Most pet adoption screening today appears to
use locally customized variants of the 20-question screen, though
descendants of the 115-question screen are also still in use,
usually shortened to about 80 questions.
Arms has for the past decade headed the Helen Woodward Animal
Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California. At the North Shore Animal
League he boosted annual adoptions from circa 5,000 a year, which
then led the world, to nearly 45,000 at peak. Also originator of
the annual Pet Adoptathon at the North Shore and the
Home-4-the-Holidays program at the Helen Woodward Center, Arms has
helped to facilitate more than a million adoptions in his 44 years in
humane work. His innovations in animal display and advertising,
emulated by more than 700 PetSmart Charities Luv-A-Pet adoption
boutiques, have contributed indirectly to rehoming at least another
three million dogs and cats.
But Arms himself no longer favors the 20-question screen.
Instead, Arms since 2005 has recommended just asking prospective
adopters for a piece of photo identification, such as a driver’s
license, plus a major credit card. The photo ID establishes that
the person is whoever he or she claims to be. The major credit card
enables the adoption agency to run an online credit check. While an
adoption counselor helps the adopter to choose and become acquainted
with a pet, a data processing clerk quickly accesses all of the
information that could be obtained through a lengthy
questionaire–and it is all pre-verified by the agency that compiles
the credit history report. If people are negligent about paying
their bills, they might be negligent about taking care of a pet, so
asking direct questions about their petkeeping knowledge and history
may be necessary. If they don’t own their own home, a call to the
landlord will be in order to verify that they have permission to keep
It is also possible to find out within minutes at
Pet-Abuse.com if a prospective adopter has ever been charged with
cruelty or neglect.
Because most people are used to providing photo ID and a
credit card when making even minor transactions, asking for the
cards does not seem to be invasive or intrusive. The focus of the
adoption interview can be kept on the special needs and personality
of the animal the person wants. Rarely are there complications
requiring anyone to ask any question more difficult than requesting
the adoption fee and perhaps an additional donation.
Arms throughout his career has emphasized making pet
adoptions as easy as possible on everyone involved, including the
animals. Arms urges shelters and rescuers to ensure that adopting a
pet is as convenient and comfortable for adopters as buying a pet
from a store or a breeder. The price of driving would-be adopters
away, Arms emphasizes, is that instead of acquiring sterilized pets
from shelters, the would-be adopters go to a breeder or buy a dog
from a puppy mill online or at a pet store.
Arms’ message, vigorously amplified by the Best Friends
Animal Society as well as the Helen Woodward Animal Center, has
clearly been heard, yet has not always been heeded. Running web
searches on the terms “intrusive” and “invasive” in combination with
“pet adoption,” ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton discovered that
about half of the relevant postings were from shelters and rescuers
describing their own adoption screening procedures. Some were
apologetic about asking admittedly intrusive and invasive questions.
Many asked prospective adopters for patience and understanding.
Quite a few echoed Arms’ teachings in outlining their adoption fee
structures–specifically, the adopters should be told how much money
is involved in preparing a dog or cat for adoption, should be asked
to cover as much of the cost as they can, and should expect to pay
more for animals of popular breed and size. Charging higher adoption
fees for the animals in most demand helps all the rest to find homes.
But the shelters and rescuers doing intrusive and invasive
screening remain convinced that it is necessary. This raises the
multiple reasons why adoption screening is done.
Also featured in our April 1993 edition was the promotion of
John Stevenson to head the North Shore Animal League, and the
introduction of the North Shore policy of paying for the
sterilization of every adopted animal. Though North Shore was far
from the first shelter to do this, it was the biggest, and the
North Shore action raised the standards for all shelters.
Non-governmental shelters today typically sterilize every
animal before the animal is even offered for adoption, but in 1993
most shelters merely required adopters to sign a contract agreeing
that they would have the animal they chose sterilized within six
months. Adoption screening then and for the preceding 30-odd years
often focused on trying to ensure that an adopted animal would be
promptly sterilized, since most shelters had no effective means of
following up adopted animals to enforce sterilization contracts.
Now that most animals are sterilized before even being
offered for adoption, this is less and less an issue. Whole
batteries of questions can accordingly be eliminated.
Indeed, Arms points out, all of the traditional questions
about who the animal’s regular veterinarian will be have become
irrelevant. Apart from wanting to be able to verify if an adopted
animal was sterilized, shelters and rescues like to be reassured
that an animal will receive care if ill or injured. But since the
advent of large franchised veterinary clinics, veterinary
specialists, and overnight emergency clinics, many of the most
caring and responsible pet keepers seldom see the same veterinarian
twice. People relocate much more often now than a generation ago,
and so do vets.
Much more useful than asking about veterinarians, especially
before the adopter even has an animal, is asking the adopter to call
the shelter or rescue for a veterinary referral if one is ever
needed. A shelter receptionist with a geographically organized list
of vet clinics and specialists can do more to ensure that a sick or
injured pet gets appropriate help than any amount of adoption
Screening vs. follow-up
The original reason for adoption screening was just trying to
ensure that a shelter animal would not be exploited, abused,
abandoned, or returned to the shelter after just a short time in a
home. Yet another of Arms’ discoveries, decades ago, was that
traditional screening does little to prevent any of this.
Nationally, the adoption failure rate was about 20% before adoption
screening was introduced, and 40 years later was still about 20%.
People who exploit, abuse, or abandon animals tend to lie
on questionaires, Arms realized–and often they are much better at
giving the answers that adoption counselors want than the counselors
are at detecting untruths. Further, people never adopt animals in
the expectation that the adoptions will fail, but problems
nonetheless occur with pets (regardless of where the pets come from)
that the people eventually despair of solving.
Instead of trying to use screening to eliminate mistreatment
of animals and shelter returns, Arms introduced adoption follow-ups.
His recommended procedure came to include follow-up calls to all
adopters, days or weeks after the adoption, to identify any
problems and provide remedial help; follow-up visits to the homes of
first-time adopters, dropping off a complimentary pet toy, bowl,
or leash as pretext for doing a quick informal inspection to see how
the animal is looked after; and sending follow-up “birthday cards”
annually, to remind adopters of the need for pets to receive
wellness examinations and vaccination boosters.
Arms lowered the adoption failure rate at his shelters to
less than 5%. Though some shelters and rescues still admit adoption
failure rates of as high as 25%, most now provide some adoption
follow-up service, and a 5% adoption failure rate is now close to
Unfortunately, many shelters and rescues get the timing of
an in-home visit backward, and make the in-home visit before making
the adoption. This often seems invasive and intrusive to the
adopter, and tells the adoption agency nothing about the actual care
of the animal. The visiting adoption counselor may note the height
or absence of fences around a prospective adopter’s yard, for
example, but will not see whether the animal has frequent access to
the yard, or is being left alone in the yard on a tether for most of
Matchmaking vs. adjustment
Over time, screening as practiced by most shelters and
rescuers evolved into attempted matchmaking. The idea is to ensure
that the pet an adopter chooses is really suitable for the adopter’s
needs and lifestyle. This approach has some value, but Arms is
skeptical if it is taken beyond suggestion, into actually denying a
would-be adopter the opportunity to adopt the “wrong” pet. Arms has
observed that when animals and people bond, people often adjust
their lives to accommodate the animals’ needs, so his emphasis is on
looking for indications of bonding. Arms, like most people who
arrange pet adoptions, tries to avoid mismatches, such as pairing a
high-energy young dog with a person of limited mobility who lives in
a high-rise apartment. But Arms does not say that the person cannot
have the dog. Instead, he asks what the exercise plan for the dog
is. Hiring a dog-walker can often make that scenario work. Other
solutions may be found for most other common issues that lead to
Many people besides Arms can be credited with major
contributions toward improving shelter animal rehoming. Warren Cox,
most recently interim director of the Lakeland SPCA, more than 50
years ago was the first person to promote shelter adoptions on
television. Also more than 50 years ago, the late Mel Morse–who
cofounded the Helen Woodward Animal Center–was first to use a
computer to help process adoptions. Alex and Elisabeth Lewyt, who
took over the financially failing North Shore Animal League in 1969,
were the first to use paid advertising to place shelter animals.
Richard Avanzino, then executive director of the San Francisco SPCA,
was first to recognize the importance to adopters of being able to
choose an animal in a no-kill environment, where selecting one
animal did not leave the adopter feeling guilty for leaving others to
Over the years, however, no one has been right about more
aspects of adoption promotion than Arms–which led ANIMAL PEOPLE
editor Clifton to discover one point that Arms may now be wrong
about. Attempting to quantify the likelihood of would-be adopters
going to breeders and pet stores to buy animals after being rejected
by adoption screening, Clifton collected a geographically
representative selection of 200 recent web postings from people who
complained about screening procedures. Barely 10% mentioned going to
a breeder or pet store instead. The other 90% merely turned to other
shelters and rescues. Rather than complaining about shelter
screening in general, their complaints focused on the particularly
invasive and intrusive approaches of specific shelters or rescues,
in contrast to others nearby.
Arms will probably consider this a positive finding, because
it means that enough shelters and rescues are now paying attention to
his teachings to reclaim most of the would-be adoption traffic that
used to be driven to breeders and pet stores. An Associated
Press/Petside.com survey released on May 12, 2010 affirmed this,
showing that 30% of the pets now in homes came from shelters,
compared to 26% from breeders, and that 54% of petkeepers would
prefer to acquire their next pets from shelters.
At the same time, Arms is certain to point out that some
adoptive homes are still needlessly lost to breeders and pet stores,
and these too can be reclaimed by rethinking screening to better
accomplish what shelter animals need.