Prior to the pandemic, the euthanasia rate among American animal shelters stood at about 4,000 pets/day, meaning that 1.2 million cats and dogs were put down annually. But since Covid-19, there has been an unprecedented demand for adoptable pets. In fact, both private rescue groups and taxpayer-funded animal shelters across the U.S. report having to scramble to meet this demand due to a short supply of cats and dogs. The fact that so many shelters are now nearly empty is, by every measure, a monumental achievement worth celebrating. Who doesn’t want every pet to find a loving, forever home? But even as we celebrate this temporary state of affairs, this moment presents a unique opportunity to consider how, post-pandemic, animal welfare organizations go forward. Will this change how they operate in the future?
To answer these questions, we must examine the financial incentive structure on which animal welfare organizations’ fundraising is based. To justify their budgets, taxpayer-funded shelters and private rescue groups emphasize the number of animals they help, always trying to increase both intake and live release rates (the number of pets leaving their facilities alive, whether to a home, or transferred to another rescue group). But now, with many animal rescues reporting low numbers of adoptable pets (and sometimes none), will they seek less financial support? If much of their budget justification is based on feeding, medical, and general care costs, will they ask taxpayers and supporters for less than what they gave in previous years when they were teeming with adoptable pets? My hunch is no.
Instead, they will simply try to find more needy animals. That means looking to areas that still wrestle with pet overpopulation, in particular, the South. Pet shelters in the Northeast and upper Midwest often get their pets on transports from Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the like. In contrast, rarely do pets in northern states enter shelters from Vermont or Rhode Island. Now is the time to address the root causes of pet overpopulation – an issue that is far more prevalent in southern states. What accounts for this geographic disparity, and what can be done about it? If we don’t like seeing homeless pets in animal shelters anywhere, let’s focus on stemming the flow at its source.
This is a rare opportunity in animal rescue, and we should re-think the existing financial incentive structure and focus on addressing the root causes of pet overpopulation and animal cruelty. This would mean developing incentive structures to reward shelters for reducing – rather than increasing – their intake rates. We can double down on efforts to help community members keep pets in homes, off the streets, and from ever becoming rescues in the first place. We can demand that shelters increase their community outreach efforts, and that they provide greater access to affordable veterinary care, educational resources, and preventive measures such as vaccinations, collars with ID tags, and pet microchips. We need to spend money and effort on humane education, teaching kids to be responsible future pet owners so we can effect lasting, generational change. Now – when we can glimpse the possibility of empty shelters – is the time to reconsider our current approach to animal rescue. After all, the best way to decrease the euthanasia rate in the long run is to prevent pets from ever entering shelters.