Some 5 million to 7 million dogs and cats arrive at animal shelters across the United States each year. Roughly two-thirds of them never leave alive, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The problem is supply and demand: too many unwanted pets and not enough people willing to adopt.
A nonprofit group in southern California is trying to apply some innovative solutions to both challenges.
Idea No. 1: Employ a little marketing magic.
In April, the Found Animals Foundation opened what it hopes will be the first of many Adopt & Shop pet stores. Located in the Lakewood Center Mall in middle-class Lakewood, Calif. – near Costco, Target, Nordstrom, and a movie theater – it's an animal shelter disguised as an upscale "pet-adoption center and pet supply boutique," says Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Found Animals.
"A lot of folks think, sometimes accurately and sometimes inaccurately, that a shelter is going to be an intimidating or sad place. So they don't go visit," she says. "We find that the animals in the shelter are fantastic, and if you can just get people to come and see them, they get adopted."
While upscaling shelters into pet stores isn't entirely new, "we put our own spin on it," she says. Adoption counselors work with each customer to find the perfect pet. Each animal has been spayed or neutered, has received all needed shots, and has an RFID chip inserted under the skin, which acts as a permanent "ID collar" to identify it should it become lost.
Cats and kittens can be adopted for $60 to $75 and puppies and dogs for $100 to $125, which Ms. Gilbreath calls "incredibly reasonable prices."
In just over two months, the store has placed about 160 animals into adoption. The hope is that it will be a model for others.
"We are going to start scouting locations for store No. 2 probably in July, with the goal of having it open for the holidays," she says. "We'd really like to do our programs in a way that is cost effective and scalable so that you can do it in lots of places without a huge investment. And we are happy to teach folks how to do what we've done and what's worked and what hasn't. We're in the process right now of writing up [reports on] a lot of our programs to present them at animal conferences."
Contrary to popular belief, shelter animals aren't all mutts and strays. Some 25 to 30 percent of the dogs, for example, are purebreds.
"Pets end up in shelters not because of a problem with the pet but because of a people problem," Gilbreath says. "Folks lose their homes, they have allergies, they can't afford the pet, maybe the pet was a gift from a fiancee who cheated and they want to get rid of it."
Found Animals is trying some other marketing ploys to boost pet adoptions. On June 18 it held a one-day Adopt-a-Thon, at which 475 to 500 pets were adopted. "To my knowledge [that] makes it one of the biggest, if not the biggest, single-day shelter adoptions in the country," Gilbreath says.
All summer long Found Animals is sponsoring the Cat Days of Summer. Customers can adopt two cats or kittens for the price of one. Cats enjoy each others company and "do great in pairs," she says, and "it's also good for the owners sanity," especially if they're adopting active kittens.
The "cat days" are in response to a greater need to place cats. "In the L.A. area only 1 out of every 4 cats that enters a shelter will leave alive, whereas 2 out of every 3 dogs will leave alive," she says.
The foundation's other big effort is the Michelson Prize & Grants, which includes a $25 million award to anyone who develops a low-cost, nonsurgical method of cat and dog sterilization to reduce the number of unwanted animals that have to be killed at shelters.
Retail spaying and neutering at a veterinarian's office can cost as much as $500 to $700, though many nonprofit groups offer greatly reduced rates. Found Animals funds a program at Clinico, a low-cost spay and neuter organization, that will neuter male cats for $15 and spay females for $25. Even so, the animals must undergo surgery and must be taken to an animal clinic or hospital for the procedure, which together with the cost means many pet owners won't get it done.
Michelson started accepting proposals in early 2009 and have had about 150 applications. "We have about a dozen projects that have been approved for funding," Gilbreath says, and though any answer is still many years away there are some "very hopeful signs."Another $50 million in grants has been set aside for preliminary research projects, to try to get the effort under way.
Gilbreath took a winding road to her post.
"I always had a huge menagerie of pets growing up. My first aspiration was to be a veterinarian. That didn't happen," she says. After getting a biology degree at the University of Arizona, she worked for Motorola in life sciences, went to business school at Stanford University, and then took a post in the health care field for the Boston Consulting Group.
In 2008, she became Found Animals' first full-time employee. "We're at about 35 employees now," she says.
Her dog is in the office with her. "His name is Rufus. He's a pit bull." She's more than aware of their gangster reputation, which she says is something new. "Historically. They were known for being really great with people," she says. "The majority of pit bulls out there are fantastic dogs ... they do get a bad rap."
While groups like Found Animals have emphasized saving the lives of shelter animals, there's another side to the story of pet adoption: its effects on people.
An older gentleman who'd never married or had children came into the Adopt & Shop recently. He'd never had a pet and wasn't sure he wanted one, Gilbreath says. An adoption counselor talked with him. "He ended up taking home this little terrier mutt dog and absolutely falling in love with her," she says.