A Look at HSUS’ Embrace of “Open” Adoptions

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When it comes to HSUS betraying animals by enabling shelter killing, I often hear from their defenders that “HSUS is changing.” In fact, it is a retort I’ve been hearing now for better than a decade. Aside from being an admission of guilt, or at the very least, an admission of a pressing need for change, this statement, of course, begs the inevitable questions: Are they truly changing? How long is it going to take? Instead of a perpetual process of “changing,” why don’t they just change? And what are they changing into?

Here’s a case in point. For decades, HSUS defended shelters that killed animals despite rescue groups ready, willing, and able to save them. In fact, in the 1990s, HSUS specifically told shelter directors to kill the animals rather than transfer them to rescuers, stating it “would not recommend the transfer of animals to another facility for adoption… Transport and changes in environment are stressful for animals that are already experiencing stress from the loss of their home.” In 2003, for example, volunteers from a high-volume Virginia-based adoption rescue group offered to save dogs being killed in their county shelter. In a series of meetings with the county administrator and then-shelter leadership, they demonstrated not only how the group could save the lives of dogs in the shelter (by transporting them to private foster homes and then placing them up for adoption in more populated areas of Virginia), but save the county money as well: they offered to pay for the veterinary exam, vaccination, sterilization, transport, and adoption of these dogs. They had just one request: pre-killing notification to let them know which dogs faced death so that they could come and save them.

With their efforts meeting resistance at the local level, the group naively turned to HSUS assuming that they would help. Instead, HSUS sided with the shelter. In a meeting between the rescue community and local officials, HSUS’ representative argued that the rescue groups were trying to hold the shelter “hostage,” that their request for a “euthanasia list” was unreasonable, and that the partnership should not be implemented.

It is no surprise then that HSUS also opposed a 1998 California law making it illegal for shelters to kill animals when rescue groups were willing to save them. Thankfully, that law was passed over HSUS objections, saving over 45,000 animals a year—animals who would be dead had legislators listened to HSUS “experts.”

HSUS now says it has “changed” and supports rescue rights. But what does this mean in terms of HSUS policy and action? It’s not so clear-cut. For one, they’ve only championed such a view in California, where it has already been the law of the land since 1998; a law they long opposed and which was passed over their objection. Their alleged “embrace” of rescue rights in California is, oddly, a defense of the status quo. In other words, since it has been the law for over a decade and their friends who run kill shelters accept these provisions because they are well-settled, HSUS can support the law without angering those who run the kill shelters in that state. Because their allegiance is to those people, rather than the animals those people kill, and despite their claim to have “changed” their views on rescue rights, they continue to oppose it in other states to this very day. Several months ago, HSUS lobbyists killed a similar provision in Minnesota, helping to condemn thousands of animals there to needless death. Why did they oppose it? As HSUS itself admitted, they did so because a Minneapolis kill shelter, with which HSUS has long had a cozy relationship, asked them to. This policy regarding rescue rights shows how incomplete, disingenuous, and schizophrenic “change” at HSUS can be and it is not an aberration.

Late last year, HSUS released a “White Paper” that ostensibly told California shelters, among other things, that they should not take in healthy cats only to kill them. If they are going to kill them, HSUS wrote, it is better not to take them in. They have since repeated this view in other publications. As it relates to “feral” cats, they write, “When euthanasia [sic] is performed on healthy but unsocialized cats, it can be characterized as unnecessary, calling into question whether their deaths are actually humane.” Killing these cats does not “call in to question” whether it is inhumane, it is inhumane. Their language may be an improvement, but it remains cowardly, though prototypically HSUS. Moreover, given that they once called rounding up and killing these cats “the only practical and humane solution,” there was nowhere to go but up.

Nonetheless, given that they are telling shelters not to take in healthy cats, regardless of whether they are social or not social with humans, this would appear to be a welcome change from past HSUS positions and, at the level of rhetoric, it certainly is. But here’s the rub: after the White Paper was released, HSUS killed a law that would have mandated this and other “recommendations” in the White Paper when introduced in another state. Further, the White Paper focused on how to reduce the amount of work shelters had to do. In other words, rather than recommend shelters find homes for all healthy (and treatable) cats they take in, as successful shelters across the country do, HSUS simply told them not to take them in so they would not have to work to do so. In addition, they introduced legislation that would have eliminated holding periods for stray cats without identification, removing any right of reclaim for families whose cats ended up at the shelter. And finally, HSUS told shelters that they should feel free to continue killing the animals if that is what they wanted to do, or, in their own words, that HSUS recommendations “remain at the discretion of each community to choose whether and how to implement.” To HSUS, shelter directors have the right to continue killing animals in the face of alternatives if that is what they would prefer to do which most, tragically, do. Once again, it appears that HSUS wants to be all things to all people, giving to No Kill advocates with one hand what they take away at the behest of shelters with the other. Here’s how it plays out in the adoption arena.

One of the most dramatic changes in HSUS rhetoric involves new adoption recommendations, promoted in a joint presentation with the ASPCA to sheltering officials at their recent animal sheltering conference. The goal was laudable: getting more animals into homes and putting fewer into garbage bags. But, once again, the implementation fell short.

The ASPCA went first. After the ASPCA speaker admitted that she herself is not current on her resident animals’ vaccinations, she further stated that she once lied on an adoption application to acquire a dog from a shelter, including providing the shelter false documentation to do so. As I was watching the presentation, I could not help but wonder what the anti-No Kill zealots would say if I admitted to what the ASPCA speaker admitted to: lying on an adoption application, falsifying answers, committing fraud in order to acquire a dog from a shelter. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that dog got out and I am glad, as the ASPCA speaker indicated, he died over 10 years later in her arms rather than 10 years earlier in a barren cell at the hands of cruel dogcatchers. And, of course, the larger lesson is more important: shelters do turn good homes away based on arbitrary and wholly unreasonable adoption criteria, while needlessly killing animals and the ASPCA, along with HSUS, are finally admitting that their prior positions defending those arcane policies have cost animals their lives.

Indeed, for decades, the ASPCA and HSUS defended shelters that did a paltry number of adoptions and had high rates of killing by vilifying No Kill advocates who were demanding better by saying that doing so would reduce the “quality” of the adoptive homes and put animals at risk. As far back as the 1970s, these groups, along with the American Humane Association, were telling shelters that only certain kinds of people were worthy of having pets. In a statement reeking with racial overtones, the groups claimed that past adoptions in “ghetto areas” were a failure, and that these dogs were now doing little more than “attacking children in schoolyards.”

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As recently as 2009, HSUS was still telling shelters not to adopt out animals during the holidays, effectively condemning a million animals a year to certain death. And in 2011, they launched a campaign to help shelters “educate the public” about adoption policies by creating a poster for shelters to hang in their lobbies. The poster featured a chair beneath a light in a cement room. The tagline reads: “What’s with all the questions?” Rather than ask shelters to reexamine their own assumptions which turned good homes away, HSUS produced a poster of what looked like an interrogation room at Abu Ghraib, instructing potential adopters to simply put up with it and further perpetuating the stereotype among shelter directors that the public is the enemy, rather than the solution. Three years later, they have swung the pendulum completely the other way, telling shelters that people who have made a decision to adopt from a shelter should not be turned away for three reasons: 1. Most people can be trusted, 2. Animals are being killed and they need homes, and 3. Those turned away will buy an animal instead; fueling the mill industry and, for some, putting the animals they acquire beyond the reach of spay/neuter, vaccinations, and other care.

You can watch the video here.

While I think the third argument can only be carried so far—a shelter has a responsibility to protect animals in its care—the truth of the matter is that shelters—and many rescue groups—do have unreasonable adoption criteria, which I noted in my second book, Irreconcilable Differences. In a chapter entitled “Good Homes Need Not Apply,” I wrote:

[M]any shelters go too far with fixed, arbitrary rules—dictated by national organizations—that turn away good homes under the theory that people aren’t trustworthy, that few people are good enough, and that animals are better off dead. Unfortunately, rescue groups all-too-often share this mindset…. People who do rescue love animals, but they have been schooled by HSUS to be unreasonably—indeed, absurdly—suspicious of the public. Consequently, they make it difficult, if not downright impossible, to adopt their rescued animals…

 

And, the number of people shelters turn away because of some arbitrary and bureaucratic process proves it. Like this experience shared with me a few years ago: “I tried to adopt from my local shelter… I found this scared, skinny cat hiding in the back of his cage and I filled out an application. I was turned down because I didn’t turn in the paperwork on time, which meant a half hour before closing, but I couldn’t get there from work in time to do that. I tried to leave work early the next day, but I called and found out they had already killed the poor cat. I will never go back.”

 

Shelter animals already face formidable obstacles to getting out alive: customer service is often poor, a shelter’s location may be remote, adoption hours may be limited, policies may limit the number of days they are held, they can get sick in a shelter, and shelter directors often reject common-sense alternatives to killing. One-third to one-half of all dogs and roughly 60 percent of cats are killed because of these obstacles. Since the animals already face enormous problems, including the constant threat of execution, shelters and rescue groups shouldn’t add arbitrary roadblocks. When kind hearted people come to help, shelter bureaucrats shouldn’t start out with a presumption that they can’t be trusted.

 

In fact, most of the evidence suggests that the public can be trusted. While roughly eight million dogs and cats enter shelters every year, that is a small fraction compared to the 165 million thriving in people’s homes. Of those entering shelters, only four percent are seized because of cruelty and neglect. Some people surrender their animals because they are irresponsible, but others do so because they have nowhere else to turn—a person dies, they lose their job, their home is foreclosed. In theory, that is why shelters exist—to be a safety net for animals whose caretakers no longer can or want to care for them.

 

When people decide to adopt from a shelter—despite having more convenient options such as buying from a pet store or responding to a newspaper ad—they should be rewarded. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we should be treated with gratitude, not suspicion. More importantly, the animals facing death deserve the second chance that many well intentioned Americans are eager to give them, but in too many cases, are senselessly prevented from doing so.

It is no surprise then that some shelter advocates are applauding HSUS’/ASPCA’s turn around on adoption policies. Certainly viewed in light of past policies, the presentation was revolutionary on the part of HSUS and the ASPCA and a welcome rejection of a nearly old century excuse that enabled shelter killing. But there are problems.

For one, I have never advocated “open” adoptions if we are going to define “open” accurately, instead of having it mean whatever we want it to mean at any given time. The closest I came was five years ago in Houston, Texas, where I had just completed a multi-day and ultimately 200-page assessment of the pound and found it rife with neglect, cruelty, and systematic killing. Here’s what I wrote,

BARC basically does “open adoptions,” meaning there is virtually no screening of any kind.

 

Successful high volume adoption shelters have proved that the notion that one needs to reduce quality of homes in order to increase quantity is one of the anachronisms of old-guard, “catch and kill” shelters who needed a way to justify a paradigm of high impounds, high kill rates and low adoptions. In fact, some of the most successful industries in the United States have excelled in a consumer market demanding high volume coupled with increasing consumer awareness, information and requirement for quality. These agencies are able to meet demand for both quality and quantity. Quality and quantity are not, and have never been, mutually exclusive…

 

At BARC, by contrast, screening is perfunctory, there is no real counseling, good matches are not considered as kennel attendants spend no time with the potential adopter or the animal, customer service representatives have limited information in which to match animal with lifestyle, and the cost is not inexpensive in an era of pet shops, “free to good home” ads, backyard breeders, and BARC’s poor location, facility, and bureaucratic procedures.

 

This is an area where volunteers have repeatedly suggested some form of screening to make sure animals are not just going into homes, but “good” homes. This suggestion has some appeal. And while it should ultimately be BARC’s goal, in the larger cost-benefit analysis, I think it would be a mistake to do so at this time…

 

BARC is not capable of adoption screening and the end result will mean the needless loss of animal life.

 

At this point in BARC’s history, the goal must be to get animals out of BARC where they and others are continually under the threat of a death sentence. And given the problems with procedure implementation at BARC, my fear is that the process will become arbitrary depending on who is in charge of adoptions. There is simply too much at stake for the types of staff I observed to hold even more power over life and death.

That is the choice BARC, by virtue of its rampant and systematic embrace of neglect, abuse, and killing, forced. It is not, however, the real or only choice. The choice is never any home or death. The choice includes a reasonably screened home which offers protection to the animal. In fact, I would go on to say:

When BARC has high quality staff, is consistent in applying sound policies and procedures, and has achieved a higher save rate—when BARC animals do not have a daily choice between life and death—it can revisit the issue of thoughtful screening to provide homes more suitable for particular BARC animals.

That is not, however, what HSUS is advocating. In a blanket embrace of “open” adoptions, they potentially leave the animals with no protection of any kind. Admittedly, this is a lesser risk, as most people can be trusted, and especially in light of a death sentence, but “either-or” is a false choice. Ironically, too, while HSUS now wants shelters to basically give animals to anyone, they continue to fight efforts, as they did in Minnesota this year, to allow incorporated, non-profit rescue groups, to have access to them. In other words, they would say “yes” to anyone off the street—including as they have to dog abuser Michael Vick who HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle said “would do a good job as a pet owner”—but give shelters the power to say “no” to non-profit SPCAs and rescue organizations that are dedicated to protecting animals and have never committed abuse.

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Nor do they stop there in failing to embrace simple, common sense protections for shelter animals. In 2013, Michigan lawmakers introduced legislation which would have made it illegal for shelters to adopt out animals to those convicted of animal abuse. By knowing the right lies to tell and which truths to omit, convicted animal abusers can acquire animals even from those who may be dedicated to their protection but are currently forced to operate in a state of ignorance simply because they lack access to valuable information that would help them make better, more informed choices about the animals in their care. The Michigan law, giving shelters access to a database of those convicted of cruelty, would have stripped abusers of this advantage and prevent future animal abuse with nothing more than a few simple strokes of a keyboard. HSUS opposes these laws, arguing that we must balance the rights of animals with the rights of their abusers, and tragically, the Michigan bill failed to pass.

A Lobbyist for Kill Shelters, Not the Animals Shelters Kill

Why? What is the cause of this seemingly schizophrenic type of policy? These types of contradictions only makes sense in the context of HSUS’ overriding philosophy that they are, first and foremost, a lobbyist for kill shelters, rather than for the animals those shelters kill. When you consider each of their actions in this context, the logical contradiction disappears. With shelters under increasing pressure to reduce killing, HSUS is now realizing they cannot stem the move towards No Kill, despite their best efforts to do exactly that. Their advice to shelters as to how they can appease critics by reducing killing without actually having to increase their workload becomes simple: don’t take in cats if all you are going to do is kill them and, as it relates to the instant case, don’t bother putting in place comprehensive adoption programs and thoughtful screening protocols, simply give the animals to virtually anyone who walks through your doors. Once again, like they did with the White Paper, they refuse to ask shelters to live up to their responsibilities by doing the (sometimes hard) work necessary to save lives in earnest.

That said, I do not want to be too cynical, because some of what HSUS (and the ASPCA) advocate in the video is actually good, quite good in fact, even if none of it is “new” as they pretend, given that many of us have been promoting those things for over 15 years over their objections. This includes, for example, an embrace of “fee waived” adoptions which have been shown to double and, in some cases, triple adoptions, without impacting the quality of the home (given reasonable screening). In terms of kill shelters, HSUS has a bigger bully pulpit and getting the animals the hell out of those facilities continues to be the prime directive in sheltering, as these shelters are the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the United States. If looked at in the context of the Houston recommendations, and putting aside the defense of convicted abusers and opposition to rescuers, the HSUS turnaround—with caveats—is enormously beneficial to animals and does, in fact, represent significant progress.

HSUS Admits Demand Exceeds Supply

It should also be noted that in that presentation, HSUS also admits that pet overpopulation is a myth; that there is a huge market for shelter animals that vastly exceeds the number of animals killed for lack of a home. More than anything else in the video, this is the most revolutionary change, striking as it does, to the heart of the killing, though it has received scant mention by anyone.

Though the supply-demand imbalance is actually even more pronounced in favor of the animals (they are using old data), nonetheless, HSUS says that it isn’t a question of “too many animals, not enough homes,” but the need for shelters to overcome two primary hurdles (there are actually more): the false belief that shelter animals would not be in the shelter unless there was something wrong with them and, more to the point, that shelter adoption criteria tends to be unreasonable. Once again, that is progress, a departure from the intentional blindness they have operated under for decades in order to defend the fact that shelters were needlessly putting animals in their graves. (The other reasons are that shelters do not keep animals alive long enough to get into those homes, they do not aggressively market the animals, animal lovers find it difficult to go to kill shelters because they are depressing places, that customer service is often poor, the shelter is located away from where people live, work, and play, and that public access hours are often inconvenient or non-existent.)

What has not changed, however, is their willingness to hold shelters accountable at the level of policy making. Responding to the pressure, HSUS is giving shelters a false choice: kill them or save them by doing nothing more than swinging the doors to the shelter wide-open. If that were the choice, I’d go with the latter. If those in attendance were as regressive as the Houston pound was the year I wrote my assessment, I’d embrace it for them, too. But HSUS goes further than ethics allow: HSUS doesn’t want any protections at all, including potentially adopting them to those who have committed the most egregious and wanton cruelty.

To achieve No Kill, to save more lives, that isn’t what we should do. There’s a reasonable middle ground between their “Abu Ghraib” approach in 2011 and their “free-for-all” of 2014. But that requires a smart, reasonable, and thoughtful balance between the need to adopt out more animals and the need to protect animals from harm—neither of which are mutually exclusive but should, in fact, go hand in hand. To fail to hold those accountable who portray them as separate and distinct, who claim that to end one harm we need to potentially enable another, is to not only allow animals to needlessly be placed in harm’s way, but to sacrifice the only thing that has ever pushed HSUS to a more progressive position: holding them accountable when they get it wrong, as they so often, and tragically, do.

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