In the shelter world, “open access” shelters tend to complain that “no kill” shelters make it too hard to give up a pet. “No kill” shelters tend to say “open access” shelters make it too easy to give up a pet. The general public usually faults both for making it too hard to adopt a pet.
One thing is certain: all shelters employ hurdles, intentional or not, in front of certain aspects of their operations. In some cases, it’s flat out barriers. If this is not your personally owned animal, you cannot surrender the pet. If you are a college student, you cannot adopt this pet. Regardless of the logic behind them, these are clear barriers that utterly block the process. This is the equivalent of stopping your car by running into a wall.
Most of the hurdles in place, however, can be driven over. They aren’t barriers as much as they are speed bumps or friction in the process. It doesn’t stop the process, but it slows it down, or reduces the quantity of the transaction. Process friction is the equivalent of hitting the breaks to slow down or stop your car. The presence- or absence- of this procedural friction has a major impact on things such as the number and type of animals accepted at a shelter, the number of animals adopted, the success rate by breed or species, and even the perception of the public.
Where, how, and when we apply friction can have intended consequences, such as ensuring pets get good homes, or it can have unintended consequences, such as creating a structural imbalance between intake and adoption. When the latter is the case, we usually tell ourselves we meant to apply that friction or that the friction applied is out of our control- or, “their fault”. This is especially a problem when friction is applied heavily at one point in the process and not applied at all in other parts of the process.
An example of equal friction might include a shelter which has extremely stringent adoption standards. Home visits, proof of home ownership, entire family must be present for adoptions, waiting periods, etc. This will still permit adoptions, but will also clearly slow down the process and diminish the quantity. If this shelter applies equally high levels of friction at the intake of animals, such as screening to accept only the most adoptable animals and only accepting as many animals in as it adopts out, it reaches a “friction stasis”. This is pretty much the definition of many “no kill” and “limited admission” shelters.
When a friction imbalance happens, animals tend to pay the price. A no kill shelter which has high adoption process friction but less or no intake friction quickly becomes overcrowded. That is why effective limited admission shelters, as well as breed rescues, must understand their organizational capacity and work within those bounds. To do otherwise renders them hoarders.
This is also what occurs in open door shelters which euthanize animals as required for space, or for health or behavioral reasons. As long as they accept anything that comes in, when friction is slight or non-existent at intake, they will generally face some level of euthanasia as an inevitability. That’s because unless they are just dumping animals out the back door as fast as they come in the front and have absolutely no adoption standards, they will almost certainly get more animals in than they send out due to back end process friction. Even when no adoption process friction is applied, human nature provides its own friction in the form of adopter preference. This is made even more certain if they have a limited admission shelter in the area, since that shelter has “frictioned out” at least some less adoptable animals by refusing to accept them and they end up at the open admission shelter.
But is it always out of the open admission shelter’s power to do anything about this frictional imbalance? Is euthanasia inevitable in all, most, some cases? Absolutely not. It is vital that open admission shelters take friction imbalance into account to ensure that they are not greasing the wheels in one area while applying the breaks in another, when the imbalance leads to more inflow than outflow.
Open admission shelters often make surrendering a pet the easiest option for the public. The first, easiest, and most readily available option offered to the public is generally the option the take. If this option is coupled by high friction policies on the outflow end, the adoption end, such as high adoption fees, overly stringent or lengthy adoption process, policies which disproportionately impact certain populations (read: home ownership checks for people of color that are waived for white folks), waiting periods for sterilization, cut and dry rules like fenced yards, etc., the result is a bottle neck in the process. Incoming animals pile up behind this bottleneck. Space runs out or behavior and health declines. Animals are euthanized.
Is it the shelter’s fault people are giving up their pets? No. Except when it is.
When I started at Berks Humane, we had a friction imbalance. We provided full animal control services so we didn’t just accept a stray animal, we would go out and pick it up, 24 hours a day. We would take any animal, seven days a week, presented to us over the counter, as long as someone had ID. That requirement would seem like some friction. Except we also had an overnight “drop room” intended for strays brought in by police. But it was open to the public, too, and at least half the animals dropped there had no information and were really just owner surrendered pets. We didn’t just have no friction, we lubricated the process to make the easiest choice giving up a pet to a place that killed at least half the dogs and three quarters of the cats entering it.
We made matter worse on the adoption end by having restrictive adoption policies. Entire families must be present for all adoptions, limited adoption hours, vet references, renter barriers, home ownership checks, inflexible adoption fees, and unpleasant staff. And if you were brown, the grit on the sandpaper applied to you was very much coarser.
Starting on the outflow side to minimize friction was easy in many cases. Eliminating informal Jim Crow adoption policies and ushering out staff who seemed to take particular glee in applying them was an immediate response. Improving access to adoption services, adoption hours, streamlining the process, eliminating silly rules (does your senior in high school really need to come in and meet the cat you want to adopt?), decreasing the adoption fees for older and harder to place animals and eliminating it for animals with challenges or special needs or during high euthanasia seasons, and sterilizing animals prior to adoption all made a difference in our ability to decrease friction on the outgoing side and helped balance our live/dead equation.
However, we also put equal thought to how we could add friction on the intake side. While we were still doing animal control we told out contracted municipalities we would only pick up stray during the day, not 24 hours a day, unless it was to directly assist a police officer. As a result, we had a decrease in the number of strays entering, not because they were taken elsewhere or dumped back on the street, but because those extra few hours of being held meant the owner was able to reclaim their pet directly from the finder in many cases. Slight friction, slight decrease in intake, minimal inconvenience.
We closed our overnight drop cage room. That had a substantial impact on intake. People could no longer dump their pets there because they were too embarrassed to bring them in the building. Surrendered animals could be adopted sooner because they didn’t have to be held a strays for two or three days simply because their owner left them with no paperwork. People with actual strays still had to hold them until we opened, but we had already established this would allow some owners to reclaim the pet before it came in.
We added more friction at intake by simply offering to help people and asking them in more detail why they were bringing in a pet. Lost your job and can’t afford it? What if we gave you free food? Later, when we opened our vet practice, we’d offer vet care for injured or sick animals. That may not seem like friction, but it is. We placed something between the owner and us just taking in the animal, no questions asked. We added support and services which increased friction for intake but decreased friction for keeping their pet.
Because of small things like these, and bigger ones, eventually our bottle neck shifted to the point where we had to seek out animals to enter our shelter for adoption from other shelters and we even decreased some of our new friction because we were adopting faster than we were taking in animals. In fact, please stay tuned because we will soon be announcing a major decrease in friction at Humane Pennsylvania.
We all choose to insert friction into our work and that is why it is no more reasonable for open admission shelters like ours to say it’s out of our control than it is reasonable for restricted admission shelters to pretend they are not passing the burden on to open admission shelters by way of the extremely high levels of friction they impose. It is up to all of us, regardless of our sheltering model, to own up to the barriers and friction we impose. We need to more wisely apply it and more judiciously remove it, as appropriate and as effective to save lives.
No animal should face death because the easiest option available is entering a shelter or because adoption is made harder than it needs to be.
*A credit due note: I first heard the term friction used at a cat workshop at HSUS EXPO and I don’t recall the name of the organization or the woman using the term. But it’s a great one and I stole it from her. If she knows who she is, I’d love to credit her!