Social Media and the Death of Animal Shelters

June 23rd, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

The death of brick and mortar book, video, and music stores at the hands of virtual, internet retailers is something we’ve all accepted as a consequence of technological advancement. That one third of US marriages result from online dating no longer seems weird. We’ve even accepted that we can, and will, know every thought in every one of our friends heads as they vomit them out in the social media hive mind for us.

Screen-Shot-2013-11-07-at-5_17_19-PMOne impact of technology and social media which hasn’t been as acknowledged is its impact on animal sheltering. One might not think technology could have as big an impact on animal shelters, but there is no doubt that it has started striking nails into the coffins of animal shelters as surely as Napster and iTunes did in the music industry. The social media, website, and e-commerce revolution which was embraced by an animal sheltering industry which proved to be an early adopter of technology- my animal shelter employed e-newsletters and web based marketing before my local bank did- has ultimately turned around to bite us.

That’s because it is a leveling of the playing field. Just as anyone can now self-publish and sell a book or can record, post, and sell their music, blog commentary (like I’m doing now), making anyone a “writer”, “musician”, or “editorial commentator”, so too can anyone now be a “rescue”. In the same way that the number of books and amount of music has exploded via micro-media outlets, the number of micro-animal rescues has exploded and it’s had the same impacts on brick and mortar shelters that internet based retailers had on brick and mortar stores. That is not to say more means better quality, but there is certainly more.

Like the record industry, most shelters didn’t see it coming and many still haven’t. We were the only game in town. If you wanted a pet and didn’t want to go to a breeder or pet store, you came to us. Chances are there was only one of us in a given county so we had a lock on your business. We could be as nasty as we wanted and have the most ridiculous policies. What were you going to do about it? We were the animal DMV. Granted, we all thought we were doing this for the right reasons and we viewed our monopolies as a grace to you, the ungrateful public who didn’t appreciate our work. While we paid lip service to wanting to “put ourselves out of business”, no one really believed it in our industry.

The worm has turned. With the advent of two way (million way) communications on Facebook, even the old web based pet listings like Petfinder seem quaint, let alone our proprietary websites’ listings. People first posted pictures of animals at shelters whose clocks were ticking down to extermination, and those animals could be rapidly and widely shared, and were almost inevitably adopted. Then people began to realize that if they posted a picture of their own unwanted dog, they could do the same and never have to bring it to a shelter. Then, people began to think, hey, I can set up my own virtual rescue and not even need a building, I can just connect pets and people directly. With the help of the Google, they even began to make it official and filed for 501c3 status and ordered car magnets as the new executive director of Susie Sunshine’s Cute Little Puppy Wuppy Rescue (tax deductible as allowed by law).

The most recent turn was perhaps the least expected. It’s the creation of virtual animal control services, which allow people to post lost and found stray pets on Facebook and rapidly connect finder and losers so that strays never enter shelters. We have a couple locally and I even nominated one for a Red Cross award this year- they won- because they are so effective.

Hell, who needs shelters at all at this point?

Now, I am being very tongue and cheek since, as you may know, I’ve been an advocate for generally napalming the animal sheltering industry as an unsuccessful, self-righteous (and that’s coming from me) wasteland for years. I think this technological revolution is spectacular because it is good- no, great– for animals. It keeps animals in their homes, it gets lost animals back home, and it finds homeless animals new homes better and in greater numbers than ever before. It is the missing component in the old, not quite right but close, animal welfare formulas of the past. It is driving a wave of innovation and of positive reactionary response by shelters which cannot keep on with their old dinosaur ways and policies. It’s leading to smart industry consolidation, as is evidenced by the merger our own organizations and others around the nation. It’s saving lives.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some down sides and unintended consequences. The fracturing of the market has created some losers in the fundraising arena as what was one or a handful of shelters in a region becomes scores or even hundreds. Walk for the Three Legged Black Chihuahuas, anyone? I will bluntly say it dumbs down the quality of professionalism on the whole, since it’s highly unlikely most of the virtual or living room rescues will have career animal welfare, non-profit corporate professionals on staff to answer questions and assist people. Need an answer on how to best donate in support of the cause while maximizing your charitable deduction or detailed information on how to respond to a frivolous neighbor dispute involving your dog? We have someone to answer that. Susie Sunshine probably doesn’t. There’s also a level of transparency and accountability that comes with having a building that is open to the public, as opposed to Susie Sunshine’s garage.

As an organization with brick and mortar shelters, we are part of an industry facing a very real existential crisis. Years ago we had a sense that the decline in animal intake would have an effect on our ability to provide “stock”, i.e. provide adoptable pets, because the industry was based on having an overabundance of supply for the demand, being able to select the “best” for adoption, and having the ability- while calling it the responsibility and necessity– to kill the rest.

What do we do when fewer animals are surrendered and those are increasingly the ones with health or behavioral problems or history of aggression, the ones Susie Sunshine won’t take? What do we do when even strays, which were secretly the bread and butter of adoption pools since it was likely that the only thing “wrong” with them was that they wandered off, and that was nothing that a good testicular intervention wouldn’t fix, are being syphoned off by social media lost and found groups?

Well, I guess I should say what are they going to do? We decided years ago, having seen this trend before we were even clear on why it was a trend, that we’d create intervention programs to allow us to fix the broken pets that came to us so they could be adopted and, better yet, to keep the most broken out of our shelters in the first place. Through intervention and relinquishment prevention programs, and most prominently through our public veterinary programs, we have avoided going the way of Sammy Goody’s Music, Blockbuster Video, and B. Dalton Books. Others have not been so lucky.

I guess the question is, will our brethren in the brick and mortar animal shelter industry recognize the death of their industry model and that a new industry paradigm rules the kingdom?

The King is dead. Long live the King.

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