I walk over to the couple who are peeking at the animal inside a cage. The cat’s arm reaches out and paws at the man’s fingers.
“Are you looking to adopt a cat today?” I ask.
The answer is either something like, “No, we’re just looking,” in which case I smile politely and say, “Okay, let me know if you have any questions” and walk away. People sometimes just want to look a cute animals, and that’s fine. Or, the answer is, “yes” and that’s when I kick into the role of Car Saleswoman. Or rather, Cat Saleswoman.
My job when volunteering in the adoption center of an animal shelter, is to play match maker for humans and animals. I want adopters to walk away with a feline that is the right fit for their home and lifestyle, and has the least likely chance of being returned. (Yes, even shelter animals have a return policy.)
Yet, as much as the job is like setting two people up on a date, it’s also a lot like selling a car. I find myself using many of the same techniques, except that the “product” I’m selling is a living, breathing being.
For instance, everyone loves kittens, but many people don’t realize how much work they are. Everyone knows that a puppy needs to be trained, needs to go outside every few hours to go to the bathroom, and are only slightly less work than a human child. But not everyone knows that kittens are also work. Sure, they go to the bathroom in a box, and generally it’s not something that needs to be taught, but kittens need tons of playtime, are often up at all hours of the night, get into everything, and need to be trained just like puppies. Otherwise, that kitten grows up and around 6 months of age, becomes a bratty, out of control teenager. Plus, with a kitten, you really don’t have a sense of its personality until about 8 months.
“Well if you’re looking for a specific traits in a cat, you’d be better off looking at a slightly older cat,” I say to the couple, pointing to our adults*.
*This is not to say I don’t want kittens to get adopted. I do. Every cat needs a home. But for every kitten there are ten people wanting to adopt it, whereas adults sometimes have to wait weeks or even months before they get a taker. Which is why most of our adoption volunteers focus on “selling” the adults. If an adopter is set on a kitten, we do our best to match them with the right kitten.
I quickly list off all the benefits of having an older cat. “They generally sleep at night; they don’t require as much attention, so if you’re at work all day, they won’t get into trouble while you’re gone; you know what cat you’re getting, unlike with a kitten.”
All of this gets tailored to what the couple is looking for, of course: a lap cat, an active cat, an independent cat, a mellow cat, a shy cat. (Obviously active cats need playtime regardless of their age! Smirnoff likes to remind me of this by knocking things off shelves when he’s bored.)
The couple eyes a rambunctious ten-month-old and asks if they can visit. But they said they were looking for an affectionate, calm cat. But since they asked, I set them up with the older kitten in a visiting run and leave them be for a while.
I come back. “How’s it going?” There is some general agreement that it’s going well. Kittens are fun.
“You know, I think we have a cat that’s just what you’re looking for. She’s a bit older—she’s five—but she has all the traits you said you wanted.”
Let’s call this hypothetical five-year-old cat Lola. Now, deep down I know that Lola is the perfect match. She’s been at the shelter for over a month and keeps getting overlooked, but for no good reason. She’s a great cat—there’s no catch. But she’s about four years, two months older than what the couple came in for, so it will take some convincing.
“Why don’t I just bring her over so you can spend some time with her and at least get a sense of what a cat like her would be like. So you have a comparison.”
I return ten minutes later to see how things are going. The couple likes Lola, but they aren’t sure. They just don’t feel a connection. That’s fine. (After all, I want people to genuinely like the cat they adopt!) So I bring out another cat who is somewhere in between Lola and the ten-month-old, let’s say he’s three, slightly more active than Lola, but calmer than the kitten. His name is Ralph.
The couple love Ralph. He hasn’t been at the shelter as long as Lola, but still a couple weeks. He was never going to have a huge trouble getting adopted, but after the couple falls in love and asks for the paperwork, that’s another adult cat out the door. As for the ten-month-old, he gets adopted an hour later anyway. So that’s two cats out the door instead of one. Lola will have to wait a while longer, but the right person will come in eventually. And it’s my job to find them.
A True Situation
A couple came in looking for a third cat. They had two cats, one was active and one wasn’t so much, and while the cats got along, they felt a third cat was needed to balance it out.
It was getting later in the adoption day, and I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t asked. I wracked my brains for a second, running through all of the playgroup cats—the ones we know do well with other cats—but most of them had been adopted earlier that week.
Then it was like a light bulb went off in my head. A true a-ha moment. “I know the perfect cat!” I had to stop myself from shouting it, but I’m sure the adopters saw the look of enlightenment on my face.
“Lance! He’s three, he does great with other animals, and we want him to go home to other animals, and he’s active but not ridiculously playful and can be affectionate and mellow too!”
Lance was a cat that had done very poorly at our shelter when he came in. He was brought upstairs for an office foster and still did poorly. You couldn’t even touch the guy. He hissed and was generally unsocial from fear. Then our volunteer coordinator brought him home to foster and he turned into a completely different cat. He loved her other animals. He gave head butts. He was so great that the foster mom almost wanted to keep him, but knew he’d now find a home of his own. He had been brought back to the shelter a couple days previous and was back in the upstairs office. I hadn’t seen him yet; I just heard of his progress from other volunteers.
“Let me take you up.”
It was love at first sight. Lance was in there with a volunteer, and he came right up to greet us as we entered the room. He rolled over for belly rubs. He was charming as a cat can be. Ten minutes later, he was being adopted.
I went back downstairs to get the paperwork and the other volunteers and staff could barely believe me when I said he was going home that day. We thought he’d take ages to find the right home. Lance is a great cat. But there was a lot of concern about him. Then the perfect adopters came in, the match was made, and the rest is history.
I left that day feeling like I’d made one of the biggest sales of my life.
I love working the adoption floor. I love playing matchmaker. And yes, that does mean breaking out the sales pitch techniques sometimes. Some days I start with a goal of getting a certain cat adopted. Sometimes I succeed. Other days I don’t. But it’s not about forcing older, harder to adopt animals on people. As I said before, I don’t want that animal returned, and I want people to love their new animals. But the other volunteers (and staff) and I know these cats, and it’s easy to fall in love with the one who’s banging on its cage door. But that might not be the cat best suited for the adopter, and it’s my job to find out what an adopter really wants, and sometimes that means challenging what they think they want.
On the other side of it, there’s a rush when someone walks in the door and you realize that they are perfect for that cat who has been waiting months to find a home. And you very carefully construct your conversations and interactions with that person until they come to realize on their own, that it’s the perfect match. Because at the end of the day, I’m actually a Person Saleswoman. I work for the cats, and I’m always on the lookout for the home that the cat wants.
Sometimes it’s tricky. I’ve learned when to be slightly pushy with people and when to back off. There have been times I’ve gotten so excited about a human–cat match that I’ve scared the adopter away because they didn’t feel like it was their decision. That I was forcing the cat on them. But I’ve learned. I’ve picked up new techniques. I’ve got it down to a strange sort of science. I could probably go get a job at a used car lot if I wanted to. (I don’t.)
Every time I work in adoption, I put on the role of Cat Salesman and I go to work. When a cat gets adopted, there is no commission. I’m not making any money. A shelter is a business and its “products” are living creatures, and that’s never forgotten. When I make a good “sale”—a good adoption—I get the thrill of knowing that a wonderful cat is spending the night, and every night thereafter, in a home, not a cage. And that’s way better than money.