The Business of Animal Sheltering
An animal shelter is, in fact, a business. (Arguably, a public service. But we’ll go with business for now.) There is “product” (the animals), that people pay for (the adoption fee), and the business is interested in creating high turnover and “moving” product (adoptions).
An animal shelter is unique, however, in that the shelter often puts way more money into its products than it earns back from actually selling them. Often times, one particular item (say, a sick or injured dog) will cost the shelter a lot more money than another animal, but ultimately all the product will be sold at the advertised price regardless (i.e. an injured dog that costs the shelter $1,000 in vet care will be sold for $200, while a dog that came in healthy and was already neutered and cost the shelter only $60 in vaccinations will also be sold for $200).
Sometimes a shelter asks for more money based on age (puppies and kittens are sometimes more expensive than adults). This is true at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, but untrue at Best Friends in LA. Even then, a kitten who needs a fracture repair will still be sold at the same price as a healthy kitten, so the price scale is very rigid. But since puppies and kittens get adopted at a much faster rate, and (generally) cost the shelter less in vet care, the money the shelter makes on those animals helps to off-set the cost of the older animals that the shelter loses money on (the senior cat who stays for seven months before being adopted and needs medication).
It seems a little weird when you think about an animal shelter this way: in cost and product. But the fact is, even though almost all shelters (if not 100% of them) are non-profit, they still need to be able to pay for things and not go into debt, and therefore must be able to function as a business, albeit most of their revenue comes from donations and grants.
Another unique thing about an animal shelter though, is that the product is living creatures. Creatures that get sick, or have quirks, or have special needs. This makes everything quite unpredictable. Even an animal that seems to behave perfectly and is in wonderful health can suddenly become ill or develop behavioral issues once it’s in someone’s home. Animal shelters do their best to tell people everything they know about an individual animal, but often times they don’t know the animal’s past, and because an animal shelter is such a bizarre environment, an animal may not act the same or even show the same health signs as it would in a home setting*.
*It’s important to keep in mind though, that this is really true of animals in general, and not just the shelters. There are plenty of horror stories about people buying animals from pet stores and ending up with huge vet bills. Even animals purchased from small-scale high-quality breeders can still develop health or behavioral issues.
The point I’m getting at (or at least trying to get at), is that in an animal shelter, there’s no such thing as “bad product”. Even an animal with behavioral or medical concerns can be wonderful, loving pets. In fact, often times they’re more wonderful and more loving, because taking care of their special needs creates a stronger bond. And even a dog in “mint condition” can get sick or develop issues further down the line.
The Heart of Animal Sheltering
My favorite cat at Best Friends LA right now is Kirby. He’s fourteen, has three teeth, arthritis, and recently developed a skin issue (most likely some type of stress-induced allergies). He’s somewhat lethargic. He doesn’t play with toys. He doesn’t make a fuss when a younger cat gets in his face. He lets you pick him up and flop him onto your lap.
He purrs when you pet him. When you brush him and wipe down his fur and give a little relief to his scabs, he gives you a look of deep gratitude.
The shelter takes good care of Kirby, even though he’s only going to lose them money. Their loss, but also their gain, because he’s a wonderful cat.
And maybe one day soon, some kind soul will take pity on this cat in less-than-mint condition. And when they do, they can pay the full price for him. Because he’s worth it.