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When Fees Break Hearts

An owner does not have the funds to reclaim his beloved dogs from your shelter… Dr. Emily Weiss wants to know how your organization would handle this situation.


A few weeks ago a news story came out as a ‘feel good’ piece around the holidays. The gist of it goes like this—an older veteran who is financially insecure has a significant heart attack, and his dogs end up becoming custody of the shelter. After a lengthy recovery, the man finds his dogs still at the shelter but does not have the necessary funds to adopt his dogs back. So a couple of folks associated with the shelter raise the money, and he is reunited with his dogs in a heartwarming video.

A colleague sent me the story along with this note, “The man is a veteran with very little, and these dogs are his whole world! Why didn’t they give him his dogs back immediately?” I suspect that the fees somehow had become a proxy for how much someone cares or is able to care for… And with a focus on the dogs, it was likely difficult for the shelter to shift the focus to that human and see how priceless waiving the fees could be.

The idea that paying a fee somehow increases the likelihood someone will care or do right by their pet is an idea without data to support it. In fact, we know that in the realm of adoptions, waiving the fee has no impact on attachment, nor does it change the likelihood that the owner will bring the pet to the vet, get him vaccinated, or even determine where the pet sleeps in the home (most sleep in our bedrooms)!

But this should be even clearer with someone who already owns the pet and is actively working to be reunited with that pet.

While the example I used above is an extreme (but unfortunately real) example, it is not uncommon for fees to restrict a person from being able to be reunited with his or her dog or cat. Return-to-owner fees can be quite pricey – and for those living in poverty, raising that type of cash can be an insurmountable obstacle. Here—right here—we have a chance to leapfrog to our collective goal of a more humane and just world. We can choose to break two hearts, or we can choose to waive the fees and reunite a family.

When asked why not waive fees, the responses I have heard tend to be either that the dog/cat cost money each day he is there, so the fees are needed to recoup revenue, or that the fees will essentially work as a motivator next time so that the person is less likely to be ‘irresponsible.’

The first argument regarding revenue—while high fees can sure help with revenue, the cost to care for that pet if the person does not reclaim him is certainly higher than the loss of the fees.

The second argument makes me curl into a ball and rock a bit. Many of us have lost a pet—it can happen in a blink of an eye, and it can happen for all sorts of reasons. Our research on lost pets found that the majority of folks who lost a pet did not anticipate their pet could get lost in that manner. Shifting from a penalizing system for those who have lost their pet to a supportive system designed to ensure pets and their people are reunited may mean that a small portion of fees must be generated in another area of the system. But for organizations whose mission includes such words and phrases as “compassionate,” “save more lives” or “humane community,” it seems prudent to move to such a system.


How does your organization handle situations like the one I describe above? We would love to hear your thoughts.


Related Links

Blog: “Who Needs Shelter and Who Just Needs a Helping Hand?”
Tools: Safety Net Programs

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