Animal shelters face two big challenges:
Space-constraints and under-funding
Finding good homes for animals
During lockdowns, without visitors to take care of animals, many shelters came up with the idea of letting animals who are stable enough be fostered temporarily by their followers. This could also be a viable backup when it comes to freeing up space for new arrivals at the shelter particularly at peak times where animals are abandoned or abused.
From the fosterers’ perspective, they are not only happy to help out the shelter, but many use this experience to gauge whether they are ready/able to adopt their own pet.
In terms of 2) there are many problems with the traditional system of people showing up to shelters and making a spur-of-the-moment decision on whether, and which pet, to adopt, without adequate knowledge of a pet’s needs or ill preparation at home resulting in many pets end up being mistreated, unwanted gifts, or abandoned when people’s lifestyles change.
Why not formalise all of the above into a process to mitigate these adoption risk factors and also help out shelters with space constraints?
Stage 1: Structured vetting/preparation. (Mandatory for would-be fosterers and adopters)
Objectives - ensure the potential fosterer is safe and capable of owning the pet
Stage 2: Fostering trial period (Mandatory for would-be permanent adopters)
Objective: Prevent spur-of-the-moment decisions, see how the animal fits into a potential new home, owners experience the new lifestyle with the pet day-by-day over at least several days if not a week or two, and are encouraged to treat this as a trial period and return the animals to the shelter if things are not working out rather than feel obligated to keep an unwanted pet who might end up becoming mistreated/neglected/abandoned.
Stage 3: Adoption: Aside from the vetting, before adopting new owners would first have to sign an agreement form that in the instance of mistreatment/neglect the animal will be removed from their care even if they are legally the owner and that they may face prosecution.
Detailed breakdown of Vetting/preparation mechanisms in Stage 1
Time spent with animals at the shelter:
Observation Employees’ observe potential fosterers/owners and their interactions with animals. (Animal livestream cameras can also double as security footage here.)
Minimum Duration - Would-be fosterers/adopters must spend a minimum number of hours with animals in the shelter, over a minimum number of days (preventing same-day adoptions).
Children would not be allowed to adopt (though they are encouraged to visit and play with the animals and learn about the responsibility of owning a pet and their treatment of/interaction with animals is also monitored.)They could still do the tests and be part of initiatives that spread awareness to young kids at schools about proper animal care, but their parents/guardians would still have to be properly vetted and observed if the family actually wants to foster a pet.
2. Interviewing: All adults in a household ultimately responsible for the pet’s care are briefly interviewed about their plans/responsibilities to take care of the pet to ensure they have given thought, preparation and AGREEMENT to this decision.
3. Training: Shelter Employees train potential owner/fosterer in a crash course on :
General cat/dog/etc care and communication behaviours: Some examples of this are teaching how cats’ body language differs to dogs’ if they have only owned dogs, proper humane ways to train/discipline an animal and fixing misinformation about pets which causes their neglect and mistreatment. For pet novices there are a wealth of easily accessible sources like Jackson Galaxy to draw on showing how important understanding animal behaviour is.
Breed-specific care: Some examples highlighting this importance- Husky Rescue have to teach people you should never shave double-coated dogs, my sister learned about care for dalmatians in sunny climates to prevent sunburn and reduce risk of developing skin cancer.
Animal socialisation, child-safety, animal-handling by children
Individual pet care - Information on the would-be adoptee’s temperament, medical needs, other needs, eg past trauma etc.
4. Competency tests after the training (potentially even quick verbal quizzes )
5. Q&A Opportunity for would-be owners to sense-check any assumptions/hearsay with the shelter experts/handlers and potential myths debunked.
Aside from the enforcement procedures ideally this should also provide the right incentives:
Responsible potential owners/families would be encouraged by the proper preparation and training, due to the fostering do not have to commit upfront and have far more certainty of their decision when/if they adopt.
People or families unprepared/unagreed on the responsibilities will become aware of this responsibility and required effort through the vetting/training process.
Potential owners unwilling to take responsibility will be less likely to sign that they will be held accountable for mistreating an animal.
Shelters could develop their own more specialised policies within this framework, eg a shelter for dogs suffering trauma, elderly dogs or dogs of a specific need or breed might customise their policies and observations specifically for this.
For example Husky Rescue has frequent dog-walking events volunteers can go on, which also helps educate people of how high Huskies' exercise needs are. Routines for the animal's care could be incorporated as part of a shelter's own observation process.