Survey Finds Young Adults Overlook Animal Shelters

Thursday, August 8, 2013
Kellie Gormly
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Donnie Gallagher grew up in a family that bred and purchased beagles for hunting purposes. But, after doing volunteer work with organizations that help homeless animals, he decided to adopt his pets from shelters or rescues.

“I grew up with purebreds in my home,” says Gallagher, 26, of Mt. Washington. “But ... seeing shelters — after that, for me, there's no other choice” but adoption.

Gallagher's pet lineup includes beagle-mix Baxter and 4 cats: former semiferals Gypsy and Mocha; and Knight and Tex, who were rescued from shelters. He has worked with Tarentum-based Homeless Cat Management Team and Frankie's Friends Cat Rescue, and helped the organizations with trapping feral cats and adopting pet cats.

With some 9,000 cats and dogs dying in shelters every day, according to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, animal shelters and rescues have spent years trying to raise awareness about the value of adopting an animal versus buying one from a breeder or pet store. Yet, according to a new survey from the no-kill, Utah-based Best Friends, only 31 percent of young people in Gallagher's age range (18 to 34) were likely to consider a shelter adoption, compared to 46 percent who likely would purchase their pet from a breeder or store.

The survey of 1,000 people nationwide also showed misconceptions among young adults about rescue pets: Nearly 40 percent of the respondents didn't believe shelter animals faced the risk of euthanasia. And 46 percent saw shelter animals as second-rate pets compared to a cat or dog from a breeder.

“It was a surprise to us,” says John Polis, senior manager of public relations at Best Friends, about the survey's results. “You often think that the younger (people) are on the cutting edge to do things a better way.

“For this to come back in a survey tells us we've got more work to do, to let people know that adoption is the best option for people who want (pets). The option is around the corner for them,” Polis says. “There's a beautiful animal right down the street at your shelter, and a lot of people don't (adopt).”

PetSmart Charities® found similar results in another survey the Phoenix-based company conducted in 2009 and 2011. When asked how many shelter animals are euthanized annually in America, 88 percent of respondents underestimated the number, which is an estimated 3 million to 4 million. The average estimate from survey respondents was 1.2 million, with 500,000 the most common estimate, says Kelly Campbell, senior manager of knowledge and research for PetSmart Charities.

Although the survey did not categorize for age, anecdotally, Campbell has observed that “younger people were more likely to believe that pets stayed in shelters until they found a home and are not vulnerable to euthansia.”

Young people often view shelter pets like used cars: You never know what you're going to get and what issues they have.

“It breaks my heart every time I see it,” says Campbell, who falls in that age category. “There some wonderful, wonderful pets in shelters.”

Many younger people view shelter pets as “damaged goods” and think they can only find mixed breeds there. But an estimated 25 percent of shelter dogs are purebreds, according to the Humane Society of the United States, and many rescue groups focus on a specific breed, like Siamese cats and German shepherd dogs.

“That perfect pet is just one that takes to you,” Polis says.

Gretchen Fieser, spokeswoman for the North Side-based Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, says the shelter currently has more than 400 cats, about 100 dogs, and more than 100 animals each in foster care and at off-site adoption places. She and her colleagues felt surprised and disappointed by the Best Friends survey results.

“All shelters across the country are so wrapped up in trying to encourage people to adopt,” Fieser says. “It's disheartening that the youngest generation — the most plugged-in generation in terms of communications — are more likely to purchase instead of adopt.”

Fieser and Polis say it's sad that people think shelter animals have flaws and are inferior to purebreds from a store or breeder. The vast majority of animals that end up surrendered to shelters lost their homes because the owners were moving, allergic or just unable to care for their pets, Fieser says.

“Every person that I know of has had somebody break up with them — a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a best friend,” she says. “The same is true for these animals. Just because somebody broke up with them, it doesn't mean they're less worthy. … The idea that they are damaged goods is false.”

In the digital age, shelters and rescues put out plenty of information, but they need to figure out how to reach more young people, Polis says.

“We're trying to see what we can do about making our message a little stronger to young folks,” he says. “It's not just the younger generation. It's letting everybody within a five-mile radius of a shelter know that there are wonderful animals available for adoption.”

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