Better Than Free - Shel’s Rebuttal to Sue

Price is a signal, a story, a situational decision that is never absolute. It’s just part of what goes into making a decision, no matter what we’re buying. Seth Godin

I’ve written before about why I think ‘bargain’ rescue pets are a bad idea, but respected rescuer Sue Cosby has put together three essays on why we should not only allow discounts, but where necessary give pets away for free.

Discounted adoption fees can help dramatically boost attention for the shelter and the animals and help sustain higher rates of lifesaving.

I first read about discounted adoption fees when I saw a small story, years ago, about a little shelter.  When they were so overcrowded and were facing a mass killing they decided to do “free” cat adoptions for one weekend.

What happened?  They had an empty shelter by the end of the weekend.  They were shocked and amazed.  They never expected that sort of community support.  They had never expected that much interest in their animals and they were relieved that the killing was abated for the time being.

What I’ve discovered is that instead of trying to compete with the breeder or pet store, we are often competing just as much with “free” pets from friends and neighbors.

So what could be bad about such amazingly great results in the face of high kill rates? What’s bad, and why I respectfully disagree with Sue’s take on free pets, is that chasing the ‘FTGH’ market not only limits our operations by making every adoption a complete financial loss, but that free pets aren’t very attractive to the majority of the pet owning public.

Do we really think FTGH are underselling us?

People purchase pets for many different reasons, but the type of pet they purchase always comes back to one motivation; their perception of who they think they are.

Most people get a pet free because that’s how they’ve always done it. No amount of pet shop pizazz or purebred promises are going to attract them or change their world view on what pet ownership is about. Pets just aren’t something you pay for.

But here’s the kicker;

Even if you compete directly with these free pet ads and drop your price to $0.00 - you’re still not going to get them to adopt from you. Why? Because you have to see yourself as ’someone who would own a rescue pet’ before you’ll adopt. And that has nothing to do with price and everything to do with perception of self.

You can’t be everything to everyone (or why people buy from rescue groups)

People adopt a rescue because they want to feel good about saving a life. Because the prices are cheaper than pet shops and breeders. Because they’ve had adopted in the past and would like to do so again. Because it’s a trendy thing to do that they can tell their friends about. Because they’ve heard about rescues on the internet and are intrigued. Because their friends have adopted and they’d like to follow suit. And/or because they don’t want to raise a baby pet.

Very, very, very rarely - maybe so rarely as to happen nearly never at all - would the reason be ‘because rescue pets are free’.

So what happens to the ‘pet shop set’ when we give our pets away FTGH?

For every FTGH pet purchaser, there a dozen people who can both afford to pay for their pet and who would never consider a free to good home ad. They might adopt from us if we made them our target, told a story that appealed to their world view. Except the story we’ve chosen to tell is that our pets are free! And what does this potential adopter think?

Free? Only faulty things are free. Or common things. Things that nobody wants. I don’t want a free pet - I want a great pet. I’ll just pay for one thanks…

The story you tell about your pets is everything. These people don’t see themselves as someone who would get a pet for ‘free’. Their perception of what it is to be a pet owner includes ‘good things cost more’.

But it works! Doesn’t it?

Sure, if you have a giant, media-driven campaign promoting your ‘Free Pet Drive’ you’ll likely empty your shelter. But chances are if you had ANY giant media campaign, based on any promotion or open day you’ll see a surge in adoptions.

However, by offering our pets for free, our rescues fail to make any sort of profit on adoptions and see us out of pocket a couple of hundred of dollar each time we do ‘business’ (at least the cost of desexing). And those other pet owners; the ones who would have happily paid your adoption costs should you have told the right story? They’re completely turned off because you’ve not told a story that’s about their perceptions of themselves.

Better than free

We shouldn’t be looking to lower our cost - we should be working to increase our value. And we do that by focusing on the huge ancillary benefits of adopting. We need to tell the story that each and every adopter is a hero. We have to sell our rescues as a resource for pet owners, able to offer a personal appraisal and pet matchmaking service. We’re need to emphasise that our pets come temperament tested, vet checked and with a lifetime returns policy.

Sure, making our story about ‘free’ is much simpler, more immediate and takes much less effort. But if we’re truly interested in growing our industry then we have to do away with the crutch that is ‘the free pet’.


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7 Responses to “Better Than Free - Shel’s Rebuttal to Sue”

  1. I am working on my own post later, but my basic thesis is that every shelter in every community has to figure out the right messages for its individual situation.

    My first dog was a working dog. My grandfather operated a small farm, and he got a dog and her puppy from another farmer. Their purpose was to work with him. He took both female animals to the vet to have them altered. The puppy, unfortunately, died during the surgery. This was around 1970. I suspect he paid for them.

    My first cat was the offspring of a feral who had kittens in the dog house and was chased off by the dog, who by this time had become a family companion rather than a worker. (When my grandfather died, she attached herself to me.)

    Since then, I got one cat from a friend who’d been feeding him as a stray and was afraid he wouldn’t survive on city streets; one from a mobile adoption unit ($30 of the $42 I then had to my name); and two from vets’ offices. I got my dog from the SPCA while I was volunteering there. ($150)

    My mindset is that when there’s a slot open for a pet, I put out my “available” vibe, and I’ll pay whatever the cost involved to get the one that stumbles across my path. (Since I’ve worked or volunteered in a shelter for the past 5 years, this is usually the shelter!) A friend is now taking care of a stray she found pregnant - a super-sweet dog, eight puppies on the way. I’m VERY tempted. The decision will not be affected by whether it’s “free to good home” or “I really need you to chip in some of the vet costs I’ve incurred here.”

    In San Francisco, the pricing issue unfortunately stands in for a class issue. A local organization helps support disabled and terminally ill people in the care of their pets; yet, since they don’t cover adoption fees, and the agencies refuse to waive them, many people are deprived of these pets. If they adopt a FTGH pet, they’re covered.

    At other agencies, high prices are attached to pure breed dogs dumped off after breeders have refused to pick up buyers’ medical costs. The logic - the people who adopt these dogs must “prove” their ability to pay future medical costs, i.e, it’s a screen for people with money. Speaking personally, I’ve spent thousands - thousands - on my elderly pets, but would probably not have been in a position to cough up $2,500 for an adoption at the time I got them as youngsters.

  2. “Growing our industry?”


    Nobody here sees a problem with that mindset?

  3. sue_cosby says:

    By growing our industry, knowing shel’s writing, I’m sure she means improving the professionalism of our lifesaving efforts and increasing our “market share” (i.e. more people choosing to adopt a homeless animal rather than getting one from another means) so I don’t have a problem with it in this context.

    I do think though, that until you have been faced with choosing which healthy animal (or animals) must die that day in order to “make space” for more … you truly can’t appreciate the feeling of urgency to find homes for these animals and thus appreciate discounted or free adoption fees and other ideas. In response to that urgency you either start thinking out of the box or you give in to the philosophical black hole of “there are too many animals and not enough homes” which washes you of any responsibility for the deaths.

  4. Lynn Orbison says:

    What can we do to “shrink their industry?” as much as we “grow” ours?!

    Low cost spays and neuters is a really good idea. But I know vets who refuse to participate as they say it just supports sloppy pet ownership and the “cheap” pet mentality.

    I know people who won’t take their dog to the pound to be euthanized for free, but prefer to take it to a vet and pay $120 for the service. Fine. Okay. It’s their money. Used to be that our pound wouldn’t let you be there with your animal when it was euthanized. THAT rule was because a local vet complained that the government was competing unfairly with local business.

    This is not just an adoption issue…and I really appreciate the discussion. Thank you all.

  5. shel says:

    >>> … and thus appreciate discounted or free adoption fees and other ideas.

    Totally get you. And part of what we do in No Kill is exactly that; you try EVERYTHING. That’s the point.

    But! We have to be aware that the $0.00 fee is an example of ‘disaster response marketing’. Like the animal shelter that burns down, but then has a rush on for ‘the smokey kittens’ and adopts 200 overnight, it’s a temporary demand for a publicised and very particular set of animals.

    If I want a smokey cat that I saw being carried out by a fireman but can’t because they’re all adopted, it doesn’t translate into “I’ll just adopt another shelter cat from you later”. Because it’s all about that particular animal and that particular event.

    So I guess I’m just saying don’t make ‘free’ a cornerstone of your practices because it turns people off in the long run. And if you’re ALWAYS at bursting point, it would be very easy to addicted to its simplicity; Here. Take them….

    But consistently great service? That gives you repeat business. An attractive, pleasant environment? That gives you word of mouth. Allowing people to share in your joys, reminding your adopters that they are in fact ‘heroes’ and promoting your happily-ever-after adoption stories…

    … now that gives people the emotional payoff they need to want to be a part of your ‘rescue family’ time and time again.

  6. Lynn Orbison says:

    I just wanted to comment about Shel’s statement: “free pets aren’t very attractive to the majority of the pet owning public.”

    How do you know this?! I read somewhere else (on this site or another like it) that more people get their pets from a friend or a family member or through a free ad somewhere rather than from a shelter.

    I did a personal inventory and here’s what I came up with:

    Right now there are 32 dogs in my care.

    Nine of them are boarding, of those nine, five are rescues and four were purposely and specifically bred and are still wanted by their breeders. (Three are pups, one is a 10 year old stud dog.) I didn’t pay for any of them, so they are ALL free to me! (Actually, these boarders are the subsidized dogs…)

    I have 11 “rescues” here currently—some of these are foster dogs looking for new homes, some of them are my personal pets. Some of them are in rehab, some of them are geriatric ALL of them were “FREE” (and I could have two hundred more free dogs if I were willing to take them….sigh.)

    I have three dogs here that I consider myself to have been the “breeder.” One of them is a “return” as every animal I rehome comes with a lifetime take-back guarantee. I actually have five dogs here right now that qualify as returns.

    I have four dogs that were “gifts”…which is another way of saying that they were free rescues like all the rest, except that the breeder could have sold the dogs for big bucks to others but chose to give them to me for free because I wanted them, I love them, and they wanted the dogs to be happy and healthy and safe. Three of these dogs are 12 years old, one is a return that is 11 years old.

    I shipped a foster dog that I got for free three years ago to a home in the midwest this morning. I waived the adoption fee and paid the shipping charges out of pocket because the adopter WANTED the dog! He’ll take good care of her, he’ll love her and appreciate her, and now I’ve got room to help another.

    I have adopted a few dogs from the shelter. Since my vet is my sponsor I get low-cost spay-neuter services and I can basically adopt intact animals from the shelter for $35 which is the cost of the rabies shot and the microchip. One of them died, another was recently adopted, although I haven’t see the adoption fee paid yet. One of my returns is a 13 year old shelter dog that I fostered and then pulled through a rescue organization, rehomed, and then took back when it didn’t work out. She was posted on the shelter website as 5 years old but we’re thinking by tracing her microchip that she was probably eight or nine years old at least when she was first relinquished…that was five years ago.

    People choose pets (or working dogs) based on their “story” as much as anything. Around here, it used to be that dogs at the pound were considered “junk” or “trash” …unwanted and therefore no good. Lots of volunteers have pitched in to evaluate and market these dogs, and perceptions are changing. But, um, you can still get a free dog for a lot cheaper than the pound, and you don’t have to go through the hassel of paperwork, and paying spay/neuter fees either!

    Also, I’ve had adopters lined up and had the pound adopt out from under me several times. Granted, if I coughed up the cash to adopt outright and then rehome, I wouldn’t have that problem, but, well, there are so many “free” dogs available I really don’t NEED to play at the pound!

    I disagree completely that free pets aren’t attractive to the pet owning public. They are indeed! And they are usually intact and therefore a HUGE reproductive liability which is why our industry is growing with or without us! I know several local rescue groups that responds to FTGH ads for puppies and kittens and offers to take them all in order to get them altered before being placed. Puppies and kittens can command an adoption fee…the adult dogs that are FTGH are maybe harder to place, but sometimes they’re also spayed or neutered already, and thus their current owners can present the best “story” to find them a new home.

    I agree completely with Shel on her comments about great service. I’ve had adopters come back to me five or ten years later looking for another animal. I do a lot of repeat business. I also have had people who don’t want, can’t afford, or don’t have space for an animal donate to the rescue group that I volunteer for simply because they wanted to support the work we are doing. Money is NOT the issue…the story is the issue. And if people think that only “problem” dogs go to the pound…then they don’t want to shop there. (Unless they’re shopping for a problem…)

  7. Tracy says:

    I was actually wondering about this just the other day…

    Why do shelters need to compete with “free to good home” ads?

    Aren’t FTGH ad’s from people who have had “oops” litters or have gotten pets that they no longer can care for? Shouldn’t shelters be helping these people, not trying to compete with them? In the end, these animals are much like the ones currently in shelters, just their owners have not relinquished them yet.

    I can see trying to persuade people to adopt rather than shop, but I’ve considered animals that were “boughten” for free from a FTGH ad as having been “rescued” in the past. Isn’t that kind of like saying shelters should compete with other rescues?

    I’ve seen many FTGH ad’s on places like Craig’s list before that I’ve considered desperate folk just trying to get their pet a new home without having to take it to a pound first. I can’t help but feel sorry for them…

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