One of my friends recently made a Facebook post about visiting an animal shelter and looking at the animals available for adoption. She was sad that the adoption fee was unaffordable for her, but she shrugged it off and went on her way. Some of her friends, on the other hand, started on tirades of “righteous” outrage over how expensive it is to adopt a pet. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that kind of stuff, but this time I decided I’d had enough. It was time for a reality check.
As a person who has rescued and provided responsible care for cats for my entire adult life, and who has volunteered on the fundraising committee at an animal shelter, I have many things to say on this subject, all of which are based on real-life experience.
I’ll start with a hypothetical situation: Let’s say that I’ve got my heart set on bringing a kitten into my life. I’m going to choose between adopting one from a shelter or getting a free kitten from a family down the street. So I check out my local animal shelter and find out that if I want to adopt a baby kitten, it’ll cost $125, but if I’m willing to accept a slightly older kitten (7 to 12 months), it’ll cost $99.
"Well," I might think if I didn’t know better, "why should I pay all that money when my neighbors are giving kittens away?" But because I do know better, I’d take a minute to consider the expenses involved in providing responsible care for my new kitten.
First, the obvious: I’d need to have my free kitten spayed. The last time I paid to have a cat spayed, in 1996, it cost me $175, so even if I paid $125 to adopt a cat from the shelter, I’d already be $50 ahead.
But my free kitten would also need her rabies and distemper shots ($65), and she’d need to be tested for leukemia and FIV ($45). Of course, virtually all kittens are born with roundworms, so she’d need to be dewormed ($25). She’d probably have ear mites and fleas, too, so treating those conditions would cost another $65. If I wanted to have her microchipped and get her chip registered, that would cost another $45.
All told, my "free" kitten would cost me about $465 in the first six months.
Of course, if my free kitten developed an upper respiratory infection, I could expect to pay at least another $110 for the vet visit and antibiotics.
On the other hand, the shelter adoption fee of $125 covers all of that.
Seems like a no-brainer to me.
Now, let’s talk about the cost of running a shelter that has an actual facility and a staff of, say, four full-time employees and a couple of part-timers. You have to factor in salaries (keep in mind here that animal shelter workers are not paid very well) and payroll taxes. A lot of small shelters don’t offer benefits — not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t afford to. That means no health insurance, no 401(k), no nothing. Not even for the executive director.
Then there’s the rent or mortgage. Utility bills are a huge expense: Any time you have a large facility that needs to be heated or air conditioned day and night, every day of the year, you can count on monthly electric bills that run into the high hundreds, if not thousands, each month. Then there’s water, sewer, phone, Internet, vet bills, food, laundry, cleaning supplies, computers, maintenance … and so on.
So, just keeping the doors open and the lights on is a very expensive proposition and constitutes a huge part of an animal shelter’s budget. Those costs can, and often do, exceed salaries and payroll taxes by a pretty large margin.
Now that you’ve got some idea how much it costs to run a shelter, it should be pretty obvious that you can’t pay for all that stuff with bake sales and craft fairs.
Private shelters — those not run by towns or cities — don’t receive state, federal, or municipal funding. If they agree to take in pets found by animal control officers, they might get a tiny fee for that, but nowhere near enough to cover the cost of sheltering that animal.
Even if a shelter has "Humane Society" or "SPCA" in its name, that doesn’t mean it receives financial support from the ASPCA or the Humane Society of the United States. Although a shelter may occasionally get grants from those organizations, it receives no regular support from them. It’s kind of like running a McDonald’s franchise: You get to use the name McDonald’s, but you don’t get checks from McDonald’s Corporate HQ every month.
Obviously, fundraising is a huge part of a shelter’s revenue stream. These funds are obtained primarily through grant writing, annual appeal campaigns, and soliciting donations from wealthy individuals. So don’t begrudge your shelter if they have a development officer (that’s nonprofit-ese for "person whose job it is to raise money") or if you get regular letters requesting donations: If they didn’t do these things, they wouldn’t have the money they need to keep the place open and save animals’ lives, because it sure as hell isn’t coming from those "outrageous" adoption fees people complain about!