At long last animal shelters are starting to do the real math when it comes to the cost of preventing intake at shelters. Every year a shelter might spend hundreds of thousands to take in, care for, and adopt or euthanize thousands of animals. Yet relinquishment prevention programs might receive only a sliver of that funding. Until recently programs designed to keep animals from darkening our doorsteps have been viewed as an expense, not as a savings over the true and full cost of taking in an animal.
HSBC has been making significant investments over the past decade in order to better balance our efforts between intake prevention and outflow efforts. We believe this new approach is working, and it started with the recognition of the true costs of caring for an animal in our shelter. After years of telling people that the average animal cost X hundreds of dollars to care for, depending on how you calculated the “true” cost, we decided to take our own number seriously.
If the “true cost” (staff, overhead, treatment, food, care, adoption, euthanasia, was $250 per animal, wouldn’t it be a smart decision to spend up to $249 per animal to keep an animal out of our shelter? We could save money and the animal doesn’t have to sit in a cage. This new view of our expense was the fiscal justification for our expanded veterinary services, community vaccination and wellness programs, expanded foster and PetNet services, AniMeals On Wheels, CART, and other programs which are not free or even cheap, but are not necessarily more expensive than the alternative of accepting ownership of an animal. It’s why we ask everyone who brings us a pet to surrender if there’s anything we can offer which will help them keep it.
I’ve covered the benefits of high quality, affordable vet care and how it helps keep pets at home, but proving the negative is sometimes hard to do (just ask President Obama how well the “jobs saved” argument works with skeptics). But we also have programs which can be shown to keep animals from entering the sheltering system, such as our PetNet program.
PetNet was created more than a decade ago to provide temporary foster care for the pets of victims of domestic violence who were trying to escape an abuser but could not take a pet to a shelter. We would foster the pet and return it once the owner was settled and safe. Nine years ago we expanded the program to include people facing extended hospital stays, personal or natural disasters, and other acute crisis of limited duration. We now use PetNet and similar programs to assist with hundreds of animals each year, animals which would otherwise be homeless and surrendered to our shelter or others.
Animals like Lucy. Lucy’s owners were faced with a choice when their apartment was condemned in the middle of winter. Through no fault of their own, they were suddenly homeless. Yes, our shelter and other were here to take Lucy from them and find her a new home but why should saving an animal mean tearing her from the arms of a family who loves her? PetNet allowed us to provide immediate housing for Lucy in our shelter, then in a foster home. Lucy received a full veterinary work up and treatment for minor medical conditions during her foster for free. And when her family had a new home, she was returned to her family. No adoption. No euthanasia. No weeks in shelter care. Just foster and return.
Yes, PetNet is more logistically and labor intensive but certainly no more than keeping Lucy in a kennel, and the cost was no more. Thanks to PetNet we can point directly to Lucy and to so many others and say, “That animal was saved and is at home with their family because we invested in keeping her there, rather than here.” How many lives and how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars could be saved each year if all shelters made that effort every time?
Looking at the math that way we might even wonder what the intake impact might be if we invested $250,000 a year to provide free, on demand sterilization services to 5000 animal a year in our county for a few years. The first year we had a reduction in intake by 1,000, wouldn’t we be breaking even on the expense based on our cost of care estimates? What about free food, training classes, medical care? What else could we spend money on which would prevent the flow of animals rather than addressing it after the fact? Relinquishment prevention programs work.
As a side note, Lucy’s experience also highlights the value of HSBC’s pending merger with HLLC. We didn’t have an immediately open foster home in Berks but there was one in Lancaster. Our collaboration is bringing many more caring people into the lives of animals who need them, without looking for some arbitrary county line to delineate our “territory”. Collaboration, partnership, and mergers work, too. More on that soon.