Open Adoptions – compromise or the start of a beautiful friendship?

Today’s post is a bit of a confession. I took a really, really, long time to fully appreciate the concept of Open Adoptions and how or why we need to embrace this idea in Australia. By the time the ‘Adopters Welcome’ program had filtered to us in Aus, I was already in academia so no longer had ‘flesh in the game’ in a real sense. Even so, my experience had taught me that very few Australian animal shelters, and none with pound contracts, were regularly turning adopters away. Our shelters just did not do the whole ‘going to people’s houses’ or ‘calling people’s landlords or vets to check up’ on them thing – it is simply not an option that large shelters can afford if they don’t want to find themselves in a position to euthanise for space.

Hand on my heart, in my first 3 years in this field I turned away one adopter. One. Even then it wasn’t a flat out refusal. I held the dog and sent the family home to investigate training options for the high energy border collie they wanted, with an open invitation to come back the following day to adopt if they were still keen (to my relief, they chose a different dog once they had thought about it). In my world, the only people who had the luxury of cherry-picking adopters through lengthy procedures were foster-based rescue groups who often had some tricky animals that required specific homes. Frankly, I just didn’t see a big problem with ‘overly careful screening’ when the threat of no kennel space was not a driving factor in placement decisions. ‘Starting with yes and working hard to keep it’ was a necessity created by resource restrictions, not something to aspire to, because in my mind it meant more risk for adopted pets. Heads up if you are reading this and noticing any consensus with my early perspective – I was very wrong!

Now, being the slightly masochistic learner that I am, I probed at the discomfort I was feeling from having my perceptions about adopter screening challenged and so I spent a lot of time thinking about Open Adoptions. I read articles, watched webinars, listened to podcasts and did my best to find parallels between my experience and those of people from the US who were advocating for Open Adoptions. Unhappily, I came to the shakey conclusion that perhaps the culture around adoption placements was just a bit more intense in the US so it was more of a problem over there. One thing kept bugging me though. In amongst all of the talk about the practicalities of streamlining animal flow and how incredibly not OK it is to judge people or treat them as ‘less than’ based on an application form or ‘Gotcha’ questions, or even in conversations, the Open Adoption advocates just kind of seemed… well, judgemental. The looming elephant in the room was that the people adopting out these animals were behaving that way out of concern for the animals in their care, so chastising them for behaviour I perceived as diligent just bugged me. Additionally, knowing what I knew about the importance of perceived control and autonomy for shelter workers, it rubbed me all kinds of the wrong way that the main messages I was hearing from Open Adoption advocates seemed to hinge on emotional guilt for slowing down the flow of animals when some died due to lack of space (as if people in welfare aren’t acutely aware of that already!) with no acknowledgement of why sheltering people were behaving this way. All good trainers know that behaviour only persists when it is reinforced, right?

My mental cogs were kind of stuck in ‘Open Adoptions are not an aim, they’re a necessity’ mode for longer than I care to admit. The cogs only started turning again when I came across some information while preparing teaching material for my companion animal welfare undergraduate class. Being the rock-solid data nerd I am, I always encouraged students to treat good data as king when examining what we do and in this class we were focusing on keeping companion animals in homes. What I found were plenty of studies showing all of the owner-related factors that did not predict post-adoption retention during the first 6 months of ownership. Things like novice vs experienced homes, household demographics, kids vs no-kids, adopter age, landlord permission – you name it, there was little if any evidence that any owner demographic variables that I thought were great ways to predict adoption outcomes, did anything other than give me a false sense of security (Ouch moment!).

The two things shown to have positive effects on placement success were provision of quality post-adoption support and ensuring that new owner expectations closely matched the reality of owning their new pet. Basically, if you support the human-animal bond during the early stages and it grows into a love-affair, then the pet is no more likely to be relinquished than the general pet population. In light of what we know about human-animal relationships now this doesn’t seem surprising at all, however, it was entirely not obvious to anyone I knew on the ground at the time, because most of us didn’t know how our pets did once they walked out the door. Predictors of post-adoptive success are impossible to determine without a measure of post-adoptive success!

With a few notable exceptions, the best most of us did was tell adopters to call us if they had trouble and then breathe a collective sigh of relief when we never heard from them again. The more I thought about it, the more this approach started to seem just plain coercive – we market ourselves as ‘the sad last stop for pets with no other options’ and pile pressure on people to be ‘perfect forever owners’ and if we can, make them jump through hoops to prove themselves, and then essentially abandon them at the most critical time in their new relationship, with a wave goodbye and a ‘give us a call if you aren’t perfect’ handshake. It’s no wonder that many people who choose not to keep their pets don’t take them back to the place they adopted from!

Now, fast forward in time and my understanding of human-animal relationships has come a long way. I now understand that the adoption process is the beginning of relationships – the relationship between a pet and their new family, and the relationship between the adopter and us. If our best chance of helping our pets stay put once they find a new family is to provide quality post-adoptive support, then we need to be the ‘knowledgeable friends’ that adopters turn to when their new pet whines at 2am or pees on the floor – not the last place that adopters come to out of fear of judgement or reprisals.

To me, given that ‘first impressions count’ in any relationship, making sure the adoption process is as wonderful as it be seems like a pretty sensible way to set the scene for a person-pet love affair… and that’s what Open Adoptions are all about! The crux of this whole ‘make adoptions accessible’ gig is reaching people who are looking for love in furry form (using creative writing and quality photos to draw people in to meet our animals). Then once they have made contact, we become their knowledgeable friends and in the process, hopefully gain an advocate for what we do and for shelter pets everywhere.

If you asked 1000 people who work or volunteer in animal welfare about why they do what they do, I would bet my house that at least 90% of them would say ‘to give these animals a chance at a happy life/to be loved/insert variation on the theme of finding them a great home with people who care about them’. Given that so many of us come into this work with that goal, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be so restrictive about who loves our pets but then regularly send animals out the door with no real expectation that we will find out what the outcome was beyond that day, does it? And when someone asks us why we are actively setting ourselves up to have short-lived or lopsided relationships with our adopters – people who just want a pet to love from a source that society has told them, that we have told them, is ethical and they feel good about supporting – we answer that we are trying to keep our animals safe from those same people. When we look at adoptions from a relationship building perspective, anything less than highly accessible adoptions, open and respectful communication, and quality post-adoption support just doesn’t stack up.

Now that I’m 100% committed to Open Adoptions within the framework of building ongoing positive relations with our communities, I have another confession to make. I dislike the term ‘Open Adoptions’. I have absolutely no insight as to why but I suspect it’s some form of poisoned cue that I associate with jammed mental cogs and feeling judged by people I admire. Animal Farm Foundation came to my rescue in a recent podcast with the term ‘Accessible Adoptions’ which I like a whole lot more, but it still misses the mark for me about adoptions being the beginning of more than one beautiful friendship. I also can’t help but wonder if maybe this whole ‘Open Adoptions’ thing is taking a while to catch on here because we Australians are a fairly laid back crowd and maybe we just don’t ‘do’ relationship building with strangers all that well – I know I gravitate to the resident dogs when I am forced to go to a house party 😉

On a final note, this statement about making adoptions accessible came from Anna in vet team at Second Chance Animal Rescue. As a trainer who values supportive relationships, evidence-based practice, and clear two-way communication with the animals in my life, I really love the beautiful simplicity of this statement:

“Let’s train owners to be the best pet owners they can be rather than finding the already ‘perfect’ ones”

PS I still haven’t worked out how to caption the pictures properly, so that shiny little guy up top is our adopted boy Reggie, or more correctly Sir Reginald McBiteyface: Household Record Holder for Antler Destruction. I fell in love with Reggie and decided that he would be my new bestie about 2.5 seconds after we met, when our eyes met in the back of the work van. That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship!






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