The crowds began arriving in the morning chill on Friday, hours before the Sacramento SPCA opened its doors for a special "11/11/11" adoption promotion.
By the time staffers unlocked the building at 11 a.m., the parking lot was full and hundreds of people were standing in line, hoping to take home a pet for the unusually low price of $11.11.
The SPCA had planned to remain open until 11 p.m., but had to shut down early because the shelter was virtually empty. It had "sold out" its entire population of dogs and cats for the first time in recent memory, thanks to a clever promotion and aggressive marketing.
The next day, staffers and volunteers pulled animals from the city and county shelters and found them homes, too. Altogether, about 200 homeless dogs and cats were adopted, officials said.
It was a dramatic example of the extraordinary efforts shelter managers have been making in the face of a steady drop in adoptions and an increase in the number of people no longer able to afford their pets. Officials say they believe the trends are directly linked to the struggling economy.
Through October of this year, the SPCA took in 11,701 dogs and cats, a number that has risen steadily since 2007, spokeswoman Lesley Kirrene said. During the same period that year, the agency took in 9,702 animals.
This year, she said, more than 1,600 people have cited financial issues, such as foreclosure or job loss, when giving up their animals, compared with about 760 in 2007.
While the SPCA will lose money on the "11/11/11" event because it deeply slashed adoption prices, the promotion nevertheless is considered a historic success, officials said.
"It's all about finding good homes for animals," said Executive Director Rick Johnson. "That is our primary mission."
The "11/11/11" campaign took advantage of a calendar date that many believe portends good fortune. Friday also was Veterans Day, and the SPCA paid staffers to work the holiday and rounded up additional volunteers. It launched a media campaign alerting potential adopters that cats and dogs could be taken home for $11.11 and announcing other "11-themed" specials.
Normal adoption rates are $85 for cats and $100 for dogs.
The SPCA's event was the latest in a wave of recent attempts to boost adoptions in the Sacramento area.
This summer agencies virtually gave away adult cats, waiving adoption fees amid an overabundance of felines. The downtown city shelter last month held its first open house, featuring music and free massages for anyone who adopted an animal. Agencies have offered specials on fat cats, old dogs and even felines sporting the colors of the San Francisco Giants.
Through Nov. 23, the county is offering adoptions of cats and dogs for the price of a donation, said spokesman Zeke Holst. Like the SPCA promotion, the special includes spay or neuter surgery, vaccinations, and a microchip.
SPCA officials said, despite the advance outreach, they were taken aback by the response to the weekend event. At least 400 people were standing in line at the agency when it opened Friday morning, Johnson said. Some waited for seven hours as backed-up staffers hustled to complete paperwork. The SPCA finished 126 adoptions Friday, emptying the facility. Then the agency began pulling animals from the county and city shelters, and extended the promotion through Sunday.
"We were overwhelmed," said Johnson. "We were turning people away at 7 p.m. because we literally had adopted out everything in the shelter. That has never happened before."
Among those who took home a new friend was David Puccetti. Puccetti arrived at the SPCA's facility on Florin-Perkins Road on Friday afternoon with daughter Ashley, 10, who had heard about the promotion on the radio.
"I was just shocked to see how many vehicles were out there," Puccetti said. "I couldn't even park in the lot. I had to find a place on the street."
By the time they went inside, the agency was almost out of animals. But the pair came back the next day and adopted a fluffy gray kitten that Ashley named Sasha.
"It was a great event," Puccetti said. "I think they should do it at least once a year."
Johnson said the SPCA invests $150 to $250 in each of the animals it takes in, depending on the size and health of the critters. So it would be unable to afford to offer such deep discounts regularly.
"But we certainly will do something like this again," he said. "It ended up being a great day for everyone."
He and his staff were able to bask in the glow of an empty shelter for just a few hours, however. By early Monday, three dogs were in kennels at the agency, waiting for new homes.