It was like Black Friday for animal lovers, complete with big crowds, deep discounts and controlled chaos.
Hours before participating animal shelters in the Sacramento region opened their doors at 11 a.m. Friday, potential pet owners began lining up for an unprecedented weekend special. All dogs and cats were up for grabs for just $20 apiece, a cost savings of $80 to $120.
The event, sponsored by the ASPCA, represents a new spirit of collaboration among Sacramento-area shelter operators, whose kennels are usually packed to capacity. They hope to send 500 animals out the door by the end of day Sunday.
On the first morning of the big sale, the goal seemed perfectly realistic.
“We had 16 adoptions in our first hour,” said Tara Diller, an administrator at Sacramento County’s shelter on Bradshaw Road, where a queue of 23 people waited at noon to complete paperwork and take their new pets home. That is more animals than typically get adopted during an entire day, she said.
The atmosphere at all four participating shelters was festive. Some volunteers wore costumes. The city shelter was decorated for Halloween. Music played on the Sacramento SPCA’s patio. County workers announced each new adoption over a loudspeaker.
The scene brought Diller nearly to tears.
“This is what we live for,” she said, as a chihuahua mix named Missy went out the door in the arms of her new owner. “This is what it’s all about.”
By 4 p.m., with two hours to go before closure and only three of the four participating shelters reporting, more than 120 animals had found new homes. If today and Sunday are as busy as expected, the shelters could come close to adopting out nearly as many cats and dogs as typically leave the facilities in an entire month, officials said.
Desperate to reduce euthanasia rates and get more live animals into permanent homes, shelters in the Sacramento area and across the country are trying innovative approaches to marketing their pets, from posting their pictures on social media sites to bringing them to food-truck gatherings to offering cats for $5 on Fridays.
The efforts have had an impact – euthanasia rates have dropped 28 percent at area shelters since 2009, according to a 2012 report. But nearly half of all animals that wind up in Sacramento shelters still are put to death, either because they are sick, are deemed dangerously aggressive or because of a lack of space to house them. The Humane Society estimates that nationwide shelters euthanize 2 million to 3 million cats and dogs each year.
Still, not everyone believes that discounting animals is a good idea.
“I hope it works, but I don’t like the idea of putting an animal ‘on sale,’” said Barbara Doty, founder of the nonprofit group Lapcats and a longtime volunteer at the county shelter. “It devalues them,” and some of the discounted cats and dogs may end up back at shelters, she said.
“The idea is that it’s better to send them out the front door than the back one” to be euthanized, Doty said, standing in front of a crate of mewling kittens bidding for new homes. “But does that person who takes home the $5 kitten understand that this is a lifetime commitment? That $5 is nothing compared to what it’s going to cost to take care of that cat for as long as it lives.”
Rick Johnson, executive director of the Sacramento SPCA, said studies have shown no correlation between the cost of an animal and its chances of staying in its adoptive home.
“The data doesn’t support that owners don’t value these animals because they got them for free or because the adoption was discounted,” Johnson said. “It really isn’t tied to economics.”
Front Street shelter director Gina Knepp agreed.
“What you spend on an animal has nothing to do with how much you love that animal,” she said. “The fact is that we are in the business of selling used animals, and through an event like this we’re making it possible for everyone, no matter what their income, to have a pet.”
These days, many of the “used animals” at Sacramento shelters are pit bull terriers and chihuahuas, and mixes of those two breeds. On any given day, area shelters house hundreds of dogs, and generally as many as 60 percent of them are members of those two breeds, officials said.
Both come with difficult reputations. Pit bulls are known as fighters and have been connected to vicious maulings in recent years, of both people and pets. Chihuahuas can be yappy biters. But shelter officials say they test animals for aggressiveness, and those that show signs are deemed ineligible for adoption. With love and proper training, both breeds can make great pets, shelter officials said.
Barbara and Gary Allen said they can attest to it. In a small room at the SPCA Friday, they were getting to know a bruiser of a pit bull mix named Apollo, who slathered them with kisses and tried to climb in their laps.
“We’ve had three pits,” Gary Allen said, scratching Apollo’s ears. “If you raise them right and give them love and attention, they’re great dogs.” If everything works out, Allen said, Apollo may soon be enjoying rides on their boat in Clear Lake.
Barbara Althoff of Elk Grove was just as thrilled with her new family member, a poodle mix named Toodles. Althoff was among the first to arrive at the SPCA on Friday morning.
“We lost our dog about a month ago,” she said, with Toodles squirming at the end of a leash. “I can’t wait to take this one home.”
Kathy Hunn of Clarksburg was already in the market for a cat when she heard about the weekend event. She came to the shelter Thursday “to beat the rush” and chose a black and white kitten.
“She was the third kitty I interviewed,” Hunn said.
She named her Natasha.