"Far less often than we think," said Christie Keith, social media manager for The Shelter Pet Project. "But that doesn't mean shelters and rescue groups shouldn't ever tell heartbreaking stories."
For those who are still firmly entrenched in telling about the hard-luck or even abused pasts of the pets they're trying to find homes for, this may seem like a crazy conversation to be having. But in recent years, a body of research and experience has demonstrated that most adopters -- particularly new adopters -- don't respond to sad stories about pets.
"To save more pets than we're saving now, we have to reach people we're not already reaching," Keith said. "And those people, who aren't involved in the animal welfare world, prefer to learn about pets' personalities and what they'll be like to live with, making the adoption a happy occasion for their family."
In fact, too much focus on sad stories can drive many adopters away from shelters and rescues, out of concern that the pet might have behavior or health problems related to his or her past, or because they find it depressing at a time when they want to be joyful.
But there are times when a sad story, told correctly, is the single most powerful tool you have to get a pet adopted. The Internet is full of viral stories about horribly abused or neglected pets who have hundreds or thousands of people clamoring to adopt them, all because they were moved by compassion to turn that pet's life around.
"The key is the line between inspiring action through compassion, and overwhelming people with despair," Keith said. "Does the story or image make you want to go out and start a soup kitchen? Or does it make you want to go lie in bed in the fetal position, and never get up again?"
She offered as an example this video from the Shelter Pet Pet Project, about a senior dog named Shemp, animated by renowned Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell:
"I've never watched that without getting tears in my eyes," Keith said. "But they're the kind of tears that make me want to run out and adopt a senior pet, not the kind that make me want to never leave the house again."
Additionally, if your organization is always telling sad stories, people will begin to tune them out. Only the people who respond to that type of story will stick around to see them -- and those people almost certainly have already rescued as many pets as they can. The stories may start out effective, but that effectiveness will dwindle as time goes on.
So when you have a pet with a compelling story that you think will motivate people to adopt him, go for it. Just don't do it too often, and above all, be inspiring!
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