Pet adoption advocates often resent the fact that special needs pets tend to get so much more media attention and adoption interest than other pets in their facility. But those high-profile pets are often the shelter's best opportunity to engage their community, raise money and find more homes for all their pets.
The fact is, being drawn to the hard-luck story of a particularly charismatic pet is a highly predictable facet of human nature, and one that no amount of lamenting or lecturing is going to change. Instead of wishing it weren't so, shelters and rescue groups should instead try to see it as a valuable opportunity to tell the story of the work their group is doing.
For example, Bonney Brown, formerly of the Nevada Humane Society (NHS), says the shelter regularly makes "stars" of pets with special challenges. But they don't let those campaigns begin and end with finding a home or raising funds for that specific pet. Nor do they sit around waiting for those stories to happen.
Instead, the search for these special pets is always ongoing, and efforts to identify, promote and publicize these animals are a regular part of the organization's outreach to the community. Because these stories are so attractive to the media and generate so much interest from donors and adopters, these aren't infrequent, exceptional stories; they're the norm.
This enables the shelter to rely on those "superstar" pets to consistently increase awareness of the shelter in the community, generate donations througout the year rather than sporadically, and keep the media happy by providing regular newsworthy pet stories.
There are other steps shelters can take to capitalize on these high-profile pets. For example, NHS asks donors if their contributions can be used to help other pets when they receive more money than needed to meet the featured pet's expenses, as was the case with a puppy named Bali:
Bali, a puppy with a congenital heart defect, came to us recently. She needed surgery to survive and we worked with a local specialty vet clinic to get a discounted rate on the diagnostics and procedure. Then we asked the public to help. Generous donors contributed over $20,000 to help Bali, far in excess of actual costs. Here is an excerpt from the thank-you letter we sent to donors, letting them know that we received more than needed:
"We received an outpouring of generosity for Bali that exceeded our expectations. Once we have paid the bills for her care, we expect to still have funds left over in her account. We would like to use the remaining funds to help other animals in critical need of veterinary care. We understand that this may not be what you had in mind and honoring your wishes is very important to us. We can provide a refund of surplus funds from your donation OR will have your gift allocated in a different way upon your request."
While we always hear from some people who want to let us know that they are happy to have their gift used to help other injured animals, we have never had anyone request that the funds be returned.
The funds raised by dogs like Sheila and Bali or by cats like Trapper John who was caught in a leg-hold trap or Diva with burned paws, have helped countless other animals in need of lifesaving care who had less engaging stories.
For more tips on making the most out of helping a special needs pet, read "One Good Story Can Raise Funds to Save Lives."
Photo: Diva, courtesy of the Nevada Humane Society