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Fact check: Are pets adopted at the holidays more likely to be returned?

Posted on Thursday, January 10, 2019
Pets adopted from the Richmond SPCA this holiday season
The Richmond SPCA found lasting homes for Curly, Panther, Sweet Pea, Nila and Lyra during the 2018 holiday season.

The news media has been under considerable scrutiny and attack lately. Many people feel a deep distrust of the news media while others, and I would count myself among this group, believe that the news media is an essential component of our constitutional freedoms and that reporters in general get most things right factually. This difference of opinion about the proper faith to place in the news media has been front and center in our national debate. That is why it is particularly disturbing to me to be confronted with our own local news media misleading the public with inaccurate information and failing to do even the most cursory job of checking out the truth of their story before running with it.

Dolly’s family is among the adopters who have formed lasting bonds with pets adopted at the holidays. She is now known as Miss Sassy Britches and celebrated her seventh adoption anniversary on December 28.

This past Friday, NBC12 ran a news story about returns of pets from holiday adoptions. The story fed into the popular but unsupportable narrative that people should be discouraged from adopting pets at the holidays because the rate of returns from those adoptions are higher. The story was entitled “Animal Rescue Centers See Increase in Holiday Gift Pet Returns.” Please note that the headline says “Centers” in the plural. The NBC12 reporter’s support for this premise was a single woman who runs a small local cat rescue group. She was quoted as saying that she had received a large number of contacts in recent days from people wanting to surrender pets they had adopted at the holidays. She noted that her organization had not adopted out any pets over the holidays (so much for the “returns” part of the title) and she added that “normal shelters” do not accept returns of pets they have adopted out. There was no interview of anyone from any “normal shelter” and no confirmation through any empirical data that the story’s premise that holiday adoptions result in greater returns was true.

We were stunned and frustrated. First, it is absolutely untrue that “normal shelters” don’t accept returns of adopted pets. I can only guess that the Richmond SPCA would be included in the rubric of “normal shelter” and we most certainly accept returns of adopted pets that occur within a reasonable period of time, generally six months. That is not unusual for shelters but typical.

Even more troubling was the lack of any hard evidence supporting the premise of the story and the lack of any effort to obtain such support – the reporter had made no contact to us nor apparently to any other local shelter. The Richmond SPCA tracks its statistics with great care at all times. We constantly examine our statistical results to keep track of outcomes and trends to be sure that we achieve the highest rate of life saving possible. We carefully track the returns on holiday adoptions every year and they generally are a bit lower than our annual rates of return. Total returns of adopted pets during our two most recent fiscal years were between 10 and 11 percent. Returns of adopted pets during the weeks following the holiday season in each of those years were less than 10%.

The NBC12 “news” story is also unclear whether it is talking about all holiday adoptions or adoptions of pets to be given as gifts to someone else – it indiscriminately alternates in the type of adoptions it refers to. Neither the Richmond SPCA nor any other responsible humane organization supports the adoption of a pet to be given as an unexpected gift to someone else, but this is true at any time of the year, not just at the holiday season.

I understand a few things are at play here. First, the story seemed to support a premise which is often seen as a widely circulated article of faith. But, the news media has a sacred responsibility to approach stories with healthy skepticism – they must dig to see if the actual empirical facts support something that has been long promoted popularly rather than to just accept minimal anecdotal support as adequate which is what was done here.

Secondly, the news media must engage in precise and critical thinking. Thus, a good reporter must not blur the line between general adoptions done at the holiday season and adoptions of pets as an unexpected gift for someone else.

Just so you know, we contacted NBC12 after the story ran and raised our concerns with them asking that they run another story correcting the inaccuracies of the story they ran. They did not give us the courtesy of a reply.

I am well aware that the news media often treats stories about animals as fluff topics. They don’t really approach them with the discipline that would be applied to other subjects. This is insulting to those of us in the field of animal welfare but, more importantly, it is tragic and dangerous for animals. Homeless animals are depending on the Richmond SPCA and other “normal shelters” to save their lives. We must never casually discourage adoptions for reasons that lack validity since adoptions are the only way that we continue to be able to save the lives of more homeless animals. If people are inclined to adopt at the holidays, then we must do all we can to facilitate and promote those adoptions if there is no actual factual foundation for the idea that those adoptions are less likely to last. No matter how much NBC12 or anyone else wishes to promote that old canard, it just is not true. 


Robin Robertson Starr is the chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA. She spearheaded the nonprofit’s transition to a no-kill operating model, implementing progressive programs and services to increase lifesaving across Central Virginia.

Robin completed her undergraduate degree in biology at Wake Forest University and graduated law school at T.C. Williams School of Law of the University of Richmond.

Over her more than two decades at the helm of the Richmond SPCA, Robin and her family have adopted many dogs and cats who have each brought immeasurable joy to their home. Currently, the Starrs have two dogs and two cats.

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