A lot of the work needed to change negative perceptions of shelters takes place inside the walls of the shelter itself. One shelter acting on that insight is the San Francisco SPCA.
"The best way we do it is at our adoption center," says co-president Dr. Jennifer Scarlett. She and her staff work hard to make the spot where potential pet owners meet pets feel familiar and comfortable, like a living room. "I think there's a psychological barrier as well as a physical barrier," she explains about their choice to let people meet pets away from kennels. "When you break that down and show animals lounging on a couch or a comfortable bed with lots of room, then it's easier to envision that pet in your house."
But shelters all over the country are also discovering how vital it is to reach beyond their own walls and connect with people in their local communities. Where should community outreach start? Scarlett says reaching out to kids is an important piece of the puzzle.
"Giving children the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with animals and teaching responsible pet care skills helps them develop both empathy and a sense of responsibility," she says. Classroom visits, birthday parties and summer animal camp programs are a few of the ways in which the SF SPCA connects directly with Bay Area residents.
One of the most exciting ways that innovative shelters are networking in their communities is by collaborating with other shelters. Factors like location and marketing can make some shelters more popular than others, to the point that they even run out of certain types of pets. In communities where shelters see each other as partners rather than competitors, they can connect with other area shelters to transfer in more pets in need of homes. The SF SPCA has fully embraced the opportunity to work with other shelters in the area.
"We're in a unique position here [in San Francisco]," Scarlett says. "We have one of the lowest intake rates in the country. We can't get enough dogs - most are actually transferred in - so we reach out to shelters in the Central Valley. We're not sitting here overwhelmed with pets, we actually have to work [together] to meet demand."
Simple changes like sprucing up physical spaces and taking better photos of pets are still great ways for shelters to help change negative perceptions. But by actively reaching out to people and peers in their own communities, shelters across the country are learning how they can make an even bigger difference every day.