“Our movement is dedicated to changing the status quo. We have 17 million people out there who are going to get an animal next year and they haven’t yet decided from where. If we can get 2.7 million of them to decide to get a pet from a rescue or a shelter, we can end the killing overnight. It can happen tomorrow.”– Rich Avanzino, President of Maddie’s Fund

Saving 2.7 million animals is an ambitious goal, but if any campaign has the ability — and the resources — to do it, it’s the Shelter Pet Project, a joint effort of Maddie’s Fund, the Humane Society of the United States, the Ad Council, and, as the Maddie’s Fund website puts it, “the entire animal welfare community.”

I’ve run several of the videos made for the Shelter Pet Project on this blog as part of my Pet Adoption Videos that Don’t Make Me Want to Kill Myself series, but didn’t really know anything about the campaign’s background, scope, or ultimate goal.  When a representative of the Ad Council contacted me recently about a new series of videos released in  November as part of the campaign, I decided I needed to learn more.

Rich Avanzino, the President of Maddie’s Fund, was generous enough with his time to spend an hour on the phone answering my questions. I’m going to share those answers — and the videos — in a three-part series.

I’ve already written about Maddie’s Fund in the context of another of the organization’s collaborative projects, to get Leona Helmsley’s trustees to honor her wish that her millions go to animal welfare organizations. And I’ll be explaining what the Ad Council does in more detail in Part 2 of this series. I think it’s okay to assume that most everyone is familiar with the Humane Society of the United States.


How do you propose to achieve the overall goal quoted at the top of this blog, i.e., eliminating the killing at shelters?

It’s a multi-pronged approach, but one of the key things we need to do is change the perception of shelter animals.

We want to reach out to the public and make them aware of the wonderful qualities of shelter pets, to make folks think of shelters as the first and best place to adopt pets. In doing that we need to overcome some myths, primary among them being that the animals in shelters are damaged goods, that they have diseases, disabilities, and that they aren’t going to be great companions, that this is why they get turned in or abandoned.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The animals in shelters are usually there because of a human disorder — there’s been a breakup in a relationship, foreclosure of a house, people have lost their jobs,  their new partner is allergic, etc., etc. The animals have had nothing to do with these dysfunctional situations but they end up in a shelter and they need another life. It’s the job of the rescue and shelter world to tell their stories. When people understand how wonderful they are they lead with the heart and they provide the homes and everyone comes out the winner.

Although the response by my readers to the first series of videos (including the ones posted above)  was positive in general, some people said that the situations were too sad. That was especially true for the video with  Randy. It was upsetting to think that someone could dump a dog.

Yes, I can see that. This first round of our campaign has the animals talking. It gave them personality and it gave them character and they’re funny, but the videos are a little sad because the animals are in a shelter and they need help. They have a little bit more of an edge than the most recent creations, about the pets looking at us. [Note: The pug poster at the top of this blog, which appears on billboards throughout the country, is an example of this next phase of the campaign. I talk about it more and post the videos from the new campaign in Part 3 of this series].

That’s one of the reasons we take a different twist with each iteration of the program; different messages are applicable and helpful for different folks and different audiences.  There’s no one size fits all.  It’s a complex story about why people have avoided shelters, why they don’t understand the true value gained by  going to a shelter.

Do those different strategies stem from your collaboration?

We have always had different partnerships. With the Leona Helmsley case that you mentioned, we teamed up with the ASPCA and HSUS. We sponsor Nathan Winograd’s annual No-Kill Nation conferences; Nathan used to work for me in San Francisco and I have always considered him a friend. We’ve also worked with Best Friends Animal Society, Pet Smart Charities… We have different policies and different histories and agendas. Swords are going to be crossed, people are going to be in disagreement and get pretty emotional about it. But our differences do not overshadow our need to help each other out and work collaboratively to maximize the resources we have to save animals.

It’s a great benefit to our movement when we have a variety of voices and points of view. Some people want to be part of large organizations, others like startups and mom-and-pops; some like a passive attitude, others a more aggressive and activist approach. The reality is, we’ve got to save these dogs’ and cats’ lives; if people don’t listen to one voice they might listen to another.

Which brings us back to the Shelter Pet Project campaign. If people think there’s only one way they can help, only one agenda and one style, we’re going to lose some of them. I embrace the concept that we have different personalities and styles and approaches, even though that might not be comfortable. The movement benefits from diversity.

11 thoughts on “The Shelter Pet Project, Pt. 1: Changing Perceptions”

  1. Different organizations working together to share a variety of approaches is precisely what shelter pets need. Just as with individual shelters and rescue organizations, collaboration, not competition, will ultimately and successfully benefit the animals. This program is so impressive; thanks for sharing, Edie!

    1. I agree — what wowed me so much about the interview was the inclusiveness of the project. I’m always ready to get into a bit of insider infighting, I have to admit, so the willingness to set it aside for the sake of the animals was extremely impressive.

  2. This is such an exciting initiative. Planning to change the decisions of 2.7 million people is a big goal but one that sounds entirely reachable in the internet era.

    Thanks for providing such in depth coverage. I’m really excited to read about this.

  3. That last paragraph really hit home. The animal welfare community has been very fractured at best. But we do all want the same things: loving homes for all animals in need. I love that Mr. Avanzino seems to get that and welcomes a diverse group of solutions and approaches. Even if I am often very uncomfortable by the tactics of some, and vice versa, it doesn’t mean anyone is necessarily wrong. It’s important to stay united in order to reach our goals, regardless of our personal opinions.

    I look forward to reading more!

  4. I didn’t have time to watch the videos this morning but I will come back later. I think the mission to show that dogs in shelters are not all “damaged goods” is great. It’s true. Unfortunately, it seems the dogs you see most promoted as needing help (like through Facebook and on some blogs) ARE the ones that have been severely abused or have serious medial conditions. If that is what you see most, that is what you will assume are in shelters and at rescues. I am not saying those dogs shouldn’t be promoted as needing help but showing just as many that are relatively “normal cases” would help balance that picture out.

    1. That’s an excellent point I hadn’t thought of. You’re right, many of the dogs you see on the internet do have problems. So this initial part of the campaign, showing appealing pets with nonappealing owners, addresses that issue.

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