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It’s Never Too Late—Empty The Shelters with Cathy Bissell

Empty The Shelters started in May of 2016, and on October 14, BISSELL Pet Foundation (BPF) will hold its 9th event.  Can you explain how the program came about and why it is so important to you and the foundation?

There are two parts to the answer:  Until every pet has a home, and I can’t adopt them all.  Let me explain. When I started BPF in 2011, the goal was to find every pet a loving, forever home. As a foundation, we have been making great strides toward that goal, helping thousands of homeless animals each year through grants, but I felt challenged to do more. Every time I go to a shelter and see the unbelievably wonderful pets that are available, I want to adopt them all. I felt compelled to create a bigger impact on adoption and to change the perception of shelter pets. EMPTY THE SHELTERS brings attention to adoption and gets pets in loving homes.


What kind of feedback do you receive from participating shelters?

It’s impactful. The shelter volunteers and staff love Empty The Shelters and ask us to come back. After an event, they message us: “Please don’t forget us,” “Please come do this again.”  They are happy with the families that are adopting the pets that they have nurtured, sometimes over many months. They fall in love with the pets in their care and want to see them go to good homes. It’s important for the morale at the organizations. They work so hard to do their best to save every life and an event like this gives them a big boost.


What is required of the organizations that are involved?

First of all, they have to be a partner in good standing with BISSELL Pet Foundation. Next, we require participating organizations to stand by their regular adoption application procedures to make sure pets go to the right homes where they will stay forever. This means adopters might need pre-approval, proof of proper care of existing pets, or even a home visit. We take this very seriously and we ask our partners to do the same. Additionally, BPF asks event participants to partner with another organization to save more lives.  Finally, we require detailed reporting and post-event feedback from the organizations, including having each adopter fill out a survey. This helps us verify the adoptions, but also allows us to follow up with the adopters on their experience.


What have you learned from the adopter surveys? 

That Empty The Shelters works! We are proud to have supported thousands of adoptions through this program, and we are learning that Empty The Shelters makes an even bigger difference. Surveys from our events show 96.6% of pets are still in their adopted homes; 99.4% of adopters have already or plan to recommend adoption to friends & family; and 52% of adopters had never adopted previously. Empty The Shelters gets people to choose adoption!


Why has Michigan been so important for Empty The Shelters? 

Well, we are headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so it was a logical place for us to start. By holding these events in our own backyard, we can see how they run and learn for future improvements. We have received valuable feedback that has allowed us to develop a model that we can now run anywhere. In fact, this year we were fortunate to be able to hold Empty The Shelters in nine states with terrific results. Shelters in other states are seeing what we can accomplish with the program and we are being asked to come to other parts of the country. Our dream is to hold Empty The Shelters events in every state, but we are a small foundation and we can’t do it alone. We hope that the increased attention on the event will prove its effectiveness and increase contributions so we can do more. We are so grateful for the generous support from donors. They make everything we do possible.


What would you say to someone who has never tried pet adoption?

Pet adoption will change your life. You will realize how grateful the pets are that you bring into your home and you will say to yourself, “why didn’t I do this sooner?” I regret not doing more. I’m a huge animal lover and I don’t know what I was thinking not going into a shelter to look for a pet. It wasn’t until 2008, when I was in my late 40’s, that I adopted my first dog. I am mad at myself for not making a difference earlier and for being afraid to go into a shelter and save a life. It’s never too late to save a life.


As you reflect on the program, what stands out to you?

We are doing this because we care about every pet. It’s about the animals and finding them loving homes where they can live forever. We are constantly talking to partner shelters and adopters to make sure we tweak the program to improve it every time. We listen. We take their suggestions. We make sure the proper process is followed so pets go to the right homes. We do everything we can to make this successful for shelters and adopters, but mostly for the animals. The program has also made our partner network even stronger as we all work together. Through Empty The Shelters, we can connect organizations in different areas to help more pets get adopted. In the end, that’s what it’s all about. Until every pet has a home.

Follow the faces of rescue on Cathy Bissell‘s Facebook page and Instagram @bissblackdogs