When Camille Limongelli and her boyfriend Ted Drummond decided to bring a new puppy into their home, they knew exactly where to find one: the mall. Specifically, the Freehold Raceway Mall in Freehold, N.J., an upscale retail paradise that includes everything from Victoria’s Secret to Abercrombie & Fitch, known locally as a puppy mecca. In fact, when the couple arrived, they found themselves among a horde of shoppers jostling for space beside a wall of cages occupied by adorable pups. Soon enough, a love connection was made and 13-week-old “Tibet” was off to his new home in Brick, N.J.
While Tibet is clearly special to Limongelli and Drummond, he’s also special in the evolving world of animal welfare. That’s because Tibet isn’t a typical petstore puppy—he didn’t come from a puppy mill, where young female purebreds are used as puppy-producing machines and live in deplorable conditions. Rather, he and his abandoned siblings were rescued from the streets of Puerto Rico by a San Juan-based animal welfare organization. Moreover, Tibet wasn’t purchased, he was adopted, and this took place not in a pet store, but at the Freehold Adoption Center, a satellite site of the Monmouth County SPCA (MCSPCA), which serves the northern Jersey shore.
A New Approach
Such mall-based adoption sites represent a new approach to animal sheltering and rescue that capitalizes on the retail model that made pet stores so popular in the first place: convenience; an irresistible inventory of puppies and kittens; and the availability of a wide range of pet accessories, from fashion ware to gourmet treats, all under one roof. The main difference, of course, is in the sourcing. Rather than profiting from animal suffering, the adoption center is alleviating it.
“The concept was that by giving people what they want in terms of the retail experience, you can save more lives,” says Ellen La Torre, director of finance for MCSPCA. “The fact is that if people come to our main shelter and don’t see what they want, which is often a cute, cuddly puppy, they may end up going to a pet store, which just perpetuates puppy mills. So, from an animal-welfare perspective, we figured, why not give them what they want, where they want it?”
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While it’s difficult to know how many such retail-based adoption sites are now in operation, variations on the concept are clearly beginning to take hold and grow. The MCSPCA mall site opened its doors in April 2012, about six months after Humane Society Naples (HSN) expanded into Coastland Center, an enormous shopping hub in southwestern Florida. AniMall Pet Adoption and Outreach Center of Cary, N.C., began developing a slightly different model in 2005, using rent-free space in a nowdefunct outlet mall to provide local rescue groups with a centralized location to showcase their adoptables. Three years ago, AniMall made the bold decision to move into 3,000 square feet in Cary Towne Center, where they pay market rate. That move was so successful that the nonprofit plans to expand into 4,000 square feet of space in the same mall this February.
With neighbors like Nordstrom, Macy’s, Sears and JCPenney, these adoption sites have had to learn to embrace a full retail model, starting with merchandising. Most stock an array of high-end pet supplies, from logo-wear and gourmet treats to dog beds and designer leashes. AniMall specializes in organic and specialty pet foods that contain no wheat, corn or other potentially harmful additives. The sales of these products are critical to funding the overall operation, as well as supporting rescue and adoption efforts.
Greatly extended hours are another component of the new retail model. Like their mall neighbors, these adoption sites are typically open seven days a week, and in the evenings, as late as nine. On “Black Friday” 2012, the Freehold Adoption Center racked up $600 in sales between midnight and 8 am on its way to a record-breaking $2,695 day. And AniMall is so serious about building customer loyalty that it recently launched a rescue-rewards program, where up to 6 percent of every sale is donated to the rescue group of the client’s choice.
The adoption sites have also become adept promoters. Last summer, a fashion show at Coastland Center paired adoptable dogs with runway models wearing styles from tenant collections, and was so popular that it is being restaged this year with a “Furry Valentine” theme. “It’s really nice to incorporate [the animals] into these events because it makes it fun for the whole family,” says Melissa Wolf, Coastland Center marketing manager and herself the owner of a rescued Doberman. “We have had some wonderful events here … that showcased many of our tenants and also helped many pets get adopted.”
The sum of these retail efforts—from sales and promotions to convenience and creation of a loyal customer base— supports the main goal: saving the lives of animals.
By the Numbers
The Freehold Adoption Center placed more than 200 kittens and 350 puppies in its first eight months of operation. To keep its 20 cages stocked with rescued puppies, the MCSPCA has developed partnerships with foster-based organizations and shelters in areas of the country where the spay/neuter message has not been assimilated and animal overpopulation continues to be a huge problem. Puppies in these areas are euthanized in heartbreaking numbers. Pairing supply with demand, MCSPCA has puppies driven up from highkill shelters in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia as well as flown in from Puerto Rico, as was the case with Tibet. MCSPCA has also accepted puppies confiscated from hoarding situations and puppies and female breeder dogs from puppy-mill seizures. The adoption fee for a puppy is $405, which is on the high side in the shelter world, but less than a third of the cost of a typical puppy-mill puppy. The proceeds help cover the costs of transporting the pups to New Jersey.
The Coastland Mall adoption site placed 775 puppies in its first 12 months, essentially increasing Humane Society Naples’ total adoptions by nearly 40 percent and putting it on track to reach 3,000 in 2012, up from 2,200 in 2011. HSN executive director Michael Simonik says that the organization reaches out to high-kill shelters in rural parts of the state that don’t typically do many adoptions. They pulled 1,300 animals from death row last year alone. HSN also showcases adult dogs under 20 pounds, a size limit dictated by the site’s cages, which were constructed by the space’s previous tenant, a pet store. In both Florida and New Jersey, the animals are housed on-site, but are cycled back to the main shelter if they have not been adopted within about 10 days.
AniMall has facilitated about 5,000 adoptions over a six-year period using a variation on this model. Rather than representing a single group or shelter, it serves as a central resource for about 50 local organizations, including breedspecific dog groups, sanctuaries, shelters and animal-control facilities, and a host of specialized rescue outfits for animals ranging from llamas and pigs to rabbits and reptiles. Most of these groups pull their animals from local high-kill shelters, where the euthanasia rate averages about 70 percent. AniMall gives its members blocks of time on weekends and high-traffic days to showcase their animals to prospective adopters.
“We have a very active rescue community here, and people are doing great work, but they are very spread out. We wanted to support their efforts by bringing everyone together in one central space, and providing what they need most, which is exposure,” says Jeremiah Adams, executive director of AniMall. “So here, we can give them space in a high-traffic mall.”
Much of that traffic is actually driven by AniMall. “We have become a destination stop,” he says. “We don’t rely very much on walk-in traffic anymore. People are coming in specifically because we are here.”
In addition to the tangible goal of finding homes for on-site pets, these retailbased animal lovefests have some unexpected, high-impact benefits. In the case of MCSPCA and HSN, the mall sites increase adoptions at the main shelters, helping adult and larger dogs find homes as well. Many of the people who stop by don’t know that adoption exists as an option. The insight that it does often motivates them to head over to the shelter; some even volunteer or become donors. La Torre says that a few folks have come to the mall site thinking they want a puppy, but after speaking with an adoption counselor, realize that an older dog would be a better fit and go to the main shelter to meet some. Even a single drop-in visit at the Freehold Center can lead to a discussion of broader animal welfare issues.
“One of the best things about the setup is that we are educating the public,” says La Torre. “People come in saying they want to ‘buy’ a puppy, and that opens the door to talking about adoption and where our puppies come from and why they need our help. It’s almost as if you can see a light bulb going off in their heads.”
This isn’t the outcome the naysayers were expecting. Not only did the move into retail inspire dire predictions from people who thought that a mall-based location would knock the main shelter off the map, but many pessimists expected that the return rate of mallbased adoptions would be sky high.
“People were telling us that there would be a lot of impulse buying, but we actually have fewer returns from the Coastland site than we do from the main shelter,” said Simonik. “People worried that our donations would dry up if the shelter profile was lowered, but now we have many more donors because so many more people know about us. It’s 100 percent positive feedback.”
Even at the mall, potential adopters are subject to the same requirements they would face at most shelters or through most rescue organizations. These typically involve questionnaires, reference checks and either proof of home ownership or written permission from a landlord to have a pet.
After being approved as adopters, Limongelli and Drummond took Tibet home. Intrigued by his origins, they have since educated themselves about the terrible situation for abandoned animals in Puerto Rico and have connected with All Sato Rescue, the group that originally saved Tibet from the streets. “It has been a wonderful experience and we appreciate all of the people who work so hard to find these animals homes,” says Limongelli. “Tibet is the most loving dog we have ever met—he is the perfect addition to our family.”