Ever wonder about the difference between a municipal shelter and a rescue group? Or what about the difference between a no-kill group and an open admission shelter? Is it better to adopt a dog or cat from a municipal shelter or a rescue group, or does it even matter? I used to wonder about these questions, and now that I've found some answers, I thought I'd share my knowledge with those of you who are curious.
Animal control started out with dog-catchers taking stray dogs to the pound to solve a public health issue, due to concerns about rabies and other diseases. Most large cities have animal control departments that still exist for this purpose, and over time many have grown to include other animals such as cats and small creatures like rabbits and guinea pigs. They have also expanded to exist for animal care in addition to animal control. This means they provide care to the animals and try to adopt them out to the public if they can't be reunited with their original owners. Most cities have their own animal control department, or they have contracts with an independent group to provide care to the animals in that city. These shelters are generally "open admission", meaning they must take any animal that comes to them. Most take in not only strays but also animals that owners no longer want to keep. Because they are open admission, they often cannot adopt out all of the animals that come to them, so they must euthanize to make room for more animals. There are good open admission shelters, and not-so-good shelters. Some shelters will work hard to provide for the animals in their care - they will vaccinate them and give them good health care, spend time keeping their kennels and the facility clean to reduce disease, work with the animals to get them ready for adoption, use volunteers to walk dogs or provide foster homes for special needs animals, keep hours that make it easy for the public to visit to adopt, and do everything they can to help those animals in their care. Other open admission shelters are poorly funded by the government, or poorly staffed, or both. They provided minimum care and are quick to euthanize animals once they exceed the minimum holding time required by law. They don't have the resources, staff, or desire to keep the kennels clean, and they don't work to socialize the animals, start a volunteer program, or work with the public to help the animals in their care find homes.
In addition to the government-mandated municipal animal care facilities, there are other privately-funded groups created to help animals. These include non-profit 501(c)3 organizations as well as groups who have not applied for non-profit status. Groups that get 501c3 non-profit status must follow specific tax laws and requirements. The funding for privately-funded organizations may come from adoption fees, charitable contributions from the public, grants, or other non-government sources. These are generally known as rescue groups, and they may be breed-specific or non-breed specific. A breed-specific group would be a group that takes in just in one dog or cat breed - for example a German Shepherd rescue, or a Siamese Cat rescue. They will take in only German Shepherds or German Shepherd mixes, and work to place them in homes. A non-breed specific rescue will take in any breed or mixed-breed animal. Many, but not all, privately funded groups are no-kill. This means they will keep any adoptable animal until it finds a home, and will not euthanize healthy animals to make space for new ones. These groups are also called limited admission, because in order to keep the animals they have until they are adopted, they have to turn away other adoptable animals for lack of space. There are some privately-funded groups like the Humane Society of Missouri who are not limited admission - they will take in any animal that is turned in to them. However, they then have to euthanize animals to make space for new ones coming in. Some privately-funded groups have their own shelter (building to house the animals), while others utilize a foster care network to provide for the animals they take in. And just like municipal animal control facilities, there are some good and some bad privately-funded groups.
You can't tell what kind of shelter or rescue it is from the name. The Humane Society of the United States has nothing to do with the Humane Society of Missouri - they are both independent groups. Likewise, the group I volunteer with - Heartland Humane Society of Missouri - is unrelated to the Humane Society of Missouri, and unrelated to all other groups. None of these organizations have a contract with any municipality to provide animal control services - they are all privately funded organizations. Confusing, I know! But each shelter or rescue group is generally independent from the rest, and the only way to know what kind of shelter they are (open admission, limited admission, providing animal control services for a specific municipality, etc) is to ask.
So what does this mean to you? If you want to adopt a pet, the dog or cat in the worst-funded public shelter needs you just as much as the dog or cat in the best-funded rescue. It doesn't make a lot of difference to the animal-care community as a whole, because if you adopt from a rescue, that will allow them to take in another animal from the worst-funded public shelter. Either way, you're saving a homeless animal, and that will open up a space at a shelter or rescue group for another homeless animal to take its place. There are some pros and cons to you depending on where you adopt. If you adopt from your municipal shelter, you may find the adoption fees are lower. Municipal shelters are often a bit less picky about who they adopt to. Rescue groups may ask a few more questions, and may even request a home visit to be sure your home environment is a good match for the animal. However, rescue groups are nice because they can usually spend more time with the animals they care for. They often have been able to provide more medical care to the animals, so you're less likely to come home from a shelter with a sick animal, or to have to pay so much at your first vet visit for vaccines, tests, etc. This alone can often make up the difference in adoption fees between municipal shelters and privately-funded rescue groups. Also rescues that keep their animals in foster care can usually provide much more information on an animal's personality. All shelters should do temperament tests prior to placing an animal for adoption, but those animals in foster care can be more closely evaluated for a longer period of time. This means the rescue group can help you to find the right animal for your home. I think this is one area that people don't take advantage of enough when adopting from rescues. At the rescue group I volunteer with, we sometimes get a person say "what dog(s) or cat(s) would be a good match for my family?" and then we can find out about the family, and offer suggestions on pets that would fit in best with that family's lifestyle. Most of the time though, we have people who fall in love with an animal based on appearance, and that may not be the best fit for that family. For example, an active family with several children may fall in love with a shy timid dog who is afraid of noise - not the best match. So if you go to adopt an animal, take advantage of the shelter/rescue worker's knowledge and ask which animals would be a good fit. If your shelter worker doesn't know, or doesn't want to take the time to help you, go somewhere else. In the end you will be glad you did!
Here are some related articles on the subject: http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/nov_dec_2000/whats_in_a_word.html