Some dogs share kennels at the Fulton County shelter, which was only designed to hold about 120 animals.
Photo: Bob Andres /
Photo: Bob Andres /

Heartwarming free pet adoptions stem from stark reality in shelters

Photos of adorable, wide-eyed dogs and cats can be irresistible to people mindlessly scrolling through social media. The animal’s long digital gaze begs for a home, and the shelter further entices pet lovers with a period of free or discounted adoptions.

But there’s a starker reality to those popular pet deals.

Free adoptions are happening through the weekend at the Fulton and DeKalb county shelters for good reason: the facilities are overcrowded due to the seasonal boom in puppies and kittens. Free adoptions are one way shelters increase publicity and make adoptions more accessible. And because the shelters try to avoid euthanasia, it takes some creativity to help find each animal a home.

Of the 1,000 animals currently in the shelters, this campaign’s goal is to get at least 100 animals adopted, according to Karen Hirsch, a spokeswoman for LifeLine Animal Project, a nonprofit that operates the shelters for both counties.

Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts (left) and County Manager Dick Anderson get a tour of the Fulton County animal shelter last month. (Photo: Bob Andres /

Do a simple Google search for “free dog adoptions” in Fulton or DeKalb, and you’re sure to find a bevy of links to adoption promotions LifeLine has held over the past several years. Many are lighthearted, with fun themes like “Game of Thrones” or events where the animals are dressed up in pajamas. Other are more sober, like this week’s “lifesaving adoption event.”

Normally, the Fulton and DeKalb shelters receive about 30 animals a day, but that can rise to as high as 60 during the summer, Hirsch said.

“Since the shelters aren’t really built to hold that many animals, we work as hard as we can to get every single animal placed,” she said.

The Fulton shelter, built in 1978, was designed to house no more than 120 animals, but currenlty has about 380 dogs and cats, Hirsch said.

Athena and other dogs and other cats are free to adopt at LifeLine shelters in Fulton and DeKalb counties until Sunday, June 16, 2019. (Photo: LifeLine Animal Project)
Photo: LifeLine Animal Project

Fulton and DeKalb counties contract with LifeLine to manage their animal services and run the shelters. When the organization took over in 2013, it vowed to increase adoptions and lower euthanasia rates.

But the shelters get crowded, Hirsch said, because as a public entity, it cannot close its doors and turn away people who want to drop off a dog or cat. She said private shelters have the option to set a limit on intake.

In Fulton’s case, the shelter is also woefully undersized. There were eight dogs to a kennel and, with no space designed for cats, the felines are stacked in a separate trailer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in May. Robb Pitts, the chairman of the Fulton County commission, said the Fulton shelter looked “like a third- or fourth-world facility.”

County commissioners agreed to spend a quarter-million dollars to find the next best site to build a new shelter. They estimate they’ll spend $25 million on the project.

The adoption event runs through Sunday, June 16. (Photo: LifeLine Animal Project)
Photo: LifeLine Animal Project

A big reason for overcrowding is that the Fulton shelter wasn’t designed for animals to leave alive, LifeLine CEO Rebecca Guinn previously told the AJC. The year before LifeLine took over, about 40% of the animals that came into the Fulton shelter were adopted. The other 60% were either euthanized or died of other causes.

Last month in Fulton, 90% of the animals were adopted or placed with an animal rescue group, Hirsch said. That lifesaving rate in DeKalb was 95%.

There’s no time limit for how long an animal can stay at the shelters. The LifeLine website says it only euthanizes an animal when it is medically necessary or “when an animal behaviorally is not safe in the community.”

The free adoption events have contributed to more animals being saved, Hirsch said.

Ash Walsh, a veterinarian technician, tries to calm down 10 year old "Brownie" for a senior check up in the clinic trailer in Fulton County. (Photo: Bob Andres /
Photo: Bob Andres /

Several industry studies, she said, have shown the “buzz” of free pet campaigns encourages more adoptions than charging even a small amount. Staff members interview new owners and teach them basic skills to minimize the chance that animals are put in the hands of people who can’t handle owning pets, Hirsch said.

The normal charge is $85 for a dog and $65 for a cat. “When we offer free promotions,” Hirsch said, “many people choose to make a donation, sometimes for more than the normal adoption fee.”

Free adoptions include spaying/neutering, microchipping and vaccinations, which LifeLine says is a $300 value.

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