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Betsy Saul Headshot

Then and Now: 15 Years of Pet Adoption

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Today a good friend told me that I was "just like Mark Zuckerberg, only the opposite." Insisting this was a compliment, he said, "Zuckerberg made Facebook because he has a great mind for business, and incidentally he helped foster a revolution in Egypt. Meanwhile, you started Petfinder because you're socially responsible, and incidentally you created this great business."

Both are social profit companies, so the original intent doesn't matter. The final impact and how the company uses its success along the way are what matter.

My friend is the marketing guru behind Frontline flea and tick preventative. Friendships like this have been one of the coolest things about having a social profit company. Some of the best minds in the industry give themselves over to your problem -- in our case, "how do we make sure that no adoptable pet is euthanized simply because he or she became homeless."

Petfinder's success came about largely because we forged the link in animal welfare between supply and demand. Shelters had pets, but they hadn't found an effective way to find their customers. Fifteen years ago, most people didn't know where to find their local shelters and didn't understand that great, healthy pets awaited them there. Back then, experts estimated 16 to 20 million animals were euthanized in the United States annually.

Petfinder had this crazy notion that we could double adoptions if people just met the amazing pets who were awaiting them in shelters -- that homeless pets were suffering from a lack of exposure.

Through virtual exposure -- getting pets out of the shelter and into America's living rooms via the P.C. -- we doubled adoptions, and then some. In 2011, the number of pets euthanized may shrink to under 4 million. Petfinder is responsible for facilitating over 60 percent of all adoptions. This month, over 6 million people will come to Petfinder to meet their new best friends. Petfinder will play a part in finding 2.5 million "furever" homes this year.

In stark contrast to when we started Petfinder, shelter-pet awareness is at an all-time high. A women's magazine recently named me one of the top 50 women making a difference, placing animal welfare squarely on a par with hunger and education. Support for shelters is strong.There have been huge advances in care for homeless pets. "Shelter medicine" is becoming a veterinary specialty, and shelters are training their pets -- keeping pet's bodies and minds healthy during the shelter stay. Even so, I can't get those last 4 million pets that will be euthanized out of my mind. Those are the brothers and sisters of the lucky ones sitting at our feet.

They represent many challenges. We face a huge geographic disparity. Pets that would be easily adopted in the North are still being euthanized in the South. Even if you live in a community with amazing adoption groups, probably all you need to do is drive a few counties over to find a heart-wrenching situation, like a shelter stuck in the 70s with a gas chamber. Also, communities with the expectation of eliminating euthanasia of adoptables will require more behavioral intervention in the future.

And cats in most shelters are in a state of crisis. We must get cats the resources they need. A special task force, the CATalyst Council, is trying to address this lagging issue.

More support is needed. To try to muster enthusiasm for the final 4 million, Petfinder has launched FurKeeps, a program that focuses on reducing the number of pets going INTO shelters.

How do we do this? We microchip them so, if they get lost, we can help them find their way home. We insure them because no family members should be abandoned or euthanized because their pet parents can't afford to get them medical treatment. Finally, we train them with positive techniques that feel like play and forge an unbreakable bond. These initiatives address the big issues that lead to pets being relinquished to shelters.

We want adoptable pets to get the attention they deserve. From dogs and cats to turtles and barnyard animals, we will continue to bring them into your living room, office and iPhone. Even the more beleaguered get their own celebrations, like Adopt-a-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week in September.

With the growth of Petfinder.com's massive audience and the subsequent elevation of the pet to family member, we unwittingly heralded a new age for pets in the U.S. Now, not only do most people know where to find their local animal shelters, 25 percent of their pets come from shelters and those pets are often vaccinated, microchipped, trained and insured.These have been innovations of the last few decades.

This year, we're celebrating our 15th birthday and 17 million adoptions. We're also celebrating healthier, happier lives for pets and the people who love them.

But we still need more hearts and more minds. Join us in supporting adoption groups. With volunteers, donors, foster parents and the innovations that will follow from so many sharp people getting involved, we will achieve our mission and ensure that every adoptable pet has a home. (Meanwhile, don't forget to Friend us on Facebook.)