Animal shelters and other organizations completed 10,366 reunions of pets with their families through the No Place Like Home Challenge, a partnership between the Michelson Found Animals Foundation and Maddie’s Fund launched in March 2021 as part of the nationwide Return to Home program.
“Our No Place Like Home Challenge was the first grant program of its kind to focus on loss prevention and reunification, with an unprecedented level of participation,” said Gina Knepp, the National Shelter Engagement Director at the Michelson Found Animals Foundation. She added that it was also the highest number of applications that Maddie’s Fund has received in one of their challenges.
More than $150,000 was awarded to 237 organizations in dozens of states across the country, which used the grants of between $1,000 and $5,000 to reunite 9,867 dogs and 499 cats with their families during the one-month period of the Challenge, using common and new Return to Home practices as guidelines.
Collaborating organizations included Adoptimize, the ASPCA, the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement, Best Friends Animal Society, HeARTS Speak, the Humane Society of the United States, the National Animal Care and Control Association, and the Petco Foundation, now known as Petco Love. Those partners promoted the grant opportunity to shelters across the country. Return to Home programs are those that actively reunite an animal with their owner in the field or before adoption, transfer, or other outcomes.
The Jacksonville Humane Society (JHS) in Florida, which received a $3,000 grant that helped them expand their Return to Home program, wrote about a success story featuring a lost dog named Martha.
“Martha was found by a Good Samaritan and brought to JHS,” Denise Deisler, CEO of JHS, wrote in a July 26 letter to the Michelson Found Animals Foundation. “We scanned her for a microchip and discovered she had been adopted from JHS in 2019. We called the registered owner on the microchip. No one answered and the voicemail was full. Using our new Return to Home procedures, we used Google Voice to text the number. Someone immediately replied. They had rehomed Martha to a friend who had moved to Fort Myers. He put Martha’s new owners in touch with us and it was then that we learned she had been missing for more than a year. Martha’s dad made the five hour drive the next day to be reunited with this sweet girl. We were so excited that the simple addition of using texting in addition to calling resulted in this happy ending.
“On behalf of Martha and all the other pets that your grant has helped, thank you! This Challenge inspired us in many ways and we are so thankful for the opportunity and to be selected as a winner. We are grateful to be a part of this nationwide Challenge to reunite more families. Generosity breeds joy.”
Lindsay Layendecker, Assistant Development Director at JHS, said texting pet owners wasn’t a tactic they’d considered before because it was cost-prohibitive. Then they discovered Google Voice, which resulted in a big increase in their being able to get in touch with owners.
“In Martha’s case, we wouldn’t have been able to reunite her without that change that we made thanks to the [No Place Like Home] Challenge.”
—Lindsay Layendecker, Jacksonville Humane Society
“In Martha’s case, we wouldn’t have been able to reunite her without that change that we made thanks to the [No Place Like Home] Challenge,” she said. “She would have gone up for adoption.”
She added that the Challenge inspired them to think about how JHS could increase their Return to Home efforts and try new approaches.
“Sometimes in animal sheltering you get so bogged down with the day to day, so it can be really difficult to take a step back and look at something as a whole program, because you’re so concentrated on the animals that are in the building right now,” she said. “The Maddie’s Fund and Michelson Found Animals Challenge gave us the incentive and gave us that opportunity. Sometimes it’s just the push that you need. The grant definitely sparked our imaginations and our creativity, to think outside the box.”
Knepp said countless other stories similar to Martha’s came out of the No Place Like Home Challenge. She plans to follow up with the participating organizations to see how their programs developed over the period of a year, and she hopes to continue the program next year.
“It’s never been done before,” Knepp said. “Millions and millions of dollars are given away to animal shelters every year, but always focused on adoption instead of getting an animal back home to its rightful family. The best thing for the animal and for the family is to support keeping people and their pets together. It’s the cheapest, easiest way to increase lifesaving.”
She added that Return to Home efforts were typically not the first thing that animal shelter professionals thought of when an animal came through their doors.
“Before the Challenge, the sentiment was ‘This one’s going to get adopted quickly’ or ‘This one’s going to be really difficult,’ instead of, ‘Where are its people?’ So it’s nice to see a shift in the focus,” Knepp said. “For example, an animal would come in and let’s say it was wearing an ID tag, but the phone number was disconnected. Most shelters would just stop there. But you can usually Google a phone number and start doing some essentially skip tracing to find out who that number belongs to. It’s just more due diligence and some elbow grease. These grants helped these organizations go that extra mile. For example, a lot of these organizations bought microchips or scanners for animal control officers to have out in the field so that if a dog they find is microchipped and registered, they can drive that dog home instead of bringing it to an animal shelter.”
Layendecker agreed that there has been a culture shift in the animal welfare community toward a stronger emphasis on Return to Home efforts.
“Many of the animals that come into shelters do have owners, they do have homes,” she said. “So if we can get them back with their people, then that’s the ideal situation. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a pet. So I’m glad that we’re able to focus on this and support our community.”
Return to Home policies include implementing external identification for all animals in the community, marketing lost and found techniques, creating an organizational culture that embraces Return to Home, using technology to help reunite pets and owners, enacting regulations and laws to encourage Return to Home, reuniting animals in the field rather than at a shelter, and more.