This is written based on my 5 years working at an animal shelter, and further experiences beyond. It is prompted because so many people often ask “If animal shelters want to help save the lives of pets, why don't they give them away for free?” Staff in many animal shelters are often accused of hating pets since the shelters euthanize pets that are not adopted rather than giving them away.
It must be noted that some shelters do give some pets away for free. Typically if this is done, these are old pets that are admitted to the shelter (surrendered by owner) fully vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and are ready to go. Some shelters offer free older pets to seniors, and free feral cats to farms (once they are spayed or neutered of course). However, if every pet were given away for free, animal shelters would soon have to close their doors for good.
Animal shelters typically adopt pets out at very low costs. Being non-profit they do not make money off of adoption fees. In most areas it is less expensive for a person to adopt a pet than to take a free one to the veterinarian for all the medical basics required (health check, worming, vaccinations). Further more most shelters offer funding incentives for spaying or neutering, and discounts on lessons, food, and supplies. Some pets even come with free supplies (often this is true of smaller caged pets and owner relinquished animals). As such adoption fees are generally less than taking a free pet and starting fresh.
Proper animal shelters do not just give pets away as they get them. They check the animals for behavioral problems, and have a veterinarian check them for health concerns. They get them vaccinated, and so forth prior to adoption. Why then should they give these animals away for nothing?
My Sleepy Cat, I adopted her 10+ years ago for $35. She was already spayed, dewormed, and fully vaccinated.
The shelters often receive veterinarian care for their pets at a slightly reduced rate due to the bulk amounts of animals, and are willing to pass the savings on to adopters. However they still pay the veterinarian for the services, so if the pets were given away for free – the shelters would soon lose a lot of money.
Most shelters get no government funding, or limited funding at best, as such without asking for even small amounts for adoption they would soon be in the hole financially speaking. The adoption fees at most shelters are lower than the actual care that has gone into keeping a pet, especially when you factor in building expenses, feeding, veterinary care, supplies, and staffing.
Pets that are acquired for free may not receive proper care. Sometimes if they get lost and picked up by the pound the owner would face a fine, as such, rather than paying this fine to get their pet back, they just go get another free pet. Free pets often do not get vaccinated, dewormed, or spayed/neutered. Indeed if a person cannot afford the adoption fee of a pet, will they be able to pay for regular on-going expenses, or emergency needs? In other words by paying for a pet people are showing a financial commitment to it. Questions are always raised when a person cannot afford a low adoption fee - will they be able to pay much more costly veterinarian expenses?
As such we see there are two main reasons why pets are not given away for free... If adoptions for pets were free the shelters would lose more money, and two, because people who cannot afford adoption costs cannot afford a pet (pets are luxury items). Most caring people know, and understand this, and would be happy to pay an adoption fee, knowing that it helps the shelter to stay open to help other animals in need.