When Sacramento real estate agent Kim Pacini-Hauch visited Gina Knepp, the director of that city’s Front Street Animal Shelter, she had no inkling she’d soon make a decision that would dramatically alter the shelter’s fortunes.
In fact, Pacini-Hauch didn’t have any plan at all when she sat down with Knepp in early November. She just knew she wanted to help Front Street during the holidays. In the past, Pacini-Hauch had donated money to the shelter and spearheaded a drive to furnish it with special cots to keep the animals off the concrete floors. She’d also supported other local causes, both animal- and non-animal.
“Maybe she needs a washing machine?” Pacini-Hauch recalled thinking as she drove to the meeting. “You need this, you need that. Because this is a city shelter.”
But when Knepp mentioned that Front Street was brimming with animals — around 300 cats and dogs were at the shelter, and nearly 700 in foster care — Pacini-Hauch was no longer thinking about washing machines. She was thinking big.
“I truly was shocked,” said Pacini-Hauch, a lifelong animal lover with an ebullient manner. “Think of putting almost 1,000 animals in one spot, and looking at 2,000 eyeballs, and tell me how you would feel if you saw that all in one location. And that’s what was going through my mind.
“And then I said, ‘I want to sponsor to empty the shelter. What do we need to do?’ It happened just that fast.”
What she needed to do was cover the costs of all Front Street adoptions through Dec. 31, the two women decided. That’s typically $65 per cat and $85 per dog — a fee that includes spaying or neutering, vaccination, microchipping and more — though the shelter offers a discounted flat rate of $20 during the holidays.
It worked — and then some.
A few days after the meeting, Pacini-Hauch and Knepp reconvened at Front Street to take photos to help promote this “Home For The Pawlidays” campaign. When the shoot was done, Pacini-Hauch said, someone pulled out an iPhone and shot a 38-second video, and later posted it on the Front Street Facebook page.
The video went viral. More than 2 million people viewed it in less than 24 hours.
Outside Front Street the next morning, it looked like Black Friday had arrived a week early: A throng extended around the block. Some people had been camping out.
On a regular day, the shelter does 10 adoptions, maybe 20 on an extremely busy day. On this day, Front Street completed more than 60 adoptions. And a month later, interest has not waned a bit. As of mid-December, Front Street had finalized more than 700 adoptions, all on Pacini-Hauch’s dime.
Even more remarkable is that this holiday generosity has traveled beyond the Sacramento facility. Knepp said Front Street started doing such a brisk adoption business that it was in a position to import animals from six other Northern California shelters and find homes for them, too.
Across the country, in the Tampa Bay area, a local resident contacted the county’s Pet Resource Center, pledging $2,000, which would cover 100 adoptions at $20 a pop. The benefactor, who asked to remain anonymous, mentioned being influenced by Pacini-Hauch. Center staff referred to the donor as Secret Santa, and some patrons paid it forward by covering the adoption fee for another pet. By the time Santa’s donation ran out, the center said, 126 pets had been adopted.
Shelters commonly offer adoption deals during the holidays. But Front Street and the Tampa-area shelter reflect an important trend, said Kim Alboum, the shelter outreach and policy director at the Humane Society of the United States.
“Now it’s not just the shelters waiving adoption fees,” Alboum said. “We’re seeing donors jumping in to waive adoption fees. When someone steps up like the Sacramento donor, it does spark the generosity of other donors, especially around the holidays.”
Front Street, Alboum added, “is getting a lot of attention right now. There are people who never thought of adopting who are now considering it. So this donor has done even more than they realize.”
Uplifting as these adoption tales are, they raise some thorny questions. Like: Should shelters be concerned about the motives of a person who adopts an animal when it’s free, and the care that animal will receive? One school of thought holds that someone who pays nothing is inherently less invested, and possibly less responsible.
Knepp lands squarely in the other school.
“First of all, how much you pay for an animal or whether you got it for free does not equate to how much love you feel for that animal,” she said. What’s more, she said, all potential adopters at Front Street are required to undergo the same vetting people do when paying the fees themselves.
Pacini-Hauch, meanwhile, said that she has no qualms about what her largesse — which she figures may ultimately total around $20,000 — has wrought. Indeed, she seems to be one of those people who toggle between highly enthusiastic and downright fervent.
So it’s a safe bet she’d be thrilled to hear about the adoption she covered for Susan Durst, who has fostered adoptable animals at Front Street. Most recently, Durst was caring for Daisy, a deaf 14-year-old shepherd mix. She’d said she had never experienced “foster failing,” the tongue-in-cheek term for a foster parent who ends up adopting an animal, often foreclosing the ability to continue fostering.
But owing to an array of factors, including Pacini-Hauch’s offer and Durst’s supreme attachment to a dog she called the most “senior of all seniors,” she decided to adopt Daisy. “This is my first foster fail,” she said in a phone interview, sounding not at all defeated, but categorically giddy. “It’s a little Christmas miracle.”
“Kim,” Durst later said of Pacini-Hauch in a text message, “has saved a lot of lives for animals, and people.”
Duncan Strauss is a longtime journalist and host of WMNF Tampa’s weekly radio program “Talking Animals.”