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Forget the surprise if you're thinking of giving a pet as a holiday present

Winding Branch Ranch co-founders Matthew Aversa, left, and his husband, Tim Kessler, appear with an emu on their Winding Branch Ranch in Bulverde, Texas on Dec. 6, 2023. (Morgan Arbo via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Adriene Mishler was still grieving the loss of her beloved blue heeler mix when her boyfriend at the time surprised her with a Christmas puppy that was nearly identical.

“I wasn’t quite ready to fall in love with another animal,” she said. “At the same time, looking back, I was also really blessed with an opportunity to pour my love into some other thing when I was feeling down and sad and alone.”

That was 2014. Today, her Benji is adored by more than 12 million people who see him regularly on camera cuddling close or sleeping nearby in videos on her YouTube channel, Yoga with Adriene.

There was a happy ending for Mishler and Benji, but that's not always the case when it comes to surprising someone with a new pet, especially amid the chaos of the holiday season.

Giving a pet as a blind gift isn't recommended, but offering one without the surprise element and with a little planning can enrich the lives of animals and humans alike. That's especially important now, when shelters and rescue groups are experiencing crisis-level numbers of animals due to the economy and higher costs for supplies.

In response to the overflow, shelter operators and animal welfare organizations have urged a more one-on-one, conversational approach to screening new homes, rather than the arduous written questionnaires of the past that are now perceived as unnecessary barriers to some adoptions.

But the new approach often requires the participation of prospective pet owners. That removes the wow factor and photo op of leaving a dog or cat under the tree with no preparation and a big red bow.

Instead, more shelters have turned to Santa-adorned gift certificates that are worthy of Christmas Day. They also suggest wrapping up all the supplies a pet will need and letting gift recipients choose their own animals later. If an actual animal will be turned over on the big day, some shelters will dispatch staff or trained volunteers to deliver, answer questions and facilitate the settling-in process.

“They always say the animal will pick you. Let that process happen. Having the recipient be part of the process is helpful,” said Jackson Galaxy, a cat behaviorist and host of Animal Planet's “My Cat from Hell” who has worked in animal welfare for 30 years.

Some argue that introducing a pet during the stressful holiday season is wrong-headed. Others think it's fine so long as it's done with care. Galaxy can't speak for the humans involved but said in regard to rescue pets: “We have to weigh it out. Was their day at the shelter any more stressful than their day in a new home?”

He and others also point to the debunked notion that more animals are relinquished after the holidays. Available data suggests that phenom isn't widespread, but common sense in bestowing animals as holiday presents should prevail.

“You want to make sure that if you’re going to give an animal for a gift, that the person actually is looking to add a pet to their family,” said Lindsay Hamrick, director of shelter outreach and engagement for The Humane Society of the United States.

Her organization partners with more than 400 shelters and rescue groups across the U.S.

Typically, diligent shelters make sure that parents getting a pet for their children choose one that is kid-friendly, Hamrick said. The same sensibility goes for adult children who want to give a pet to a senior parent.

“Make sure that the parent is excited about it and has talked about wanting a pet for awhile,” she said. “You need a sense of what that person might be looking for.”

In the high desert of Utah, Best Friends Animal Society has seen them all on its 8,000 acres near Zion National Park: horses, bunnies, birds, dogs, cats, pigs, and a range of relinquished or injured wildlife.

“It’s a great time for shelters to promote animals, for rescue groups to promote animals, because people are looking for pets during the holidays,” said Best Friends CEO Julie Castle. “We recommend that everybody who's part of the family is on board with getting a new pet.”

Best Friends doesn't support blind gift adoptions, she said. But she, Galaxy and others are more hopeful than not when pets are given as gifts.

“All of the data suggests that even when it’s a surprise, the return rate for those pets is not any higher than a pet that you go and deliberately with intention choose. Most people, when they end up with an animal, that animal becomes part of their life. But it is our recommendation that you go together as a family to pick out the pet,” Castle said.

Blind gifting shouldn't be motivated by what a gift giver thinks a recipient needs or wants. That includes offering up a cat to a non-cat owner in hopes they will fall in love, or presenting a new pet soon after an existing one has died (though Mishler and Benji are going strong.) What if a person wanted a specific look, size or breed?

In New York, Waggytail Rescue founder Holly DeRito sees the downside of surprise gifting.

“I just got a call yesterday from animal control. There was a potential adopter for a dog but it turned out it was a gift adoption, a boyfriend to a girlfriend. She didn’t want the dog so they returned him,” DeRito said.

Katy Hansen, director of marketing and communications for the nonprofit Animal Care Centers of NYC, a large network of shelters, said her system takes in 20,000 to 30,000 animals a year, including companion animals, goats and chickens.

“Like shelters across the country, we are experiencing a decrease in adoptions. I mean, we’re struggling. We need to get the animals out,” she said. “But it is never a good idea to give someone a pet as a surprise."

Castle did some debunking on another front: the idea that giving a new animal leads to widespread displacement of existing pets.

“It’s kind of an urban myth. I mean, does it happen? Yes. Percentage wise, is it significant? No,” she said.

Kristie Buccella, shelter director for North Shore Animal League America, also isn't on board with blind gifting, especially at the holidays. “It's a very hectic time of year for some people and for families. You have trees and decorations and all sorts of things," she said.

In June, Matthew Aversa and his husband opened the Winding Branch Ranch on nearly 9 acres in Bulverde, Texas, to rescue, rehab and rehome farm and ranch animals. The two are confident in their rigorous screening process when it comes to adoptions. At the moment, it's all about piglets.

“I'm indifferent to the gifting part,” Aversa said. “We're getting calls every day. They want to buy them for their wives, their kids, their husbands. If they have the space it's great. They need homes.”

Leanne Italie, The Associated Press

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