A year ago, Clara Grace was a starving boxer mix abandoned in Fresno, California. Her ribs bulged through her rail-thin body and she couldn't get up on her own. Found by a local animal shelter, she was so weak and unhealthy she was put on the euthanasia list.
That might have been the end of her story, but instead Clara's now living out her senior years with a pair of humans who dote on her. Sweet, quiet and much healthier, she spends most of her time napping on the softest part of the couch that used to be ours. It's been a wonderful experience for us all, and we wouldn't have found her without Mark Zuckerberg's creation.
2018 was a horrible year for Facebook. Beset by an endless stream of scandals involving user privacy, data breaches, hate speech and fake news, the shine has come off a company that once seemed unstoppable. Governments in the United States and the European Union have questioned its executives in public hearings and the campaign to "Delete Facebook" has moved from the call of a few to a full-grown movement. But not everyone is joining the cause. For animal shelters and rescue organizations in particular, Facebook is an invaluable tool. The social network's vast reach (2 billion users), versatility and affordability (it's free to use) lets them help more animals than before it existed.
And they're not about to give it up.
"[Social media] allows us to do so much to help animals," says Kymberlie Adams, the social media director of the ASPCA. "It saves lives... we can't do business without it."
A Wonder Dog
Linda Beenau is the founder and director of Wonder Dog Rescue, the San Francisco-based organization that saved Clara from that Fresno shelter. Beenau has been helping dogs for 28 years and won't unfriend Facebook anytime soon.
"It's a wonderful asset," she says. ["When promoting adoptable dogs] it's better to use something with a visual rather than just send an email, which may not be opened."
Wonder Dog isn't alone. A September study by the ASPCA found that 76 percent of the shelters and rescue organizations surveyed say their social media use has increased in the last year, with Facebook being cited as the most effective platform for increasing adoptions. Sixty-six percent said social media had boosted fundraising levels and 56 percent said it's helped them be more successful with placing senior animals or those with special needs.
Beenau and a colleague primarily use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to post photos and short profiles of dogs available for adoption or fostering. While Instagram is best suited for smaller soundbites tailored to a younger audience, Facebook posts with longer stories about available animals and fundraising requests get the highest response rate. Apps like PetFinder and WeRescue (both are free on iOS and Android) are valuable tools, as well.
Though Wonder Dog still posts dogs on its own website and holds regular adoption events in the San Francisco Bay Area, both methods require people to come to it. But Facebook serves as an effective portal by delivering dog profiles directly into someone's feed, even as they're looking at photos from a friend's vacation.
Social media "allows people to find dogs they want from anywhere," Beenau says. "If they want to meet a specific dog that they saw online, then they'll go to an adoption event."
Rescue dogs, or dogs who are less likely to be adopted because of age or health issues, have benefited the most. Because most shelters focus their limited staff and resources on caring for and promoting the most adoptable animals, they can use Facebook to network with rescue organizations able to take on the harder cases.
That's what happened with Clara. My husband found her profile and plea for fostering on Facebook in early July after liking Wonder Dog's Facebook page. We picked her up the next day and couldn't resist adopting her for good after a couple of weeks.
"Facebook has this immediacy," Beenau says. "If someone posts a dog on our Facebook page, I may not be able to save it, but I can share it with one click."
Still, Beenau says Wonder Dog is careful not to rely on social media too much. Not everyone who wants to adopt a dog uses it and the reach of a platform like Facebook can backfire. "If we bring in a desirable dog, especially certain purebred dogs or tiny and cute dogs, folks jump all over them."
A broad reach
Olivia Melikhov, the director of social media strategy for the ASPCA, is part of a six-person team that monitors the organization's social media accounts. She and Adams use Facebook (including Facebook Livestream), Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Instagram not just to promote adoptable animals, but also for issue awareness, advocacy for legislation at the state and federal level (such as regulating puppy mills), donor outreach and fundraising. In 2018, the ASPCA raised $4.5 million through Facebook's online tools.
Facebook says that thousands of animal shelter and rescue groups on the platform use its. Many of the groups are dedicated to a specific region or dog breed.
"We know people care a lot about the pets in their lives and animals in need and want to help ensure they are happy and healthy," said Paul Young, Facebook's director of charitable giving partnerships. "We build fundraising tools and other features so that nonprofit organizations, such as animal shelters and rescue organizations can help as many animals as possible."
Melikhov says each social media platform has distinct advantages. Like with Wonder Dog, Instagram is great for short stories about animals that encourage interaction. Facebook is better for full dog profiles, which can be easily shared, while Twitter gets short taglines and videos. (#FindYourFido is a Twitter hashtag the group uses to promote its campaign to encourage dog adoption from shelters.)
"A lot of people have soft spots for pets that have challenging stories and you can share those easily," she says. "We try to be on as many channels as possible and we can do it from anywhere."
On all platforms, though, the organization partners with celebrities and social media influencers to share its posts. For example, Patrick Stewart used Instagram last year to introduce Orson, a dog the ASPCA had rescued from a dogfighting ring, and Ricky Martin promoted the Find Your Fido program. And before social media took off, Sarah McLachlan's weepy and meme-producing television commercials for the ASPCA in 2007 raised roughly $30 million for the organization.
Rapid changes in how social platforms work, though, pose ongoing challenges for Melikhov and Adams. A year ago, Facebook overhauled its news feed to prioritize posts from family and friends and deemphasize those from brands and publishers.
"As a result, we've had to work even harder to develop extremely compelling content that is highly engaging in order to reach more of our audience," Melikhov said. "Additionally, we have decreased the frequency of our posts and focus only on the most shareable content."
Even so, she eagerly recommends Facebook to local shelters, which typically rely on volunteers and run on small budgets (the ASPCA also sponsors webinars to shelters on social media use). "It's free," Melikhov says. "If you don't have money for advertising, you can still use it."
Clara Grace isn't on Facebook herself, but my own page (and more than a bit of my Twitter feed) is now devoted to photos of her. She still has trouble walking and she needs daily medication for pain and nerve damage, but she looks a hundred times better than the gaunt dog we found on Wonder Dog's website. If she could like Facebook, I'm certain that she would.
Reporter Queenie Wong contributed to this story.