Life didn't look too bright for Peanut Butter and Diablo, two cats up for adoption at the SPCA Tampa Bay in Largo.
While cute, friendly and healthy, both were 13 years old, geezers in the feline world and way past their prime for finding new homes.
But the price was too cuddly to pass up: Free.
A week after the siblings arrived, an older couple who recently lost their pet adopted the cats together. Shelter officials cheered, mission accomplished. Their program worked.
Peanut Butter and Diablo were the latest to benefit from the shelter's free cat campaign, which runs through June, Adopt-A-Shelter-Cat month. The SPCA Tampa Bay is one of about 150 shelters nationwide offering the program to help find homes for cats 1 and older, the most difficult to place.
In the first week, about 20 adult cats were adopted, significantly more than usual. At any given time, the shelter has 80 to 100 family-ready cats, the majority fully grown.
"An incredible number of lives have been saved,'' said Emily Weiss, an animal behaviorist for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a program sponsor. "It gets people walking through the door.''
Not everyone purrs at the idea. Animal lovers have blasted the giveaway as an opportunity for cats to end up as snake food or laboratory specimens or become neglected and abused.
The nationwide backlash prompted the ASPCA to conduct a study on whether cats adopted for free are more at risk of being harmed than cats adopted for a fee. The results, published in 2009 based on a shelter in Maine, found no difference.
Supporters say free campaigns encourage people to look beyond kittens — always the first to get adopted — and reduce euthanasia rates. More than half of adult cats in shelters are put down nationwide, according to the ASPCA. Each year, more than 15,000 cats enter Tampa Bay shelters.
In Largo, feline counselor Phyllis Combs said it's often easier to match people with adult cats because they already have distinctive personalities and traits. Volunteers know which cats would be good with dogs, other cats and children. Many are declawed.
Every prospective owner is thoroughly screened to help ensure a cat's happily forever after. If an inkling of suspicion arises, shelter officials will call veterinarians, county animal services and even landlords to determine if an owner has had past problems with animals.
"Most of the people who come here have lost a pet,'' Combs said. "These people are well-qualified to take of animals and we make sure of it.''
The cats leave spayed/neutered, microchipped and vaccinated, unlike many obtained through classified ads or pet stores. Owners get 30 days worth of pet insurance and can return the animal if it doesn't work out. Normally, the Largo shelter charges $35 for adults and $45 for kittens.
Shelters offset the lost revenue by reducing the average length of stay for the adult cats, which can cost $75 a day to care for. Many people not expecting a free cat often end up spending more in shelter shops or make a donation, said Angela Durden, adoption/boutique manager for SPCA Tampa Bay.
Free cat campaigns were virtually unheard of until recently as shelters looked for ways to attract more customers. Only 11.5 percent of cats are acquired through shelters. Others come from breeders, friends and strays.
The Humane Society of Tampa Bay has tried free, low-cost and buy-one-get-one cat campaigns and found that $19 seems the most effective price in adopting older ones.
Still, Sherry Silk, executive director of the no-kill shelter in Tampa, welcomes any method that results in more cats getting good homes. Two-thirds of its felines are adults and most stay there five or six weeks, compared with two weeks for dogs.
Every day, the staff turns several away, never know what happens to them. "If I had all the money in the world, I'd pay people to take them. Seriously,'' she said. "It's just so frustrating.''