Everyone knows that I’m an advocate of pet adoption. But lately I’ve been questioning whether many animal rescues are defeating the purpose and driving prospective pet parents into the arms of breeders.
I didn’t really think much of the motives and modus operandi of rescues until after I adopted my chihuahua, Chi-Chi aka the puppacita. I found her at one of the last old-school pounds in the area. The shelter staff handed her to me, I asked a couple of questions about her history, and a minute later signed a spay contract, waited while they microchipped her, handed over a $70 check and was on my way to PetSmart to spoil the puppa with whatever she wanted.
No counselor screening, no adoptive matchmaking, no home visits, no drama (though I fully acknowledge people can pick a dog that’s wrong for their situation without some guidance). And puppacita’s perfect. And she knows it. I did the things a rescue might do: spaying, shots, dental extractions, and house-training. Rescue groups often note that for the price you pay you get a shelter dog that’s been fixed up, so to speak, with the necessary vet work and training.
I started to meet other dog owners after the puppacita and I became attached at the hip. When I’d take her to the pet store on what happened to be one of those crowded adoption days, people would ask me which rescue I got her from. She’s a pound puppy, I still proudly say. I like the fact that puppa and I picked each other without whatever screening committee might have been at a rescue. Still, it’s befuddling when rescue groups ask me if I want another chihuahua when it’s clear that the puppacita isn’t into other dogs.
One of the neighbors I met had a big, beautiful dog that was a foster with one of these rescue groups. The neighbor eventually confessed that she couldn’t afford the care that would be required if she adopted the dog, but if she continued to foster him she’d get the paid vet visits and some food. When one couple expressed interested in adopting the dog, she indicated that she’d discourage this adoption from her end if she could. Months later, I still saw her with the dog.
When my bunny Napoleon Bunaparte needed a buddy, I first approached the local rabbit rescues. One of them would only adopt out bunnies that bore microchips listing the rescue’s contact information instead of the new owner’s. Some didn’t even respond. So I went to a local city shelter that let me match Napoleon with his favorite: a spayed French angora, Josephine. The application process was perfectly reasonable: questions about pen size, how much out-of-cage time she would get, how much I expected to spend on food and vet visits each year, other pets and whether or not I’d surrendered pets in the past. It’s great if a shelter asks the basic questions to know if a person will be committed to a pet and knows optimal care.
I’ve heard stories from friends and colleagues over the years, though, wondering if they were denied for adoption because they answered a question wrong on a rescue’s application. Emily Yoffe at Slate confessed, in a piece worth reading in its entirety, to buying a puppy after not clearing any of the adoption inquisitions, and got a lot of solidarity from other pet owners:
Ari Schwartz, a business development manager from Tarrytown, N.Y., and his wife, Lisa, a medical student, ran up against these Jeopardy-like quizzes when they went looking for a shelter dog. After filling out a multi-page online application from a local group, they got a follow-up phone call from a representative who noted they hadn’t given the name of their veterinarian. That was because the couple didn’t have a dog, Lisa replied. In Joseph Heller-esque fashion, the rep said that in order to adopt, a referral from a veterinarian was necessary. The representative went on to note the group preferred that one owner be home full-time. They also didn’t like to give dogs to people who lived in apartments, like the Schwartzes. The couple was told to get a cat. “My wife is deadly allergic to cats,” Ari notes. So—surprise!—they decided to go to a breeder. They now have a Shiba Inu named Tofu. “We absolutely love him,” Ari says.
If an applicant manages to get approved, the adoption papers should be read carefully before signing. It turns out the contract often specifies the adopter is not the actual owner of the animal. Sure you’re responsible for the pet’s food, shelter, training, and veterinary care, but the organization might retain “superior title in said animal.” This means the group can drop in unannounced at any time for the rest of your pet’s life and seize Fluffy if it doesn’t like what it sees.
I’ve written here about my sweet kakariki Poukai. She sadly died on Easter of egg binding. I knew that I had enough experience working with parrots by this point to adopt a bird, and began checking with shelters to no avail. The local bird rescue requires prospective adopters to put in volunteer time, then they’ll pick out which bird should eventually go home with you if you pass muster and pay the fees. Go figure that the same parrots from this rescue have been on Petfinder for as long as I can remember.
So I started perusing Craigslist. Craigslist ads have some patterns: the family that bought the cute little bearded dragon in the pet store only to find that it grew up to need a 55-gallon tank, the purebred bought for its cuteness that the owner learns is more work than a toy, the litters from the non-spayed bunny that bred like a rabbit. There are the sad ads: a photo of an iguana shoved in a birdcage with his tail pushed over his back, a macaw and a conure sharing a rusty conure cage, the dog that an owner thinks is just a bad dog when she clearly describes the signs of an untreated UTI.
But there are also earnest owners on there, including military members who need to deploy, wanting to find the perfect home for their pet and not leave it to chance at a shelter or shuffled around in foster limbo. The majority ask for a rehoming fee — some inflated, some just enough to ensure that the pet is going to an owner who will also be wiling to spend money on vet visits and quality food.
I didn’t see any bird ads that would be a good fit, so I headed down to my bunnies’ vet — the best specialist in the area that only sees birds and exotic pets — to see if anyone had posted a parrot that needed a new home. Sure enough, posted among the materials for the bird rescue that extracts slave labor before (if) picking your pet, there was a flier with a picture of a blue parrotlet. Squeegee, 4-year-old male, “used to be hand tame,” says a few words, free to a good home. I called the number.
The owner had a good reason for rehoming Squeegee: they have two hyper puppies and Squeegee made a sound just like a dog’s squeaky toy. So he’d been in a safe room for a while, not getting to interact with the family. The puppacita doesn’t play with toys, so no threat here. The owner only put up a flier in the vet’s office, with no ad posted anywhere else. Still, a humane society representative saw the flier, called and asked the owner to surrender the bird. The owner tried to explain that there was no hurry in finding the bird a new home, that they wanted to screen prospective adopters and didn’t want him scared in a noisy shelter.
That adopter turned out to be me. Squeegee has been settling into his new home since Sunday, has been happily climbing on me and my Macbook while I work, and is slowly learning how to say “hola.” He was treated very well by his previous owner, but when I picked up him the owner told me that the humane society had called yet again, asking for a surrender.
What unsettled me about this whole situation is that the humane society could have reaped a nice adoption fee from a parrot that goes for about $200, with no spay/neuter/shots expenses on their end. The owner, though, wasn’t interested in turning a profit and only placed an ad in a location where experienced bird lovers would look. Squeegee has a forever home.
If a forever home is the goal for all of the other pets out there, animal rescues should consider practices that protect pets while not turning off people who earnestly want to provide a loving home for a pet in need.