I am revisiting a topic today in order to reiterate my position and address the most common responses I receive whenever I post about it. The issue is this:
So long as there are pets being needlessly killed in shelters, I favor giving shelter pets to anyone who wants them, provided the person hasn’t been convicted of animal cruelty. We may not like all aspects of the home environment but if they are willing to save a life (and freeing up a space at a rescue in order to allow another life to be saved qualifies), let them.
Some shelters and rescue groups judge potential adopters negatively based on things such as physical appearance, income level or desire for privacy in their own home. As long as the adopter hasn’t been convicted of animal cruelty, fills out a basic adoption application and provides photo ID, I see no reason not to approve them for adoption. There are a wide variety of people in this world who love pets. If they want to rescue a pet, they are the “right” kind of people. By adopting to them, you are not obligated to go on vacation with them or spend holidays at their house. You are saving a pet’s life.
But there’s more. You are establishing a relationship with the adopter, thus giving you the opportunity to provide education and assistance if needed. You are leaving them with the impression that saving a pet’s life is a positive experience. They’ll tell their friends and family members. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.
On the flip side, when animal organizations make adopters feel judged and turn them down, they drive those adopters to other sources for pets. Pet stores don’t judge. Flea markets don’t turn people away. Irresponsible breeders make all comers feel welcome. In addition, the would-be adopter is left with a bad taste in his mouth about saving a pet’s life. He’ll tell his friends and family members. That kind of publicity hurts shelter pets.
Many of the responses I receive whenever I raise this issue are from well-intentioned people who truly care about the well being of shelter pets. I’d like to address some of those here. (Note: These are my summaries of typical responses I’ve received in the past. They are not directly attributable to any person or persons.)
- If we don’t visit the home and/or require a background check and/or [insert your arbitrary adoption requirement here], the pet is likely to end up being abused. There are fates worse than death.
There are no fates worse than death. Where there’s life, there’s hope. The overwhelming majority of pet owners – I would go so far as to say nearly all pet owners – try to do right by their pets. They do not beat, starve or otherwise intentionally harm them. While there are people who may be able to provide a better quality of life for a pet if they received some non-judgmental education on the subject, that does not make them bad people. And if you establish a positive relationship with them from the outset, you position yourself to be a source for that education. If you drive them away to an alternate source by making them feel judged, how will they ever benefit from your experience? Do we want to rely on the pet store to provide them with support for the lifetime of the pet? Do we want them to have an intact, unvaccinated pet from an alternate source or a neutered, vaccinated pet from a shelter/rescue?
- If they can’t afford a high adoption fee, they will never be able to pay for vet care if the pet breaks a leg or has some other emergency.
Just because the adopter can’t come up with hundreds of dollars to buy a pet from your animal organization, it does not mean he would not work a miracle to pay for a vet emergency for a pet he developed a bond with at some future time. And that’s if an expensive emergency ever arose. I have owned many pets who lived their entire lives never suffering a broken leg or bloat or anything similar. There is no reasonable basis for the assumption that the pet will require expensive emergency vet care and that the owner will be unable to pay for it when it occurs.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume the pet will break a leg at some point and the owner will be unable to pay for vet care. I go back to the premise that if you establish a positive relationship with them from the outset, you position yourself to be the group the adopter turns to in a crisis. You – who has a network of advocates, who knows how to fundraise, who has a reasonable vet your group has a good relationship with – you would be in a position to assist. Or did you expect the flea market vendor to help out this pet in need?
- Not everyone should be allowed to have a pet. Why should my organization spend resources helping someone become a better pet owner when we can just decline their application and wait for someone else to apply?
While it may be your belief that not everyone should have a pet just because they want one, the fact is they are going to get a pet somewhere. We try so hard to turn people on to the idea of adopting shelter/rescue pets, trying to get them in the door as it were, we need to think very hard before turning away someone who comes to us wanting to save a pet. The reason your organization should offer people a hand up when needed is because you are dedicated to animal welfare. You are performing a community service. By saying yes to more adopters, you are freeing up space to help more pets. And because you don’t honestly believe that an irresponsible breeder is going to support your community in the way you will.
- So you’re saying we should give pets to Michael Vick? After all, he wasn’t convicted of animal cruelty.
No. Again, most everyone who applies to save a pet’s life is going to try to do right by that pet. The Michael Vicks of the world are the rare exception, not the rule, and policies should be geared toward reasonable expectations. But to answer the question, if someone who has publicly confessed to torturing dogs and whose confession has been corroborated by testimony from multiple witnesses in federal court applies to adopt a pet from you, turn him down. We do not want to supply additional victims to people we know for certain are sadistic animal freaks, regardless of whether they have an animal cruelty conviction on their record. But this would be a very unlikely application to come across and there is no need to make a policy specifically to weed out Michael Vick.
- Are you talking about my shelter/rescue group?
If your shelter kills pets or your rescue group pulls pets off death row as space becomes available in your facility or foster network, yes. If your group is narrow in scope, such as a breed rescue which typically handles a small number of pets with none at risk of being killed, no.
- So we shouldn’t bother trying to match the pet to the adopter? Just give any pet to anyone, even if a 90 pound elderly woman with a walker wants a 120 pound dog-aggressive Mastiff with no leash training?
Continue trying to make the best possible match between adopter and pet while bearing in mind that the pet someone falls in love with may be the right match, even if it doesn’t strike you that way at first. I can not stress enough the value of establishing a positive relationship from the outset so that the adopter is open to hearing your suggestions. When adopters understand you have both their best interests and the pet’s best interests in mind, they will be far more receptive to your input. If they feel they are being deemed unworthy, they will seek a pet from a source which does not make them feel that way.
- I adopted from a group that charged $450 for the pet, visited my home, conducted a background check, had me fill out a 20 page application and sign a contract stating that they can take the pet back at any time if they feel it’s warranted. I’m fine with all of that. It shows me they care.
Good for you. Not everyone feels the same way you do. Many people, including me, would be turned off by these policies and would be unable and/or unwilling to pursue the adoption. And since shelter pets are being killed, purportedly for lack of space to house them, I want everyone to feel included in the adoption pool.
Last I checked, there are not mile long lines of potential adopters leading to the front door of every shelter and rescue in this country. Let’s value the ones we have, even if they are different from us in some ways. Let’s embrace the community we have and work towards making it the community we want it to be.