An animal rescue is meant to be a conduit — critters come in one end, are improved and assessed in various ways — and leave out the other end, into what we try to ensure are permanent, happy homes.
So why do we hear so many complaints about rescues and fences?
One kind of fence, a sort of type-specimen for the problem with many rescues, is the literal one. If you are applying to adopt a dog from a rescue or from a shelter that has any sort of screening program, you can expect to answer a question about whether your yard is fenced.
What you can’t expect is to know what the “right” answer is.
For one rescue, the fence may be a red flag that you will toss the dog out into the yard for “exercise,” and may not be committed to walks and training.
For a different rescue, the fence or lack of it is just an entree to further questions about your plans, and may be useful information when matching a dog to you.
But all too-often, the fence — of specific height, construction, and materials — is a non-negotiable item. No fence, no dog. In general, these are organizations that place no faith in the efficacy of training, and undue faith in the reliability of physical restraint. You may find that a dog acquired from one of these entities has not had the benefit of any education during his time in the kennel or a foster home. He comes to you ignorant and unmannerly, and the expectation is that he will remain that way, a cute and useless drunk-and-disorderly love-object who has to be shut out in that fenced yard when company comes.
The lack of a fence becomes the wall between you and adopting a dog.
The thing about walls is, they are rigid, but unreliable.
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
This week, Slate published this article by Emily Yoffe decrying the unreasonable intrusiveness and petulant criteria of pet rescue adoption screening.
For every story that a would-be adopter tells about being turned down to adopt for inflexible, unreasonable, and downright insane reasons, I can match you a story from a shelter or rescue worker about the entitled, lying, deluded would-be adopter who thinks that adopting agencies have no right to ask any questions or indeed, practice any judgment about where the animals they have cared for, rehabbed, and come to love should go to live.
I’ve been on both sides of that story. Guys, when the write-up on the website says that this specific dog will not be available to a home with children, the fact that your eight kids “fell in love” with her picture does not alter that reality. Are you trying to get your offspring bitten? Do you think we decided that for whimsical reasons, because we are communiss anti-family atheist un-American lesbian separatists? One of us has been caring for this dog for months. That person may well be a professional trainer, and is likely to be a very experienced foster person with years of experience dealing with this breed. He or she has been working with an adoption coordinator, and maybe with one of the behavior coordinators, to both assess the dog’s temperament and address any training needs she may have. We are not just making this up, and there is no injustice involved in the fact that we are the ones to decide who can adopt each dog that is in our care. We do own the dog, you know.
On the other hand.
I used to volunteer for a local shelter. I’d walk dogs, foster litters of kittens, but mainly, I fostered supposedly hard-case dogs — the ones that were borderline in behavior, the ones that worried the kennel workers, and might trigger a meeting of the euthanasia committee for this “No Kill” shelter. They all left my house reformed and adoptable.
I stopped actively volunteering for them when my breed rescue duties expanded, but also when I discovered that their personnel wouldn’t refer adopters to my training practice because I was not politically correct — but they would continue to send me “thugs” to “fix” in ways that they must have imagined were brutal, but which were okay as long as they didn’t see or hear about it, and nobody knew. I declined to continue using the servants’ entrance, as it were. But I didn’t say anything when I stopped.
Couple years ago, I applied online to adopt a cat from them. I was interested in a mature housecat that liked dogs, if they had one, or if one came in.
The application was not extensive, but it did inquire about the reproductive status of all my current animals. Meaning, had all of my critters had their gonads removed?
(This can be a simple screening question. For example, if an applicant wishes to adopt an adolescent male pit bull puppy, the presence of a male Akita in the household might be a cause for concern, and potentially greater concern if the older dog is intact. This can be an opportunity for rescue or shelter personnel to suggest that a female pup might be more conducive to pack harmony. Just for example. Or if the rescue releases pups on a sterilization contract, rather than pre-sterilized, they may choose not to adopt a male pup to a family with a bitch until one of them is sterilized, especially if the family doesn’t have the experience and means to keep the dogs separated effectively.)
My answer was no. Out of seven total dogs and cats, one of my SAR dogs retains her ovaries, and is likely to do so indefinitely.
Their response: Did I need help paying for her to be spayed?
I did not. (And if I did, what business would I have seeking to add another pet to the household? But perhaps this was a trick question with no right answer. I never found out.)
Ah well, then — no cat for you.
Did the shelter imagine that the bitch endowed with the freakish reproductive organs that she was born with would miscegenate with a neutered cat, adding both numbers and strange to the shelter population? Were they worried about providing bathrooms for the transpecial offspring of the English shepherd and the moggie?
Is there some research showing that dog ovaries emit fumes toxic to kittehs?
Or was there simply a reflexive, unexamined, self-reinforcing orthodoxy within the adoption department that dictated: People with unspayed dogs are all puppymilling trailer-trash who will use the cat for target practice?
The adoption “counselor” seemed excited by dangling what she thought of as the “reward” of being allowed to pay them for a cat as an incentive for me to do the obviously right thing and surgically sterilize my SAR partner. (Only then could the world be spared the horror of more superb working dogs being carefully bred and sent out to loving homes where they will perform feats of service during their long and healthy lives.) She was on a holy crusade against dog gonads, and a theoretical kitteh was her spear. Maybe I could be coerced into following the One True Path.
I was not interested in what she had in her bait bag. And I no longer recommend that people support this shelter, or do so myself. I can guarantee that this shelter lost a great deal more than I did when it turned what was meant to be a mutually pleasant exchange into a power gambit over my dog husbandry.* Have you any idea how easy it is to acquire a cat elsewhere?
This very well-heeled shelter’s “thinking” is a good example of the fallacy that confuses rigidity with rigor.
The words share a Latin root, but are not the same thing.
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Rigorous standards for pet adoption are those that are designed to ensure that adopters are qualified to own a pet at all — they aren’t, say, on probation for zoophilia, or planning to sneak the dog past a disapproving landlord, don’t have a history of adopt ‘n’ dump. They are designed to discover whether the kind of animal the rescue offers is a good match for this adopter. And they are designed to help the rescue or shelter find a good match — or determine whether they currently have one — for this adopter.
Just avoiding legally actionable abuse is not where we set the bar. Thus screening — including interviews, background checks, reference checks, often home checks — and thus, the adoption contract.
Because in your town, chaining the dog to a stump out back and tossing him some Ol’ Roy once a day may meet legal standards for proper husbandry — but it’s not the reason our volunteer just spent four months patiently training him to stay, come, and stop hiding behind the couch when a stranger comes in. The second quickest way to burn out a foster volunteer is to send her charges to carelessly-selected homes. (The quickest way is to kill them for space when she returns them to the shelter and call it “euthanasia.”)
I don’t have a lot of sympathy for would-be adopters who blurt out “You’d think we were adopting a child!” when faced with a three-page application. I strongly suggest that these people, if they wish to avoid a hearty smek in the puss, refrain from such exclamations within earshot of anyone who actually has adopted a child, or is in the process, or dogforbid was unable to do so.
If a rescue is not applying any rigor to adoption screenings, and has none in its adoption contract, you should ask yourself — on what else are they skimping? How well has each dog been vetted, evaluated, and rehabbed — medically and behaviorally? If I have trouble with the dog, will my calls be returned? If I need training or behavior advice, does the rescue have both the willingness and the expertise to help me? If I have a life setback that makes it impossible to keep my dog, will they really take him back — and if they did, would I be happy knowing that his next owner would be selected in the same way I was?
Many of the would-be adopters featured in Yoffe’s article, and many online commenters, sheepishly admit that after being rejected by rescue organizations, they “did the wrong thing” and went to a breeder for a dog.
First, I am not too thrilled at how thoroughly the public has reflexively adopted the attitude that buying a puppy from a breeder is always “wrong,” in contrast to the always “right” choice to adopt from anyone who claims to be a “rescue.” We can discuss that false dilemma another day.
An ethical breeder’s screening process is about the same as a well-run rescue’s. Her contract is going to be similarly rigorous. There’s going to be a return-to-breeder clause. Any differences in criteria should be pretty directly related to differences in the dogs being offered. For example, a well-bred puppy won’t automatically be sold on a sterilization agreement, though there should be some health and performance criteria for breeding written into the contract, and this can be intrusive. A small puppy places more demands on your time and attention than does a mature dog, so the breeder may be legitimately more concerned about your working hours or other commitments, and this can be intrusive. But a well-bred, well-raised puppy should not have any fear issues, health issues, temperament issues — no issues or hard caveats, period, just varying potentials — so a conscientious breeder is less likely to have restrictive criteria about what home a specific puppy can go to. (She’s still likely to select the puppy for you, or narrow your choices to the ones that she thinks will make a good match.)
Good rule of thumb. If it is way easier for you to get a puppy from a breeder than it is to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue something is very wrong.
Maybe something is very wrong with the rescue or rescues, as the Slate article claims.
More likely, something is very wrong with the breeder. Because for every inflexible, misanthropic, paranoid, power-tripping teetering-on-the-edge-of-hoarding animal rescue group out there, I give you a dozen internet puppymillers, small-time “miller lite” producers looking for pin money, and “Gypsy is such a pretty Labradoodle, let’s get pups from her” dabblers who have put no thought or expertise into producing the pups for sale and don’t care about you, or about what happens to the pup after the check clears. What I said about rescues that don’t screen also applies to breeders; if it’s easy come, easy go, you will be SOL when you need help with your dog.
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Consider this a plea for moderation, flexibility, and understanding.
Rescues and shelters, understand that tick-marks on a checklist are no substitute for judgment. Examine your procedures and criteria for potential Catch-22′s and any unexamined shibboleths that your organization may have enshrined without a reasonable cause. Potential adopters are, almost to a person, excited about adding a dog to their lives, and also excited about the feelgood rush of adopting rather than buying. There’s no reason to make the procedure so distasteful, so marred by dominance posturing and Mrs. Grundy judgements, that even approved adopters come away wanting to spit out the bile. This is not an adversarial process. Most people are not trying to pull something over on you, but the more nervous you make them, the more evasive and defensive they are likely to become.
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'
* Later the counselor found out “who I was” and allowed that an exception might be made on that basis, but only for certain specific cats — by which I think she meant, the ones they couldn’t move out of the shelter, i.e. the ones that were less valuable to them. Nice. No thanks.
This post was originally published on the now-defunct communal blog The Honest Dog in February 2012; rescued via the Wayback Machine and re-posted here.