Eventually, Rusty was brought over. He was a little hyper but everyone agreed he was fine. M. told the rescue group they wanted him, and when the family returned home they started buying dog supplies. But a call from the group aborted their plans. “We had a report about inappropriate behavior by your children,” M. was told, which meant they would not be allowed to adopt. M. and her husband were astounded and the children were crushed. “We still really wanted a dog, so we did the wrong thing and went to a breeder,” M. says. They bought a Bernese Mountain Dog who basks in constant attention from M. and her husband, who both work at home. “He loves his life,” she says. “Too bad for Rusty.”
In many ways, it’s never been easier to adopt a rescue dog or cat. The Internet has transformed pet-human matching in the same way online dating has changed how we find mates, and it’s now easy to size up potential pets from the comfort of your laptop. The credit for this revolution goes to Petfinder, a Web clearinghouse for adoptable pets. The site, which has helped place more than 17 million pets, went national in 1998. By the turn of the millennium around 400 rescue groups were posting their furry darlings on Petfinder. Today, almost 14,000 groups post 320,000 available animals on the site. The number of groups grows by 30 a week, says Kim Saunders, the company’s vice president of shelter outreach. “If you’re a foster-based group, Petfinder is the way you get 99 percent of your adoptions,” says Saunders.
This would be unmitigated good news for the four-legged were it not for the problems of the two-legged. Let’s posit that many people who are drawn to humane work don’t have a particularly positive view of humanity. This natural aversion is exacerbated by years of helping abandoned, abused, and neglected animals, which means seeing the worst people do to innocent creatures. Unfortunately, a subset of these people who dislike people have become like admissions officers at selective colleges, rejecting applicants who don’t fit an ideal template.
Besides being as much fun to fill out as a Form 1040, many group’s applications are full of tricks and traps. Some are obvious. Anyone who gets to this question on one group’s application—“Do you plan to tie or chain the dog out at anytime?”—should know the answer is “never.” (I agree that dogs shouldn’t be chained outside). And you should know that the answer to this inquiry—“Have you ever had a cat declawed? Will you be declawing your new cat?”—is, “I would rip out my own fingernails with a pliers before declawing a cat.”
But other questions are conundrums. If you think having a dog would be great for your kids, or that your personal reproductive plans are not the business of strangers, then consider how to answer this question from a Labrador rescue group: “Are you considering having children within 10 years?” And who knows what number is disqualifying when answering this one: “How many steps are there to reach your front door?”
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.
Many adoption agreements also have a provision mandating that if things don’t work out with the pet, you must return it to the group rather than find it another home. Let’s call this the Ellen DeGeneres clause. The comedian adopted a Brussels Griffon named Iggy that just couldn’t get along with her cats. DeGeneres gave it to her hairdresser, who has two daughters, then aged 11 and 12, and Iggy basked in the love fest. Then someone from the group called to check in with DeGeneres on how Iggy was doing. She told them about the new arrangement. Not only was DeGeneres in breach of contract, the group didn’t want Iggy living with any children under age 14. They confiscated the dog.