There are people in the rescue community who are aware that zealotry is damaging their cause. (The ASPCA sided with DeGeneres in her dispute). After all, since fewer than 20 percent of new pets come from rescue groups, driving down that proportion is self-defeating. Jane Hoffman is the president of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, the organization that transports potential pets from animal control to private groups and provides training and other services. “You have two ends of the spectrum,” she says. “Pet stores will sell to anyone with the money. And then there are rescue group who won’t adopt to anyone. We need a happy medium.”
Hoffman, whose organization works to smooth out the adoption process, acknowledges that the attitude of a lot of rescue groups is to “try to screen out people.” She understands the psychology of these wary rescuers. These are people, she points out, who save animals from dreadful situations: wandering lost on the street, facing euthanasia in a kill shelter, being removed from a “skank” owner. “They put in a lot of time and effort and love this dog or cat back to health,” she says. “Some get a little overcautious and are so afraid to make the wrong choice. So they err on the side of rejecting what would be a perfectly good home.”
Being an animal rescuer can be a potent source of identity, combining salvation and self-sacrifice. But in recent years the ASPCA has seen that, for some people, this identity crosses over into pathology. Dr. Randall Lockwood, a senior vice president of the ASPCA, says that around 25 percent of the 6,000 animal hoarding cases reported in the United States each year involve purported rescuers, up from less than five percent 20 years ago.
It turns out no species is immune from ministrations of fanatical humans. Jen P. wrote that she filled out a lengthy application for a lovebird and was given approval, but at the last minute the woman who ran the shelter said she couldn’t part with the bird. “Last I heard, she had dozens of rescued birds in her home, and was refusing to adopt out any of them,” Jen P. wrote.
You might think adopting a cat would be easier than getting a dog. After all, the solitary, self-sufficient feline is the perfect pet for the working person. But I heard from people who were turned down because of the curse of full-time employment—the cat may ignore you, but you should be home all day anyway. Others were told they need to accept a pair of cats or get nothing. And don’t even think about telling the rescue people your cat might go outside occasionally. Lisa wrote to say that she rescues strays that live in her house but are allowed outdoors. When she was looking for another cat and explained this to the person at the shelter, they turned her away.
For any species, the outside world is full of dangers, even potentially deadly ones. Maybe we all should stay inside (and avoid bathtubs and stairs). I have one cat I can’t budge off the couch with a forklift. But the other bolts from between our legs when the front door opens and would be miserable contained in the house. I’ve had successive sets of cats for more than 30 years and have concluded the risk of them going outside is worth their happiness—and they’ve lived to ripe ages. Is it really sensible to keep rescued cats out of loving homes from which they may take an occasional stroll?
My former Slate colleague Jack Shafer, now a Reuters columnist, is allergic to cats and dogs. But he and his wife, Nicole Arthur, have two young animal-loving daughters, so they settled on rodents. Nicole didn’t want to support the guinea pig breeding industry, so she applied to a guinea pig rescue. The girls spent hours looking at the group’s website and their 8-year-old fell in love with a guinea pig that was supposed to be at an adoption event. But when the family got there the guinea pig in question was absent because of illness. The girl wept, but her parents consoled her and said there were many wonderful guinea pigs that needed homes. After the event the family awaited word on when to get their pets. But the word that came was that the family was unfit, because it was clear to the rescuers that the pets were for the girls, and the group didn’t adopt animals for the sake of children. Shafer says, “My question is, what adult wants a guinea pig? Of course they’re for the children!”
So off the family went to the pet store and home they came with Nibbles and Snowflake. They eat lovingly chopped produce and contentedly sit on the girls’ laps. Shafer’s analysis of the guinea pig saviors is unfortunately true of many animal rescuers. “They are trying to do something good,” he says, “and they end up doing something bad.”