People who rescue animals can be reluctant to believe anyone deserves the furry creatures. Some rescue groups think potential owners shouldn’t have full-time jobs. Others reject families with children. Some rescuers think apartment dwelling is OK for humans but not for dogs, or object to a cat’s litter box being placed in a basement. Some say no to people who would let a dog run around the fenced backyard “unsupervised,” or allow a cat outside, ever.
It used to be that people who wanted to get an abandoned or abused animal went to the local pound, saw one they liked, paid a small fee, and drove home with a new pet. Since the 1990s, however, the movement to reduce animal euthanasia and the arrival of the Internet have given rise to a new breed of rescuer. These are private groups, or even individuals, who create networks of volunteers to care for needy animals.
Before this, enormous numbers of animals who went into shelters never came out. More than 40 years ago, an average of 20 million dogs and cats were euthanized annually. Humane organizations started a campaign to spay and neuter pets, especially those coming through shelters, and today fewer than four million dogs and cats are euthanized yearly—still terrible, but a vast improvement. In addition to pet sterilization, an effort also began to find accommodations for homeless animals outside the municipal and private shelter systems, which have limited room and often short deadlines for keeping animals before moving them to death row. The new organizations take potentially adoptable pets out of the shelters and foster them, usually in private homes, until the right owner comes along. They control the fate of an increasing number of animals. In New York City, for example, almost 45 percent of the dogs and cats that come into the Animal Care & Control system are passed to one of more than 150 private rescue groups.
Groups like these have high standards for who gets to adopt. Applicants are sometimes subjected to an interrogation that would befit Michael Vick. After receiving this hostile treatment, several would-be pet owners told me, they got offended and gave up. Others push on, answering pages of questions (“As a dog ages, it often becomes incontinent and arthritic. How do you intend to handle your dog's age-related problems?”), supplying personal and veterinary references, and submitting to home inspections. Even after going through that ordeal, you can be told that you are unworthy for pet ownership, for reasons often left mysterious. At this point, many frustrated animal lovers can commit an act they’d previously thought abhorrent: They buy a dog, cat, bird, or guinea pig from a pet store or breeder. I know because that’s what happened to me.
A few months ago during a Dear Prudence chat, I mentioned in passing how ridiculous some rescue groups were. When my family decided to get a second rescue dog, I felt it was my job to prove to the groups we contacted that I wasn’t a vivisectionist. Fed up, we decided to buy a puppy and found a lovely breeder, and our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lily, has made us all ecstatic.
After I wrote this, I expected to be skinned alive by animal lovers. Instead, dozens of people posted comments about their own humiliation and rejection at the hands of these gatekeepers.
Katie wrote that she wanted to adopt a retired racing greyhound but was told she was not eligible unless she already had an adopted greyhound. Julie got a no from a cat rescue because she was over 60 years old, even though her daughter promised to take in the cat if something happened to Julie. Jen Doe said her boyfriend’s family lives on fenced farm property with sheep, but they weren’t allowed to adopt a border collie—whose raison d’être is herding sheep—because the group insisted it never be allowed off-leash. Philip was rejected because he said he allowed the dog he had to sleep wherever it liked; the right answer was to have a designated sleeping area. Molly, who has rescued Great Danes for more than 30 years, was refused by a Great Dane group because of “concern about my kitchen floor.”
My friend M., who looked into getting a family dog when her children were 6 and 9, had a similarly vexing experience. After she and her husband decided rescue was the right thing to do, they looked online and found a mutt named Rusty. Rusty’s rescue group was having an adoption day and the family made the long drive to see him. Adopters were told not to mingle with the animals, but that specific dogs would be brought to them. While Rusty was otherwise engaged, M. asked if they could look at some of the other dogs but almost all were declared not suitable for children. As the family waited, the children sat on the ground and started writing in the dirt with sticks. A volunteer came over, alarmed. He reprimanded them, saying that if a dog sees a stick in a person’s hand it will expect that stick to be thrown, and it’s not fair to frustrate a dog.