The Crazy Questions Animal Rescuers Ask Would-Be Pet Owners

Pets and people.
Jan. 26 2012 8:01 AM

No Pet For You

Want to adopt a dog or cat? Prepare for an inquisition at the animal rescue.

Lily.
Fed up with her attempts to adopt, the author decided to buy a puppy instead

Photograph courtesy Emily Yoffe.

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.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence and Human Guinea Pig columns. You can contact her at emilyyoffe@hotmail.com. Subscribe to Emily Yoffe's Facebook page.

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.

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.

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.”

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