As a follow-on to The Fable of Dogtown, I wanted to write more on rescue – specifically, which shelter animals rescues are pulling and why in some cases, it’s not helpful to those animals or the ones left at the shelter.
When you hear the word rescue in reference to animal shelters, what comes to mind? For me, I picture dogs and cats being saved from the shelter’s kill list. The pets may have been kill listed for any number of reasons such as lack of space or medical/behavioral issues – a category encompassing a wide array of conditions including old age, young age, shelter environment induced behaviors like self harm and many other issues. In no kill shelters, I picture rescuers walking in and asking for the least adoptable animals in the facility. That to me is rescue.
But in too many shelters, that is not at all what’s happening. Some rescues are cherry picking the most adoptable pets in the shelter – purebreds, lap dogs, visually striking animals (such as those with heterochromia or unusual coat colors and patterns) and the easy keepers. Often the rescues pull these animals, by arrangement with the shelter, before they ever get put on the adoption floor or listed as available.
Rescues that transport across the country are often pulling animals with no known issues who look cute in pictures and can be adopted straight off the transport vehicle upon arrival at the destination location.
So who’s left at the shelter? Pets with medical and behavioral challenges, plain Jane mixed breeds, dogs over 40 pounds, black cats, and pitbull type dogs – lots of those. Potential adopters walk through the shelter or look online and see scared cats hiding in the back of the cage, kennel crazy dogs spinning and barking maniacally, depressed large dogs and many, many block headed type dogs.
The question I would pose to rescue groups is this: What are you rescuing these animals from? In too many cases, the answer is the animals are being “rescued” from attracting adopters to the facility, helping other pets get adopted and being quickly adopted themselves. To put a finer point on it, if rescuers don’t believe the shelters they partner with are capable of quickly adopting out easy keepers, little dogs and adorable pets, they need to advocate for, and possibly assist with, systemic change in those shelters because those shelters are failing.
On the other hand, if rescuers do believe the shelters they work with would be able to quickly adopt out the animals they are pulling, why are those the pets being “rescued”?
Breed specific rescues say they understand the needs of their chosen breed better and can get the dog or cat into a more suitable home than the shelter. I’m not sure that’s always accurate. I think for some individuals, e.g. rare breeds with special needs not well understood by the average pet owner and unsocialized animals who have suffered from neglect or other cruelty, they probably are better off going through a breed rescue. But in the majority of cases, especially with common breeds and individuals without special needs, that’s not necessarily true. Pets pulled by breed rescues typically go first to foster homes, not permanent homes. For pets without special needs, this places undue stress on the animals. And many of these groups charge very high adoption fees, excluding a lot of potential adopters.
Some all-breed rescues contend they need the adoption fees from quick turnaround pets because they are non-profits that don’t receive any government funding. Using adoption fees to fund a rescue operation is the pet store business model and one I reject for rescues.
Rescues should utilize a financial model that relies on grants and charitable donations, both monetary and in kind. Every rescue should work with a grant writer and a fundraiser. There are experienced grant writers and fundraisers out there and some of them are pet lovers who would be happy to put their skills to use to save shelter animals. Not relying on adoption fees for operational costs also allows for “pay what you will” or free adoptions – options that should always be available in order to run a promotion or simply get an individual animal into a loving home.
Municipal shelters need the purebreds and adorables to attract adopters to their online listings and physical location, which in some cases is next to the sewage treatment plant or the landfill or some other remote area. Attracting adopters is essential because, while many will already have an idea in mind of the pet they want, meeting all the animals in the shelter provides an opportunity for them to fall in love unexpectedly. It’s the shelter staff’s job, through online marketing and making the in person shelter experience positive, to create those opportunities. An adopter may walk in knowing the type of pet they want but a good shelter allows them to meet the pet they didn’t know they wanted.
Without a steady stream of eyes on the available shelter pets though, that’s not going to happen. That’s why having the highly adoptables intermixed throughout the shelter population is so important. Successful shelters shouldn’t let their high value animals go without sufficient reason to believe it’s in the pet’s best interest to do so. Shelter managers should feel empowered to direct rescue groups to the animals they need the most help with. And rescuers should focus their efforts on those animals.