02.05.08

The theory and practice of adoption policies

Posted in Philosophy at 6:57 am by ACR&S

So let’s start the week off with some heavy stuff: commentary on adoption policies, and why some shelters & rescues are more restrictive than others. Here’s the quote that sparked these thoughts:

My opinion is that overly restrictive rescues are bad for [animals] in general. How many more people would adopt from rescues and shelters if they weren’t forced to go through some rescues unreasonably invasive screenings (seriously, calling someone’s manager at work?!) or restrictive rules. How many people end up at Puppymills R Us Pet Store because of this?

There’s a reason that different shelters have different levels of requirements: they have different goals, different ways in which they are allowed to allot resources, and they provide different types of services.

Typically, county-run shelters are the least restrictive: they maybe require a 1 page form where you write in your address. Maybe they also require your drivers’ license number to verify identity. The goal of these shelters is to adopt out as many animals as possible to any minimally acceptable homes. But those shelters are typically caught between the horns of an ugly dilemma: they are open access, meaning they are forced to take in EVERY animal surrendered to them and they are operating on public funds, so they have a responsibility to meet their budget expectations. These places can’t be generous with their per-animal cash investment, first because god only knows how many dumped animals they may have to provide for in a single fiscal year, and second because you know the bureaucrats and taxpayers will have a fit if they see the shelter spending too much money on any one animal.

As a result, these shelters typically don’t provide as much as privately funded rescues: maybe they don’t temperament-test their dogs, so they are placing animals with unknown behavioral problems; or you have a better chance of getting a cat who has a communicable disease; or maybe they don’t know how to sex their rabbits so you may end up with Bob the Pregnant Female Bunny. These shortcomings, just as much as restrictive adoption policies, contribute to why people shy away from rescue animals: “My sister got a dog from the shelter and he was crazy, therefore all shelter dogs are abused.” Also of note, if you return an animal to a shelter like this, there’s a very good chance it will be euthanized because one strike makes it get graded as “unadoptable”. There’s just no budget for second chances.

On the other side, you have small, specialist rescues whose goal is to place just a few animals into the best homes possible. Those are the ones who want your signature in the blood of your firstborn prior to adoption, and I don’t deny that some rescues can get crazy with it. But the restrictions are due to the extra work and money that goes into each animal. These rescues tend to provide a much-higher level of care pre-adoption: the animal’s personality is known PERFECTLY; he’s behavior tested with cats, kids, dogs, gerbils, etc; the animal is kept in a family home rather than in a small metal kennel; etc. All of these extras are privately funded, often by the rescuer themselves, meaning that it’s up to the person writing the check to decide whether to spend $20 or $2,000 per animal. Usually these groups spend far more per animal than they ever make on adoption fees, so naturally this makes the rescuer more cautious about placement. Tell me that if you spent $10,000 of your own money tricking out your hot rod, you would be willing to sell it on the cheap to Sleazy Jones’ Used Automart?

These groups also usually provide a post-adoption guarantee: if you return the animal IT WILL NOT DIE; it’s problems will be corrected (more money!) and it will be re-adopted. This has a significant cost aside from money – the groups who can do this are typically closed access (they don’t accept any surrender offered to them) and every animal who is returned is an extra burden on a group with maybe just a few foster homes and a small financial footprint. Every return means one more animal which they can’t take in. So the need to try and prevent returns by ensuring a 100% fit between animal and adopters, also necessitates that the rescue be more restrictive with adoptions.

So depending on what you want: an easy adoption with no guarantees, or a life-long contract with a perfectly matched pet, you can go to different places. It’s just the same as if you want a quick fast-food burger, or a romantic dinner that’s a guaranteed panty-peeler: you gotta pay differently for different qualities of service. The two kinds of rescues are simply NOT the same.

Does any of this imply that one type of rescue or shelter is better than another? NO. Animals from open-access, no-restriction shelters are not intrinsically different from the animals at closed-access, very restrictive rescues. The difference lies in the burden assumed by the adopter. An inexperienced, first-time owner is better off going to a restrictive rescue. Yes, they will find the adoption process burdensome, but they won’t get a “problem pet,” and they will be taught, prior to adoption, everything that they need to do to get it right. Someone with lots of animal experience (and time and money!) is better off going to an unrestrictive shelter. This person can enjoy the lack of restrictions, yet still be better able than the newbie to handle any behavioral or health problems, and they’ll also be saving an animal who might otherwise be returned and euthanized, if adopted by someone unprepared for the consequences of playing rescue roulette.

So in response to the question “would more people adopt instead of buying if all rescues were less restrictive”? My answer is probably not. Those that would turn to adoption, because they hate the current restrictions, are offset by those who would choose not to adopt because they want the greater per-animal investment that requires restrictive policies, to reduce the risk of getting an animal who may have unknown behavioral or medical issues. (The fact that pet stores’ and breeders’ animals are just as likely to display ill-manners or ill-health, is a topic for another day.)

Just because anyone can afford a cheap burger joint doesn’t mean there aren’t times when some people really want a four-course French meal.


Up Friday: BUNNY DANCE!!!!!!! Those more interested in serious business, tune in next Tuesday for a discussion of why adopters should be just as choosy as rescues.

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