Why adopters should be just as choosy about rescues, as rescues are about adopters

Posted in Philosophy at 12:40 am by ACR&S

After last week’s post on the rationale for restrictive adoption policies, I wanted to switch to the other side and talk about the how prospective adopters can also be selective and strict in selecting a rescue from which to adopt. The relationship between an adopter and a rescue is a contractual one, and contracts work both ways – the rescue has obligations to the adopter, not just vice versa.

Many people adopt almost on impulse – they fall in love with one particular animal, and they never think about comparison shopping with other rescues, because they’ve already found the perfect pet and are willing do whatever the animal’s rescue requires of them. But other adopters enter into the search for a new pet like they might search for a new house – they maybe have a few basic desires in mind, but are open to meeting many animals and working with any rescue. Some people even choose a rescue which they like, and wait until that rescue is able to find a candidate animal who matches their interests. It’s these latter two categories of folks who can benefit from making sure that the rescue they choose to work with holds up their end of the contractual obligations.

What are the risks of not being choosy about where you adopt your pets? Most obviously, you might end up with more than you bargained for (click for fullsize):

Craigslist pregnancy

Rescues and shelters can be just as guilty about this as the folks on Craigslist. Even well known, government funded shelters, if they aren’t used to caring for small animals, may make mistakes in sexing their animals. It only takes a few minutes in the wrong cage for a boy to wreak lots of havoc on the girls and their future adopters.

Even worse are the rescues who intentionally mislead adopters. I’d love to tell you that all rescuers have a heart of gold, but it’s just not true. The stereotype of the crazy cat lady persists for a very good reason: crazy rescuers do exist. They may lie about having provided vet care, lie about the conditions the animal is kept in, or lie about the animal’s behavior and health. You know the type – they rave about how they provide thousands of dollars in care to their animals, but won’t let you come to their home. Instead they meet you in the parking lot at Wal-mart with an animal who is smelly, matted, and obviously ill. Most adopters who wind up in this situation end up taking the animal anyway out of a desire to rescue her from the rescuer, but also end up with a future distrust of all rescues.

So while a rescue might enumerate a number of rights in its adoption contract – we have the right to inspect your home prior to adoption, we have the right to seize the animal if we find that you mistreat it, etc. – the adopters have rights too. An adopter who insists on their rights is primarily protecting themselves, but also doing a huge favor to the general rescue community. When you tell a sketchy rescue that you won’t do business with them because their practices are suspect, you’re helping put them out of business. This helps legitimate rescues establish a better image in the public eye, helps us get more animals adopted, and saves us from having to pick up the pieces when the bad rescue’s animals end up dumped and needing to be rescued all over again. So here’s some guidelines for adopters to use in evaluating rescues:

Request that the rescue provide you with proof of adequate veterinary care prior to adoption. Adequate pre-adoption vetcare is critical as a protection to the adopter. At the very least, the animal should be quarantined for a few days to see if illness manifests, before the animal is allowed to be adopted. This is especially problematic in small animals like guinea pigs and rabbits, because unlike cats and dogs, prey animals hide their illnesses – if the rescue you go to doesn’t have an exotics-savvy vet, they may not notice that they send you home with an animal who is ill. I once had a friend pull a rabbit from a county shelter so we could re-home her ($5 adoption fee, and they didn’t care to differentiate between a member of the public and a rescuer). As soon as I put my hands on the rabbit I knew something was wrong. I flipped her over, and she was draining bloody pus out of her anogenital openings. She had a massive infection inside, and the shelter vet missed it. It was only dumb luck that we got her rather than an unsuspecting member of the public. (She had to be euthanized, sadly. Her infection was so far advanced that even the emergency vet thought it was amazing she was still alive.)

Adopters may need to do some research to determine what constitutes “adequate vet care” for the species they are intending to adopt. Most people know what to expect for cats and dogs – they need to be vaccinated (at least for rabies) and spayed or neutered, if old enough. But rabbits also need to be spayed and neutered, a fact of which most adopters (and even some vets) are not aware. All animals should have species appropriate anti-parasite treatment – flea & tick, heartworm, and deworming for cats/dogs/horses, mite treatment (often with Ivermectin) for rabbits and guinea pigs, etc.

Animals which are adopted intact need to have some proof that the females are not pregnant. For guinea pigs, gestation is 72 days, and responsible rescues will put their females under pregnancy watch for this amount of time before allowing them to be adopted. If this is impossible, the rescue should provide you with a written statement of who will be responsible for any babies, and for any vet costs incurred in caring for the mother animal.

Adopters can avoid getting an animal who is ill, parasite-infested, or pregnant, by asking for the name and phone number of the rescue’s vet, and calling to verify that the animal received appropriate care as advertised. Your rescue should be more than willing to provide this information. Hesitancy can mean that maybe things are not as they seem. Sometimes rescues claim that vet records are not available because their animals are seen “by a friend who is a vet”. This can mean anything from “a friend who is a DVM and performs a full examination on my kitchen table” to “my yoga teacher, who once worked as a temporary receptionist at a vet’s office, and remotely reads my animal’s auras to determine if they are sick.” The adopter may be fine with this, but the rescue needs to be honest and upfront so that the adopter has no false expectations.

Ask to visit the animal in it’s current location, or to be provided with a picture of the current housing and information on current diet and husbandry. Almost all rescues require adopters to provide their animals with certain minimum standards for husbandry, like requiring that your adopted cat be housed indoors, or that your adopted bird be fed an expensive pelleted diet. This is fine, but the adopter has the right to make the same request of the rescue. An adopter doesn’t want to adopt an indoor dog just to find out that he’s been housed outdoors on a chain 24-7, or buy expensive food just to find out he’s been eating Ol’ Roy. If an animal is not adequately cared for at the rescue, she may come home with health and behavioral problems that impose an unexpected burden on the adopter.

I’m clarifying that pictures of the animal at the rescue should be a viable alternative to a visit to the rescue, because there are two valid reasons that a rescue may not want an adopter to come visit. First, most small rescues do not have a central facility; the animals are housed in foster homes. Foster parents may be single young women, or families with young children – the rescue, quite reasonably, can’t place these foster parents at risk by allowing a bunch of strangers to traipse into their homes with unknown intentions. Secondly, a rescuer who works out of his or her own home often keeps their address a fiercely guarded secret, using PO boxes for all communication. You know why? Because once your home address is known, abandoned animals mysteriously start appearing on your doorstep… Even the people you feel you can trust the most might give you away through good but misguided intentions. My vet gave out my personal pager number to someone needing to find homes for 12 baby bunnies. The vet had no way of knowing that the baby bunnies’ owner was a crackpot, but I was the one who had to change my number ‘cuz I had an irate redneck callin’ me all day and night.

So a rescuer who denies you a visit to the animal in situ may have a valid reason. But they should be able to tell you the reasons, and should offer to provide alternative forms of proof that the animal is receiving appropriate husbandry. It shouldn’t be that hard for a rescue to get a photo of the animal in it’s cage or pen, and that will tell you a lot about the quality of care. If the bedding is clean but the walls of the cage are rusty and encrusted with filth, the adopter might want to consider that something sketchy is going on. For diet, adopters can quite reasonably request a small ziplock baggie of the animal’s current food to mix with the new diet. If you hear “oh, I just ran out and haven’t been to the store” – run out of there yourself!

You can also find out a lot about the rescue’s level of care by seeing the animal in person – even if it means the rescuer coming to meet you somewhere – prior to finalizing the adoption. Meeting the animal when you have made it clear that you are not adopting today, can tell you quite a bit about how well the rescue is really caring for her. If she’s not wearing a collar, has over-long nails, is being transported in a cardboard box, is cowering and fearful, or is too smelly to touch when you meet her the first time, it may mean the rescue isn’t willing to exert any effort for the visit. Are they going to do any more for the adoption?

Pay attention to how desperate is the rescue to have you take the animal. Rescues should NEVER try to guilt, bully, harass, or scare you into an adoption you aren’t 100% committed to yet. They should want to make sure that you already have food, a cage or crate, a pet carrier (for smaller animals), etc., before they let you walk away with their animal. I attended an adoption event once where a rescuer told a potential adopter “you can go ahead and take [the kitten]” and the adopter replied that she hadn’t brought a carrier. “That’s ok,” the rescuer replied, “you can let her sit on your lap while you drive home.” “But I haven’t bought a litterbox or any food or anything yet,” the adopter replied. The rescuer responded cheerily, “Oh, just leave her in the car and stop at the supermarket on your way home.” (It was like 90 degrees outside.) I couldn’t believe I was witnessing a trainwreck of that proportion. And for god’s sake, don’t give in when the rescue threatens “well, if I can’t place her today, she has to be euthanized”.

On a related note, ask the rescue to recommend other places where you might find an adoptable animal. To paraphrase Pratchett, rescuers are like cats – they may not like one another, but they like to know where all the other ones are and what they are up to. A rescue which has a sketchy reputation is going to have a poor reputation in the rescue community, and they won’t want you talking to other rescues just in case you find out how bad they are. They may also badmouth all the other rescues in the area. Even when there is personal enmity between two rescuers, for the sake of the animals they usually try to interact professionally in front of members of the public. A good rescue also does not criticize other rescues on the basis of policy disagreement. I link people to several groups with whom I have deep and irreconcilable philosophical differences about who should adopt or how animals should be cared for. But the animals do still receive a minimally acceptable level of care, and these groups are totally honest in all their dealings. The only reason to criticize another rescue is if they actually harm their animals, or if their dishonesty would negatively impact potential adopters.

Bottom line: someone who can’t hold it together long enough to civilly recommend another place to adopt, is probably well on the way to crazy-cat-lady status in other ways as well. A rescue that gives you half a dozen options and says “and tell ’em I sent you” probably holds a deservedly high reputation and can probably be trusted.

Ask what the rescue plans to do if the adoption doesn’t work out. This question is a crucial litmus test of how reliable a rescue is. If the rescue doesn’t immediately barrage you with contingency plans for all potential situations, they may not have any plans. A rescue should have policies in place to deal with animals who are found to be ill, to have behavioral issues, or just to “not fit in” with their new family. It’s perfectly valid for the rescue to reply that the policy is “all sales final, caveat emptor‘. But an adopter has the right to go in knowing that. Among the worst replies a rescue can give an adopter is “don’t worry, nothing like that will ever happen”. Translated, this means “you’re going to be SOL but I’m not going to tell you that till you’re already up the creek.”

All of that said… it’s hard to evaluate rescues, just as hard as it is for rescues to evaluate adopters. Some times you get it wrong – you reject someone who is perfectly responsible and capable just because they forgot to respond to an email, and you didn’t have the time to send them a reminder. And sometimes someone who looks bad on paper is really quite wonderful when you know the full story. I’m not even sure that ACR&S could always meet all of the standards I’m outlining here, although we do try. And not EVERY adopter needs to be as persnickety about evaluating rescues as I’ve outlined. More than a must-have checklist, I want adopters to keep in mind that they have rights too, and to use one or more of these tools when they need help making a judgment call. And I want to remind both rescues and adopters that if rescue animals have a bad reputation because of a few bad apples, it’s up to all of us acting together to clean up the mess that threatens all of us.

Tune in this Friday to learn all about love, guinea pig style! Next week: Join the Make Mine Chocolate project!

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