02.26.08

The role of special-needs animals in rescue

Posted in Philosophy at 3:34 am by ACR&S

In addition to our role as a Rescue (i.e., taking in unwanted animals and finding new homes for them), ACR&S also has a Sanctuary component. The role of the Sanctuary is to provide a permanent home for unadoptable animals to live out their lives in peace and comfort.

Many of the animals who wind up in the Sanctuary are special needs. This doesn’t exclusively mean disabled as it does in humans; “special needs” can mean anything which requires the prospective adopter to plan on an extraordinary level of care. Maybe it means an animal who can’t be handled by children (he bites as a reaction to previous abuse). Maybe it just means a long-haired animal who requires extra grooming every single day, plus regular haircuts. Maybe it means an animal who needs a specific type of cage, a particular brand of food, life-long daily medication, or just more frequent vet care to keep on top of a potential health concern (senior animals usually fall into this category, as they require frequent vet visits to detect the onset of age-related health changes).

Special-needs does not mean unadoptable; many special-needs animals do end up being adopted. For example, Shuli, a guinea pig with hind-limb paralysis, spent two years on the adoption waiting list, and then finally found a forever home who was willing to keep him on towels and offer daily leg massages. But when an animal has been in the Rescue for two, three years, at some point we have to assume that nobody will ever adopt him and that he’ll remain in the Sanctuary forever.

Even before they reach the Sanctuary, special-needs animals do take up more of a rescue’s resources. They spend longer in the Rescue (taking up a slot that could otherwise go to an adoptable animal), they require more vet care, and typically cost more time (meaning fewer animals can concurrently live in that foster home). So why should a rescue bother with special needs animals? Why would a rescue have a whole section devoted to them?

These aren’t hypothetical questions. ACR&S has at times been criticized for using resources on special-needs and Sanctuary animals rather than Rescue animals. In a discussion about the fact that we could save:

…wouldn’t it make more sense to try and place animals who aren’t special needs, knowing that there are perfectly healthy pets that will be euthanized anyway? Maybe you could place 12 healthy animals in a month to good homes rather than 4 special needs animals.

It sounds harsh, but if pets are going to be euthanized anyway it would seem to make more sense for a private shelter to adopt healthy pets from the public ones, and vow to adopt them out and not kill them, and unfortunately let the special needs ones go.

While many rescues do exactly this – take only healthy animals – it doesn’t actually increase the total number of animals getting adopted. Let’s say that the local shelter gets 1000 animals per month, they can place 500 of them, but it also euthanize 500 per month (50% is actually pretty good, many shelters have far worse adoption ratios than this). My rescue (which does not euthanize unadoptable animals) pulls a few animals a month from the shelter, and we can either place 4 special needs animals per month, or eight healthy animals per month:

Placing special needs animals
Me: 4 placed, 0 dead
Shelter: 500 placed, 496 dead
Total: 504 placed, 496 dead

Placing healthy animals
Me: 8 placed, 0 dead
Shelter: 492 placed, 500 dead
Total: 500 placed, 500 dead

I don’t argue that it’s a very, very small advantage. But the advantage is there.

You may wonder why in the second scenario, I’m not assuming that me taking animals from the shelter allows them to take in more (for a full 1000 per month). It’s because mostly when private rescues work with shelters, we do what’s called “11th hour rescue”. Hence the HRS logo, a rabbit next to a clock:

HRS Logo

We take primarily animals who are about to be euthanized at a traditional shelter. They’ve already had their chanced at getting placed in a low-requirement setting, and for whatever reason they couldn’t cut it. Maybe they’re too old, or have behavioral issues, or were returned and marked “unadoptable”, or maybe they just weren’t the fashionable color and nobody wanted them. But effectively, they ARE special needs because they couldn’t get adopted the regular way, and are about to die.

The way 11th Hour rescue works, is usually the shelter calls and says “we have twelve going in at 3pm, do you want any?” Nobody actually says anything about what happens if I don’t get them. If I have room for one, I drop everything and go get her. Sometimes I have a potential adopter who wants something specific and I ask “you got any female rexes?”. It’s like a very macabre game of Go Fish.

But sometimes I’m at the shelter for an altogether different reason, and I glance at the waiting room and I see one I just have to take. Maybe she reminds me of a beloved pet, or just has that look in her eyes that says she needs just one more chance. Most rescuers have literally taken an animal out of the death room, and in doing so we usually swear that this animal will never have to face that room again. THAT is the situation which makes you drop extra resources on “special needs”. In cases like that, it stops being the total number of animals that matters. It’s the INDIVIDUAL that matters.

This also happens at times when we’re not dealing with shelter animals:

BunBun was found by a police officer who was doing a check at a school after a hurricane. He was in an outdoor, wire-floor hutch with a broken-in roof, mounds of droppings and dead chickens underneath, no water or hay, and moldy pellets. We accepted him after he was seized, and contacted the school – they were out on break, the teacher who owned him thought a neighbor kid was taking care of him, “but maybe he got busy with vacation”.

She told me he was eight years old and had always been “perfectly happy” in those conditions.

I cried at hearing this, when I hadn’t cried before at seeing the filth he lived in. He had lived for eight years in a tiny, outdoor hutch, in increasingly abominable conditions.

There was NO way in hell I was going to be able to place an eight year old rabbit. He had tumors that had to be removed. He wasn’t litter trained at all. His teeth were horrible. Rabbits only live 8-12 years, he could die a week after being adopted.

But he was a sweet, affectionate, playful animal. He literally danced the first day he was in his big new pen. He made friends with a grieving rabbit who had just lost a mate. After his teeth were trimmed, he showed that he loved chewing up boxes.

I could have euthanized him. But I decided that I didn’t want him going straight from squalor to death, not with the beautiful personality he showed. He deserved at least one shot at a good life. Numbers didn’t matter at that point, all that mattered was that I could give this rabbit something he’d never had, no matter how briefly he was able to enjoy it.

I promised myself that as soon as he started showing health issues, then I’d euthanize him. He’s still with me, three years later. Every month I’ve had him is another month I’ve had to turn another rabbit away because I was maxed out. Actually I place about 4 rabbits a year, so basically you could argue that he has cost 12 other rabbits their lives.

But I just can’t look at this grumpy old man face and say that it wasn’t worth it:
BunBun

All of that said: I really do think that unadoptable animals should be euthanized to free up resources for adoptable animals. I have even done it myself. It’s not as black and white as making a simple policy change, and it’s not always so easy when YOU are the one standing there in the death room. Just because it can be justified, doesn’t mean it’s right.

And as long as that is true, special needs animals will have a valid place in rescue.


I’ve got some good rescue quotes. I’ll start sharing them with you by ending each serious post with a new quote! To get you started:

“We are selfish, base animals, crawling across the earth. But because we’ve got brains, if we try real hard, we can occasionally aspire to something that is less than pure evil.” – House, MD

Coming Friday: Pictures of the Sanctuary!

Next week: Tips on building C&C pens and cages

1 Comment

  1. szamba betonowe Rzeszów said,

    February 10, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    szamba betonowe Rzeszów

    Searching for happy endings » The role of special-needs animals in rescue