As I methodically and meticulously filled out the multi-page adoption form, diligently answering questions ranging from where my dog would sleep and what food I would feed her to how and where I would play with my dog and who would care for her when I'm away, it never for a moment crossed my mind that my application would be denied. Why would it?
I've been involved in the animal welfare world for quite a while. I've volunteered for one local organization for more than a decade, fostering dogs and serving on the board...first as a member at large and then as vice president. For the past four years I've worked at a private, non-profit shelter, helping promote and publicize its mission, accomplishments and adoptable animals. And I've donated to and participated in fundraising efforts for still more local, regional and national animal welfare organizations.
Over the past 25 years, my husband, Mark, and I have shared our hearts and home with six of our own dogs. From Boris and Natasha, siblings of an unplanned litter, to Tango and Samba, rescued from a home where children were tossing the week-old puppies like balls, to current "fur kids" Ceiligh, now 12, and 2-year-old Fletcher...we've loved them all and tried to give them the best possible lives we could. These lives have included obedience and agility classes, hikes in the woods of Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, forays to local parks and romps on the beach and in the surf on Hilton Head Island. We've dealt with a variety of medical issues, ranging from incontinence, luxating patella and ruptured cruciate ligament to seizures, degenerative myelopathy and hemangiosarcoma. We've celebrated our experiences together and mourned the loss of those who have passed.
Given our experience and commitment, Mark and I believed we were ideally equipped to welcome another homeless dog into our pack. So when a friend brought to my attention a 3.5-month-old puppy available for adoption from a local rescue group, we decided to check her out.
Having introduced 17 foster pups to prospective adopters over the years, I knew the drill. At least I thought I did.
So when volunteers failed to greet us as we approached, showed virtually no interest in us and made no effort to converse with us, I was surprised. Still, we liked the puppy and thought she'd be a good match for us so we applied to adopt her. And, confident that we'd quickly be approved, we set up a crate in our bedroom, bought some new puppy toys and started puppy-proofing our house.
It didn't take long for the expected email to arrive. But when I read the contents -- "We can't proceed with your application. You could not have signed our contract, which stipulates that dogs must not be off leash except in a contained area. We are sorry for your disappointment." -- I was stunned.
What?! Where had they gotten that impression that we couldn't sign a contract stipulating that our dogs not be off leash except in a contained area? I was sure nothing in my application could have led them to that conclusion. Surely it was just some sort of mistake or misunderstanding.
Determined to get clarification, I responded, explaining that we had not and would not let our dogs off leash except in our yard, which is enclosed by a 6-foot privacy fence, and that we would welcome a home visit to check our living situation.
Two days later I received a cryptic message that said only: "I believe there were several pictures of dogs off leash on a property and at the beach."
Not exactly the response I was expecting and one that left me more confused than ever. What pictures were they referring to? So I asked.
A day later they wrote: "We were given this, your blog, which shows your dogs on a beach???"
Ahh, at least now I understood. The photo at the top of my blog does indeed show Ceiligh strolling along the beach. And, yes, it does appear that she is "leashless." In reality, however, she was attached to a 30-foot-canvas leash, which I removed from the image for artistic reasons.
I explained this and included several photos of Ceiligh and Tango taken at the beach that day, which clearly showed their leashes.
The next day, I received what seemed a somewhat grudging message notifying me that we could proceed to the next step of the adoption process.
Finally! I felt vindicated.
But a feeling of having to defend ourselves had left my husband and me with the proverbial bad taste in our mouths, so we chose not to pursue the adoption.
Fortunately, while engaging in our multi-day online "conversation," I'd discovered that three litter mates of the puppy we were interested in had been rescued from the shelter by another rescue group...the same group we'd adopted our dog Fletcher from 18 months previously. And the members of this group were thrilled that we were interested in adopting another dog from them! They welcomed us enthusiastically at their adoption show (where Fletcher had a joyful reunion with is foster mom) and said, of course, we could adopt the puppy. So despite the fact that their adoption fee was higher, we were happy to pay it...and will likely continue to support them. Talk about good marketing.
But we also have a better understanding of why people -- good people who want to do something positive for a homeless animal -- can get turned off by rescue organizations and the whole adoption "thing." They get tired of jumping through sometimes arbitrary hoops; they get frustrated and angry when they're ignored, dismissed or treated condescendingly or even with suspicion; and all too often, they end up buying a feline friend or canine companion from a pet store...just like we did after trying unsuccessfully to adopt a couple of parakeets from a local shelter.
After filling out a multi-page application and waiting a half hour for someone to review it with me, I was told that their bird expert would have to schedule a home visit. And then, after I showed them pictures of the large $150 cage (with room for the birds to fly) I had purchased, I was informed that it was too small and that if I wanted to buy something larger, I could come back and reapply. All while multiple parakeets sat crowded together in a small shelter cage. Seriously?!
I'm not saying that animals should be placed in just any home. We owe it to the dogs and cats (and bunnies, birds, guinea pigs, etc.) we've rescued to do our best to ensure that they go to homes were they will be safe, cherished and cared for.
And I understand how easy it is to become attached to the animals we care for and how emotional the process of letting them go can be. One of my most painful fostering recollections was hearing a puppy cry and scratch at the inside of her new home's front door when my husband and I left...even though I knew her new family would love her always.
Nevertheless, we must avoid the trap of thinking that no home can be as good as ours, that no one can love the animal as much as we do. As a speaker from the ASPCA once said at a conference I attended, those of us in rescue often get caught up in trying to find the "perfect" home instead of trying to find a "good" home. And while we wait for perfection, another shelter animal dies when space runs out.
We also must remember that even after interacting with potential adopters, reading their applications and perhaps checking references, we know only the smallest bit of who those people are. I can remember once being concerned that a couple interested in one of my foster puppies wasn't spending a lot of time sitting on the floor of the pet supply store playing, petting and cooing over the dog (which is what I would have been doing). Fortunately, I decided that was no reason not to approve their application. Thank goodness. Although they weren't publicly demonstrative, these people adore their dog! At some point, we just have to take a leap of faith.
Are there people who shouldn't have animals? Absolutely.
Should we adopt an animal to everyone who wants one? Absolutely not.
But we can and should treat every potential adopter with respect and courtesy. We should applaud their desire to give a homeless animal a home and, unless they give us reason to believe that they can't afford an animal or would not love and care for one to the best of their ability, we should encourage them, educate them (especially first-time pet guardians) and guide them in choosing a companion best suited to their personalities and lifestyle.
And perhaps we should remember that one size doesn't fit all when it comes to adoption. While rules are important, breaking them is sometimes the right thing to do. While I don't trust my dogs enough to allow them to run on the beach or hike mountain trails unleashed, I know some extraordinary dog guardians, including a couple of professional dog trainers, who do. They have trained their canine companions well and know -- and trust -- them to respond to commands even in the face of irresistible temptation. Rejecting the applications of such people would only deny a homeless dog an amazing home.
Finally, we should never miss an opportunity to leave every person we interact with feeling positive about our organizations and about the concept of animal adoption in general. The results if we don't can be unfortunate on so many levels.
First, we miss out not only on good adopters but also on potential volunteers and donors, the lifeblood of the animal welfare community. Our organizational reputations suffer because word about negative experiences spreads faster and farther than that about positive ones. But worst of all, we may discourage people from trying to adopt an animal not just from our organization but from any organization at all.
And when that happens, we fail homeless animals everywhere.