Categories Animal

Animal Shelter Adoption Rules: Necessary or Excessive?

In her article, Animal Shelters Should Act More Like Pet Stores, published in Global Animal, Kristin Hugo suggests that restrictive adoption rules not only limit the number of adoptions but may result in unwanted repercussions such as driving people to pet stores rather than rescue shelters and possibly perpetuating the existence of puppy-mills and disreputable breeders. Although there is some logic to these suggestions, and some of the suggestions could be implemented, there are many reasons why animal shelters resist making adoption more accessible.

When I became a volunteer administrator for the Facebook page of Pet Rescue North, a no-kill rescue shelter in Jacksonville, Florida, one of the first posts I responded to was an angry rant disparaging the organization by an adoption applicant rejected due to the inability to provide vet references. Similarly, as volunteers taking some of the dogs to a local pet-supplies store in an effort to stimulate interest in animal adoption we were often met with tears, anger, or outright abuse when potential applicants were informed that some obvious factor would render them ineligible under the shelter’s animal adoption rules. Amid such high emotion it was easy to question some of the rules and policies, and I often did. However, experience has shown me that shelter directors are not unnecessarily harsh in their requirements. Indeed, I now fully understand why the adoption rules are in place. Here are just a few thoughts regarding some of Ms. Hugo’s suggestions to increase the number of adoptions:

Relaxing the Ban/Age Restrictions on Children in the Home Would Increase the Number of Potential Adopters

This was one of the rules that I had most difficulty understanding, yet it is a rule that I now fully support. I have been around dogs almost all my life and many of my most important relationships with dogs occurred when I was very young. I have witnessed potential adopters on a cell phone almost screaming at the shelter’s director about how their child is in the store playing happily with a dog, about how the child and the dog appear to be getting along brilliantly, and about how their child would never do anything to hurt an animal. My personal experiences allow me to feel for such parents. Unfortunately, however, one of the most common complaints when a dog is returned to a shelter is that the dog’s behavior has changed for the worse, especially around the children. There are many possible reasons:

For example, as the dog tries to establish its position within its new pack, it may become dominant or even aggressive toward small children.

Conversely, as small children become more comfortable with a dog that seems placid or friendly they may unintentionally (or in a few cases, intentionally) become too rough and the dog feels the need to protect itself.

I have witnessed many occasions when dogs that seemed to love children were returned in a terrified or traumatized state, and now cower or snarl whenever children approach them. Whatever the reason, the parents cannot hand back their children so they hand back the dog.

Relaxing the Need for Vet References Would Increase the Number of Potential Adopters

As Ms. Hugo indicates, the need to provide vet references excludes first time animal owners from adopting from no-kill shelters. This is not just some arbitrary rule that hasn’t been thought through. Indeed, the exclusionary consequence of the rule is deliberate.

Shelter dogs have often been traumatized in some way and this can lead to unforeseen health or behavioral problems that are overwhelming to the novice pet owner. You just have to look at the number of animals given as Christmas gifts that are surrendered to shelters each year to see this principle in action. “It’s not what we expected,” or “we just can’t cope” are common utterances.

The possibility of these reactions is increased when dealing with a shelter pet. Returning a pet to a shelter is a much easier solution than returning it to a pet store. At least the vet references provide some evidence of the potential adopter’s experience with animals and a willingness to appropriately meet challenges.

Relaxing Adoption Rules Would Allow More Pets to be Saved from Kill Shelters

It is difficult to argue against the idea that if more animals were adopted from no-kill shelters this would free up room for more animals to be pulled from kill shelters. The one argument, however, is that the no-kill shelters would have to reduce their feelings of responsibility for those already in their care so that they could save others. It is akin to the question of which of your children do you sacrifice so that you can save the other.

For a true no-kill shelter the one and only focus of the shelter is to find a forever home for animals that have already been abused or abandoned at least once in their life. This focus includes doing everything that can be done to avoid a failed placement.

To relax the adoption rules would be to enter a numbers game. If you think of animal adoptions as a gamble, which all adoptions are, a shelter taking fewer precautions could be accused of playing a game of Russian Roulette with the animals in their charge, a game where fewer rules increases the number of live rounds in the gun.

To Change Adoption Rules or Not?

It is worth noting that I would have agreed with everything Ms. Hugo said if I had been presented with her article before I became involved in the pet rescue community. The intention and heartfelt passion of the article is obvious-increase the pool of potential adopters, place more animals in homes, and ultimately increase the number of animals that are saved. There were more suggestions made in the article than those examples given here and other specific rules were mentioned, even if some were extreme examples. Unfortunately, it would take more space than is available here to discuss every point in depth. However, some arguments against Ms. Hugo’s stance are worth noting as reasons why it is unlikely that no-kill shelters will follow her ideas.

Adoption rules for each shelter have developed through many years of experience. As I said, these dogs have generally been abused or abandoned at least once before, and a failed placement can compound or increase problems that stem from this treatment. Often it has been the failure of adoptions due to the more relaxed rules that Ms. Hugo suggests that have led to the imposition of increased restrictions.

Also, because many of the dogs are found as strays or rescued from puppy mills, other shelters that euthanize animals, or in some cases simply dumped at the shelter the organization usually has very little in the way of history on the dogs. Shelters simply cannot guarantee how they will react in a new home. For this reason the shelter personnel feel obligated to find a home that will care for the animal through thick and thin . . . not a home that might care through thick and thin, but one that will!

Does this mean that all adoptions through no-kill shelters succeed? Obviously not. Does this mean that all rejected applications would have failed? Again obviously not, but if we were discussing the adoption of a child would we be asking to relax the rules? The need to minimize failure here is no less important.