Proven Strategies

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One Size Does Not Fit All When It Comes to Animal Welfare Agreements

Taking animals in need into our care and adopting them into loving homes is one of the most important reasons we exist as animal welfare organizations, but many of us have neglected important legal protections that keep our organizations safe in the form of legally drafted adoption, surrender, and foster agreements. The fact is, unless you seek the expertise of an attorney—especially one with expertise in the language of contracts and agreements—you risk crafting documents that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on or they might even put your organization at risk.  

Yes, You Do Need a Lawyer 

When I started in animal welfare, it was common for us to write our contracts and agreements based on those of other organizations. While it didn't seem like such a big deal to use them as templates, or even verbatim, I found out pretty quickly that wasn’t the case.  

In fact, the first time most groups discover this is when something goes wrong with an adoption and they suddenly discover that the protection or permissions they thought they had don't exist. For instance, many organizations include language to the effect of “we retain ownership of the pet for its lifetime, and we can always come and get them back.” They think it is a protective measure for the animal, but there are a few problems with this assertion.  

First, it’s likely not enforceable in the way that they think. Sure, you can say you retain the right to seize an animal if you don’t like how he is being cared for, but a contract is not a ticket to trespass on someone’s property and seize their property. (Yes, animals still are considered property.) In order to assert your ownership rights, you will have to take the adopter to court which may not result in the outcome you had hoped.  

Second, what if something goes wrong? If an organization maintains legal ownership over a pet, it does so for good and for bad. 

If an adopted dog bites someone in his new home and the group failed to transfer full responsibility to the adopter, the group’s assertion of ownership means a judge could find them just as responsible as the adopter, even though they weren’t even there, even if the incident occurred years after the adoption.  

We take care to match people with the best pets for their lifestyle, and work hard to set adopters up for success. But any animal that has teeth or claws has the potential to bite or scratch whether it’s a person or a priceless Persian rug. And damages often come with lawsuits. A good adoption agreement will protect  an organization from the risk of future liability (meaning damages) by clearly transferring ownership to the adopter. It will also include a release of claims that says the financial responsibility and the requirements of complying with state laws and local ordinances are now the sole responsibility of the adopter the minute they sign the papers (or depending on how the contract language is drafted, upon transfer of possession of the animal). 

In my opinion, the goal that many organizations are trying to achieve by trying to maintain some type of ownership claim is not only not achieving what they hope, but likely is not worth the risk of having the responsibility for the lifetime of every pet they adopt out. 

If you think one of your adopted animals is truly being mistreated or neglected, animal cruelty laws in many states provide some protection. 

And while you may want to enforce something like an indoor-only home for cats, keep in mind you’d have to take someone to court in order to enforce it, and there’s no guarantee the case would go your way. 

Consulting with an attorney isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. Whether you pay for their services or find someone who will provide pro bono services (local law offices and your state’s bar association may be able to assist you), they will ensure that you have professionally written contracts specific to your organization’s needs. That might include geographically related language. If my organization is in California and I’m using an agreement from Ohio as my template, I could be missing out on some wording that my state requires.  

It’s also a good idea to establish a relationship with more than one attorney as each will have different experiences and perspectives. They can help review adoption, foster, and intake  agreements at least every other year. That way you can keep pace with any changes in the law or adjust these documents as your organization evolves.  

Disclose Everything You Know  

It is very important that you disclose everything you know about the behavior or medical status of the animals you adopt out. This lets adopters make informed choices about their assumption of risk when they take home a dog or cat. Disclosures should include what was observed while the animal was in your care, as well as any details given to you by the person who relinquished the animal, or if you transferred the animal in, the notes from the previous shelter. 

Let’s say you're adopting out a dog who has bitten someone, but the bite occurred after the owner accidentally stepped on the dog’s tail. If you think it was situational, that’s fine—but share information about the incident, nonetheless. Don’t hide that incident, or downplay it to the adopter. 

Or perhaps the relinquishing family claimed the cat sprayed all over the house, but he has never done so in one of your foster homes. Put the relinquishing family’s claim in quotes—verbatim—along with a note about your experience.  

Don’t use emotional terms or broadly defined words like aggressive. Say exactly what the animal did: “the cat bit the vet tech on the thumb while being restrained.” And don’t be dismissive by calling it a “love bite.” That is not helpful to the adopter if there is a real problem, and doesn’t do the cat any favors, because people may not be prepared to handle a cat with such issues.  

Use the Adoption Conversation Wisely 

It can seem discouraging to know your organization’s adoption contract can’t require that your cats always stay indoors or that your dogs never be walked on a retractable leash. But that’s where the adoption conversation comes in.  

The fact of the matter is that most adopters may not read the contract when they sign it, and I highly doubt they go back to it in the future for a little light reading. You have an engaged audience when you are talking to them about taking home this new pet, however, so use it.  

Your preferences are based on your experience and knowledge, and that usually means you have good reason for them. Cats are safer indoors; using retractable leashes can be dangerous. Explain your position on why it’s better for their new family member if they take your advice.  

This applies to declawing cats as well. If you include “no declawing” in the agreement, but the adopters go to their trusted vet’s office and she says the surgery is not a big deal, they are likely to go ahead with it. They certainly are not going to go back and refer to the contract to see, “Oh, am I allowed to do this?” 

Take time while they are at the shelter or interacting with your rescue’s adoption counselors to go into some detail about why your organization opposes this procedure or give the adopters some (brief) literature to take home. This is your chance to speak to them from a position of expertise and give them alternatives to surgery (including adopting an already-declawed cat if they are set on it). You might also be able to recruit them to help you pass ordinances banning declawing in your community or change the law in your state.  

Set Up Your Organization for Success 

With some help from legal pros, your organization can have rock-solid contracts and agreements—but that won’t necessarily protect you from getting sued. In this country, we can pretty much sue anybody for anything, anytime. Well-constructed contracts and thorough disclosures are the supporting documentation that protects you from being held liable if you get sued. 

For organizations large or small, one lawsuit can put an end to the good work we do. But if you put some time and resources into protecting yourself, you’ll be able to carry on protecting animals until they no longer need our protection anymore.  

By Sue Cosby  
Senior director of lifesaving centers  
Best Friends Animal Society

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