Reflecting on Rescue Roadblocks
Best Friends staff share their experiences overcoming old-school thinking
Twenty years ago, my cat rescue group had a three-page application and required home deliveries of all our adopted cats. Although we didn’t call them home checks, the purpose was the same—we were looking for reasons to disqualify an adopter.
Did we ever renege on an adoption? Once, though I can’t even remember why. We had the best of intentions, but the fact that we denied only one adoption shows that what we were doing was unnecessary.
No doubt you have similar experiences; the staff at Best Friends certainly do. In this first half of a two-part editorial, you’ll hear from founders, directors and program staff about their experiences with challenging their own rescue roadblock thinking.
Each believed those practices were justified and necessary. Each eventually had that moment when they realized they were denying adoptions based on bias or a few bad experiences.
Best Friends as an organization also had such an epiphany and today we don’t make adopters jump through hoops or keep “do not adopt” lists of people who returned a pet because things did not work out. We strive to develop model programs to help animals leave shelters alive and have found that doing so means rolling back practices we once believed in.
Change has not been easy. Some of us still struggle with open adoptions or letting friendly outdoor cats stay in their communities. But we know that if we can do it, you can do it too.
In this week and next week’s editorial, we are sharing some of our “A-ha” moments, examples of times during our rescue careers where we pushed through the discomfort and took risks, and ways we are trying to set ourselves up for success in overcoming the roadblocks that lie ahead.
Adoption barriers: the ultimate rescue roadblock
When I spoke to some of my coworkers a few months ago about the issue of diversity, they talked about how racial discrimination created huge barriers to adoption. The issue of putting up all kinds of barriers to adoption also led to the greatest number of revelatory moments for those interviewed for this piece, including founders Jana de Peyer and Faith Maloney. In the early days of Best Friends, they were put in charge of adoptions, even though they say they were “pretty clueless about the process.”
“We started out without an application, contract or adoption fee and it didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t going to work,” Jana says. “We developed a basic application, but as time passed and things went wrong with certain adoptions, the application got longer and stricter.
“When bad things happened, we blamed ourselves and tried to put a guard up to prevent it from happening again. But it got to the point where we were asking potential adopters, ‘If there’s a fire in the house who would you rescue?’,” Jana jokes. “It just went completely out of control.”
Eventually, it dawned on Jana and Faith that they were letting a few bad experiences outweigh all the good ones.
“Yes, sometimes bad things will happen,” Jana continues. “But we realized that people want to do the right thing and we had to support that instead of trying to protect animals from all the bad things that might happen.”
Glass houses: judging how others care for their pets
Rescue roadblock thinking doesn’t just impact adoptions; it prevents us from relating positively to people about their pets. Senior director of national programs Brent Toellner remembers just such a game-changing moment from several years ago. He was picking up a dog from one of the Kansas City’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to transport to a monthly spay/neuter clinic.
“I showed up at this burly, tattooed guy's house and immediately noticed he had two dogs on chains behind four-foot-tall fences. Of course, my first instinct was to judge how the dogs were being kept,” he says. “But as he helped load his Akita in the back of my vehicle, the man looked at me with a tear in his eye and said, ‘She's going to be OK, isn't she?’
“It dawned on me that this man loved his dogs every bit as much as I loved mine. His dogs were on chains because they would have easily cleared the four-foot-tall fence, and I'm sure he couldn't afford a taller one,” Brent says. “This man had every bit as much of a right to the joy and love of pet ownership that I did. Since then I've worked really hard to trust that others love their pets and are doing the best they can with what they have.”
Michelle Logan, director of national shelter embed programming, remembers the assumptions she made when she moved into a new home and noticed a pit bull next door that appeared to live outside.
“I decided that this family didn't care about BB because she was always getting out and coming over to my house,” she says. “I assumed the dog knew I was a better pet owner and wanted to live with me.”
As it turned out, though, BB was outside with her people all day because her owner ran a home car repair business. She was happy being outdoors and was allowed inside during inclement weather.
“I also found out that she had actually lived in the house I was in prior to me moving there,” she says. “When the people who lived here moved out, they left her behind. So here was this amazing neighbor who maybe didn't even want a dog but who stepped up for one in need. And he was doing the best he could, which was pretty damn good by BB’s standards.”
Sometimes, we even judge people who are doing the same things of which we are guilty.
“In the early days of Dogtown, I accepted a dog being surrendered by its owner with an angry sneer on my face because the dog’s nails were very long,” Faith recalls. “Later that evening I was petting one of my own dogs, a cockapoo with long hair on his legs and around his feet, and found my hands touching his paws.
“My dog’s nails were also long—not quite as long as the surrendered dog, but still unacceptable. I can still recall the shame I felt for having judged that person earlier in the day for an offense I was committing myself,” she adds. “I try to remember that we were not born knowing about things like grooming care or why spaying and neutering is a good thing.”
Founder Cyrus Mejia can certainly relate to the latter because his dog Habibi was never neutered.
“My excuse was ‘he's always with me, so no problem!’, he recalls. “I can't condemn others because of what they may not know or understand.”
No one’s immune: passing judgment on our peers
Rescue roadblocks don’t just stand in the way of us placing pets with members of the public; they also sometimes make it challenging for even the most seasoned animal welfare professional to adopt. Senior legislative attorney Ledy VanKavage ran into unexpected hurdles when she tried to adopt her beloved pit bull Karma, one of four dogs accepted to the sanctuary from a large fight bust in Missouri.
“I had oodles of experience with pit bull terrier-like dogs and I live 14 miles from where she was being housed,” Ledy recalls. “But our organization wanted to transport her to Utah first and then I could drive out there to pick her up. I was not only an employee; I oversaw the pit bull terrier campaign! I finally convinced them I could do the paperwork remotely and pick her up from the shelter directly.”
As an industry, we often put out the message that adoptions are “happy-ever-after” situations and tend to judge people who rehome their pets very harshly. But Michelle knows firsthand that sometimes your home is not the right home for a particular pet. That was the case for her dog Sundance, whom Michelle rehomed because she was being picked on by the other dogs in the household.
“My house wasn’t safe for Sundance,” she said. “I was also moving to a big city and she had always been an off-leash, country dog. It wasn’t fair to move her across the country with a pack that didn’t like her. I knew it was the right thing to do but rehoming just wasn’t something you did.
“My struggle was combined with judgment and pressure from my peers,” she continues. “It was a profound moment for me because I was part of the industry that believed the negative message about rehoming. When I was faced with this reality with Sundance, though, it opened my eyes and I realized we were wrong. I owed it to Sundance to put her in a home that was right for her.
“That experience made me wonder, if we are doing that to one another, what are we are doing to the public? And how do we change that?”
The second half of the editorial will be published on Friday, August 21st. In the meantime, you can learn ways to become roadblock-free here. Also be sure to check out our three-part town hall on this topic.
Senior Writer, Best Friends Network
Best Friends Animal Society