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Man’s best friend’s best friend: Cydney Cross of the Mohawk and Hudson Humane Society. Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen
Of Puppies and Paperwork
Increasingly formalized pet-adoption policies have made it more difficult to obtain animals from shelters, but shelter workers say it’s all for the good of the animal

By Rick Marshall

Cydney Cross probably finds more unexpected gifts on her doorstep than anyone you know. Unfortunately, these frequent surprises are rarely a cause for celebration.

“Pot-bellied pigs, sheep, goats, birds, reptiles—we’ve found all kinds on our doorstep,” explains Cross, assistant manager of Mohawk and Hudson River Humane Society and president of Out of the Pits, a pit-bull rescue organization. “Some torn to shreds, some with broken bones or maggots—one day we found three pit bulls crammed into a crate, all skin and bones, and the bottom of the crate filled with feces and urine.”

Sadly enough, gruesome discoveries of this sort have become the norm at many animal shelters around the region. Now, after decades of policies in which the timeliness of finding owners for homeless animals was emphasized over the new caretakers’ qualifications, the face of animal adoption has undergone a dramatic change, and begun casting a critical eye on potential pet owners.

“We’re trying to lift up the image of the shelter, so it’s not only a compassionate place, but a way to find the right match between people and pets,” says Cross.

Gone are the days where you might walk into the nearest shelter, pick out a homeless animal and leave shortly thereafter with your new pet. Extensive screening processes, including home visits and landlord interviews, have become standard practice at many local shelters, in the hopes of preventing the type of abuse Cross regularly confronts. However, this increased selectivity is not without its critics, as some potential pet owners have felt slighted by strict guidelines that hamper their attempts at performing a good deed.

“We wanted to go through a shelter,” explains Michael Summa, who eventually turned to a mall pet store for his new Pembroke Welsh corgi after visiting several adoption agencies. “But [the shelter] wanted to set up a home visit and talk to my landlord—I have enough problems getting in touch with my landlord.”

While animal shelters and rescue organizations have differing policies regarding how their residents arrive (small shelters often have no choice but to refuse “drop off” animals), the policies by which shelter residents leave with new owners have become fairly standard in recent years: Proof of home ownership is required, and in the case of renters, contact information for a landlord and a copy of the apartment lease. Visits to the prospective owner’s home are a common requirement, especially when older, more sensitive animals are concerned, as well as for any animals that required some sort of rehabilitation from abuse or neglect upon their arrival at the shelter. In addition, individuals who currently have pets (or have had pets in the past), must show a record of their veterinary history, and any number of signed agreements concerning future veterinary visits might apply. Follow-up visits to the shelter or adoption agency have also become standard practice for new pet owners, in order to ensure that the agreed-upon adoption policies are being adhered to. At MHRHS, most new dog owners must agree to enroll their pet in at least one session of obedience training, with discounts provided by a local obedience school.

According to Deb Lucas, animal adoption coordinator at the Guilderland Animal Shelter, one of the most important screening methods is a simple, face-to-face discussion about the potential pet owner’s plans for the animal. This simple chat typically includes a description of any other pets or family members that the new animal would be living with, as well as a description of the home and surrounding area.

“We want to know what kind of life they live, what kind of life they want to have with the animal,” says Lucas. “Once [the animal] is in their hands, you can’t do much to get it back.”

According to Lucas, many people adopt animals without taking the proper time to research what pet ownership entails, and the pets pay the price. When shelters are faced with overcrowding issues, those animals who have become frequent or long-term residents—either through being returned to the shelter or not being adopted over time—are often the first to be euthanized. While there are a variety of laws that exist to protect adopted children, the laws that protect adopted animals from unfit owners are often difficult to enforce, leaving the staff at animal shelters and adoption agencies as the primary guard against abuse and neglect. This, Lucas reasoned, is the reason why shelters need to be selective.

“Unfortunately, I probably will miss out on some good homes,” Lucas admits, “but I can’t take a chance. If you really like animals, you understand why this procedure is important.”

According to Jennifer Politis, founder and president of the Capital District Humane Association, a life of fighting is only one of the many dangers that adoption agencies guard against. Pet dealers and “puppy mills,” eager to supply pet stores with animals that resemble the most desirable breeds, will occasionally misrepresent themselves in the hopes of taking home a purebred stray. College students looking for an alternative to pet-store pricing will take home a new pet only to abandon it when their semester ends. And parents, wanting to surprise their children with a new pet, end up returning the animal (or worse yet, abandoning it) when the child’s interest fades or the inevitable chewed-up-shoe incident occurs.

Despite more stringent requirements, most of the organizations like CDHA have experienced an increase in the amount of animal adoptions they facilitate each year. With similar groups rapidly coming into existence around the region, the burden of finding proper homes for a steadily increasing population of homeless animals has, thus far, been spread among these agencies. The emergence of Internet sites such as PetFinder (www.petfinder.com) has also done wonders for animal adoption agencies, according to Politis, increasing the pool of potential pet owners for local organizations, and making up for the number of individuals turned off by the new guidelines or refused an animal adoption.

“Just getting a dog adopted isn’t enough anymore,” Cross explains. “Giving them a good home to stay in forever is what it’s all about now. There are more adoptions, and the rate of returning animals has decreased—so the new methods seem to be working out.”

According to Valerie Lang, who recently adopted a pit-bull puppy from MHRHS, the reward for pet adoption far outweighs any inconveniences along the way. After encountering a litter of puppies whose mother had been euthanized, Lang adopted her new puppy through the standard gauntlet of screening procedures, despite being one of the shelter’s volunteers.

“When you have to go through that sort of screening, you know you can trust the people at the shelter, both for your own sake and for the sake of the animals there,” says Lang.

Even with all of the statistical basis for the new rules of pet adoption, Cross admits that the emotional connection she develops with the animals that cross her shelter’s threshold is just as important a factor when it comes time to decide whether one of the animals in her care will become someone’s pet. For Cross and many others involved with animal rescue, the power of discretion that accompanies current animal adoption policies is a welcome addition to their responsibilities, as finding qualified owners is as much a product of gut response as it is of surveys and documents.

“You’ve put a part of your life into each animal,” Cross reasons, “and to see a dog walk out the door and not feel good about where it’s going . . . that shouldn’t be the case. To be honest, I would love it if I could work myself out of a job.”


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