THE BLOG

Why I Would Always Adopt a Shelter Animal

07/22/2014 04:57 pm ET | Updated Sep 21, 2014

Since I spend a good deal of my life advocating for the adoption of shelter and rescue animals, I was especially disappointed with Erin Auerbach's recently-published column ("Why I'd Never Adopt a Shelter Dog Again") in several national news outlets.

Many of her assumptions, and her opinions stated as facts, are troubling. They run contrary to real data and the experiences of legions of animal welfare professionals. On behalf of the tens of thousands of animals for whom I am responsible, or will be responsible, I'm compelled to address these assumptions head on.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Ms. Auerbach's described experience of having had three dogs as companions and then (inevitably) losing them. I commend her for providing them with a standard of care that allowed them to live for months, if not years, with medical conditions. Having had many similar experiences, I understand the associated challenges and lingering grief.

She offers that before these experiences she was biased in favor of rescue animals. In other columns, she mentions that she grew up in a family who rescued and adopted, and those animals lived "extraordinarily long lives." Her painful personal experiences have caused her to re-examine and change her previously held beliefs.

Every person has the right to come to conclusions based upon his or her own life experiences. On the other hand the lives of shelter animals, and the public policy that is formed to support them, shouldn't be shaped by the recent, emotional experience of any one of us.

The three most recent dogs in Ms. Auerbach's life were all rescued from unnamed sources. One was "reliably healthy" for over a decade before his final decline. A second was diagnosed with cancer six months after adoption, which is incredibly unfortunate for the beings on both ends of the leash. He lived an additional three years. The last of the three rescue dogs had a seizure disorder; she had him for at least five years before having him euthanized.

From these experiences she concludes that shelter animals are more likely to become sick. She states that "rescue and shelter dogs are a crap shoot."

Reality, as reflected in research and hard data, simply doesn't support her conclusions. When animals develop a medical condition the chances are good that singular genetic or environmental factors -- or a combination of the two -- are at play. This is true for dogs who are purebred, and those who are mutts. It is true for those who come from professional breeders, casual breeders, and shelters. There are no guarantees of long-term health for any animal. It's a crap shoot all the way around.

Having seen the surrender of untold thousands of animals in my career, I can pull back the curtain on a little known fact: many of the dogs who come through my shelter, and shelters across America, originally came from a breeder. Some of them are with us because of a health condition the owner no longer wished to deal with.

In the past year, the Washington Humane Society saved the lives of 85% of the animals in our care. Of those who came through our doors, 3.6% represented a returned adoption -- for any of a number of reasons on the part of the people (allergy, change of life style, and others) or because of a health or behavior issue in the animal.

We do our best to stay in touch with people after they take an animal home to ensure the adoption is working well for everyone. There have been some cases where an unknown ailment has cropped up -- and when this happens, it is difficult -- but these situations are few and far between. Our own statistics dispel the notion that any significant number of animals sicken and become a burden in their new homes.

Interestingly, we've noticed that a medical condition for a purebred dog is more likely to be forgivable ("Oh, she is a shepherd, they often have that problem") than when a mixed breed has that same condition ("Well, that's what you get with a rescue animal").

Because we understand that potential adopters are trying to make a good match, and to minimize the risk of a misfit for any reason, many humane societies employ teams of professionals to understand the needs and limitations of each individual animal.

Ms. Auerbach states that "behavior issues or illnesses or high maintenance costs usually rear their heads after adoption." Again, the facts just don't bear this out. Far more commonly, the surrendering owner identifies the problem for us but cannot afford the veterinary care -- one of the most heartbreaking reasons for surrender.

In other cases our own professional staff members identify issues. At WHS, we have a medical director and two staff veterinarians; four behavior experts; more than a half dozen veterinary technicians; and dozens of shelter directors and managers, field officers, and animal caregivers with significant training and life experience in animal medical and behavior conditions. When we identify existing or emerging medical or behavior issues we define the appropriate path forward for that individual animal. This allows us to be honest and transparent with potential adopters and go to the edges of our capabilities to save lives.

Fortunately for those animals who are less than perfect, there are droves of open-hearted families who either purposefully seek them out or are willing to take on their challenges.

This issue also provides us as a society with a broader opportunity for self-reflection and discovery about the reasons why dogs from certain places, or who look a certain way, are more or less desirable to us. Many of humanity's troubles seem to come from biases and prejudices about one another -- that people of a certain body shape, or skin tone, or ancestry, or socioeconomic status are more or lesser in some way. I'm not exactly breaking new ground here, but I am suggesting that our attitudes about what makes a dog more or less desirable may offer a useful and relevant insight, as individuals and as a society.

When an adopter returns an animal, we find that the cause often lies in the original motive for acquisition. Too many times, we've seen an animal pay a price when their adopter was trying to meet an emotional need beyond the simple exchange of love and companionship. Ms. Auerbach stated that when she lost her dogs she "wanted another one, with similarly clownish looks who attracted lots of attention when I walked him." If a prospective adopter came to us with this open assertion, this motive would cause us to give pause prior to an adoption.

While I am disappointed that the author's personal experience has caused her to shift her values around animal rescue, I cannot begrudge or judge her decision. In the end, no one has to justify their choice about where to acquire a pet to anyone other than themselves. And I truly wish her well in her emotional recovery from losing her companions.

I cannot and will not, however, tolerate her reckless leap into what is essentially a life or death policy discussion. It is all too easy to write a personal essay and have it get picked up by news outlets across the nation looking for content -- but it is vital to think about consequences. In any effort to use personal experience to affect or influence the behavior of others, deliberation and disciplined thinking should be a baseline for participation.

I wonder if this particular author considered that she might, perhaps unintentionally, be sentencing animals to death with her piece, and I wonder if she can abide by that choice. Likewise, I challenge the publishers and headline writers to consider their roles as well.

My colleagues and I work carefully and diligently to overcome long-held stereotypes that something is wrong with shelter animals. Through our writings, our conversations in our communities, and the countless daily choices we make in how we describe and present our animals and our services, we strive to demonstrate that the vast majority of these animals are not less desirable. They are not lesser in any way -- they are simply unlucky.

Adopting or acquiring an animal -- any animal -- is a lot of work, and it is a gamble. These two things are true every time. Before bringing a pet into your life, you have to be certain that you have the wherewithal, commitment, and maturity to rise and meet that challenge, now or later -- whatever it may be.