When It Comes to Rescue, Should an Animal's Origins Matter?

01/28/2013 06:09 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2013

A week or so ago, an acquaintance posted the following message on Facebook:

Trying to understand why we have so many wonderful local animal rescue groups that go out of state to save animals when there are SO MANY animals right here that need help AND HOMES. I don't get it.

Her post got me thinking. It was a sincere, heartfelt comment, and one I've thought about many times.

For the past 10 years, I've volunteered with a county-based animal welfare organization in Maryland. We don't operate a shelter; rather, we rescue animals from our county shelter and provide them a safe harbor in one of our foster homes until they find their forever families. We are committed to this effort because each year as many as 6,000 animals are euthanized at that shelter for lack of space.

So when Hurricane Katrina devastated the American Southeast and rescue organizations across the country opened their doors to thousands of animal victims, we made the decision not to do so. Our reason: For each Katrina dog or cat we took into our small foster program, another dog or cat languishing in our county shelter would remain behind bars... right in our own backyard but out of sight and out of mind.

I also work for another animal welfare organization in the nation's capital. We take animals from several local shelters that frequently run out of space, as well as a number of rescue groups in other states. Occasionally, we are asked by national organizations like the ASPCA or the Humane Society of the United States to take animals they've rescued from puppy mills and hoarding situations or that have been left homeless by natural disasters. Most recently, we took in several dogs and cats whose homes were destroyed or made unlivable by Superstorm Sandy. Not knowing if or when they could care for their pets again, people had made the difficult and selfless decision to give their pets a new life by turning them over to the ASPCA.

As soon as the story of these animals' arrival at our shelter hit the news, people were calling and emailing to ask when they'd be available for adoption... even though they'd never visited -- or inquired about -- the many other wonderful dogs and cats we have waiting patiently to go home.

The reality is that animals rescued from puppy mills, hoarding situations or natural disasters generate more public attention than those picked up as strays or dumped like trash on an almost daily basis at local shelters in almost every county or municipality in every state in the nation. Their stories are "sexier" and generate lots of media attention, leading to high demand by potential adopters. In my uncharitable moments, I wonder if people like being able to tell their friends and family that they rescued a "Katrina" cat or a puppy mill survivor.

Sadly, there are no easy decisions when it comes to animal rescue because there are more homeless animals than people who want to give them homes. Fortunately, there are thousands of shelters, rescue groups and animal welfare organizations with almost as many missions and niches to fill. And while it often feels like we're waging an uphill battle against companion animal overpopulation and homelessness, collectively, we can -- and do -- make a difference.

And as I look at the faces of some of the adoptable dogs I've had the privilege of meeting and photographing, I've come to the conclusion that for me, at least, it doesn't matter where they came from... only where they're going. An animal saved is an animal saved.