Pop Culture Junkette

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Friday, October 19, 2007

For the love of Iggy

I'm not really sure why I haven't posted about the whole Ellen Degeneres dog debacle before now, because I certainly have a lot of thoughts on the topic. I suspect everyone reading this knows the background, but as a quick primer for the uninitiated, Ellen and her girlfriend, Portia DiRossi, adopted a puppy from a LA-area rescue group, signing a contract that said if they couldn't keep the puppy, they would return him to the rescue group (this is pretty standard for a rescue group). When the group called her a few weeks after the adoption to ask how the dog was doing, she said the dog didn't get along with their cats, and she therefore rehomed it, giving it to her hairdresser, who has two children, ages 11 and 12. The rescue group heard this and went to the hairdresser's home, along with animal control, and took the dog back.

Ellen then went on her show to beg the group to give the dog back to the hairdresser, tearfully explaining that the children were now attached to Iggy. She also said that she "apparently" signed a contract saying she would return Iggy to the rescue if it didn't work out, but that the rescue "is not a home." The rescue has since stated that it won't give Iggy back to the hairdresser because they have a rule prohibiting families with children under 14 to adopt small dogs. Last night, an attorney for the group stated that the rescue actually told the family they would consider them if they applied for Iggy, but they refused to do so. The director of the rescue has received death threats. And everyone has an opinion on who was wrong.

Including me. What really bothers me about this situation is the disservice Ellen, who states she loves animals and was clearly trying to do the right thing by adopting from a rescue, rather than going to a breeder or, worse, a pet store, is doing to rescues throughout the country. Rescues already get a bad rap from a lot of people who don't understand why they have so many rules. I volunteer with a rescue group and we require an application, a quick phone interview, a vet reference (if you have had pets in the past; if you haven't, you need to state who you will use) and a home visit. We also require a contract that has a clause that states if you can't keep the pet for any reason, you return it to the rescue.

Is this overkill? No. It's actually all important. If someone isn't willing to fill out a short application with about 10 questions (name, address, phone number, animal you want, how long you are at home, whether you rent and can have pets, landlord reference, vet reference, current and previous pets and what happened to previous pets) then you really don't have the time to take care of an animal. The landlord reference is important to be sure the person can have pets. I don't want to adopt out an animal only to have it returned in six months because "the landlord won't let me keep it." The vet reference is important to make sure the animals currently and formerly in the person's care were treated well (it also sometimes reveals lies elsewhere in an application--a person will say Fido died of old age, when in fact Fido and his six siblings were all hit by cars because the owner leaves them loose in the front yard). Information on current animals is important to make sure the pet applied for is a good match, and information on previous animals is helpful because it can help reveal whether the owner has been responsible in the past. A home visit is done so a rescue representative can meet the applicant, see how their current animals are treated, and give them tips about potential hazards they notice in the home.

And then there is the clause that the animal be returned to the rescue. This is one of the most important aspects of the adoption process. Without this clause, a person can rehome the animal to anyone. What does this mean? All the careful checking the rescue group did for the first applicant is useless if that applicant just turns around and gives the dog to someone else. The group has no idea if the new owner has been charged with animal cruelty (we do check), whether they are allowed to own pets, whether they have euthanized their last three pets when they became "too difficult," or are a bad home for the pet for any number of reasons. If someone does decide they can't keep their pet and has a great new home for it, the solution is easy: tell the rescue group. Basically every rescue I know will then put the new adopters through their screening process and if all goes well, give them the pet.

So what disappoints me so much about Ellen isn't that she went on the show to beg for the dog to be returned. It's that she hasn't explained why these rules exist and are important, and hasn't given any other rescue group the opportunity to do so. Her appearances have only made rescues seem unreasonable and draconian.

That's not to say that I agree with the actions of the rescue group in this situation. It all depends on what happened. If the story their attorney shared is correct and the group offered to allow this family adopt if they filled out the application, and they refused, then the group has done nothing wrong. If that isn't the case and they simply refused because of the ages of the children, I think they could have been more flexible. Although I understand age guidelines for certain dogs and breeds, in this case, the children are pretty close in age to 14 and if they were mature enough to handle the dog responsibly, I think the rescue group could have had the family go through its typical adoption procedures and, if they "passed," allowed them to keep the dog. (I say all this without any real information about how Iggy was being treated and what the children are like, but I am assuming they are good kids who loved the dog and the dog was doing well.)

But even if this rescue group was too strict, not all of them are. Nor have I ever come across a rescue like the one Heather Havrilesky wrote about on salon.com. She claims that, as an adopter looking for a young dog, she was pointed to senior dogs or dogs who were ill and needed special medical attention. That makes no sense and I simply cannot imagine a rescue group that would do so. The rescue wants to place all of their animals in the best possible homes. So if someone wants a young dog, every rescue group I know will actually match them up with a young dog. Even if they presented a dog that was more special needs, they certainly wouldn't do so to the exclusion of others. I have to wonder whether Havrilesky only went to one rescue group, because it just does not sound realistic.

At the end of the day, I'm sad that this will discourage people from going through rescue groups or shelters (who usually have similar policies) to adopt their pets. Instead they will go to the nearby pet store, full of animals from unethical backyard breeders, because they don't ask any questions as long as you can pay their fee.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I think that Ellen was pretty contrite about her role in all of this. I heard her say plenty of times "This is my fault".

I'm sympathetic to rescue organizations wanting to find good homes for their dogs, but really, this goes too far - no children under 14? I've worked with cat rescue organizations that won't let a family adopt if the cat won't be kept indoors. I think this is crazy - I mean, sure, we'd ALL be safer if we stayed inside all day. But the 6 cats that I've lived with during my life all loved to play outdoors. I'd feel cruel if I forced them to stay inside. Obviously, in some circumstances (say, for an apartment dweller in NYC)it's probably best to keep the cat indoors. But at some point, you have to trust that people can make the right decisions.

Bottom line for me: when animal welfare is overshadowed by self-righteousness, there's something wrong.

10/20/2007 4:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's funny, you list a long list of way over the top demands and then say "is that too much?" yes, it very much is. I personally know two people who had HELL stories with dealing with rescues. I don't know why anyone bothers. There are way too many rules and they take it way too seriously. You are usually dealing with animal lovers and most people who love animals and have been around animals their whole lives know how to take care of dogs and cats. It's not as if they are adopting a panther or some rare bird.

10/20/2007 8:23 PM  
Blogger Red Fraggle said...

To anonymous #1, I agree that Ellen seemed contrite and said it was her fault, but she then immediately followed it up by saying the rescue should give the dog back, so it basically sounded like she was putting the blame on the rescue. I agree with you that no kids under 14 should have been flexible, but now the rescue is saying the family wouldn't even bother to fill out an application. If that's the case, I don't feel sorry for them.

As for things like a cat being indoor-only, there has been a lot of research that shows cats live MUCH longer (about 10-15 years on average) if they are indoor only. I don't think it is self-righteous if a rescue decides they only want to adopt out cats who will remain indoors.

Anonymous #2, I don't really understand what is so way over the top about asking someone to fill out an application, give out a vet reference and submit to a home visit. A home visit ensures the person isn't a hoarder, and isn't going to just adopt to abuse the animal (and yes, it happens), a vet reference ensures the past animals were treated well, and an application is an initial step to give the rescue information about the adopter.

Sure, it would be unnecessary if, as you say, rescues are usually dealing with animal lovers. Sadly, that is very, very untrue. My rescue comes across many people who dump animals, hoard animals, serially adopt and give to shelters, etc. Those are not animal lovers. If you take in an animal and take care of it, as rescues do, you want to be sure it is in a good situation. The above steps help to ensure that.

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