Being a vet tech, I have a lot of friends involved in animal rescue. I respect and admire them all for the work they do to benefit the many unfortunate animals who did not get a fair shake at life the first time around. One friend recently told me about a pair of 15-year-old cats whose owner wanted to surrender them because she was moving to an apartment across the country. She had raised these two cats from kittens. My heart broke for these poor cats; to spend your life with someone and then be dumped with a stranger because your owner was not able or willing to locate an apartment which allowed cats – I can’t even imagine how traumatic that would be for those two cats. It’s difficult enough for cats to adjust to change when they are young.
But I have a secret which some of my friends in rescue will probably find shocking. The prevailing opinion in the rescue world is that adopting a pet is a commitment for life. Many people equate having a pet to having a child. I do not entirely share in this belief system. Having a pet is a serious commitment; this I do not deny. However, I believe bringing home a pet is more like getting married than having children. It is a decision which should not be taken lightly, and equally should not be thrown aside without good reason. But I feel the happiness and well-being of the animal and the family are far more important than the commitment itself.
Though not everyone in our society accepts divorce as a viable option, you cannot deny that it is something which happens often. Sometimes people get married for the wrong reasons, or discover later that their spouse is not the person they thought they were. Likewise, people sometimes rush into bringing home an animal without researching the breed or really thinking about what kind of dog would fit in with their lifestyle. Sometimes the dog you fall in love with at the shelter is a completely different dog when you get him home.
Perhaps I’m biased. I’ve never been divorced, but I admit I have failed at adoption before. Years before I went back to school for my vet tech degree, my family adopted a beautiful husky mix and named her Belldandy. I fell in love with Belldandy on my first visit to the Humane Society; I was inexperienced and immediately became emotionally attached to her, and at the time our shelter did not have any adoption counseling services to help potential families choose their companions wisely. They also didn’t have a 2-week trial adoption period like many local rescues have now. I made many mistakes with Belldandy, starting with the moment I told Ian I wanted to adopt her. If I had done my due diligence I would never have brought her home; we had her for two weeks before we made the decision to give her back to the shelter. I had to bring her there, bawling the whole way there and the whole way home.
Our house had a small yard, and we lived on a busy one-way street. It was completely the wrong environment for a dog whose ancestors were bred to pull sleds at a full run for miles a day. Though our yard had a fence, Belldandy was a spectacular escape artist; if she’d been a boy I could have named her Houdini. In the two weeks she lived with us, she ran away 6 times. Thankfully she was never hit by a car, and we always found her before the dog catcher did. This was frustrating and terrifying, but we probably could have solved this problem by installing a 6-foot privacy fence if that was the only issue (not that we could have afforded it at the time but that’s beside the point).
The fact is Belldandy was clearly miserable with us. She had terrible separation anxiety whenever I wasn’t home, chewed on everything, peed and pooped on the kids’ beds and the couch, and was clearly terrified of Ian from the first moment he came home. She cowered whenever he spoke or walked in the room, and bit him 3 times. With two small children in the house and no experience with rehabilitating dogs with behavior training, we simply didn’t have the ability to work through her problems. She was a dog who needed a job and had a lot of energy to burn; we were (and mostly still are) a family of book-loving, video-game playing, TV-watching couch potatoes. Lately we have been trying harder to make our lives healthier, but even now I would never look at our family and say “yes, we can definitely provide what a sled dog needs to be happy and healthy.” If we had kept her and tried to make it work, she might have eventually become well-behaved but she would never have had the life she truly needed and deserved. If we had kept her it would have been a very selfish decision on my part. To keep her in our home simply because I loved her so much was not the right decision for her.
A few months after I brought her back to the shelter, we saw Belldandy in the park, jogging with the woman who adopted her after we returned her to the shelter. She was clearly happy; her body language was confident and she was jogging right next to her lady. It was obvious that our sedentary family was not the right match for her; would she really have been better served if we had kept her and tried to work with her? I don’t think so.
The thing that makes me angry is that pet adoption organizations instantly dismiss us as irresponsible pet owners upon hearing that we gave up a dog after we had adopted her. A few months after Belldandy we decided to try again and looked to adopt another dog. We researched breeds and thought about what kind of dog would fit in with our family. I watched the area rescue websites for weeks and eventually met a young dog at an adoption event who I felt was a good match for us. I talked to the organizer about her that day. I called the fosters and talked with them at length about the dog’s strengths and areas which might require some work. I visited the dog in the foster’s home. However, when we turned in the adoption papers and the organizer learned we had been failed adopters I could see the mask of judgment pass over her face. She didn’t even ask about the circumstances; I’m sure it wouldn’t have mattered to her. Even though she had never previously mentioned anyone else asking about this dog, she told me that another family had expressed interest that day, and that adoptions were not first-come first-served, but based on what the rescue believed was the right home for the dog. Her tone made it very clear that we did not fit that description. I was tempted ask her whether she knew anyone who’d been divorced, and whether she felt that disqualified them from future marriages as well.
I am not by any means encouraging people to give up their pets (or to get divorced for that matter). I am simply trying to say that giving up your pet (like getting a divorce) is sometimes truly the best option for both pet and human. However, if the human is the only one who benefits from dissolving the relationship, that is when my heart breaks for that animal and the human gets no sympathy from me at all. For example, the two poor geriatric cats who prompted me to write this post. As someone who has been there, I know I am not really in a position to judge. But I can’t help feeling angry on behalf of those two cats who have no idea how much their lives are about to change.