Working our booth at Hippie Fest last weekend, we had some college-age shoppers enter our booth. One gal told me when she gets out of college, she wants to start her very own animal rescue just like I did, then she asked for advice. I didn’t know where to begin. For a few seconds I studied her young, happy, smiling face full of hope and love for mankind. (I remember those days.) Do I tell her the truth or do I sugarcoat it? The very first thing that popped into my mind was the strong desire to warn her about the crazies she’ll run into. It’s not the animals, it’s the people. It’s not just the dirtbags in society who do awful things to dogs or complicate the lives of animals; it’s also other rescue people that will completely wear you out with their drama, worry you to death with their lack of knowledge or resources or self-control, or some who will make you question your Creator.
Let me just say that I’m not perfect by any means (I laugh even typing that out). I’ve failed, and learned from it, and sometimes I’ve had to repeat the lesson until I understood it. I’ve lost my cool with people. I’ve been overwhelmed with the stress of it all. I’ve been working to save animals since 1999, and throughout that time I’ve wanted to quit many, many, many times. It took me a long time to learn there’s only so much I can do, and that it’s okay to say no. I’m in no way an expert, but I’ve been taught by the best. I’ve been discouraged by the worst. I do the best I can with what I’ve got. But along the way, man…I’ve seen things that people wouldn’t believe even if I had photos or video of it (and fellow witnesses who refuse to come forward.) People want me to write a book on how great rescue is, and I am telling you this is not something you want to spend your spare time in the evening reading about (and definitely not before you go to sleep at night.) Here are just a few examples:
- There are rescues that take money out of their donation jars and put it in their pocket. Or their PayPal account. Or they feed donated dog food to their personal dogs (or allow family/friends to feed donated dog food to personal dogs). Or they sell donated dog food. Yes, 501(c)(3) rescues. Yes, it’s illegal/unethical. No, they’re not following GAAP guidelines. No, they have no clue what GAAP stands for yet started a federally recognized non-profit and getting away with it. To turn them in, you need proof. They hide their activities, paperwork is missing, etc. (You see the dilemma.)
- Someone from another rescue contacts me about a dog on death row. I let them know that I don’t have room but before I could say I’ll share it with others that might have room, I get told, “well, then this dog is going to DIE. [*click*]” And apparently that’s 100% my fault (forget the fact that she waits to the very last minute to tell me). Never does this person share the dogs I have in my program to help me make room, or help me raise money or share events. (I’ve sent adopters to her. I’ve taken in homeless dogs she’s referred to me when I did have room.)
- I’ve seen “rescuers” who had their lower legs completely chewed up to their knees with flea bites – a dead giveaway as to the condition of their dogs’ living conditions and health status. (I have a 1 star review on POMH Rescue’s Facebook page from such a rescuer.)
- I’ve denied a borderline hoarder access to set up at a rescue event, they spread it all over social media that the event should be boycotted, and she threatened to bring all of her foster animals and dump them in the street for me to have to deal with/find homes for.
- I’ve seen rescues who have so many dogs that the animals are stacked in cages. Or have heard rescuers say they have so many dogs in crates that they can’t get around to letting them go out to the bathroom, let alone work with behavior.
- How many times have I seen a rescue take in a dog that has mild behavior issues (easily fixed with some work/established routine) and make the dog so crazy or get so fat/unhealthy over time that the dog would never be adoptable….countless. The old Girl Scout rule is the dog is to leave you better than when you found it.
- I’ve seen a rescue director driving around in a truck with dogs completely loose/barking through the windows/acting so batty in the back to the point where I swore a dog fight would break out any minute. No crates. No training. Total chaos. Never will I send an adopter to this person. (I’m still stunned by that one. What would happen if she got in a wreck?)
- I’ve sat on the set waiting to go live on a morning news program with another rescue who struggled to get their completely untrained, stressed-out foster dog under control, and in response to the behavior spanked the dog like it was a child to get it to calm down. Camera guys and the news anchor looked at each other like, “what in the heck?” I wanted to die. Right then and there, kill me please.
- There are rescuers that don’t believe in crates, cut their dogs loose in their house as a free-for-all, free feeding, letting dogs “work it out amongst themselves”, and rush dogs to the vet to get them stitched up because of the dog fights that have happened. Rescue dollars paying for injuries sustained in the rescue foster home instead of the injuries/diseases they arrived with that were acquired from their previous life of abuse/neglect.
- Sitting at an outdoor fundraiser event, I’ve bumped into a health department employee that asked about another rescue. I knew exactly what rescue they were going to say because I’ve personally smelled the individual. The health department person looked at me like I was psychic. No, my nose just works.
- I’ve been stuck in the middle between an adopter driving 4 hours from St. Louis, and a foster person from Tennessee I was going to meet to transport the dog the rest of the way to the adopter…and at the last minute the foster decided to keep the dog. Adopter already purchased all the pet supplies, never expecting the foster to back out of the adoption. I had no clue what to say to the adopter. There’s nothing you can say to that. Oh, and some time later, the foster home dumps that dog to get another. Another dog they adopted (“failed foster”) from the rescue was also put up for adoption again. That’s at least two personal dogs that I know of that they got rid of. Yes, they’re still fostering for another rescue. Boggles the mind.
- I’ve transported a dog from Cincinnati to Louisville so the adopter’s co-worker could pick it up and drive it to St. Louis. The dog was going to be a companion to a young child. The adoption contract said the dog was only a few years old and in great health. The dog was actually a senior, at some point had suffered from a broken leg (no notation whatsoever on the vet records or x-ray taken), and its teeth were rotting out of its head because no dental had been completed. But it was a pure bred dog, so big bucks were coming their way via the adoption fee. Again, I didn’t know what to say when I handed the dog off to the co-worker.
- I’ve had adopters of other rescues’ dogs contact me privately asking for training advice or what trainer they should use because the dog they adopted was completely whack, not matching their petfinder bio whatsoever. Reading the bio, the rescue had stated the dog was a “sweet dog” that is house trained (can we stop using the word “sweet,” amen?) The dog, a yellow Labrador, was terrified of things like the refrigerator door opening, all four legs splayed out on the kitchen floor like it had never been in a house in its life, it wasn’t just the floor it was afraid of because it belly-crawled throughout the house like a puppy mill dog. The well-known rescue had adopted out an outdoor/kennel dog to an indoor home without knowing a damn thing about it. No leash skills, no “wanna go outside” phrases that most dogs know, nothing. Same rescue adopted out a dog that got horribly sick with kennel cough (because it wasn’t vetted until the last minute even though it was in rescue for several weeks, dog had 1-2 day old fresh stitches from the spay, it had picked up kennel cough at the vet – no vet records came with the dog to know if it had its vaccines, only a rabies tag). When called to ask for reimbursement of the vet bills or to receive a refund of the adoption donation, the rescue director ripped the adopter a new one for not asking them to mail them some meds (dog was horribly sick, needed to be seen by a vet immediately, couldn’t wait for the mail) and threatened the adopter with their attorney.
- One winter all my foster spots were full, so I found a rescue to take an older Schnauzer whose senior owner had died. The dog was used to being in a quiet setting. The rescue president said they’d take it, they had room, and asked me to drive it to Cincinnati. No problem. At the last minute she asked me to transport the dog to a boarding facility (instead of a foster home). I explained the dog would deteriorate in boarding, thanked her for her offering to help it, and searched around for another rescue to take it (and found a very good one). The rescue president went off on me, started harassing me with non-stop emails throughout the day, complete with posts to my FB page, telling people I was a dog flipper, and finally phone calls started happening. She wouldn’t stop until she was threatened with calling the authorities. All because I stood up for the dog’s needs, and all she heard was, “no, you can’t have this dog.” She lied about having room for it, and the dog would have lived out its life in the boarding facility, stressed to the max. I still have the VM she left on my cell phone – I play it at parties.
- Got a message from a friend who asked if I knew a certain very well-known rescuer. This is a rescuer that brags about numbers (how many dogs they “save” because they’re awesome). I ask why, they said a family member adopted a dog from this rescue, and the dog has bitten everyone in the household (some severely). One bite to an elderly person in the household sent them to the hospital, very scary situation. How did the rescuer not know this dog’s temperament?
- I got a text message from another rescue director telling me about a Schnauzer they had pulled and it was fighting with the foster home’s personal dog. “Can you foster it for me?” I respond, “No, but I can reimburse you for all the vetting you have in that dog, have you sign it over so I can take it into my program, train it, and place it with a home that fits its needs.” I heard nothing back. Hope that dog turned out okay. Can’t worry about it because it’ll make you crazy.
- I’ve watched so many knock-down, drag-out fights on FB between “rescuers” that it makes me just shake my head. It’s so absurd you have to laugh. Like this precious exchange here:
I’m sure I’m going to catch 7 kinds of heck just making fun of that cat fight. (She sounds like a hair puller, doesn’t she?) Since people lack emotional intelligence and self control, those of us who are big fans of situational comedy can’t let it go without poking fun at it. I’m sharing it to prove my point….some rescuers are just crazy.
I work alone for a reason. I don’t allow others to foster for me because I just don’t trust anyone if the well-known, big rescues have foster homes like those listed above. No, I don’t think I’m a special-meshal person who deserves some kind of award. I just want to help the animals, or help people who are truly and honestly helping the animals (and not seeking hero worship). I’m a solutions person. When something is broke, fix it – those are the people I want to hang out with. “The dog needs a home,” so let’s make that happen. If the dog needs to get somewhere, let’s drive it. What I take in, I take on. I don’t move my foster dogs to Canada or Chicago if I can’t place them fast enough. It doesn’t make me Wonder Woman, it simply builds experience and endurance, and I learn a lot about myself in the process. Believe me when I say I’ve wanted to give up on a dog (several times). I’ve cried in front of my vet, I’ve cried in front of the dog trainers I use (awkward, but you can’t help it). But as my mentor, Sam Malatesta said, “the tough dogs make you good.” Why be like all the other “number-bragging rescues” who grab the easy, young, healthy, “sweet” dogs/puppies and adopt them out to the first person who comes along at Petsmart? The tough dogs teach me, and in turn I can teach others what I’ve learned (you know, the adopters that get duped and don’t want to give up on a dog that – if they returned it – would live its life out in a pen/crate because it has challenging behavior. Boy did that rescue luck out in finding that golden adopter who is up for a challenge.) That’s just the path I’ve taken.
The good news is….
I’m honestly not the only rescue out there that’s trying hard to do their best by the dog and the adopter. There are many very good groups that are skilled at matching a properly vetted/assessed dog with the right home and have a successful adoption. It’s maddening to sort through the crazies and find people who can really read a dog and be honest about its behavior/health challenges (they all have challenges, even dogs from breeders, even if you got them as a puppy – genetics play a huge role). How do you know which rescue to choose?
So what are the characteristics of a GOOD animal rescue?
- They’re a registered non-profit. As discussed in my “dog flipper” blog post, some groups are acting as rescues but are truly dog/cat flippers selling animals for profit. You can find out if the non-profit is registered by searching for their name/city on the state’s Secretary of State website under the “business entity search” at the very least, or by searching the IRS’s EO Select Check search tool. Some are very smooth, so before adopting do a quick search just to make sure.
- Good rescues won’t have a problem with you coming to their house or facility. Or, if they have you come to their property, ask to use their bathroom so you can see the inside of the building/house. Just like you would interviewing a backyard breeder, there’s no reason they would deny you access to their bathroom (for crying out loud) or coming in to sit down on the couch and spend time with the dog you’re there to see/adopt. If the place is an absolute disaster with dogs in stacked cages, a yard completely bald/no grass because they can’t keep their property up from the quantity of dogs they have, property/house/animals/foster person’s body smelling so bad that it chokes you, and animals covered in fleas/hair loss, PLEASE contact the police and report them (police will contact animal control). There is absolutely zero reason for a dog’s mental and physical health to deteriorate from being in rescue.
- If you meet a foster at a location for an adoption because of the distance, take a whiff. Seriously, smell them, smell their vehicle. If the smell is so bad that it knocks you over, you have got to report them to the rescue director. If the director thinks it’s okay, then contact the health department in the foster’s area with as many details as possible to have them stop by and check it out. Chances are probably good that they already know the person and are due to pay a visit.
- There should be a trial period for the dog you’ve adopted to where if it doesn’t work out, they’ll take the dog back. Or, if the dog gets sick, they’ll cover vet bills during the trial period. No adopter should ever get a lawyer called on them for vetting a dog and asking for reimbursement for treatment (unbelievable!!)
- There is no reason for a rescue to never return your email, phone call, FB message, text, or any other mode of communication. I can’t tell you all the times I’ve tried to direct people to a breed-specific rescue that absolutely never acknowledged their existence. I don’t care if you work 40-60 hours per week (if you’re working that much, should you even be doing rescue?), get someone in the group to answer the email/calls/FB messages and posts, another person to process the applications and do reference checks, another person to do home visits. (I do all of that work myself. Every bit. Including the fundraising. And the creation of things to sell as fundraisers. Me. All of it.) If they have several fosters in the rescue and no one has time to reply, that’s never a good sign. The adopters wait and wait, for months sometimes, then finally throw out there that they’re going to a breeder. And you can’t blame them if they’re being treated like that by a rescue. Breeders have no problem whatsoever getting back to people, I hope rescues are keenly aware of that.
- Good rescues are flat-out honest about behavior and health issues. They don’t lie about age, if anything they round up (there’s no harm in saying the dog is older than what it is, it would be the first dog to live to be 25.) If you’ve been doing rescue for a long time, you can read a dog within minutes on health and behavior. There are some behaviors that somehow blossom in adoptive homes (like getting into the trash if the foster home has step cans with a lid to prevent that, or getting into the pantry and dragging a sack of potatoes around the house – that was Smokey, a tiny dog, had no idea he had that much strength), but it should never be so drastic that the dog is trying to kill every human it encounters after the rescue said it was “sweet.”
- A foster home should be able to answer direct questions about a dog they’re fostering, i.e. if it’s potty trained. If they say “I don’t know,” oh my gosh… How do you not know? What in the heck is going on in your house, dude? Too many piles of poop or puddles of pee to know which dog did it? Or is the dog living in an outdoor pen (has no clue to put potty outside, just soils its area)? If so, the adopter deserves to know this so they can make an informed decision as to whether they have the time/energy to adapt a dog to a home environment. There are some rescues that pull dogs on Wed, vet them on Thursday, and have them at adoption events on Saturday. Even if the rescuer is pretty good at reading a dog, there is no way a rescue can know about the dog’s behavior in just a few days, especially if it’s had surgery (brings a dog down a notch). The “numbers game” rescues who want to crank out dogs typically do this, and it’s perfectly legal, but they should be honest with you and tell you they just got the dog and know nothing about it. Side Note: It’s entirely possible the dog could still break with some kind of disease at your house after you adopt it because the rescue didn’t do a quarantine period and they’re adopting it out too fast to know a health history. (I personally feel that’s super dirty to do that to adopters.)
- You should get to see vet records beforehand if you want to make sure you’re getting a decently healthy animal. Or allow the adopter to talk to the vet about the pet’s health record. An adoption contract should be signed. The animal should come with a decent amount of paperwork to prove that this dog or cat was cared for while in rescue. They should have their vaccines, spayed or neutered, bathed, toenails trimmed, and free of fleas/ticks and wormed. You shouldn’t ever feel like you’re saving a dog from a rescue, it should already be saved. I’ve taken dogs to adopters and had to bathe the dog (twice because it was so nasty), trim its nails, put on a new collar and throw the nasty collar it had on in the garbage. Ridiculous.
- Ask the foster home, “what do you like about this dog?” They should be able to tell you the best and worst qualities about it. If they just sit there, blinking, trying to think, you’re in for a wild card that could turn out to be anything. There’s no such thing as too many questions – everyone involved should want it to be the right fit. If the rescue gets perturbed by your questions, move on. With a bad attitude like that, they won’t help you after the adoption, either.
- That’s the last point – helping after the adoption. I always welcome updates, photos (I share the photos so FB fans and supporters can enjoy them, too), celebrations (getting the dog’s CGC), and training/behavior/health questions from my adopters. I even want to hear when it’s time for the dog to cross the bridge (ugh, so heartbreaking.) Rescues that don’t respond to stuff like that, sheesh. Really, how uncool can a rescue be? I know my dogs inside and out, I want to help where I can. If I’m invited to say goodbye or sit with them as they pass, I’ll do it – I consider that an honor to be a part of such a private moment. Otherwise, what are you doing this for?
There’s a famous dog quote from Max V. Stephanitz that says, “Show me your dog and I will tell you what manner of man you are.” If I were to apply that to the rescue world, I’d change it to, “show my your foster dogs and your return rate, and I’ll tell you what level of rescuer you are.” I’ll probably catch flack from this blog (if people actually read it, haha), but hopefully it makes both adopters and rescuers think. Who are you doing it for? The dog, or your ego? When it’s all said and done, the dog and adopter should be satisfied. That’s how you save not only the current dogs, but the shelter dogs that end up in rescue years from now when an adopter chooses to adopt again.