Maria and I went to Vermont yesterday to visit a popular animal shelter, I had a check tucked into my wallet just in case. Lots of people get animals there, almost all of them happily, from what I am told.
We came there by a circuitous process. Our search for a new dog has been more complicated than we thought, we are running into obstacles, setbacks and some confusion. One breeder's dogs are not in heat, the breeding bitch of another had only one pup. We looked on many rescue and adoption websites – hundreds of photos – and Facebook pages and are struggling to find the dog we want, a dog for both us, but especially for Maria.
We were excited about the shelter visit, we wanted to see some dogs who might need the kind of home we could provide.
I was surprised at first when Maria said she was nervous about going to the shelter. Why?, I asked. Because I feel like I'm going to be judged, she said, that I won't ask the right questions or be rejected. I said I was sure that wouldn't happen, but it seemed sad to me that anyone would go to an animal shelter and feel anything but welcomed and encouraged.
I shouldn't have been surprised. I've heard this sentiment a thousand times. Many people are rejected at shelters – they don't have enough money, they don't have big fences, they are too old, have too many animals, work too hard, or drive carriage horses in New York City. The shelters claim they are just being appropriately careful, and I am sure that is very often true, but there seems to be a growing divide between the people who want to live with animals and the people who claim responsibility for their well-being.
There was nobody in the waiting room when we got there, we figured they were busy. In a few minutes, one person came out, then three. There was no interaction much. We were not welcomed in any way, nobody wanted to know anything about us.
We said we would like to see some dogs, we wanted to get some guidance about the dogs they had, but the shelter worker just handed us a laminated book of photos. She said it was too stressful for the dogs to be visited by people, and if we saw a dog we liked, they would bring it out for us to meet.
This struck me as odd. I imagine a few minutes of stress to be a very small price to pay for a dog finding a good home. Being alone in a crate for days is pretty stressful also. What about the stress of the people coming in?
Looking through the book, we were both put off. First, the shelter said they would no longer be identifying dogs by breed, it was just too complicated for them to try and identify breeds, so every dog would be called an "American Shelter Dog." That, of course, is not a breed.
"Isn't it more important to know the dog's personality?," offered the group on it's website. "Don't you want to know if this is the friend, buddy or companion you were looking for more than knowing what breed mix it may be?" Actually no, I thought, I would like to know all of it, where they come from, what they are apt to be like. If it is known, tell me, if not, I understand. I have a lot of buddies already, I want a dog that will live safely and happily and lovingly with me, not an emotionalized animal, and I am eager to have every scrap of information available to help me determine that. It is fatuous to suggest that highly-trained vets can't make good or knowledgeable judgments about a dog's breed.
I've heard of other shelters doing the same thing mostly because they have trouble adopting some breeds. This shelter said it was because dog breeds are too hard to identify, but other shelters admit that it is meant to protect breeds with troublesome reputations. Really?
The breed of a dog matters, there are enormous behavioral differences between a poodle and a Lab and Pit Bull and an Akita. Some cold weather breeds are food protective (not because they are evil but because there is often little food in their native environments.) I have nothing against Pit Bulls (Labs are much more likely to bite people), but some have bad owners and if I am to take a Pit Bull home, I would like to know it in advance.
My neighbor's daughter was mauled by a Pit Bull and bitten in the face. They do not blame the dog, and neither do I, but she is still afraid of the breed and if I am to bring one next door, I want to be able to tell them about it first. Vets can spot breed characteristics quite easily. I am not about to tell my neighbor that the dog who looks just like a Pit Bull is a Pit Bull, but it doesn't matter because he's my special friend.
I also saw that veterinary references would be required to adopt a dog, and an application would have to be filled out, and that there was a mandatory counseling session to make sure the adopters understand the animal's needs.
Maria and I looked at one another, we hadn't driven 20 miles to look at a book, we had come to see some dogs. We thanked the staff and said goodbye – there were now three people in the room, each one of them ignored us and talked about the animals they would be putting up on Facebook shortly. One said we should check the website, it was constantly updated and photos of new dogs were placed there. Nobody volunteered to talk to us, asked for our numbers, gave us theirs, or wanted to stay in touch. We were done.
We left, no one had asked us a single question about who we were, what we might be looking for. I had the sense plenty of people come by looking for animals to adopt, there was no particular need to engage us in conversation, or even talk to us. It was clearly a seller's market for many dogs, like the new Apple watch. People often tell me they feel lucky to be able to get a dog, rather than the other way around.
I have gotten a number of dogs from animal shelters, but not for a few years, and I remember that every one of them encouraged me to come and walk around, see the dogs (visiting a beautiful new animal shelter in Palo Alto, Calif. last year, the dogs were visible behind large windows, they begged us to come and see the dogs, get a feeling for them.) They asked me what kind of dog I liked, where I lived. They were alert to issues of care and responsibility, but I had the feeling they were more interested in matching me with the right dog than with making me jump through a lot of hoops to prove myself worthy.
I felt the Palo Alto shelter was unusual then, even more so now.
Am I just being touchy, even grumpy? I don't think so. Maria and I left the shelter in Vermont feeling both deflated and uncomfortable, a sharp drop in mood. Adopting an animal should be a joyous and warm collaboration. I need to see, smell, study a dog before I even think of adopting him or her. Do I really need to provide veterinary references to adopt one of the many millions of dogs languishing in American animal shelters?
Why is it I have never been asked to do that before?
When I got home, I thought about it, and I decided I didn't want to feel that way again. I told Maria that I should have called Karen Thompson, the wonderful breeder who gave me Red, in the first place. Over the past year, as I've written about the deepening conflict between people with pets and people with animals, and about the New York carriage horses and the circus elephants the ponies in the farmer's markets, I have had this sense of a growing estrangement between people who are concerned with animal welfare and animal rights and people who love animals and wish to live with them.
It seems that animal lovers no longer see many animal advocates as partners, but as enemies, something to fear. I cannot imagine that is good for animals.
There is a fine balance to be had between seeking to prevent abuse and cruelty and getting animals to the right people who live in complex and challenging circumstances. My sense is that this balance has tilted sharply out of balance. There are an estimated 12 million dogs in need of homes, many languishing in the backyards and crates of animal shelters and the garages of private rescue groups. Adoption should be encouraged within reason, not discouraged.
No one should feel anxious about going to an animal shelter to adopt a dog. No one ought to feel guilty for having a job and walking a dog, or for not being able to afford a big fence and walk the dog instead. No one should feel they are too old to get a dog if they are committed to figure out how to care for them. And no one should ever adopt a dog and be denied every possible piece of information about them, their health, their history and breeds. That is always the right way to get a dog.
Adopting an animal is too personal, human and complex a process to be left only to websites and Facebook Pages. We are becoming a disconnected culture, talking to one another through devices and social media pages. That is not the right way to get a dog. At the core of the process is one or more human beings – the adopter and his or her family – and a rescue or shelter working sitting on the other side of desk, each looking the other in the eye and making a connection of trust, concern and commitment.
That is how I got Red, a dog breeder and animal lover and exemplary human being read my books, called me up and talked to me at least a dozen times, and we came to know and trust one another. We got to ask one another questions, listen to the other's stories. The right choice was made, for me, for the dog, for her, and it could not have worked out better. Is there any better way to get a dog?
Our trip to Vermont reminded both of us what the proper way to get a dog is. This is a matter of connection, not forms or web pages or references. We will not be returning to that shelter, I will talk to Karen Thompson today, she has been breeding dogs for nearly 40 years, and knows many other people who love and care for them as well. She will talk to me as often as I need and wish. I trust her and she trusts me.
I bet we will come up with some good ideas. I feel that I am on track. One human being talking to another. And I have to admit, I fear for the fate of any animals whose fates are decided by people who see them only as beings too fragile to even be seen and who can only be known on Facebook and laminated photos.