The biggest problem facing American shelters and rescues in my opinion today is the choice of responsibility. Shelters and rescue can choose to side with being responsible to our community, or we can choose to be responsible towards the dogs we want to save. I do not honestly believe that we can always be responsible towards both.
The balance of responsibility is almost never talked about outside of the rescue world, because it’s a harsh and sometimes ugly concept. It’s not something we like to think about, but I think it’s something that we need to think and to talk about, openly and honestly. Until we can discuss the balance of responsibility, until we can ask organizations where their individual fulcrum sits and where they’ve decided to place their moral chips, it’s nearly impossible to have so many other discussions about euthanasia and live release rates and what “adoptable” looks like in their organization.
There’s a margin of error on both sides, and within that margin of error live the borderline dogs. Borderline dogs are those dogs who come into the shelter system damaged through no fault of their own. Through poor genetics, lack of socialization, or bad experiences, these dogs are just a little too hot to be pet material. Anyone who’s worked for any amount of time in shelter or rescue knows the dogs I’m talking about. These dogs do well in the hands of experienced animal handlers. We can take these dogs and make them look like stars. They’re usually dog- and cat-aggressive, or perhaps they do great with other animals but show no sociability towards people. Maybe they don’t like to be touched, or maybe they’re guarders. Maybe they don’t like men, or kids, or people who are holding things. Sometimes they have crazy drive and terrible structure. Sometimes they have stereotypies – spinning, licking, jumping. Often they’re quick to lunge and snap, quick to snark, or maybe even have a minor bite history. Maybe they’ve just never been inside, and pancake to the floor or won’t go through doorways. They come in a variety of flavors, but whatever they look like, they’re just a little bit tough without being obviously unsalvageable. They’re workable, but they’re also very likely to hurt someone in the wrong situation.
Do we – should we? – place these animals? With lots of resources, they could do really well. In fact, many blog readers probably have success stories about dogs just like those I described above who did beautifully in your home (I do too!). But, the resources that it would take to get these borderline animals to a place where the average pet owner could handle them would save fifty perfectly lovely other dogs who are dying in southern shelters today. And in my experience, most rescues never get these animals to a place where the average pet owner can adopt them. Instead, they have to wait for the above average pet owner to adopt them, and that takes months or years. That takes so many resources, or it takes unintentionally misleading adoption pleas.
The problem is that either way, you’re going to get some wrong. Occasionally, it’s not going to go well. So, which way do you err?
If your rescue errs on the side of the community, you kill some animals who were perfectly placeable. This is the side that the majority of the ER staff, vets, and trainers I know, myself included, tend to come down on, because we’ve seen the damage done when borderline dogs get placed irresponsibly. We’ve seen the bites to small children requiring plastic surgery. We’ve seen the grief when people’s pet cats or dogs are killed. We’ve seen how devastating it can be when an adopter has to send their new pet’s head off for rabies testing. So we advise that dogs with bite histories or histories of aggression, especially large or powerful breeds or those who already have a bad reputation which would be especially hurt by another poor media portrayal, be euthanized. We advise against placing dogs who we would absolutely work with if they were already in stable, loving homes, because the sad fact is that they aren’t, and that there are hundreds of lovely dogs with no behavioral issues who could use those resources out there who need help.
And I understand how hard that is, too. Because if you work in rescue, you tend to err on the side of the dogs. You’re the one who has to clean up after the world, and it hurts so much to take a hurt and broken dog who’s physically healthy on that last trip to the vet and hold them while they die. So you place them and you cross your fingers and then you feel so happy that everything worked out. And most of the time, quite honestly, it’s okay. Most of the time, things are all right, and adopters make things work, and the dog doesn’t bite anyone. And – I’ll be honest – even if the dog does horribly disfigure the neighbor kid, you’re probably not going to hear about it, because usually the adopter is too embarrassed or upset, so they don’t contact you to let you know, and you go on thinking everything worked out in the end. And you didn’t have to kill the dog. The buck was passed.
Why am I writing this? If you’re not in the rescue or shelter community, you’re probably horrified about the Sophie’s choice of the idea right now. If you are, you’re already aware of it, although you may not have thought of it so starkly before. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of tough cases over the last few months, blog readers, on both sides of the fence. I work with rescues who are doing everything they can to advocate for their dogs, and I admire the hell out of their commitment to their charges. However, I’ve also had a handful of cases where adopters have had to make tough choices about dogs that, in my humble opinion, should never have been placed in their homes or their communities, and in some of those cases children were injured. In one case, a beloved pet died. The dog in question was placed with a known history of aggression towards other animals. Shame on the shelter for passing on the responsibility to their adopter. You can guess which side of the moral debate that particular organization lands on.
Regardless of whether you work in shelter or rescue or not, you can make a difference. Make sure that your donations are going to support organizations whose missions support your beliefs. Even better, support organizations who work to keep animals in their original homes through programs that provide training, veterinary, and educational support to needy communities.
The sad fact of rescue is that sometimes we get it wrong. Behavior is not always predictable, and we’re left making educated guesses about what any animal in our care will do in the future. With that in mind, those of us in the rescue and sheltering community have an important responsibility to both the community we live in and the animals we’ve sworn to help. It’s a balancing act that can seem daunting at times, and each of us must decide at which point on the scale we wish to place our fulcrum. Where will you err? In favor of your community, or in favor of the dog? If you err, who’s going to pay the price?