People seem to have a love/hate relationship with pet shelters and rescues, and volunteers at shelters and rescues seem to have a love/hate relationship with adopters. Adopters complain that rescues are too strict and say that next time they’ll just adopt from a humane society. Shelter/rescue volunteers complain that people don’t understand that adoption takes time and that even finding homes for kittens is hard.
Although I respect no-kill shelters and animal rescues, I must admit that until this winter my sympathies have lain with potential pet adopters. I wondered along with them why having an unfenced yard could mean an automatic refusal for an application. More than once I also nodded my head when someone contended that waiting lists would be shorter if no-kill shelters and animal rescues would only relax their rules. But then my husband and I found ourselves in the position of finding a home for a rescued kitten. The entire adoption process—from spreading the word to asking the right questions to creating a contract—proved much harder than we anticipated. Suddenly the expression “walk a mile in my shoes” became crystal clear.
I’ve long encouraged the use of social media to those trying to find homes for homeless pets. I’ve even helped a few people design ads. For that reason, my husband and I thought getting the word out about our foster kitten would be easy. We were wrong.
Prior to Onyx being ready for adoption, I shared her story here in a series of articles. I wrote about Onyx being brought to CHS as a tiny emaciated feral kitten, how my husband and I began foster her, and how we treated her for parasitic infection and nursed her back to health. None of these articles resulted in any inquiries. I told myself to be patient. The articles were just meant as teasers.
The first week in January, we sat down to promote Onyx’s availability. We tried a version that would tug at the reader’s emotions but nixed that idea, because there’ve been so many stories told this way that people have started to grow immune to them. We tried a glowing version that made Onyx sound too good to be true. Yet we knew if we were completely upfront and said that Onyx was skittish and would need patience, people might not give her the chance she deserved. After an hour, we’d written and erased one paragraph multiple times. We tried writing copy individually too, but found we needed each other for the ideas to flow. Finally, we decided to make a list of Onyx’s qualities, both good and bad, and then we wrote short examples of those qualities. Even then, it was another hour before we were satisfied.
Although we shared our promo with only our Facebook friends, we still expected to get lots of inquiries. After all, Onyx was an adorable kitten, and who doesn’t love kittens? But no inquires came. Oh, lots of people LIKED and LOVED our posts. A few even commented on them. But no one showed any interest in even meeting Onyx. We didn’t lose heart. Eventually, people started to tag friends and share our post. One person asked for an application and another came to visit Onyx. Then interest waned and died. Andy and I talked about whether we should share her application at online pet adoption sites, but the idea of sorting through applications from strangers overwhelmed us. Instead we began to figure out how we were going to integrate a fifth pet into our home.
Publicizing a homeless animal through a private adoption is no doubt more complicated than it would be for an established non-profit organization. The latter will have a wider audience, a better sense of how to reach that audience, and awareness of safe places to advertise. Yet the reality is that the supply of homeless animals is high and the demand is low. Rehoming a pet is a challenge for both individuals and organizations.
If someone did eventually show serious interest in Onyx, we would need to be able to give them an application, so writing one was our next task. At this point, Onyx had been living with us for six weeks. Andy had syringe-fed her the first week. We had taken her multiple times to the veterinarian to diagnose and treat her parasitic infection. More than once, we had worried that we would lose her. Now that she was thriving, we would rather keep her than just give her to anyone. For that reason, we wanted to ask exactly the right questions, and so we looked to the adoption applications of local shelters and rescues for inspiration.
Our first set of questions determined whether a person could own and afford a cat. Although pet owners can be resourceful—hiding pets from landlords who don’t allow them and getting by despite limited finances—statistically two of the top reasons for relinquishment are living in a place that doesn’t allow pets and not being afford the cost of a pet. We wanted to set our “bat girl” up for maximize success. For that reason, we began our application with questions about housing and finances. Did the applicant own or rent? Did their lease allow pets? How would they handle a $500 vet bill?
Our next set of questions delved into the heart of what type of care a person would give Onyx. Most (if not all) no-kill shelters and rescues these days require animals to be spayed or neutered, licensed, and microchipped before being adopted. There was no reason for us to expect any less from the person who adopted Onyx. We asked about litter boxes, scratching posts, and toys. All our cats live indoors only, still have their claws, and are taken to the vet once a year. They also have several litter boxes, scratching posts, and toys. Andy and I believe that a cat should be treated as one of the family, and we wanted Onyx’s adopter to feel the same. Is it right to require applicants to share our principles? This isn’t an easy question to answer. On one hand, the demands made of an applicant shouldn’t be so strict that few pet owners can meet them. Hundreds of animals are dying in shelters, and a major way to reduce those numbers is to increase adoptions. On the other hand, the demands shouldn’t be so soft that pets are adopted out to families that will neglect or abuse them. So our goal in creating our adoption application was to find the right balance between ensuring Onyx’s happiness and finding her a home.
Our final set of questions inquired into the applicant’s current pet situation and previous pet experiences. We’ve been on the other end of adoption and so know these questions get tedious. At the same time, we saw a sense to them. If the applicant had other cats, we’d need to if the applicant had a good plan for introducing them. If the applicant had dogs, we’d need to know if they were cat-friendly. Finally, we wanted to know if the applicant had ever relinquished or euthanized a pet, and why. While there can be valid reasons for both, we wanted to ensure that the adopter placed a high value on their pets.
As private adopters, Andy and I could afford to be extremely selective about applicants. After all, we were just trying to find a home for one cat. In the same way, no-kill shelters and rescues know that if they keep an animal, this animal will receive sufficient care, get medical treatment when needed, and have a loving home. They naturally expect as much from an applicant, even if that limits the pool from whom they can pick.
The first week in February, we had requests for an application. Now we needed to create an adoption contract. As one rescuer wrote to me in response to my questions about how to pick the right applicant, “It is not as simple as it used to be, when people had extra cats and dogs, and put up ‘Free to good home’ signs.” There’s much more known today about the proper care of cats, and so higher demands are made of potential adopters. Thanks to the internet, there’s also much more known today about the dangers that exists in the world, and so we are all much more vigilant with even our acquaintances, neighbors, and friends. For that reason, we wanted our contract to protect all parties involved—the adopter, ourselves, and Onyx.
Our first several statements were broad ones. We offered a provision of a two-week trial. By the end of that time, an applicant should have discovered if our cat is right for them. We also stipulated that “the applicant will not sell, give away, or dispose of said cat for any reason”. Is it right to restrict applicants in this way? What if for unseen circumstances the applicant is unable to keep Onyx? Should they really lose the right to decide her future? The best owners when faced with such a prospect would move heaven and earth to find a new home for their beloved pet. Sadly, there are far too many pet owners who will also crate their pet and drop them off at the nearest shelter, with little concern for its fate. For this reason, we wanted the applicant to agree that Onyx would come back to us.
The rest of our contract gave us the most pause. We’d carefully reviewed the applications and were confident that whomever we picked would adhere to our values. We had every reason to believe that Onyx’s adopter would give her the same life that we would: she’d live indoors, not be de-clawed, and have annual exams. In addition, she’d have access to several litter boxes, scratching posts, and toys. And because of our confidence, we felt torn between whether to even include these items in a contact. After much soul searching, in which we began to understand why no-kill shelters and rescues are so strict, we decided to include them. In the months of our caring for Onyx, we’d fallen in love with her. Our hearts would break if we ever learn that her life has been anything less than the best. We needed to do whatever we could to guarantee this. After all, if a few little rules scared off an applicant, that just meant there was a better home out there for Onyx.
The entire process of adoption—from spreading the word to asking the right questions to creating a contract—was a challenging and exhausting one. Should we ever need to do it again, we’ll have a better idea what to do. But to be honest we hope we never have to do this again. We’re more than happy for no-kill shelters and animal rescues to handle this responsibility. And very relieved that we successfully placed Onyx this past week in her adoptive home for a two-week trial.
Special thanks to Joining Forces and Saving Lives and to Community Cat Coalition, both of whom answered my many questions about the pet adoption process and reassured us that we were taking the right steps. Dolly’s Legacy Animal Rescue and Good Dog Rescue of Nebraska also offered advice.