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A Contract to Control: Do Pet Adoption Contracts Go Too Far?

The other day, a pickup truck with a beautiful blue Pit Bull in the back rolled by while I was walking. “What a beautiful dog,” I thought. Then, “Oh…wait, that’s bad. That dog could get hurt.”

The driver pulled into his driveway and walked to the back of the truck, showering the Pittie with head rubs and ear scratches before he untethered the dog. The fact is, this man who obviously loves his dog and prefers a hard-to-adopt breed would never be approved by most animal rescue groups if he disclosed that he lets his dogs ride in an open pickup truck.

Dogs In Truck

Dogs In Truck (Photo credit: Mark Faviell Photos)

Last week, I blogged about a rescue group that took back a cat after four years based on a mistaken assumption that the adopters breached their adoption contract by allowing the cat outside. That got me thinking about adoption contract rules, which exist not only for legal reasons but also because someone, somewhere in that particular rescue group decided what is “best” for an animal, based on their view of the world.

Here are a few rules from various rescue contracts found online:

  • Adopter must notify us if you ever move to a new address.
  • The dog will not be kept outdoors during the adopter’s working hours, or at any other time left alone outdoors while the adopter is not at home.
  • The dog will not ride in the back of a pickup truck under any circumstances.
  • The adopter must keep the rescuer informed with the name of the dog’s veterinarian and rescue may check at any time to make sure that the dog is kept on heartworm preventative year-round.
  • If the dog gets loose/stolen and is not back in the adopter’s care/control within two hours, you must immediately notify the rescue. Failure to do so will be an immediate breach of contract.
  • Adopter agrees that [rescue group] shall have the right to enter Adopter’s premises at any time, with or without notice, to inspect the dog’s condition and environment at any point in the lifetime of the dog.

Hopefully, these restrictions are there to give a rescue leeway when it needs to get a dog or cat out of an actual abusive situation. Or, maybe these are guidelines, placed in the contract for the adopter to consider for their pet’s well-being. I know pet owners who don’t keep their dog on heartworm preventative every month during harsh winters, and I don’t think they are bad dog owners. I also think it’s a little nervy of a rescue to expect an adopter to welcome a surprise inspector to their home “at any time, with or without notice.

Besides, there needs to be a bit of a learning curve allowance for new pet owners. I am embarrassed to admit that when I took my first dog, Emma, to a nearby lake on autumn days to run off-leash, 20 years ago, I sometimes let her ride tethered in the back of my truck down I-35 for 30 minutes on the way back. Why? Because she was muddy, and she liked it, and, like nearly everyone reading this, I did more stupid things 20 years ago than I do today.

When I got my second truck, I let my dogs ride in the covered bed, and when I got rid of that camper shell, they rode in the cab with me. One day a couple of years ago, a car spun out of control on I-35, slammed into me, and my truck overturned, rolled twice and slid upside down across three lanes of traffic. Miraculously, thanks to my seat belt, I wasn’t injured, and neither was anyone else on the road. Fortunately, no dogs were with me.

No dog would have survived in the open bed of my pickup truck.

I hate to imagine what might have become of a dog in my pickup bed in that situation. Random things happen, in all of our lives, no matter how much we try to control everything, no matter how many rules we have in place. People who work in animal rescue want to take every possible precaution to protect their adopted pets because, in their line of work, they see horrific situations of animal abuse. After awhile, nearly every adopter is suspect. However, we all have different ideas of how to best care for our pets. Every animal, person and situation is different. Not everything fits neatly into an adoption contract.

If an adopter loves their dog or cat, takes care of them, and the animal isn’t being abused or neglected, maybe the rescue should just back off, trust that they made the right selection through interviewing and screening and let people take care of their pet as they see fit. I am all for adoption follow-up, and I think it’s essential, but doesn’t the dog or cat eventually belong to the person who adopts it?

Controlling adopters with dictates about the only “right” way a cat or dog should be cared for isn’t going to guarantee that all adopted animals will live long lives. It just means that a lot of people won’t get their pets from a rescue group, which means that a lot of homeless dogs and cats will wait a long, long time for that “perfect” home.

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The Claws Come Out When a No-Kill Rescue Reclaims a Contract-Breaking Kitty

When someone adopts a dog or cat from a shelter, they’re trying to do the right thing. They’re happy to pay the fee, sign an adoption contract and hurry home to toss a Frisbee to their new rescue dog or watch their kitten bat a ball across the rug.

Nancy Whipple had to file a lawsuit to get her cat Newman back from Save-A-Pet.

But how much control of that family member remains in the hands of the rescue where they adopted the pet? And what happens if the adopters break one of those rules from that list in the contract?

Just ask Gene and Nancy Whipple of Lake County, Illinois. The couple filed a lawsuit last month against Save-A-Pet Inc., a no-kill animal rescue near Chicago, where they adopted their slinky black cat, Newman, in 2008. The Whipples claimed in the suit that Save-A-Pet “repossessed” Newman — four and a half years later — after “stalking” the Whipples’ home, waiting for the amber-eyed feline to step outside.

The Whipples had no idea that Newman would one day be the catalyst for a lawsuit alleging that one of the largest no-kill rescues in Lake County staked out the home of one of its adoptees. That is, not until they decided to adopt another homeless cat from Save-A-Pet. Like all potential adopters, the Whipples sat down with an adoption counselor for an interview.

“It was more like an interrogation,” says Nancy of the interview. Everything looked promising for adding another cat to the family. Then Nancy says the counselor asked the Whipples what she calls a “trick” question: “This cat will be outside, right?”

“If our cat gets out, we make sure he gets safely back inside,” the Whipples told the counselor, speaking of another cat they owned that sometimes prowled their six-acre property. At that point, the interview skidded to a halt, according to Nancy: “They heard the word ‘outside’ and told us, ‘No, you can’t adopt a cat.’”

The Whipples say they called Save-A-Pet the next day, hoping a supervisor might okay the adoption anyway. After all, they were excellent cat owners. Instead, she says, the rescue pounced on the Whipples with alarming news: Save-A-Pet wanted Newman back. Letting him outside had violated the rescue’s adoption contract.

Newman wanted to see the world. But he only made it as far as a cage at Save-A-Pet.

“They’re just kidding, right?” Nancy asked her husband after he hung up the phone.

“No,” Gene told her. “They’re serious. They’re going to come and get Newman!”

Nine months passed, but no one came to retrieve the contract-breaking cat. The Whipples had no plans to return Newman to Save-A-Pet. It seemed the whole tussle had blown over like a fur ball in the wind – that is, until September 16 — when Newman mysteriously vanished after he inadvertently slipped outside while the Whipples were out of town.

The Whipples immediately suspected that Save-A-Pet might be behind Newman’s disappearance. They contacted the local Sheriff’s Department, which confirmed that Newman was indeed being held in “quarantine” at Save-A-Pet’s facility. Although Newman was microchipped as the Whipple’s cat, the rescue refused to return him.

Newman may have gotten snagged when he slipped outside, but he wasn’t neglected or abused. He was a cherished part of the family. In fact, the Whipples’ veterinarian gave the couple and their cat a glowing review: “I consider Nancy Whipple to be one of the best pet guardians I have as a client,” wrote the veterinarian in a letter supplied to the Whipples’ attorney.  “Newman…is in excellent health. He is kept up-to-date on vaccinations….and is always impeccably clean and well-groomed.”

It’s not like Gene and Nancy were eager to slap a lawsuit on the animal rescue group. Nancy says she tried to resolve the situation like a reasonable person when she went to Save-A-Pet, toting a cat carrier and armed with a microchip scanner loaned by her veterinarian (in case a staffer tried to pull a black cat switcheroo).

“I asked if I could pick him up. They told me no,” says Nancy. “I asked if I could at least see him. They said no. At that point, I knew they were going to play hardball.”

Fearing that Save-A-Pet might adopt Newman to another family, the Whipples contacted attorney Jim Kaiser, who got an emergency injunction to keep the rescue from placing Newman into another adoptive home. A few days later, Nancy and her attorney headed to court.

Kaiser and Save-A-Pet’s attorney resolved the situation that day after the two determined  that Newman’s repossession was based on a “misunderstanding,” says Kaiser. The adoption interviewer had wrongly assumed that the Whipples were talking about Newman (an indoor cat) when they were actually referring to their other (indoor/outdoor) cat. The parties agreed to dismiss the lawsuit, as long as the Whipples signed an affidavit promising that Newman would be an exclusively indoor cat – barring accidental door bolts — and allowing Save-A-Pet to come and do a wellness check on Newman at any time over the next year.

Newman, who now spends his afternoons stretched out on a comforter in a patch of sun – inside the house – doesn’t seem too damaged by his stay in quarantine.

“Poor little Newman was trapped in a cage for nine days,” says Nancy. “But he’s like a kitten again.” Maybe Newman just figures if he can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Several people have asked Nancy why she and Gene went to so much trouble “for a cat.”

Filing the lawsuit wasn’t just about Newman, says Nancy, who spent more than $2,000 in legal fees and postponed a vacation to Germany to get her kitty back.

“We need to make these shelters accountable. They need to be using their donations doing what is best for animals who are actually homeless,” she says. “Not taking animals out of loving homes.”

Save-A-Pet staff declined to comment for this article.

Survivor of Nightmarish Ordeal Fights to Save the Life of Her Service Dog

A Pit Bull in Turlock, California, that was scheduled to be euthanized October 16  for leash violations will now be returned to its owner, a rape survivor who was placed in a witness protection program after she testified in a criminal case against a gang that abducted her.

The dog acts as an unofficial service animal to the traumatized woman, identified only as “Jane Doe” in a civil lawsuit filed last week seeking an emergency restraining order to stop the City of Turlock from killing the woman’s white-and-black Pit Bull “Freyja.”

“Doe” and her sister were abducted from a movie theater ten years ago by gang members who imprisoned them, along with several other women, in “what can only be described as a pit,” for several days, even weeks, according to the lawsuit. There, the women endured “dungeon treatment” and their abductors used them “as slaves for the purpose of their own amusement.”

The sexual assault victim, who has been separated from her family for a decade under a witness protection program, was unable to leave her house until only recently without succumbing to crippling fear. She has not been able to withstand even sitting in a car with another human being since the attack. California Witness Protection officials suggested that the woman get a dog for protection, since she was marked for death by the gang targeted in her testimony. That’s when she adopted her Pit Bull Freyja.

For the past four years, Doe’s sole love and companionship came from her dog, which the lawsuit refers to as a “gorgeous white and black Pit Bull.” According to the suit, Freyja quickly became the woman’s “only remaining friend, her only ally, and her only protection… the only consistent, shining light in an otherwise grim existence.”

Freyja’s owner trained her dog to be non-aggressive. In fact, the dog never bit, attacked or threatened anyone. “Other than being a Pit Bull that is the target of ire by the City and other defendants, [Freyja] has done nothing wrong,” states the lawsuit. Still, Freyja’s two prior leash violations, which were dismissed, and a recent third infraction,  prompted the City to confiscate the dog and gave it authority to euthanize.

Initially, it looked like Freyja — who has been detained by the city for three weeks — could be returned to her owner if the woman paid a $1,000 fine and proved that her fence was secure. However, when she went to pay the fine last week, city officials refused to accept payment or return Freyja. Last Thursday, attorney Justin Allen’s office got a frantic call from Freyja’s owner. It took an emergency restraining order and a court hearing to finally convince the City to return the de facto service dog to her home.

“The City was actually very cooperative,” says Allen’s law clerk Lizzy Edwards of the October 16 hearing, where the suit was dismissed after both parties’ attorneys agreed on a solution: Freyja’s owner will get the dog back as soon she pays a reduced  fine of $500 and proves she has proper fencing. Their client has the funds available to pay the fine and has put up a new fence to ensure there are no more dog escapes, says Edwards. It looks like Freyja is headed home — alive.

The sad fact is, Freyja’s near-euthanasia experience wasn’t based only on harsh  city ordinances. Flawed governmental and public perceptions of Pit Bulls were equal contributors to the service animal’s plight.

Although the lawsuit states that Freyja was “scheduled to be executed” on October 16, 2012, no definite euthanasia date was actually set, says Edwards. City officials told Edwards that because Freyja is a Pit Bull, it’s likely that no one would have adopted the dog. Therefore, Freyja almost certainly would  have been destroyed.

Says Edwards: “Taking this dog away from her owner was essentially a death sentence.”