Shelters Keep Tight Leash on Adoptions

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008

After all the forms had been filled out, veterinarian records vetted and the multiple mandatory visits to the animal shelter completed, the Ling family's long quest to adopt a dog came down to this: the dreaded home interview.

On a recent afternoon, Mary Ling straightened up her Rockville home and took her two daughters out of school. They all sat nervously across the kitchen table from the Montgomery County Humane Society official who could grant custody of Buddy and Sam, the mixed-breed beagles they had applied to adopt more than a week earlier.

Or not.

"It's certainly a lot more involved than the last time I adopted an animal," Ling said after an hour-long session that was part pet care seminar, part home inspection. "But I had heard a lot of horror stories that it would be easier to adopt a child than a dog here. A lot of people tried to discourage me from it."

Adopting a pet from Washington area animal shelters and rescue groups has long been known as one of the region's signature hassles, like Capital Beltway traffic and drop-of-a-flake school closings. What parents might remember, from back in the day, as a family outing to select their pet can now consume weeks and require home visits, medical reviews of pets already in the home, interviews with each member of the family, reference checks, training courses and copies of lease pet clauses.

But with more would-be pet owners traveling to surrounding, less-restrictive jurisdictions for their animal friends, the grousing about local adoption standards may have reached a tipping point for some agencies. In the District, the Washington Humane Society is overhauling its system to make it easier to take an animal home.

"It shouldn't be so hard to adopt a pet," said Lisa LaFontaine, who took over 10 months ago as president and chief executive of the Washington Humane Society. "It should be a learning experience, and it should be enjoyable."

Her agency, which runs two shelters in the District, recently dropped its home-visit requirement and will now give applicants more chances to explain problems that might have landed them on a no-pet blacklist in the past, such as a loose-running pet killed in traffic or a tendency to return previously adopted animals. In coming weeks, officials plan to launch a personality-based service that matches owners and pets.

But by and large, shelter operators defend the hurdles they put up as crucial to protecting animals that have usually been abused or abandoned.

"We are strict, and we're proud of it," said J.C. Crist, president and chief executive of the Montgomery Humane Society. "I don't want to put an animal in a home if we can tell in advance that it's not going to work out. Our process is all about making sure we find the right fit. If we get that wrong, the animal may well end up back with us anyway."

Relaxing the rules could be dangerous not just for the animals, Crist said, but also for the people around them. "Part of our mission is public safety," he said. "The wrong fit could also put a child or a neighbor or any other citizen at risk."

Some applicants welcome the scrutiny. Kari Becker Beard, 30, said she was relieved that a greyhound rescue society poked so thoroughly into her fitness as a dog person.

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