Shelters Keep Tight Leash on Adoptions
D.C. Animal Group Says It's Time to Be More People-Friendly

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.

The two-month process required three personal references for Beard and her husband, assigned reading of two books, phone and home interviews, and a test session with a greyhound in her condominium.

"I'm glad there was someone who would tell me if they didn't think I would be an appropriate dog owner," said Beard, who adopted her greyhound, Snickers, in November. "I don't think people realize what a commitment having a dog is."

But many residents complain that by-the-book standards can punish qualified pet owners, some of whom are surprised to be denied outright.

"We were stunned," said Lizou Fenyvesi, who was recently turned down by a Labrador retriever rescue group. Fenyvesi lives with her husband on seven rural acres near Clarksburg. The family has had dogs for decades, the last two dying of age-related diseases at 12 and 14 years old. But the rescue group declared them ineligible because their land is fenced on only three sides and the couple wouldn't pledge never to let the dog run loose. Montgomery law requires dogs in unfenced areas to be on a leash at all times.

"It's a farm -- it's dog heaven," Fenyvesi said. "That dog probably went to a townhouse where nobody is home all day."

Fenyvesi said she will do what other Washington area pet seekers do when some regulations prove too tough: go shelter shopping.

"We do have people come here who have found it difficult in Montgomery County," said Linda Shea, kennel supervisor at the Frederick County Animal Shelter. Her agency doesn't require a home visit and will give applicants a chance to vaccinate their other pets if they've fallen behind. "We don't just hand out animals, but we try to get it done within two days."

For some people wanting to adopt, the hardest part of being denied is the implication that an animal is better off living in the shelter, or worse, than living with them.

After Del Tinker of Greenbelt was turned down for a dog by the Washington Humane Society, she caught sight of some of the recently euthanized strays behind the New York Avenue facility as she left.

"That really upset me," Tinker said. "I thought about plopping one of those on their desk and saying 'What about this one? Can I have this one?' "

But the idea that unwanted dogs are necessarily doomed is an outdated one, according to LaFontaine. Her agency now euthanizes only the dogs that are deemed a threat to public safety or are too sick to be released. The rest are kept in the shelters, their overflow facilities or in foster care until they are placed in a permanent home.

Stray cats, however, are so numerous that healthy, adoptable animals are still routinely euthanized, LaFontaine said.

The Montgomery Humane Society has instituted a similar 100-percent adoption standard for dogs in the past two years, according to Crist, and is nearly there for cats.

Still, there is a wide gulf of viewpoints between families eager for pets and shelter workers who come in daily contact with gruesome examples of animal neglect and abuse. Adelaide Soares, the Montgomery Humane Society home inspector who visited the Lings, said she hates to turn applicants down (the agency said it rejects only about three percent of applicants). But there are times she would rather see a quick end for an animal than a life of suffering.

"Sometimes a fast death is better than living eight or nine hours in a crate every day," she said.

LaFontaine knows that shelter staff and volunteers, given their strong feelings, often find it hard to let their charges go. "Sometimes you get caught up in the quest for a perfect home instead of a good home," she said. "You have to remind yourself that your job is find a good home."

In Rockville, the Ling daughters beamed when Soares finally offered a contract giving the family ownership of Buddy and Sam. After agreeing to a series of requirements (including taking the dogs to a veterinarian within five days, not letting them into the fenced back yard without supervision, not using retractable leashes), the family left to retrieve the new pets.

Soares, who has been having these meetings for 18 years, said the Lings would be fine with the dogs.

"By now, I can usually tell within five minutes," she said.

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