Adoption agency scrutiny is not new to Helen Wiprud -- she adopted her eldest daughter, now grown. And five years ago she was deemed a fit mother for Presto, an orange tiger of a cat who makes a throne of a sunny kitchen windowsill.
But Wiprud was a tad nervous and a bit giggly as she awaited a visit last week from a Montgomery County Humane Society volunteer house checker -- a sort of Inspector 12 for people who want to adopt pets from the county Animal Shelter on Rothgeb Drive in Rockville.
"I'm waiting for the Humane Society lady to see the stuffed bear," Wiprud confided, looking anxiously at a three-foot-high black bear cub, fashioned by a creative taxidermist into an heirloom umbrella stand given to her father, a country doctor, by a grateful patient more than 60 years ago.
Wiprud, a 55-year-old federal worker, is one of an estimated 2,800 county residents who will adopt a lost or abandoned dog or cat from the shelter this year. She has chosen a bright-eyed, 6-month-old mixed Labrador female she hopes will provide lively company for Beau, her 13-year-old golden retriever, and to Kjersti, her 10-year-old wire fox terrier.
But first Wiprud must win approval from Margaret Zanville, one of 37 volunteers in Montgomery County who visit prospective pet owners to make sure that they will provide good homes to adopted animals and that they understand the responsibility involved in caring properly for a pet.
In the Washington area, only Montgomery County and the District check all prospective pet owners. In other jurisdictions, home visits are made when some animals are adopted.
The Prince George's County Council is considering amending animal control laws to require house checks before animals are adopted.
Prince George's and Fairfax counties run their own animal shelters. In Montgomery and Arlington counties and in the District, the shelters are run by local Humane Society chapters, under contract to the county governments.
Nationwide, 11 million homeless dogs and cats are put to death each year. Unless pet adoption rates in Montgomery rise from last year's 32 percent of animal shelter dogs and 21 percent of cats, several thousand pets will be put to death there. From June 1983 through June 1984 in Montgomery County, 5,561 dogs and cats were given painless deaths, their carcasses chemically recycled for use in soaps, bone meal and other products.
Still, the philosophy that guides the society, which under contract with the county Department of Animal Control and Humane Treatment runs the animal shelter, is that having no home is better than having a bad home.
"We would rather gently euthanize an animal than have it go into a home where it would be badly neglected or even abused," Zanville said.
"It isn't a good guy-bad guy question," said Phyllis Wright, vice president for companion animals of the Humane Society of the United States. "It isn't a question of who kills; it's a question of why it's necessary. People have got to learn that if dogs and cats have litters twice a year, that just adds to the burden."
Anyone who adopts a pet in Montgomery -- and from most of the 800 animal shelters nationwide -- must agree to have the animal spayed or neutered within 30 days of the adoption. In Montgomery, that requirement is double-checked in one of three post-adoption house visits.
Most people who want to adopt pets are allowed to, Zanville said, but often home checkers need to give a crash course in pet care. If animals in the home are overweight or dirty, Zanville said, she stresses diet and grooming.
Sometimes people are surprised at what criteria house checkers consider indicate a good pet person.
"I was going to take the day off to clean, but I figured to heck with that," Wiprud said as she sat on a red velvet loveseat in her comfortable Kensingston living room, surrounded by Persian rugs and dark fruitwood antiques.
Wiprud's decision proved wise -- a bit of dirt and dearth of pin-neatness bodes an animal lover. "We're not looking for dust in the house," said Zanville. "We're looking for how the people care for the pets and for what kind of people they are. If it's the home a little messy it shows that the people aren't going to toss the dog onto the street if he makes a mess."
Armed with pamphlets on pet care and a notebook full of details of Wiprud's pet qualifications -- how her other animals have died, whether her yard is fenced -- Zanville breezed through Wiprud's living room, so intent on inspecting the back yard that she did not notice the grisly umbrella stand.
Pausing to pet Presto ensconced on the windowsill, Zanville muttered, "It's humanized, which means they're the Wiprud animals not beaten around."
Next came a thorough inspection of the back yard fence for holes. Zanville suggested that Wiprud invest about $50 on chicken wire to extend the height of the fence because "labs are known jumpers." Zanville also tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Wiprud to keep the dogs inside the house rather than in the back yard when the weather's nice and she is at work.
"People think that because we're a nice county we don't have this problem of dognapping, but we do," Zanville explained, noting that hundreds of dogs and cats are nabbed out of fenced yards for ransom, laboratory research or dog fights.
People who want cats strictly for mousing or dogs for hunting or guarding property are routinely turned down, Zanville said. "Animals need love. A dog or cat has to be a family pet," she said.
At Wiprud's kitchen table, the two women sat down and Zanville went through a 20-item checklist of pet ownership responsibilities, ranging from proper feeding and health care to the estimated cost of lifelong veterinary care. Zanville told Wiprud that she could pick up the pup, which Wiprud plans to name Tara, this week.
On her way out, Zanville spotted the bear umbrella stand. "Oh my, I've never been in a home with a stuffed animal. You didn't kill it, did you?" she asked Wiprud.