Pets: Finding a Good Home

Cats and dogs are wonderful companions, but finding the right one isn’t easy. Shelters and rescue groups help give animals a second chance.

By: Emily Leaman

Ask Laura Goodman why she helped found the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington, a cat rescue group, and her answer is “Haley.”

Goodman found the six-year-old brown tabby on her Arlington doorstep in 1992. She was 35 and working long hours as a government lawyer. “I was on my way to becoming a hermit,” she says.

Haley came over to Goodman, meowed, and rubbed against her leg. Over the next few years, the cat helped her come out of her shell. “I had an overwhelming desire to share this joy with other people,” says Goodman, who calls herself an “adoption evangelist.”

In 1995, Goodman worked with three other cat lovers to establish the rescue foundation; she’s since seen hundreds of cats go to good homes. “Adopting a pet is an opportunity to do something wonderful for yourself and for another living being,” she says.

Jim Monsma of the Washington Animal Rescue League, which last year found homes for more than 1,000 cats and dogs, says adoption is also practical. It usually costs less to adopt than to buy a pet—fees for dogs are typically $150 to $200 at shelters; for cats they’re $50 to $100—and most animals are spayed or neutered. Good rescue groups and shelters are out to make lasting matches, not a quick buck.

“We’re so happy when we see an animal go out the door with a family,” says Lisa LaFontaine, president of the Washington Humane Society. “We do what it takes to make sure it sticks.”

Which Pets Are in Shelters

The ASPCA estimates that 5 to 7 million animals enter shelters every year nationwide. They end up there when an owner dies, a family’s financial situation changes, a child is allergic, a military person is deployed, or the pet develops behavior problems.

Monsma says that a few months after the 1996 movie 101 Dalmatians hit theaters, his shelter was flooded with that breed—people had rushed out to buy Dalmatians but weren’t ready to care for them.

About 25 percent of shelter dogs are purebred. Purebreds—along with small-breed dogs, kittens, puppies, and lighter-colored animals—stand the best chance of getting adopted. Beagles and pit bulls are the most common dogs in area shelters—beagles tend to bark a lot and can be hard to train; pit bulls have a reputation for being aggressive.

While area shelters typically take in more cats than dogs—there are more stray cats, and lost cats are less often reclaimed by their owners—dogs are more likely to be adopted.

How long can pets stay in shelters? At private ones such as the Washington Animal Rescue League, animals can stay until an adoption comes through; they’re euthanized only if they’re aggressive and can’t be rehabilitated. Most animal-control shelters—such as Montgomery County’s—admit every animal but are at times forced to euthanize due to a lack of space. That’s where private shelters and rescue groups step in: They take in animals when county shelters are full.

Adopters can ask shelter staff which animals are most at risk of being put down or visit Dogsindanger.com for photos and information about dogs facing euthanasia.

Some groups, including the local Best Dawg Rescue, rescue hard-to-adopt dogs with medical conditions. The group places about 80 dogs a year in homes.

What to Expect When Adopting a Pet

Ian and Mackenzie McNaughton adopted Ace, a gray tabby cat, in October. The Springfield couple was looking for a playmate for their other cat, Sylvester. They found Ace in Craigslist’s pet classifieds, where lots of rescues and shelters post pictures of animals up for adoption.

Mackenzie, a lawyer, filled out an application with Homeward Trails, an Arlington rescue group that uses foster homes to house adoptable animals. She told the group about her lifestyle, travel, and work habits—standard questions at most shelters and rescue groups. Then she scheduled a home visit—some shelters don’t require home visits; adopters spend time with the pet in the shelter’s outside run or a private room—and the couple brought Ace home a few weeks later.

Some animals attract a long list of applicants. Most shelters and rescue groups give priority to adopters who live in the area. Many are reluctant to place animals with adopters who plan to kennel their pet outdoors; some have concerns about electric fences. Though most groups won’t turn down a family with small children, they’ll take extra care to ensure that the pairing makes sense.

Tamela Terry, president of the SPCA/Humane Society of Prince George’s County, says honest conversations are the key to lasting matches. One adopter had her heart set on a puppy that Terry was fostering. The Labrador-retriever mix had a habit of chewing furniture, and Terry noticed that the adopter’s furniture had ornately carved legs—appetizing chew toys.

“The conversation I had with her wasn’t about her house being too frou-frou for the dog,” she says. “It was ‘I know things about this dog, and you know things about your life—let’s talk.’ ”

For a list of Web sites that offer photos and descriptions of pets available for adoption, visit washingtonian.com/petadoption.

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This article appears in the August 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.