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Before You Rescue

Before You Rescue

Because of the increasing number of rescue animals in the general companion animal population, I decided to put together a list of pre-rescue questions for those considering rescuing an animal to ask themselves. These are based on after-the-fact comments made by self-defined rescuers who bemoaned the fact that they didn’t asked these questions before they got caught up in the rescue culture and process.

Relative to the animals involved, these included free-roaming animals or their offspring who often were transported hundreds of miles for adoption, those rescued from pet stores, breeders, and other facilities the rescuers considered substandard for some reason, and strays rescued and put up for adoption in the rescuers’ own areas (although some of them most likely weren’t originally weren’t from that area). Many of the people I dealt with were secondary rather than primary rescuers. By that I mean that someone else made the decision to rescue the animal and then the responsibility to handle any consequences of that choice fell on the adopters who then also perceived themselves as rescuers.

The list of questions these folks wished they’d asked before rescuing includes:

Why do I want to rescue an animal and this animal in particular?

The desire to make a statement about our moral superiority heads the list of reasons that create problems for rescuer and animal alike. Being primarily motivated by what the mere act of rescuing says about us may blind us to any limitations that may undermine or even negate our ability to provide the kind of support such an animal needs.

Additionally the temptation to rescue an animal with more serious problems may be greater when we approach the process as a means to elevate ourselves morally than if we approached the addition of an animal to our households more objectively. This occurs for the simple reason that, the grimmer the animal’s condition, the more moral superiority we can claim for rescuing him or her.

A particularly troublesome unintended consequence of this approach may occur when parents rescue animals with the idea of setting a moral example for their kids. Some even may go so far as to vow to keep an animal forever, based on little more than a picture and brief write-up about the animal on the Internet or a short meet-and-greet interaction with the animal. If the animal turns out to have medical or behavioral problems, not only may those parents lose face with their kids if the adults don’t handle the situation very carefully, their kids may perceive the presence of animals in the household as a burden instead of joy. This, in turn, may reduce those kids’ desire to add animals to their own households when they become adults. (Unfortunately, there’s evidence that this already is happening.)

Whether we parents want to admit it, most kids want a pet not a project. Parents who opt for a project thinking that it will provide their kids with an ideal way to spend their free time may discover that once the novelty wears off, they wind up trying to do everything themselves.

At the opposite end of the parent-child spectrum, we have those young adults in college or on overseas trips who rescue animals whose needs exceed the adopters’ capacity to fulfill. When this occurs, they then may expect their parents to assume responsibility for the animal. Often this is based on the faulty assumption that their folks would love having such a project now that said offspring are on their own. While some parents might, a lot more frankly will admit that this was the last thing they wanted to deal with at this stage of their lives.

Does this animal need rescuing?

If our hearts or someone we perceive as an authority figure tells us an animal is in need of rescue, then the animal needs rescuing, right? It should, but whether that’s the case depends on many factors. A big one is where the animal is being rescued from and relocated to. Contrary to what we may want to believe, free-roaming animals and especially those from generations of similar animals, most likely don’t spend their free time longing to live in a condo or split level with a fenced yard in suburbia. Quite the contrary, they spend their time developing and honing those skills that will enable them to succeed in their free-roaming environment. Consequently confusion, disorientation and resistance rather than gratitude may be their response to such a drastic change in lifestyle.

Successfully integrating animals into our households means helping them make the transition from their known reality to ours. The greater the differences between the two, the more gradual the process should be. If we have little reliable information regarding what the animal experienced prior to moving in with us, the need to take a tortoise rather than hare approach becomes even more important for the sake of all concerned. And that approach requires special qualities and skills best evaluated beforehand.

Do any personal and lifestyle limits compromise my ability to successfully rescue this animal?

It’s an extremely rare person who doesn’t have limits, and we and any animal we rescue will fare a lot better if we objectively evaluate these when the rescue is a possibility rather than a fait accompli. The word “rescue” clearly communicates that those animals so labeled probably didn’t come from what most of us would consider pet-quality environments. Because of that, rescuers should be prepared from the get-go to address any medical or behavioral problems that may be associated with the animal’s previous background.

Recognizing any time, financial, physical or other limits we have before we start looking at pictures that speak to us and reading heart-breaking write-ups may seem cold and uncaring to some. But doing so ensures that we’re capable of meeting the special needs of these animals even if those needs don’t make themselves known until after we’ve shared our homes with the animal for a while.

So while it may seem like a waste of valuable time to explore any limits we or our environments impose before rescuing an animal, in the long run that’s a lot more caring than not being able to provide the animal with the kind of care required because we failed to take such limits into account.

Can I readily summon the patience, self-control, and consistency to serve as a reliable reference point and model for a rescue animal for as long as it takes to address any problems the animal may have?

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the onus rests on us to prove to the rescued animal that what we offer is superior to what he or she had before. Ego-buster though it may be, even the worst background offers one huge advantage that even the most luxurious home can’t: the animal knows it. What we offer the animal, on the other hand, is a great big unknown. If we allow ourselves to become seduced by images of all we expect the animal to do for us or what we want to do with the animal, we fail to acknowledge this. Instead of serving as a patient and reliable reference that enables the animal to gradually sort out all the strange sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and pressures associated with the new environment, we bounce all over the place.

Another reason addressing and rectifying a lack of these skills shows up on the list of those to consider before rescuing an animal is because doing so after-the-fact is damn hard. Initially the thrill and novelty of our new pet may convince us that we don’t need those skills. But when problems arise as a result of this oversight, trying to develop those skills as we deal with the problem requires a lot of time, energy, and commitment to the animal. At that point, many who experienced this wished they’d addressed this reality before rescuing too.

Can I provide this animal with the kind of secure physical, mental and emotional environment he or she needs?

In some ways, this question combines the considerations in the previous two. However enough rescuers get blindsided by the after-the-fact realization of all that rescuing an animal may entail that it bears mentioning again. For example, animals who find themselves in environments they consider physically, mentally, or emotionally insecure for some reason will do what it takes to gain some semblance of stability. This may include barking, marking with urine or stool, licking or chewing themselves or objects, getting into the trash or counter-surfing, shredding curtains or upholstery, trying to escape by opening doors, going through windows or screens and sometimes remarkably small holes, or over fences.

Further complicating matters, merely providing a physically secure environment that limits the destruction but doesn’t address the underlying mental and emotional stress causing it may not really solve the problem. Instead, it will cause the animal to attempt to relieve the stress some other way. However sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of this at the time we do it. Sometimes this occurs because we didn’t know enough about the animal’s behavioral needs to recognize this. But other times our fears regarding what landlords or neighbors will say or what they actually do say (or yell at us or report to the police) makes us forget about the animal’s needs and do whatever we must to placate those people. In the very worst scenario some of the animals whose rescuers failed to make the proper preparations will be conveniently “lost” or euthanized.


Back in the days when the origins of the bulk of the un-owned animals in an area could be traced to local individuals and breeders, a very experienced and dog-savvy trainer wrote a book entitled Love is Not Enough. But the publisher changed the name because it didn’t represent what the American public, at least, wanted to believe about what it took to incorporate a dog successfully into a human household. If anything, such a sentiment is less welcomed today as the pool of animals of unknown origins increases while the local population decreases, and human emotions more than concrete knowledge so often fuels the system.

But just because it fuels the system is no reason why it needs to fuel your selection of an animal with whom you want to share a mutually rewarding relationship. We all possess the power to gain the knowledge necessary to ensure such a relationship before we take that critical first rescue step. As we need is enough commitment to any animal we may add to our households to gain it first.

Comments on this entry

  1. Aileen Pypers

    Thank you for this fantastic and highly pertinent article. I have been discussing some of these points over the past year with friends and colleagues of mine after my partner and I adopted our second rescue dog. I think that far too few people consider these things before adopting an animal and unfortunately the ramifications are far more serious than the myriad of welfare organizations, punting for homes for their charges, would be prepared to admit.

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