Responsible Rescue Part 6: Finding a Responsible Rescue
Now that we’ve talked about the current situation, let’s talk about how to actually distinguish a responsible rescue. Again, this is just my opinion. But I also had some help on this post, from a few other trusted friends of mine.
This blog post is based on a story that my friend @CaitHimms did around the time of the #FairfieldFive. That story included a checklist of rescue red flags that I used to influence much of my list below. We worked on that checklist along with some other rescue advocates including @lilybug_lpb, @dogly, @itsmemozzarella, and @sometimescarl.
We get asked a lot about how to tell if a rescue is reputable, what to look for when considering fostering, adopting, or donating. Here are some signs that make me pause when deciding to work with a rescue, and some things I look for instead.
1) Lack of transparency
This applies in a lot of ways. One way is regarding money, and tracking where money goes. There should be transparency about the dogs in their care— you should be able to ask where that dog is and get an answer. Boarding, foster home, adopted, euthanized. No response is not a response. (There is a period of time where it is appropriate for the rescue to be working things out. That period of time is not indefinitely.)
It is a major red flag for me when a dog has been in the care of a rescue for more than a few weeks and the only photos and bio are from the shelter. If there is no new information being learned and disseminated about that dog, how can that dog be expected to be adopted? Good rescues work to get updated photos and information about dogs that are in their care, whether those dogs are in foster homes or in boarding. If the last post I ever see about a dog is “SAFE! WE GOT HIM FROM THE KILL SHELTER!” and I never see another post yet that dog stays on their website for weeks without an update, that is a major concern for me. That dog is most likely in a boarding facility, waiting without end.
Instead look for: a rescue that is honest and transparent, even when it’s hard. A rescue that will tell you a dog has been euthanized for behavior rather than avoid answering questions about where the dog ended up. A rescue that follows through on their dogs and updates the public if asked, especially if they fund-raised for medical or training expenses. Rescues that will show you their medical bills, tell you what hospital a dog is being treated at, and show you where leftover money goes. All registered 501(c)3 organizations have public tax records. Look at them. Make sure you know where your money is going: whether it’s to salary, overhead, medical bills, etc.
Look for rescues that are updating constantly. Even if the bio isn’t great, even if the photos are dark, it’s a sign that the dog is being cared for and that the rescue is actively working to network that dog. Updates from foster care or kennel workers, new photos, social media posts. I look for these specifically at rescues that pull large numbers from “kill shelters” (especially if they use this language). Unfortunately, “safe” does not equal rescued.
2) Too Many Dogs
This one obviously depends on the size of the rescue and their capacity to care, their foster network, etc. But a rescue that has A LOT of dogs raises a red flag for me. Especially if that rescue is posting about desperately needing foster homes, desperately needing funds for boarding, calling the needs urgent or emergencies on their social media. Especially if that rescue then continues to pull dogs. This, to me, is unforgivably irresponsible. If you cannot adequately care for the dogs currently in your possession, do not pull more dogs.
Instead look for: Rescues that have all or most of their dogs in foster homes. This goes back to point 1, transparency. If rescues are constantly updating their photos, have their dogs in foster, and have a plan, they have a good number of dogs. I actually appreciate when a rescue says “we are pausing intake while we raise funds to cover our current debt.” This is a very responsible way to operate, and I respect this a lot. Take care of what you’ve already committed to before taking on more responsibility. I think this is generally a good lesson in for everything in life.
3) Foster (or adopter) “blaming” and fear mongering
This one is a little harder to spot, but it’s a red flag to me when rescues use words like “will die if no one steps up” “EMERGENCY FOSTER NEEDED NOW” “FOSTER BAILED” “DIES TOMORROW.” Generally, an overuse of capitalization sets me off anyway. And I get it, sometimes fosters and adopters mess up, there’s no doubt about it. Sometimes it really is an emergency. But fosters are VOLUNTEERS. Even adopters are human beings, and sometimes they get in over their heads (in which case it’s your job as the rescue to help them, since you decided they were a good fit for the dog you placed in their possession.) Everyone makes mistakes, everyone gets in over their heads. It cannot always be an emergency. If a rescue is always or very frequently operating at the point of emergency, they are not operating well.
It is NOT the responsibility of a foster to care for an animal until adoption if the placement is not working out for a legitimate reason (last minute travel, unknown behavior issues the foster wasn’t anticipating, complaining neighbors, etc.) Trust me, I know how frustrating it is to have a foster commit and then say 2 days later that it’s not working out and the dog has to move. I would NEVER say on my social media that it’s the foster’s fault. That person tried to do a good deed by fostering, and despite how frustrating it feels as a rescuer, that good deed is still a good deed even if it did not pan out. It is the responsibility of the rescuer to find a new placement for that dog—and do it in a positive manner. Using fear mongering and peer pressure to get someone to take a dog that might not be a good fit is disrespectful to the foster and to the dog.
Instead look for: rescues that don’t blame fosters, especially if you are looking to become a foster. It’s a lot harder to spot, but by following rescues on social or by speaking with current foster parents (ask a rescue to connect you with a current foster if you have questions!) you can get a good sense of how they feel about and treat their fosters. I have personally been made to feel responsible and pressured to take a dog I didn’t want to by rescues in the past, and I have also had to move fosters for safety reasons. I would never want a rescue to say I “bailed” on that dog.
4) Fundraising for dogs not yet in their care
This is a big one for me—I will not donate to a “contingency” pull. If a rescue says “we can pull this dog if we raise $5,000 by tomorrow for surgery!” I will not donate. Let a rescue that can actually cover those costs pull the dog. There is nothing wrong with fundraising for a dog in the care of a rescue, I donate to that all the time. But the IF really bothers me. If you cannot commit to the dog, do not take the dog. What if that $5,000 bill turns into a $15,000 bill? Will you stick by the dog that you committed to? And what happens if you raise $3,000 and someone else pulls the dog? Does the money donated for that dog get donated to the rescue that actually pulled it (I highly doubt it)? The best way to make sure the dog you’re donating to gets what you donate is to wait until that dog is definitively in the care of a rescue group (you can even donate directly to the vet office in some cases.) Be careful with rescues that raise money and collect pledges for dogs coming from “kill shelters,” especially if that rescue has an “adopter” lined up for the dog. Often rescues do not contribute to adopted dogs’ medical care, and in this case the dog you just donated your money to won’t see those funds.
Instead look for: This is a little more complicated also, but I look for rescues that post estimates from vets with detailed bills, and raise funds for dogs already in their care. It could be as simple as “we just committed to this dog and are fundraising for leg surgery. We don’t know how much it will cost but the vet estimates $1000, and if raise more than we need it will go to other dogs in our care.” It’s subtle, but I look for rescues that commit first, raise money second.
5) Lack of set adoption fees that include standard vaccinations, spay/neuter, and microchipping, and a set adoption process
A rescue should clearly outline their adoption fees on their website. It’s ok if there are different fees for puppies, small dogs, large dogs, seniors, etc. It is not ok for a rescue to determine adoption fees at will. There should be a rubric that you see before applying to adopt a dog that tells you exactly how much that dog’s adoption fee should be. It is not ok to charge more because a dog is a “purebred” or a “designer” breed.
Sometimes rescues will charge less for bully breeds. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that, but as long as the rest of the adoption screening process-which should include a thorough interview with all family members, a vet check when applicable, and if possible a home check or virtual home check via video chat-I don’t consider it a red flag.
Adoption fee should include spay or neuter, and you should have to sign a contract that you will get your dog spayed or neutered by the time it is 6 months old if it is not done already. Your dog should come with all necessary vaccinations. Your dog should be microchipped. If you are adopting a dog that is not fixed (and cost is not included in your adoption fee or you explicitly agree to fund it separately because you prefer to do it at your own vet within an agreed upon amount of time), not vaccinated, and/or not microchipped, that is a huge, huge red flag to me.
Instead look for: Set adoption fees viewable on a website, or shown to you if you inquire. Rescues that spay, neuter, vaccinate, and microchip all dogs before adopting out. Rescues that do not have exorbitant adoption fees. (This changes depending on where you live and what kind of rescue, but I personally think anything over $500 makes me hesitate, anything over $750 makes me suspicious, and anything over $1000 is a huge, blinking, neon sign of a red flag.) Look for a rescue that knows all of their dogs well, and can talk to you about what an ideal family for that dog would look like. Look for a rescue that’s willing to talk through some of the challenges you may face bringing your new family member home, and will offer support to you if you need it post-adoption. Some rescues will even suggest another dog they have that might be a better fit. I love that. And look for a rescue that will always take their dogs back and take responsibility for them, even if it's to make a hard decision. You should not be on your own once you adopt. You should feel like you’re joining a community.
6) Rescues that get their dogs from questionable sources
This is a weird one. You may or may not have heard about this. There is now a large market and profit to be made for puppy mills by selling directly to rescues. For a long time, rescues went to puppy mill auctions (which are legal auctions where breeders sell off their extra dogs, just like other livestock.) Those rescues would wait until the end of the auction and take any leftover dogs, sometimes for a nominal fee. Those dogs were usually old, injured, or “defective” in some way. Then at some point over the course of a few years, rescues decided to “save” more dogs. They started raising big money to purchase dogs of breeding age to rescue them from their futures in a puppy mill, usually specific breeds. These dogs are then adopted out to homes, rescuing them from a life as a puppy mill breeder. Right? Sort of.
That dog is “rescued.” But the rest of the dogs back at the puppy mill are not- and that breeder now has a whole bunch of money in his hand that he then uses to buy other dogs to sell to the rescues. This is exactly the same as buying a dog from the pet store. This is the same as buying a dog online. Money changes hands. The puppy mill continues to exist. The breeders continue to profit. If a rescue is raising funds to rescue dogs from puppy mills by purchasing them at auction, and you donate to that, you are paying to buy a dog from a puppy mill. Now that you know that, you can decide if the individual life is worth more than the mother that got left behind. If a rescue has tons of purebred or designer puppies, especially multiple litters without the moms, that is a huge red flag.
Instead look for: Rescues that pull dogs from shelters. Rescues that work with local humane societies and animal controls to rescue dogs from puppy mill raids or shut downs. I personally donate my money to organizations like the Humane Society that are working at a national, organizational level to change the laws to get puppy mills actually shut down. I know it’s hard to imagine leaving a dog behind at a puppy mill auction. But saving that one dog means condemning dozens more to a future just like it. We HAVE to take a macro view to this problem.