What do you do when the system fails?
There are a few things that keep rescuers up at night. At the top of my personal list of worries is the current status of our adopted animals. Are the adopters providing the necessary medical and behavior care? Have the animals adjusted well to their new home? Are they loved? Does the family ever think about returning the animal to us? Over the past 2 ½ years of running Wayward Ranch and the years I worked for other shelters in the past, there are a handful of animals I worry about in their homes from time to time. Maybe the dog was difficult in the shelter environment, and I worry they may misbehave in their new home. Perhaps the adopters haven’t been in touch with us or given us many details about the animal since adoption, and I worry about whether they are hiding something. I could rattle off a list of 10 animals right now that cross my mind, but if you had asked me three weeks ago, Hercules never would have been on that list.
When I first saw Hercules two years ago, he was just a four month old puppy listed on Craigslist. His family had bought him from a friend that had a litter of Dogo Argentino/Pit Bull mix puppies. They brought him home at just three weeks old, way too young for him to be separated from his mom and litter mates. After hiding him in their apartment for three months, their landlord caught them and they were forced to give him away. Instead of allowing this under-socialized, un-neutered, and un-vaccinated bully breed puppy to end up with a potentially devastating fate, as we have seen many times for dogs given away online, we stepped in to rescue him.
Hercules became part of our Early Intervention Program. The goal of this program is to find bully breed puppies that are between 1 week - 6 months old and in high-risk situations (posted online for free or for sale at a low price in areas known for dog fighting), and fully vet and socialize them prior to adoption. We want to create positive bully breed ambassadors who grow up living with other dogs, cats, and/or kids so they can show what wonderful dogs well-socialized bully breeds can be. Hercules was fully vetted, microchipped, neutered and vaccinated and then brought to his foster home where he lived with cats and a young child. He was also socialized with other dogs at the dog park. We were especially glad to have found him because he had spent some of the most important months of his social development hidden away in an apartment without any other animals or people other than his owners. He was anxious and timid at first, in a way that could have developed into fear aggression as he grew older, but as he met more animals and people his confidence grew and he became a very social and sweet dog, a true success story of our Early Intervention Program.
One month after Hercules arrived, we received a stellar application for him. An upstate NY firefighter who owned a home with a big, fully fenced in yard. He had owned dogs in the past, had a great vet reference, and had multiple wonderful personal references. We did what we call a “virtual home visit” since he was five hours from us, and were able to see the inside and outside of his home. He had already budgeted financially for a new dog and had a plan for continuing the training and socialization we had begun. He assured us that his fellow firefighters all had dogs available for play dates and it was likely Hercules could even come to work with him on some days. After emailing back and forth and multiple phone conversations, we set up a day and time to meet the adopter halfway between his home and our rescue. He spent over an hour there with us, learning about Hercules’ needs and walking him with us. He was kind, gentle and well spoken and Hercules bonded to him instantly. The adoption became officially and we wished Herc well as he headed to his forever home…or so we thought.
Over the past two years, we have heard from the adopter multiple times. He assured us Herc was a great dog, doing wonderfully with his training and socialization. He sent us photos of Hercules playing, sleeping, cuddling, and getting a bath; all signs of a happy and well-adjusted dog. We try to check in with our adopters at one week, three months, six months, and one year post adoption. After the one year mark we simply check in yearly to make sure all is well and offer advice or help any way we can. Some adopters are harder to reach than others and when we don’t immediately get a response, I always tend to worry that something may be wrong. Of course, once we are able to connect with adopters, my concerns disappear when we hear how well the animals are doing in their new homes.
You can imagine my shock when I received a call two weeks ago from an upstate NY dog control that they had a dog with them that was microchipped to our rescue. This dog had not only come in as a stray, he had been driven to a local park after dark, pushed out of the car, screamed at to get away and then abandoned as he watched the car he came in drive away. Luckily a good samaritan witnessed this occur, and immediately brought the dog to animal control or else he likely would have frozen to death in the snow. My heart stopped when the ACO informed me that the dog’s name was Hercules.
I quickly scrambled to find the adoption application from two years ago and gave the officer the phone number, address and name of the adopter. He and I both believed the dog must have been stolen, but regardless I told the ACO our adoption contract gives us the right to terminate the adoption at any time, and I wanted to reclaim ownership of the dog. Even though I was sure the adopter could never have done this, I still did not want one of our animals living in an area where he had been stolen. About an hour later, I received another call from the animal control officer. Not only had he been able to contact the adopter, the adopter had confirmed he was actually the one to dump Hercules in the park, and he offered no explanation or defense of his actions. I could not believe what I was hearing. We ALWAYS stand by our animals and will take back any animal that adopters need to return; there was no reason for this adopter to dump Hercules and nearly kill him in the cold.
Hercules is now back with our rescue, and other than some skin irritation caused by a poor diet, he is in pretty good shape. The man who abandoned him is being investigated and we are cooperating with authorities, hopeful that he will be charged and punished for what he has done. Our goal now is to find a new home for Herc where he will actually be cared for as deserved. The first few days after this unfortunate incident occurred I spent hours agonizing over what we needed to change, to do better. If I had done an in-person home visit would I still have approved the adopter? Did I check in enough post adoption? Should we change our adoption process or policies?
I have concluded that our system, policies and process work, and that this unfortunate situation is just a consequence of our need to trust people at their word to care for our animals. We can and do run background checks, perform reference and home checks, require multiple visits (depending on the animal) and more, but at the end of the day we simply have to trust that our adopters will love and provide for their adopted pet. That will always be a terrifying thought for me as I have seen so much abuse and neglect working in rescue, and it is difficult to trust strangers. However, we cannot keep them all and the ones we adopt out allow us to bring in new animals who need our help. Our system only works because of our adopters and their ability to provide homes to animals in need. The man who adopted Hercules clearly did love and care for him at one point, and it seems that some emergency life event or mental breakdown may be the cause of his choice to abandon Hercules. We can think of no other explanation why someone who do this to a great dog they had owned for over two years, but we will never know for sure. We have to focus on the fact that we have great relationships with our other adopters, and the other animals we have adopted out have safe lives where there are loved. There are a few animals that still need us to help provide training, boarding or advice, but their owners love them and are committed to them for life. Many of these adopters, seeing Hercules’ story on social media, reached out to us to assure us we should never be concerned about the animal they adopted, that they truly are their forever home, and for that we will always be grateful.
UPDATE AS OF 03/14/2019: Hercules has been adopted, this time by my (Eleni, the Executive Director of WRAS) sister and her boyfriend, love and adore him as he deserves! He and I flew across the country together for him to get to them and his happy ending out in California. Check out photos of him in his forever home below: