From Urgent to Invisible: A Painful Catch-22 in Animal Rescue

From Urgent to Invisible: A Painful Catch-22 in Animal Rescue
While safe and cared for, Lucy continues to wait for a permanent home. She has been living in a veterinary clinic for 6 months since her original rescue placement did not work out, leaving her with no place to go.

Not a day goes by in the lives of frontline animal rescue workers (who are almost entirely volunteers) that they are not alerted to animals in urgent need of rescue. The number of pleas they receive to save animals is staggering.

We all know that our open admission shelters and stray animal holding facilities are under constant pressure to manage both limited space and resources in order to house the stray, lost and surrendered pets that come their way. When the intake and housing of homeless pets threatens to overwhelm the system, or when the pets are so stressed out in the kennel environment that they cannot be placed directly on the adoption floor, tough decisions have to be made.

Often the animals are given dates by which alternative rescue placement, most often in foster homes, must be found, after which an unplaced animal will be euthanized. In the case of holding facilities, which simply house stray animals for a required period of time (typically seven days), to allow pet owners to locate and retrieve their pets (often being required to pay substantial fees to do so), there is no adoption floor option. Animals must be moved rapidly to rescue or be euthanized. Dedicated volunteers who have organized themselves into transfer teams serve as the 'middle men' getting the info out on the imperiled animals to the rescue groups who may be able to save the animals.

As a result, the flood of texts and emails that circulate among rescue workers are often very clear and gut wrenching. They are easy to spot in one's inbox, with subject lines in all caps and number of hours left to live made explicit.

And so the frantic search begins to find an open foster home. Intermixed in social media posts between expressed prayers, well wishes and requests for more information are often donors who offer to pledge money to help whichever rescue organization saves the animal to help cover the cost of housing, feeding and, sometimes providing medical treatment, to the rescued animal.

And many, many dogs and cats are saved in this way.

But some find themselves rendered all but invisible in the months that follow their salvation, caught in limbo somewhere between hopeless and homed.

There is a hard reality we all need to take a look at here, and one that I've talked about before in this post. The post's featured dog, Lucy, also seen above, is STILL in need of a home, btw. (She's been living at Dr. Fiia Jokela's clinic for 6 months if you would like to learn more about her.) I'll share more about her in a separate post. We would love to get her into a foster home at least, if not an adoptive home outright.

But today, since Lucy is but one of many dogs in rescue limbo, let's step back and look at some of the factors that contribute to the problem of the invisible homeless of animal rescue. For animals that have a few challenges to quick adoption such as advanced age, medical concerns or behavioral issues such as reactivity or separation anxiety, the happy ending can sometimes be years in the making.

I'm going to focus on dogs in this post, although I have personally been involved with cats that were also in long term foster or rescue placement (1-2 years), helping launch campaigns to find them adoptive homes. I have no doubt there are also rabbits and pets of other species that are in similar circumstances. Imagine, for example, that a hoarding case has been uncovered and 50 odd guinea pigs have been rescued (I've seen this happen). That is a fair number of adorable rodents needing care and attention and new homes. It isn't that hard to imagine a few stragglers sitting in limbo for quite some time waiting for an adopter to come along.

So, let's break down the dog situation...

Rescue "A" gets an urgent message for a dog that has to be rescued in 48 hours. With the clock ticking, often time can become the most salient factor in the equation. I'm going to be VERY frank here (at the risk of ruffling some feathers)...a lot of these posts are accompanied by descriptions such as "this pup is scared out of his wits and totally shut down. He deserves a chance! We have to get him out. Let us know if you can help him! Need commitment by (some very short window of time)." And there is a photo of a frightened dog and maybe some video and the race is on.

But what does the rescue, or the foster, really know about the dog? Not all that much, frankly.  They mostly know they really, really do not want that dog to die if they can do anything to stop it.

And that is laudable.

It is also very simplistic.

The truth is, some of these dogs end up having special needs.

Not insurmountable. Not untreatable. But also not insignificant.

Maybe the dog really does not do well with other dogs. And it really isn't so sure about men either. It is sure about cats...namely that they look delicious. And maybe it pulls a lot on the leash and no one ever taught it commands.

Okay, so now you need an adopter with no other pets whose husband will consider shaving his beard and not wearing hats to help the dog not feel so threatened. (I've heard, more than one time, rescue people tell me about dogs that "really need to be adopted by a lesbian couple", as though lesbians don't have fathers, or brothers, or sons for that matter, who might like to come over for Sunday dinner or holiday celebrations). And it goes without saying that the adopter needs to be willing and able to access training (several rescues require that new adopters attend training sessions with their dogs).

To be fair, people who foster are (or should be!) prepared for some of this, and will start working with their new charge right away to help them become more adoptable.

But sometimes fosters get in over their heads. Sometimes the rescue ends up with a dog that just needs a few things that they can't provide. And again, it may NOT be that the dog can't be helped but helping requires a certain level of expertise and money and some rescues and fosters may not realize until they already have a dog in their midst that they weren't the best placement.

And what do people do sometimes when they are in over their head?

They avoid thinking about it. They get quiet. The don't answer all their emails from folks asking what the dog's status is. They give patchy, vague updates on the animal. They flounder. They try to hide the reality because it is hard for a lot of people to admit they have made a mistake or that they have reached the current limits of their ability or competence to handle certain issues.

This is not a judgement! I'm sure every single one of us is guilty of avoiding something we felt overwhelmed by in our life at least once.

But it IS a problem.

In the meantime, the dog sits. And it may sit in a single room of a foster person's home (and again, I've seen this happen, quite literally, for both dogs and cats who could not be mixed with the foster's resident pets).

And that sitting may last for months, and months can (and have) become years.

And that presents a challenge for the folks in the rescue organization who are in charge of promoting the animal for adoption. It is WAY easier to promote young animals who love everyone. And it is even easier to promote old animals who love everyone. But the ones who need a little extra adjustment time and people willing to work with their sensitivities (to other dogs, or unfamiliar people for example)...I've been on the social media end of that and it's tough. I get that.

But rescues have to get past that and waaaay past the periodic photos of dogs that have been sitting with them for a long time with vague, "Fido wonders why no one has adopted him yet' statements and get committed to actual campaigns to help the right adopter find these guys.

And again, I'm no stranger to reactive dogs. I pet sit scads of them. I have one snoring next to me as I type this. I wrote about her recently. These guys can make great pets and helping them overcome their challenges can be incredibly rewarding. These are adoptable dogs, but they might have a smaller pool of potential adopters.

So, let's get one thing clear, rescue folks, if you have found yourself playing out this scenario with a long-timer in your organization...(and I say this with great respect and empathy for the work you do)...you make the ADOPTERS job that much harder when you let pets linger in foster for a year or two.

We've all seen things 'work out' with 'foster failures', I know that. For those unfamiliar with that term, it means fosters who end up adopting. In extended stays, many fosters, seeing how bonded the dog has become to them, do end up adopting.  Dogs don't know foster home from permanent home so they have certainly settled in and sometimes, just to let the animal continue to live with the stability they have been providing, the foster finds themselves saying, "Might as well stay if you've been here for this long."

And honestly, I wonder if sometimes rescues bank on that happening with animals they don't know how to promote. Part of that whole avoidance thing that we humans do so well. Again, not trying to bust chops here, but let's not count a foster who surrenders to adoption as too large a feather in the placement cap.

Solving this problem is going to take a multi-faceted approach.

On the rescue end, you have to be very careful about leading with your very large hearts. Without having a very, very clear understanding of where your limits are at any given time to help, you are going to play this out many times. And you will have a very hard time finding fosters if you get a reputation for having a lot of long-stay, poorly promoted pets lingering in foster homes.

And, yes, this does require that rescue workers prepare themselves to lose some animals along the way.

And that TOTALLY sucks.

A lot.

And you may be having arguments within your organization as to where to draw those lines. Have the conversations anyway, even if they are hard. Your future viability depends on it.

And for the animals you DO have the resources to take in, there needs to be a focused, integrated approach to promoting these animals so the right adopters can find them. Don't forget your role as educators. Don't forget your past adopters who have learned to work with challenges are excellent resources for helping other people understand the challenges and the rewards of adopting a long stay pet. Occasional cute photos are not enough. Social media has no shortage of those.

Fosters, you have a huge role to play in providing photos and videos and informative detailed updates to the folks who are tasked with helping adopters find your houseguest.  More than a role, you have a responsibility. And if you don't think you take good photos, or you don't really 'do' the computer, find someone who does. As a foster, you are also an adoption ambassador. And if your pet is too sensitive to attend adoption events, all the more reason to represent them virtually in as much detail as you can.

And for all of us looking on, and those considering adopting...DO look at the long timers. There are some really great dogs out there who just got caught in the system, like our friend Lucy here, who got saved by well-intended folks who just took on a bit more than they were prepared for and we all know how quickly time goes and suddenly another month is gone.  We don't get around to cleaning the garage, or making that phone call, or weeding that garden plot organizing the junk drawer, or asking for help in finding a home for that dog peacefully snoring on the couch.

New day. Clean slate. Let's all forgive whatever needs to be forgiven and get some community around our invisible homeless pets.

I'll highlight some long timers at this blog from time to time as I can gather their stories. I'll get Lucy up next since I know her story best and rumor has it new photos are on their way to me.

If you can help bring these long-timers some much needed eyeballs with a share or two if you can't foster or adopt yourself, that would be beautiful.

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