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Doggone it! Are animal shelters too strict with their pet-adoption policies?

petnews
April 30th, 2003, 07:37 PM
Doggone it!
Are animal shelters too strict with their pet-adoption policies?

Ruth-Ann MacKinnon
National Post

When my goldendoodle, Gilly, turned one year old recently, I wracked my brain to think what to get him. He is a spoiled pooch -- we visit the dog park twice a day, choosing from a basketful of fashionable leashes and collars for these outings. We have the tennis ball launcher and the rubber toy on the rope as well as numerous stuffed animals and squeaky toys. I give him a real beef bone every Wednesday and a variety of chewy substances on other days to keep the furniture safe from his developing teeth. For grooming, we have brushes, combs and even a toothbrush I thought I would use on his teeth. Gilly has a cushion on the porch, one in the front hall and one in the bedroom (he prefers the couch).

The one thing he cannot get enough of is friends. He loves all people and dogs and has a seemingly endless capacity for play. This is to be expected from a dog with his background. His mother, Petunia, is a docile, affectionate golden retriever and his father, Bentley, an energetic, engaging standard poodle. Both breeds are highly sociable and playful.

As for me, I think nothing could be better than an animal in the house -- unless, perhaps, it is two animals.

That is what led me to the humane society -- and how I learned the shocking truth about the pet gestapo.

I decided to get a kitten. I figured I could expand my menagerie and get the perfect gift for Gilly at the same time. Besides, I get so much pleasure caring for a dog, I owe it to the animal world to rescue an abandoned creature.

A harmonious inter-species relationship, I knew from my research, might take effort. No problem. An empty nester, I have both time and patience. And I know plenty of unscarred people who share their houses with a cat and a dog. Naturally, I would not want my bouncy, 37-kilogram pup to traumatize a young feline, but library books have guidelines on how to integrate a new species into the house safely.

I tested the idea on my mother-in-law, who knows Gilly and loves cats more than anyone I know, and she did not recoil in horror. In fact, she asked if she could come over to play. Encouraged, I made my first visit to the Ottawa Humane Society. A half-dozen cats ranging in age from a month to six years languished behind bars. When I saw their furry little abandoned faces, my errand became a mission.

I chose a year-old domestic longhair and was instructed to return with Gilly so he could meet Pumpkin, the "test cat," whose job it is to see if a dog is sufficiently sensitive to live with a feline. With confidence, I went to Petsmart and bought a litter pan and scratch pad. Little did I know I was about to meet the secret pet police. Seems the appropriate response for a canine meeting Pumpkin is to bow and scrape. Gilly approached the cat with his tail wagging. Pumpkin sniffed. Gilly came closer. Pumpkin swatted. Gilly jumped back, startled, and barked.

The shelter staff did not check my criminal record for a history of animal abuse. No questions were asked about Gilly's age, lineage or daily routine (although there was a question about whether or not he chases squirrels). There did not appear to be a waiting list of non-dog-owning applicants who would take this kitten out of its cage to a home where it would be cuddled and played with.

But the cat is probably still in its cage, or worse, because Gilly barked. Our application was rejected. Pumpkin's verdict is the last word.

Humiliated, I took my dog and left, not realizing until the next day just how ridiculous this test was. If I had taken a small, furry friend home, the cat would have sorted Gilly out in short order and there would have been peace in the valley. The Pumpkin test is clearly one person's bright idea that has been enshrined in policy. In days to come, I learned I was not the first person to face the misguided zeal of animal shelter staff.

Cynthia, in-house counsel for a large Toronto-based institution and one of the most kind-hearted people you will ever meet, told me lawyers could learn a thing or two about cross-examination at the humane society.

"When my daughters and I went looking for a second cat," she said, "we had to respond to, 'Why do you think your cat needs a feline companion? Are you certain you have enough energy to give two cats the care and attention they need? What about the additional cost for veterinary care?' No one asked me those questions before I decided to have a second baby."

Cynthia and her daughters eventually took home a kitten that became sick on the first day. "I took perverse satisfaction in returning it to the humane society and suggesting to them that they be more careful about screening the health of the animals they put up for adoption," she said.

Not surprisingly, many animal-lovers find ways to foil the inquisition the pet police, as I learned from an acquaintance at the dog park who shall remain nameless. Gilly was romping gently and ecstatically with Lulu, a puppy of about an eighth his size. Lulu, her owner told me, also plays at home with the family cat. Sensing a sympathetic ear, I told him about Pumpkin's snap judgment. Mr. Lulu was not surprised, since the same agency recently had rejected him on the grounds his two children and the dog -- which is expected to grow into a big animal -- might not get along.

"How did you end up getting Lulu?" I asked.

"The old-fashioned way," he said. "I lied."

That tactic might have come in handy for Alison Uncles, who is nuts for animals and has owned many cats over the years. When she visited the Toronto Humane Society, her son Ciaran, a small boy of large heart, selected Milo, the largest, ugliest, crankiest tabby in the room. He stood by Milo's cage, proudly claiming him as "my new cat."

When asked if she would allow the cat outdoors, Alison said she would, prepared to explain why she believes it is cruel to keep a cat in the house. Unfortunately for Ciaran (and Milo), allowing a cat to roam goes against prevailing theory.

"We will not be able to adopt you a cat today," the interviewer announced. Ciaran wept openly, but the staff at the humane society showed no compassion for him.

The good news is some shelters reach a balance between protecting the animals in their care and finding good homes for them.

Alison and Ciaran, for example, visited the SPCA in Newmarket, about 45 minutes north of Toronto, where, when you ask if you should bring anything, they answer: "Just your wallet and your heart."

Again Alison admitted she intends to allow the cat to explore outdoors. The staff advised against that, pointing to traffic accidents, disease and danger to birds.

Then, having discharged their duty, they went ahead and drew up adoption papers for Blackie, a gorgeous, longhaired four-year-old who is living happily ever after.

As for me and Gilly, I hear there is a good shelter in Gatineau, Que., that might give us a chance.

Copyright 2003 National Post