Reuse, Recycle, Rescue: Just What Is This “Rescue” Anyhow?

Reuse, Recycle, Rescue: Just What Is This “Rescue” Anyhow?

By: Vicki DeGruy  Date: 12/31/1997 Category: | Canine Issues |

What, exactly, is "rescue"? In its broadest sense, rescue is the rehoming of unwanted or abandoned pets. In the public's mind, there is very little difference between rescue groups and animal shelters. In reality, there are many differences. In today's column, I'm going to explore some of these differences, how they affect the way both groups do business and their relationships to each other.

Animal shelters, by and large, are permanent fixtures. They're usually incorporated, have a fixed location and facility for housing animals, are open to the public, have a paid staff supplemented by volunteers and have an established identity within the community. Many provide contractual animal control services for their cities or counties and employ humane officers with law enforcement powers. Adoption and relinquishment policies are established, published and apply to all persons regardless of individual circumstance.

Rescue services are almost exclusively volunteer-driven, usually operated by individuals or small groups out of their own homes. While some are incorporated and have cultivated a community presence, most could be called "underground" - their work is known mostly by word of mouth. Seldom open to the public, viewing of the animals is by appointment following a series of screening interviews. Adoption and relinquishment policies tend to be stricter than those of animal shelters but are often more flexible, subject to adjustment to suit the individual case. They have no law enforcement powers.

Animal shelter staff have a wide range of experience, from none to years of working with animals in home or shelter settings. Few, however, have experience in the professional pet world - grooming, training, showing or breeding. Low pay, hard work and emotional stress makes for high staff turnover.

Rescue volunteers also display a wide range of experience. The depth of that experience, though, is usually greater than what's found at shelters. Many rescue volunteers are breeders, groomers, boarding kennel managers, trainers and show handlers. The stresses of rescue are similar to those found at shelters and also result in a high turnover rate - many volunteers "burn out" after a couple years and find easier pursuits.

Animal shelters accept and place a great number and variety of pets, everything from birds and rabbits to dogs, cats and reptiles. Many shelters are functions of humane societies, organizations formed to prevent cruelty to animals. Rescue services typically limit themselves to one species and often, to only one breed. Many are sponsored by fanciers' clubs, groups created to promote and protect their particular breed.

Shelters, by virtue of their building's size, can house a proportionate number of pets. Most accept every animal offered to them. Rescues house animals in their volunteers' homes which presents more challenging space limitations. They are often forced to set criteria for incoming animals by which some are accepted and others not.

Acceptance of an animal by a shelter doesn't guarantee longevity or quality of life, however. The public's reliance on shelters as a depository for unwanted pets as well as stray animals guarantees a steady incoming population. Adoption rates seldom come close to matching incoming rates. To continue accepting animals, the shelter must euthanize some pets or resort to overcrowding. While some rescues also engage in euthanasia or overcrowding, their low profile and criteria for acceptance helps to limit their populations, resulting in more personal care for the individual animals and more flexibility in the time allotted for placement.

Adoption criteria in animal shelters tend to be minimal compared to rescues. While a good home for each pet is their common goal, the shelter's emphasis leans toward quantity of adoptions while rescue's priority is the quality of the match between adopter and pet. The latter approach requires a more thorough screening procedure which some adopters object to and many shelters find impractical to implement. It does, though, result in a lower rate of failed adoptions and higher "customer satisfaction."

Screening of pets for adoptability differs between animal shelters and rescues, too. They are in similar in that their definitions of "adoptability" can be quite vague. Few shelters or rescues have specific or consistent criteria as to what makes an adoptable pet.

Rescue has an advantage over shelters in that animals are fostered in the volunteer's home where their behavior can be closely observed. Negative behavior such as destructiveness, excessive barking, housebreaking issues and separation anxiety can seldom be seen in a shelter's kennel environment but they become obvious in rescue where they can be dealt with through training and socialization, activities that are difficult to accomplish in a shelter. Since behavioral issues are the most common reason pets are given up to shelters in the first place, the inability to identify and correct existing problems in a surrendered pet leads to adoption failure and return of the animal to the shelter.

Most pets that are adopted through rescue services have been checked by a veterinarian, spayed or neutered and existing health concerns treated prior to adoption. Shelters vary greatly in this area, some providing little or no care at all, others equal to or even better than what rescues offer, the majority fall somewhere in between. A critical difference between rescues and shelters, however, is that most rescues spay or neuter pets before adoption, completely eliminating the possibility of future generations of animals needing their services. Shelters that spay and neuter before adoption are still a minority; most rely on contractual promises by the adopter to have the surgery performed that are ineffectively enforced. This practice is difficult to understand when humane societies themselves are the driving forces behind local legislative attempts to reduce "pet overpopulation."

Shelters, because of their permanence and community presence, are usually easy for people to find. They're listed in the phone book and almost every county has at least one. They rarely go out of business. Rescue services suffer from low visibility that is, unfortunately, partly their own making. Many are rather loosely organized with officers and contact information changing from one year to the next. New groups start up and older ones fold at a continuous rate. Because of these constant changes, directories of rescues are usually obsolete before they go to press, making it difficult for the public to locate them. The American Kennel Club has helped to offset this problem in purebred dogs by asking each national breed club to appoint a rescue coordinator as a public referral contact.

Rescue's low and changing profile makes obtaining adequate funds a problem. While few shelters can say they get enough donations to meet their needs, their established presence in the community and tax-deductible status helps to attract donors interested in seeing their money benefit as many animals as possible and who want the security of giving to an organization that's likely to still be in place ten years from now. Rescue groups' focus on individual breeds or species often limits their fundraising potential to fanciers of those particular animals. For some breeds, this offers a small pool indeed.

Many volunteers, especially those not supported by a club, pay a large portion of the animals' expenses themselves, a burden that contributes to an inadequate advertising budget and can eventually cause the demise of the rescue's effort. Most purebred dog rescues charge an adoption fee that offsets the bulk of the dogs' medical costs but those working with mixed breeds find themselves in a quandry - it costs the same to rescue a mixed breed as it does a purebred but the public is unwilling to pay as much for a mix.

About The Author

Vicki DeGruy's photo
Vicki DeGruy -

Member/Volunteer/Partner/Article Writer of the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Vicki DeGruy |
Like this article?
Don’t forget to share, like or follow us



blog comments powered by Disqus