Ethical Issues Confront Purebred Rescue Groups

Ethical Issues Confront Purebred Rescue Groups

Maintaining high ethical standards seen critical to responsible rescue work

By: Staff  Date: 06/30/1998 Category: | Canine Issues |


In an endeavor as noble as rescue work, one might think questions of ethics wouldn't come up very often. Actually, they're common and can sometimes be difficult to deal with. They're also wide in scope and numerous enough that they can't all be addressed in one column. We'll be coming back to this subject again in future articles.

As in anything else, there are people involved in rescue and in shelter operations who are not only unethical but potentially criminal, such as pet brokers masquerading as "rescue services" in order to defraud people out of their animals. There are also "humane organizations" that are anything but and defraud people out of donations. Those activities won't be part of this discussion. What we're going to talk about are the ethical considerations and dilemmas faced by bona fide rescue volunteers and animal shelters.

It should go without saying that maintaining high ethical standards is critical to responsible rescue work. They are essential to creating and maintaining trust between rescue, shelters, law enforcement officials and the public. They are essential to serving the best interests of the rescued animals.

Since many purebred dog rescue services are operated by groups of fanciers and hobby breeders, many shelters worry that the dogs released to them will be placed unaltered or worse, deliberately bred. This concern is most prevalent in shelters that still believe breeders in general are the root of all evil. I'm happy to say that this attitude has declined in the last five years as more shelters are learning the differences between serious, responsible breeders and those less so. However, breeders who rescue need to be aware that their actions are always under scrutiny.

While most rescued purebreds, at least in the more common breeds, are of unknown history and aren't of breeding quality, now and then an exceptional animal will turn up and sometimes even with valid registration papers. I know this has happened to me more than once and if you've been rescuing for any length of time, it's probably happened to you, too. I think it's only human to wish in your heart that the dog could be utilized to benefit the breed and your line but doing so would damage your rescue program's credibility beyond repair.


Legal obligations

It should be assumed that behaving ethically includes obeying the law but a surprising number of rescuers don't know what laws may apply to them. A common example involves lost or stray animals. Most pets entering shelters and rescues were found roaming at large and without identification. In most, if not all, of the country, laws govern the procedure for locating the owner and allowing him/her to retrieve his property. These procedures vary widely but generally, the animal's finder must report or surrender it to the appropriate law enforcement agency of the area. After an attempt to find the owner, if the animal remains unclaimed, it becomes the property of the corresponding city, county or township and is either put up for adoption or disposed of.

A remarkable number of rescue services, though, are blithely ignorant of their lawful responsibilities concerning found animals, whether found by themselves or brought to them by others; in some cases, they deliberately choose to ignore these laws. Many rescues fail to notify the authorities or advertise animals as "found" and some go so far as to immediately have elective medical procedures such as spay/neuter performed on them. While a percentage of strays are turned loose or dumped by their owners, some rescuers mistakenly believe that all found animals, especially if they turn up in poor physical condition, came from neglectful situations and therefore should not be returned even if the rightful owner appears.

Another situation that involves both ethics and the law concerns neglected or abused animals. The inability of the legal system to adequately address people who mistreat or don't provide adequate care for their pets is a source of deep frustration for all animal lovers, not just animal rights activists. Most laws that govern animal care are vague and mandate only minimum standards, making them hard for humane officials to enforce except in extreme cases. Consequently, the temptation to take it upon oneself to secretly remove an animal from a bad situation is very strong - and very illegal. Whatever your heart may tell you, it is theft and can't be condoned.



The area in which I find the most common and most serious questions of ethical standards involves the misrepresentation of animals. I think everyone will agree that placing secondhand pets is no easy task. There are few enough homes for the youngest and cutest, much less for the older and not so perfect. Some rescues and shelters - both are equally guilty - try to enhance an animal's adoption appeal by adjusting its age, fibbing about or creatively enhancing its breed heritage or glossing over undesirable aspects of its history or behavior. In some cases, they deliberately leave out important information or lie outright.

High volume shelters seldom have the time or personnel to adequately evaluate the animals in their care. Ages on stray animals are a guesstimate at best, and because intimate knowledge of all breeds is lacking, it's easy to make mistakes on breed identification or the appropriateness of a particular breed for a certain household. While this doesn't excuse them, I have far more patience with misrepresentation out of ignorance than I do the intentional misleading of an adopter.

It's one thing to state a dog's negatives in a positive way, i.e. "recommended for children over 12" rather than "not good with small kids," but it's quite another to fail to make the negative known to the adopter or pretend it doesn't exist.

In my experience, this sort of misrepresentation occurs out of good intentions and a fear for what may happen to the animal if it's not adopted. Some rescuers, having pulled a dog from a shelter only to discover later that it's not a good adoption candidate, are loathe to euthanize it but do not have facilities to care for it forever. Rather than turn off a good adopter by being honest, they choose instead to leave out important details or embellish others to make the dog more attractive and then hope for the best. While this may get the dog adopted, it might not stay adopted long, leaving the new owner wishing he'd bought a new puppy after all.

Ironically, the three most blatant cases of misrepresentation I can think of involved dangerous dogs and "no kill" shelters where one would think desperation to place a dog wouldn't be an issue. The aggressive nature of the dogs had not only been drastically played down, one of the shelters chose not to make it known that the dog had seriously injured someone while in their care. This is not only unethical but inexcusable.

Just as some breed clubs have codes of ethics that members are expected to follow, so do some rescue organizations. Rescue coalitions, such as the All-Breed Rescue Alliance which is made up of rescue representatives of many breeds in New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, often have established standards of conduct that members must agree to uphold before they are given the endorsement of the coalition or allowed a listing in its directory. These standards help to assure shelters and the public of the reliability of the rescue groups.

In future columns, you can expect more on ethical issues along with dealing with burn-out, the care and feeding of a rescue-friendly veterinarian, liability, euthanasia, good public relations and more!

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All Authors Of This Article: | Vicki DeGruy |
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