Growing up in the Bay Area, not to mention ten years spent living in San Francisco, which could arguably be considered a “mecca” of pet fanatics, it has always seemed to me an obvious fact of life that pets are to be treasured and treated with the same respect as their people. In some cases people treat pets with even more respect than their fellow human beings. While I am a dedicated (and perhaps mildly obsessed) cat owner, I feel that society focusing too much energy on one animal may cost many others their lives. In particular, I would like to discuss the placing of pets in homes and the standards which govern this process.
Before I raise my argument, I will say this: In no way am I doubting the importance of providing pets with a good, safe and happy home. I was raised in the East Bay suburbs, and in my family, if a cat was curled up on the chair we wanted to read in, we found another chair. Clearly the pets who have landed in my family have been loved and well provided for. My own cat came to me from the streets and I remain convinced of her extraordinary intelligence, demonstrated by her choice of a person who would spoil and dote on her as I do.
Jefa (my cat, featured in the photo above) and I met walking on the streets of the San Francisco Bay View neighborhood. Although I was not permitted to touch her, she followed me home, covering a distance of a quarter mile. She moved in, I was eventually allowed to pet her and we have been attached at the hip ever since. Jefa was lucky to find a home. Sadly, her many companions from the street were not so fortunate.
The population of stray and feral cats in this city, and in fact the country, is a huge problem. In San Francisco and many other cities there are Catch and Release programs (of which Jefa was a fortunate victim). These programs serve to capture stray cats, spay or neuter them, mark them and release them back to the streets. While perhaps a little insensitive in the actual handling of the animals, this is a population control method that refrains from killing. Additionally there are No-Kill shelters in many cities. I fully support these programs as the best possible alternative to killing. However the existence of such programs also means that there are many pets sitting around waiting to be adopted, and many more living poorly on their own.
It would seem that the most important goal of shelters would be to adopt out these animals and make room for new ones. The problem that I wish to address here is that many of these shelters have extremely rigid rules and restrictions regarding the people they will adopt to. I acknowledge the unfortunate need for a screening process. There are sick people out there and it is important to make sure the homes being provided are safe and acceptable. However, some shelters hold adoptive pet parents to such high standards that I believe they are doing harm to their own cause by getting in the way of placing pets in homes.
An excellent example of this is an adoption center in San Francisco called Pets Unlimited. I believe that this organization is caring and well intentioned. In fact, Jefa and I use their veterinary clinic for shots, yearly check ups and other medical services. They are not a very large shelter and have a limited number of very nice rooms for their cats. They also have incredibly strict guidelines about adoption. They want to know how many hours a day you will be home with your pet, what kind of people will be around the pet, details of how you intend to care for the pet, and more personal information. If you confess to intentions of letting your pet go outside unsupervised you are instantly disqualified.
All of these criteria are important to responsible pet ownership and should be carefully considered by the adoptive parents. However these standards are held so high by the organization that it is actually difficult to adopt from them. I believe that it would be amazing if every pet owner was able to commit to near-constant time with their pet and a level of care equal to that of an infant. Given the numbers of homes needed, I also believe that if a roof can be provided, with healthy food and a basic level of care and attention, perhaps we shouldn’t be too picky. The benefit of finding a perfect home for one animal is often equal to the cost of many other animals having no homes.