When I was in my junior year of college, I wanted a dog. I had rented a small cottage and felt it was time to add a pet to my life. My friends and professors at school had told me about the policies regarding adoption at the local shelter – few of which I could meet. Being a “resourceful” student, I carefully dotted my I’s and crossed my T’s and found ways in which to “meet” the adoption criteria.
I went to the shelter and walked through the adoption area. It was there that I met him… He was a big, furry, blue-tongued orange boy with a lower canine protruding from his bottom jaw. In my eyes, he was absolutely gorgeous. I met with the adoption counselor and pulled out my file. I had my landlord approval (not real), photographs of my fence (not mine)… you get the picture. After reams of paperwork and tons of closed-ended questions that I carefully answered, I was on my way home with my recently neutered 3-year-old chow mix, Benny.
“Once we open our hearts to the human animal as much as we do the nonhuman animal, we will save more lives and help create a more humane community.”
The dog who helped me get my PhD
Benny was the bomb! He was kind, independent and, for the most part, level-headed. Now, he did have his issues: He tried to attack anyone over 5’10” and had extreme thunderstorm phobia—but that did not stop me from thinking he was the best dog ever. We conquered the 5’10” issue fairly quickly (I dated tall guys), but the thunderstorm phobia was another issue. It was so extreme he would literally jump through plate glass windows, tear down doors, and destroy crates in storms. (Benny helped me to decide to become a PhD behaviorist, by the way!)
Benny traveled across the country with me, “redecorated” many a living space, met, loved and said goodbye to many a boyfriend of mine, cost me thousands of dollars in repairs (imagine the bill at that rental that did not allow pets when I was in college!), and thousands in medical bills (did I mention the poor hips?). I loved him so much. Years buzzed by and I had acquired a position as curator of behavior at a zoo in Kansas, developed SAFER, conducted research on canine assessments, got married and bought a house with lots of property for horses and dogs. Benny’s hips and heart were failing him, and as much as I did not want to face it, I had to—it was time to euthanize Benny. My vet kindly came to our home, and I called Benny to me. He settled his head on my lap, my tears plopping onto his faded orange head, and looked at me with those very same brown eyes that he captured me with all those years ago at that shelter. My heart shot to my throat as I thought to myself that if I had not been so resourceful—frankly, if I had not lied when I went to adopt him—Benny would have never been part of my life.
I was not the “perfect adopter,” but I was the right adopter for Benny
Let’s be realistic. He was a 3-year-old chow mix in a NY shelter in the 80’s. He likely would have been euthanized in that shelter instead of in his home after a long and full life. I think I was a pretty good home for Benny, even though I did not meet the criteria of a “good adopter” by the standards of that facility. I was a college student, in a rental, no fence, no job. There were things I did not do perfectly. It still hits me in the gut to think that when Benny had jumped through the 3rd window during a storm, I had to find a way to keep him from running potentially into the street while I was at school—so I tied him up outside for a few hours in a pinch to take a final.
Because the shelter was the place that did not see my adopter potential, I did not see their potential as a resource. They could have helped me find a better solution had we been open to each other. While I was not the “perfect adopter,” I was the right adopter for Benny. My experience acquiring and bonding with Benny was the inspiration for the Meet Your Match program—which dispatches with hard, fast policies and adoption applications and instead focuses on conversation-based adoptions designed to help anyone walking into your shelter feel respected and anyone walking out more educated.
We were them. I was them. The “them” of the not-perfect adopters… the uneducated, the odd, the not us. They too love animals. They too want (and will get - if not from you, from somewhere else) a pet to care for. Once we open our hearts to the human animal as much as we do the nonhuman animal, we will save more lives and help create a more humane community.
I have told the Benny story in workshops and in consults with shelters around the country—and whenever I tell it, there are always a couple of folks who were either denied a pet at a shelter or schemed to get one. What is your story?
Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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