I wrote an op-ed piece titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Biters” that ran in yesterday’s Boston Globe Magazine. It’s about new rules that the state of Massachusetts is about to announce in public hearings, rules that would require rescue groups to assess a dog’s behavior and disclose all findings to fosters or adopters before the dog is transferred to a home.
My piece comes out strongly in favor of what the state is trying to do, based on my research into nationwide rescue for my award-winning book Little Boy Blue and my personal experience of having had 20 foster dogs come through my New Jersey home in the span of two years. As I wrote in yesterday’s piece, most of my fosters arrived friendly, healthy, and as advertised. But a few supposedly healthy dogs arrived sick, and one “ultra-friendly” Labrador mix attacked my own dog and bit me five times in the arm and legs, leaving nasty puncture wounds and me limping for a week. My piece says that the state is right to require that all rescues perform due diligence and disclose any findings about a dog’s health or temperament before giving him to any family. Put another way: Know the dog, and be honest about what you know before you hand him over, plain and simple.
This may seem like common sense to anyone trying to adopt a dog or help the cause by fostering, but the predictable response in comments on the Globe‘s website, as well as on the Little Boy Blue Facebook page, has been backlash and outcry from some rescuers who believe that any regulation of rescue is akin to persecution. They point the finger at puppy mills—disgusting places churning out for-profit purebreds with all kinds of problems—and try to change the subject by saying things like, “Why are you bothering rescuers when these puppy mills exist? We’re the good guys, for Pete’s sake!” Another predictable response has been from rescuers who say things like, “Why is the state trying to shut me down? I care about these dogs and do a good job with the budget I have.” Which is probably true, and is admirable in concept, but does not actually address the question of protocols for behavior screening and disclosure. Having a wonderful heart and wanting to save as many dogs as possible is a great thing, but it doesn’t mean the process in place is working as well, or as safely, as it should be.
I look forward to the day when rescue supporters (and I count myself as one, despite those dog bites) can look at problems within the rescue system and talk openly about addressing them instead of trying to change the subject. Until that day, escalating rules like the ones Massachusetts is about to impose will be the norm, and rightfully so. Rescue is a wonderful thing, but the groups doing it still have work to do if rescue is going to win the public’s trust and solve the problem of homeless dogs once and for all. It’s a fact that few people are willing to write about, because so many rescuers attack the writers with comments like the ones that my piece in the Globe is receiving. But it’s a fact that rescue needs to accept and address if the cause is going to move forward and succeed.
PetSmart Charities did a study with Ispos Marketing in 2012, repeating a study done in 2009 about why people buy purebreds instead of adopting from rescues. “You never know what you’re going to get with a shelter animal” continues to be the opinion of about 1 in 5 responders. That’s about 20 percent of people out there getting dogs, saying that they don’t trust the rescue process. At the same time, Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in his book The Bond that if just 25 percent more people already getting dogs would choose to adopt, then statistically speaking, we’d have a home for every dog being killed in the shelters today—a home for every dog that rescues are so desperately trying to save.
What I wrote in yesterday’s Boston Globe Magazine is about common sense and basic math. It isn’t just about Massachusetts, but is instead about how Massachusetts is addressing an issue that affects rescue nationwide. It isn’t about persecuting rescues, it isn’t about puppy mills, and it isn’t about anything other than the fact that rescue could be better in its overall processes, which would then win the public’s trust and actually solve the problem of homeless dogs. The debate here shouldn’t be about whether rescues need to know the health and temperament of the dogs they are advertising for adoption. It should be about why any state gets so many complaints about rescue that it has to step in on this matter at all.
But I’ll take the negative comments, and I’ll be the lightning rod for debate, and I’ll keep writing pieces like this, and I’ll even do so with a smile—because at least then I will know that this conversation about rescue is getting the mainstream media attention that it deserves. That, like the new Massachusetts rules, will only serve to strengthen the cause of rescue overall.