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Surrendering Judgement: A look at the real reasons behind animal surrenders

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of talk both in the media and throughout the animal welfare sector regarding the increase in owner surrenders—families turning their pets over to a shelter or rescue in order to find them a new home. The reason that is often given for this increase is that people who adopted an animal during COVID-19 work-from-home orders are now returning to the office. People believe or assume that many of these animals (primarily dogs) are not accustomed to being alone for long periods of time and thus must be rehomed.

At the same time, adoptions are also down (especially compared to the beginning of the pandemic when shelters and rescues could not keep up with the demand). And many people assume this is due to the same reason—people are returning to work and do not have the time for a new pet in the family.

However, the situation is much more complicated. While it is true that many people are now returning to the office, assuming that this change is the single cause for the significant increase in surrenders is misguided. There is a lot more going on and many other factors at play.

Irresponsible rescue practices

Over the past two years, there has been a massive increase in the number of people and organizations calling themselves ‘rescues’ and mass-importing dogs from outside of Canada. These animals have been transported directly into the homes of families who wanted to add a pet to their family. Because of the shortage of dogs in established urban shelters and rescues, this approach seemed to be the only way for families who wanted a dog to get one.   

But the risks and repercussions that come with the mass importing of dogs (or dog trafficking) are numerous and varied. They have been written about at length in many places (like here and here and here). But the big issue that people should be talking about is that dogs imported from another country en masse are not properly vetted for behaviour or health, nor are the families appropriately matched with dogs that suit their lifestyle, experience, living space, and family dynamic. These animals are adopted sight unseen, often handed over in a parking lot at midnight like a scene from Scarface or Narcos. And once the animal is handed over, the so-called rescue abdicates all responsibility.  

There are probably some people who are struggling to take care of a dog now that they are no longer working from home. But it is much more likely that a significant portion of the families looking to rehome their dogs in 2022 are doing so because their new pet was passed on with undisclosed health and/or behaviour issues.  

These families may have spent the past year trying to manage their dog’s unexpected behaviour, but with no support. They likely realized how unequipped or unprepared they were for such an unexpected challenge and reached out to an established shelter or a responsible rescue for help.  

While we may feel the urge to judge these families for “giving up” on their newly-adopted dogs, it is important to consider how often such mass-imported dogs are completely unsuited for their families and how often they have unexpected (and sometimes expensive) health issues.

If a friend signed you up for a 5k fun run, but you showed up on the day of the race to find out that the course was all uphill and actually 15k who would you blame? Would you judge your friend for being cruel and misleading? Would judge yourself if you weren’t able to finish a race that was nothing like what you expected? 

Families with young children have reached out to us at Paws for Hope because they adopted a dog sight-unseen that turned out to be terrible with children. People living in apartments or condos ended up with dogs who were “rescued” from the streets of developing countries but were completely unsuited for urban life in small apartments. Families with pets adopted a dog that was not at all good with other animals. These are situations in which the risk to the children or other pets is far greater than most people’s capacity to manage the unexpected behaviour of a new pet.  

And the fallout from the irresponsible animal importing doesn’t end there. The established shelters and reputable rescues that end up being able to accept these surrendered pets face a daunting task and a significant burden—attempting to rehabilitate these dogs, treat their health issues and then find an appropriate home.

The struggle is real

At Paws for Hope, our two primary programs, Better Together and No Pet Left Behind, aim to keep families together by providing subsidized veterinary care and crisis foster care. And over the past 12 months, requests for our services have sky-rocketed. People are struggling. We are a small organization that is almost completely reliant on donations and, unfortunately,  we can’t meet the needs of our entire community or keep up with the growing demand. That means, if someone needs support or help for themselves and/or their animal, there may be no option but to surrender their pet if they are one of the ones that fall through the cracks. 

Our Better Together program uses a One Welfare approach to support low-income owners, aligning the resources of social service agencies, veterinary service providers and community funding. Because this program provides support for the entire life of a client’s pets (providing they continue to qualify), we have to manage our budget to ensure we have the resources to continue to help our existing clients. 

But unfortunately, 2021 was a terrible year for donations. Paws for Hope saw an overall decrease of approximately $200,000. As such, we are no longer able to approve and accept all of the requests for support we receive each month (almost 150/month through 2021). In the absence of this kind of necessary and unique support, people are often forced to surrender their furry family members in order for them to get the veterinary care they need. (You can help prevent these surrenders and learn more about our Better Together program here.)

Our No Pet Left Behind program also strives to keep families together by providing temporary foster care for pets whose people are experiencing a crisis. Requests for support come from individuals who are fleeing violence, people seeking addiction or mental health treatment, folks needing to be hospitalized, or those who are at risk of homelessness due to a lack of pet-friendly housing.  

Our ability to help families in crisis is directly dependent upon the number of appropriate foster families we have available for the pets needing to come into our care at any given time and the money available to cover the costs of food and supplies and medical bills while the animals are in our care. (You can learn more and support our No Pet Left Behind program here.)

Due to budget constraints, we are currently only operating the No Pet Left Behind program in the Metro Vancouver area. This leaves a significant number of people across the province without any help when they are in crisis. Without a safe place for their pet to go, individuals have fewer, less promising options. Do they stay in a dangerous situation rather than give up their pet? Do they surrender their pet so they can get the help they need? Is losing an animal worth it to get back on their feet?

Compassion over judgement

In the animal welfare sector, we are often quick to judge people who are in need of help taking care of their animals. Our bias leads us to believe that they have intentionally done something wrong, made poor choices, or have some character flaw that prohibits them from providing for their animal—whether that be veterinary care, safe housing, or behaviour training.  

But mass importing of animals, irresponsible rescue practices, and the current narrative around animal surrenders are contributing to the capitalist, oppressive story that individual shortcomings and behaviour are the primary causes of the problems we deal with in the animal welfare sector. But if we reject the assumptions that people are ‘giving up’ on their pets and that unhoused or low-income people can’t take care of their animals, then we can see the truth—that the real issues we should be focusing on are the lack of pet-friendly housing, poverty, domestic violence, illegal breeders and traffickers, access to veterinary care. (Our No Pet Left Behind program allows pets to stay in our care for up to six months, but our return-to-owner rate is barely over 50% because of the lack of pet-friendly housing.)

Every day, people in this province are being forced to choose between keeping their beloved family members and keeping their housing; between keeping their pets and keeping themselves and their children safe from violence. And until you have been in that position, until you have had to make that choice, until you have lived outside through a Prince George winter, take a moment before you say something like: “I would rather be homeless than give up my pet.” 

The massive increase in animal surrenders that we are experiencing is a symptom of many, much larger issues. They have been problems for a long time and they cannot be solved by focusing only on the animals. In order to support pets over the long term, we must ensure that their people are supported as well. Our entire sector must pay more attention to irresponsible so-called rescues and illegal puppy mills. Our entire sector must work towards one welfare approach to helping pets and their people. And our entire sector needs to take actual, meaningful steps toward dismantling the systemic barriers to supports and services that have affected too many people for too long.

About Paws for Hope

Paws for Hope Animal Foundation is a provincial animal welfare charity whose mission is to keep pets and people together, ensure BC pets survive and thrive, and support positive change in the BC animal welfare sector.

For more information and to arrange interviews, please contact:
Kathy Powelson, Paws for Hope Executive Director
[email protected] or 604-396-9297

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