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The Joy of Adopting

Animal lovers share their stories of bringing home new family members from shelters and rescue groups

All Animals magazine, January/February 2011


by Arna Cohen

I called everyone I knew the day I got a job at an animal shelter. Already a volunteer, I couldn’t believe I was actually going to be paid to indulge my passion for animals. But several people did not share my enthusiasm. “Are you sure, Arna?” they asked. “I could never do that. It’s too sad.”

It was a response I would hear repeatedly for the next eight years. And yes, we saw our share of sadness—abuse, abandonment, neglect, ignorance—but what kept us going were the unexpected joys: of adopting out three darling beagle puppies found in a dumpster; of rescuing hissing feral kittens from a parking lot in bone chilling weather and turning them into playful, purring balls of fluff; of finding homes for 17 pet rats rescued from an unspeakable hoarding situation.

The persistent notion of shelters as collections of tragic animals has long kept too many people away. “Before” and “after” images of matted dogs and sick cats, while
helpful in showcasing the challenges and success stories of daily shelter work, haven’t proven to be a big draw for potential adopters. “The public doesn’t want to go into the shelter and see row after row after row of sad, awful situation animals,” says my colleague Inga Fricke, HSUS director of shelter initiatives. “We know as shelter people that that’s the exception rather than the rule. We’re constantly trying to tell people that we’re filled with wonderful, happy, loving pets.”

Like the sweet golden retriever brought to my shelter by his heartbroken family. Moving to England, they couldn’t bear to submit their beloved pet to six months in a quarantine kennel, and they left the shelter in tears. The next evening, their kind neighbor came in to adopt the dog, giving the family peace of mind that he was in good hands and would remain part of their lives. There wasn’t a dry eye among us that night.

The reasons people give up their animals, though no surprise to shelter veterans, come as a shock to those just entering the field. Certainly there’s the occasional cat with litter box issues or dog who eats the furniture (and even those issues aren’t insurmountable). But many more animals end up homeless because of allergies, illness, divorce, job change, a death in the family. In other words—life happens, and pets often bear the brunt of the fallout.

Yet only 25 percent of cats and dogs in U.S. households—and less than 5 percent of other pet species—come from shelters and rescues. These statistics served as the impetus for the Shelter Pet Project, a nationwide campaign to boost shelter adoptions. A collaboration of The HSUS,Maddie’s Fund, and the Ad Council, the campaign’s ads on TV and elsewhere aim to turn the misperceptions about homeless animals—that they are unhealthy or emotionally scarred—inside out.

Regardless of where they come from,most animals need a little help in perfecting their “people” skills. At my old shelter, we viewed the ones with baggage as challenges, not lost causes, and we regularly made miracles happen. Moonshadow, a black Persian cat confiscated from a disreputable breeder, came to us dirty, matted, and furious. Who wouldn’t be after spending his entire life in a filthy backyard shed with little to no human interaction? We almost needed full body armor just to put food in his cage.

Over the several months it took to get ownership of him in court, slow, patient affection transformed Moonshadow from nearly feral to an outgoing, charming boy who couldn’t get enough tummy rubs. The joy I felt on his adoption day has stayed with me through the years, bubbling to the surface when I recently looked through the stories and photos of adopted animals submitted by All Animals readers.

I am touched by the writers’ fervent belief in shelter adoption and their gratitude to the dedicated people who continue to perform miracles. I was particularly moved by the story of Shannon Wellin, whose experiences rescuing animals as a shelter volunteer in Japan led her to seek a career in animal welfare. Where have I heard that story before?

Arna Cohen is an associate editor at The HSUS.

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