What happens when rehoming goes very, very wrong
copyright 20014-2019 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
When it comes to finding a new home for any pet, rehoming is a tough road to travel.
Mostly for the pets shuffled around in the process along with the rescuers and the fosterers
involved with them. The biggest fear for those working with animals; those who do the
caring and feeding and socializing and taming and training and treating, is that the
standard of care the pets will receive in the future will not equal the care they have been
receiving from the rescuer, fosterer, clinic or shelter. In fact, it won’t be, it can’t be. The
care received can never be the same when the individual care giver is changed (and this is
no small factor in stressing an animal—a humane and consistent caregiver is vital to an
animal’s welfare). If even this change is a stressful one, how then can this ever work?
Finding new places for companion animals to live without the companions they have
developed relationships with?
What makes rehoming work, the theory or hope behind it, is based on the animal being
first, placed into a new environment where a universal standard of care is adhered to
which will benefit the animal’s welfare and second, that after an inevitable adjustment
period (which the new guardian must successfully facilitate) the animal will thrive. And
when a supportive environment and guardian come together for the animal so does a
“forever” home. But what happens when this is not the case? What about when the
reasons industry people fear most come to fruition; the guardian who says they want the
pet and then realizes they would rather not consistently bu and open smelly cans of pet
food, change a cat box or walk a dog several times a day or come home early from a night
out to do any of these? And what about any of the horror stories we would rather not hear
about but that happen every day whether we hear about them or not? What happens when
the universe drops the very same animals you thought were in that forever home right
back in your world? What then?
Not long ago I received a phone call from a woman I had never met who was traveling
southbound on the New Jersey turnpike. She was calling from a rest stop somewhere in
southern New Jersey, not being from the area, she could not tell me which one she was at.
She was calling to say she had “found” my cats (and she did not sound happy about the
discovery), right there at the rest stop. I live in Manhattan and when I heard this I was;
confused, concerned, taken aback -all three. My pet greeting behavior on arriving home
includes personal interaction and all pets were present and accounted for.
“My cats are all home”, I said. Why, did she think the cats were mine? The traveler
explained that she had been taking her dog for a relief walk and found the cats in question
behind a bush, huddled closely together in the back of a carrier with the door ajar. It did
not look as if the cats had left the carrier and they appeared clearly terrified, all huddled
into themselves and each other. She had called me because the carrier had a sticker
pasted on the end, one with my name on it, the sort of sticker a veterinary clinic places
on a carrier with the identifying details of the pet along with the owner information.
My information was on that carrier for a spay surgery I had facilitated. I started thinking
about cats I had worked with and carriers I had given away and I realized which cats these
must be and who had “adopted” them. I asked what the cats looked like: were they long
haired? Was one grey and one orange and white? Yes to both. I knew who these cats
Two years prior, I had worked with two four month old feral street kittens at the request
of a Soho animal shelter. Four months is fairly old to socialize kittens to humans but time
and consideration are the magic ingredients in working with any cat and for ferals it’s
really just much, much more of each. Another four months of time working with these
siblings, spay surgeries and recovery time and these girls had graduated or so I thought,
to being successfully adopted or "rehomed". But rehoming is a tough road, one not so
In the work that I do; people without pets will often apologize to me for not sharing their
home with pets, as if they are at fault for knowing their limitations. I praise those who
know that pet care is beyond them and who avoid taking on an animal they cannot care
for. Sometimes the best choices for all involved are the ones we do not make. And what of
the limitations realized too late for those who have taken on the responsibility of the life of
another who find themselves not able to provide care? What is the thinking for the person
doing the abandoning?
Rescues and shelter routinely ask that animals be returned if a placement is not success-
ful. And while human beings are “diagnostically oriented” a/k/a judgmental, animal
care workers need to reframe situations on an ongoing basis as a survival strategy in the
field. Reframe and go on, not knowing this, might the thought of an animal worker’s
possible judgment of a return be enough to dissuade contacting them? Can what one
person think, if they do think it at all, be reason enough to deprive a cat or dog from a
dedicated process for humane care? Can a person really reasonably believe that somehow
by leaving these cats in an open area they will be able to fend for themselves? Maybe in a
Disney movie, but in real life dropping off domesticated animals in new and foreign
territory is not a chance to strike out and make a life for themselves. Even should one
persist in the belief of a benevolent universe and laws of nature, one needs to know these
laws do not include former Brooklyn street kittens being able to figure out life at a New
Jersey rest stop on 1-95.
The truth is cats need to be taught survival skills and be in familiar territory to employ
them. Without learning to hunt and more importantly, how to kill prey from their mother,
these cats would have little to no chance of catching a meal. If they were not so very, very
terrified of this strange place they found themselves, they might be able to scavenge food
from the trash but being obligate carnivores (requiring meat for their nutritional needs)
they would be hard pressed to find adequate fare. More pressing would be the need for
these cats to be comfortable enough to venture out to try and eat at all. And without eating
they would enter into dangerous waters, cats in starvation modes process too much fat for
the liver to handle effectively and this "fatty liver" disease once started is hard to reverse
and treat. And of course, they desperately needed water.
Were they OK?”, I asked the caller. She was not sure. The day was close to ninety
degrees and the days before it had been insufferably hot as well. Two grown cats in one
carrier crouched together, not moving. I asked her if she could just close the door,
hoping to reassure any fear in approaching the carrier or the cats. I said that since they
had not left the carrier they themselves were no doubt terrified and would surely stay in
the back of the carrier and were sure to avoid coming close to anyone closing the door.
She was not afraid of the cats she assured me; rather she was upset that they had been
abandoned here. So if there is some sort of fortune in this story with the universe bringing
these cats back to me for whatever saving we had fallen short of doing in the first place,
their fortune also included being found by a former veterinary technician who cared
deeply for animals and for our responsibilities to them. She assured me that she would
not leave the cats at the rest stop and without any other options she would find a shelter
to bring them to.
Shelters are terribly overloaded with cats and many of the cats entering shelters will never
leave them. The ASPCA estimates that of the 3.4 million cats that enter shelters every year,
1.4 million will be put to death and that the percentage of cats entering the shelters who
will be adopted are about 37% with 41% being euthanized. The number of stray cats being
returned to owners is less than 5%. Rescue organizations and individuals work to make a
difference in these daunting statistics that translate into too many cats and not enough
people to care for them.
And in this one story of so many others, the shelter did not admit two more cats to add
to the numbers. This one story of rehomed cats dumped on the side of the road at a rest
stop far from the place they had known as home has a happy ending for the meantime.
Haunted by what “we” had done with these cats I tried everyone I could think of to help,
any favors to call in, any begging I could do, anyone left that cared for animals that had
not already helped and rehomed already. Who had room? Who would answer? Somehow
with more fortune and people working on the side of the angels these cats came to yet
another foster home. With hundreds of miles of driving and coordinating of all the major
and minor components of figuring out how to get the cats from a rest stop in New Jersey
to someone who cared enough to be persuaded to help and would wait for someone else
who cared enough and would drive those many, many miles and pick them up and set
them up with all the requisite cat furniture. Another foster, another relationship to make,
more trust to ask for from two animals that have been so far twice betrayed.
When I wrote about working to socialize these, then feral kittens two years ago, I wrote
about the relationship of trust I developed with these cats that had no trust for humans.
I also wrote of how this work entailed a promise of sorts in which to make it work. So far
the cats are the ones doing their part in keeping the bargain.
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"when a supportive environment
and guardian come together for
the animal so does a “forever”
home. But what happens when
this is not the case? What about
when the reasons industry
people fear most come to
fruition; the guardian who says
they want the pet and then
realizes they would rather not
consistently buy and open
smelly cans of pet food, change
a cat box or walk a dog several
times a day or come home early
from a night out to do any of
these? And what about any of
the horror stories we would
rather not hear about but that
happen every day whether we
hear about them or not? "
Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Rescues and shelter routinely
ask that animals be returned if
a placement is not successful.
And “diagnostically oriented”
a/k/a judgmental, animal care
workers need to reframe
situations on an ongoing basis
as a survival strategy in the
field. Reframe and go on, not
knowing this, might the thought
of an animal worker’s possible
judgment of a return be enough
to dissuade contacting them?
Can what one person think, if
they do think it at all, be reason
enough to deprive a cat or dog
from a dedicated process for
Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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