Has The Rescue Movement Lost Its Way?

Last week an article  came out in the Washington Post exposing a controversial practice that many dog-rescue organizations are engaging in:  the purchase of dogs and puppies at “puppy mill auctions.”   

What?  There are auctions for dogs?

Yes.  A dog auction is just what it sounds like.  Commercial dog breeders bring their puppy stock to auction where the puppies are sold to dog retailers (traditionally, pet stores or dealers). 

What’s the problem with paying for dogs if it “saves” them?

To be fair, not all dog purchases at auction are morally equivalent.  For a long time, rescuers have attended dog auctions to wait around until the end of the day and pick up the dogs that didn’t sell.  These might be retired breeding dogs or puppies that weren’t sold due to poor health.  The rescuer would offer the seller a few bucks (literally) to take the dogs off his hands, saving the dog from either certain death or return to a miserable life at the breeding facility.   

What the Post reports is that now at least 86 dog rescue organizations in the U.S. have been participating in these auctions just like retail buyers, driving up the prices and paying big money for puppies. 

This practice raises two issues of concern to those of us working in animal welfare: (1) it keeps the puppy mill operators in business; and (2) it deceives adopters, who believe they are doing something benevolent by adopting a dog from a rescue, when actually they are obtaining a dog that was obtained by a rescue group in exactly the same way puppies are obtained by pet stores.  Moreover, Illinois law requires that pet stores disclose breeder information to buyers.  Rescues are under no such obligation.

 Why are rescues doing this?

According to the article, some rescuers maintain that buying these dogs saves them from the fate of becoming a “breeding dog” and ensures that they will find good homes. 

The first assertion is a bit naïve.  I’m pretty sure that a commercial dog breeder will not bring the puppies he/she intends to use as breeding stock to the auction in the first place.  (And buying the puppies ensures the continued suffering of those breeding dogs.)  

 The second argument relies on the premise that puppies have a better chance of finding a “good home” when placed through a rescue group rather than a pet store.  No evidence exists to support this argument.  In fact, the ASPCA has done research on pet-owner attachment and found that there is no difference in the strength of the bonds people form with their pets based on the way in which the pets were obtained.

What’s the real reason this is happening?

The short answer:  Market forces and the law of unintended consequences. 

The animal welfare movement has been highly successful in convincing the dog-owning public to spay and neuter their pets at a young age.  Many veterinarians support the practice and encourage pet owners to have their dogs spayed and neutered.  At the same time, enforcement of leash laws has put an end to dogs running at large in most densely populated areas.  These successes have dramatically decreased euthanasia in animal shelters and animal control facilities nationwide.  Thus, when people want puppies, it’s hard to find them.  It is rare these days that a friend or neighbor has a litter of pups to give away, or that you’ll find any puppies available at your local shelter.

That’s the demand side of the equation.  The supply side is a little more complex. 

As “pet overpopulation” has become less of a problem, the landscape beneath the animal rescue movement has shifted.  Rescue groups, by definition, have always had a narrow focus.  Unlike humane societies that strive to address a variety of animal welfare issues, rescue groups focus on one thing:  rescuing animals in peril and putting them up for adoption.  With fewer animals needing to be saved from euthanasia in shelters, what is the new role for rescues?  What the Post article reveals to me is that rescues haven’t begun to consider that question.            

Are some rescue groups buying dogs at auctions because they really believe it’s the right thing to do and a legitimate way to further their mission?  Absolutely, some are.  As the Post article points out, some organizations are convinced that this is a valid approach to “saving dogs” and are very open with their donors and adopters about it.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are nefarious actors out there who have entered the dog-rescue business primarily to capitalize on the empathetic nature of dog lovers and make some money.  It is fairly easy to obtain non-profit status and announce on a website that you’re “rescuing animals from puppy mills” without revealing the true nature of your business or your financials.  For the dog-adopting public, “caveat emptor.”

Adopter Beware – Tips for Vetting Rescue Groups

1.  Beware of the rescue group that perpetually has young puppies (2 to 4 months of age) available for adoption.  If they do, they are not getting them from “over crowded shelters” or “puppy mill raids.”  No animal shelters in Illinois are finding themselves with a steady stream of 8-week old puppies that need to be transferred to rescue groups for adoption.  Puppy mill raids are not common occurrences; they are rare and highly publicized when they happen.

2.  If you inquire about the source of a dog and the answer you receive is vague, don’t be afraid to ask another question.  Some rescues might use terms like “breeder release” or “puppy mill rescue,” which don't reveal much.  If you want to know, ask them directly if they paid for the dog.  The law does not require them to tell you whether they did or didn't, or how much they paid, but the way they respond to your questions might be telling. 

3.  Inquire about the health of the dog you’re interested in and the rescue’s return policy.  Any reputable rescue should accept a return if things don’t work out for whatever reason. (Policies regarding refunds vary, but all rescues are required by law to disclose those policies to you before you adopt.)

Donor Beware

Donors always have the right to inquire as to how donated funds are used.  Most charities are happy to speak with donors about all aspects of their work and explain how they use donations to support their mission.  Regardless of the type of charity, if a non-profit is hesitant to engage in conversations like this, it’s a red flag. 

-Mary Tiefenbrunn, CCHS Executive Director