New Mexico's Pet Resource SUMMER/FALL 2001



By Barbara Bacon

It begins gradually. A few days go by and you keep seeing the same stray cat. Gee, it looks awfully skinny. Maybe you’ve seen a neighborhood dog wandering around for several days. You ask around and learn that the neighbors have moved and left their dog behind. Meanwhile, that stray cat keeps looking thinner.

What do you do? You can call Animal Control - if you live in an area that has Animal Control. Many rural areas don’t. Or, you can take it to the local animal shelter, but maybe you worry that the stray cat or the neighborhood dog might end up euthanized. Then again, maybe the local shelter isn’t an option after all because it’s full. You decide to find this animal a home yourself, but you want to make sure that it’s a good one. Where, you wonder, do I begin?

Well, there’s a right way and a wrong way to find an animal a home. Sure, there’s lots of stories out there about people who adopted this great dog or cat from someone giving animals away at flea markets or running a classified newspaper ad that begins “Free to good home.” But there are many more stories about cats and dogs that end up the subjects of gruesome experiments in laboratories or are used as bait to train fighting dogs and end up literally torn apart. All too often, their stories began with a newspaper ad that read “Free to good home.”

Barbara Tellier, president of the Albuquerque-based Alliance Against Animal Abuse and who has been rescuing animals and finding them good homes for 16 years, says it begins with a well-written newspaper ad, but definitely not one that says “Free to good home.” That’s because, Barbara insists, it is absolutely necessary to charge an adoption fee.

“People called ‘bunchers’ collect free animals for research. Some of these people travel across the country doing it, and this is how they make their living. If they get $20 or $40 or $50 from the research laboratory, that’s money in their pocket, so they’re not going to pay $50 for a cat or dog,” she explains.

The Alliance always has its rescue animals spayed or neutered and vaccinated before allowing them to be adopted. In addition, cats are tested for feline leukemia and dogs are tested for heartworm. And, says Barbara, she always includes this information in the newspaper advertisement. The costs that a new dog or cat owner would pay for initial vaccinations, tests, spaying and neutering far exceed the Alliance’s $50 adoption fee.

But there is another reason Barbara gets all this done before she allows an animal to be adopted. A spayed dog or cat will never have a litter. A neutered dog or cat will never father any offspring, thus helping to stem the tide of dog and cat overpopulation in New Mexico and cut down on the vast numbers of dogs and cats euthanized in animal shelters every year.

“That’s one thing we have control over. We get it done before they leave,” says Barbara, a long-time advocate of spaying and neutering puppies and kittens at an early age. “It’s always worked out. The next day the kittens are climbing the kitty condo and have absolutely no idea what happened to them.”

Barbara first realized the necessity of spaying and neutering rescue animals years ago when a couple in Valencia County who bred Pugs was getting a divorce and two of their dogs ended up with Barbara and the Alliance. “I was getting calls from Farmington and Colorado and all over the place. Very quickly, I realized they were calling because the puppies were purebred and people wanted them because they intended to breed them.”

Charging an adoption fee serves another important purpose. It serves to discourage the belief that cats and dogs are disposable, easily replaced and more or less interchangeable, says Barbara, another reason so many animals end up homeless and in shelters.

Freddi Hetler, who has been rescuing dogs on her own and through animal shelters in northern New Mexico for more than four years, agrees. “If a person wants a free dog, I wonder why. Why aren’t they willing to put out $25 or $50? Is this animal not worth that to them? They’re going to have to pay vet bills. They need to be willing to pay for this animal, to show me that they feel this animal is worth it.”

When Freddi finds a home for a shelter dog that she has fostered, she charges the shelter’s adoption fee. When adopting out dogs that she has rescued herself, Freddi charges a $25 fee, the cost of the newspaper ad that she always places for each animal. But while those dogs wait to be adopted, Freddi provides their food, a place for them to sleep, a collar with identification on it and any veterinary care the animals may need - mostly at her own expense, although she says she occasionally receives donated dog food. And, like Barbara, she is a firm believer in getting her rescues spayed or neutered before they’re adopted.

“If they come from a shelter, the shelter will spay or neuter the dog, but the ones I rescue on my own I get spayed or neutered either at low cost or no cost by the Santa Fe Animal Shelter,” Freddi explains. “I can’t speak highly enough of them.”

Most advice you read about placing animals for adoption urges you to write a clever advertisement, tailoring it to the dog’s or cat’s unique appearance and personality. Barbara says that although she tries to make each ad lively, her main concern is including the essential information, “that they’re neutered or spayed and vaccinated - and make it fit in four lines.”

Adds Freddi, “I find that trying to be cutesy and clever takes up too much space.” Like Barbara, she concentrates on including the crucial information in the ad and making it all fit in the allotted space. “To write ‘neutered male dog’ is redundant,” she says. “ ‘Neutered’ indicates that it’s a male and if someone doesn’t know that then they probably shouldn’t have the dog. Right now I’m fostering an older, Cockapoo-terrier mix, who clearly once had a home. Writing ‘Well-behaved house dog’ indicates that he knows to ask to go out and come in again, isn’t yappy, knows how to behave in the house and that this certainly isn’t a dog you’d chain up in your yard.”

Freddi also has successfully placed animals by placing flyers in veterinarians’ offices, feed stores and grocery stores in her area. “I don’t make a special trip,” she explains, “but as I go to these places, I will put up flyers.” Barbara, on the other hand, finds that newspaper ads are more efficient and cover a wider area than flyers.

Both Barbara and Freddi stress the importance of carefully screening prospective adopters, initially over the telephone and then in person. They begin by asking the people why they are interested in this particular animal, if they already have or have had any animals and what kinds. They ask about the family, are the people single or married, do they have children and if so, how old are they. Barbara and Freddi engage prospective adopters in conversation to find out as much as they can about them.

“I had one man who called about a big shepherd cross I had. He said he wanted the dog because he wanted a companion,” Barbara recalls. “I asked him if he was retired or disabled and he said no. I asked him what business he was in and he said construction. That’s when I knew that he didn’t want a companion. He wanted a watchdog. Well, I never heard this particular dog ever bark, although he might lick you to death.

“If I have a cat, I’ll ask who is the cat for and where are they going to keep it? Do they plan to let it outside?” she says. “I’ll ask what happened to your last cat? How did it die? If they have little children, two or three years old, I don’t like to place a cat or a nervous little dog with them. If someone says, ‘My three-year-old is very mature and well behaved,’ I say, ‘Fine, bring him or her along.’ ”

“If they’ve had other animals I ask what happened to them,” Freddi says. “If they tell me they had a dog but it died, I ask how it died. If they tell me it ran out of the yard and got hit by a car, I ask them if they have a fenced yard. If they say they don’t need a fenced yard, I ask them how are they going to prevent this dog from running out of the yard and getting hit? If they say, ‘Well, I’m going to keep him chained in the yard’ that tells me a lot. I ask them where the dog is going to sleep and I insist that the person go through obedience training with the dog to learn how to communicate with the dog and for the dog to learn how to communicate with the owner.”

“I ask them who their vet is,” says Barbara. “If they have an older cat, I recommend they adopt a younger cat of the opposite sex. If their animal isn’t spayed or neutered, I concentrate on that animal. I explain the health advantages of spaying and neutering and I won’t let them adopt an animal until they get theirs spayed or neutered.

“I ask them why they want this particular animal. If it’s a dog, I ask if they have a fenced yard and if their fence goes all the way down to the ground? Does the gate close properly? And that’s why we do home visits, too, so we can see what’s happening. You can find people who stack their wood in a neat pile against a concrete wall, making a nice little staircase that the dog can climb up and go over the wall,” she adds.

Freddi will not adopt out a dog to someone who lives in an apartment or doesn’t have a fenced yard. “If they say, ‘We’ll get a fence put up,’ I say, ‘Fine, call me when it’s done and I’ll probably have a dog for you then.

“Dogs are pack animals. Left alone for long periods of time, they bark, they chew, they get into trouble and are miserable. They need companionship, whether it’s you or your children or other dogs. Cats don’t really count as companions to most dogs because cats don’t interact the way dogs need to,” she explains.

When a prospective adopter meets an animal for the first time, Barbara and Freddi say they can learn a lot by seeing how people greet the animals. “I had a family interested in adopting a dog and when they came, their little boy scooped up the dog and held him closely throughout the entire interview,” Freddi recalls.

Both Barbara and Freddi follow up on adoptions, and should they not work out for any reason, both insist that the animals be returned to them rather than abandoned or handed over to a shelter. In following up on adoptions, once again Barbara and Freddi agree that they learn the most just by letting people talk. “If they say to me, ‘Oh yes, we took the dog to the vet and the vet says the dog’s teeth need to be cleaned so we’re getting that done,’ that way I find out how things are going,” Freddi says.

So if you are sure that you can foster that stray cat or the neighbor’s abandoned dog and meet all of its needs, open the door, let them in, get busy on those newspaper ads and follow Barbara’s and Freddi’s tips. It may cost you a few bucks, but in the end, you’ll be rewarded knowing that you have found them permanent, safe and loving homes. Who could ask for more?

Barbara Bacon, a former journalist, lives in Albuquerque with her three cats. She is a volunteer with the Animal Humane Association of New Mexico, the Alliance Against Animal Abuse, Prairie Dog Pals and No More Homeless Pets of New Mexico.

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