Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Up for adoption

How do we reconcile the social unacceptability of loving one's pets - as described somewhat convincingly by philosophy professor Kelly Oliver - with the relatively new societal fixation on dog rescue?

When I was growing up, if you saw a cute dog and asked where the owner had found it, the answer was usually "Pets on Lex" - a posh pet store. The more dedicated or car-owning or ruddy-country-club-going sorts may have gone to a breeder in Ohio. Only the very animal-rights-oriented, the very canine-knowledgeable would, if they could afford otherwise, go to the pound. Fast-forward to today. When we took our breeder-bred Bisou into NY, a woman in front of Zabars (the New Yorker cartoons sketch themselves) asked us, "Is she a rescue?" in this way that suggested she merely assumed that anyone her-sort-of-people would surely not have gone any other route. It seems of a piece with the shift towards finding it socially unacceptable to eat vegetables out of season or from Peru. The kind of thing where you know not everyone, not even in Park Slope or whatever, is walking the walk, but it becomes taboo to openly do otherwise, and highly encouraged to ostentatiously demonstrate if you're in line.

Given the number of such incidents I've experienced, as well as read about, as well as other clues it would take too long to go into, I do wonder whether dog "rescue" is perhaps both a real thing and, in other cases, a kind of side industry to regular dog breeding, given the availability of expensive but not as expensive purebred puppies sold to those who prefer a dose of sad-and-pathetic with their cute. That this happens sometimes seems clear enough; the question is how often.

On the other hand, the near-impossibility of actually qualifying for a "rescue" suggests that what's going on is more that as sensitivity to this issue increases in the population at large (as with Whole Foods now being a popular supermarket, whereas once health-food stores were a niche thing), it becomes possible for whichever entities decide who qualifies to be incredibly picky. If we had seriously tried to adopt a rescue, I can think offhand of probably a dozen reasons we would not have qualified, none of which in any way relates to our ability to properly care for a dog. Bisou is cared for and then some. A neighbor who sees me walking her all the time called me "dedicated." Bisou, remember this the next time you're yapping because I abandoned you... for ten minutes to go take a shower.

Perhaps the way to reconcile Kelly Oliver's op-ed and Rescue Culture is that "rescue" has itself become a if not the primary socially-acceptable reason for pet ownership. Few can swing a "service animal" claim, as vs. an "I saved this living being from death" one. "Rescue" is a way of getting around the fundamental selfishness of owning a pet, of putting resources into a non-human creature, when (as goes the killjoy argument whenever pets come up) so many humans are suffering. It stops being about a human wanting the companionship of an affectionate and amusing fluffy animal, but starts to be about walking the walk in support of a cause.


Jacob T. Levy said...

Well, we qualified for a cocker spaniel rescue adoption while grad students in euphemistic New Jersey, though I can't say I've ever felt quite so socially looked down upon in my life. The dog was undoubtedly a genuine rescue, based on the number of medical conditions brought on by neglect that she came wih. (Thank goodness for Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston and its need-based financial aid made available to stipend-dependent grad students.) And we weren't married then, which was one of the chief reasons for suspicion: a couple of students shacking up in the Butler trailer park, thinking they're worthy of a purebred cocker spaniel!

We've avoided both the insane purebred-rescue process and the constant medical crises ever since by getting pound mutts.

Phoebe said...

This is good to hear re: rescue (i.e. that it's at least sometimes legit, and that grad students at least sometimes make the cut), but I still don't think we'd have qualified, because when we would have gotten on a list, we'd have still been living in a no-pets studio apartment in NY (well, with me in Paris for much of the time), so home inspection wouldn't have been possible. Indeed, we hadn't seen our new home prior to moving into it. And, we couldn't be patient and apply once we moved, because the housing here only allows a pet you already have - not the fault of the rescue process, but an added complication. And, our place doesn't have a fenced yard, which is apparently reason to believe either that your dog won't go outside or that you'll set it free like a squirrel upon taking it home. Meanwhile, all that's here is dog-friendly roaming area, all there is to do as a study break is walk a dog back and forth (biking to Nassau St. gets old if you do this too often), but, alas, no fence. And neither of us had ever owned a dog, and so perhaps for that reason wouldn't have been thought up to the task of dealing with one with any special requirements.

And... I feel as though the "two students" thing would be more of an issue in NY, where renting an apartment as two students - even if you plea and plea that you're two students with salaries - is pure horribleness, but then again, Princeton doesn't necessarily seem like it would be better in that regard - you'd be compared with the same finance-types, I suppose, either way.

I hadn't even thought about marital status entering into it, but given that I got married in May, depending how popular it is to rescue poodles, and how socially conservative poodle rescue organizations are, this could also have been an issue.

Long story short, I don't think, in our case, that not purchasing a dog would have saved another, unless we'd found a pit bull a NYC shelter was especially keen on sending along with just anyone. It would have meant not having a dog for the next several years, and after years in no-pet apartments, the time had come.

Meanwhile, after all this puppy-ness, I could very well see going the pound route in the future, if only because an older dog is probably not quite so energetic. (Our poodle has the agility of a cat, the speed of a greyhound. It's adorable but exhausting.) Purebred rescue really does seem like some nightmare version of trying to rent an apartment in New York, but where rather than just being judged for not being rich/settled-down enough, you also stand implicitly accused of being cruel to animals.

Flavia said...

I'm not as tuned into Dog Culture, esp. contemporary dog culture (being a cat owner and all), and your argument about the cachet of rescue animals seems basically true. But I'm not sure about your conflation of "the pound" with rescue organizations. Yes, both groups of people can claim to have saved their pets from DEATH (or at least mistreatment), and that can produce a sense of moral self-satisfaction.

But in my experience there are two kinds of dog-buyers: those who want a particular breed, and those who don't care especially. And the kind who do care are vastly more likely to go to breeders than to go through rescue organizations, for the reasons you note. Apart from the notorious "puppy mills," or perhaps the people who spend a gazillion dollars for a show-worthy animal they have no interest in showing (and whose breeding thus matters to them only insofar as it makes the dog a luxury good), I've never heard anything negative about breeders qua breeders. In any event, I grew up with lots of people whose dogs were acquired from breeders, and I'd still say almost half my friends with dogs got them from breeders.

And/or maybe this is an urban phenomenon? When you're closer to the country, and it's at least plausible that you want a dog to go hunting with--or where you have a friend whose uncle breeds border collies, because he has a sheep farm--there may be less stigma attached to getting a dog from a breeder, because "breeder" doesn't automatically signal the same thing it does elsewhere.

Phoebe said...


I didn't mean to conflate, but should have been more specific. In NY, available pound dogs tend to be - my limited looking into this showed - pit bulls, pit bull mixes. "Adopted" dogs one encounters in the city tend to be either pit bulls (my recollection of the shelter I visited, and of looking on various websites) or breed rescue. So it's not necessarily about wanting a particular breed, so much as not wanting one - the news stories about vicious pit bulls did not make me, a novice at dog ownership, want to start there.

But given the difficulty of actually going and seeing dogs when one is in the city without a car, I suspect that there's a lot of shadiness in terms of where breed rescue dogs, as well as breeder dogs - sold and sometimes shipped to New Yorkers actually come from. The casual (if problematic) situation where someone in the neighborhood is giving away puppies doesn't, for obvious reasons, account for too many dogs in the city.

What you say re: urban vs. rural makes sense - no one needs a dachshund to badger-hunt in the city. I think the ubiquity in the city of pet shops - and of apartments of dubious dog-appropriateness - makes people suspicious of dog ownership generally, and thus more inclined to play up having gone an especially worthy route. But my impression from reading about this topic online is that - unless we're to believe all online posters live in places like NY - it's become quasi-taboo to own a dog you haven't saved from death, haven't nursed back to health. See for example this Dear Prudence ("Dog Dilemma") and the responses to it - the letter-writer makes a reference to the cars people at her office drive, suggesting this is not taking place on West 86th Street.

I guess the question is really whether there are some activist-types who want a taboo in place, or whether there actually is one.

FLG said...

Dog adoption can be a pain. We wanted to adopt a Lab when Miss FLG was a baby, but the local Lab rescue wouldn't let people with kids under something ridiculous, like 16, adopt a dog.

The rescue we went with was fine though. All very nice, but they did come and inspect the house. Although, I got that it was just a, are these people horders with 10,000 animals type of check.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Ah-- yes, that would all add up to "no rescue dog for you."

Our rescue-adoption-inspector assessed our income, our housing conditions, our likelihood of staying together after graduation, our likelihood of employment after graduation, our understanding that you don't just tie a dog to a stake and leave it outside, how many hours a day we intended to be at our offices and therefore leave the dog alone, etc, etc, etc.

The comparison to renting an apartment in New York is apt; the day we checked out a rental in a co-op was the second-most-socially-looked-down-upon I've ever felt!

Phoebe said...


So maybe the main stumbling block was the timing on our end - if our current place allowed getting a dog six months in, perhaps a poodle could have been saved.


I've heard that co-op rentals are insane - basically you have to qualify for the co-op just to rent.

I should probably devote a post of its own to the process of renting an apartment in NY as a grad student, but in my mind it's all summed up by the time a few years back when my now-husband and I went to a realtor's office and, when the guy learned that I'm from the city originally, asked if he could call up my mother to switch over and discuss our apartment search with her. Because surely two students couldn't handle this, surely we wouldn't be the ones actually footing the rent bill. Argh.

Phoebe said...

Also - to hijack my own thread - I would like to return to the question in the post, namely what it means that any route taken to get a dog other than adoption must now be justified, something that I believe did not used to be the case. I mean, we could go on all day, but for my dissertation and need to buy groceries the day the shuttle goes to the mawl, re: why I in particular went with a breeder. But what's up for discussion isn't whether I'm a horrible person, but what it means (if we're to accept that Oliver has a point) that pet ownership must these days be about something, something legitimate.

Sigivald said...

1) This is why mutts are so good.

2) This is why it's ideal not to have that sort of personal "society". Reading WWPD is (in your interactions with local NY society) like peeking into an entire other planet.

2b) By which I mean, around here among a different set of people on the Other Coast, nobody I know's going to care that you went to a pet store.

2c) I know various people doing "animal rescue", and they're not all of them that picky, if you want to succumb to peer pressure.

Phoebe said...


I'm not following your comment - is there a gist I'm missing, other than that you think New Yorkers are silly? Look at the Prudence column I link to in response to Flavia's comment - I'm sure there are regional variations, but the question of where dogs come from is not only being heatedly debated in the confines of Park Slope. But otherwise, no, I really don't follow - your stance is to be pro-mutt, yet not to care what people think if you get your dog from a pet store (i.e. puppy mill)?

And, as I mention in the comments preceding yours, the point is not whether, in theory, I'd have been approved for a rescue poodle, because as unlikely as it is for the reasons I mention, there was the added factor of, whichever dog had to be acquired after leaving one apt. but before moving into another. Meaning, no getting on a waitlist. I'm trying (in vain, it seems) to steer this question beyond my particular case. Not because I don't want commenters being judgey (judgement comes with the territory if you write in the first person) but because I don't think my specific case is as interesting as the broader question, even if it was of course my specific case, as in, the fact that I just got a dog, that got me thinking about the topic.

kei said...

I see some sense in Sigivald's second point--I'd be baffled, to put it mildly, if someone asked/assumed that Mitsu was rescued. And it might be true that in different areas (i.e., not in certain parts of NYC), there are fewer bald assumptions made out loud like that (though I can imagine areas in Chicago where such assumptions are made), but your question of "what it means that any route taken to get a dog other than adoption must now be justified" still stands regardless of where you are. If a commenter's location matters, let it be known that I have a breeder-acquired dog in the Midwest, and had to do some work convincing my husband to go that route instead of the shelter route that he preferred. I also don't remember "rescue" being a term used with respect to pets back in the day; it was shop/breeder or simply "adopt." It wasn't an option when my parents and I got an Akita back in 1996; they rescued their current Akita in 2008, but mostly because our 1996 breeder retired. (Also, I don't think my parents wanted a puppy, energy levels being an issue, as you point out for future situations, Phoebe.)

Anyway, I'm not sure what to make of the reconciliation question, which is hard. It might be that there is a majority, "or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority" (JSMill), who is loud about the Rescue Culture (like, say, the well-known author who writes in the NYTimes about his rescued dog and the property he got for said dog). I think that Oliver's point is that needing to take some time off because your 10+ year old dog passed away shouldn't be considered ridiculous. But certain aspects of the Rescue Culture isn't about openly loving animals in that way Oliver is pointing to; instead, it's about openly saying that with pets, you're doing the equivalent of going to (or talking about going to) the farmer's market and buying local/organic. I guess, to again point to lion philosophers, Oliver is saying something like, the animals should be viewed as an end in itself, whereas in certain parts of Rescue Culture, it seems that the dog is really being treated as a means to an end.

As for the justification question, the only "solution" I have to that is to just stand my ground when I feel that I need to explain why I went to a breeder in Ohio to acquire Mitsu. Aside from persuading my husband to get a Shiba from a breeder, I don't think I've had to explain myself to anyone about getting a breeder-dog. But I've felt, on a number of occasions, the need to sort of reassure myself (which means I feel the Rescue Culture's pressures to some extent), to say that there's nothing wrong with getting a dog from a breeder. I don't know if the demand for a justification comes from within myself, or actually comes from outside of me in some weird, implicit form. But, especially after almost a year with Mitsu, I'm more than ready to give my story, if anyone asks for it, including why I didn't go the rescue route.

Phoebe said...


"Oliver is saying something like, the animals should be viewed as an end in itself, whereas in certain parts of Rescue Culture, it seems that the dog is really being treated as a means to an end."

I think that's right. While obviously different people adopt for different reasons, there's a way in which "rescue" becomes the point, not the experience of living with and caring for a domestic animal.

Let me be clear: I agree that saving a dog's life is a good thing, and that those who adopt have every right to pat themselves on the back. I don't think animal life is equivalent to human life (that would make it much more difficult to handle Bisou's not-exactly-vegan food), but I don't think there's anything wrong with there being some social pressure to adopt. The problem, if this is indeed about a "problem" as opposed to me just observing a trend, is that adoption itself has become the point of having a pet.

I was baffled by Sigivald's point not because I disagree that there are regional variations (albeit limited - Rescue Culture, as you note, extends well beyond NY), but because he seemed to be saying on the one hand that in whichever superior non-NY part of America he lives in, mutts from the pound are typical pets, and that there's no judgement when people do go to pet stores. It's not that these are necessarily incompatible, but I wasn't sure whether he was calling NYers fussy for wanting purebreds, or self-righteous hippies for wanting to adopt.

CW said...

I'm so sick of this whole phenomena of one's purchases (including animal purchases) being taken as such an important measure of whether one is judged to be a good person. I don't have any beef with rescue dogs, organic food, fair trade coffee, or recycled paper. Those are all fine things, and I understand there are ethical ramifications to one's purchases.

But what about the other areas of life? What about the way we treat our friends and families, the work we do, or the roles we have in our communities? Why, at least in upper-middle class and left wing circles, have consumer decisions become so darn important to the seeming exclusion of everything else?

There will always be people trying to show off how much better they are then the rest of us. Traditionally, they did so with excessive outward piety, an attention to manners, and volunteerism of an easily observable variety. It seems that buying all the rights sorts of stuff is now part of that list.

(On the specific topic of rescue dogs, my mom has had several which came from abusive homes. They were great dogs. I particularly loved a really sweet little cocker spaniel that had lost an eye after being beaten with a shovel. However, dogs that really have been rescued from a bad situation can be a lot of work. For many people, a healthy and happy puppy from a reputable breeder is a better and more responsible choice.)

Phoebe said...


Agreed, agreed! (As I just posted).

As for dogs, yes, I do think it's worth taking into account that not everyone is in a position to focus on caring for an animal with many problems. Especially those already focused on caring for humans (themselves or their loved ones) dealing with those kinds of things. Obviously even with an ostensibly healthy puppy, even with a breeder guarantee, you can never be certain you won't have (and have to care and pay for) a sick dog, so if you really can't handle that, best not to get a dog, period. But it's important to remember that not everyone enters into dog ownership with this massive excess stockpile of need-to-nurture-pathetic-creature that they desperately need to direct somewhere.

Also, and perhaps more to the point, breed rescue (as vs. the pound) is the better analogy to local/organic, because you have an ethical choice that's also evidence of one's various-kinds-of-capital. That you've been, well, vetted and approved. It's also this idea of, money can't buy everything, well-suited to the development of a new aristocracy, positioning itself against a nouveau riche.

G said...

Hey P,

Just remembered about your blog after hanging out today, so that I'd catch up. (I know this is an old post).

Anyway, as you probably have figured out, I couldn't be any more of an animal rights-y person, but I'm still appalled--and even, for some reason, embarrassed-that someone would ask you if your dog is a rescue.. that's about as ok as it would be to inquire of a stranger whether the burger she's eating is *real* or is just a great vegan imitation of meat.

of course, *maybe* that *particular* person just assumed your dog was a rescue and was merely trying to make small talk, and *not* trying to put you in the awkward position of having to defend the non-rescued-ness of your dog.

or maybe not. Have I mentioned to you an incident I witnessed in brooklyn involving some woman screaming, *screaming* at another woman that unless she got her (healthy, well-cared-for-looking) puppy, she would 'have' to call animal control.... UM. Even better, the woman being yelled at didn't speak much English and seemed not to understand what was being suggested... let alone *why* what was being suggested *was* being suggested. I *almost* intervened to scold the woman scolding the other woman but thought I'd let the link of brooklynites scolding each other be broken there.

That was right before leaving for europe and it made me a bit happier about leaving brooklyn the city for a while..

g said...

er, i left out that the *reason* the screaming woman was threatening to call animal control on the other woman was that the other woman didn't have her puppy on a *leash*. it would apparently be better for the puppy to languish in a depressing kennel at the very high-kill nyc animal control shelter than to step one paw onto the sidewalk without proper leashing..