Humane Society has strict adoption rules Dogs must be fenced, cats kept inside

December 27, 1992|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,Contributing Writer

If you're considering adopting a dog or cat from the local shelter, prepare to be scrutinized.

The Humane Society of Harford County boasts one of the strictest adoption procedures in the area, and its volunteers follow up with phone calls and even visits to try to ensure the animal has a good home.

If you ever kicked your old dog in front of your friends, they'll get a chance to tell about the humane society about it. The society also demands that dog owners have fenced yards and that cat owners keep them indoors.

"We get a lot of criticism, but we feel it's in the best interest of the pet," said Nina Meckel, an educator for the society.

A signed adoption contract prohibits cosmetic surgery such as tail docking and mandates spaying or neutering, the most rigidly enforced requirement.

"If you do not have it done, we will remove the pet from your home," Ms. Meckel said.

The society has removed a few pets in recent years, the latest two years ago, because a dog had been kept chained outside constantly, and its owner refused to have it neutered.

Other shelters, municipal and private, also try to enforce spaying or neutering.

But, Gayle Saunders, supervisor for the Baltimore County municipal shelter, said the shelter has never removed a dog from a home.

At the Harford humane society, puppies cannot be adopted by (( anyone who works full-time "because you can't housebreak them," Ms. Meckel said, or by people with children under 6 in their home.

"If you have a 2-year-old [child] and an eight-week old puppy, it's not a Timmy and Lassie kind of thing," Ms. Meckel said, "Most of the time it's the woman who has to take care of the dog."

For people with children under 6, the society recommends a dog older than 4 months because by that time it has shed sharper puppy teeth and its bones have hardened enough to prevent injury from a rambunctious toddler.

Cats also are expected to be kept inside, Ms. Meckel said, because indoor cats live longer, healthier lives, especially in a growing county where "a cat can't cross Mountain Road anymore." From spring to fall, the society takes in 20 to 40 cats daily.

When prospective pet owners fill out an adoption contract, they must list a personal reference who is not a relative. Contacting that reference helps weed out some potentially unfit owners, Ms. Meckel said.

"A lot of people, even if they love their friend, they'll tell us, 'Hey, I don't think it's in the best interest of the animal,' " she said.

Those seeking pets also must list a veterinarian reference, who is contacted by the society to find out if previous pets were up-to-date on shots and if they had injuries.

The Humane Society of Baltimore County, with a similar adoption procedure, requires two personal references and the vet reference.

Municipal shelters do little, if any, pre-adoption screening.

"We're pretty much governed by the laws of the county," said Mrs. Saunders of the Baltimore County shelter. "We can't discriminate against a family because they don't have a fenced-in yard or both people work. I think there's room for a little bending. A lot of people who live in apartments are good pet owners."

Harford County has no municipal shelter.

Ms. Meckel said the Harford rules are flexible, citing a Labrador retriever recently adopted by a couple with an unfenced yard. The society approved the move because the yard backs up to open space, and the couple has another Labrador retriever that appears to be cared for well, is neutered and is always walked on a leash.

While the fencing requirement has drawn criticism, it is shared in part by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

John Monahan, education director for the Maryland SPCA, said his staff sends someone to check whether the owner has a fence before making final the adoption of a large dog.

Ms. Meckel said her staff relies on a knowledge of what housing developments prohibit fences -- and tell-tale signs someone is lying. Certain comments, she said, tip her off to potential problems. "When someone comes in and says, 'What's the biggest, meanest dog you have?' that's a real clue," she said.

She is also wary of the visitor who said, " 'Where do you keep the purebreds?' They're looking for a $600 dog for 70 bucks," she said. "They haven't thought of the lifestyle, or what's involved in owning a pet."

In Harford, a committee of six humane society members, each with three to 10 years of experience, reviews the adoption application.

Only a small percentage are refused, said Ms. Meckel, who adds that the process discourages "impulse buyers."

Knowing they'll be hearing from the humane society again also gives some would-be pet owners pause. The first post-adoption check comes when the spay-neuter certificate is tracked. Then, the society makes annual follow-up phone calls, and staff members visit if they suspect anything amiss. The staff encourages owners to visit the society and send photos of their pets, which are displayed on a bulletin board.

But of course, denying any adoption raises the specter of an animal's being put to sleep.

"The dog is not put to sleep because someone is turned down for adoption," Ms. Meckel said, adding that if anyone expresses interest in an animal, that animal is kept longer. She said the shelter has no time frame for putting animals to sleep; instead it can keep them for as long as it has space, "and puppies we keep for a long time."

Allen Holmes of the Humane Society in Baltimore County said the worst case is an animal no one has expressed interest in and a would-be owner who is not ideal.

But, he added: "It is not necessarily better for the animal to be placed in some situations than to be put to sleep. Our focus is on the best interest of the animal -- the adoption process has to guarantee as much as possible it will be loved and wanted."

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