When comedian Ellen DeGeneres recently gave her adopted dog to her hairstylist's family, she triggered a major kerfuffle among animal advocates - and a national debate about what's best for a pet.
After learning that DeGeneres had given Iggy to a family she thought would be more suited to it, the California dog rescue organization that handled the adoption reclaimed the Brussels Griffon terrier mix. Mutts & Moms said that its celebrity client had no right to "re-home" Iggy.
Where there's a new verb, there's a new controversy.
DeGeneres' on-air wailing over her repossessed pooch became one of the most-watched videos on the Internet this week. The comedian said she was so distressed, she canceled taping of her show for a few days. She later had to urge fans to stop their threats against the rescue outfit for reclaiming Iggy. Coming weeks after Michael Vick's ouster from football for his dog-fighting operation, the furor showed again that the public's wrath has no bounds where the treatment of animals is concerned.
DeGeneres' fallout with Mutts & Moms, though fraught with made-for-TV melodrama, exposed a divide in the animal advocacy world.
Re-homing a pet, instead of returning it to the shelter where it came from, is a controversial practice that some animal rights advocates contend does more harm than good. Others believe that re-homed animals stand a better chance of survival than those that are returned to a shelter. Roughly 12 million of the 76 million dogs owned in the U.S. were adopted from a shelter and nearly 14 million of the 90 million cats owned were obtained from a shelter, according to a survey of pet owners in 2005-2006 from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
"The bottom line is, if it doesn't work out, just as in Ellen's case it didn't work out, the animal has to come back to us," says Frank Branchini, executive director of the Humane Society of Baltimore County. "It is a legally binding contract. That's why we call it an `adoption.' It's not a sale."
After investing time and money in the welfare of its animals, the Humane Society wants to ensure its charges find a good home, Branchini says. The society adopts out about 650 pets a year, including cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, even a hedgehog.
Accordingly, would-be pet owners are carefully screened, Branchini says. "It's a very rigorous progress. We actually do screen the homes the same way [as happens with] the adoption of a child."
He is wary of leaving pet adoptions to the public and fears for the fate of animals who, without a stringent screening process, may be vulnerable to abuse or neglect. He's also concerned that by encouraging people to re-home unwanted pets on their own, shelters crowded with discarded animals may simply be trying to shift the problem elsewhere.
"If some shelters start limiting their intake, I think it's inevitable that some of those animals will wind up in other shelters that don't limit their intake," he said.
In response to the Iggy uproar, Ed Sayres, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, takes a more centrist view: "Had a similar situation been encountered with an ASPCA adopter, and had the new home met our adoption criteria, in all likelihood we would have encouraged the new home environment for the animal."
Sayres encouraged Mutts & Moms to "re-visit their approach to this situation and look forward to a positive outcome that reinforces the importance of pets in our society and the human-animal bond."
Until recently, the Maryland SPCA prohibited re-homing, but the thinking there has changed.
"Why can't we trust the adopter enough to try to find a new home?" executive director Aileen Gabbey says. "We obviously want to be aware of [the re-homing] to help the new adopter."
Before a pet is relinquished, SPCA staff discuss "what's best for the dog" or other animal with its current owner, Gabbey says. To the extent that it is possible, the staff attempts to prevent the pet transfer by offering obedience training and other support, such as discounted crates and classes.
The SPCA also created a page on its adoption Web site devoted to "re-homing," where those surrendering their pets may post free ads.
That's where visitors can read about Sheeba, a 10-year-old Rottweiler that Amie and Seth Schiffman must give up. The White Marsh couple has an infant daughter, and caring for the rambunctious Sheeba in a small townhouse has become impossible, they say.
Returning Sheeba to a shelter, though, would be a last resort for the Schiffmans. When they found her at a New Jersey pound five years ago, "she was traumatized," Amie Schiffman says. While other dogs barked for attention, "she backed down and cowered in the corner of her cage. She was terrified."