The word "rescue" is a simple word with a whole range of meanings. In the animal rescue world, "rescue" generally means an organization of any size that saves animals in need. Big Fluffy Dog Rescue fits within this definition, as do many others. However, rescue should mean a lot more if the organization is adopting the animal its saves to the public.
Recently, I received a call from an adopter of a Great Pyrenees puppy that had been adopted from another rescue (not Big Fluffy Dog Rescue). The puppy was sick and the adopter needed advice. This is hardly unusual as every rescue gets random calls like this. Sometimes, an adopter does not really understand that the rescue the puppy was adopted from is run by volunteers who have job commitments elsewhere and they want an instant response. Lack of an instant response is not a sin for any rescue and adopters need to be patient. What surprised me about this call were the facts laid out for me by the adopter.
The puppy in question was adopted at eight weeks of age straight off transport. This puppy came from Missouri and was listed for adoption on a New England website. The Petfinder listing for the posting showed a dog that was clearly no more than five weeks old but claimed to be seven weeks old and stated that the dog was ready for immediate adoption and transport. USDA regulations mandate that the puppy be a minimum of eight weeks of age before transport. Big Fluffy Dog Rescue will not place a puppy under ten weeks of age, and typically, puppies we place are older than twelve weeks at the time of adoption. (We consider it risky to place puppies without two sets of shots, and there are rescues that mandate three sets.) The paperwork received from the rescue showed one handwritten sheet with a single distemper parvo shot label affixed to the paper. All this puppy had received was a single shot which according to the paperwork, had been administered four days prior to transport. The price for this puppy? $350 to the "rescue" plus the cost of transport. My friends, this is not rescue. This is selling dogs and it must stop.
The ethical approach to rescue requires that the rescue not add to the problem or create a new one. In the midwest and the South, there are legions of unaltered dogs adding more and more unwanted puppies to the population. New England has largely managed to stop this and the problem with unwanted dogs there is largely (although not totally) limited to specific breeds and not dogs in general. Rescues bringing in dogs that aren't vetted properly or altered risk everything rescue stands for. The puppy is at risk for disease and can be a carrier of disease. The puppy may also grow up to breed unwanted puppies in an area where this was not a problem. Under any scenario, it is never OK to place dogs into homes that are not properly vetted. Shipping unvetted, unaltered dogs to an adopter under the label of "rescue" is no better than if the dog had come from a puppy mill. This is a loophole that any disreputable puppy mill could use to sell its puppies under the guise of rescue, thus whitewashing the true origins of the puppy. Do I think this is a common occurence? No. Do I think it could happen? Absolutely.
There is absolutely no ethical reason that any rescue should send a dog to an adopter or place the dog in a home for a fee when the dog has not had basic vetting. At a minimum, a reputable rescue should ensure the dog has had suitable and age-appropriate distemper/parvo, bordetella and rabies shots, the dog should be spayed or neutered, and the dog should have been tested for heartworms if the dog is old enough for this to be a concern. Big Fluffy Dog Rescue does a great deal more than this for its dogs and is adding canine influenza shots as soon as our vets begin to carry the vaccine in the new year. However, at a minimum, most rescues would agree this is a minimal amount of care that should be provided before adopting a dog to a public. So why are some rescues sending out unvetted, unaltered dogs into the world for a relatively hefty fee in proportion to the veterinary care actually provided for the dog? I'm not sure I know.
I have had discussions with many rescues about the difficulty in finding vets that will alter puppies prior to six months of age. I recognize there are some vets that simply refuse to alter puppies less than six months of age. If this is the case, find another vet. It's that simple. Taking a small deposit as insurance that the dog will be altered simply takes too much control from the rescue's hands. As a rescue, you should never be in a position to have to wonder if the owner of the dog actually got the spay/neuter done. Worst case scenario as an example: you follow up and the adopter refuses to alter the dog. You go to court to enforce your contract. This assumes that a) you have the funds to hire someone to enforce your contract, b) that the judge will agree with you and c) that the dog has not already been bred. Are you willing to risk this?
I have had other discussions with people about the need to move dogs quickly so they don't hold them that long before moving them for adoption. This is also completely irresponsible. I understand all about facing daunting numbers of dogs dying in shelters, but this does not excuse the rescue from responsibly dealing with the dogs in its care already. If you are rushing dogs out the door without properly quarantining the dogs for an appropriate length of time after they have been pulled from disease-ridden shelters, then you are risking not only your dogs, but other dogs on transport and in the public and in the adoptive home, and this is simply unacceptable and irresponsible. Eventually, if you are doing this, you risk the very concept of rescue as states shut the doors to rescue. Do you really want to be the reason that rescue was shut down?
If you are assisting other rescues in placing dogs through your organization, you have an obligation to know who you are dealing with. While we all want to believe that rescues are all doing right, this is not true. There are bad rescues just like there are bad people. Unless you have inspected the rescue's records and know the rescue to be doing the right thing, you are part of the problem if you help someone adopt dogs without making sure that the rescue has vetted the dog. If you are taking money to help place the dog, you are a dog broker and nothing you can say to me in support of that practice will change that. If you are a dog broker, you are selling dogs. This is not an acceptable, ethical practice even if you are using the funds to fund your rescue efforts. By all means, help a rescue, but don't take their money. It looks bad and it makes rescue as a whole look shady. We already fight the label from the uneducated quarters that we are "selling" dogs. Please don't make it true.
I understand that there will always be mistakes made. We all do it and it will happen again to us and to you. C'est la vie. I also know that dogs will get sick even with the best care. That does not mean we can't learn from our mistakes and try to improve our practices. I realize there are discussions to be had about the many animal control facilities and shelters allowing dogs to be adopted without even a spay or neuter, but rescue needs to clean up its act before it turns its eyes on the animal shelters that permit this practice.