My descent into irresponsible pet ownership began when I was just eight and received a white bunny rabbit as an Easter present. My parents built a little hutch in the backyard and Thumper was beloved, but only as an outdoor pet. I cared for him reasonably well with my mom’s help, but after a couple of years, my brother, then just a toddler, let Thumper out of his cage and we never saw him again. Following this loss, my parents purchased for me a budgie parakeet, complete with a cage that hung next to my bed. Though unable to be handled, my bird was a well-cared for pet until one night, our family cat broke into his cage and attacked him. For this, my mom said she felt FIV (he had a positive diagnosis) was what made our cat so aggressive and she took him to the vet to be euthanized.
Sometimes I feel like my childhood was a training ground for learning about the disposability and replaceable nature of companion animals. At various times, I had gerbils (I mixed the male and female and suddenly ended up with 20), newts (I floated them around in little plastic boats in the pool), goldfish who lived in a bowl and typically died within a few months of being won at the fair, a large toad (which my parents made me return to the pet store because he was bought for a science fair project about how far frogs jump but failed to jump), two dogs, several outdoor cats, a snail I got in a science summer class that ate lettuce and lived in a tube they provided, ants, tadpoles and several other animals. I learned, as did my peers who had similar experiences, animals could be bought, traded and sold and that their deaths, timely or not, were a natural part of having animals.
As an adult, I have never been the perfect pet owner either. At various times, I have:
- Owned a dog when I lived in a ‘No Pets’ apartment
- Owned a cat when I lived in my college dorm room
- Adopted a tiny fluffy dog from the local pound and returned it the following day after it latched on to my big dog’s neck and wouldn’t let go
- Lied on an adoption application to say I had a six foot fence when my fence was only four feet tall
- Failed to keep my pets up to date on all vaccines
- Missed giving them flea and heartworm medications because I forgot
- Failed to keep my microchip information up to date
- Used a prong collar on a dog who pulled really hard
- Had dogs in an apartment with no yard and had to use a ‘tie out’ to let them outside
- Surrendered a dog when he was ‘just too much for me’ during a hard time in my life
- Let my dogs run free in areas not designated ‘off leash’
- Adopted a cat as a Valentine’s Day present for my then-partner and then rehomed her because she didn’t get along with my dog
I’ve also done some good things, including:
- Adopted and loved for a lifetime four dogs and three cats
- Currently own and love four, adopted dogs who eat the best food, go on daily walks and hikes, each have two beds and have a big backyard and more toys and love than they know what to do with.
- Fostered 56 (that I can remember) cats and dogs and found them their new homes
- Owned and loved nine horses, three parrots, and two rescue guinea pigs
Two of my dogs that have since passed away were adopted at a time in my life I was especially ‘irresponsible.’ I was a broke 20-something-year-old who was in and out of college, worked odd hours and had an active social life. By all measures, I was not an ideal pet owner. However, I was lucky enough to go to my local dog pound in Columbus, Ohio, where there were virtually no adoption restrictions. I adopted Gracie and Baraka to me and those two dogs completely changed my life.
They were by my side through various relationships, moves, jobs, schools and struggles and they became family to me. It’s because of them I have dedicated my life to helping animals just like them. When I look back at that time, I’m so grateful that pound let me take those dogs home. I wasn’t a perfect candidate for adoption and I could have easily been rejected, but they said yes. Because of that low barrier adoption process, I am where I am today. Because they said yes, I’ve had a chance to make up for all of my ‘irresponsible pet ownership’ past and present by helping save literally hundreds of thousands of homeless cats, dogs and other animals.
After leading government animal shelters for eight years and working closely with thousands of foster caregivers and hundreds of rescue groups, I’ve learned something. People will mess up. They will adopt a pet and realize it’s ‘not a good fit.’ They will find they have hit a particularly tough moment and life and need a safe way to rehome their animal. They will have a baby and decide their animal isn’t safe around their baby and choose to surrender their animal. People will be people and pets will sometimes lose out because of that. But I also learned this: People who adopt animals want to do the right thing and they start with the best intentions. When they mess up, it’s our job to help provide them support and resources, help them rehome their pet if it truly isn’t an appropriate fit, and in many cases, give them whatever we can to help make the human animal relationship successful.
We have to be a lot more forgiving of people’s mistakes and make the shelter (and rescue) a shame-free place where people can be truthful, vulnerable and imperfect.
I am sitting here writing this, surrounded by snoring, sniffles and unconditional love of our dogs and I am full of gratitude for the people who have entrusted me, despite my mistakes, to call these dogs my family and all the others who have provided advice, support and help for my pets when I needed it the most.
What are the ways you have been an ‘irresponsible pet owner’? Do you think those things should have then or should now prevent you from having a pet? What could we do differently to meet people where they’re at and help them be successful in their relationship with a pet?