When the shelter sues to take your pet away

This is a particularly sad story which likely strikes close to home for too many people. The Boston Globe has the tale of Pamela Howard, who had adopted her cat Muse from a shelter after it had been burned and injured in an abusive home. Her new furry family was getting along famously by all accounts until she was notified that the shelter was demanding she surrender the cat back to them.

[L]ast month, the adoption agency that handed Howard her beloved cat filed a lawsuit to take him back. There was no allegation that Howard abused or neglected Muse, or harmed him in any way.

But what she had done was take Muse outside to her backyard, on a leash, for less than five minutes, contrary to a contract Howard signed that included an agreement to keep Muse indoors.

Howard refused to give Muse back, and so far it has cost her $3,000 in legal fees.

“I’m his guardian and protector,” she said of Muse. “I could never give him up.”

This is a hard column to write because I am generally loathe to hurl any criticism at animal shelters. Having spent many years volunteering at one and adopting all of our animals from shelters for more than thirty years now, I know all the good work they do and the struggles these organizations face in terms of funding and resources. But it’s true that there are cases where shelters implement policies with the best of intentions but wind up enforcing them to the point of absurdity.

This woman was seen taking her cat outside for a walk for only five minutes and now the shelter wants to seize the cat. I fully understand and sympathize with the desire of shelters to only adopt out cats to homes where they will be kept indoors. Outdoor cats generally have a much harder life, a shorter life expectancy and poorer health. They are subject to predation, injuries from fighting, getting run over by cars or even being poisoned. But while most cats seem to hate being put on a leash (just ask Simon the cat), there are some who learn to go for walks.

That is not the same thing as turning your cat out of the house and wondering if he or she will come back that evening. A cat on a leash (if they will tolerate it) is no different than walking your dog on a leash. Muse wasn’t in any danger, nor was he being abused. This was a technicality under a rule that was being enforced to an absurd degree.

There are other examples to be found at too many shelters. One of our neighbors had two elderly cats that were kept strictly indoors. Because they were never in any danger of being exposed to other cats with diseases, they hadn’t bothered to get a couple of vaccinations for them in their later years. When they went to adopt another cat to add to their family, the local shelter called their vet for a reference and was informed that the current cats were behind on some (not all) vaccinations. The cats stil received annual checkups and were in excellent health. The shelter, however, refused to adopt a new cat out to them and basically blacklisted them for being “bad owners.”

That’s going too far. It’s true that we’d like to see all animals adopted out to homes where they receive the full range of veterinary care. But not everyone can afford 100% vet support for all animals, particularly if they hit a stretch where their budgets are being squeezed. That doesn’t mean that the animals are being abused, denied food or lacking shelter. By banning such owners from the chance to adopt they only make it harder to find homes for all the shelter cats.

Pets shouldn’t be adopted into abusive, neglectful homes, but there are too many animals out there in need of a home to let perfect be the enemy of the good. This shelter in Ms. Howard’s home town needs to drop this case and let Pamela and Muse get on with their lives.

Let’s close on a bit more positive note by revisiting Simon the cat.