By Paula Fitzsimmons
Animal rescues save lives, but not all shelters are created equal. Some may seem legit, but in reality, may be breeding or hoarding fronts. Others may be well-intentioned but provide inadequate care.
So, how can you tell if you’re supporting a reputable rescue? Before you adopt, sign up as a volunteer, or donate your hard-earned cash, learn to spot the signs of a troubled rescue.
Not all of the following signs necessarily indicate a bad rescue, but they should prompt you to ask more questions.
It Doesn’t Follow Standards of Care
Unfortunately, the federal government doesn’t regulate animal rescues, says Dr. Emily Dudley, a veterinarian with Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
“The Animal Welfare Act is a federal law that regulates certain animals used for breeding, research and exhibition, but rescues and shelters are not regulated by this law,” she says. “Animal shelters and rescues may be regulated through state specific laws.”
However, rescues can voluntarily adhere to standards set by professional organizations. For example, the Arizona Humane Society uses the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters set forth by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians to ensure continuity of care, says veterinarian Dr. Steve Hansen, president and CEO of Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix.
Additionally, the Arizona Humane Society’s veterinary clinics and Second Chance Animal Trauma Hospital are American Animal Hospital Association-accredited; and their medical facilities are licensed by the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board, he says. Try to find a facility that adheres to similar standards.
If you’re looking to donate to or volunteer at a sanctuary, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries accredits farm, horse and wildlife sanctuaries, including those adopting out companion parrots.
“Accredited sanctuaries have undergone a thorough review of the care, safety and operations practices, and meet a set of rigorous standards written with each species in mind,” says Dr. Kim Haddad, a veterinarian who serves as chair of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries accreditation committee.
The Animals Appear to Be in Poor Health
You’ll want to look for signs that a rescue isn’t providing optimal care to their animals before you adopt or volunteer.
“The pets may present as emaciated, tick-infested, urine and feces covered, suffering from open wounds or other untreated medical conditions,” says Hansen, who is a veterinarian and board-certified toxicologist.
There may also be behavioral signs. “They may be suffering emotionally and exhibiting fearful, shy, shutdown or aggressive behavior from a lack of socialization or history of prior abuse and neglect,” he says.
Animals who don’t receive proper enrichment and who are placed in over-crowded conditions may show signs of kennel stress, says Hansen.
“It can lead to fence fighting and increased reactivity in which animals redirect their anxiety on one another,” he says. “Other kennel stress behaviors can include excessive barking, spinning or jumping in the kennel, panting, red mucous membranes and inability to settle.” He adds that done correctly, co-housing the right animal pairs will actually reduce stress.
Space is Inadequate
Take pause if you see crates stacked on top of each other or several animals placed in one kennel, says Hansen. Kennels should also have appropriate flooring and the animals should not be walking on wire crating.
“Animals should be housed in double-sided cages or there should be enough volunteers or staff present to take them out for bathroom breaks two to three times per day, plus exercise,” he says. Not having a separate elimination area is also stressful for animals and impacts their welfare, he adds.
Animals should have adequate space to move around, and have access to outdoor space, “Whether through outdoor runs and/or adequate time outside of their kennels within play yards or out on walks.”
It Has Low Adoption Rates
Lengthy stays and low adoption rates may mean the organization has unrealistic adoption requirements, says Dudley, who is board-certified in animal welfare.
“Capacity to care has been exceeded for the shelter or rescue, which means that not all animals are receiving necessary care,” she says. “Despite this, many will continue to accept additional animals.”
Some reputable rescues do provide long-term care for animals under certain circumstances, she adds, “but the majority of animals should move through the adoption process fairly quickly in a reputable shelter.”
The Facility is Not Clean
Poor building maintenance is a red flag. “High levels of ammonia often indicate excessive pet urine and feces, which can lead to respiratory issues for both people and pets, a lack of cleanliness and lack of adequate ventilation,” says Hansen. Additionally, he says animals should have clean bedding, blankets, toys, and food and water.
Bottom line: “If you walk into a shelter and have a not-so-good feeling, trust that instinct and let somebody know, because chances are it’s gone past the ability to help an animal as initially intended,” says Michael Keiley, director of adoption centers and programs MSPCA-Angell in Boston.
The Website Lacks Key Information
The website should list an address, hours of operation, email address and telephone number, says Hansen. “If listed as operating by appointment-only, that could be cause for concern. If invited in, be sure to request a tour of the facility or foster homes.”
The organization should have a mission statement, says Dr. Jeannine Berger, vice president of rescue and welfare at San Francisco SPCA. “Do they follow their mission statement, and do they have any information on welfare for the animals in their care?”
Also look for things like adoption statistics, 501©3 status, and transparency of operations and procedures, Dudley says.
Keep in mind, however, that 501©3 designation refers to tax-exempt status and is relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain, Hansen says. “That alone should not be used in determining whether a group is reputable or not.”
It Lacks Transparency
A rescue that lacks transparency in their programs, policies, practices, pets and people is one to steer clear of, Hansen says.
“An exceptional rescue or shelter will be forthcoming in how they care for their animals and will allow the public to tour their facilities or foster homes,” says Hansen.
You should also be able to access an animal’s full history, proof of vet checkup, spay or neuter, vaccination and de-worming, adds Berger, who is board-certified in animal welfare and veterinary behavior.
“Ideally, the shelter will have information on how the pet interacts with unfamiliar people and other members of its own species. Even if the pet has a history of being friendly toward other pets, all pets are individuals,” she says.
The Staff Doesn’t Work with You
You shouldn’t feel rushed when choosing an animal, and shelter staff should work with you to determine your needs.
“A good shelter allows the potential adopter to take his or her time to meet and observe the animal and their environment,” says Berger.
It should also be a resource after the adoption process. “Services may include follow up in order to ensure successful adoption, training advice and class opportunities, the willingness to work with you if you have behavior concerns about your pet, and If needed, be able to take the pet back if its indeed not a match,” she adds.
In addition, reputable rescue organizations will offer reviews or refer you to previous adopters with any questions about their facilities.
It Doesn’t Thoroughly Vet Potential Pet Parents
Having a relatively high turnover rate is a positive sign, but it should be balanced with ensuring potential pet parents have been fully vetted.
A good organization has a clear adoption process, says Berger. “Adopters should expect to be asked several questions helping the organization to come up with the best fit.”
In addition, adopters should expect to have to show proof of identification and to verify their age and address, Berger says. “When adopting from a good organization, an adopter should expect to meet with a counselor to discuss needs, the process and the pets that are available. This is a good time to learn the background of the pet you are interested in.”
Its Financials are Sketchy
How a rescue handles its finances is telling.
“One of the best resources available is Charity Navigator, an independent watchdog organization that evaluates charitable organizations in the United States,” Hansen says. “They use an organization’s financials including tax returns and website information to rate charities on its evaluations in two areas—financial health and accountability/transparency.”
Also, be leery of unrealistic adoption fees. A $500 fee isn’t exorbitant if it includes value-added services like spay or neuter, microchip and obedience class, says Keiley. If all you’re getting for that $500 is the animal, however, beware.
If you suspect animal abuse, report it to your local law enforcement agency. Other options include contacting your local animal control or humane society, says Dudley. If local agencies can’t help, she suggests contacting the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition or the ASPCA.