Easing the burden
I have a gentle suggestion to the sanctuary community. When things get too hard to handle, when you become crushed by the load of responsibility, look outside your own walls.
What we can learn from domestic animal rescue
We have something to learn about rescue work from the domestic animal community. In the domestic system, sanctuaries very similar to ours exist, providing lifetime care to formerly unwanted animals. But there is a key difference; in the domestic animal world, these sanctuaries house truly un-adoptable animals; those whose temperament, age, or health conditions make them completely undesirable to potential owners.
It is unimaginable to consider housing every displaced domestic animal permanently in a sanctuary, when even temporary animal shelters are so overburdened that they often lack the capacity to house each homeless animal for the span of a mere week. What keeps these animals alive? Finding good homes for them.
In the exotic system, if an animal needs placement, it goes to a "shelter," the sanctuary or zoo, and remains there for the rest of its life regardless of temperament, age, or health. To us, “adoption,” means getting someone to send money regularly to support a cat in a sanctuary. But as we all know, sanctuaries and zoos have finite capacity and resources. Why then, have so few established true adoption programs, where private homes are actively sought for displaced animals?
I imagine partly because we are used to considering exotic cats "un-adoptable," and also because we tend to want to handle things privately, without calling attention to ourselves. There's also the feeling that only we, the experienced owners, are qualified to handle these animals.
In the past, domestic animal shelters had a very strict view of what an "adoptable" animal was. It was young, healthy, friendly, and attractive, with no obvious behavior problems. However, as the no-kill shelter movement has grown, many modern shelters have learned to re-evaluate what "adoptable" is. Shelters are now finding loving homes for animals that previously would have been killed; aggressive dogs with bite histories, elderly animals, animals with ongoing health problems requiring expensive lifetime medication, etc. Some people now visit shelters with the specific intention of adopting what are now termed "special needs" animals.
Broadening the pool of homes
At the core of my suggestions is the concept that we should carefully open our minds to adoptions to the public, and give people access to information on adoptable animals. Before anyone panics at my use of the word “public,” please read on. I am not proposing that we simply allow random people to adopt unwanted tigers!
Since caring, responsible people are often willing to take in animals which would be considered by most people as un-adoptable, I believe we should recognize the fact that some of those people could be both capable and willing to take in an unwanted exotic cat. Are they a very small portion of the population? Yes. Are we doing what we can to reach those homes? No. Most people don’t even know that it is possible to own an exotic cat, let alone know that they could rescue one.
Although many potential pet owners want the perfect animal, there are other dedicated people out there who are willing and able to bend over backwards to provide a loving home for these "special needs" animals. Wouldn't an exotic feline fit this definition? Yes, they have increased care and housing requirements. Yes, they require licensing. Yes, some of them may be potentially aggressive. Yes, the screening process for potential owners would have to be intensive. But how does that differ from what we do now?
Whether it is a breeder selling a kitten or someone choosing the right facility to place an adult, we already know that one needs to establish that the new owner has the proper permits, facility, knowledge, and resources to care for the animal properly. But we all started somewhere, with little to no experience, and we consider ourselves to be qualified guardians of our cats. Isn't it a little elitist to assume that the current members of our little community, the current owners, are the only ones capable of learning how to provide for an exotic cat?
Tim Stark of Wildlife In Need comments “Adoptions of exotic cats fall back on the self righteous sanctuary owners. They try to make everyone believe they are the only ones that can take care of such an animal. So if they were to put animals under their care up for adoption, it would make them feel less superior and out of control.”
None of the supposedly flooded sanctuaries I contacted when I was first looking for a serval were the least bit interested in adopting out a cat; they just wanted my donations. Any sanctuary that claims to be "flooded" with exotic cats but somehow isn't desperate to find good homes for any of them needs to get a serious reality check. Spend a few months volunteering at a domestic animal shelter during kitten season and you'll find out what it really means to be overwhelmed with homeless animals.
Should every first-time owner take on the challenges of adopting a “second-hand” feline? Of course not. However, there are some people out there who could do it if we find them and give them the information and resources they need. People love to “rescue” animals and are often willing to expend a great deal of time, energy, money, and patience to do so.
The statistical tracking logs for my websites www.AfricanServal.com and www.ExoticCatz.com show that a high percentage of visitors searched for phrases such as "adopt unwanted serval," "caracals up for adoption," and "rescued bobcat for adoption." We have the cats, they want to adopt them.
Would you rather see that cougar or that serval you're trying to place killed for lack of a place to go, or face the challenges of finding the right owner? They are out there. Believe me, I've met them while doing domestic animal rescue. The only thing is, we have to have a certain amount of public exposure in order to attract them.
There will always be a place for the sanctuary as we know it, providing stable and caring refuge for un-adoptable cats. Donna Verba of Walk on the Wild Side says that once cats are placed in her sanctuary, she commits to caring for them for the rest of their lives. She says "This is a promise I made to them, they will live out their life, in peace and security until they pass from this earth of natural causes. They will never be uprooted or moved again, they are home now."
However, there is a place for an adoption network to place animals that don’t need to be placed in a sanctuary or that sanctuaries are unable to take in. Verba recently spearheaded efforts to find new homes for 7 displaced cougars. She herself took in 2 of them permanently, while 2 went to private owners, 2 went to a private zoo, and one went to a large reputable sanctuary.
Private owner or sanctuary?
FCF placement director Tracy Wilson believes that placing a cat in a large sanctuary is more of a risk than placing it with the private owner of a small number of cats. She says that "Large sanctuaries which depend on donations are more at risk of not being able to provide everything the animals need and possibly going out of business because of lack of public support, causing a large number of animals to be displaced all at once." I am personally aware of several sanctuaries failing in just the past couple of years.
Wilson has successfully placed a number of displaced exotics into private homes, and notes "If time is taken to best match the cats needs to a new home, I generally never have to place that cat into another home later." If a cat is a pet, she tries to place it into a private home that can best match its former home rather than relegate it to a sanctuary. She points out that “Overcrowded sanctuaries will never be able to provide the quality of life to the exotic cats that a pet owner of one cat could.”
While she's only placed one animal in a private home, Conservator’s Center’s Mindy Stinner says "If the right home came along, I'd consider placing any animal in it if it was legal and the care and husbandry and housing would be excellent."
Going public with rescue and placement; the pros and cons
Not calling attention to ourselves hasn't worked. The result of our quietly owning these cats without intruding on other people's lives has been a flood of negative press and laws banning us out of existence. The only way we can hope to survive this tidal wave of discrimination is for the responsible owners to make themselves known.
Calling attention to rescue efforts that work and that present realistic facts to the public might seem like airing our dirty laundry in public, but I think it's desperately needed in order to counter the messages spewed by anti-ownership sanctuaries like Shambala. The public already knows that exotic cats sometimes need to be placed. Why not let them get involved in a way that fosters knowledge of the actual facts?
Can you imagine being able to quote actual statistics about the number of animals that needed placing, the origin of these animals, and the fact that every single one was placed? We could contrast those figures with the number of domestic animals that need rescuing and that die in shelters every year, showing people just how relatively insignificant the “exotic pet problem” is and how vastly superior our adoption rates are to domestic animals.
Implementing a placement network
So how can we implement an adoption system within the exotic feline community? By using the same type of networking that we're already familiar with, but simply adding some new elements and perhaps becoming a little better organized. Some possibilities, many borrowed from the world of domestic animal placement:
A central website where information about any exotic feline up for adoption could be posted, and people (including sanctuaries and experienced owners), could apply to be on a waiting list for future placements. The domestic equivalent to this is Petfinder.com, which accepts listings from shelters, rescue groups, and pet owners. The person running the website would not screen homes; that would be left up to the person placing the cat. However, the site could have an initial adoption application people could fill out to get on a central waiting list. If there was interest in doing this, I might volunteer to design and host the site, at least while it got started.
A network of trusted people throughout the country who can do "home visits" to the facilities or homes of those applying to adopt. Such a network would allow for an inspection by a knowledgeable individual, even if the cat being placed is coming from another part of the country.
A network of foster homes for displaced felines. This is another practice common with domestic animals. When a shelter runs out of room to house incoming animals, often some will be sent home with foster parents until homes can be found or there is space in the shelter. There are many cases where a feline needs to be placed quickly or risk euthanasia, and situations where an otherwise loving owner may be separated from a cat due to changing laws or perhaps a housing crisis. If there is a network of foster homes, cats could be placed quickly in a safe facility while the more lengthily process of finding a new home or reuniting the cat with its owner takes place. Perhaps we can develop a network of sanctuaries and private parties who agree to leave a space open for fostering even one cat at a time on short notice, with the knowledge that they do not have to commit to caring for that cat for a lifetime.
One serval owner emailed a sanctuary saying she needed to place her serval because she was losing her house. Since the sanctuary was full, the owner forwarded the email to me to see if I might be able to adopt the cat. I contacted the owner, and one of the options I mentioned was fostering the cat until another home could be found.
To my surprise the owner jumped on the possibility of a foster home, and the chance of keeping her beloved cat. She said I given her hope, and to make a long story short we agreed that she would keep her cat while looking for housing. If an emergency comes up (i.e. she's evicted before finding serval-friendly housing), I'll foster the cat for her. I don't yet know if this story will have a happy ending, but if this kind of safety net can keep a serval in its loving home....well, there's nothing better than a rescue or placement that never has to happen.
A code of ethics should be established. These would require the input of a number of people, but here are some initial suggestions:
- Parties should represent the situations surrounding each placement truthfully (i.e. the adoptive parents shall not claim that their animal was abused if that was not the case).
- Foster homes should not charge unreasonably high "boarding" fees as a condition of an owner's getting his or her cat back.
- Use the website only for the purpose of finding new homes for exotic felines in need, not for selling animals or as a venue to raise funds, nor for owners to try to recoup the cost of an animal they purchased and now wish to place elsewhere.
- The person or organization placing the cat is solely responsible for screening potential homes.
The Servals.org placement network
Sara Comstock and a group of other dedicated serval lovers have started a placement network very similar to what I am suggesting. When they are notified of a serval in need of placement, they find a suitable new home and help coordinate the transfer. They have an adoption application and screen potential homes carefully. The differences? Information about available animals is not made public; the network typically only works with servals; and the network is not large enough to allow home checks in most cases.
However, the group has been very successful. As of December 2004, Comstock’s network had placed 22 servals in private homes. Comstock says, “If a serval comes from a home environment, we feel it best for the serval to be placed with the same. The "family pet" serval has bonded with humans, used to family life, and is in physical contact with its human, interaction.”
Having a broader network and opening our mind to a wider variety of placement options will not only ease the burden on sanctuaries; it will also allow animals to be placed in environments more similar to what they are accustomed to.
This article is copyrighted 2005 by Jessi Clark-White, and originally appeared in the FCF Newsletter. All rights are reserved. FCF members receive a bi-monthly newsletter containing a wealth of articles like this one, and I highly recommend becoming an FCF member to learn more about exotic felines.