Home > Animal Rescue, Dog Behavior, Health Care - Dogs, Pet Safety > Are we rescuing? Or, are we passing the buck?

Are we rescuing? Or, are we passing the buck?


Jack Russell Terrier SnarlingReading the latest news on Steve Marwell, owner of the Olympic Animal Sanctuary (OAS), made me realize once again how few of us have actually spent time asking how this all came to be in the first place.

How did a man who had never registered his charity with his state, and who collected donations but never made any of the required disclosures needed to maintain his good standing as a rescue or sanctuary, able to fool so many rescues and animal shelters into sending their unadoptable dogs to him?

How did no one know about all the dogs living in crates and kennels and in extreme conditions, with little to no food? How did this place pass as a sanctuary and continue to receive dogs for years?

The whole awful and disturbing story brought to mind a blog post I had read back in 2012. Written by Jessica Dolce, How I Failed as a Rescuer: Lessons from a Sanctuary, was a sad, but very insightful look into something that happens so often in rescue – we push it on down the line.

As Jessica wrote:

We all keep pushing down the chain. Individuals reach out to shelters, shelters plead with rescues to pull dogs, rescues can’t place all the dogs, so they board hard-to-place dogs in sanctuaries.

We’re all begging for someone else to give us the happy ending we so desperately want for the animals we love. If people deny us, we lash out that no one will help. If a shelter isn’t no-kill, we refuse to donate to them. We keep pushing and pushing until someone will take this painful, difficult situation off of our doorstep.

We all push until we find sanctuaries who say yes. (How I Failed as a Rescuer: Lessons from a Sanctuary by Jessica Dolce, Notes from a Dog Walker, July 21, 2012)

But the responsibility isn’t the person on down the line is it? No. The responsibility is ours, the rescuer’s, and we should be taking it more seriously.

I wonder… Are we asking the right questions when we decide to pass a dog off to someone else? When we choose to ship a dog off to a sanctuary to live out their lives, do we do our due diligence? Do we ask around for references? Do we go visit the facility ourselves? When we choose to save a dog that cannot be placed, are we really “saving” the dog? Or, are we just making ourselves feel better?

Sad Looking Chocolate LabRecently, I said NO to someone who wanted help in finding a home for an unwanted dog. The dog had an extensive bite history (with several owners) and was scheduled to be euthanized in three days. The person wanting to “save” the dog could not take the dog herself, but wanted desperately to find someone else who would. I could not help but be angry. She wasn’t willing to take in the dog in herself, but she wanted someone else to take on that risk? Really? It very much felt like she was passing it on down the line, leaving the dog for someone else to deal with it, all the while patting herself on the back for saving a poor dog.

I won’t lie. I recommended the dog be euthanized. With so many dogs out there in need, and so many of them without a bite history, why would we save this one dog? Why save this dog who has bitten several former owners in the past? 

Desperate to save the dog, the woman ended up taking the dog where? A sanctuary for difficult dogs.  God only knows if it is a “good one” or it it willbe one that we will one day see in the news, like OAS. I can only hope it is a good one and the dog is receiving great care, and hopefully, some retraining. I can’t help but wonder if the “rescuers” have bothered to check in to see how the dog is doing since they “saved” her? I would bet the answer is no, which is precisely the problem. Out of sight, out of mind.

What happened at OAS should never be allowed to happen again. And yet, I know it will.

As rescuers, we need to get better at doing our due diligence. We need to visit the places we send our unadoptable dogs. We need to inspect, ask for references, ask questions (lots of them) and follow-up regularly. But most importantly, we need to stop passing dogs (who cannot be re-homed or who are unsafe in a normal home) down the line.

We need to be honest and ask ourselves if euthanization wouldn’t be a better solution in these types of situations rather than passing the dog off to a sanctuary where they could suffer unimaginable cruelties for years on end. 

Because the truth is, that kind of solution is not rescuing, it’s passing the buck.  It’s contributing to animal suffering, not saving them from it. 

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  1. maryehaight
    August 11, 2014 at 12:17 AM

    Yes, I agree. This whole “save them all” is a nice slogan but so far is just that and not how it works day in and day out. Sanctuaries are often unable to take dogs unless they meet a minimum criteria now — money and personal safety are an issue. I know the shelter director at Lake Shore would travel from Chicago to Wisconsin or Michigan or Indiana to check out what was being billed as a Sanctuary for dogs that probably won’t ever be placed. This is a huge responsibility, and a huge job for people, many of whom are not paid employees. We would never blindly ship a dog somewhere we knew nothing about. That really is “passing the buck”.

    And then there’s the follow-up program, making sure those Sanctuaries are still in business and checking to see how the dog(s) is doing, It’s the obligation of the shelter to ensure adopted and sanctuary dogs are living successfully in their new surroundings, especially in the first 6 months, with twice a year contact thereafter. None of this is easy, all of it is essential to continued success of shelter programs.

    • Mel
      August 11, 2014 at 11:46 AM

      Agree Mary. I am glad to heart that some Sanctuaries are getting smart about the dogs they say “yes” to. Very encouraging. I am surprised (pleasantly so) that Lake Shore did their due diligence, not because i don’t expect it from them, but because so few do check out the sanctuary and keep checking.

  2. fredrieka
    August 11, 2014 at 7:04 AM

    rescue do not buy that is our motto

  3. Sabrina
    August 11, 2014 at 9:15 AM

    Such an honest article, Mel. I really appreciate your insight into situations like this.

    • Mel
      August 11, 2014 at 11:43 AM

      Thanks Sabrina. It is the less endearing side of rescue I am afraid.

  4. August 11, 2014 at 10:40 AM

    Absolutely, Mel. Too many dogs just get passed along and passed along. I worked on a piece recently and found that up to 25% of new hoarding cases each year are from “rescues” or even full-blown shelters.

    • Mel
      August 11, 2014 at 11:43 AM

      That is truly a sad and disturbing statistic Roxanne. It does not surprise me, but it makes my point all the more relevant. Augh! So many dogs passed on with good intention, but not realistic ones.

  5. August 11, 2014 at 10:47 AM

    This is very brave of you Mel and I am so glad someone has the guts to say what needs to be said. In some cases, the best thing for everyone, including the dog, is to euthanize. It is never the first thing and should only be done after great consideration, but continuing to make a poor animal someone else’s problem just because you don’t have the guts to do the right thing is not fair or helpful. It often leads to more serious tragedies, which I have witnessed myself. That’s not rescue, is it?

    Thank you again for being strong and working so hard to make a difference.

    • Mel
      August 11, 2014 at 11:41 AM

      Thanks for your very kind words Kristine. To be honest, I think Jessica is the brave one. She broached the topic 2 years ago and handled it with honesty and grace. I just brought a real-life story to the equation.

  6. August 12, 2014 at 12:50 PM

    I live in Washington State and watched the OAS story unfold. I think you bring up a very valid point. It’s easy to villify Steve for what he did but, you are right, I have not heard anyone asking what contributed to the situation going as wrong as it did…and learning lessons from it to use in the future.

    • Mel
      August 13, 2014 at 6:29 AM

      Exactly Jessica. What Steve did was so wrong, but he is not the only guilty one here. Even those who started the protest outside the building had sent their dogs to him and only became concerned after they could not get an update. At least they checked up on the dog they sent. Many others did not.

  7. August 13, 2014 at 6:12 PM

    Great post.

  8. Deb
    August 14, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    Well, well. Maggie at OMD sent me and I’m so glad she did. This is the first post I came upon of yours to read and I loved it. Theoretically it would be great to “save them all” but in reality, not all can or should be saved. I read a post from BAD RAP about a dog who was sent to a sanctuary because she couldn’t be placed, but in reality that situation was worse and once pulled into their program, she blossomed. Maybe that wasn’t exactly the right point, but too often I hear, “don’t you just want to take them all home?” and the answer is a resounding NO. I think that’s exactly where hoarding comes into play is the urge or desire to help them all and then they just get overwhelmed.

  9. Blanche Axton
    August 16, 2014 at 8:33 PM

    Amen. Been doing rescue for almost 30 years and the “can you take this dog?” from people who won’t themselves take the dog makes me crazy. I DO take dogs with behaviour issues, but I won’t put myself, my foster parents, my adopters or the rescue in a position where the likelihood of getting injured or sued is high. Nor sustaining a dog in a “lockdown” environment. This isn’t life. This is just being alive. People need to stop worshipping the “alive” part and start thinking about living and the quality of it.

    • Mel
      August 16, 2014 at 8:38 PM

      Blanche, I could not agree with you more. Thank you for taking the tough cases and for knowing when it is not the right thing to do. Keeping a dog alive when he does not have a good quality if life is more cruel than giving him peace.

    • August 17, 2014 at 11:12 AM

      Well said, Blanche.

  10. August 17, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    Great post – very gutsy and well said.

    • Mel
      August 17, 2014 at 11:31 AM

      Thanks. I think it was less gutsy than the woman who first addressed this issue, but I appreciate your comment very much.

  11. August 19, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    Thanks for a great article on a tough subject. I agree that the definition of no kill has been distorted to mean never kill, but in some cases it is necessary. As someone who wrote extensively about OAS, I agree that some rescues used him as a depository for difficult dogs instead of dealing with the problems themselves. But I think you’re putting too much blame on them. Some of them did ask for updates and got great stories about how well the dogs were doing, but the updates were lies. One woman made an agonizing decision to send her dog there and sent contributions to OAS for taking him. The dog ended up being killed in a fight but after the dog was dead Markwell continued to give her reports for months that the dog was doing fine. And she still sent contributions. She didn’t know until the protests started last year that her dog was dead. Other rescues were threatened with lawsuits after they asked repeatedly how their dogs were doing. Sure, some of the rescues should never have sent dogs there, but they shouldn’t share equally in the blame. Many tried to do their due diligence before and after they sent dogs to OAS, and they had no idea that they were being told lies about OAS and their dogs.

  12. August 19, 2014 at 11:26 AM

    Regarding figuring out the reasons for how the OAS fiasco happened, we’ve been spending most of our time trying to find homes for the 124 dogs that were rescued last December. We only recently found a place to take the last 18. There will be plenty of time to revisit why this happened now that all the dogs have finally found homes.

  1. September 1, 2014 at 10:38 PM

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