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  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Ernie (left) and Maya

I knew from the moment I heard the dogs barking outside that something was very wrong. Just as a mother penguin can distinguish the sounds of her own chick from those of thousands in the colony, I could tell from Maya and Ernie’s barks whether they were anxious or playful or announcing the arrival of the UPS truck.

This time, the barking was something new and ominous.

I darted upstairs from the basement and ran outside, where my wife, Stacy, had just returned from walking the dogs. From the front porch, I saw Maya, a sturdy, 45-pound black Lab/pit bull mix, and Ernie, a gangly 30-pound mutt, standing in our road as my neighbor rapidly limped away. I called to the man, but he waved me off dismissively, which was completely out of character for him. In the heat of the moment, my brain was still trying to process what had just transpired.

Minutes later, I felt a pit in my stomach when my neighbor texted me the photos. The first showed his pant leg shredded from the knee down, the second his calf punctured and bloodied. His words were civil but firm. Our dogs had barked and rushed at him before, but this was an unacceptable escalation in aggressive behavior.

Stacy and I were horrified, ashamed and deeply apologetic about the attack, which occurred two weeks before Christmas 2020. Because of the physical and emotional trauma inflicted on our neighbor and his family, we removed Maya from the property within 72 hours.

Ernie stayed longer — for reasons explained below — but was gone by early January. For the first time in our lives, Stacy and I said goodbye to two beloved pets for reasons other than their demise.

Our family’s decision to surrender our animals wasn’t made lightly; it happened only after we’d spent months working with our veterinarian and a certified professional trainer to address the dogs’ unwanted behaviors.

Maya, who was gentle and snuggly with people she knew, suffered from anxiety and an aggressive fear of strangers. Previously, she had nipped four other people but had never drawn blood.

Ernie was an easily excitable goofball, lovable but unpredictably reactive around other dogs. Once, he and a neighbor’s dog erupted into a fight after they’d walked together peacefully for almost an hour. Ernie ended up at the vet with a permanently torn ear, while I landed at urgent care with a gash in my finger from trying to pull the dogs apart.

Individually, each dog’s issues were a challenge. Together, they were a combustible and dangerous mixture. After the attack on our neighbor, we finally threw in the towel, which left us feeling guilty, grief-stricken and shell-shocked.

Yet, we never really got the chance to mourn the loss. Over the coming weeks, we also experienced stress and anger at how some animal welfare organizations handle such situations. While one was compassionate and respectful, the other was sanctimonious and judgmental.

Of the estimated 6.5 million animals that enter shelters each year, at least one-third are surrendered by their owners, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The most common pet-related causes are aggression, destructive behavior and unmanageable health problems.

Thankfully, the predicted flood of “pandemic pets” into shelters post-COVID-19 hasn’t materialized thus far, though some animal welfare agencies in Vermont have seen their intake numbers rise this year compared to last year. But many people who make that heartbreaking decision never talk about the experience because of the stigma attached to animal surrender.

Stacy and I had always felt a deep sense of responsibility toward our animals. Our dogs, all rescues, were members of our family. We’d assumed we’d stick with them through thick and thin, in good health and bad, until death do us part.

Privately, we were judgmental of people who got rid of their animals for seemingly frivolous or selfish reasons: a new relationship, a big move, the animal’s propensity for chewing on the furniture or peeing on the rug. It seemed irresponsible to teach our children that pets are consumer goods that can be returned if they don’t fit well or don’t perform as advertised.

But, as we discovered, the practice of relinquishing animals was far more common than we’d previously assumed. As word spread about our circumstances, a surprising number of our friends, neighbors, coworkers and extended family members shared their own stories of surrendered animals. Some were rescue dogs, but many others had been purchased from breeders for tidy sums.

Their reasons were invariably serious and justified. One couple got rid of their dog after it had nearly killed their parents’ dog. Another surrendered an older dog, which had lived with them for years without incident, when it suddenly became territorial and aggressive around their new baby.

Like us, these people weren’t new or inexperienced dog owners. One is a veterinarian; another works as a veterinary technician at an animal shelter. Our trainer, Lucy Weaver of Dogspeak, has a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation from Hunter College. For a time, she had considered re-homing her dog, until her move from New York City to Vermont eased some of the animal’s extreme anxieties.

Still, finding ourselves in good company didn’t make the surrender process less painful. On a gray and dreary morning, we took Maya back to the Humane Society of Chittenden County in South Burlington, where we had adopted her 15 months earlier. The vet tech on duty met us in a small, windowless room accessible through a side entrance to the building.

Joyce Cameron, the humane society’s president and CEO, said that when she joined the organization in 2018, the animal intake room was located off the main lobby and was surrounded by windows. Even with the blinds drawn, everyone could see what was happening inside.

“The emotions that people go through when they have to relinquish a pet are just awful,” Cameron said. “The last thing you want to do is make them feel worse about it.”

But the staff and volunteers at HSCC couldn’t have been kinder or more compassionate. We filled out the requisite paperwork, signed away our ownership rights and responsibilities, and kissed Maya goodbye.

Of the approximately 1,300 animals HSCC took in between July 2020 and July 2021, 475 of them were “community animals” surrendered by their owners. The most commonly cited reason was that the pet was “not a good fit” for the family. That catchall phrase encompasses a host of undesirable behaviors, both threatening and nonthreatening.

But many animals are surrendered for solely human reasons: owners who are hospitalized, incarcerated, lose their housing or enter treatment for chemical dependency. Many humane societies, including HSCC and Homeward Bound, Addison County’s humane society in Middlebury, now offer relinquishment-prevention programs. These include low-cost vet clinics for income-qualified owners and “good neighbor” programs that will temporarily feed and house pets, either in a shelter or in foster homes, until the owners get back on their feet.

In Cameron’s experience, people rarely surrender their pets because they’re too apathetic or lazy to care for them anymore. Typically, it’s the opposite.

“We have people come in who feel inadequate because they feel like they’ve done something wrong or it’s their fault that they can’t train their dog,” she said. “It’s like being [called] a bad parent.”

We were made to feel that way when we had to give up Ernie. Within 24 hours of the attack on our neighbor, we notified the Vermont-based nonprofit we adopted him from about our need to re-home him. (For legal reasons, the organization isn’t identified here.) We were emailed a form to fill out but heard nothing else for a week: no guidance, no procedures to follow, no timeline of when they might take Ernie back.

We certainly didn’t expect these people to drop everything they were doing to manage our crisis. Still, we needed to know: Would they re-home Ernie for us? And if so, would we wait a week — or a month?

The answer proved closer to the latter. The organization is like nearly all of the approximately 125 animal welfare groups operating in Vermont: a non-brick-and-mortar rescue that imports hundreds of dogs into Vermont each year, mostly from southern states. With no physical shelter or paid staff, it relies exclusively on volunteer foster families to house and care for the dogs until they’re adopted.

When a dog needs to be returned, a scenario every rescue group eventually confronts, it requires a foster home with available space. However, with dozens of dogs arriving on transports every few weeks, often there’s little or no room to spare. As a consequence, dogs that must be re-homed immediately often get surrendered to the state’s humane societies, which can almost always take them in.

When we finally heard back from the rescue group’s director, she seemed unsympathetic to our plight. She berated us for allowing Ernie to be off leash on our unfenced property and second-guessed our trainer’s and vet’s recommendations to medicate him with antianxiety meds to help with his training.

Ernie had behaved just fine during the month he’d spent in foster care, she wrote. (As Weaver explained, it’s not uncommon for dogs to “shut down” while in shelters and foster homes, with negative behaviors not revealing themselves for weeks, even months.) Implicit in the director’s message was that, as Ernie’s parents, we weren’t trying hard enough.

Though the woman knew few details about the attack, she downplayed it as an “accidents can happen” moment and dismissed our neighbor’s concerns about our dogs as insensitive and intolerant, neither of which was true. As she wrote, “Personally, no one would tell me I would be getting rid of my dogs.” He didn’t. The decision was ours.

More troubling to us, and to local animal welfare experts, was the assertion that her organization considered it a dog “bite” only if the victim required “a hospital visit,” which our neighbor did not. That definition was inconsistent with those used by other animal welfare groups, law enforcement, animal control officers and the courts.

When consulted, state veterinarian Dr. Kristen Haas wrote in an email, “I do not consider that perspective to be at all an accurate or practical definition.” It also raised the possibility that some aggressive incidents were going unreported.

Uncertain whether this group would help us re-home Ernie, we started looking on our own for a family to adopt him. We soon found people we knew and trusted, and we suggested that they submit an adoption application to this rescue group. They did so immediately. But after more than a month, they still hadn’t received a reply.

According to other animal welfare experts in Vermont, our experience with Ernie’s rescue group wasn’t an anomaly. Weaver has worked with other families that had also adopted dogs through this group. One couple contacted her after their dog became very aggressive toward people and other dogs, and the rescue group was unresponsive to their concerns. Eventually, the dog bit multiple people, including its owners and Weaver. Last month it had to be euthanized. “It was awful,” she said.

Ultimately, we were extremely fortunate that both of our dogs found loving homes. Ernie was successfully re-homed with the family that took him in, but not before we consulted an attorney to discuss our rights and responsibilities under his adoption contract.

Despite our worst fears that Maya would languish for months in the shelter due to her bite history — we weren’t her first owners, or her second — within days she was successfully re-homed with a Burlington couple.

We still hear from Maya’s new family and follow her progress on Facebook. It helps that her “emotional support animal” is a docile, 180-pound mastiff.

My many conflicting emotions about surrendering our dogs have mostly subsided. In hindsight, I’ve accepted that some animal rescue groups are better than others. Not all adhere to industry best practices, nor does their deep compassion for animals automatically translate into good people skills.

By and large, most of these rescue groups, including the one that brought Ernie into our lives, are run by well-intentioned people who do whatever they can to save as many dogs as possible. They work long hours for no pay so that other Vermonters can enjoy the benefits of canine companionship.

In a sense, animal welfare activists have been almost too successful with their messaging. As Jessica Danyow, executive director of Homeward Bound, pointed out, animal welfare organizations bear some responsibility for having created the stigma around relinquishments. Slogans such as “forever home” and “adopt, don’t shop” feed into the notion that once you’ve adopted your “fur baby,” your decision is lifelong and irrevocable. In short, surrender is not an option.

The unintended consequence is that many animals remain in homes that are not a good fit. That compromises the safety and quality of life of both pets and owners. That’s why Homeward Bound, HSCC and many other organizations now include as part of their adoption process a statement about judgment-free relinquishments.

“Whether it’s been one week or 10 years, we’ll always take the animal back, and with some haste, as well,” Danyow said. “Because once you’ve made that decision, you don’t want to look your pet in the eye every day while waiting for your appointment.

“We all want that [adoption] to be forever,” she added. “But as adults, we know that very few things in life last forever, and people shouldn’t be stigmatized if they don’t.”