It was a rainy Sunday in June, and Danielle had fallen in love.
The 23-year-old paralegal spent the first part of her afternoon in McCarren Park, envying the happy dog owners with their furry companions. Then she stumbled upon an adoption event in a North Brooklyn beer garden, where a beagle mix being paraded out of the rescue van reminded her of the dog she grew up with, Snickers. It all felt like fate, so she filled out an application on the spot. She was then joined by her best friend and roommate, Alexa, in sitting across from a serious-looking young woman with a ponytail who was searching for a reason to break her heart.
Danielle and Alexa were confident they would be leaving with Millie that day: After all, they had a 1,000-square-foot apartment within blocks of McCarren and full-time employment with the ability to work from home for the foreseeable future. But the volunteer kept posing questions that they hadn’t prepared for. What if they stopped living together? What if Danielle’s girlfriend’s collie mix didn’t get along with her new family member? What would be the solution if the dog needed expensive training for behavioral issues? Which vet were they planning to use?
All of which, upon reflection, were reasonable questions. But when it came to the diet they planned for the dog, they realized they were out of their depth. Danielle recalled that Snickers had lived to 16 and a half on a diet of Blue Buffalo Wilderness, the most expensive stuff that was available at her parents’ Bay Area pet store. “Would you want to live on the best version of Lean Cuisine for the rest of your life?” sniffed the volunteer with a frown. She would instead recommend a small batch, a raw-food brand that cost, when they looked it up later, up to $240 a bag. “If you were approved, you’d need to get the necessary supplies and take time off from work starting now,” the dog gatekeeper said. “And the first 120 days would be considered a trial period, meaning we would reserve the right to take your dog back at any time.” The would-be adopters nodded solemnly.
The friends rose from the bench and thanked the volunteer for her time. Believing they were out of earshot, the volunteer summed up the interview to a colleague: “You just walked by, and you’re fixated on this one dog, and it’s because you had a beagle growing up, but you want to make your roommate the legal adopter?”
When Danielle and Alexa were young, one could still show up at a shelter, pick out an unhoused dog that just wanted to have someone to love, and take it home that same day. Today, much of the process has moved online—to Petfinder, a.k.a. Tinder for dogs, and various animal shelter Instagram accounts that send cute puppy pics with heartrending stories of need into your feed and compel you to fill out an adoption application as you sit on the toilet. Posts describing the dogs drip with euphemisms: A dog that might freak out and tear your house up if left alone is a “Velcro dog”; one that might knock down your children is “overly exuberant”; a skittish, neglected dog with trust issues is just a “shy party girl.” Certain shelters have become influencers in their own right, like the L.A.-based Labelle Foundation, which has almost 250,000 Instagram followers and counts Dua Lipa and Cara Delevingne among its A-list clients. Rescue agencies abound, many with missions so specific that you could theoretically find one that deals in any niche breed you desire, from Affenpinschers to Yorkshire terriers.
This deluge of rescue-puppy content has arrived, not coincidentally, during a time of growing awareness of puppy mills as so morally indefensible that even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could draw fire for seemingly buying a purebred French bulldog in early 2020. Then came the pandemic puppy boom, a lonely, claustrophobic year in which thousands of white-collar workers, sitting at home scrolling through their phones, seemed simultaneously to decide they were finally ready to adopt a dog. The corresponding demand spike in certain markets has simply overwhelmed the agencies: New York shelters that were used to receiving 20 applications a week were now receiving hundreds, with as many as 50 people vying for a single pup.
The rescue dog is now, indisputably, a luxury good, without a market pricing system at work to manage demand. A better analogy might be an Ivy League admissions office. But even Harvard isn’t forced to be as picky as, say, Korean K9 Rescue, whose average monthly applications tripled in 2020.
And yet someone has to pick the winners—often an unpaid millennial Miss Hannigan doling out a precious number of wet-nosed Orphan Annies to wannabe Daddy Warbuckses and thus empowered to judge the intentions and poop-scooping abilities of otherwise accomplished urban professionals, some of whom actually did go to Harvard.
This has led to some hard feelings. Every once in a while, someone will complain on Twitter about being rejected by a rescue agency, and it will reliably set off a cascade of attacks on “entitled rich white millennials assuming they can have whatever they want,” followed by counterattacks on those who “appoint themselves the holy sainted guardian of all animals.” Danielle was ultimately deemed unworthy, not even receiving a generic rejection letter over email. After all, there isn’t really that much incentive for the rescue agencies to be polite these days.
The modern animal-rescue movement grew alongside the child welfare movement in the mid-19th century. It got another boost in the years following World War II, when Americans were moving out to the suburbs in droves, according to Stephen Zawistowski, a professor of animal behavior at Hunter College. Suddenly, there were highways, yards, and space. Walt Disney was making movies about children and dogs that promoted the idea that no new home was complete without a loyal animal companion. (Zawistowski said that one might call this the Old Yeller Effect, but there were various riffs on the same theme over the ensuing decades. Essentially, Flipper was “Let’s put Lassie in the water.”)
In the early ’80s, University of Pennsylvania researchers confirmed the effects that animal companionship has on everything from blood pressure to heart conditions to anxiety. Pets were no longer just how you taught Junior to be responsible; they might be critical to maintaining adults’ physical and mental health. The way people spoke about animals started changing. The idea that “homeless” dogs were sent to the “pound” because they were “bad” went out of fashion. “Suddenly, you had ‘rescue’ dogs brightly lit in the mall,” says Ed Sayres, a former president of the ASPCA who now works as a pet-industry consultant. “Basically, we gave animals a promotion.” Meanwhile, in the late ’80s, spay and neuter procedures had been streamlined and were being recommended by vets as well as by Bob Barker on The Price Is Right.
Then came The Ad. Released in 2007, it featured close-ups of three-legged dogs and one-eyed cats rescued by the ASPCA over a wrenching rendition of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” The commercial warned that “for hundreds of others, help came too late.” In just a year, the ad raised 60 percent of the ASPCA’s annual $50 million budget. The organization was reportedly able to increase the grant money it gave to other animal welfare organizations by 900 percent in ten years. It is difficult to overstate the emotional hangover The Ad inflicted on millennials and members of Gen Z. Janet M. Davis is a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, where she lectures on animal rights to a demographically diverse body of students—everyone from cattle ranchers to vegan punks—most of whom cry when she shows The Ad in class. “It absolutely brings down the house,” she says. “Every time.”
Theoretically, the point of dog adoption is that there are more dogs born into the world than there are humans lined up to care for them. But as interest grew, the supply problem became less acute. Thanks to widespread spay and neuter policies, there are simply too few unwanted litters for what the adoption market wants.
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