LOS ANGELES — The luckiest day of Niblett’s life had to be when he was returned to the animal shelter in Virginia where he had been adopted.
Excessive barking when he was left alone in the yard earned the terrier mix his return trip in 2000. But he was soon re-adopted by Robin Robertson Starr, the chief executive officer of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose family loved him unconditionally and never left him alone again.
“He is one of the most beloved pets of my whole life, my dog that I adore with all of my heart,” Starr said of the 16-year-old pooch.
Many shelter workers do all they can to find the right fit the first time. They use sleepovers, “Meet Your Match” surveys, satisfaction guarantees, foster programs and TV spotlights on pets. Despite a rigorous approval process, there will always be bad matches.
And sometimes, that works out just fine.
The average shelter gets about 10 percent of its adoptees back, according to the SPCA. Shelter workers don’t want owners or pets to suffer from a mismatch and with fewer shelters killing unwanted animals, it’s easier on the conscience to return a pet that doesn’t work out.
People return pets for a wide variety of legitimate reasons– including allergies, loss of a job, a death in the family — and plenty of questionable ones. There was the beagle that sniffed grass too hard, the dog who loved too much and the pooch who didn’t match the sofa.
“We do have some wacky reasons because there are a number of wacky people out there, but the vast majority of people are very sincere and committed about adoptions,” Starr said.
A few months ago, Leah Morgan and her family, including 4-year-old black Lab mix Olive, spent time at Wayside Waifs in Grandview, Mo., before deciding to adopt a 9-month-old mutt named Bloo.
The shelter said the previous owners couldn’t afford him, but other problems surfaced once they got him home.
Bloo destroyed the blinds, the carpet, chewed through the wood trim, and shredded his ball and other toys into confetti. When put in a kennel, he urinated and acted out. He growled at everyone in the house, including her 8- and 13-year-old children.
“I was on edge, constantly worried that he would bite somebody,” said Morgan, who owns a yoga studio.
So she took him back.
“I felt a little guilty, of course,” she said. “Even after a week, you have an emotional attachment. I think he can be a good dog, I just can’t be the one to make that happen.”
“We might feel like we failed,” said Dr. Emily Weiss, vice president of shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “But we appreciate that somebody cared enough to bring them back. We want the experience of living with an animal to be a good one for both parties.”
Future owners are told if an animal has been returned and why.
Pets returned for behavior or aggression problems might be offered to a rescue organization for rehab, said Jan Selder, director of field operations for Los Angeles Animal Services. If the dog or cat needs socialization, it might be sent to a foster home. But if the problem was not the fault of the animal, such as owner allergies or, say, clashing color schemes, it will immediately be offered for re-adoption.
Returns are even fair game on the popular adopt-a-pet segments on local TV in Los Angeles.
A kitten named Bridget was adopted and returned four days later. The family said they didn’t know she would require so much attention. Selder took Bridget to KNBC-TV and told her story. The kitty had a new home that afternoon.
Every shelter writes its own return policy. While most want them back, some require them back if things don’t work out. Shelters such as Hillside SPCA in Pottsville, Pa., extend policies for life.
Pets have been returned after a decade in a loving home because the owner passes away, enters a nursing home or assisted living center, said the shelter’s humane police officer Janine Choplick said.
Shelter workers said there was no limit to the number of times they would take an animal back.
Sam, an 85-pound blood and basset hound mix with 6-inch legs and serious health problems, was returned six times to the Richmond shelter. Even a basset rescue returned the dog.
Carly Sgueo, Richmond’s senior manager of shelter operations, was the seventh and last person to adopt Sam.
“He was the love of my life for several years, the most loving animal I have ever known. He would step aside and let a squirrel drink his water before he did. He was so gentle and kind,” Sgueo said. She was the kennel tech then and had taken care of Sam at the shelter so knew what to expect with his epileptic seizures, she said.
She adopted him in the summer of 2004 when he was 18 months old, and had him for another six years until he died of cancer.