"Why buy while those in shelters die?"
It's a pretty common mantra for pet rescue groups, one I'd taken to heart. Even as a kid, my family adopted only from shelters. As an adult, I got my dogs from rescue organizations, secretly judging friends who bought from breeders.
For a long time, it was a point of pride. When I brought home Mookie in 2000, everyone told me how lucky I was to find such a sweet animal. The 18-pound Boston terrier mix adored every person he met. He chased frogs in my condo complex and loved to play with stuffed animals. He was more loyal and loving — not to mention happier to see me — than any of my dates.
When my job kept me in the office for long hours, I decided to get Mookie a buddy, Yogi. I loved him deeply. But just six months after adoption, Yogi was diagnosed with cancer. I didn't balk at the expense and time it took to drag him to oncology appointments. The chemo was supposed to buy me an extra year with him. Considering a dog's average lifespan, that could mean 10 percent of his life. And Yogi defied the odds. He hung on for nearly three years.
I didn't handle his death well. Just three weeks later, I replaced him with a pug named Clarence.
Poor, simple-minded Clarence. He frequently planted himself halfway through the doggie door, unable to decide between sunbathing on the patio and sleeping under the air-conditioning vent. Every time I came home, he cried as if I were a soldier returning from war.
Clarence looked like Yogi, but the only thing they had in common was a penchant for serious health issues. I kept telling myself that at least Clarence didn't have cancer. But his problems were almost worse. His epilepsy was difficult to control, and the phenobarbital he took to subdue his seizures caused weight gain, liver deterioration and anxiety. I got tired of veterinary specialists focusing on the fact that he was fat rather than helping me get the dog to sleep at night.
Five years later, his seizures and pancreatitis got the best of him. Euthanizing him was a relief.
Only Mookie remained. He had been reliably healthy for more than a decade. But I spent his last two years frequently rushing him to the veterinarian, each episode of senility and related problems slowly built up to the big goodbye. Last November, he suffered six seizures in one hour, prompting me to scour the Internet until I found a doctor who provided in-home euthanasia.
After my dogs died, updates from canine rescue groups continued to filter through my Facebook feed, full of sad stories of physically and emotionally affected animals.
I missed my dogs, and I wanted another one, with similarly clownish looks who attracted lots of attention when I walked him in my neighborhood. But every time I considered it, memories of Mookie convulsing, his clouded eyes staring listlessly at nothing, jerked me back to my senses.
Rescue and shelter dogs are a crapshoot. Although it's hard to track down reliable statistics, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that about 3.9 million dogs go to shelters each year and 1.2 million are euthanized. Generally, these groups know only how an animal came into their possession. Behavior issues, illnesses or a high maintenance cost usually only rear their heads after adoption.
That's why rescuers put potential pet parents through such a detailed screening. They really want to match the animal with someone who is committed to sticking with them, no matter what. Still, according to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, "more than 20 percent of people who leave dogs in shelters adopted them from a shelter."
As a lifelong dog lover, I know how to care for sick and struggling animals. I accepted my dogs as they were, enjoying their sweetness and suffering through their problems. But just because I was willing to do that doesn't mean it's my life's work to heal every sick, helpless animal.
So six months after Mookie died, I started researching, sending e-mails and making calls to breeders. Breeders seemed safer — they've had the animal since birth and know his or her temperament and medical history. They also know an animal's bloodlines and family history. There's no such thing as a crystal ball, but a reputable breeders can provide a lot more information.
Through my search, I found a 2-year-old French bulldog that needed to be re-homed because she didn't have the right colors for the show ring. Since my mother bred racehorses, I took it as a good sign that the canine in question was named Pony.
When I went to the breeder's house to meet her, she was irresistible. I knew everything about her life so far, from when and where she was whelped to her paw-licking habit. She loves to sit on my patio and bark at squirrels. As I walked her through my complex the other day, neighbors stopped to pet her. "Is she a rescue?" one asked. My cheeks reddened.
In this day and age, admitting you adopted (or, more correctly, purchased) a pedigree dog with a known history, rather than a shelter dog in need, is akin to denying climate change, smoking or publicly declaring that you miss having plastic grocery bags in Los Angeles.
I looked at my neighbor and said, "Well, actually, it's more a re-homing situation." My neighbor looked at my quizzically.
I know now that I don't have to defend this choice to her, or anyone else. Adopting a shelter dog is a lot of work, and it's a gamble, especially for those who aren't responsible enough or don't have the time and resources (emotional and financial) to devote to the animal. Rather than take that risk, I took on a dog I know I can give a good home to. And for me (and Pony), that's good deed enough.
Erin Auerbach is a writer living in Los Angeles.