'Wife said no': Wake shelter records show why animals are returned

Posted March 10, 2015

A few of the pets returned to the Wake County Animal Center. (Photos courtesy of WCAC)

— Grace smelled bad. Charlie was too affectionate. Max liked to kill chickens. Xerox humped pillows.

Since 2010, nearly 1,000 animals have been returned to the Wake County Animal Center in Raleigh, some as many as four times. Just like Grace, Max, Charlie and Xerox, each animal has a story, a reason it was returned.

Each time a pet is brought back, shelter employees ask the owner what went wrong and record the reason in a computer system. WRAL News reviewed five years of the shelter's logs, which are public record, and got a glimpse into the sometimes revolving door of animal adoption.

Shelter director Jennifer Federico examined some of the cases as well and often shook her head as she read through the files. "This one, this one killed me," she said, scrolling through the cases on her computer. "We had one person return an animal because it got too big. I'm like, 'We told you it was a Mastiff mix.'"

Why were these pets returned?

Some of the more common reasons people returned pets were because the animals didn't get along with the family or had too much energy, but others had more unique reasons:

  • In 2010, a family returned a Labrador retriever named Papi because they "thought it was a Chihuahua," according to the shelter's records. "He was full grown," Federico said when asked about the supposed breed mix-up. "I mean, he was a full-grown animal when we got him. Really?"
  • Jax, a rat terrier, was returned three separate times from 2010 to 2011. He was brought back the first time because the man's "wife said no," according to the records. "When you see that, 'wife said no,' well how about you talk to your spouse?" Federico said. "Those are preventable, in my mind."
  • Sam the beagle was sent back as well in 2010 after he failed to serve a specific duty for the owner: "Dog was adopted to run deer out of the yard ... doesn't."
  • Luca, a golden retriever, was returned last year after the owners realized he was afraid of planes. "And they live on flight path!" a staffer wrote.
  • Mimi the rabbit was sent back because the owners' current rabbit "wants to be alone."
  • Chocolate, a smooth hair guinea pig, was given up over a gender mix-up: "It's a boy, not a girl."
  • Daz, a hound dog mix, was too "mouthy."
  • McQueen, an American Staffordshire Terrier, tried to attack the owner's mother-in-law "twice."

Anyone who adopts a pet from the Wake County Animal Center has three days to return it for any reason and 21 days to return it if the pet has a medical condition for a full refund.

"With returns, what frustrates me is, you didn't check with your apartment complex? Your landlord? Something?" Federico said. "Be responsible ... At the end of the day, we'd rather have the animals returned to us, but it's stressful for that animal to be here, to go home, be in a new environment two days, come back. I mean, you're disrupting that poor pet's life, and you could've just done your homework."

Pet owner: 'I couldn't imagine taking him back there'

Marissa Piner, Doria Zarfaty and Ace
ALL SMILES: Marissa Piner, left, and her roommate Doria Zarfaty, right, adopted their dog Ace, formerly known as Freedo, after he was returned to the Wake County Animal Center four times. (Photo courtesy of Marissa Piner)

Roommates Marissa Piner and Doria Zarfaty did their homework before walking into the Wake County Animal Center in December 2012. They knew exactly what dog they wanted to see – a male German Shepherd named Freedo that they spotted on the shelter's website.

What they didn't know when looking at his profile online was that Freedo had been repeatedly returned to the shelter. Freedo and a collie named Jack hold the record for being returned the most times since 2010 – four times each.

Staff members broke the news to Piner and Zarfaty.

"They told us up front. It made us a little nervous. But when we saw his face, we were like, he has to get out of here," Piner said. "They said he needed someone taking a chance on him. They were pretty sure he had possibly been abused. They really wanted us to be patient with him. I couldn't imagine taking him back there."

Freedo soon joined the friends in their Raleigh apartment and was renamed "Ace" after one of Piner's favorite movies, "Ace Ventura." Despite his fun-loving name, the friends immediately noticed serious problems with their new 55-pound roommate.

On walks, Ace snarled at people who approached him. At home, he became aggressive and tried to bite friends who visited. Loud noises scared him so much he would pee himself. Even the sound of the dishwasher being emptied terrified him. He earned the nickname "Houdini" after escaping from his crate. When he failed to escape, he whined uncontrollably.

Marissa Piner and Ace
CRATE TRAINING: Marissa Piner climbs in the crate with Ace to try to make him feel more comfortable in his new environment. (Photo courtesy of Marissa Piner)

"Yeah, it's been a struggle," said Zarfaty, who says she initially wanted to adopt a small dog but decided to take Ace because he was "just so freaking cute." "He's very difficult, but I love him to death."

"There were a couple times we thought, 'We can't take him back there (to the shelter). Do we have any friends with a backyard?'" Piner said.

The roommates turned to dog trainers for help, some of whom suggested they put Ace down if he was biting people. Determined to keep him, the friends continued working on his behavior.

"He's calmed down a lot. I think I've learned to control him and control the situation more," Zarfaty said.

The friends have since moved into separate apartments and joke that Piner has visitation rights to see Ace, who lives with Zarfaty. They urge anyone thinking about adopting an animal to be prepared for problems.

"Make sure it's something you're 100 percent ready for," Piner said. "He will probably come with some issues. Be prepared to give that dog a chance. You can't just give it a week."

"Stick with it," Zarfaty added. "It's worth it when they snuggle up to you and cuddle at your feet."

Doria Zarfaty and Ace
SNOW DAY: Doria Zarfaty and Ace enjoy the snow. Zarfaty had to be careful walking Ace because he often snarled at people who approached him. (Photo courtesy of Marissa Piner)

While Ace's story has a happy ending, it's not as clear what happened to Jack, the collie that tied the record for being returned the most times.

Shelter records show Jack was brought back four times in May 2010, mostly due to behavior and temperament issues. One adopter said he had "too much energy." One month later, in June 2010, Independent Animal Rescue in Durham took Jack. Where he went from there is unclear.

Denise Heflin, a program leader who has worked with Independent Animal Rescue since 2011, checked the organization's records but was unable to find a match of the microchip number listed for Jack in Wake shelter's records.

She found a dog named Jack that was adopted by a foster parent in 2010, but that foster parent is no longer in good standing with the organization, Heflin said. It's unclear if that dog is the same Jack that came from the Wake shelter.

Behavior expert: 'Take the cuteness with a grain of salt'

When the Wake shelter has a hard time placing pets or has animals that are returned multiple times, they sometimes turn to foster parents and rescue groups, like Independent Animal Rescue, for help.

Heflin says her group has taken animals from several shelters in Durham, Granville, Montgomery, Orange and Wake counties.

"We are the avenue to adoption for a lot of dogs that otherwise would be overlooked or would not be on their best behavior at the shelter," Heflin said. "If (shelters) feel they have an adoptable animal that's getting overlooked, they'll call us."

Foster parents and rescue groups can take more time with adoptions and let potential parents get to know an animal better to make sure it's a good match.

"When they're coming out of the shelter, it takes them two to three weeks to decompress from my experience. About three weeks later, you're like, 'OK. I know who this dog is now,'" Heflin said. "(Shelters) don't necessarily screen people as carefully. They're probably a little less selective. We slow the process, do a meet and greet, home visit and trial period before they sign the contract."

Federico, the Wake shelter director, says help from rescue groups is invaluable, especially for animals with medical needs or socialization issues.

"We try to put healthy, behaviorally sound animals on our floor and get help from rescues who can screen and find appropriate homes," she said. "We have foster homes that have very confident dogs in them. They go there, and they're like, 'Oh, this is how I'm supposed to behave? No problem.' In a couple weeks, they're back on our floor because they've figured out what they should be doing, and that's really positive."

Barbara Sherman, a clinical professor of veterinary behavior at North Carolina State University, says she is not surprised some adoptions don't work out. She compares the adjustment of welcoming a pet to getting used to a new roommate in college.

"The behavior is such an important factor of whether it's going to be a good match or not. You have to take the cuteness with a grain of salt," she said. "So many people walk down the row and say, 'That's cute.'"

Sherman suggests potential pet owners ask shelter staff about an animal's history before adopting it and pay attention to the information posted on the cage tag. If possible, go back to the shelter several times to interact with the pet.

Sherman says people often spend a few minutes at a shelter and say, "Oh, this seems like a really fun animal." Instead, she says, think long-term about whether that pet would be a good fit for the next 12 years or so.

"People's expectations are sometimes more optimistic. They're not always reality based," she said. "The lifestyle match is so important. It's so easy to get charmed by a particular pet."

Once you choose a pet and get it home, Sherman says, take your time and slowly expose it to different parts of the house, other pets and people to allow the animal to get its bearings. Use rewards and clear instructions to help the animal adjust and don't subject it to frightening or confusing situations.

"When you take an animal home, it's really a stranger in a strange land," Sherman said. "You can't imagine how disorienting it is."

Even for those who try to do the right thing and help a pet adjust, there's not always a happy ending. "Sometimes it's better to say, 'This isn't going to work for us,'" Sherman said.

Tracking returned animals 'is very challenging'

While Wake shelter's records provide insight into why some adoptions fail, it's difficult to compare with other shelters locally and nationally because of the varying ways returned animals are handled.

The Wake shelter, for example, allows pets to be returned within three days for any reason for a full refund. However, the SPCA of Wake County allows 30 days for an animal to be brought back.

"If one agency defines them that way and another defines them differently, the stats will obviously not be comparable," said Darci vanderSlik, marketing manager at the SPCA of Wake County.

That's the problem Natalie DiGiacomo has encountered as director of shelter services for The Humane Society of the U.S. She can easily find statistics on euthanasia and adoption rates but says there is a lack of central reporting about why animals are returned.

"This topic in particular and looking at national statistics is very challenging ... Very few states even have reporting requirements," DiGiacomo said. "As a field, we are trying to standardize data collection so that we can know how far we've come and where we still need to go."

Wake County Animal Center adoptions, returns: 2013

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Note: The Wake County Animal Center, which provided this information, considers a pet returned if it is brought back within three days for any reason or within 21 days for medical reasons.

SPCA of Wake County adoptions, returns: 2013

please wait

Note: The SPCA of Wake County, which provided this information, considers a pet returned if it is brought back within 30 days.

Until data collection can be better streamlined, local and national shelters are focusing their efforts on educating adopters so fewer animals are brought back.

"There are a variety of reasons pets are returned," said vanderSlik, with the Wake SPCA. "It breaks our hearts when it happens, but that is why we always sit down with our adopters to be sure they know what a commitment that a new puppy or kitten is before the pet is adopted."

At the Wake shelter, Federico says she urges visitors to talk with volunteers who help care for the animals. "Listen to the people we have on the floor. They know these animals," she said.

Federico also encourages potential adopters to meet with a veterinarian before choosing an animal. She suggests asking about specific breeds and if they'd be compatible with the family's lifestyle. Veterinarians can also give potential adopters an estimate of how much it will cost to care for an animal.

"It's a long commitment. You're looking at 10 to 15 years, at least, for a dog and probably 12 to 18 years for a cat," Federico said. "Are you able to make that commitment?"


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  • Miranda McCraw Jul 12, 2015
    user avatar

    Thanks WTAL for writing this wonderful article providing insight into what public shelters encounter every day. Thanks to all the commenters sharing their wonderful stories and opinions.

    Another common reason people surrender pets is that they're moving and can't take the pet. Like many of the reasons in the article, this indicates the owners' unwillingness to care for their pet his/her entire life.

    Of course keeping your pet for his/her whole life (being the forever home) is a wonderful way to prevent pet homelessness and overpopulation, but there are also other things you can do and encourage friends and family to do. These include spaying/neutering, adopting from a shelter/foster/rescue group, and doing research before adopting. Of course returning the pet is better than setting hin/her loose, but please encourage your friends/family to first try training and patience before taking that extreme measure. You will have saved a life and enriched your own!

  • Hal Walrod Mar 11, 2015
    user avatar

    The "mouthy and energetic" dog Daz mentioned and pictured in this article is mine. I've had him since August 2013 and would never consider taking him back to the shelter. He was only a 10 month old puppy at the time I adopted him so of course he was energetic and mouthy.

  • Catina Cain Mar 11, 2015
    user avatar

    Sad indeed...we adopted a kitten from SPCA and she is the joy of our lives. I can't imagine not having Willow running at break-neck speed through the house chasing shadows. However, we took our time and made sure that adopting was the best thing for us. I made my kids research and write papers on how to take care of a cat. This was after one year of visiting the shelters on numerous occasions and praying about this decision. People need to take pet ownership serious because it is like having another child or family member.

  • Tanya Rose Mar 10, 2015
    user avatar

    If you adopt a pet then you are taking responsibility for another living being that depends on you for food, shelter, love and protection for the animals entire life. If you can't make that kind of commitment then don't get a pet. People are too callous with the way they treat pets and hurts an innocent animal. And there is someone else in your house that will also need to care for the pet then get their input before adopting. That is a lot of responsibility to put on someone without at least checking with them first.

  • Dan Basset Mar 10, 2015
    user avatar

    I adopted my German shepherd in March of 2010 from the Wake County shelter. She had been returned three times and they were very clear about that when I expressed interest in the dog. I have had her for five years now and she could not be a more perfect friend and companion. My conclusion is that too many people are perfectly content to abandon their pets solely on the basis of convenience. Very sad and indicative of a complete lack of character, in my humble (but accurate) opinion.

  • Kylie Marie Summerling Mar 10, 2015
    user avatar

    We have rescued animals for years, and in my childhood my family even ran a rescue center before there were no-kill shelters in existence. But even we returned a dog once, after it killed one of our other animals. Things happen. Shelters get dogs without a history, and sometimes the history is bad. Ask better questions before adopting them out and they won't come back. Wake runs a moronic operation as it is, so I am not surprised at how many get returned.

  • AshLeigh Marie Mar 10, 2015
    user avatar

    People need to be more responsible. The only reason we have animal shelters is b/c of us humans. Millions are euthanized every year. Some shelters still use gas to kill, if I am correct. It's very sad. Please be RESPONSIBLE people!!

  • Christina Williams Mar 10, 2015
    user avatar

    Alexia - the point is if your spouse is so callous to rather risk a dog losing its life at a high kill shelter, you are better off without them... but you're one of those people aren't you? If you ever really loved a dog you would know they are smart and intutive. My guess is animals don't take to you?

  • Ginny Marcom Mar 10, 2015
    user avatar

    Alexia, I can only hope you are not a pet owner. You come across as the type that would return it for some non-sensical reason. Once you became bored with it, back to the shelter it would go!
    Yes, they are dumb animals. And they trust us humans enough to take care of it for it's life needs. If anyone can't do that, they don't need a pet. They're much like children that grow into adolescents that grow into the elderly. They aren't just throw away toys.

    And pets aren't just cute. Some of mine are down right the ugliest you have ever laid eyes on. It's what's inside that counts.

  • Christopher Byrne Mar 10, 2015
    user avatar

    Alexia, I'm +1 with you.
    Some of these reasons are quite inane, however they could just as easily keep the dog in a miserable home or worse yet, abandon it or dump it. I think there is a level of decency in returning the pet, giving it the opportunity to find a compatible home.
    Both my dogs and both my cats were adoptions, very compatible with my family, combined ownership over 20 years among the 4 of them. However that has not always been the case; I tried to adopt a very beautiful large mix-breed several years ago but had to return him in the 3 day window. Why? Because he continuously leaped over a 5' chain-link fence around my 1.5 acre backyard, endangering himself by roaming the neighborhood and traversing the roadway..... perhaps I should have chained him to a doghouse or simply ignore the liability. Real humane and responsible.