Rescue 101: Adoption Applications and the Screening Process

A Rat in Reindeer Horns

Learning to educate adopters instead of simply screening means finding and developing better homes for them.

The application and screening process is a delicate time for both the rescuer handling the potential adoption, and the applicant who wants to adopt an animal from your rescuer. Knowing how to handle this process efficiently and in a sensitive way to your adopter is an important part of operating a rescue, but there’s more to it than just finding someone who meets your ideal criteria for a new home and sending them home with an animal. The adoption process is going to leave arguably the biggest impression of your rescue on your adopter, and making sure you make that impression a good one can lead to an adopter coming back to you for future animals and helping to support your cause.

An Educational Screening Process

When you think of the term “screening”, you are likely thinking of keeping out undesirable people or situations. I encourage you to think of your adoption process as far more of an educational opportunity than simply figuring out if you have to say “no” to someone. If someone comes up to you and they are genuinely set on getting a pet of the species you are representing, they are going to get that animal and bring it home even if you tell them no…they are just going to go to a pet store, breeder, or other avenue to get them. That doesn’t mean you need to approve every adopter if you really don’t think it would be a safe match, but it does mean that if you focus on educating the potential adopter about what it means to properly care for that animal, you’ll be doing a better service to any animal that eventually ends up in their care.

My rescue group, North Star Rescue, only adopts out pet rodents and we work with guinea pigs, rats, hamsters, chinchillas and mice. There’s a lot of misconceptions about small animals and their care, and we meet a lot of adopters who come in that absolutely don’t meet our basic requirements for adopting a pet. The vast majority of these adopters become great homes through education, they simply didn’t know they needed a larger cage, or that the animals have different care requirements than they thought. We have some adopters who will come in wanting guinea pigs, but end up adopting hamsters or mice when they realize what they really wanted was a lower maintenance pet that takes up a smaller footprint in their house.

By spending time educating people on the proper care and handling of each species, we’re making sure that the adopters are prepared to bring the animals home and that it’s going to be a good experience for them. Out of hundreds of adopters each year, we’ve historically had to decline less than five people each year who did not make the decision on their own that the pet they wanted actually wouldn’t be a good fit, or that another type of animal would be better for their situation. Most of the potential adopters that we don’t think should adopt the type of animal they contact our rescue to adopt come to that conclusion themselves by learning more about those animals and their care.

Think of the screening process as a way to get to know your adopter, and help play match maker between them and the animals at your rescue. When you are engaged in the screening process, you’ll be learning about your adopter’s home, their family, and what they are looking for in the animal they adopt. This will give you insight in to which animals at your rescue might provide the best personality and overall fit for your adopter, a good match means a lasting adoption. If you focus on making the entire adoption a welcoming process where they feel that they are being cared for and valued, you’ll help secure a good lasting relationship with your adopter which can lead to future adoptions, referrals and support.

Answer Your Adopter’s Questions First

You’ve got a lot of questions about your prospective adopter, but before you start stacking paperwork in front of them and asking to fill out forms, give your adopter an idea of the whole adoption process. If this is an adopter who is finding you through your website or another online venue, consider having a section on your website that walks them through what to expect during the adoption process and send that link to anyone who inquires about adopting. This will help them feel more comfortable with what to expect in their dealings with you and what their path to adopting an animal from you will be.

If you are meeting someone in person at an adoption event, give them a friendly verbal overview of the adoption process. Let them get acquainted with the animals and tell them that there is an application process and what your process is. Maybe you are doing verbal interviews and allowing same day adoptions, maybe you have a formal adoption application you need them to fill out, or there is a waiting period before they can bring home the animal they are interested in. Don’t have them invest a lot of time filling out paperwork if there is part of the process that they don’t feel comfortable undertaking, lay it out for them first to make sure they feel good about what they are entering in to with your rescue.

The Length of Your Application Process

When I’m talking about the length of the process, I’m not just talking about the waiting time from the time an adopter submits an application to when they can bring the animal home, but also the length of time it takes the adopter to apply. While you want to ensure a good home for your animal, you also don’t want to discourage people by making them jump through a lengthy series of hoops to bring an animal home from you. Like it or not, if you make your process too cumbersome you’ll just drive potential adopters off to, hopefully, other rescues, but possibly a pet store or breeder instead. You need to find a happy balance between keeping things efficient for your adopter and making sure you are doing a good job of educating them during the process.

Your adoption application shouldn’t be longer than two pages, ideally. You might have a million questions that you’d like to ask, but you need to refine things so that you aren’t putting a daunting amount of paperwork in front of an adopter. You don’t want to evoke feelings of being at the DMV when a family is excited about bringing home a new addition, so keep things short, sweet and efficient.

Verbal Interviews and Adoption Applications

Many rescues use a printed adoption application or an online form to get information about their adopters, and it’s a good avenue to get a lot of the common questions out-of-the-way. Your adoption application should be complete enough to get your most common concerns out-of-the-way, such as if they have appropriate housing for the type of animal they want to adopt or if they are expecting a child to be responsible for the care of the animal, but not so invasive that it seems like an invasion of their personal space. For example, an appropriate question is to ask what size cage they are going to be using for their guinea pig. An inappropriate question would be to ask an adopter if they are married because you think that provides a more stable home for the guinea pig. The first question you do need to know, the second you might be able to argue will tell you more about the people but it’s not a necessary detail, and a question that comes off as creepy.

Even if you have adopters fill out a printed application, you are going to want to talk to them in person as well prior to their adoption. Even if they look great on paper, you won’t really know for sure if they are going to be a suitable home for the animal they want until you see how they interact with each other. When you are having this conversation, remember that no one likes getting the third degree and you can help your adopter feel more comfortable with you by keeping a more conversational tone to the interview. Ask them what their ideal situation is for bringing a new animal home, and how they want to relate to that animal or expect the rest of their family to relate to that animal. Having a conversation instead of a list of questions will provide more opportunity for them to voice other concerns or for you to find other helpful information or resources that might apply to their unique situation.

A Sample Adoption Application

I have a document to share with you here, and it’s the printable version of the Adoption Application I designed for North Star Rescue. This is a two page document, the first page of which is the application itself, and the second page which covers North Star Rescue’s adoption requirements. In these sample documents, I’ve removed North Star Rescue’s name in favor of a generic placeholder, so feel free to re-use or adapt these documents to your purposes.

Sample Pet Adoption Application – Word Document

Sample Pet Adoption Application – PDF

This is a two page document with pretty tight margins, my goal when developing this form was to have a document that was printed two-sided on a single sheet of paperwork. Handing an adopter a single sheet to fill out, and letting them know the front is the application for them to answer with the reverse showing our policies and asking for their signature, makes it a less daunting document to hand over. Each question I decided to include came down to the items that I found over the years gave me the quickest insight into my potential adopters.

A lot of the questions on this form were included with the idea that it helped us figure out how to frame the conversation with an adopter to make sure they were going to be a suitable home. For example, if an adopter talked about adopting an animal for their child and said they would give them up if the child lost interest, we’d talk with the family about what that scenario is like for the animal they are taking in and discourage them from adopting unless they felt they could commit to the lifespan of the animal. If someone said they had allergies, we might suggest they not adopt chinchillas or guinea pigs who need access to fresh hay and are common culprits in triggering allergies because of it. If they don’t have a vet, we can look at where they live and give them a recommendation on a vet we trust that is closest to where they live. If they don’t have care experience to list on the application, we know to offer to let them get more hands on time with the animals before they bring them home so they’ll be more comfortable caring for their new pet.

Saying “No” Gracefully

Even with your best efforts to educate a potential adopter, you’ll eventually run in to someone who still wants to adopt that you simply do not feel comfortable sending an animal home with. Declining an adopter the opportunity to get an animal from your rescue is likely going to be the last interaction you have with them, and the way the refusal is handled can make the difference between having a disappointed but understanding person on your hands versus someone who will badmouth your group because they feel they were treated unfairly. Dealing with the repercussions of an upset person is not a reason to cave and let an adoption happen that you don’t think should move forward, but putting some tools in your belt about how to deal with this uncomfortable situation will help you move forward with a difficult conversation.

In this example, I’m going to use the scenario of a person who wants to adopt a pair of guinea pigs but does not want to purchase a cage that is large enough to comfortably house them because it will take up too much room in his house.

The first thing I would tell him is that we do have a minimum cage size requirement, and remind him of what it is. I would continue to tell him that the reason we have this cage requirement is that we’ve found it is the minimum cage size needed for the animals to remain healthy and active, that having the space they need means the guinea pigs will be able to exercise and avoid their own waste. In this part, I want to make sure that it’s the requirement that is preventing the adoption and this is not a personally directed slight on the person wanting to adopt.

I would talk about the risks to the adopters of a smaller cage, that animals who are in a smaller cage are more likely to have minor arguments turn into fights and that can turn into vet bills, and not having a large enough environment to stay sanitary in means more frequent cage cleanings and again, more vet bills. I’d stress the positive that you get to see a whole different range of behavior in guinea pigs when they have the room to move and play. In this portion, I’m talking about not wanting to put the adopter in a position where they are going to have problems because of the wrong habitat, and telling them how this is going to improve their experience with their pets by using the right equipment.

Finally, I would tell the adopter if they are willing to consider the larger cage at a later date that I’d be happy to talk with them or offer advice on habitats. I’ll talk to them about different animal species that might fit better in to the space they were considering for their new pet and offer them information if they want to think about another species of animal, and give them our contact information in case they come up with any other questions. That way I am leaving the avenue of communication open and letting them know that we are not closing the proverbial door in their face.

This is just one scenario in which you might have to decline an adoption. You may see a variety of reactions form a declined adopter as well, from simple disappointment and acceptance to threatening and bullying. In general, most people who will bother to go to an animal rescue to adopt are reasonable people who understand that what you are trying to do is out of concern for the animals and it’s pretty rare that you are going to have to deal with a real hostile person.

If you do find yourself dealing with someone who becomes hostile over a declined adoption, the best avenue is to keep your communication brief, professional, and final. Tell them simply that you can not adopt an animal to them, and that they should perhaps contact another agency if they are not satisfied with your policies. Don’t engage in a conversation or back and forth, if they are behaving in an angry way you are well within your rights to ask them to leave your location or cease contacting you if it is happening through e-mail or social media (and there are tools for you to block people online as well that should be used in this situation). If anyone reacts in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, don’t hesitate to contact law enforcement to notify them of the situation, especially if you are at an adoption event or other public venue where you are having to deal with someone face to face who is acting badly.

About Lauren Paul

Lauren is the founder of North Star Rescue, a non-profit organization in California’s San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to the rescue and welfare of companion pet rodents. Lauren operates Alma Rodentia, a website featuring an online store for pet rodents and their humans and a blog about rescue and life with pet rodents.

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