This is the second in a three-part blog series about pet adoption contracts – not to be confused with a bill of sale from a pet shop or breeder. This applies only to adoption contracts with pet rescue organizations. The first article is geared toward people who adopt pets. This one is focused on the role of the Rescue and how written contracts can be used to help them protect the animals they rescue. It takes a special person to volunteer their time to finding homes for unwanted or abandoned pets. There are joys and heartaches. If your paperwork and adoption procedures are buttoned down, you can minimize your encounters with the legal system.
Most people who chose to “adopt, not buy” a pet are well intentioned. Their knowledge and experience of pet ownership can vary from first timers to seasoned pet parents. Successful adoptions are often called “happy tails.” The best ones result in a happy human and happy pet, together for the life of the animal. You can take certain measures to ensure that all your homeless pets will find “forever homes.” For instance:
- Take your time vetting the potential adopter. Have them fill out a detailed questionnaire asking where they live, who lives with them, whether they rent or own their home, the size of the home and the nature of the neighborhood. Make sure that every member of the household is on board with the adoption and that the lease has no restrictions for pets. Ask about their prior pets and what happened to them. Who is their veterinarian? Do they have other pets at home or young children? Check references. Talk to them about what kind of pet they want and why, to make sure their choice is not based merely on appearance of the pet but is a good fit.
- Have a meeting after the preliminary approval of the application. Make sure to meet every member of the household. If possession of the animal is shared by unrelated persons, find out who will be the owner. Observe the way they interact with each other and with the available animals. It is never a good idea to allow people to show up for the first time at an Adoption Day and walk away with a pet.
- Get a signed adoption agreement, in which the adopter agrees to take good care of the pet for life, to return the pet to the Rescue if their circumstances change and they can’t keep it, and to adhere to specific guidelines that are relevant to the situation. For example, requiring specific care for a special needs pet, or a grooming schedule for pets that have long hair that tangles easily. If the pet is too young to have been spayed or neutered before the adoption takes place, require the surgery within a reasonable time afterward, and proof of the procedure. Make sure a volunteer is present when the contract is signed.
- Follow up! It’s not enough to simply ask people to adhere to an agreement. They may be enthusiastic and willing at the outset but run out of steam later. If there are deadlines for compliance, mark them on the calendar and send emails, texts and calls until you get a satisfactory answer. Waiting months or years after the spay deadline could hurt your chances of successful enforcement. It’s a good idea for the pet to see a licensed veterinarian in the first 7 days. If you don’t hear from the vet, call, email and text! That first visit can alert you to red flags that may avert trouble down the road later.
- Seek legal advice, both in drafting the contract and the questionnaire, and in developing your procedures to ensure that they are fair and inclusive.
There are some specifics to the species; for example, prohibition against letting a cat outdoors; requirements for grooming certain breeds; basic obedience training for dogs; or prohibiting declawing of cats or debarking of dogs, because these are cruel procedures and deprive the animal of natural defenses.
Most adoption contracts have a reversion clause. If you can’t keep the pet in the future, you can’t give it away – you must contact the Rescue first and allow them to re-home the pet. If this provision – or any of the health and care provisions – are breached, the Rescue may reserve the right to reclaim the pet and charge you for their legal fees if court action is required. Whether a reversion clause is enforceable will depend on the facts of the case and the wording of the contract, but it is not a risk you want to take.
The take-away is that you should not make shortcuts in preparing the contracts you will use for your organization. Legal advice at the outset can avoid legal disputes later.