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Fur flies over DeGeneres' trouble with rescue group

The State

Critics say animal adoption agencies' screening process is unnecessarily rigorous.

October 18, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

When Ellen DeGeneres sobbed on national television Tuesday about a private rescue group taking back a puppy she had adopted and then passed on to the family of her hairstylist, she rocked the animal planet.

Websites bristled with indignation that Iggy, a fluffy haired Brussels Griffon terrier mix, was plucked from the home of hairstylist Cheryl Marks and her husband as their 11- and 12-year-old daughters cried.

The women behind Mutts & Moms -- the nonprofit rescue group that initially gave the dog to talk-show host DeGeneres and her companion, actress Portia de Rossi -- insisted that the canine be returned. After DeGeneres took her complaints on the air, one of the group's organizers filed a report with the Pasadena police saying that she had received death threats.

Although such a publicized dispute between rescue groups and adoptive animal owners is rare, it reveals something that pet lovers have known for years: Private rescue groups are legendary for their stringent requirements and hurdles for prospective adopters.

Long applications, home visits and strict diet regimens are the hallmarks of some rescue groups' adoption processes. To some, it can rival the complexity of adopting or fostering a child.

"It's not uncommon to find a rescue group that will not adopt to a family with toddlers," said Betsy Saul, co-founder of petfinder.com, an Internet service for pet seekers. At a time when municipal shelters are overcrowded with dogs, cats and rabbits, and millions of unwanted animals are euthanized each year across the nation, private rescue groups will still turn away prospective adopters.

There are legitimate reasons for that, Saul said.

"So many foster moms have had that problem where they microchipped the pet and sent it off to a great family and then there's a divorce or a death and then a year later they get a call from a shelter saying: 'This pet's here on death row, do you want it?' " Saul said. "A foster mom can't bear that, so you put in this restrictive policy."

Ed Boks, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services, which runs six city shelters, said private rescue groups help lower the city's euthanasia rate.

"Our 125 partners help us place about 6,000 to 7,000 animals a year," he said. "And that's compared to the 15,000 we adopt out ourselves."

The rules for adopting from a public shelter don't compare with what private groups require. "We don't actually screen," Boks said. "But we want to make sure people know that we're looking for loving homes."

If someone says they are looking for a guard dog, the shelter will turn them away, he said.

Boks said he was not familiar with Mutts & Moms.

"A lot of rescue groups are very committed to placing the animals in homes," he said. "This seems like an extraordinary situation. I don't think they're acting in this animal's best interests. . . . I'm not sure why this group felt so strongly about taking the animal away from this home."

Around TV and the Internet, many people were wondering the same thing, while DeGeneres continued to stoke the issue.

"This is so insane," she said at the beginning of her show Wednesday. "The dog should go to the family. The whole point of rescuing animals is to find a good home."

Iggy's odyssey began about a month ago, when DeGeneres saw a 2-year-old on petfinder.com offered by Mutts & Moms, according to Kelly Bush, DeGeneres' publicist. The DeGeneres and de Rossi went to Paw Boutique, a Pasadena shop affiliated with Mutts & Moms, to adopt that dog and then spotted Iggy, thought to be a few months old.

They adopted the older dog, who did not get along with their three cats. They returned that dog; later, de Rossi went back and adopted Iggy, signing a contract. But Iggy had no better luck with the cats, despite the efforts of a private trainer, so the couple reluctantly parted with Iggy, giving the dog to Marks, DeGeneres' hairstylist and friend.

But when the rescue organization got word that DeGeneres had, on her own, "re-homed" the dog, the group said she had violated their rules and Iggy was taken from the hairstylist's home as her children cried, Bush said.

When Iggy was given to Marks, DeGeneres violated the contract that de Rossi signed on behalf of both of them, according to Bush and Keith Fink, the attorney representing Marina Baktis and Vanessa Chekroun of Mutts & Moms.

The contract says the dog must be returned to the rescue group if the owners decide not to keep it. Bush said de Rossi did not read the contract and DeGeneres has since said she understands she incorrectly placed the dog on her own. "Ellen kept saying, 'Be mad at me, I made a mistake,' " Bush said. Barely a day after DeGeneres cried on her show, Baktis found herself weeping on TV news.

"Ellen is no lover of Iggy," Fink said. "The people who are the animal lovers, who have given their life for dogs are my clients."

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