It was a rainy Sunday in June, and Danielle had fallen in love.
The 23-year-old paralegal spent the first part of her afternoon in McCarren Park, envying the happy dog owners with their furry companions. Then she stumbled upon an adoption event in a North Brooklyn beer garden, where a beagle mix being paraded out of the rescue van reminded her of the dog she grew up with, Snickers. It all felt like fate, so she filled out an application on the spot. She was then joined by her best friend and roommate, Alexa, in sitting across from a serious-looking young woman with a ponytail who was searching for a reason to break her heart.
Danielle and Alexa were confident they would be leaving with Millie that day: After all, they had a 1,000-square-foot apartment within blocks of McCarren and full-time employment with the ability to work from home for the foreseeable future. But the volunteer kept posing questions that they hadn’t prepared for. What if they stopped living together? What if Danielle’s girlfriend’s collie mix didn’t get along with her new family member? What would be the solution if the dog needed expensive training for behavioral issues? Which vet were they planning to use?
All of which, upon reflection, were reasonable questions. But when it came to the diet they planned for the dog, they realized they were out of their depth. Danielle recalled that Snickers had lived to 16 and a half on a diet of Blue Buffalo Wilderness, the most expensive stuff that was available at her parents’ Bay Area pet store. “Would you want to live on the best version of Lean Cuisine for the rest of your life?” sniffed the volunteer with a frown. She would instead recommend a small-batch, raw-food brand that cost, when they looked it up later, up to $240 a bag. “If you were approved, you’d need to get the necessary supplies and take time off from work starting now,” the dog gatekeeper said. “And the first 120 days would be considered a trial period, meaning we would reserve the right to take your dog back at any time.” The would-be adopters nodded solemnly.
The friends rose from the bench and thanked the volunteer for her time. Believing they were out of earshot, the volunteer summed up the interview to a colleague: “You just walked by, and you’re fixated on this one dog, and it’s because you had a beagle growing up, but you want to make your roommate the legal adopter?”
When Danielle and Alexa were young, one could still show up at a shelter, pick out an unhoused dog that just wanted to have someone to love, and take it home that same day. Today, much of the process has moved online — to Petfinder, a.k.a. Tinder for dogs, and various animal-shelter Instagram accounts that send cute puppy pics with heartrending stories of need into your feed and compel you to fill out an adoption application as you sit on the toilet. Posts describing the dogs drip with euphemisms: A dog that might freak out and tear your house up if left alone is a “Velcro dog”; one that might knock down your children is “overly exuberant”; a skittish, neglected dog with trust issues is just a “shy party girl.” Certain shelters have become influencers in their own right, like the L.A.-based Labelle Foundation, which has almost 250,000 Instagram followers and counts Dua Lipa and Cara Delevingne among its A-list clients. Rescue agencies abound, many with missions so specific that you could theoretically find one that deals in any niche breed you desire, from affenpinschers to Yorkshire terriers.
This deluge of rescue-puppy content has arrived, not coincidentally, during a time of growing awareness of puppy mills as so morally indefensible that even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could draw fire for seemingly buying a purebred French bulldog in early 2020. Then came the pandemic puppy boom, a lonely, claustrophobic year in which thousands of white-collar workers, sitting at home scrolling through their phones, seemed simultaneously to decide they were finally ready to adopt a dog. The corresponding demand spike in certain markets has simply overwhelmed the agencies: New York shelters that were used to receiving 20 applications a week were now receiving hundreds, with as many as 50 people vying for a single pup.
The rescue dog is now, indisputably, a luxury good, without a market pricing system at work to manage demand. A better analogy might be an Ivy League admissions office. But even Harvard isn’t forced to be as picky as, say, Korean K9 Rescue, whose average monthly applications tripled in 2020.
And yet someone has to pick the winners — often an unpaid millennial Miss Hannigan doling out a precious number of wet-nosed Orphan Annies to wannabe Daddy Warbuckses and thus empowered to judge the intentions and poop-scooping abilities of otherwise accomplished urban professionals, some of whom actually did go to Harvard.
This has led to some hard feelings. Every once in a while, someone will complain on Twitter about being rejected by a rescue agency, and it will reliably set off a cascade of attacks on “entitled rich white millennials assuming they can have whatever they want,” followed by counter-attacks on those who “appoint themselves the holy sainted guardian of all animals.” Danielle was ultimately deemed unworthy, not even receiving a generic rejection letter over email. After all, there isn’t really that much incentive for the rescue agencies to be polite these days.
The modern animal-rescue movement grew alongside the child-welfare movement in the mid-19th century. It got another boost in the years following World War II, when Americans were moving out to the suburbs in droves, according to Stephen Zawistowski, a professor of animal behavior at Hunter College. Suddenly, there were highways, yards, and space. Walt Disney was making movies about children and dogs that promoted the idea that no new home was complete without a loyal animal companion. (Zawistowski said that one might call this the Old Yeller Effect, but there were various riffs on the same theme over the ensuing decades. Essentially, Flipper was “Let’s put Lassie in the water.”)
In the early ’80s, University of Pennsylvania researchers confirmed the effects that animal companionship has on everything from blood pressure to heart conditions to anxiety. Pets were no longer just how you taught Junior to be responsible; they might be critical to maintaining adults’ physical and mental health. The way people spoke about animals started changing. The idea that “homeless” dogs were sent to the “pound” because they were “bad” went out of fashion. “Suddenly, you had ‘rescue’ dogs brightly lit in the mall,” says Ed Sayres, a former president of the ASPCA who now works as a pet-industry consultant. “Basically, we gave animals a promotion.” Meanwhile, in the late ’80s, spay and neuter procedures had been streamlined and were being recommended by vets as well as by Bob Barker on The Price Is Right.
Then came The Ad. Released in 2007, it featured close-ups of three-legged dogs and one-eyed cats rescued by the ASPCA over a wrenching rendition of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” The commercial warned that “for hundreds of others, help came too late.” In just a year, the ad raised 60 percent of the ASPCA’s annual $50 million budget. The organization was reportedly able to increase the grant money it gave to other animal-welfare organizations by 900 percent in ten years. It is difficult to overstate the emotional hangover The Ad inflicted on millennials and members of Gen Z. Janet M. Davis is a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, where she lectures on animal rights to a demographically diverse body of students — everyone from cattle ranchers to vegan punks — most of whom cry when she shows The Ad in class. “It absolutely brings down the house,” she says. “Every time.”
Theoretically, the point of dog adoption is that there are more dogs born into the world than there are humans lined up to care for them. But as interest grew, the supply problem became less acute. Thanks to widespread spay and neuter policies, there are simply too few unwanted litters for what the adoption market wants.
National chains like PetSmart partnered with local shelters to supply its animals for sale. Savvy rescues in dog deserts like New York hooked up with shelters in the Deep South, where cultural attitudes toward spaying and neutering pets are much more lax. While there is no official registry of how many shelter dogs are available in the U.S., in 2017, researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine for Mississippi State University published a study reporting that the availability of dogs in animal shelters was at an all-time low. “That is,” says Sayres, “an environment that leads to a kind of irrational, competitive behavior.” The rescue mutt had become not just a virtue signal but a virtue test. Who was a good enough human being to deserve a dog in need of rescuing?
Heather remembers the old easy days. “I went on Craigslist and an hour later, I had a puggle,” she says of her first dog-getting experience with her boyfriend in college. George the puggle humped everything in sight, shed everywhere, and chewed through furniture until the end of his life, but she loved him all the same.
Flash-forward 16 years: She and that boyfriend are married, have two kids, and can’t seem to get a new dog no matter what they try. Yes, she could find a breeder easily online (currently for sale on Craigslist: a Yorkie-poo puppy from a breeder asking $350 and just a few screening questions). But instead, in the middle of the pandemic, “I was sending ten to 12 emails a night and willing to travel anywhere, and no one would give us any sort of animal,” she remembers. Shelters would send snappy emails about how her family wasn’t suited for a puppy, even though they made good money and had clearly cared for their dearly departed George — they once drove three hours to get the dog a specially made knee brace. “I was trying to be really up front with people and would say that my daughter has autism and that I have a 3-year-old, and they would say no. It felt like they were saying, ‘We don’t give dogs to people who have disabilities.’ ”
It didn’t matter what kind of dog she applied for — older, younger, bigger, smaller — there was always an official-sounding excuse as to why her family wasn’t suitable. (“Pups this age bite and jump and scratch and while they are cute to look at, they are worse than a bratty ADHD toddler, without diapers,” one rescue wrote. “Sorry.”) She considered looking at emotional-support animals that work specifically with autistic youth but found out they could cost 18 grand and require a two-year waiting period. She couldn’t stomach the idea of setting up a GoFundMe, as other people in the community had. “It got to the point of me wondering, Okay, so what dogs do children get?” she recalls. “I always thought that dogs and children go together.” By the fall of 2020, Heather had turned back to breeders. “People get a little spicy when you say you paid for a dog. You want to scream that you tried your hardest, but it wasn’t possible,” she says.
Others, like Zainab, figured out ways to work the system. She blanketed agencies with applications in the early months of the pandemic, applying for 60 dogs. (The ease of applying online might also explain the statistics.) She thought the fact that she had a leadership role in public education would demonstrate that she was both successful and nurturing. “I’m a professional, I make good money, and I have a master’s degree,” she tells me. She was rejected all the same. Finally, a co-worker suggested Zainab make a résumé in order to stand out. The multipage document — which features testimonials from high-powered friends, including local elected officials — is what got her an exclusive meeting with Penny the pug in a parking lot. She was handed over with a leash tied around her neck and vomited in the front seat of Zainab’s car about three blocks later. Success!
Or take Lauren, who’d had dogs all her life and found living solo during COVID lonely. “You can’t be without an animal at this particular time,” she told herself. So she started applying for dogs on Petfinder and boutique-rescue websites. “I would look up at my clock, and it would be two in the morning,” she says. Her hopes were high when she got a meeting with a Chihuahua mix in the suburbs named Mary Shelley. Lauren thought the meeting went well, but it ultimately didn’t result in the interviewer granting the adoption. “Then I was in conspiracy-theory mode, thinking she doesn’t like gay people, or single people, or people who live in the city,” she says. “It was a crazy-making experience. It’s a pandemic, so your world is already turned upside down, but I became psychotic.
“The people who run rescue organizations — this was their moment to shine,” she adds. “Even though they were totally bogged down with requests, they got to feel the power. They got to make someone’s dreams come true or smash them to the ground.”
The inquiries can get extremely personal. “I found the questions very offensive,” says Joanna, a Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center nurse who tried to adopt last year with her architect husband. “I was like, ‘What does this have to do with getting a dog?’ ” Her husband didn’t even want to put the thought out into the universe, but he was forced to admit that he’d probably be the one to take a shared pet in the event of a divorce. The two also had to grapple with what would happen if one or both of them died of COVID during the pandemic. And would both of them be able to take three days off at a moment’s notice to help the dog acclimate to its new home? “I was frank with her and said, ‘I take care of cancer patients,’ ” says Joanna. “She was very unsatisfied with our answer.”
“The more popular the rescue is on the internet, the more clout they have,” says Molly, a writer in New York. “If you have a really good social-media presence, you can throw your weight around.” (The clout goes both ways: Posting about your rescue dog on Instagram is an indirect way of broadcasting that someone out there deemed you morally worthy enough to be chosen.) She inquired about eight dogs in six weeks from about five different rescues, only to be continually rejected. She finally got an interview with a rescue agency whose cute dogs she had seen on social media. They asked to tour her apartment over Zoom. Fine. They asked for her references. Great. But then they asked if she would pay for an expensive trainer. She asked if she could wait — not only was it during the height of COVID, but the cost of the sessions with the trainer could be close to $1,000. The person she was dealing with said over email that dogs were investments and suggested she look elsewhere. “I was like, This is so Brooklyn,” she says.
Still, others wished the warning about trainers had been more explicit. At the height of the pandemic, Steven remembers scrolling through social-media post after social-media post saying things like “URGENT: NEED TO FIND THIS GUY A HOME” while “picturing this dog on a conveyor belt going toward this whirring saw. And meanwhile I am screaming at my phone, ‘I applied and you turned me down!’ ”
But after securing a dog, he came to believe the process, while tough on the human applicants, wasn’t tough enough when it came to the dog’s needs. Right off the bat, Cooper was very hyper and mouthy when playing. “We were doing the thing that everyone does, like, posting pics: ‘We’re at the park, isn’t this fun, hahaha,’ ” he says. But the reality was much less Instagram-worthy. Cooper became difficult to handle, especially in a small New York apartment; mouthiness escalated to gnashing his teeth and guarding food. “It’s embarrassing, and I hate having to tell people we had to give the dog back,” he says. (So much so that Steven requested a pseudonym for himself and for Cooper.) “To be frank, the experience we had with the dog was pretty traumatic. If this volunteer had felt so powerful, I wish that they had said we wouldn’t be able to handle this dog.” Although Steven’s Instagram is replete with photos of other friends’ dogs, evidence of Cooper’s existence has disappeared from the account.
The rescue-dog demand has also been stressful for the overwhelmed (and overwhelmingly volunteer) workforce that keeps the supply chain running. On a recent Saturday, Jason was speeding toward JFK airport in a windowless white van covered in graffiti. Though he was on his way to help rescue dogs, he is the first to admit he’s not the biggest fan of the animals. “I just need something to do,” he says. “I was going crazy sitting around the house.” His friend, who was employed at a rescue, recommended him for an unpaid gig. Prior to the pandemic, he managed an Off Broadway play in the city. The 34-year-old, who is athletically built with a shaved head, has a compulsive need to be coordinating a production, and getting dogs to New York City from a different continent is definitely that.
Many of the city’s rescue dogs come from other parts of the world these days, brought over by volunteers who take them through a complicated Customs process. This is part of what Pet Nation author Mark Cushing calls the “canine freedom train.” A former corporate trial attorney, Cushing had thought that American shelters were filled with dogs with a figurative hatchet outside their kennel; that was until his daughter, a shelter volunteer, said that, in fact, scores of people were lined up around the block every weekend in hopes of adopting a handful of dogs. “I started to talk to shelter leaders across the country,” Cushing says. “And one by one, they said any adoptable dog without a medical issue is gone by noon on Saturday. But the public didn’t know that. Only the dog seekers and the experts did.”
Jason waited in arrivals, ready to stop anyone who walked by with dog crates. When he saw some, he swooped in. It turned out that he had ended up with an extra animal — one that was yowling like it needed to get out and pee. He couldn’t figure out to whom it belonged, and after about 40 minutes of drama in the pickup area, two large men jumped out of a truck with out-of-state plates. They handed Jason $20 before he knew what was happening, loaded the dog into their Silverado, and sped off toward North Carolina. It was unclear if they were adopters themselves or worked for a shelter.
With that out of the way, Jason tried to carefully maneuver a luggage cart full of the remaining dog crates to the lot where he was parked. When one fell, the animal inside didn’t make a sound, presumably zonked from its long journey across the ocean. More volunteers were waiting at the shelter with food, water, and an enormous number of puppy pads when he arrived. After the animals decompressed from their long flight, they would be taken to an adoption event, where they would hopefully meet their new humans.
Emily Wells hasn’t taken a vacation in years. She works full time on Wall Street but is also the coordinator for Pixies & Paws Rescue — a job that she does in between calls and meetings and emails. That means responding to DMs on Instagram about available dogs, attending adoption events on weekends, and getting on the phone with a vet at 10 p.m. because one of her fosters got sick. That also means screening applications, which more than doubled during the height of the pandemic. Typically, she denies about one-third. This part of her job might not be the most physically demanding, but it does take a psychic toll.
“What I’ve found is a lot of people are very entitled,” she says. “They send nasty emails. I’ve been called every name in the book. But there are reasons we deny. We are entrusted with placing a living, breathing thing in someone’s home for the rest of its life.” She wishes people would understand that the rescue is just her and one other person trying their best to deal with off-the-charts levels of demand. “I know rescues that don’t even reply,” she says. “So the fact that we do and still get shit for that is annoying.” And explaining why someone was rejected can create its own problems: What if they use that information to fib on their next application?
Rescues like Wells’s are largely dependent on foster parents to house the dogs they import. Foster-to-adopt is one way that people adopt pets, a means of testing out compatibility and increasing one’s chances of adopting in a hypercompetitive city. But demand for dogs was so high last year that even proven volunteers couldn’t get their hands on a foster. Take Suchita, an animal lover who moved from India to New Jersey for her husband’s VP job with a big bank in 2019. Unable to work owing to visa issues, she became a prolific dog fosterer for a rescue in Queens. She also worked with a program that pairs volunteers with elderly animal owners who need help taking their pets out on walks. That program was suspended during COVID, which left Suchita desperate for more dog time.
Figuring that online volunteer work might fill the void, she started helping another organization wade through its massive backlog of applications by calling references. She offered to foster more dogs but didn’t hear back, nor did her attempts to adopt pan out. When she went ahead and adopted Sasha, a Pomeranian, through another rescue agency, the first organization was not happy. “After I posted Sasha on Instagram, they called me saying it was a conflict of interest to have worked with another agency,” Suchita says. “I was not at all prepared for that. Then they unfollowed me. It really hurt, but no hard feelings.” She is humbly aware of the fact that in New York, there is always someone who has a nicer apartment, a better job, and more experience than you. If everything else is equal, why shouldn’t a shelter try to give a dog to someone who can afford to give it the best life possible?
“They don’t treat humans nicely, but at least they treat dogs nicely,” she says.
In some corners of the rescue world, a reckoning is taking place. Rachael Ziering, the executive director of Muddy Paws Rescue, which found homes for around 1,000 dogs last year, got her start volunteering at other nonprofits whose adoption processes she found abhorrent. She saw, for instance, people look at adoption applications and say, “Oh, that’s a terrible Zip Code. I’m not adopting to them.” Or they would judge people based on their appearance. “I know a lot of groups that will ask for your firstborn along with your application,” she says. “I think it’s well intentioned, but I think it just took a turn at some point. It’s morphed into sort of an unhealthy view that no one’s ever gonna be good enough. Nobody’s ever perfect — the dog or the person.” Muddy Paws is instead embracing what is known as “open adoption,” a philosophy that allows for rescue volunteers to be more open-minded about what a good dog home might look like. It has started gaining traction among groups like the ASPCA in recent years, in part because the organization’s current president was denied a dog — twice. Instead of rejecting applicants outright based on their giving the “wrong” answers, Ziering’s team speaks with hopeful dog owners at length, learning about their lifestyles and histories to match them with the pet best for their family. Still, even a more inclusive philosophy toward profiling adoption applicants comes up against the intractable math: There are only so many dogs that need homes. Though Muddy Paws rejects less than one percent of applicants, some decide to adopt elsewhere if it means getting a dog faster.
Is any of this good for the dogs? Depends on whom you ask. If the intense questions involved in securing the dog cause someone to reflect before making a decision they’ll regret — sure. Others note that the average dog’s life span has hovered around 11 years for decades. “I think it’s probably true that the majority of people who want to adopt a dog should not,” Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist who studies human-animal relationships, tells me. “They don’t have the wherewithal and don’t have what they need to give the animal a good life.” She herself ended up with two pets that didn’t get along at all — a herding mix and a pointer mix whose constant fighting made the idea of hosting a dinner party both perhaps “bloody” and definitely “scary and miserable.” She says shelters shouldn’t “drive away potentially loving and appropriate adopters because they don’t meet predetermined criteria,” but she also sees the importance of a thorough application process that prepares humans for the pitfalls of pet parenthood. “You need to be ready to have a dog who doesn’t like people very much,” says Pierce. When Bella, the 11-year-old she got from the Humane Society, dies, she’s not sure she will get a replacement, noting that the pandemic puppy boom is “driven by a reflection of human narcissism and neurosis.”
“A lot of this is driven by Instagram,” she says. “We have this expectation that dogs are not really dogs; they’re toys or fashion accessories.”
I’m not pushing you, but it seems like you want to bring him home,” the Badass Animal Rescue volunteer said with the controlled energy of a used-car salesperson. Bill and Sherrie, a middle-aged couple who had lost their English bulldog three years ago, were looking for a replacement. The dog with a bright-red boner jumped on Bill, and everyone pretended not to notice. “He definitely has energy,” Bill said brightly. The couple were on the fence, and the volunteer could sense the close slipping away.
Although this organization saw applications rise 200 percent during the pandemic, things are now recalibrating back to normalcy. We are, it seems, witnessing the cooling of the puppy boom. The unbearable loneliness of the pandemic has abated, replaced with anxiety about how to possibly do all the things all of us used to do every day. New Yorkers are being summoned back to the office or planning vacations. Many young professionals are finding that, when given the option between scrolling through rescue websites until 2 a.m. or doing drunken karaoke in a room full of friends, Dog Tinder is losing its appeal. Local shelters are seeing application numbers slip — many say they have returned to pre-COVID levels — which, in turn, has made it slightly more of an adopter’s market.
Bill and Sherrie went to the hallway to talk it over. He was definitely a puller like their old dog, Xena. And he was also a hell of a shedder. The volunteer kept talking about something called a “love match,” but was this really one? “We’re just gonna need a little more time,” Sherrie confessed when they came back inside. No one was making eye contact. As they prepared to leave, the dog jumped up on Bill again, his tongue flopping sideways and his wagging tail spraying white fur. He was clearly not aware that the tenor of the room had shifted. “We might be back,” Bill said with an obvious twinge of guilt. “Don’t worry!”
We will probably look back on the class of pandemic dogs adopted in 2020 as the most desirable unwanted dogs of all time — the ultimate market-scarcity score for a slice of virtuous, privileged New York City. People like Danielle will see them paraded around places like McCarren Park, the living, breathing trophies for self-satisfied owners who made it through the gauntlet. At least for the next 11 years or so.