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Spotting a Bad Animal Rescue

Updated on February 27, 2013


Often if somebody is considering acquiring a pet, many of those around them will insist that the only ethical way to do so is to go to a shelter or animal rescue. This is not entirely true - there are many reputable breeders out there who will sell you a quality puppy or kitten.

What is also not true, sadly, is that all rescues are wonderful organizations who only have the best intentions and focus entirely on the needs of the animals. Nor is it true that all rescues know what they are doing and possess the necessary skills to do a good job. Some rescues are, in fact, out and out scams. How do you spot a bad rescue? (Or, for that matter, a good one?)

Financial Matters

An animal rescue is a charity. As such, they are required to have 401(c) status. One of the requirements to maintain that status is that some of their annual reports need to be made public, and if you ask for a copy they have to give you one. If they refuse, you can get this information from the IRS, but they are legally obligated to comply. No matter how pitiful the animals look, if they refuse to give you the required public documents (some annual reports and their application for tax exempt status), walk away. It probably means that they are not, in fact, a 401(c).

Number of Animals

Rescues vary in size from an individual or couple handing up to 10 animals at a time to huge operations that may have 50-100 in their care at any one time.

However, the number of animals should reasonably connect to the number of volunteers. One person cannot look after 75 cats properly. If it is a case of one or two people trying to care for huge quantities of animals, something is wrong. It is seldom hard for a rescue to get volunteers and it is possible that you are dealing with a hoarder using "I rescue" as a justification for their mental problems. (Yes, this happens all the time). If it is because they can't get volunteers, there might be a reason for that, too.


Volunteer/Staff Turnover

If a rescue has been around for ten years but nobody who works there has been there for one other than the "owner," there might be a reason for it. If the entire staff quit last year, there is almost certainly a reason for it.

As most rescues do follow-up, do you want to be tied into a long-term relationship with somebody who appears to be difficult to work with or for?

Unreasonable Adoption Expectations

This can go both ways. Some bad rescues just want the animals gone. If they do no checks on prospective adopters at all, but only care that you write them a donation check, that's not being a rescue. It's being an animal broker.

Hoarder rescues, on the other hand, will seek any excuse not to actually adopt an animal out. They can't bear to let them go, so they will set ridiculous requirements, change the goal posts and be inconsistent. (Although some official shelters also have ridiculous requirements such as refusing to adopt to people who's relatives allow cats to go outside...even if those relatives live on a farm. The key fact with the hoarder is that you meet the requirements, then they change them again.

Holding Animals For Ransom

This is particularly common with bad equine rescues. 'This horse is going to slaughter if we don't raise X by Y'. A good rescue will ask for money and, yes, even ask for money for a specific animal. "This dog needs surgery that costs $1000." The difference is that the ransoming rescue is saying "Give us money or the animal is going to die."

Real rescues do not take in more animals than they can afford to treat, rehabilitate and rehome. Sadly, this often means leaving some animals to their fate. But most requests for money from rescues are more general. They need money for the feed bill, the vet bills, to reimburse a volunteer for mileage, etc.

Those Are The 'After' Photos?

This is a big one. If any animal looks worse after time at the rescue than it did when it arrived...and this evidence can often be found...then it might be time to set animal control on the rescue.

Animals being neglected or abused by organizations that call themselves rescues is a very sad concept, but it does happen.

Also worth checking is whether the rescue takes steps to improve the animals in their care. A good rescue will do what they can to make animals more adoptable, which might range from regular grooming to sending horses to trainers or taking dogs to obedience class.

Needless to say, if you go to any rescue's property, you will see animals in lousy condition, even terrible condition, but those should be the ones that just got there, not the ones that have been there for six months.


The Owner's Car Looks Better Than The Animals

The scam rescuer is after one thing. Money to line her own pockets. If you see animals in crappy cages or livestock in rotten fencing, and not much food, and the owner is driving a brand new Lexus, there might be a problem.

This is not to say that rescue owners can't have nice stuff...but it should come after the animals. It's fine to see a rescuer in a brand new BMW convertible if she's surrounded by happy, healthy, shiny pets being prepared for their new homes, especially if she has a day job or other good source of income. I would never begrudge somebody paying themselves a full time salary if rescuing is their full time job...but it shouldn't be a CEO's salary and perhaps if the animals are suffering, the owner needs to give some things up. Or take in fewer animals.


So, there are the warning signs. There might be others, and it's always good to trust your instincts. Bear in mind that con artists are, almost by definition, very nice people.

Never adopt an animal sight unseen (same goes for buying one). Always visit the rescue's facility. If they won't let you, then that is another red flag.

Good luck finding the right pet.


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    • profile image

      Claudia Hoier 2 months ago

      This might be a very good article, but I'm not going to read it because your first section "Financial Matters" isn't even correct! Animal rescues do NOT have 401(C) status. 401's deal with pension plans, profit sharing, etc.! Licensed animal rescues are classified as 501(C)(3). 501 covers organizations exempt from certain federal income taxes, and the (C)(3) defines a specific class of organization that may qualify for tax exemption because of their "charitable" purposes. If you're going to write an article at least get your first point right so people that are knowledgeable will want to read it and refer others to it! Very sad because, as I said, this might have been a good article but you blew it for me when you got your first point wrong!!

    • Janwoods82 profile image

      Jan Woods 4 months ago from Birmingham


    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Jennifer, you've hit everything spot on in this article about bad animal rescues. Voted up for useful!

    • TriciaMool profile image

      Tricia Mool 4 years ago from Nothern California

      ooo-really good. I've seen first hand, as a volunteer with a feral organization, how good rescuers are selfless, and consistently so. I would also say that most rescue places have an application process, so that people up to no good don't get approved (checking employment references is a great way to ensure these people don't slip through cracks)

    • jenniferrpovey profile image

      jenniferrpovey 5 years ago

      Good point, Larry!

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Jennifer,

      There's one other red flag that I've read about: a high ratio of puppies to adult dogs. It could be that the 'rescuer' is not only rescuing, but is actively purchasing neglected and poorly-bred animals from puppy mills, and then reselling for a profit, after routine veterinary care, and a bit of training. Voted up and useful.

    • MrsLMMc profile image

      MrsLMMc 5 years ago from Maryland

      This is good information and important for people to realize. Human nature let's us get caught up in the rescue and sometimes people do not make long term plan in life matters, even pet adoption. I have seen this a couple of times, however, I am thankful that I haven't seen it a lot. Animal abuse is a tragic thing... it ranks up their with child abuse/neglect. Both are sad and need good mediation and remedy.

    • jenniferrpovey profile image

      jenniferrpovey 6 years ago

      Most shelters are completely legitimate, I would hasten to add. However, rescue trainwrecks certainly happen. My trainer rescues...and has a BMW and an expensive dressage horse. Guess who helped pay for them ;). She doesn't take anything from donations...she doesn't need to. She's a damn good coach who's in demand at half the barns in the area. And I've seen what she can do with a depressed bag of bones over and over again. So, 'rich' rescuers are fine. It's the con artists...and the ones who Just Can't Say No to an animal you have to watch out for.

    • Joe Macho profile image

      Zach 6 years ago from Colorado

      Really great information. I think that many people just automatically assume that because a shelter is adopting animals that they have good intentions. As you pointed out, this is not always the case. Many more pet owners and future adopters should be aware of this information. Thanks for the hub. Voted up and useful