Why We Should All Care About Raffiki

Sarah Sypniewski

Raffiki lost dog in LA

On February 21, I was tagged on a Facebook thread for a lost dog here in Los Angeles named Raffiki. Her owner, Rosa Torres (Lexi Quinn on Facebook), had posted her photo, asking for help finding her. A volunteer on the page discovered Raffiki had been listed on Los Angeles’ West Valley animal shelter website a few days prior, but the posting had since been removed. Rosa called the shelter immediately, but they said Raffiki had been adopted, and they could not share any information about the new owners. Within a matter of hours, another volunteer found Raffiki (now named Kami) listed on a website for a local rescue. Rosa called, left a message, and also sent an email.

We all pitched in to contact this rescue right away. I put a plea on Facebook for someone to help me reach them before Raffiki was adopted. Not more than twenty minutes later, a friend of mine had the founder on the phone. I wasn’t surprised when I was told that the rescue didn’t want to give Raffiki back. They had made the quick assessment that so many rescuers make: because Raffiki was not spayed or microchipped (she had an upcoming appointment for both) and because she had been at the shelter for so long (she was not taken to Rosa’s local shelter where she had been checking), it must mean she had bad owners who did not deserve to get her back. Still, the rescue suggested that Rosa fill out an online application for Raffiki and they would get back to her. We hoped for the best.

That night, all of my connections to the rescue made multiple attempts to talk with the founder, to encourage her to contact Rosa to find out more about Raffiki’s life. These attempts were all in vain. That night, the rescue authorized an adoption to a new family (after they knew Raffiki had an owner, but before they talked to her). They let Rosa and all of us believe that Raffiki was still at the rescue while Rosa waited for their call. That call didn’t come until 10am the next day, well after they legally adopted Raffiki to someone else. Since then, the rescue has claimed they talked to the new family who did not want to give Raffiki back.

Throughout this whole ordeal, there has been a great public outcry and private efforts by Rosa to get Raffiki back, all to no avail. It has caused great debates and rifts in the rescue community of Los Angeles and beyond.

I can understand the rescue’s quick judgment because we rescuers are so used to seeing truly bad owners and neglectful situations. We see the result of carelessness and know firsthand how fast a mistake can turn lethal. If you think about it, the very essence of what rescuers do is judge. It’s part of our responsibility: judge when an animal needs help, judge how many animals we have the capacity to help, judge who can volunteer, judge how much we can risk to save a life, and yes, judge who deserves to have an animal. Our efforts are difficult, and never seem to be enough. So I do get it.

I’ve found pets – intentionally for clients and unintentionally on the streets – that I didn’t think had the kind of life they deserved. And years ago, I may have done just what this rescue did, thinking it was in the best interest of the pet to adopt her into a new home. However, after working in lost pet recovery for almost three years and watching the work of Downtown Dog Rescue’s Shelter Intervention Programs, I realize I was wrong. Clear abuse and neglect aside, who am I to say what human is worthy of a pet or what makes a good pet owner? I certainly have no right to assess someone’s level of pet ownership without meeting or talking with them. And that’s about the simplest I can explain why Raffiki’s case has me so upset.

The rescue had a chance - a responsibility - to halt the adoption (like this rescue in Massachusetts did) to investigate Raffiki’s original owner and home; to do what they could to make sure Raffiki was safe. If they still decided to adopt Raffiki to someone else after a thorough review process, it would’ve been a very sad, tough lesson for Rosa, but I could’ve at least understood the decision.

But this? This was a decision steeped in the plague of what I call “rescue righteousness.” And we have to stop it.

The battle has gotten ugly. Most of my rescue friends fall on the “other side,” claiming that as rescuers, it is our job to always support and stand behind other rescuers, no matter what. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with this picture.

I’ve said all along that I don’t want to bring this rescue down; I want to help make it – and all of us – better. This could happen at any rescue. It could be any family. But it doesn’t have to be. This never has to happen to any other rescue or family or pet again.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • All of us - individuals and rescues - can do a lot to prevent a pet from going missing in the first place.
  • Most people do not know what to do when their pet goes missing. Even if you have a plan, it can take a lot of time to process all the steps and then execute them. If you’re out of town when your pet goes missing (like so many of my clients are), you lose even more precious time. Depending on your city’s stray hold policy, your pet could be adopted to new owners, just like Raffiki, before you even get back home.
  • If you take a loose pet to the shelter, make sure you take him to the shelter that serves his area. Many well-meaning rescuers take pets to shelters with more resources or more space in an attempt to avoid euthanization. Some rescuers bypass the shelter altogether. The intention is good, but the results could be disastrous. If Raffiki had been at her local shelter, there would have been an earlier, much simpler reunion. Here’s more about what you should do if you find a lost pet.
  • Nobody is immune to losing a pet. In fact, most of my clients are not only characterized as “good owners,” but are also pet industry corporations, professional pet sitters, and even rescues themselves. I helped recover one lost microchipped cat for a rescue, but after recovery, we discovered no one had registered any information to the chip. It was a wakeup call for the rescue, as their procedures are typically so tight.
  • None of us know everything about how to safely and properly care for a pet. We are all learning new techniques and tools all the time. Instead of judging, we should all try teaching and offering resources. A volunteer from Making a Difference Rescue in Channahon, IL says, “We take our knowledge for granted. We assume that everyone should know these things. We'd keep more animals out of the system if we worked more to educate owners.”
  • Call each other out on mistakes and do your part to help make things better. Don’t back down; sometimes you have to go up against a whole world to make it better.
  • If you happen to find a pet, always consider first that this pet is lost, not stray. Look for clues like behavior, appearance, or accessories that indicate this pet could have a home and family who misses him. Raffiki had her collar on when she went missing and it was still on in the shelter. That should’ve been the first clue to the rescue that she might have a home, and they might’ve been able to facilitate a wonderful reunion.

Beth Ann Corr of Granite State Dog Recovery says, “We often get calls from rescues when they have a hunch that a dog may be owned.” And Joane Hutchinson of PAWS New England says, "There was one dog we got out of the shelter and paid tons and tons on vetting. The owner had been calling the shelter and they told her the dog wasn't there, so she gave up. When we found out, we gave the dog back.”

Raffiki’s story never had to play out this way, but similar situations will continue to happen unless we all step up, take responsibility, and correct our mistakes. A mistake like this in the rescue community is tragic. It’s a mistake that reflects on us all, and for those of us not speaking out against it, it’s a mistake that we’ve basically agreed with. As a lost pet specialist born out of the animal rescue world, Raffiki’s case makes me sad and angry, and I’m hoping that what I’ve written can help someone else out there - rescue or individual - avoid this same fate.

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