Cultural Biases: The Good Adopter

Something that has come up in a few of our lectures and in one of our Google HangOuts from the MOOC has been the idea that some people who adopt animals from shelters are motivated by the need to adopt, or save, rather than to buy.

While there’s been plenty of research on why animals get relinquished to shelters, why adoptions fail, and how humans bond with pets, there hasn’t been a great deal looking at why some of us are strongly motivated to adopt an animal. I’ll put my cards on the table, I’m very strongly motivated to adopt an animal. In fact, I felt slightly guilty for adopting Athena, a kitten, as she was a very beautiful and desireable kitten who would undoubtedly have got a home without me. There was some part of me which felt like I should adopt the animal that was less likely to be adopted. (I tell that little part of me that even beautiful, clever, charismatic kittens like Athena can come to grief, and that with me she will have the best possible life I can give her or any animal. Also she’s mine now and you can’t have her back).

I wanted to think more deeply on this, what motivates us adopters? I started with my own thought processes, and this level of introspection may reveal a little too much about myself . . . For me there’s a pride to be found in not taking the easy route. I also have some misplaced reverse snobbery, where I view buying an animal as somehow bourgeois. This is undoubtedly to do with my own values, which are definitely to the left of centre. I believe in taking care of those less fortunate than yourself. This is what underpins my belief in animal welfare, ultimately, that I have a responsibility to those under my care. So is it any wonder that it comes across in my personal attitudes towards my companion animals?

This was a difficult subject to research and after some fruitless scholar searches, I changed tact. Forget animals. Why do some people adopt children?

Deiner et al (1998) looked at why some families choose to adopt special needs children. Interestingly 96% of their 56 families reported having a religious affiliation (this seems high to me, but I wonder if it is for American audiences?) 41% considered themselves to be active in their faith. The majority of the families who had adopted a special needs child (70%) had become aware of the child through fostering them or through the fostering system. Through making an emotional bond with the child, they had then made the decision to adopt. Interestingly, these families perceived themselves to be a closer, more cohesive unit than the average family. I found this particularly interesting as previous (unpublished) work of mine shows that successful animal adoptions often have the owner perceiving the adopted animals as ‘grateful’ and speak of the strong bond between them.

Of course, another reason that people adopt children is because of infertility (Hollingsworth, 2008), although this study also picked up on whether religion was perceived as important by the adopter encouraging the adopter to adopt. Religious conviction was also noted by Glidden (1984).

I’ve often joked that politics is a religion, and my beliefs about my moral conduct are a strong part of my own being, though I’m by no means religious. While I don’t ever see myself adopting a child, perhaps because as a biologist I have a strong desire to have a blood bond with my offspring, does my need to adopt animals come from my cultural upbringing?

While my (and by extension, other peoples’) motivations for adopting are interesting, when it comes to animal welfare we must ask: how does this affect the animal’s life?

Many people can have unreasonable expectations of their pets – I mentioned a few paragraphs up that some owners expect their pets to be grateful for their new home, to be able to compare their previous life with their current life and then understand their owner is the cause of that. Those are some mental leaps animals can’t make.

My unpublished pet obituary project, stuck languishing in the hell of ‘I did this too long ago and lost the original data’, was unique because it looked at successful human-animal bonds. We have lots of research on when human-animal bonds fail. For example, we know that lack of obedience classes, lack of veterinary care, lack of neutering, cheap purchase price and lack of knowledge surrounding care needs are all risk factors for giving up a dog (Patronek et al 1996a). We know there are similar risk factors for cats, but also the weird counter finding that cats adopted as strays/adopted with minimal planning are less likely to be given up (Patronek et al, 1996b). That last point makes you think about owner expectations, doesn’t it? But we don’t really know what makes a human-animal relationship likely to work.

Prior knowledge of how to look after animals certainly helps. Having the right animal for your lifestyle. Much as I love them, I wouldn’t work well with a border collie. From my unpublished work, the only thing I could really say that was indicative of the successful outcome of the bond was that the animal was readily spoken of as being part of the family, and assigned a familial role (for example, though I hate myself for it, I can’t help but call myself ‘mummy’ to Athena. The infantalisation/maternalisation of the human-animal bond in late twenties women is perhaps a subject for another day).

Marston & Bennett (2003) reviewed dog adoptions with a view of trying  to understand why some adoptions work. They bring up a point I’m very interested in, as a photographer, that we compose familiar animals in our shots in the same way we would a human, but not necessarily other animals. They also talk about the many positive aspects of owning a pet, which I’ve already spoken about, but they note that there is a huge need to characterise adopters in more detail. Kidd et al (1992) is one of the few papers looking at it and they conclude that realistic expectations are one of the best ways to have a successful relationship.

This phrase pops up again and again. But how realistic are the expectations of the chronic adopter? And the question nobody has really answered: how do these expectations really affect the animal?

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