It was only a few weeks ago that Rosa Torres and her young son lost Raffiki, their Rhodesian ridgeback puppy, out of their L.A. backyard. But now Raffiki has a new name and a new home—and her fate has some animal lovers questioning the ethics of the group that "rescued" her.
According to L.A. Times columnist Sandy Banks, the Torres family went to great lengths to recover Raffiki, but they ran up against a system checkered by social and cultural elitism:
Torres scoured the neighborhood, hung fliers, searched Craigslist and posted pictures on a Facebook page dedicated to missing pets. She visited her local animal shelter again and again and again.
She didn't realize someone had found Raffiki and taken her to an animal shelter on the other side of the San Fernando Valley, 10 miles from Torres' home.
A week had gone by when a volunteer searcher spotted a photo of the missing Rhodesian ridgeback puppy on an adoption website. An animal rescue group had bailed Raffiki out of the shelter, changed her name to Kami and found her a new home.
Since then, Torres has been futilely trying to get her puppy back. "I'll compensate the family that has her," she said. "I'll do whatever it takes. She's not just an animal, she's a part of our family. My 4-year-old son cries whenever he looks at her picture. We just want her back."
Torres didn't dilly-dally. She left voicemail messages for the rescue group, Karma Rescue, and even applied to purchase her own dog through its online application system.
The group rejected Torres' request and sold Raffiki to another family for a $300 "contribution," which is awfully steep, as rescue pets go. Banks has a pretty good idea why:
[H]er application "did not meet the qualifications that Karma looks for when adopting a dog to a home," Karma Rescue said in a statement to me.
As someone who's worked with animal rescue, let me translate that: Torres is young; she and her son live with her parents in a small rental home in a not-so-great part of town. Her dog wasn't microchipped, spayed or wearing ID tags. If she couldn't manage to find the dog in a week, she doesn't deserve to get her back.
"Had she been a little more diligent, we would have spoken with her," acknowledged Karma Rescue's lawyer Susan Willis.
Instead, they decided the dog would be better off with strangers than with people who've loved her since she was 2 months old.
It's unclear precisely what criteria Karma Rescue and other groups use to make that tough judgment call. Certainly you don't want to give a dog back over to a neglectful or abusive owner. But it's not clear the Torres family fits that criteria. If rescuers start looking at the size of one's house or family situation, can unstated biases prejudice their work, as Banks suggests?
Banks interviewed a Karma Rescue volunteer who left the group last week over its decision to re-house Raffiki, saying the group's move reeked of elitism: "This is somebody's own dog, and you're making the judgment and denying them the dog back without even bothering to talk to them, get to know them, let them explain what happened. That is just wrong."
The re-adoption seems especially rich in light of Karma Rescue's own philosophy, touted on its website:
Unfortunately, your pet does not have a voice, the Karma Rescue website reminds pet owners considering giving up their pets. He can't tell you he would rather stay with the family he has known and loved all his life.
Dogs and cats ... go through psychological torment when they lose their family. Your pet deserves to stay with the family he/she loves.
A cached version of Karma Rescue's adoption bulletin for Raffiki—or "Kami"—is still accessible online. "I am already spayed, housetrained, up to date with shots, good with kids, and good with dogs," it says. "I'm a really sweet girl who loves to have fun so if you think you're the right match for me, please ask to meet me!"
Ultimately, though, a stranger may decide whether you're the right match for your own dog.
Update: Karma Rescue has responded by posting a two-page letter on its Facebook page, which is unfortunately hard to read and impossible to embiggen; it's embedded below. It strikes a strident, unapologetic tone. The highlights:
Unfortunately, the recent publicity and prolonged social media assault surrounding the adoption of "Kami" has disseminated misinformation about our organization's practices… Though this has been a sad experience for everyone involved, our aspiration is that something good can come of it: more people will microchip and tag their dogs…
On February 21 at 6:03 p.m., Karma received, and approved, an adoption application for Kami, and requested the applicant family have an in-person meet-and-greet with her. That family met Kami at NKLA and took her home that day.
At 6:54 p.m. that evening, Karma Rescue received an e-mail containing a second application for Kami from "Rosa Torres." However, this application was not reviewed until after the adoption was complete. Karma received a voicemail at 4:57 p.m. from "Rosa Torres" in which she claimed to be the dog's owner. Karma had not been aware of this voicemail until after the adoption had taken place.
At 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 22, Karma contacted "Rosa Torres" to let her know Kami had already been adopted. She was also informed that had she contacted the organization sooner, Karma would have been in a better position to reunite her with the dog…
Although our organization, as a rule, does not participate in mud-slinging on the internet, it has been monitoring various social media outlets regarding this situation…
The letter goes on to raise questions about the fact that they never heard from Rosa Torres via social media, but were harangued online by "a woman named 'Lexi Quinn'" who "claims ownership of the dog that she calls 'Raffiki'." It describes a "social media assault against Karma Rescue" including "defamatory on-line statements" of "a particularly insidious and exploitive" nature.
Although the letter confirms that Torres contacted Karma Rescue before the transaction for her dog was completed—and that Karma Rescue didn't check its voicemail before the sale—it never claims any responsibility for the "sad experience."
It's also unclear whether the group, or anyone else, proposed to the new buyers that they get their pick of another dog if they returned "Kami" to her original owner, a Solomonic compromise that yours truly, at least, thinks would have been worth considering.