Why Giving Pets Away On Craigslist Is A Terrible Idea
Pets are family members — not free stuff.
A virtual menagerie of animals, exotic and domestic, some illegal and others commonplace, is collected and advertised in one place, right at our fingertips - on Craigslist.
One morning, while browsing the Google Alerts I subscribe to, to help stay up to date with animal news, I saw the headline, "Free Baby Chimp." The website? Craigslist. The preview line? "Hey, I have a free baby chimp to a good home. His name is Donkey Kong and I got him for my girlfriend for Christmas."
Whether a hoax or an honest appeal, the author had deleted the post by the time I clicked on it.
It's hard to discern which Craigslist ads are reflective of actual situations and which are simply instances of trolling, because to weigh each case independently would take more than one lifetime.
There are so many ads for unwanted pets out there, too many to count - and many seem completely serious. In browsing the New York City Craigslist ads alone, I found not only posts about cats and dogs, but also sloths, sugar gliders and snakes, all available to whoever would take them.
The ads I came across offered a window into the complicated and opaque lives of perfect strangers and how many of them treat their animals, who seem to occupy some odd space between possession and family member. The photos of animals - who don't even know their futures hang in the balance - peer out from the screen, in what, to a helpless onlooker, feels like some silent appeal for help.
"I'd just like for him to be in a loving home where he is accepted."
For some people, contingencies like sudden illness or losing their home can make it nearly impossible for them to keep their pets.
"Fosse has been my friend's sun, moon, and stars for the last two years, but her serious asthma and other major health problems have been making it too hard for her to take care of him," one person posted to Craigslist recently. (The post has since been taken down.) "She is leaving for inpatient health treatment on Thursday morning, and just found out that the family that was taking care of him isn't allowed to keep him. The cat rescues that we've called are all not accepting new cats right now, and we don't know what else to do."
Other ads show how some people just don't care about animals. "I am going away to college and my parents unfortunately do not want my cat to stay at their apartment," another person wrote.
"This is a very sad, hard situation for me because I've had Oreo for 7 years (since he was a kitten). He is very friendly, playful yet calm, affectionate, clean, hygienic, healthy, neutered and has had all of his vaccines (papers included). He is the perfect house cat, and you will love him! Oreo is free of charge, I'd just like for him to be in a loving home where he is accepted."
For those of us all too aware of just how many animals are without homes, ads like these become painful to read. Those who want to re-home a pet because of some minor inconvenience seem incredibly crass - and for many of the advertised animals, finding a taker could mean the difference between life and death.
In the U.S. alone, approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter animal shelters each year. Of those, approximately 2.7 million animals are adopted, while roughly the same number of shelter animals are euthanized.
"We owe animals more than just a partial chance at a good life."
And Craigslist has come under fire in the past. In 2010, the site agreed to make changes after illegal activity occurred in the Adult Services section of its site. The company removed the "adult" and "erotic" sections, but these measures came a bit too late for Julissa Brisman, a masseuse acquired through a Craigslist ad, who was found dead in a Boston hotel room.
If measures aren't in place to ensure people using the site are protected, one can only imagine the plight of the animals featured on Craigslist. And the worst case scenarios for animals put up for free on the site are almost unthinkable.
What a man named Jeff Nally did is a textbook example of how horribly wrong online animal listings can go. Nally used Craigslist to obtain 29 free dogs. He then mutilated and tortured the dogs in front of his kidnapped and horrified girlfriend. In the spring of 2012, he was sentenced to up to 45 years behind bars.
A more recent case is that of Jason Brown, who was just sentenced to up to 28 years in prison after he used Craigslist to find dogs being given away. He beheaded four dogs.
Apart from these nightmarish scenarios, people have also been known to acquire free animals to act as bait in dog fights. There's also the risk that some people look for free smaller animals, like mice or rabbits, as free food for their pet snakes.
"It's pretty reckless to place a free-to-a-good-home ad without any sort of background check," Scott Heiser, staff attorney Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), told The Dodo. "That's not to say a significant amount don't turn out fine, but we owe animals more than just a partial chance at a good life."
Animal abuser registries can help people perform background checks before handing over their pets. "We've seen that happen in many places, and in Tennessee the registry is now statewide," Heiser said.
But first, rather than placing a free-to-a-good-home ad online, Heiser suggested trying to rehome the animal with an animal rescue organization or shelter. "At least a shelter has some kind of vetting process," he said.
In circumstances where a no-kill shelter can't be found in your area, Heiser suggested doing the extra legwork if you are advertising on sites like Craigslist to ensure your pet will be safe. "If you're going to do a free-to-a-good-home [ad], before you place the animal, do a home visit," he said. "Anyone who is willing to take on a pet should be willing to do that. That should turn out pretty well for the animal for most of the time."
"Never offer your animal as 'free to a good home.'"
People who know firsthand how crowded and stressful animal shelters can be see the internet as a potentially useful tool for direct rehoming.
"Ending up in a kennel can be incredibly stressful for any animal," Katie Armour, project coordinator at the MSPCA Boston Adoption Center, told The Dodo. "As empathetic animal lovers, we experience this stress along with these animals and do what we can to alleviate it as they wait to find their forever home. Many would benefit from being directly placed into a loving home."
If it's used very cautiously and responsibly, the internet can be the saving grace for an animal about to become homeless, Armour said.
But even though she's more amenable to this kind of virtual networking than others, she's still cautious about using Craigslist. "Many people have had great success placing animals within their social media networks (Facebook, etc.) rather than using the more faceless and unknowable Craigslist," she said.
And offering an animal up for free could be a recipe for disaster, just because it makes the transaction far too easy for people with bad intentions. "Never offer your animal as 'free to a good home' - even a small, nominal amount can make a big difference in the quality of adopters and help you know their intent a bit better," she said.
"I can't imagine being forced to make that choice."
It's very difficult to track how often people rehome their pets on Craigslist and what happens to the pets afterward.
A recent study from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) shows that when people do rehome their pets, in 37 percent of cases it's through a friend or family member, and 36 percent of the time it's through a shelter. But 11 percent rehomed their pets to a stranger.
"The ASPCA actively supports safety net programs across the country, which enable owners to keep their pets in their own homes by providing services such as access to affordable veterinary care or help with pet-friendly housing," Dr. Emily Weiss, vice president of research and development for the ASPCA, told The Dodo. "If a pet owner absolutely must rehome their pet, we would recommend exploring options other than Craigslist."
Weiss' recommendations include:
- Reach out to friends and family who may be able to take the pet in.
- Reach out to local shelters to learn what options they may have available for rehoming. Some organizations have virtual bulletin boards and other ways to connect with potential adopters.
- Connect with rescue groups. If you are able to keep the pet in your home and act as a foster home for your pet, that can increase the ways a rescue organization can help you.
- Connect with veterinarians in your community to explore rehoming opportunities they may have available.
Armour agreed that your own social networks are a great place to start. "Friends and family, and their friends and family, can be the key to help you find kindred spirits who would love your pet just as you do," she said. If trying to rehome your pet online, use your instincts and ask potential adopters questions, Armour urged. "If you have a bad feeling about a person, or feel unsafe dealing with them, this is certainly not someone you'd entrust your pet with."
Like Heiser, Amour suggested requesting a home visit for anyone interested in adopting your pet. She added that being honest about your pet's behavior and any medical issues helps your pet in the long run. "You're looking for a lasting home that will love and accept your pet for who they truly are," she said.
The key takeaway? If you have to give up your pet, the responsibility falls on you to find a safe and loving home - because Craigslist does not appear to be looking out for your animal's best interest, nor does it seem the company has any plans to do so in the near future. Craigslist did not reply to The Dodo's request for comment.
"It's such a terribly tragic situation when people have to give up a family member," Heiser said. "I can't imagine being forced to make that choice."