When dog adoption is hindered by racism

Many of us who want to make a rescue animal part of the family have experienced the flip-side to the problem of abandoned pets: foster groups grilling potential adopters and then rejecting them because they don’t meet rigid standards.

But what if the standard is race?

I was shocked when I adopted a dog earlier this year, and this happened to me.

Last spring, when I was living in West Philly, I applied for a small terrier mix dubbed Bear, and his caretaker e-mailed me and other prospective adopters about his health and temperament — including, apparently, a dash of racism.

“Something I thought was an old wives tail [sic] apparently is not,” the foster parent wrote. She had taken Bear to a Little League game, and Bear had barked at one of the boys: “This player was a black young man.”

Uh-oh.

“Are you prepared to work through his problems, with love and patience?” she asked us, noting that she believed proper training could be effective. “If [Bear] is racially biased (sorry wasn’t sure how else to say that) will you work with him on this to desensitize him” and train him?

Because I wanted to bring the dog home, I didn’t say everything that was on my mind, including my suspicion that Bear was not the racist one.

“If Bear comes to live with me, he’ll get acclimated to friends of all colors,” I answered.

Projecting racism

Checking up on the prevailing wisdom on dogs and racial bias is a great way to wallow in some grade-A ignorance. “Some dogs are just racist. But why?” asks a 2013 Gawker article.

A list of canine experts weighs in. Among good advice about proper socialization, and the more questionable wisdom of styling yourself as a dominating “pack leader,” there are some real chestnuts about race.

Some breeds have poor night vision, notes one trainer. So dogs may bark at people with “slightly darker skin” because at night, people of color “can seem as though they appear out of nowhere.”

“Also, certain cultures and demographics don’t have dogs as pets… [like] people from the islands or people from China,” the trainer continues. These people exhibit fear of dogs, which in turn triggers fear and aggression from the dog that is reinforced every time it walks past a Chinese person (I’m assuming people of Chinese heritage around the world form a single homogeneous anti-dog culture),  or a person from the islands (which islands? We’ll never know).

“Each of the races of humans literally smell, act and look differently from one another and the energy we give off is almost always different from one another,” posits another trainer, who says dogs aren’t “racist,” but react to “the immense differences in the human races.”

Who knew we all had so little in common? Man’s best friend, apparently.

The same trainer also theorizes that the “tendency of modern dogs to perceive blacks as outsiders” is due to evidence that dogs evolved in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East: “early dogs/domesticated wolves originated in lighter-skinned societies,” ergo, dogs dislike dark-skinned people as an evolutionary matter.

Dog’s can’t be racist

With advice like this, no wonder Bear never had a chance once he happened to bark at a person who was black.

And I gave the wrong answer to the question about socializing Bear.

“Due to Bear’s racial bias and where you currently reside I am afraid I would be setting him up to fail or causing you problems trying to retrain him,” the next e-mail read. Many people were interested in him, and the caretaker had to narrow the field. Dogs “all have their own unique personalities that require different requirements from fosters and potential adopters,” she said.

I’m worried the requirement Bear’s foster parent required was placement with a white person with all-white friends in an all-white neighborhood. I wish him the best. My own adoption sojourn ended happily with another local organization, Wags Rescue, who quickly brought me Ginny, a Yorkie mix who immediately pilfered my whole heart.

Dogs are so closely entwined with our lives that it’s natural we project the human problem of racial tension onto them, but there are reasonable voices about it. In a 2010 Newsweek article quoting author and scientist Alexandra Horowitz, famous for her research on the canine mind, Raina Kelley wrote:

“Dogs don’t act on belief systems or value judgments and they don’t understand the abundant stereotypes in our society. Dogs are wonderful creatures, but they simply don’t have the intellectual capacity to develop derogatory judgments about whole groups of people. That’s in humans’ wheelhouse.”

I find too much of a coincidence in the fact that supposedly racist dogs’ prejudices match up neatly with human society’s — and isn’t it telling that when we say a dog is racist, nobody assumes that means the animal doesn’t like white people? This is to imply that dogs are innately comfortable with light-skinned people. From there, is it too far a leap to believe that white people are the best dog owners?

Is this discrimination normal?

I asked Bear’s rescue group if it was normal policy to turn down an adopter based on claims that a dog is racially biased. Their vice president of operations e-mailed me.

Rescue dogs often have behavioral issues, and fosters place them in homes that are least likely to trigger their fears, she explained. “We do our best not to set our dogs up to fail, and our priority is to keep everyone safe and happy.”

She suggested I would understand better if I imagined the folly of placing a dog that disliked children or cats in a home with children or cats. “While not placing the dog with you based on where you live may seem somewhat biased or even prejudicial, I think if we stop and view the situation with that perspective, it may make more sense,” she said.

Of course, refusing to place a dog because there are people of color in the neighborhood is more fraught, she acknowledged.

I asked what the conversation about Bear would have looked like if I were black — would the rescue group have told me that I was not eligible for the dog because of my race?

“I would hope that things like this would not happen. However in reality, our fosters choose where the dogs are placed, so I cannot say with absolute certainty that it doesn’t [happen],” she acknowledged. “We have too many foster homes for me to know everyone’s beliefs …. Sometimes we take the easy road and check off applicants without digging a bit deeper.”

I don’t want to undermine the vital and life-saving work that animal rescue groups do, often on an entirely volunteer basis. I urge everyone who wants a pet to adopt an animal in need of a home. I’m glad I did.

“I truly wish we lived in a world that was free of bias, so questions like yours didn’t exist,” the rescue leader concluded. But bias is real, and the questions aren’t going away.

Pets are at the heart of family life for many American households. I hope Bear’s story is an isolated one, but I’m still concerned by it. Are would-be pet parents in Philly (and pets in need of homes) being denied because of racism?

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