Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mutts and Moms: The Rest of the Story

While I believe that the Iggy news cycle finished out this last Sunday night, I feel compelled to post the following information that I found posted on the website for Ellen Degeneres' talk show:

When Worlds Collide

In the world of rescuers, companion animals are no different than children. They need our protection as they cannot survive on their own. They need our advocacy, as they cannot speak for themselves. They need our compassion, as their suffering is real.

Our world, the world of animal guardians, is fundamentally different than the world in which the majority of humans on the planet live, and there is nothing wrong with that. But however distant we think our world is from the average human, the world of celebrities is on another planet, in another galaxy, maybe even in an alternate universe.

When Marina Baktis of Mutts & Moms rescue explained to her celebrity adopters that only Mutts & Moms could re-home Iggy, and that he needed to be returned immediately, it was the beginning of a surreal sequence of events that could only happen in Hollywood. What we need now is a good, old-fashioned Hollywood ending ...

RHA-LA was contacted almost immediately for comment, and what I said was this: \"There is only one side in this controversy that concerns me, and that is Iggys side. The right thing to do is always what is best for the animal, and anyone who doesnt understand that has no business in animal rescue.\"

Of course, no one printed my comment, because none of them understood it. It was a comment from another world.

Marina very quickly became inaccessible (for obvious reasons), and unfortunately without knowing the facts, it was extremely difficult to comment on this situation, or help in any meaningful way. There may have been an opportunity early on for reconciliation, but that window quickly closed as the parties began to dig in their heels.

For those of you who do not know Marina Baktis, she was a volunteer with LA Animal Services for many years. She was a constant presence at the North Central shelter to which anyone at that shelter can attest. As heartbreaking as it was, she chose to volunteer her time right where all the killing takes place, trying to make a difference. She also worked with the Bill Foundation (an RHA-LA member).

Day after day she would see litters of puppies with their mothers at the shelter, and watch as the puppies were adopted and the moms left behind to be killed. About three years ago, she started Mutts & Moms with her rescue partner, Vanessa, and for the past year and a half, they have been pulling primarily from the extremely high-kill Kern County shelters (including pulling for other rescues). The mission of Mutts & Moms is to save as many of these moms as possible. Its hard to imagine a more noble cause.

I finally spoke to Marina at length on Friday. I think its important that some of the facts be clarified, as they have been hugely distorted by the media. You may still disagree with how Marina handled the situation, but that is irrelevant now. She has lost her rescue, her business has been crippled, her life has been threatened, and she has been demonized on national television. Those worlds may be lost to her, so we are the world she has left. Will we stand with her as friends and colleagues, or abandon her?

Please read below before you decide.

Marinas account of the story:

Ellen DeGeneres and Portia DeRossi came to Marinas store in Pasadena and saw a dog they were interested in adopting. Her name was Tasha.

Tasha had not been cat-tested, and Ellen has two cats, so Marina decided to let them take the Tasha home for the afternoon to see how she would get along with Elllens other animals. After adoptions, Ellen called to say that Tasha was not cat-friendly, and Marina left straight away to pick her up. Iggy, who Ellen & Portia had also met and liked at adoptions, was in the car with her. He had recently been rescued from the Bakersfield shelter, and was being treated for an upper respiratory infection. That is why he was un-neutered. They looked at Iggy again, Iggy played in the yard with Ellens other dog, and was briefly introduced to her cats. No adoption took place, and Marina left with both Tasha and Iggy. That night, Ellen left a message that they had decided to adopt Iggy. She said they had a trainer who could socialize Iggy with cats. Portia came to the store the next day to sign the adoption agreement, which Marina explained in detail, including how if there was ever a problem Iggy would have to be returned to Mutts & Moms. Portia said that she understood. Marina told her that she would need to bring Iggy back to be neutered when he was finished with his medication, and she circled the provision stating the same in the adoption contract. Marina told Portia that the neuter was included in the adoption, but Portia said they would like to take care of Iggys surgery themselves with their own vet. Portia left the store with Iggy.

There were several email follow-ups, including how Iggy was playing happily with their dog, not bothering the cats, and how Iggy would be going to their trainer for about a week while they were moving. Marina followed up a few weeks later. She received a reply from Portia that they \"tried Iggy\" and that he was \"too much energy and time for them in their brand new home with so much going on in their lives.\" There was no mention of the cats. The email went on to say that Ellens hairstylist and her family had met Iggy, fallen in love, and that Iggy had been re-homed.

Marina wrote back explaining that this was not acceptable and in violation of her agreement. She asked that Iggy be returned to the store in Pasadena the next day. She said that the family needed to fill out an application and go through the adoption process just like any other adopter. They refused to bring the dog back, and although they eventually filled out an application, they did not want to go through the process. The phone calls back-and-forth had become increasingly hostile, eventually leading to a call from Ellens attorney. Marina felt compelled to go to the hairdressers home to reclaim Iggy, at least for the time being.

When she arrived, Marina explained that she would need to take Iggy back until Mutts & Moms had an opportunity to review their application and discuss the adoption among their committee. It is important to understand that Marina was still willing to consider the adoption, and if everyone had been cooperative and non-confrontational, the outcome might have been different. Instead, the family called 911 saying that someone was there trying to steal their dog, and as if on cue, a TMZ camera crew appeared to capture the events on film. When the police arrived, they looked at the contract and determined that Marina had legal standing to take Iggy back. The next day, Ellen broke down on her show. The rest is history.

Media Distortions: It is amazing to me that people are so quick to believe everything they hear in the media (especially the tabloid media). Does it really surprise people that the media would get it wrong, or distort things for dramatic effect, or withhold the context that serves to explain what otherwise doesnt make sense?

It was reported that Ellen never filled out an adoption application, and that there was no home check.

THE REST OF THE STORY: A trusted friend who had adopted to Ellen in the past vouched for Ellen & Portia as being a good home. Since Ellen & Portia were in the process of moving, Marina decided to go ahead with the adoption and do the home check later when they had moved into the new house. Although she never took a full tour of the current house, she was there, and it was obvious that Ellen has a beautiful home and that Iggy would be living the life of Riley there.

It was reported that Mutts & Moms found the hairstylists home unsuitable because they have a rule that they do not adopt small dogs to families with children under 14.

THE REST OF THE STORY: Mutts & Moms never said the home was unsuitable. They said that the hairstylist needed to fill out an application and be evaluated like any other adopter. They are wary to adopt small dogs to families with young children, but were always willing to consider this family. The family did not want to bring the dog back, and they were not willing to accept any outcome other than their keeping Iggy.

It was reported that Mutts & Moms non-profit corporation is not in good standing, which among other things was being used as \"proof\" that Mutts & Moms was not a reputable organization.

THE REST OF THE STORY. Every year a California corporation must file a Statement of Information. It costs $25 to file. Marina for whatever reason failed to file it for 2007. It is no big deal. You just pay a fine and immediately the corporation is returned to good standing. Im not a lawyer, but I find it hard to believe that this would negate a contract entered into during the corporation was not in good standing. The essence of a contract is a meeting of minds, which obviously occurred.

It was reported that Mutts & Moms transferred the dog to Ellen unaltered, in violation of State law.

THE REST OF THE STORY. The law provides an exception for animals unfit for sterilization due to age, illness or injury. In such cases (as was the case with Iggy), a rescue group can adopt the dog, subject to a spay/neuter deposit of not less than $40 and not more than $75, refundable upon proof of sterilization within 14 days following the day the dog first becomes fit for sterilization.

While many rescues will place animals under a spay/neuter agreement with a deposit, RHA-LA feels strongly that regardless of the legality, this practice is unacceptable. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should legal owner/guardianship of an animal occur prior to spay/neuter, and unaltered animals should NEVER be released to the public (other than to the organizations trusted volunteers and fosters) until he/she is fixed. Marina told me that she has done this maybe 3 or 4 times out of the over 400 placements she has made. She says she has records of every adoption and that she can confirm that every animal she has adopted has been spayed/neutered. Nonetheless, I explained to her why RHA-LA discourages this practice, and she understands and agrees.

Learning from Iggy:

The Rescue & Humane Alliance-Los Angeles was founded to be a bridge. It is a bridge not only to connect rescue organizations to each other, but also a bridge between rescue organizations and other worlds outside of rescue --- the world of government, the world of business, and yes, even the world of celebrities.

We have access to a network of professionals, including attorneys, publicists, lobbyists, and people at all levels of the entertainment industry. As Members, you should always feel free to use us as a resource.

If there is a lesson in the aftermath of this Iggy incident, it is that no one who does responsible rescue should be alone. Mutts & Moms is not a member of RHA-LA, but even so, we reached out to Mutts & Moms and to the Ellen DeGeneres Show immediately. I truly believe we could have helped if we had been presented with all the facts in the first 24 hours following the original broadcast.

What we can do now: It is impossible to un-ring a bell. Marina never thought that her adoption procedures would be analyzed and discussed on CNN by people who know nothing about rescue. She is devastated that her many years of hard work in animal rescue have been erased, her compassion questioned, and her reputation irreparably damaged because she was inexperienced in dealing with celebrities and the media. On a larger scale, the way the information has been manipulated has led to backlash against rescue in general. We should take this opportunity to come together as a humane community, and resist the destructive forces polarizing us and weakening our ability to help animals in need. It is all too easy for members of the public, and even other rescuers, to sit in judgment from the comfort of their living rooms.

At this point, Ellen is the only one who can set this right. RHA-LA has learned that Ellen is planning to do a segment on her show about rescue. As you might imagine, the show has been inundated with ideas and appearance requests from local and national animal welfare organizations. They have chosen to work with Petfinder, as Ellen has an existing relationship with them. Our understanding is that the show will tape on Monday for air on Tuesday. We hope that the show will help people understand the challenges of rescuing animals, and the reasons for some of the processes used by rescuers to insure that animals are adopted into loving, permanent, responsible homes. We hope that Ellen will tell her audience that this was all a misunderstanding, and that it is a wonderful thing to rescue an animal and save a life. We hope she will challenge her viewers to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Please keep your eye on your inbox for further information about this broadcast.

That part is now out of our hands, so lets not waste any more time pointing fingers or assessing blame, regardless of where we stand. Our mission now is to continue to do good work, to support those who do good work, to reach out to our friends when we find ourselves in need, and to help our friends when they reach out to us.

Mutts & Moms is shut down at least temporarily. That means that there are animals in its care that Marina may need assistance placing. If any RHA-LA members are willing to help, please email me at rescuealliance@earthlink.net and I will put you in touch with her. In addition, I will forward to her any emails of support which Im sure she would appreciate. Please understand my reluctance to distribute her email address under these circumstances.

In summary, when worlds collide, RHA-LA is here to support you. This is our mission, and depending on the situation, there are a lot of ways we may be able to help.

For Iggy and all the animals,

Scott Sorrentino
President / Co-Founder
Rescue & Humane Alliance-Los Angeles

Posted by Anonymous | October 23, 2007 8:58 AM

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mutts and Moms Under Fire

On Tuesday October 16th, 2007, Ellen Degeneres made a tearful plea on her television show for the return of a dog named Iggy that was seized by the operators of a local Pasadena dog rescue after Ellen had given it away to a new family. Ellen had adopted Iggy through the rescue, and found the dog a new home a few weeks later after determining that the dog was not compatible with her existing menagerie of cats. After the operators of the dog rescue, identified in media reports as Marina Batkis and Vanessa Chekroun of Mutts and Moms discovered that Iggy had been placed with another family, Batkis took it back.

I'm not a big Ellen fan, but that's because I'm not part of her target audience. As television shows go, hers is a pretty good one, and I will watch it on those occasions when a particularly interesting guest is making an appearance. I happened to see this particular show because of media reports that made me curious about the incident involving the dog rescue, and I remain interested in the outcome for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is my own great affection for dogs.

As celebrities go, Ellen is one of the most congenial and affable. Even in this particular instance, she was not playing the blame game. Rather, she accepted responsibility for placing the dog with a new home without consulting Mutts and Moms, and pleaded with them to return the dog to what was apparently a loving home.

Why did Mutts and Moms take Iggy back? The only reason offered was that Iggy's new family had two girls under the age of 14 in the household. That may be a valid concern sometimes, but it didn't seem to be a real issue in this particular case, and an objective observer would almost certainly conclude that Mutts and Moms did not have the dog's best interests at heart.

Did Mutts and Moms have the right to take Iggy back? That depends on who you ask, but I don't think they did, notwithstanding Ellen's alleged failure to live up to the letter of the contract as set forth in the Mutts and Moms adoption agreement. If and when it comes to a legal battle, Mutts and Moms will be very hard-pressed to explain their failure to insure the compatibility of Iggy with a household that already had a large collection of cats. Moreover, they will be very hard-pressed to explain why they chose to employ a "self-help" remedy by seizing the dog without getting a court order that allowed them to do so.

When Batkis of Mutts and Moms showed up at Iggy's new home, she did so under the pretense of checking out the suitability of the home, then she grabbed Iggy and held onto him until the police arrived. Why did the police allow her to leave with the dog? The dog was chipped, and Mutts and Moms had not yet changed the ownership information, as they were legally obliged to do several weeks earlier. But for this clerical oversight, Mutts and Moms would have had no verifiable legal claim to Iggy, and they would have had to go to court to prove that Ellen had actually breached the terms of the adoption contract. Even then, a court would probably have left Iggy with his new family.

Courts can, and often do, more than rubber stamp and enforce the terms of a contract. Indeed, many of the contracts that people enter into everyday are not legally enforceable, and this is supposed to be one of the first inquiries that a court makes. Similarly, the various terms of a contract might not be legally enforceable, making the actual terms of the contract very different from the one that was signed. And then there's the fact that courts often get things wrong and/or choose to ignore the law and/or rule however they damn well please.

Given that Ellen is not a particularly litigious individual, Mutts and Moms is probably safe from any sort of legal exposure, although the new adoptive family (the truly injured party) may yet file suit; I know that I would. Meanwhile, in the court of public opinion, the verdict is in, and Mutts and Moms has lost. To wit, over 95 percent of the people who have expressed an opinion in polls on the topic think that Iggy should be given back to the new family that Ellen found for it. And some people have not stopped there: A large number of death threats and arson threats have allegedly been made against the operators of Mutts and Moms, who defiantly refuse to give in to any sort of bullying.

Did Ellen use her show as a bully pulpit against Mutts and Moms? Perhaps, but I have no pity in my heart for Mutts and Moms. They knew they were dealing with a celebrity when they first placed Iggy, and they should have known better than to remove Iggy from a loving home. When all the sound and the fury eventually passes, Mutts and Moms will have set back the cause of animal rescue at least 20 years. What sort of idiot would choose to empower sanctimonious control freaks like these when they can get a dog for free outside of a grocery store?

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