The Criteria for Choosing and Not Choosing

I went to the local animal shelter yesterday. I do that sometimes. To get back to my roots.

This is therefore in two parts. The first part summarises details from the trip. The second part poses some of the questions as:

  • To be chosen or not to be chosen, is that the question?
  • What are the connections/disconnections of age as a criterion for the adoption of humans?
  • What are the types of criteria involved then when people choose a specific child to adopt?


I’d venture that objectors—a term I’m using at least currently as an alternative to adoptees—probably have a different experience of such places. Some animals especially stood out.

Maggie is a brindle-coloured, long-haired cat with a poufy tail, who’d only been in the shelter some 12 days. (An surely won’t be there for long.) One pet had her purring and she was almost instantly a rub-fiend, but quite fetchingly so. And then there was Washburn, a handsome but too-skinny male Brittany/English Spaniel with a pink nose and standing stock-still by the door of his cage with a very affecting, frightened look in his eyes. He would very gently take the treats offered to him. He too was brought in as a stray.

Wildly different behaviour though both strays, and both exhibiting very much a demeanour likely to get them out of the shelter—one through charm, the other through pity. It was childishly easy for me to imagine them having different kinds of “hard live” on the streets, with Maggie’s relentless sweetness being perhaps (ultimately) only a bit more perplexing to imagine as a response to such a life. Nonetheless, both animals had a vibe too of being extremely sweet, despite (or because of? that’s the sad question) being strays. I had to spend a long time at Washburn’s cage, crouched down, giving him treats, telling him (in order to reassure myself) that it would be okay. It made me feel better to hear s I was leaving that someone wanted to take Washburn out for a walk.

Also, there was Marklee, a black-and-white short-haired feline, not even a year old, but missing one eye (she’d been born partly blind with complications, her information informed me, and they’d surgically removed one eye). Because she could only partly see, you had to be careful in approaching her, as she would startle. She’d gone through a lot in her small life, obviously, and I’m not sure how good her remaining eye was. She was very skinny, and I’m glad the shelter gave her the medical care they felt she needed, even if it cost quite a bit (Or maybe the shelter did the surgery themselves, so it didn’t cost them a lot after all.) But if you threw the little plastic ball with the bell in it, Marklee wanted to play with it, albeit slowly, circumspectly. Seeing her playing, at her own pace and more than a little oblivious of the world around her, was hard to watch—watching her stretch out cutely with her forepaws to nudge the ball or to hear it ringing (maybe her ears work best) and ease slowly up on it, her tail not swishing. She doesn’t have Maggie’s charm (Maggie this whole time was meowing sweetly and rubbing the couch arm) or both eyes so that she might, like Washburn, immediately evoke your sympathy or pity. In fact, she doesn’t like to be petted, like Maggie, because it scares her a little, and looking her straight in the face: she already looks like an old cat because of the pattern of markings on her face, if you don’t notice she has only one eye first.

But even she wants to play, and sweetly too. Or Clarabelle, a brindle dog who had Washburn’s fear but would shy away from the cage if you looked at her. She wouldn’t look at you, even when I looked away and offered her treat sideways. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her edging closer to the cage door a little and then shying away from my hand as I tried to hold out a treat, until I at last realized I could roll treats under the door. And she would snap them up off the floor. Puppies: $150 to adopt; dogs: $100; kittens: $75; cats: $50.


I’d venture that I don’t need to draw explicitly the several spots of irony and analogy (the price list being by no means the most telling one) for this audience. I will say being there made me suspect I’m fortunate (there goes another irony) to have been adopted as a puppy and not later. I certainly didn’t see myself in Maggie or Washburn or even Markslee or Clarabelle. I was, precisely, one of the ones I didn’t see—one of the ones who didn’t get up off the cat perch or dog bed just because a human being wandered into my room.

It seems that, in imperially touring through the cat, dog, and rabbit areas, I could make relatively easy, snap decisions about the adoptability (adoptability) of different animals. It seems like I had reasonably unambiguous criteria about the choosability of different critters (“Choosy mothers choose Jeff”), many of which (if not most) did not rise to the level of notice in the first place.

To be chosen or not to be chosen, is that the question? This seems a well-trod debate that may nonetheless still benefit from more observations from everyone.

I was struck by the factor of age as a criterion. There was a big handsome orange tabby male, 15 years old—looked very healthy. So, a lower age is a warrant against not getting an optimal return on one’s investment. Pet deaths are sad, but can also be expensive (let’s not elide the economic for the sake of sentimentality). What are the connections/disconnections of age as a criterion for the adoption of humans? I think there are some obvious answers here (again), familiar ones, but I’m not sure that they really do all the tricks that need doing. I’m pretty certain a 15 year old at has a better chance of being adopted than a 7 year old cat, for instance, though neither can hold a candle to a kittens chances. Why is this?

I’d venture that everyone who wanders through has the animals they only see and other animals that they actually look at. And whatever overlap you and I might have, our criteria still differ. We can chalk up the variability of criteria to differences in human experience, but what are the types of criteria involved then when people choose a specific child to adopt. There are some people, after all, who would explicitly not adopt a kitten, so it is not just about “cute babies”; that’s just the poster-child face of adoption which, as a distortion itself, can distort a critique of adoption.

I’d like to avoid in all of this thinking too statistically about this moment of choosing an the criteria that inform it. No doubt, many people adopted a particular child because it was “the only one available” all else being non-equal. Moreover, criteria tend not to the singular: the will to middle class propriety (to “whiteness”) explains some but not all of what led to Mr X adopting Child Y from Z, &c.

The pet shelter has a variety of animals on hand (1) because the animals have been abandoned in some way, and because (analogy alert) (2) they’ve been preselected from among the total pool as potentially choosable in the broadest sense. It then falls to a variety of different choosers, with different ideas about what’s choosable, to browse the selection, and then find its own fit.

I can only imagine with what offended faces those who adopted children would look if asked what sort of triggers of criteria went off to create the link and fit in the case of the adoption they committed. They might not be so affronted if asked the same question about adopting their pet.

3 thoughts on “The Criteria for Choosing and Not Choosing

  1. In may case, as one obtained after those-who-raised-me engaged in a pre-delivery investigation:
    1. White infant;
    2. Healthy infant;
    3. Smart infant; and,
    4. White infant…

    Did I mention “White Infant”?

  2. I was the statistical choice; the only one “healthy enough” to leave. My father called this destiny; I’m pretty sure it points to procurement, since my adoptive parents put in their request a week earlier. I sometimes wonder if he asked specifically for a male child; though I never had the guts to ask him.

    I’m not sure how it works in animal shelters, but I wonder if they “vet” those coming to adopt pets and do any matching? In my orphanage it was understood that Europeans wanted “light-skinned” babies; Americans were less picky along these lines. So we were pre-sorted before any choosing could even take place.

  3. A friend who was in the orphanage until the age of four told me she remembers that when PAPs would come by, the children would be told to be on their best behavior because “des parents-cadeaux” were coming.

    I want to translate that literally as “gift-parents”, as in “gift-horse”, as in “don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth”, as in “be grateful if you are chosen”.

    She also said that this so terrorized her—the idea of being taken away—that she would hide downstairs. Obviously to no avail, unfortunately.

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