Fur flies over DeGeneres’ trouble with rescue group

Times Staff Writer

When Ellen DeGeneres sobbed on national television Tuesday about a private rescue group taking back a puppy she had adopted and then passed on to the family of her hairstylist, she rocked the animal planet.

Websites bristled with indignation that Iggy, a fluffy haired Brussels Griffon terrier mix, was plucked from the home of hairstylist Cheryl Marks and her husband as their 11- and 12-year-old daughters cried.

The women behind Mutts & Moms -- the nonprofit rescue group that initially gave the dog to talk-show host DeGeneres and her companion, actress Portia de Rossi -- insisted that the canine be returned. After DeGeneres took her complaints on the air, one of the group’s organizers filed a report with the Pasadena police saying that she had received death threats.


Although such a publicized dispute between rescue groups and adoptive animal owners is rare, it reveals something that pet lovers have known for years: Private rescue groups are legendary for their stringent requirements and hurdles for prospective adopters.

Long applications, home visits and strict diet regimens are the hallmarks of some rescue groups’ adoption processes. To some, it can rival the complexity of adopting or fostering a child.

“It’s not uncommon to find a rescue group that will not adopt to a family with toddlers,” said Betsy Saul, co-founder of, an Internet service for pet seekers. At a time when municipal shelters are overcrowded with dogs, cats and rabbits, and millions of unwanted animals are euthanized each year across the nation, private rescue groups will still turn away prospective adopters.

There are legitimate reasons for that, Saul said.

“So many foster moms have had that problem where they microchipped the pet and sent it off to a great family and then there’s a divorce or a death and then a year later they get a call from a shelter saying: ‘This pet’s here on death row, do you want it?’ ” Saul said. “A foster mom can’t bear that, so you put in this restrictive policy.”

Ed Boks, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services, which runs six city shelters, said private rescue groups help lower the city’s euthanasia rate.

“Our 125 partners help us place about 6,000 to 7,000 animals a year,” he said. “And that’s compared to the 15,000 we adopt out ourselves.”

The rules for adopting from a public shelter don’t compare with what private groups require. “We don’t actually screen,” Boks said. “But we want to make sure people know that we’re looking for loving homes.”

If someone says they are looking for a guard dog, the shelter will turn them away, he said.

Boks said he was not familiar with Mutts & Moms.

“A lot of rescue groups are very committed to placing the animals in homes,” he said. “This seems like an extraordinary situation. I don’t think they’re acting in this animal’s best interests. . . . I’m not sure why this group felt so strongly about taking the animal away from this home.”

Around TV and the Internet, many people were wondering the same thing, while DeGeneres continued to stoke the issue.

“This is so insane,” she said at the beginning of her show Wednesday. “The dog should go to the family. The whole point of rescuing animals is to find a good home.”

Iggy’s odyssey began about a month ago, when DeGeneres saw a 2-year-old on offered by Mutts & Moms, according to Kelly Bush, DeGeneres’ publicist. The DeGeneres and de Rossi went to Paw Boutique, a Pasadena shop affiliated with Mutts & Moms, to adopt that dog and then spotted Iggy, thought to be a few months old.

They adopted the older dog, who did not get along with their three cats. They returned that dog; later, de Rossi went back and adopted Iggy, signing a contract. But Iggy had no better luck with the cats, despite the efforts of a private trainer, so the couple reluctantly parted with Iggy, giving the dog to Marks, DeGeneres’ hairstylist and friend.

But when the rescue organization got word that DeGeneres had, on her own, “re-homed” the dog, the group said she had violated their rules and Iggy was taken from the hairstylist’s home as her children cried, Bush said.

When Iggy was given to Marks, DeGeneres violated the contract that de Rossi signed on behalf of both of them, according to Bush and Keith Fink, the attorney representing Marina Baktis and Vanessa Chekroun of Mutts & Moms.

The contract says the dog must be returned to the rescue group if the owners decide not to keep it. Bush said de Rossi did not read the contract and DeGeneres has since said she understands she incorrectly placed the dog on her own. “Ellen kept saying, ‘Be mad at me, I made a mistake,’ ” Bush said. Barely a day after DeGeneres cried on her show, Baktis found herself weeping on TV news.

“Ellen is no lover of Iggy,” Fink said. “The people who are the animal lovers, who have given their life for dogs are my clients.”

And Iggy, who in the space of a month has ricocheted from the Pasadena doggie boutique to DeGeneres’ Los Angeles home to the celebrity’s hairstylist and back to the Pasadena-based rescuers, is now headed to another home, Fink said -- at an undisclosed location.

Most private shelter adoptions don’t go so wrong, in part, advocates say, because of the rigorous and ongoing screening that adopters must undergo.

The Golden Retriever Rescue Foundation expects adopters to keep it informed with regular reports and pictures “for the life of the dog -- that’s what’s in the contract,” said Janna Smith, the group’s director.

And it’s not just confined to dogs and cats.

Retired physician Stephanie Culver had to fill out a questionnaire and submit to a home visit before a private South Bay rescue group allowed her to adopt some rabbits.

“They came out and looked at my property to make sure it was OK for the rabbits,” said Culver, 40, who lives with her husband and four young girls in Rolling Hills. “They ask who’s in the household and how old are the kids. They were a little concerned that the 3-year-old might hurt the rabbit.”

Saul favors “open adoptions” of animals instead of those with restrictive policies.

“Research has shown that an open adoption where it’s really easy to adopt a pet is just as successful at placing pets and having them not returned as a super restrictive program,” she said.

However, she added, for the people who are devoted to fostering and adopting out animals, “sometimes they can’t do what they do without a safety net” of restrictions.

“I think in a case like this, it’s shocking how everybody can be so right, you know?” Saul said.


Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.