Degeneres’ celebrity emotions harm pet adoption

A confession: I’m not quite so immersed in pop culture as my faithful readers may think. Yes, I’ve written about astronauts in diapers, SpongeBob SquarePants and ninja burglars in Staten Island — but in truth, I’m really not hip.

The fact is, my friends have spotted my willingness to fuel biweekly opinion pieces with tabloid fodder and now interpret this as an open invitation to send me the latest Hollywood gossip as column ideas. Some of these are dead ends — there’s only so much to be said about Britney’s deteriorating physique — but once in a while these stories merit a closer look. Just such a thing happened last week, when daytime television host Ellen Degeneres erupted in tears on air, bemoaning the plight of her adopted dog Iggy.

The facts are straightforward. Ellen apparently adopted Iggy (described as a “Brussels-Griffon mix”) from the Mutts and Moms pet adoption agency in Pasadena. When her cats refused to tolerate the animal, Ellen gave the dog to her hairdresser and her two children. Iggy had already bonded with the loving kids when the adoption agency learned of the owner switch. Ellen’s handoff was a violation of their contract, so the agency reclaimed the mutt.

Iggy’s seizure prompted Ellen to bawl on air for several minutes, which in turn spawned a tempest of secondary media attention. Enraged citizens sprang to action — after all, any group that could turn the normally genial Degeneres into a sniffling wreck on national television must surely be the devil incarnate — and demanded the dog be returned to the hairdresser.

The agency has thus far stood fast, and rightly so.

Ignoring for a moment the star power of the sobbing provocateur, the agency in this instance faces what is likely a routine problem in their business. It’s tough to vilify organizations that place abandoned or rescued animals into caring homes. These operations are generally volunteer-run, not-for-profit businesses that take careful precautions to ensure that their animals, many of which have been abused in past, do not endure hardship again. Adoptive families are screened, and agreements drafted, in the animals’ interests.

These volunteers work daily to match abused or rejected creatures with honest owners, and they do so without demanding public recognition or coverage on daytime talk programs. It is disappointing that their first such attention came in the form of a maudlin j’accuse by a petulant TV star — one who didn’t bother to read her contract, created a no-win situation and punished the agency for her mistake.

Even Ellen agrees she is responsible for this mess. But that said, isn’t it unjust to snatch poor Iggy from his newfound family?

Yes and no.

Begin law school, and you will likely find that seemingly elemental concepts like justice can prove maddeningly difficult to pin down. For starters, there are at least two approaches to administering justice in any individual dispute: a backward-looking view which decides what is fair for the parties concerned, and a forward-looking approach which creates incentives for future just behavior.

Let’s say the hairdresser’s family would indeed make a good home for Iggy — that they would have passed the agency’s screening tests, had they thought to apply. To do justice in the backward-looking sense, then, the unfortunate dog should be returned to the family posthaste. Pet abduction never did sit well with prepubescent kids, and there is no reason to deny them an animal they’re qualified to adopt.

But justice ex ante is quite different. Allowing adopters to redistribute animals at their discretion would trivialize the screening process. We don’t deal with human adoptions in this way, and presumably those who care deeply enough about animals to volunteer their time rescuing them might think them equally precious. As Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick recently reminded us, people want dogs for many reasons indeed; those unable to adopt an animal themselves may attempt to do so through a friend. Adoption agencies screen for a reason, and their efforts to secure kind homes for pets should not be circumvented by awarding full discretion to well-meaning but ill-experienced foster owners.

To decide Iggy’s fate, then, which approach is correct? Does one family’s well-publicized trauma outweigh our desire to see animals reliably cared for in future?

Ellen herself clearly favors corrective justice, the backward-looking or ex post approach. In this, she is like most parties involved in dispute. Normal people seek a fair resolution to their own particular problems; few are so selfless as to sacrifice their interests to achieve a more robust system of societal incentive.

But Ellen is not a normal person. She commands an audience of millions, and her performance last week reached far beyond her usual demographic. Instead of offering a fair treatment of the issues at stake, she knowingly begged a groundswell of heartland sympathy — and in so doing, encouraged a tragic, public condemnation of a well-intentioned, underfunded and much-needed charity. She should be ashamed.

Mutts and Moms deserves our praise. By refusing to play favorites, they remind us that some people take their jobs seriously.

If only Ellen would do the same.

Michael Seringhaus is a graduate student at the Yale Law School. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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