October 23, 2021

Is it discrimination, or care?

Cortland woman with disability denied cat adoption from SPCA

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Lisa DeStefano has a collage of pictures of past pets in her room last week in Cortland.

Cortland resident Lisa DeStefano claims she was discriminated against because of her disability when she tried to adopt a Siamese cat from the Cortland Community Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently.

DeStefano is visually impaired, uses a wheelchair and gets around-the-clock care from aides — but she says that doesn’t stop her from loving animals and caring for them; the aides help.

But SPCA Shelter Manager Sandy Snyder said adoptions are determined on a case-by-case basis, and she was concerned that DeStefano could not see the cat well enough or get to it if it should it ever be hiding or sick. And she did not think the cat’s temperament would have been a good fit with that situation.

However, neither side got to fully outline plans or concerns for the care. Aaron Baier, Access to Independence executive director, said conflicts like these may be a sign each side needs to give a little.

“First and foremost, it’s important for people with disabilities to know what the policies of an organization like the SPCA are,” he said.

It’s OK to ask for accomodations, he said, but be prepared to accept rejection if those accomodations go against the organization’s policy.

Organizations also need to be clear about their policies, so there are realistic expectations from the outset, he said.

DeStefano said she never got a sense of the SPCA’s policies on adoption, just that she had to come in to meet the cat — something she couldn’t do immediately.

She also said she had a plan, but never had the opportunity to explain it.

“I take very good care of my pets,” DeStefano said from her bed last week. “I have aides who help me take care of the cats, feed them and change their litter.”

After her last cat died at 18 years of age, DeStefano set her sights on getting a Siamese cat, something she has always wanted. So, when she saw there was one at the organization’s shelter recently, she called to see if she could adopt it.

That’s where the details of the two sides of the story diverge.

DeStefano says she could not get to the shelter immediately to visit the cat and when she had her brother inquire about the cat, the conversation was shut down quickly when Snyder learned the extent of her disabilities.

However, Snyder says DeStefano’s brother — who had a broken ankle — wanted the cat delivered to DeStefano since they could not come visit the shelter, a service the SPCA does not provide.

“That’s when I said, ‘This isn’t working,’ “ Snyder said.

Adoption tips

Looking to adopt? Here are some SPCA guidelines:

• If you have disabilities that could impede your ability to care for the pet, provide details of the plan and support system to care for the animal.

• If you live in a facility that allows animals and not a private residence, have a member of that facility call the SPCA to provide assurance the animal will be looked after.

• If you can’t travel to the SPCA yourself, have someone take you or a close family member go to inquire about adoption.

• An in-house meeting with the animal is highly recommended to ensure a good match.

SOURCE: Cortland Community Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Snyder said she never asked about DeStefano’s plan because she never talked to DeStefano personally and the initial calls DeStefano made to the shelter were not inquiring about adoption, but rather specifics of the cat’s coloring.

Snyder said she was concerned that if DeStefano could not get out to visit the cat, she might not be able to provide transportation to a veterinarian if the cat gets sick.

“And I stand by my decision,” Snyder said.

The SPCA regularly adopts animals to people with disabilities, Snyder said, but if they are in a group care facility — DeStefano lives at the Friendship House, which allows residents to have a cat or small dog — she needs to hear from that organization to have assurance the animal will be cared for.

“My animals are my primary concern,” Snyder said. “The greatest thrill I have is when they meet the emotional needs of the public — there is no higher calling for that animal — but our application says this is for life.”

Baier, who owns a guide dog, says he knows what it’s like to have to prove oneself fit for pet ownership.

“There are a lot of people with disabilities out there who own animals and care for their animals extremely well,” he said. “And I think it is kind of on the part of the person to say, ‘Yes, I recognize that I’m presenting with some limitations, however here’s how I’m going to make sure this animal is cared for.’ “

Be prepared to present this plan, noting the support system that will be in place to help you care for the animal if that is needed, he said.

“I’ve gone to animal shelters to adopt and walked away empty-handed because they don’t have what I’m looking for and it’s a bummer,” he said. “But people need to be patient and wait for the right animal, not squeeze in the one they want so badly.”