Wednesday, December 06, 2006


One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter by Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer was not what I expected at all. I thought it would be more about the organizing and mechanics of a shelter, but instead it was about a concept: for a week these two veteran shelter employees would take a photo of each cat or dog and write about each. Since more than three hundred animals came in, they had to be edited down to fewer, but the proportions of captured strays, released animals, and their fates would be kept the same. Very simple idea. The photos are also simple, mostly faces, all in black and white: curious, eager, inert, amused.

Each animal gets a name, each animal gets a story -- either true from a former owner or invented for an animal with an unknown past. These are not simple stories, but they are as thoughtfully informed as two very experienced people can make them. They speak of the dark side of popular breeds (puppy mills form to feed popular breeds that inbreed the animals into deformity), the weird vanity of surgery on dog ears, the enlightened practice of handling communities of feral cats, the policy of NEVER adopting out ANY pit bulls, and other subtle matters most people never think about because they don’t even know they are issues.This is not global warming. It’s happening on your block.

The book was sponsored by PETsMART Charities, a nice tax write-off for them, but still a good thing for them to have done and the reason the tax write-offs are there in the first place. In spite of its simplicity, it’s a far a more sophisticated book than most of the pet lit.

I have only one complaint and it’s not a fair one. So many people get interested in animal issues through shelters, because that’s where the animals are and they love the animals. Primary teachers even bring their classes to see the animals in the shelter -- not thinking about fingers poked through cyclone fence to be bitten or pass germs. But a shelter is not a humane society and a shelter is not an animal control program. It’s very possible to have a humane society without any shelter at all, simply by not impounding animals.

Animal control MUST either run a shelter or contract with a body that runs a shelter, and if they’re smart, they’ll make sure it’s a decent one, but animal control does its work on the streets. A shelter is not a “doggie jail.” It’s simply a place to keep animals safe until they can go where they belong.

Animal control programs that are run by sheriffs or police are hampered by not having expertise in bricks and mortar or the handling of captured animals. And county commissioners or mayors are most likely to target shelters as money pits and hotspots than any other part of the program. It’s concrete (maybe literally), it’s there where people can see it and criticize it for being too plush or too harsh, and it’s vulnerable to all kinds of problems from plugged sewers to moldy dog food, to say nothing of attacks from “animal terrorists” or jokers thinking it would be fun to let all the animals out or criminals after the killing drugs.

Shelter employees and an amazing number of informed and dedicated volunteers have revolutionized much of the way that shelters are run. Some look more like children’s hospitals. These particular shelter attendants speak of a “journal” kept in the break room where people can let off steam or record a prayer or ask a question. It’s an excellent way to cushion compassion fatigue.

But in the end many animals still have to be killed. This will always be true. Life is tragic, but there’s no sense is heaping on the injustice and stupidity.

Here’s the payoff paragraph which redeems my complaint:

“Ultimately, though, we need to transcend sheltering and the current shelter system in this country. The shelter system, as it exists today, and has existed for decades, has as one of its primary functions the processing of living beings -- either by recycling them to new homes or destroying them, but disposing of them somehow and relieving people and communities of their responsibility for them. It is a tangible sign of our society’s deep disconnection from other beings so profound and damaging that we could legitimately categorize it as a sickness.”

This is not a different issue from people themselves living on streets (1,000 on the beach in Hawaii) or being recycled through prisons.

(ISBN 0-9728387-0-8)

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