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September 1998
Give Me Shelter

Book Review by Elizabeth Forel



Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats, and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter by Elizabeth Hess (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998). $23.00 hardcover. 240 pages

In August 1996, an article by Elizabeth Hess was published in the Village Voice that exposed the deplorable conditions at the Center for Animal Care and Control in New York City. Well written and researched, the article became a bible for companion animal activists, and Elizabeth Hess, an art critic at the Voice, became our small town hero. Now two years later, Hess has written another classic about companion animals-this time about a shelter in upstate New York, a few hours and a million light years away from New York City. The two locations, however, share an all too tragic similarity: the people who give up animals for no better reason than inconvenience. Hess's illusions were shattered as she gradually learned that 20 million cats and dogs end up in animal shelters all over the country each year; that most do not get adopted; and that most people do not even know the situation exists.

Lost and Found is a must read for anyone who loves animals. It is targeted for the general public: those who buy pets from breeders and puppy mill pet shops; those who look down their noses at mixed breeds, wrongly assuming that there must be something wrong with them if they end up at shelters. But it is also a must for animal rights activists who have not quite reconciled in their own minds that the tragedy of companion animal overpopulation and death is indeed a rights issue. And that if we continue to turn our backs on these animals, because of some self-imposed principle about concepts such as "ownership," "exploitation," or whether or not they are carnivores, the animals will be left with no one to fight for them. It's not a perfect world and we are all they have.

Hess's hope is that her book will turn the most common myths about shelter animals inside out. And she proceeds to do that masterfully. The focus of the book, Columbia-Greene Humane Society in Columbia County, is a small country shelter a few hours from New York City where the author and her daughter volunteer. Starting out as a prospective dog adopter, Hess tells how she quickly turned into a volunteer and later a board member making decisions on shelter management. But most importantly, she became a chronicler and historian of the lives of the animals and the dedicated, compassionate staff members.

As she begins to spend more and more time at Columbia-Greene, Hess becomes more aware of the fragile bond that exists between animals and people-a bond that for too many can be so easily shattered when the animal, for whatever reason, becomes an inconvenience and falls through the cracks of the lives of their "owners." By the end of three years, Hess's perspective on animals and their meaning in our lives had changed. She begins to see animal suffering and misery as inseparable from human failures. She describes the shelter as a microcosm of incontestable social ailments.

At Columbia-Greene the animals come first. Each stray is immediately given a name, toys, a blanket, and appropriate food; each gets a daily walk on a leash and play time outside; each is groomed and nails clipped. If an animal must be homeless, Columbia-Greene is not the worst place to be. As Hess describes the ignorance of many who have cats and dogs, one wonders why they would choose to have animals in the first place. Tying up dogs outside their homes until they nearly choke on their chains, never allowed to come in; many emaciated and dehydrated; the 30 year old grandmother (!) who takes her noisy grandchildren to the shelter for entertainment as if it were a petting zoo; the deceit of the young man who passes off his own dog as a stray, putting him at risk, only to be caught in a lie when the dog turns out to be much older; the presumably educated man who should know better but leaves a box of kittens in a hot car to die from hypothermia; those who carelessly breed litter after litter, assuming that the shelter looks forward to the offspring; a father willing to take his daughter in after a serious car accident but insisting she give up her two beloved cats.

This Beavis and Butthead mentality of what seems to be almost everyone in this community is set against that of the shelter workers-their conscientiousness and dedication and their relationship with the shelter animals and their own pets. Columbia-Greene takes in 5,000 animals each year; it has no money and struggles to keep its doors open. By all accounts it does a wonderful job.

Hess's chapter on a puppy mill raid is described with much imagery and is so vivid I felt that I was along with the raiders. She tells of the horror of the sick dogs, the filth, stench of garbage, urine and feces-animals kept in darkness, stuck together from defecating on each other, in cages too small to stand up, many too old, depressed and sick to react. Many of the dogs were in such terrible condition they were euthanized. Others were given medical attention and shipped out to neighboring shelters. The breeder in question is charged with 138 counts of cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor in New York State. And we learn that because these animals must be kept alive to be part of the cruelty case, other shelter animals were euthanized to make space for them.

Hess describes how easy it is for anyone, including this breeder, to register her dogs with the American Kennel Club. Columbia-Greene is a kill shelter, which means they have the animal control contract for the area and cannot turn animals away. The chapter on euthanasia, which will break your heart, is delayed until the end of the book. Killing is a reality of life for every shelter-even those that do not kill. The so-called "no kill" shelters turn away animals if they have no room or if they do not consider them adoptable.

It's all part of the same thing. This sad reality is a reflection of the social condition of human beings in America: our lack of commitment; our need for instant gratification; our selfishness and lack of foresight; our lack of empathy with those less fortunate; our love-them-and-leave-them attitude.

In the final analysis, however, Lost and Found is an upbeat book and I wholeheartedly recommend it. While filled with poignant stories of people and animals-some so moving, you will cry-it is also hopeful. The shelter, in Hess's view has created a "witness protection program" for the animals, a second chance at a good life with someone who cares.

Elizabeth Forel is a member of the Shelter Reform Action Committee working to reform the Center for Animal Care and Control in New York City.


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