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
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.