One at a Time:

A Week in an American Animal Shelter


Remembering Larry

The sleeping dog in the photo was named Larry. Actually, we don’t know what his name was, but we called him Larry. He came from an animal shelter in the Silicon Valley area of California, a shelter where well over half of the 30,000 dogs and cats handled that year were euthanized.
He was found, alone and on his own, without the benefit of an ID tag which would have provided the critical information to get him back home. Lacking that information, Larry was held as a stray for seventy-two hours and then became available for adoption. He ended up spending twenty-four days in the shelter.

By all rights, he should not have been one of the smaller group of animals who left the shelter alive. Every animal who enters a shelter plays a game in which the odds are stacked against them: too many homeless animals competing for the adoptive homes available. It is impossible for them all to win; those who lose, lose their lives.
In this deadly gamble, Larry had many strikes against him. He was very old, gray fur woven throughout his golden coat, his head almost completely white. His eyes were clouded with cataracts. What teeth he had left were worn down to nubs. He would almost certainly need more veterinary services, special care, and attention than a younger dog.

He did not do well in the shelter kennel. A sensitive dog who thrived on routine and habit, as we later came to know, Larry was traumatized by the unfamiliar surroundings, the noise, and being handled by strangers. He grew increasingly withdrawn and depressed as the days turned to weeks. Next to the other pens full of outgoing, exuberant dogs, his chances for adoption diminished even further.
Throughout those days and weeks, for some reason, the people with whom he lived and from whom he had become separated did not come for him. They did not look for him, perhaps, or they did not look long enough or they did not look hard enough. For whatever reason, no one came for him, and as a result, his life was at risk.

He would have been put to death, held and comforted by one of the caring strangers who worked at the shelter, but for an unlikely stroke of luck that saved him. The shelter manager, whose job it is to decide which animals will be put to death each day, was touched by him and could not face condemning him. Day after day she avoided “dispositioning” him, until his stay stretched far beyond the time the shelter was able to give the vast majority of animals. Finally, she called a rescue group who focus on special needs animals – animals with severe disadvantages in competing in the game of adoption roulette – and asked the group to take custody of Larry and try to find him a new home. That home turned out to be mine.

* * *

Larry’s story is unusual only in its happy ending. Virtually every community in the United States is serviced by an animal shelter of some kind. The job assigned to these facilities by their communities – the job of the animal sheltering “system” in this country – is to take in lost and stray animals, accept animals surrendered by their “owners,” adopt out as many as possible to new and, hopefully, permanent homes, and to “humanely euthanize” the rest.

Six to eight million animals pass through these facilities each year. They have about a fifty percent chance of getting out alive. Four to six million of them will be euthanized – well over a quarter-million a month nationwide, 405 each hour, one every nine seconds. Euthanasia in animal shelters is the leading cause of death of healthy dogs and cats.

There are probably as many ways to quantify this appalling tragedy as there are animals caught in it. And ironically, the more we try to quantify it, the more incomprehensible it becomes. It is almost impossible to imagine millions upon millions of individual animals being received across animal shelter counters, each creating a trail of administrative paperwork, each being examined and vaccinated, kenneled, fed, bathed, walked and played with. It is even more impossible to picture the millions who are put to death.

In fact, the only way to understand the tragedy is to see, to know, that it happens to one animal at a time. One precious dog, one special cat, each with his own individual story, his own unique history, his own sacred spirit and his own uncertain fate. One by one, until there are millions.

This book is about those individuals. It is a testament to the faces we will never see and cannot imagine, because there are too many. It is a way to help us understand that the statistics are more than mere numbers: they are real lives, and they are utterly and completely at our mercy.

* * *

Larry lived happily with us for the remaining three years of his life. After a weeks-long period during which he clearly and painfully grieved the loss of his previous family, he finally accepted us as his new one. He learned to be comfortable in our home, adapted to our daily routines, created his own new habits. He played and ran, and slept peacefully. In an attempt to make up for a life-change he should never have had to endure, we gave him the best of everything, made every one of his days as satisfying and happy as we could. We loved him deeply and he returned that love a thousand-fold. When finally he left this world, he did so at a very old age, at home, held, comforted and surrounded by people he knew… as it should be for all companion animals.

In my own heart he was a symbol of all of his brothers and sisters who play the game of chance in our animal shelters, and who play with their very lives at stake. Although Larry beat the odds and won, I could never look into his eyes without thinking of those who lost.
This book is for Larry. And for all the unseen “Larrys”, canine or feline, in animal shelters across America, who are forced to play the game.