Ten Books About Animal Welfare

Animal welfare takes a village. This is the message I took away from the ten nonfiction books I recently read. There were books about shelters, rescues, and fosters. Some titles kept me up at night; others required me to push myself more to finish. Yet all were informative, enlightening, and worth the read for anyone with a passion for animals. This roundup is part of LAA Pet Talk’s Animal Welfare Takes A Village series.

The Animal Shelter by Patricia Curtis details the purpose and history of humane shelters. A shelter is a place where stray, lost, abandoned, or surrendered animals are housed in kennels and rehabilitated until they’re adopted or euthanized. Curtis illustrates this definition with a story of a dog bought by a couple for their children as a Christmas gift, and then later surrendered it when the routine of life resumed after Christmas vacation. Although not real, Curtis drew on a composite of millions of dogs living and dying in shelters to create her story. But shelters don’t just tackle animal homelessness. They also fight to end dog fighting, animal baiting, and medical testing on animals. In addition, they advocate for humane ways to capture and euthanize animals, the hiring of skilled professionals (animal control) to do this job, and humane education. Curtis dedicates a chapter to each of these topics, as well as two chapters to the history of animal shelters. Although her book is somewhat dated, having been published in 1984, it provided me with an appreciation for historically how instrumental shelters were in changing the landscape of animal welfare.

May their beautiful spirits and unending dedication continue to give a voice to the voiceless, inspire us to work as one, fill us with enormous hope, and remind us to always balance the dark with the light.–Finding Shelter by Jesse Freidin

Finding Shelter by Jesse Freidin is dedicated all the “animal shelter and rescue volunteers that we’ve lost over the years”.  The world of animal welfare is one filled with controversy, drama, and passion. As such, it’s one where those who dedicate their lives to saving animals sometimes burnout or even take their lives because the stress overwhelms them. Freiden created his portraits to erase the negative connotations associated with animal welfare workers and with homeless animals. Finding Shelter is divided into two sections, one which gives tribute to the volunteers “who spend every waking minute thinking about how they can keep just one more animal from being euthanized” and the other which gives tributes to the dogs that “wake up in the shelter every morning ready for their second chance”. If I were to change anything about Freidin’s book, I’d provide a broader coverage of shelters and animals; he featured only ten states and focused exclusively on dogs. I’d also provide more context to the selected portraits, which currently feels a little haphazard. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading the diverse stories and admired the professional photos. After reading Finding Shelter, you’ll have nothing but high regard for shelters workers and animals.

Miracle Dog is a small book by Randy Grimm, the famed founder and president of Stray Rescue in St. Louis, Missouri. In 2003, headlines were made when the city pound opened the door to its gas chamber, and found a dog still alive inside. How it happened no one knows, but soon the story of “Quentin the Miracle Dog” was being told across the nation. Miracle Dog is an educational and engaging mix of personal narrative, documentary details, and animal welfare statistics. To illustrate, I’ll look at chapter three as a sample. Chapter three begins with a tongue-in-cheek description by Grim of the now famous Quentin stealing food from Grim’s refrigerator. The anecdote transitions to the pound, where the supervisor faced the daunting task of euthanizing the dogs in line for the gas chamber. After this narrative, there’s a news report about gas chambers. From here, Grimm switches back to the gas chamber, where Quentin is discovered still alive. The chapter ends with a press release, written by Grim. Anything by or about Grimm is usually inspirational. Miracle Dog is no exception.

To homeless animals everywhere, may they forgive us. And may we be worthy of that forgiveness by giving them the only fitting tribute: to stop the killing.–One at a Time by Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer

Of the five books that I read about shelters, One at a Time by Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer is one of my favorites, because of how thorough and touching it is. The stories presented are based on the experience of the authors during one week in a typical animal shelter in California. When the authors arrived at the shelter, kennels were almost full, with 238 animals being cared for. By the end of the week, another 125 had arrived. For the book, the authors choose a random selection of animals, and then took the time to get to know them. They learned the circumstances that had caused the animals to be at the shelter, and then followed their stories throughout the week without knowing what the end would be. I can’t imagine how tough this project must have been; the emotional rollercoaster of seeing lives saved and lost. The authors not only presented real stories, but also attempted to paint an accurate picture of the shelter demographics: the proportions of animals lost versus those surrendered was reflected in the numbers of stories shared, as was the number of young animals to senior animals, and even the number of happy to sad endings was reflected. In addition to this meticulous care, stories are organized by categories and each section has an introduction that provides context. The end pages list the 363 animals that passed through the shelter that week, includes a one-line description, and tells the fate of the animals.

My second favorite book about shelters is Rescuing Penny Jane by Amy Sutherland. Sutherland talks to shelter directors, researchers, trainers, adoption counselors, and caretakers across the United States to build her understanding of animal rescue.  Through Rescuing Penny Jane, I learned that today some shelters exist more as consultants than warehouses so that owners might stay united with their pets. Sutherland also elaborates on the numerous services which exist specifically to address financial needs and behavioral concerns that pet owners might face. As such, Rescuing Penny Jane serves as a solid companion to The Animal Shelter by Patricia Curtis. Sutherland also draws on her own experiences with rescue dogs to fill out her narrative. I appreciated how honest she is about her failings. She openly calls her first dog “canine training wheels” and refers to his fear linoleum and ceiling fans. I also enjoyed her ability to balance the serious with the humorous. Soon after Sutherland began volunteering at a local shelter, she found herself tackling the mammoth issue of how to find enough homes for all the dogs, but she also quickly realized that an equally important question was the issue of how to pull a halter onto a stir-crazy German Shepherd in the tight confines of a kennel. Rescuing Penny Jane is one of those books that was so good I couldn’t put it down, but for that reason I was also disappointed when it ended.

From the first day, the caregivers at Best Friends did not see a skinny stray better off dead; they saw one of God’s creatures, worthy of devotion, and they spent well over a decade helping him to become that better dog they saw all along…. In the end, he had ended his days surrounded by people who truly knew him and truly loved him. No one could ask for more.–Dog Town by Stefan Bechtel

Dog Town by Stefan Bechtel is about dogs who live at Best Friends Animal Society. The acclaimed no-kill sanctuary only accepts animals as a last-resort and so, as you can imagine, the dogs featured faced insurmountable obstacles. The very first chapter is proof. It tells about Georgia, one of the pit bulls rescued from a dogfighting operation run by football player Michael Vick. One thing I like about Dog Town, besides the high quality of writing, is that each story also seamlessly incorporates educational information. Case in point, in reading about Georgia, I also discovered why the Michael Vick dogs became among the first former fighting dogs to not simply be euthanized but instead to be given a chance at rehabilitation. Something else I like about Dog Town is that integral to each story is a detailed explanation of how a dog’s behavior was modified. In reading about Georgia, I learned how to teach an animal to not guard food; a strategy I’m trying with my one cat. A final thing I like about Dog Town is that scattered throughout the stories of rescued dogs are profiles of various staff at Best Friends Animal Society. Incidentally, if any of the stories seem familiar that might be because they were also aired on television by National Geographic.

Underdogs by Caryn Casey has been popular in my area because it featured stories from rescues in the Midwest. Her collection of true rescue tales is a mix of storytelling and education. Each section contains a few stories which illustrate a theme and then concludes with facts related to the theme. The themes revolve around reasons animals become homeless. Some are the reasons covered are not the fault of the owner such as disasters, thieves, or sickness. Other reasons do solely lie with people such as abandonment, greed, and neglect. The author’s writings have been published in various publications, but her book has been self-published, and could have used editing to improve the style. Nonetheless, this author who volunteers at a rescue in her hometown in California has written a well-researched and thoughtful book about animal welfare.

Enjoy the new member of your family and take good care of him, no matter how he happened to come into your life.–Rescue Me by Bardi McLenna

Rescue Me by Bardi McLennan is a straightforward guide to selecting, adopting, and caring for a rescue dog. The first third overviews the reasons why dogs end up homeless and the impact of this life on them. The second third provides extensive coverage of rescue groups. Many things are misunderstood or unknown about rescues. They’re often considered the same as no-kill shelters but instead are a small group of volunteers who find temporary homes for animals until they’re placed in permanent homes. A foster care provider is usually expected to attend adoption events until an adopter is found. Rescues often get their animals from owner surrenders, through partnerships with shelters, or might focus on a specific breed. Rescues also typically cover expenses for the animals in foster care. The final third of Rescue Me overviews how to prepare for and welcome a rescued dog. It briefly touches on problems that might be unique to rescues. A potential companion guide would be one that focuses specifically on the issues that foster care providers face in contrast to those who purchase a dog from a breeder.

Of the five books that I read about rescues (of which sanctuaries are a part), Best Friends: The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Sanctuary by Samantha Glen is my favorite, because of how exhaustive it is. Glen takes readers all the way to the 1980s to before Best Friends Animal Society existed, to when a handful of friends were rescuing animals the way many of us do by taking them home. Thankfully for animal welfare, when these friends dreamed, they liked to dream big. And I mean BIG. In 1982, Francis Battista made a call to his friends telling them that he had found an oasis in the desert that would be perfect for an animal sanctuary. And from then to today, it was five steps forward and at times ten steps back. The group faced opposition from residents, bankruptcy, and the death of their first veterinarian. At a pivotal moment, they also had to decide whether to stay small or to reach out to animal welfare groups across the country. Doing so was far from easy, because many volunteers were introverted animal lovers who valued their solitude, but found themselves having to embrace the commercial aspects of being a business. They didn’t always embrace the changes with grace, but they always managed to find a way to put first the needs of the sanctuary and the animals within it. Best Friends is an inspiring tale of passion put into action!

To some people, homeless cats and dogs have no value. But to those who are not quite so blind, they are not only precious lives but also very special beings, blessed with the ability to touch our imagination and lead us into a world of true magic and wonder.–The Cats of Kittyville by Bob Somerville

The Cats of Kittyville by Bob Somerville is about cats who live at Best Friends Animal Society. This coffee table style book is partly a history of Kittyville and partly a tribute to its inhabitants. When the no-kill sanctuary first began, most of the cats lived in a bunkhouse that also served as an office, clinic, and general meeting room. As Best Friends grew, the structures became more professional and plentiful as the number of cats increased. The additional houses included Happy Landings for new arrivals, the Wildcats Village for cats from feral colonies, Kitty Motel for older cats, and Tender Loving Care for special needs cats. In giving tribute to the resident cats, Somerville includes a summary of how they came to Best Friends, their specific needs, how those needs were met, and whether they still live at Best Friends or have been adopted. If I were to change anything in Somerville’s book, it would to double the size of this 78-page book to include even more stories!

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