ONE at a Time A Week in an American Animal Shelter

By Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer
No Voice Unheard, Santa Cruz, CA 2003; ISBN:0972838708
160 pages with 75 black and white photos; $16.95

A065350, "Scrunchie," a male orange tiger kitten with white on his face, ADOPTED.

A066769, "Kelly," a spayed female reddish-brown German shepherd mix with sable points and wearing a silver choke chain, EUTHANIZED.

A064462, "Pearl," a spayed female pastel tortoise shell cat, EUTHANIZED.

A066723, "Hannah," A female black Labrador retriever wearing a red canvas collar, RECLAIMED.

In communities across America, animals in shelters are subjected to a life-and-death game of Russian Roulette. Some are reclaimed by their guardians, some are adopted by new loving families, and some are euthanized. It's easy to hide behind intangible statistics: between eight and ten million animals spend time in shelters every year; half of them likely will be killed as a result of insufficient space and financial resources to care for them all.

But what happens when we get a glimpse at what shelter workers see every day? What happens when we actually meet some of these animals, see their faces, know their names, read their stories, and understand their fate? Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer, former shelter workers themselves, bring us the tales of 75 individual animals in One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter. In the authors' words, the book was written and these 75 stories told so that compassionate people "can begin to build communities that treat our animal friends with love and respect."

How do dogs, cats, and other companion animals end up at shelters? Some are strays; some are lost; others are "surrendered" by their human guardians. Animals may be given up like used furniture when families move into a new apartment, get a partner with allergies, or discover that they are ill-prepared and equipped to care for the animal. The authors consider this surrender "perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the homeless animal problem." People who relinquish their animals show a lack of commitment "toward the animals they have taken into their lives; a disconnection from an animal as a living, feeling being; an unwillingness to be inconvenienced by an animal's needs; surprisingly unrealistic expectations about how an animal will fit into day to day life; the quintessential attitude of disposability."

Each animal we meet in this moving volume is first presented through a large, poignant black and white photo. On the facing page is his or her saga. After a few pages, I found myself looking at the photo and then, after a hopeful pause with eyes closed, skipping to the end of the profile to discover the outcome. After a belligerent discussion with an uncooperative guardian, "Cisco," a dog with a tendency to escape and run loose in the street, "was taken straight from the receiving area to the euthanasia room." Tears. "Pumpkin Pie," an orange tabby kitten, was adopted by her foster family, "so she could quickly get on with the business of enjoying her kittenhood." A sigh of relief.

It is inexplicable that healthy animals full of potential happiness would ever have to be euthanized or turned away from a full shelter to roam the streets in constant peril. This, however, is the sad reality of the current situation in America. One at a Time suggests ways to keep our companions from meeting a dismal fate: use microchips and tags for identification of dogs and cats; ensure access to pet parenting classes; reduce the pet overpopulation problem by spaying and neutering animals; and, of course, adopt animals from shelters.

Read the book and reaffirm your commitment to your beloved companion animals. Pass a copy along to your local legislators and urge them to increase funding for your community's animal shelter, promote spay/neuter legislation, and crack down on unscrupulous animal dealers, "puppy mills," and animal fighting enterprises.

We need to read these stories and understand the reality of pet overpopulation and homelessness. What becomes painfully obvious when considering these profiles is that each and every one of us can make a difference in the life of another innocent creature. Rather than become overwhelmed by the breadth and desperation of the problem, save an animal and bring a friend into your family. Or maybe two.   

-by Adam M. Roberts