Saturday, April 26, 2008

Too Much

The camera has caught his eyes so that he looks out through empty white rounds. It is just a phenomenon, of course, of rods and cones reacting to a flash of light, but it gives his stare an accusing aspect. As well it might: this dog has no home, except a prison of sorts. And it is a place that is slowly driving him mad, the depression of a pack animal left alone, the neurosis of the individual in solitary confinement.
Week after week after week, the picture of "Brody" runs in the paper with all the other Pets for Adoption from the local SPCA. The roster of other animals changes all around him, but Brody is forever, it seems. He is described as "big," and "brave & smart," and that alone could break your heart.

Better he should be dead, I think. I am in a minority on this point, because people who truly care about dogs, who even--I admit it--identify with their silent sufferings as if they were our own, strangely, are supposed to support the idea of no-kill shelters. Life at any cost. Certainly, it has to be better than the gas chamber, every three days loaded up with people's cast-off pets. (You can visit one of these in Vittorio de Sica's Umberto D., where the sight of the crammed cages of beautiful shining individuals going to their executions, pushed on a cart by indifferent city workers, will make the bile rise in your throat and a searing hatred of humans grip your insides. I hope. De Sica was criticized for the mountainous sentiment that rises from scenes like this in his movie: not realistic, too contrived, they said. I wish, I say.)

A woman named Sue Sternberg is an expert on what shelter animals experience during long-term incarceration. Her belief is that dogs with behavioral difficulties that will make them hard to adopt should be euthanized to make room for more adoptable animals, and spare them the cruelty of the madness that ensues from being held in solitary. For this she has been labeled a Nazi, deciding who lives and who dies. But someone must, or the world will, with no concern for its accidents.

Better a quick death than the one that comes only after months of unhappiness. Which would you pick? Death, or four walls that prevent you from living?

The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave currently has more people behind bars than any other nation in the world. This is our response to everything: lock 'em up. Oh, B. F. Skinner, where are you now that we need you most? The United States has less than five percent of the world's population, but a quarter of the world's prisoners. (Where is the country that will invade us to halt this unconscionable act of dictatorship?) More than China! More than Russia! More than Iraq ever did.

The elephant in the room. There is a rhinoceros there, too. (Where? I can't see it . . . )

As Earth Day is celebrated, towns all over the country will hold fairs at which one can learn all about reducing our so-called carbon footprint, and then buy a pack of compact fluorescents and a cutely packaged earthworm composter, and then feel very fine indeed. We put our many children in the car and call it a day.

Why won't anyone say it? Just about every single problem--and they're pretty dire these days, you know--that faces us would practically vanish if we stopped having so many children. Talk about reducing the carbon footprint. If we adopted a one-child-only policy (this is not about eugenics, but about survival) we can take care of oil prices, food shortages, pollution, sprawl, and killing in the Left Bank, to name a few, without doing much else. Why don't we? Life at any cost?

So we talk about everything but the fact that it's simply human population run amok. We talk about trying to do the impossible, rather than talk about the truth. Who in their right mind thinks that nine billion is a supportable number? We read it, then go on. So much life will, of course, be our death.

I am just about ready to go spring Brody. But then I might just have to bring "Simon" home, too. An eight-year-old dog brought to the shelter because he "got too old" for his family.

What is to become of us?


Patricia the Belgian said...

How sad! I agree with you I guess, somehow it is so horrible to see these animals that nobody ever wants, ignored, passed by, creving for a smile, a word, a moment of existence...

Marc and myself took our 2 first cars at the shelter asking for "the one that nobody wants". The first one had been sick and medicated for his 9 months of life. He hated to be touched, as he feared a new treatment. Now, after 13 years, he is still independant but confident. The second one was said to be "fresh". She hisses, bites and scratches whenever she wants to. But she is, in her way, loving and craves for attention. They are not lap cats, just cats, free cats in a way. We love them, and they love us even if they never will be playfull and kissy-touchy-feely!

I hope you will get this dog!

Bunyip Blogger said...

Throughout my life, most of my dogs have been unwanted strays that have turned out to be wonderful friends and given our family much pleasure.
It is said that you don't find a dog, the right one will find you, and I think that from your last entry, you have been found.
I hope the journey that you have with this dog (soon to be companion) is filled with as much joy as we have had with our strays.

Patricia the Belgian said...

Oops, I meant cats of course, and not cars... Strange lapsus, huh?

Very true, bunyip blogger, the dog finds us, we "found" our Millie at a shelter, in such a bad shape that she was the most unattractive dog to be seen that day. We had come for another one, who we felt was too active for the company of our cats, 5! Millie was proposed to us, and she was so down that we could not leave her there. Thousands dollar and over a year later, she is adorable, healthy, self confident, and happy she choosed us!

Go get Brody, Melissa!

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I'm still not sure if I was just being rhetorical, or if I was challenging myself to put my money where my mouth is . . . Though now might not be the best time for a second dog. As it is, I'm about to put Nelly and me in the car for a peripatetic odyssey of over three hours' duration so our house can be shown. (You know what? Living like this sucks.) Having to take Brody or Simon too for that matter might just be the straw on camel etc. But soon. And always, my dogs come from shelters. Always.

Paul Kowacki said...

Melissa, You KNOW I'd say four dogs are better than one. One of our greatest joys is watching the interactions between them. Kind of like a soap opera, but natural vs unnatural. BUT, if I were in your shoes, I'd wait until I landed first; as P the B intonated, shelter animals need special consideration, which is "time and energy" spelled backwards and upside down.
As you know, we have goldens, but 3 of the 4 were intercepted before entering a shelter. I have no doubt that at least two or those would not have been available for adoption, due to violent behaviors (I had 19 lacerations w/i the first three days Sista Daisy was with us), they would have been extinguished. Lots of time, tolerance, energy, and more time later, she is mostly better. Plus, the other dogs had to be patient with her, and with being bitten/dominated/etc. And she's just one example, they all still have residual issues that can surface under stress, times 4.

Anonymous said...

I had the world's best bloodhound from the shelter here in Cleveland for over 2 years. He was 5 when I got him, but last summer I had to have him put down because he would unpredictably lunge at people and bite them--mainly my kids' friends. It broke my heart; I'm still not over it. I want to go to the shelter for another dog, but am afraid. My 11-year-old son said he'd go with me to prevent impulsivity because, he said, he is hard-hearted. That's not true. Are shelter dogs ALWAYS a major hallenge?

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

That's truly heartbreaking, about your bloodhound. I intimately know the feelings of failure, helplessness, and anguish that arise from a situation like this. While I don't think there's ever a guarantee that a dog coming out of a cage at the shelter won't turn out problematic--for one thing, a lot of behavior gets suppressed in those circumstances, only showing up later--you can definitely improve your odds. First, read Sue Sternberg's book "Successful Dog Adoption." Then, learn about dogs' body language; they'll tell you where their stress thresholds are. The higher the better. A good animal behaviorist could help. (And there are ones who are useless: it can be hard, but worth it, to find a good one, or at the least a good positive-reinforcement trainer.) Sorry to spout off here: I can tell you're gun-shy, as well you might be. But the world's best dogs are indeed from shelters (or rescue). My Mercy was the most fabulous dog ever, from a shelter. And Nelly's from breed-specific rescue.
I say, go for it.

Paul, too, can attest to the greatness of the rescue dog. But yes, they take what they need. And it's wise (thanks for the reminder) to wait until I don't have kinds of huge pressures I've currently got against me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I'm going to wait till school is out and I get my tax rebate, which will go to a fence for the yard. What do you think of getting a puppy and an old dog (the kind too old for anyone to want)? Does this make sense, or is it just sentimental? What I fear, in my dog dealings, is my sentimentality.

Paul Kowacki said...

(addendum to my previous)
Sebastian was the only one of our four to come from a shelter. The story goes like this: He was 8 weeks old when brought home by a divorcing father, for his son. The ex hates dogs, so keeps the pup in the basement. 24/7; neighbors never even knew there was a dog there. For the first two years of his life he never left the basement. His name was "Lucky"; no s@%#! Then a family member brought the pup to a "no kill" shelter, the largest in New England. He then spent the next year in a 4 by 6' concrete cell, in a wing with 80 of these cells, with the saddest variety of inconsolable, violently frantic and berserk, or hopelessly apathetic unfortunates, with a constant barking din so loud you had to leave the wing to speak. Sebastian truly became Lucky when we got him the hell out of there.

I'll never say anything negative about shelters, as they truly are meant to be focii of compassion, working without resources and staffing. My heart breaks for those who run these places. Still, I've now seen dog hell. Perhaps we need to rescue dogs from shelters? I really don't know; I feel awful and torn.

Three years on, Sebastian is still the most disturbed of our goldens. He's now very introspective, appears deeply sad, but polite and considerate, never pushy. When first with us, two other participants quit the beginning obedience class he was in, he was so wild and horrible. He went on to be awarded "most improved", then two courses later earned his CGC on his first try, under a tough testor. He's the most special dog. Would I adopt from a shelter again? I have a standing request at the no-kill shelter to call me any time a golden shows up.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Anonymous: compassion and sentimentality are not the same thing. You, it appears, are the former. The people who adopt elderly dogs are saints. But they also get the rewards, too: I've heard from many people who say their older shelter dogs are so visibly grateful, it's an amazing gift. And an older dog can be an invaluable teacher to a puppy--that's how the young ones learn what lines not to cross.

That said, you're right to wait until YOU (and your facilities) are ready. I guess it's sentimentality that might force you to act before your time. And then neither you nor the dogs would be happy. Trust me, they'll still be waiting patiently for you when you are ready to come.

Kris said...

I have three dogs, one came from rescue, two from shelters. Brownie, of course, has few problems. She is the Mary Poppins of dogs, practically perfect in every way. My other shelter dog is a beautiful little guy, but he prefers his own company most of the time. I think it is cruel to keep a dog with obvious behavioral issues that will, in all likelihood, prevent adoption caged up year after year. I am lucky to work one night a week in the only shelter I've ever visited where I don't feel sorry for all the animals living there. I often think of all the dogs we turn away, though. At least 10 calls every day.

Bill J. - Loveland, Colo. said...

Perhaps we are what we've already become. We are suffering now as the thousand generations before us have done. The future is as plain as the printed words of history books. Does man change? Can he? How?

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

How right you are, Bill. (Darn it.) Perhaps the only answer we need to the question "How likely is humanity to change?" is to ask another one: "How easily do I personally undertake to change?" Speaking only for myself, uh, not so easy. But I'm trying! I'm trying! Meanwhile, they haven't yet elected me President of the World, but I'd do a bang-up job. Really. They should try me.

Bill J. - Loveland, Colo. said...

My Dear Ms. Pierson:

I'll try you. I was to vote for myself; but you changed my mind.

"Bang-up job." Good enthusiasm. Don't let me down.

Anyway, how does one try to undertake change? Is there a difference between trying and undertaking.

btw: What do I do with this love story book/film idea? I need someone who's connected and wants to get very rich.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I better start working on my campaign coffer, eh? Now taking contributions. And there are no limits to the amount, not on my campaign! Absolutely no ethical boundaries whatsoever!

And you say you want to make money with a film idea? I am amazed. I didn't know there was anyone but me who wanted to do that! Hey, let me know when you find out how to do it, OK?

Anonymous said...

I was at Target yesterday and looked at the book section--right next to the TVs--and noticed there are an awful lot of funny/heartwarming books about dogs--more than seemed normal. Dogs are what children used to be. No more Art Linkletter and kids say the darnedest things--now it's dogs being un-selfconsciously funny. People used to remark on my bloodhound that he was dignified, and he was, and it was this quality that made him the best, truest of companions.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Yes, you noticed absolutely correctly. It's the "Marley and Me" phenomenon: they got a bestseller out of that one, and so now publishers, like the sheep they are, hope to endlessly replicate that book. (I suspect my publisher thinks I'm going to do it, too, with my next one--won't they be surprised!) I'm not that into laughing at dogs, or any of the other supposedly "stupid" animals, who do things that amuse us. Because we're too silly ourselves not to be able to understand differences, or to cure our fatal narcissism. I wonder if dogs are laughing at us, too?

Anonymous said...

More than once I've thought that even the dumbest dogs I've known have moments, or longer, when they feel sorry for us,because I think they're probably too kind to laugh at us. I need to thank you for recommending a book about adopting a dog from a shelter. My library didn't have the one you mentioned, but I got another one, which is full of good advice, and I am the type to slavishly follow advice found in a book. It's how I quit smoking, for example. But now I feel much more confident about eventually going to the shelter, or several, and getting the right dog, at the right time, so this was important advice and I see the light at the end of the tunnel of my doglessness. thanks again.