Girl Meets the American Animal Sheltering System of the 1970s
It was the late 70’s —probably around 1978. By this time one thing about me was clear: I loved animals. At the time we had three cats, a dog and we leased a horse. I loved horseback riding above all else in the world and I absolutely lived for time spent riding, taking lessons and even competing.
Our kitchen table was the meeting place for my family. We had so many great conversations there and my parents always encouraged me to participate in the discussions they had. They covered plenty of weighty topics like the politics and issues of the day, as well as the ordinary things in our lives. I would listen and try to understand complex issues plaguing the world like the search for peace in the Middle East, and I felt that even though I didn’t fully grasp these issues as a such a young age, some day I would understand them.
So when I saw a purple solicitation letter from the ASPCA sitting out and opened at my mother’s usual seat, I naturally read it. I would never be the same. The letter stated that one unfixed female cat could produce a million offspring in her lifetime. And what happened to these kittens? Most of them were killed in animal shelters across the country. Something like 20 million poor unwanted pets were killed every year unceremoniously at every “shelter” in every conceivable locale. I was devastated.
From that point on in my mind an animal shelter was a terrible, horrible, cruel and uncaring place—a place I would never set foot in unless I had to. I would visit an animal shelter two times in the next 35 years: once to retrieve my dog (pictured above) that had escaped our yard in 1982 (Santa Cruz County Animal Services) and to adopt a cat in 1991 (ASPCA in New York City-where I lived at the time).
The ASPCA in New York made an impression on me. By then, the idea of "No-Kill" was in the air, and the ASPCA was distressed that they still functioned as the pound in New York City. They wanted to go "No-Kill" and hand off the job of killing unwanted pets to the city. Since I was so distressed at having to be in a shelter--a house of death as I saw it, I looked forward to the day when I could adopt a pet from an organization that seemed to share my values on animal life. As it was, even being at the ASPCA was traumatic. I still remember the other animals I saw there that day. I was sure most of them were killed shortly after we left. I wanted to take the whole room full of cats. I wanted to save all the dogs.
But how could this change of duties be the answer? The ASPCA could wash its hands of killing pets, but someone was still doing it somewhere else in the city. The idea that we didn't have to kill them--that there is a way to run a shelter that saves pets--that didn't exist. At least I, as a member of the animal loving public didn't know that it was even a goal for anyone who made their living around animals.
After we chose our cat at the ASPCA we waited in the lobby and I perused the scant supply of well intentioned brochures and fliers about animal care. One flier advised against declawing cats (an issue that persists to this day) and others gave well meaning advice for training dogs. They all promoted spay and neuter. I couldn’t reconcile this sense of a positive intent for animals living right along side the near certainty of premature death for these same creatures in the back rooms of the very same building. How could the same people who stocked the shelves with these helpful brochures then drag the terrified pets off to a back room with a needle full of Fatal Plus? There was something terribly wrong with this.
In 2013 when I was about to start shooting “Reviving No Kill San Francisco” I knew I had to break the habit of avoiding animal shelters. After all, I was about to examine them: at least a particular system of them in the San Francisco Bay Area. So, I forced myself to visit San Francisco Animal Care and Control. By then, the city of San Francisco was killing animals by the hundreds per year, and not the 20,000 per year that they were killing in the 1970s.
I remember that first visit as if I had to take a deep breath and hold it through the entire time. I showed up unannounced at San Francisco Animal Control and walked quickly through the place. I streamed down aisles of barking dogs, and floated around a relatively quiet room of lonely cats with piped in classical music to calm them. The music didn't soothe me at all. All I could think of was the pathetic orchestras that would be forced to play for incoming prisoners to Nazi concentration camps.
I emerged from the shelter gasping for fresh, non-lethal air. I was also embarrassed for my sensitivity. I couldn’t get past that fear of impending, secret death. It seemed to wrap around the animal shelter like a smell. Getting used to this feeling and working with it was going to be one of my tasks as I made the film. I now still feel that sadness, but I know I am there to shine a light on it. I am there to show people and then we will make it better.
The No-kill movement has made it possible for someone like me to not only come near, but to embrace and want to promote a new concept of an animal shelter. Later that year I also visited the Nevada Humane Society. It was an entirely different feeling, a completely different atmosphere. Mostly, I didn't fear for the animals lives. I was reassured that the people doing the caring for the animals felt about them as I did. They felt they had a right to be alive. Every community deserves a shelter as caring and life affirming as the best of the No-Kill shelters that exist today in far too few communities.