Commentary
12:59 pm
Mon June 13, 2011

Saving Animals

There’s been a big controversy lately involving the Michigan Humane Society -- and by extension, every animal shelter in the state. It has to do with how many animals they have to kill.

This started a week ago, when two members of the society’s board of directors resigned because they thought the non-profit agency was euthanizing far too many animals.

“Our donors are giving us money to save lives,” one of them said, adding that she thought what was happening was an outrage.

And indeed, the figures are horrifying, especially if you know little about the reality of the situation. More than seventy percent of all the dogs and cats that came into the humane society’s shelters last year were put to death. That sounds appalling. Yet the story is  more complicated than that.

Friday, I decided to see what was going on for myself. I went to visit the toughest of their shelters, the one in Detroit. This is a place that subsists entirely on donations, without a penny from any government, and which takes in fifteen thousand animals a year. I told Jennifer Rowell, the woman who’s been running the place for the last eight years, that I wanted to see everything. And I wanted her to explain why so many of the animals can’t survive. She began by showing me pictures of animals that have come in, the victims of cruelty, horrible accidents and neglect.

You do not want to see those pictures. Ever, though perhaps you should. There is no way any of those animals could have survived. “We are the only shelter that accepts any animal brought in, without any conditions, no questions asked,” she said.

“We are the only shelter open on Mondays.” The front of the facility is full of puppies and kittens and healthy, friendly adult dogs and cats, all of whom will find homes.

Then I saw the rest of the facility. There was the dog that someone had brought in with a giant tumor that had burst through her body. She has no chance, but they were keeping her, heavily medicated for pain, for a few days just in case an owner shows up.

They showed me puppies and kittens who had been abandoned and were too sick to eat. I saw victims of ignorant or wanton cruelty. Dogs bred for fighting.

And then there was Lady, who had been kept in a basement without food, who was nothing but skin and bones and a collar embedded in her flesh that had to be surgically removed. She couldn’t even walk when the animal cops found her a week ago. Incredibly, she might survive, and even more incredibly, she was about the sweetest dog I’ve ever seen.

More than most things, I want that dog to make it. Jennifer Rowell, who recently lost her best friend, an ancient pug,  hates putting any animal to sleep. But sometimes, there is no better alternative. Saving every animal is neither realistic nor humane. Rowell, who has been at this business a long time, thinks the key is a  better educated public and a more affluent Michigan.

You can tell a lot about a society, Gandhi said, by how it treats its animals. Sadly, hard choices are sometimes the kindest of all.