Lodestar Books (c/o E.P. Dutton), 1984.
164 pages, hardcover. $13.95 original price.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
The Animal Shelter, by Patricia Curtis, introduced a generation of young people to humane work.
“I wrote The Animal Shelter 28 years ago, so it is badly out-of-date,” Curtis told me in May 2011, seemingly surprised to be looked up and asked about it after so many years had passed. “I hope things have improved since then, both in the numbers of animals surrendered to shelters and in the condition of shelters,” Curtis continued.
“My impression is that the book got a mixed reception. I hope it did some good. Some shelters wrote to me that they were grateful that I had drawn attention to their problems,” Curtis recalled. “But some people couldn’t handle the truth as I tried to tell it. One woman, a teacher, said she hated the book–it made her sick.”
Inspired adolescent readers
Open admission shelters commonly killed more than 90% of the dogs and cats they received when Curtis researched The Animal Shelter. Yet, without either denying or disguising that truth, Curtis inspired thousands of adolescent readers to volunteer at shelters and to prepare themselves for careers in sheltering. Her message was that, grim as shelter work could be, compassionate and dedicated personnel could help to save some individual animal lives, and could contribute to turning the realities around.
Now in mid-to-late career, humane workers who encountered The Animal Shelter in school libraries during their teens have contributed to reducing the volume of shelter killing by more than 80%, and in re-inventing shelter work to emphasize rescue, rehabilitation, and rehoming.
“Best practice” then is now standard
The procedures that Curtis identified and described as best practice are today standard practice, while many of the best practices of today had yet to be invented. Fostering animals for adoption, shelterless rescue organizations, neuter/return feral cat control, offering animals for rehoming through pet supply stores, adoption transfer of animals from other communities, and of course anything involving the Internet and World Wide Web were all still far in the future for all but a handful of quiet experimenters.
Many of the 25 major sources whom Curtis consulted in researching The Animal Shelter are now deceased, including Animal Rights International founder Henry Spira, whose fiery essays advocating shelter reform were eclipsed by his accomplishments toward reducing animal experimentation and raising concern for farmed animals.
Only one of Curtis’ sources remains active in the humane field: Robert Rohde, Denver Dumb Friends League president for 40 years now, after having worked his way up from 18-year-old cage cleaner.
First & only book of its type
The Animal Shelter appears to have been the very first book about humane work that was specifically written to help adolescents to choose a career path–and, unfortunately, it appears to have been the last, as well.
To this day, despite a proliferation of books describing the work of individual sheltering organizations and arguing the pros and cons of shelter management approaches, there appears to be no other
introductory text suitable for school collections–nothing between story-books for younger children and training materials for adults who are already employed in animal work.
Despite the many changes in the field since 1984, The Animal Shelter is still structurally sound, and could relatively easily be expanded and updated. Curtis even presciently included a still accurate chapter about dogfighting, at a time when most of the U.S. humane movement believed it had been extinguished.
But Henry Bergh did not run a shelter
The only error of note in Curtis’ original text was crediting American SPCA founder Henry Bergh with introducing animal sheltering to the U.S. This is pardonable, since the same mistake has appeared in practically every history of humane work since Sydney H. Colemen authored Humane Society Leaders in America for the American Humane Association in 1924.
The ASPCA under Bergh was the first major animal advocacy organization in the U.S., and the first animal law enforcement agency, but Bergh tried to keep the ASPCA out of sheltering to avoid diluting the advocacy focus. Elizabeth Morris and Annie Waln–whom Curtis mentions in other contexts–founded the first U.S. animal shelter, the Animal Rescue League of Philadelphia, in 1858, nine years before Bergh started the ASPCA. Two existing shelters, the Women’s Humane Society and the Morris Animal Refuge, are descended from the Morris and Waln efforts.
“I am glad to hear The Animal Shelter is still relevant, even after all these years,” Curtis told me. “I have no plans to update it, though. I am more or less retired.”
Indeed producing a book comparable to The Animal Shelter for today’s adolescents would be an ambitious project. But it would also be a valuable service to the humane community, and to the generation who will inherit from the people Curtis introduced to animal sheltering the management responsibility for nearly 5,000 U.S. animal shelters.