For three bizarre and lonely months in college, I worked at the East New York office of Animal Care and Control in New York City. Animal Care and Control is the agency tasked with the enormous burden of dealing with the animal overrun of the five boroughs, from sheltering lost pets to eradicating raccoons to figuring out what to do with a sheep someone found wandering through the Bronx. It was also the place where, daily, each staff member would have to confront the level of cruelty people routinely exercised on their pets. Every day I would make the hour and a half trip from Greenpoint to East New York, a train to a train to a bus, and return exhausted, defeated, and depressed by just how awful people could be to the small, fuzzy quarries who depended on them for everything. One woman returned a Persian cat because it didn’t match her furniture. A beagle had been tied outside to a pole for hours, and gotten its paw tangled in a leash so tightly for so long that we had to amputate the limb. A 15-year-old yellow lab was left on the side of the highway, blind and incontinent, but still trusting enough that it nuzzled into your side when you went into his cage. May through October is “kitten season,” a time when the facilities would be overwhelmed by new litters of kittens, some abandoned when they were too small to open their eyes.
In the absence of a foster parent, those newborn, bat-like creatures would be put to sleep for space concerns. Or, as one vet tech told me, shaking his head, “It’s you or the freezer,” pointing to the immense cooler where their bodies were kept. To the chagrin of my roommates, that summer I fostered up to nine kittens at once, keeping them in a watermelon box in the living room, bottle-feeding them every four hours and transporting them with me back and forth to work. Several of them died anyway, too runty and in need of a non-human mother to survive.
The “you or the freezer” policy wasn’t cruelty from the vet tech. I believe that, like me, if he could have, he would have whisked away all of those kittens to a magical land, one full of catnip and sunbeams and space for them to grow up into fully realized cats. It was the logic of space concerns in an already jam-packed facility full of people trying the best they could to save as many animals as they could, constantly fighting against the tidal wave of carelessness from pet owners. Certain animals you never had to worry about: Puppies and purebred dogs would be routinely adopted or rescued by one of the many organizations in the city. It was the older dogs, the sweet pit bull hybrids, or the full-grown cats that everyone passed by on their way to fondle the abundance of kittens that you worried about. So many animals packed together meant that disease spreads quickly, even with the best efforts of the staff there, and once an animal is sick, they’re usually pretty much done for. In an animal shelter, you rarely get to see the happy endings, the dogs that die after years of love from their owners, the rickety old cats who get an extra pat of butter in their food now and then. You see the would-have-beens, the could-have-beens, the pets denied a chance at the kind of cushy, kibble-fed life that they deserved no less.
I write all this not just to bum you out, and to remind you, Bob Barker-like, to spay and neuter your pets. (But honestly, for the love of god, do.) I write this because last week, a two-year-old shih tzu was found in the garbage in Crown Heights, just a few blocks from my house. Phoenix, as her rescuers called her, was found with cuts on her leg, emaciated, unresponsive, and a stomach full of dirt, which she had likely been eating to sate her hunger. Phoenix was taken to that Animal Care & Control facility in East New York. But she was one of the lucky ones, perhaps owing to her breed and perhaps owing to the flux of the intake of the shelter that day. She was taken to a specialty animal hospital in Kensington under the auspices of Sean Casey Animal Rescue, one of the excellent rescue groups that cares for animals in critical condition. Phoenix was placed in a heating pad, given a catheter, and began, bit by bit, to recover. The photo above is Phoenix, finally gaining the strength to stand up on her own.
I write this to remind you, good citizens of New York City, not to throw your dog in the garbage. This sounds obvious, maybe. This sounds like hyperbole. But what I learned working at the Animal Care & Control branch of East New York is that it isn’t, actually, that obvious or hyperbolic. Too often, domestic animals are treated as disposable. They are expensive, and inconvenient, and sometimes vomit on your shoes. That’s all true. And I’m not trying to discount the cost here: Brooklyn, the land of artisanal pet treats and doggie day care and pet extravagances, is still a place where the cost of dog food and cat litter can be too great to bear. Too often, I suspect, the creatures left at the AC&C doorstep were victims of rent hikes and apartment moves. The trickle-down effect of the crushing expense to live here is evident on our pets, too. But they are also creatures that have been trained to depend on us. The safety net for people in New York is not that great. The safety net for animals is even worse. Don’t throw your dog in the trash. New York City is a terrible place to be a pet without an owner.